'Bollocks': RAE paper assesses the RAE

December 7, 2007

"Vice-chancellor, can I just point out that this research assessment exercise stuff is a crock of shit. An absolute load of bollocks. I know it, you know it, we all know it. So why don't we just admit it and get on with something worthwhile?"

These words, an extract from a published research paper that is part of one academic's RAE submission, must surely be among the most challenging of the millions to be examined during next year by RAE panel members as they make their judgments about the quality of academics' research.

The extract shows what the fictional character Jim, created by Andrew Sparkes of Exeter University, imagines telling his vice-chancellor during a crunch meeting to consider his school's RAE submission.

The paper, "Embodiment, academics, and the audit culture: A story seeking consideration", was published last month in the journal Qualitative Research . According to the author, he used a fictional narrative technique to demonstrate the destructive effects on academics' health of the audit culture pervading universities.

Based on Professor Sparkes's own personal experiences as well as informal interviews with academics, the paper tells the story of the mental and physical breakdown of Jim, the director of research for the School of Performance Studies at the University of Wannabee Academic.

Inspired by the altruism of anti-poverty campaigner Bob Geldof, Jim juggles teaching, supervising and his role as departmental head, but it proves too much and he unravels while trying to push his department through the RAE submission process.

"It remains open for readers to locate themselves in the story," explained Professor Sparkes, who directs the qualitative research unit at Exeter's School of Sport and Health Sciences. "It shows the different positions within the audit culture: the winners and losers."

Since the paper was presented at the British Sociological Association's Auto/biography Study Group Annual Conference in Dublin this summer, Professor Sparkes said he had been contacted by people all over the world who identify with the story.

He had even been approached by film-makers about the possibility of making a docudrama. "It is a fictional narrative but it rings true with people," he said.

And was he worried about how his paper would fare in the RAE? "Narrative fiction has been published in journals before," he said, adding that he believed that his was the first such piece ever to be based around university culture.

"Some people say it is absolute nonsense and shouldn't be considered as research, but it is in a high-quality journal and has been rigorously reviewed," Professor Sparkes said.

'STUNNED, JIM COULD FEEL HIS STOMACH CHURN'

Jim's mind flicked to a brief encounter he had had the day before with Alan Jarvis, a young member of his school. When Jim asked him how his research was going and how he felt about the way the feedback on his publication output was handled a few weeks earlier - where the words "vulnerable" and "at risk", not of his own choosing, were uncomfortably projected from Jim's mouth by forces beyond his control - Alan replied.

"You made me feel like shit. You really did. You made me feel like my research didn't count. That I didn't count. You made me feel like shit. I didn't expect that from you."

Stunned, Jim felt his stomach churn. He could feel the hurt in Alan's wounded voice. He could taste the venom in the words.

"I didn't realise," was the feeble response Jim offered.

"I didn't realise. I really didn't realise."

Jim struggled on.

"I thought I was being helpful. I thought I was being supportive of your research."

As these words stumbled out, he saw Alan's eyes glaze over in disbelief. It was a "fuck you" look. "If I came over as anything other than supportive, then I'm sorry. I really am very sorry. Clearly, I got it wrong."

As he heard himself say this, Jim realised that lately he felt sorry about a lot of things that seemed to be going wrong. He thought of the events that preceded his meeting with Alan, making him "feel like shit". Making Jim feel like shit.

Extract from Andrew Sparkes's "Embodiment, academics and the audit culture: A story seeking consideration". Qualitative Research 2007; 7: 4, 521-50.

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