Letters

April 11, 2013

Openness must be a two-way street

The feature about openness in universities (“Show and tell”, 4 April) implicitly makes a point about asymmetry. If institutions are not open, how can they make claims (in the pursuit of knowledge) that require other people to be open?

For example, social research requires the public to share private information (about themselves, about household circumstances and so on). This requires the public as the subjects of research to trust the academic researchers and must surely also imply a degree of reciprocity. Usually academics answer this by insisting that their research is invigilated by ethics committees and similar.

But what if universities become (if they are not already) closed corporations jealously protecting their data? What does that imply for reciprocity? As we move towards more rigorous exploitation of “administrative data”, these questions become more pressing.

David Walker
Council member, Economic and Social Research Council

The mantra that “access to information is an unqualified good” (Leader, “A clear balance of interests”, 4 April) is arguably a politically correct Enlightenment myth, a modern “regime of truth” that says far more about our chronically “low-trust” society and our pathological attachment to an anxiety-driven fantasy that it is in principle possible to know everything, than it does about what an appropriately organised society might look like. Even a cursory look at the likes of Renata Salecl’s book The Tyranny of Choice and/or Barry Schwartz’s The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less, and engagement with the subtle psychodynamics of choice and Foucauldian notions of governmentality and surveillance suggest that the uncritical advocacy of total transparency can itself all too easily become a kind of unthinking, robotic obligation to be transparent, rather than a freely and healthily chosen one.

There is, however, nothing mythical about universities fast becoming “evidence factories” in our Brave New Marketised World. Those of us for whom the culturally constructed notion of “evidence” is highly problematic, and often nothing more than an ideological and politicised chimera, will likely be exiting the academy in droves once this inexorable instrumental logic plays out - perhaps even to found a new kind of free institution that retrieves and re-establishes the original idea of “the university”, free of the destructive instrumental logic of the market. Watch this space.

Richard House
Department of education studies
University of Winchester

Wider shores of creativity

Nicholas Royle’s article on creative writing is facile and fairly indulgent itself (“Reader’s block”, 28 March). If he sat in on my creative writing seminars, he would see students learning the construction of formal poems through practice, which not only adds to the craft of their own poetry but also provides a better understanding of the canon of poetry in which these forms appear (that is, literary study).

We consider voice but there is no indulgence of the “I” - this whole “writing from the self” is one small aspect of a much larger discussion of voice in poetry. The focus on self is a myth by those who do not understand how creative writing is taught: there is room for an “I” (as well as a “you”, “he” and “she”), but this does not mean it is the writer every time.

As for calling students “20 egotistical know-nothings” - this is an insult to the very many intelligent, well-read young adults I have taught over the years. The ones who sign up for creative writing who are not serious about the genre figure out fairly quickly that it is a lot more rigorous than they thought and drift away. The majority may never be “poets” per se but everyone comments about how much learning and applying the craft of writing has helped their understanding of literature and their critical knowledge of poetry.

Students love having tutors who are writers. Why does this ridiculous antipathy towards creative writing persist when people have, for more than a hundred years, held drama, dance and art institutions in esteem. It’s all creative; it all requires hard work. Only the best make it but everyone learns something.

Andrea Holland
Part-time tutor in literature, drama and creative writing
University of East Anglia

In principle, incorporation of creative writing into English courses is to be welcomed. Active learning is more effective than passive study. But there are serious questions to be asked.

First, creative writing is far from new in English universities. There has always been student activity, supported by clubs and societies, at Oxbridge to write and perform high-quality comedy, plays and poetry. Academics traditionally let students “neglect” theoretical literary studies to gain this vital practical experience. Why should incorporation of creative writing into the formal curriculum be better than such proven arrangements?

Second, lectureships provide day jobs for novelists and poets, while creative writing qualifications provide short cuts for decisions by agents and publishers. Non-academic writers have difficulty breaking into the circle, with its all-too-often self-referential standards. Are universities using creative writing to support organisational interests rather than to advance public literacy?

Third, Royle notes the comparative lack of playwriting in creative writing courses. He overlooks emergent uses of language such as blogs and scripts for computer games. How does creative writing in English departments relate to commercial demand and to new media?

I am attending very practical part-time scriptwriting short courses started recently by a theatre. If universities are to remain competitive alongside such grass-roots innovations, large departments, not only in English, need to have flexible and consumer-orientated attitudes.

Frederic Stansfield
Canterbury, Kent

Protest points

Julian Newman accuses me of being unable to “distinguish between the justice of a cause and the criminality of resorting to violence in the course of that protest” (Letters, “Just cause, unjust method”, 4 April).

It is a pity that he did not take the care to read the salient sentence in my feature - “It goes without saying that I am not defending acts of violence by students or anyone else” - or to look at the blog that I wrote the morning after the student demonstration of 10 November 2010. I will quote it for his benefit: “we cannot take the moral high ground in an argument about the value of education and then make our point by putting a boot through a plate glass window. To paraphrase Michael Servetus, to break a window does not defend an idea, it just breaks a window. One wins arguments by having better arguments, not by throwing fire extinguishers from roofs.”

The point of the article “Courage and convictions” (21 March) was that the heightened charge of violent disorder has been used systematically to prosecute minor, non-violent acts by tuition fees protesters. This is why so many of the prosecutions have failed.

Martin McQuillan
Dean of arts and social sciences
Kingston University, London

Benchmark appropriately

When the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals discussed openness regarding vice-chancellors’ salaries (Leader, “A clear balance of interests”, 4 April), concerns were expressed about the likelihood of leapfrogging, but it was recognised that the other forces were inevitable. That this has occurred is no surprise, and efforts to benchmark salaries against those in the commercial sector will only accelerate the trend. Furthermore it is not clear that large rewards in the business world result in the recruitment of talented people or those concerned with anything other than self-interest.

A more appropriate benchmark might be something like a multiplier of average academic salaries or professorial salaries. This would reflect more closely the type of person most suited to the job of a vice- chancellor and would relate the post more closely to the institution rather than to an organisation with a different purpose and values.

Norman Gowar
London

Render unto the public?

The undue haste with which the government is imposing its open access publication regime on the UK’s research community is the clearest example in years of policy-based evidence rather than evidence-based policy. It is being implemented even before meaningful consultation in the wake of the Finch report.

It must be virtually unprecedented for two parliamentary inquiries to be launched before the commencement date of a new government policy. The report of the Lords Committee on Science and Technology was highly critical, and that of the Commons Business, Innovation and Skills Committee, which is now hearing evidence, may well follow suit.

One crucial broader issue has, however, escaped attention. The shift from journal subscriptions to article publishing charges represents a rapid move from the consumer-pays principle to that of producer-pays. This is unprecedented in a broadly capitalist system.

The government justifies its policies on the grounds that publicly funded research should be universally available free of charge to all. As responses to the Higher Education Funding Council for England’s consultation on embedding open-access requirements in future research excellence framework exercises were being drafted recently, the government announced the latest £2 billion subsidy to the UK aerospace industry “to safeguard jobs”. Absent was any requirement that its products be made universally available free of charge. There is also no requirement that all output of firms in receipt of regional development assistance or other forms of state funding supply their goods, services and intellectual property for free.

Why is academic and related research therefore being singled out? Might this perhaps be a pioneering experiment in socialism by this Conservative- led coalition?

David Simon
Royal Holloway, University of London

Quiet American cash

With respect to Matthew Feldman’s review of British Writers and MI5 Surveillance, 1930-1960 by James Smith (4 April), it is useful to have confirmation that Stephen Spender’s salary while editing Encounter from 1953 to 1966 was “paid by one secret arm of the British government”.

However, this should not obscure the fact that this influential journal was funded largely by the CIA. For as Frances Stonor Saunders points out in Who Paid the Piper? The CIA and the Cultural Cold War (1999) the “SIS [Secret Intelligence Service, aka MI6] wished to maintain a financial interest in the project, a small contribution of which would come from IRD’s [the Information Research Department of the Foreign Office] secret vote”. This subsidy paid the wages of the British editor and his secretary, thus avoiding “the impropriety of the CIA remunerating British subjects”.

R.E. Rawles
Honorary research fellow in psychology
University College London

Clubbing together

Paul White’s suggestion that we ban country-specific student societies to ensure that foreign students integrate (“Ban country clubs so foreign students mix”, 4 April) is a radical idea but futile. When I was senior warden in the accommodation services at the University of Edinburgh, we tried all manner of “social engineering” - by nationality, subject, gender and even type of secondary education. Nothing worked.

Roger Watson
Editor-in-chief, Journal of Advanced Nursing
Professor of Nursing, University of Hull

Avoid that four-letter word

The suggestion that prospectuses should be light on text and long on attractive images (“Message received: just keep it simple”, 4 April) reminded me of a poster that was designed for a college where I once taught.

Two students gazed into each other’s eyes by a lake with the college in the distant background. The text read: “The best day’s work I ever did was to apply to this college.”

There was a panic - and the phrase “day’s work” was hurriedly replaced.

Paul Goodwin
Frome, Somerset

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