Why I... believe universities could get much more impact from poets on campus

July 30, 2004

"You're not still here?" A pro vice-chancellor exclaimed in mock hysterics to a poet friend of mine in the car park of his university.

Though he was joking, I couldn't help feeling that the remark betrayed something of his true perception of us poets working in universities.

You see, depressing as it may sound, it doesn't seem that the managers of higher education want to commit themselves to poets for more than a short period. I suppose this is partly because they find it difficult to assess a poet's contribution to students' overall work. Universities can measure the work of many academic staff by referring to performance indicators, but they have no real mechanism to measure the effectiveness of the work poets do.

So at the end of each semester, a poet is usually left to his own devices to qualify and quantify the work he has undertaken as if he's a business analyst. As one line manager said to a poet, the idea is to be as entrepreneurial as possible.

Naturally, the resident poet will do the obvious entrepreneurial stuff - get involved in spreading the word of poetry. And, understandably, everything will be set up on a temporary basis, with a view that it might not continue when he has left. Senior managers rarely make poetry and its long-term objectives a priority unless its presence can contribute significantly to a department's research assessment exercise score. This neglect is also reflected in the haphazard way a university sets aside funding for poets.

Generally in my experience, senior managers show little commitment towards the artist and his work. Some may even be of the "I don't know much about modern poetry but I know what I like" brigade, who will chat to the poet and rubbish modern poetry at a singular puff of exasperation.

This situation can be exacerbated by the painful fact that some senior managers, generally from a science or business background, have only a vague concept of how poets work and of their reliance on inspiration and creativity. A dean recently asked me to produce a business plan that would justify and quantify the value of the work I did with English students studying poetry. He couldn't see how these things don't correlate.

The use of a poet in a university can become a purely synthetic exercise that the poet has to learn to live with unless the relationship can be enhanced by mutual understanding of each other's roles. The work of a resident poet has to be taken seriously if it is to have any real impact or creative/educational value.

Perhaps higher education management could consider that resident poets need a specific job description that will allow them to prioritise their work.

It's not enough for managers to simply say, "Develop a literary culture in the university." That's far too vague to have any real meaning. The poet needs clearly defined directives. Senior managers must pinpoint the overall aims for the poet, must work with him on a detailed plan of how those goals will be attained and must agree on a set of realistic targets for the immediate and long-term future.

The poet needs to know what his role is and how he will fit into the grand scheme of the university's five-year or ten-year plan. In particular, funding has to be carefully and minutely organised for a longer period so as to give the poet a degree of financial security. And for the work to be effective, the poet needs the collaboration of, and commitment from, the whole university.

Without this, at the end of his tenancy, the poet will move on frustrated and demoralised, hoping that in his next post he might encounter managers who don't shout across the campus surprised that they're still funding poetry.

Roshan Doug
Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, poet-in-residence and visiting professor in poetry
University of Central England.

Roshan Doug's latest volume of poems, Illusions and Delusions and Dirty Words , has just been published by University of Central England Press.

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