On being a Canadian Scholar in the British Academy

I’m back. On 20 June 2012 I left Western University, and Canada, for the Drama department at Queen Mary, University of London; on 17August I arrived back in little London, Ontario (also affectionately known as “The Faux”), and to the new Theatre Studies program at Western. (Click here to read a bit about us.) After 26 months in the UK it was a hard move to make; I was heartbroken to leave my brilliant colleagues at QM, and sadder still to say goodbye to my husband and dog (who are still in south London, keeping the home fires burning). But there’s no doubt about it – life as an academic is far better in Canada than it is in the UK, at least from where I’m sitting, on a tenure track post at a major research school. (I’m very well aware there are fewer and fewer of the former, and that the future of the latter is in constant flux under the current federal Canadian government; those issues will have to wait for another time.) So returning home has been hard, but it’s also been a relief.

My time in the UK academy was a paradox, a constant negotiation: at turns exhilarating and unbearably frustrating. I’ve written before on this blog about the stupidity of the REF, and about the waste that so much academic administration makes, both times from within the UK system and (negatively) inspired by it; today, though, I’d like to reflect on what I learned in the UK, from these very negatives, and from the relative calm of the other side of the ocean.

As the new term at Western has gotten underway, in the last couple of weeks I’ve found myself talking a lot, and thinking even more, about where I’ve just come from. I’ve told the (complicated) story of my time at Queen Mary over and over again to my colleagues here, and I’ve heard from them over and over again how sorry/how glad I must be now to be home. In the process, I’ve realised that a lot of the things that made me utterly crazy while inside the UK system are actually profoundly instructive, even inspiring for me now: that while they made my life difficult in situ, from here they look like teachable moments.

My goal in this post, then, isn’t to kvetch post-hoc about everything that sucked over yonder; aside from being predictable and boring, that wouldn’t be very useful – nor very accurate. Instead, I want to talk about how some of the challenges that I encountered in the UK academy offer valuable lessons for those of us still very fortunate to work in a university environment where research time is protected above all, where teaching is valued and supported well, and where the administrative load is either kept to a minimum or offset by significant teaching relief and/or dedicated research leaves. I wouldn’t have guessed, six months ago, that I might be writing a blog post about (for example) what the REF gifted us, as well as about what it stole from us, but there you go: breathing room, and a bit of peace and quiet, can heal and regenerate in unexpected ways.

So, herewith, three phoenixes from the UK academic ashes.

1. Lots of administrative duties are stupid and time-wasting. A number of them are absolutely not. 

Academics I know fear administrative workload creep for very good reasons. The UK government, as I’ve argued before, has gotten quite a lot of traction with its constant check, monitor and measure tactics, making teachers and scholars far, far too tired to fight the really big fights properly. The Harper government here in Canada is not so far behind. But for every box I ticked and student absence I logged at QM while slowly dying inside, I also learned that there can be real value in things like second marking policies, designed to ensure students receive a fair, agreed-upon grade for large pieces of work, and pastoral care schemes, designed to save vulnerable students from attrition at crucial times in their undergraduate or graduate careers.

Now don’t get me wrong, especially if you’re reading this from my side of the pond: I’m not suggesting we start marking each other’s marking on an intensively structured basis as UK teachers do, and I’m definitely not suggesting universities mandate that we take student attendance (if yours does, I’m truly sorry). Second marking, for those who don’t know, is the practice of “check” marking other colleagues’ students’ work; it consists of you reading the work, then your colleague’s feedback on it, and then chatting with that colleague about both alongside the mark he or she has proposed for each student. At QM, second marking was mostly a collegial process, and after the chat we’d agree on grades and release them to the students in a fairly timely fashion. Collegial, yes – but also lots of work for very few real shifts in grades; often, it felt like work we need not really have bothered with, except to tick the box. As a blanket task, then, second marking seemed, and still seems, to me to be largely a waste of time. But in principle it’s a super idea, because it invites other colleagues regularly into our teaching rooms, mental and textual if not always physical, and opens up space for helpful conversations about best marking practices. (When I got stuff wrong according to a second marking colleague, I always, without fail, learned something from that colleague. I was usually annoyed, but I really did learn.)

At its very best, this is what “second marking” can offer North American university lecturers accustomed to marking in a silo, handing work back when we’re done, and then praying for not too much student blowback. Wouldn’t it be great if we actively supported and mentored one another as markers, as we often do as teachers in the classroom when we observe one another, and as we often do with our TAs informally? Would it really be so difficult to implement that kind of mentorship formally, for teachers at all levels, so that every term marking mentors were visible and available in the department, ready to help with those “tough” cases every teacher encounters in every batch of papers? You know: those assignments where you’re just not sure what to say or what grade to assign, where you wonder what your colleagues would do in this case – if only you felt OK asking them to read the paper and weigh in? How might we implement such a practice in a way that could generate effective support, especially for younger faculty but definitely for all of us, without making too much extra work for everyone?

If we begin from a place that values both the labour and the time and breathing space of the workers in question, I bet we can come up with something good.

2. Orwellian working conditions can also create valuable alliances, and cherished friendships.

Would we all prefer not to have to do the excessive paperwork that characterised my time at QM? Without question. But because I did, I had to get to know my colleagues, and I had to learn to work well with them, and, lo and behold, I got to like each of them. I find it remarkable that, despite their often strenuous workload, my Queen Mary colleagues are all more or less friends, and often really good friends. (Now I’m their friend too, and I cherish that.) Crappy committee meetings were inescapable, but the post-meeting coffee klatch at The Coffee Room or pint at The Morgan Arms was a small and welcome consolation every time, a chance for everyone to breathe, remind ourselves that we are human, that we are in this together, and that we all need to remember to ask about one another’s outside lives and really listen to what’s going on in one another’s worlds, and regularly.

Sure, QM Drama is a very special place, where people are nice and we all gel brilliantly; sure, lots of other departments are grotesquely acrimonious, and the meetings take place in a small room devised by Sartre. But I’d like to think that – again, at its best – working inside an administration-driven system might pull us, as humans who all seek so much more than paperwork in a satisfying day, a bit closer together, might encourage us to find the time to be together under different circumstances as often as possible. Often is probably not often enough (it wasn’t for me), but the potential is still there, as is the need. Something to think about for those of us who work in departments where we tend to pass each other in the twilight, moving silently between classroom and office and home: we don’t need loads of busy-work as an excuse to spend time together, as humans rather than as co-workers. We don’t need to be fast and firm friends to make some time for a proper drink and a chat about life, the universe, and that latest book project. We just need to remember that this kind of work is valuable, too – as valuable as research or teaching labour.

3. The REF is complete and utter bullshit from start to finish. But I’ve now read a hell of a lot of my colleagues’ fantastic work.

The REF is a horse’s ass; there is nothing more I want to say about its exquisite badness (to borrow a glorious adjectival phrase from the talented “Bad Feminist” Roxane Gay). What shocks me today is realising that there is actually a bit of good in the REF, aside from the kudos and pound signs it generates for the lucky winners of the grading lottery. Without question it wasted a lot of our time, on “dry runs” and “research narratives” and crying over letters with stupid colour-coded pass/fail lights on them. But it also asked us to spend time on one another in ways that, I now appreciate, meant I got to learn a lot about my colleagues’ work in a concentrated way that I doubt I otherwise would ever have done.

I got to read early drafts of Catherine Silverstone’s latest, terrific paper on queer kids in Shakespearean cinema; I got to help Ali Campbell take stock of the work he’s done among communities of elders and children in east end London over the last five years and make important connections among his disparate projects, leading toward his next big piece of work; and I was inspired to read, from cover to cover, Jen Harvie’s outstanding, important new monograph, Fair Play: Art, Performance and Neoliberalism (Palgrave, 2013), a book I loved and valued so much that I discussed it at the end of a review essay I’ve just published in Theatre Survey – a piece that was on the whole inspired by my time in the UK academy, and at Queen Mary in particular. (You can check out the journal, and the essay, here; for a taster of my comments on Jen’s book, see below the image at the end of this post.) Jen, Catherine, and Ali became truly inspiring colleagues, not just faces in neighbouring offices and not just friends, through this (otherwise truly gruesome) REF process, in part because as the UK government is busy making us tick its tyrannous boxes, it’s also requiring that we make the best of the work, find ways to support one another through it. And so I read, and questioned, and suggested, and learned; and so I’ve returned home to Canada richer, more inspired, and more hopeful for my own research.

I never want to go through the REF again (I’m betting Catherine, Ali, Jen, and my other colleagues don’t either, alas!). But it has given me the gift of new ideas, fresh thinking, warm inspiration. Nobody is more stunned than me.

Cheers, Queen Mary Drama gang! I feel the loss of you each day.





(Mario Delgado and second year students in the studio at QM)

From What Are You Reading? By Kim Solga, Theatre Survey 55.3 (September 2014), p. 397.

“…The great strength of Fair Play is its thick research: working within Ric Knowles’s “material theatre” model, Harvie musters theory, criticism, popular press materials, a vast amount of public policy documentation, and a good measure of sociology and cultural geography to her cause. She begins with an introduction that defines her key terms and lays out the scope of her project before moving on to four case-study-driven chapters, focused variously on labor, the artist as entrepreneur, space and access, and public-private funding models. Each chapter takes up the book’s two basic but urgent research questions: In what ways do artists fall prey to reproducing neoliberal models as they make work under what [Lauren] Berlant might call the “crisis ordinariness” of arts funding today? On the other hand, in what ways do artists model different, more productive kinds of relation in the face of neoliberalism’s false social contract? Because Harvie is driven by the dialectic inherent in this pairing, the book is admirably balanced. It asks readers to weigh the evidence, and to think about how the arts are and are not better off—and how we, as humans living in a world made more humane by art, are and are not better off—under the status quo. Fair Play ultimately makes a strong yet never depressing case for the ‘not,’ [but] Harvie leaves us with real hope that something can be done.”


3 thoughts on “On being a Canadian Scholar in the British Academy

  1. Thank you for this reflection, Kim. I love this bit: “But I’d like to think that – again, at its best – working inside an administration-driven system might pull us, as humans who all seek so much more than paperwork in a satisfying day, a bit closer together, might encourage us to find the time to be together under different circumstances as often as possible… we don’t need loads of busy-work as an excuse to spend time together, as humans rather than as co-workers. We don’t need to be fast and firm friends to make some time for a proper drink and a chat about life, the universe, and that latest book project.” It matters just as much for those of us who work outside the academy (especially those of us who have administrative roles, in all their variety). You’ve reminded me to reach out, to say yes to the coffee dates, to make more invitations, and to find out what passions (worries, excitements, frustrations…) my friends and colleagues at work have.

    • Thanks Jessica! And a great reminder about the toll this stuff can take on administrative staff. Ours were/are amazing, totally overworked, and very much in need of the breaks they take both alone and together. Actually, the admin team at QM are great models in this respect, as they get together a lot, and support each other in their personal lives brilliantly, even while doing a super job at all the crazy work-work. Sure, there are tensions, but on the whole they are an incredible team, more so for all those pub chats and personal time they take.

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