issue 106

30 May 2013


'Truth: lies open to all'


Every fortnight during term-time.

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CONTENTS: editorial, news in brief, mooching around, pubs, well-being, letters.



It's exam time, and it'll soon be degree-awarding time. One big thing we do here – at Lancaster, and in HE in general – is 'credentialing'. That isn't new: universities have been certifying the professional mastery of medics, lawyers, and priests since the clerks of Oxenford and Paris started living and teaching students together. What is new is the ideal of meritocracy.

Exam question: what does it tell us about our culture that 'meritocracy', a term invented as bitter satire, is now offered as a straight-faced justification of inequality? (The external may have a problem with this one.)

Three questions to ask about meritocracy, in an idle moment, over a pile of exam scripts:

1) Do we have the right account of merit? Is whatever combination of IQ, concentration, and deferred gratification we actually test here actually valuable? Actually valuable enough that it should have the effect it actually has on the life-chances of our students?

2) Do our tests actually uncover merit? Extra credit is available for references to the halo effect, implicit bias, and cultural capital.

3) Is it just that there should be a hierarchy of wealth, and more importantly of freedom and happiness, based on merit? Why should it be that to those to whom much has been given, much more will be given? (The external is definitely going to have a problem with this one.)



The Merry Wright of Windsor

Subscribers who remember the short-lived connection between this University and Dr Nancy Wright, late of the University of Queensland, will be glad to know that the story seems to be heading for a happy ending. Although a mysterious last-minute hitch prevented Dr Wright from taking up her appointment as Dean of Arts and Social Sciences in this parish, subtext has learned that she has been selected to perform a similar role in the University of Windsor, Ontario. Her well-wishers may digest the glad tidings in full at Among other things, they will see that the University of Windsor seems to have adopted the practice of appending the names of those responsible for an appointment to announcements of this kind. No doubt the duties of Windsor’s search committee included the rigorous Googling exercise performed by the subtext collective when Dr Wright's appointment at FASS was announced.

Loathe to kick the Googling habit – in recognition of the company's scrupulous obedience to UK tax laws – subtext’s crack internet surveillance team was despatched to unearth the deepest secrets of the University of Windsor. Seconds of furious activity yielded the information that the University is of similar size to Lancaster; was founded in the early 1960s; and is developing a School of Medicine in collaboration with another institution. Thus, after her close encounter with Lancaster, Dr Wright has alighted on a place which offers several points of comparison. subtext sincerely hopes that in her new role Dr Wright will reap as she sows.


Admissions and departures

The announcement that Bob Brown will be retiring at the end of July will be a cause for lamentation among subtext subscribers with responsibilities for Admissions. Following Heather Willes' recent departure for other duties within the University, the Admissions Office has been deprived of a dynamic and much-loved duo. Mr Brown's numerous admirers will know that his health has been imperfect for a while; but they will also be aware that recent initiatives have not always been calculated to boost morale in this crucial and brilliantly-served part of University House. Under Heather and Bob, the relationship between departments and the centre was infused with good humour and a spirit of mutual support. Presumably our Vice-Chancellor – himself an Admissions Tutor in an earlier guise – is well aware that the University stands to lose a great deal if it does anything to jeopardise a successful way of working which exemplifies the importance of relationships based on trust between individuals, rather than impersonal systems devised by management consultants.


Subway Sandwich Artists™

Though we don't think we're going to be made redundant quite yet, we always keep an eye on local vacancies just in case. An advert at the new Subway™ caught our eye. Subway™ is seeking Sandwich Artists™, which though never an option mentioned by our school careers advisers sounds sort of fun and creative – food and art together, what's not to like? Anyway, looking at the Subway™ website it turns out that there's good news and bad news. Being a Sandwich Artist™ is even better than the name suggests, but getting a position won't be easy. Sandwich Artists™ 'have a positive outlook, thrive in a busy work environment', and for the Lancaster positions need to have recent retail experience. 



The MOOCs are coming and causing waves. subtext has been made aware of the ripples caused by the growing popularity of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). The development of new technology alongside the changes in the economic climate within which universities are being asked to operate looks set to dramatically alter the way undergraduates study over the next decade. The Open University has existed quite comfortably alongside traditional provision in the UK for some while now. However, the sector is set to move into traditional OU territory. Russell Group and Ivy League universities have already dipped their toes in the water. MOOCs have already been successfully introduced at the University of Edinburgh and are set to make a splash at Cambridge having already caused quite a storm across the pond at institutions such as Stanford University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

All this is not new. What is new is the utilisation of the virtual education environment against the backdrop of 'more for less' within the sector. One would hope that Lancaster would not be tempted but...The problem they have, not unlike the problems experienced by traditional print media to 'monetise' their online versions, is to persuade people to pay for these courses instead of just pinching them. When that day comes...

(The term MOOC was coined in 2008 by Dave Cormier, Manager of Web Communication and Innovations at the University of Prince Edward Island, and Senior Research Fellow Bryan Alexander of the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education in response to an open online course designed and led by George Siemens, associate director, Technology Enhanced Knowledge Research Institute at Athabasca University and Stephen Downes, Senior Researcher at The National Research Council (Canada)).



The subtext collective annual pub crawl took place during the Easter break. The general consensus was that the city centre and its near environs are well served by a good mixture of public houses. According to the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) an average of 18 locals are boarded up each week in the UK, a hundred pubs have shut so far in 2013 with CAMRA fearing 1,000 will have called last orders by the year's end. By good fortune this carnage appears to have missed Lancaster - certainly in the wider city centre. There are a good number of pubs serving a wide variety of ales, beers lagers and ciders – one in particular has a fine selection to tempt any palate. Whilst on our editorial jaunt ales were supped and editorial policy (ha!) decided, urban myths (or not) about Lancaster University contemplated before thoughts did actually turn to public houses that were no longer or that had changed in terms of décor, ambience, client group and/or name (so many of these). Some of us that have been here a fair while (perhaps too long) could remember the Tramway and the Shakespeare (which still exists as a private hotel) and the White Lion which used to be on St. Leonardsgate. There used to be two local brewers in Lancaster: Yates and Jackson which closed in the mid 1980s and Mitchells which still has a presence in the town but stopped brewing in Lancashire in the late 1990s. We are sure there a number of readers of subtext that have more detailed memories.



Over the years increasing numbers of emails have offered me the opportunity to undertake training or attend events to improve my wellbeing. Initially this was a novelty. That anyone should even be interested in my 'well-being' (a phrase that was not in common usage at the time) was mildly amusing. I was, of course, often too busy to attend the offered events and if I felt my wellbeing was not up to scratch I used to see friends, spend time with my family or simply gaze at the garden. I did these things instinctively, I did not have to learn them. They were 'time out', not a technique.

Colleagues who perhaps lacked gardens or my own complacency started to attend a few of the well-being events. They returned with long lists of activities to undertake to improve their well-being; a hundred ways to chill-out, relax and take things easy. Some of the suggestions could be undertaken during the working day while others were post- or pre- the working day: leisurely baths; going for walks; taking up a hobby. I laughed at the thought of the stress caused by having to undertake activities that were intended to engender relaxation; more to do in a day.

After a time the offers of training became more insistent. It was, I was given to understand, good for me to attend. If I did not attend I was ungrateful, recalcitrant, even complicit in my own unwellbeingness. There was an underlying hint that by looking after my well-being I could be more productive, contribute a higher quality of input, gain a greater depth of understanding, simply through cultivating 'more well-being'. It was clear to me that stress levels were rising as increased managerialism and the economic downturn seeped through the walls of the University. Questions were being asked as to why this or that Department even existed. Was it economically efficient for a University to house disciplines that were not seen to be required by the market? Students were, I was told, being created for 'real lives', 'out there' in the 'real world', needing 'real skills' in this Brave New World. So I held my breath and created more paperwork, hoping thereby to satisfy the demands made of me. All around I saw colleagues spiralling into an atmosphere of panic and even despair. 

However, I am now aware that all will be well, because I can go along to be told how to reduce such stress – it is just a case of 'improve my well-being'. I can now put the blame where it lies. I can be shown techniques to relax and think positive thoughts. I just have to learn that wellbeing is, well, a way of being. And then if I am still stressed against a backdrop of the REF and other such matters then clearly it is my problem because I am just not working hard enough at my well-being!

Thank you. I feel better now.



Dear subtext,

Maybe this has been pointed out before and I have missed it, but there's a funny thing about the new staff/student websites generated automatically from what you put into the content management system 'PURE'. It does not show the email addresses of research students. I am told this is for reasons of privacy. So, in effect, nobody can contact me about my research if they google me or want to contact me after a conference and find me on the uni websites, etc. Which idiot came up with that idea?

Don't get me wrong, I appreciate the university's concern about student privacy. But we are talking about a work-related email address here, and this not just a default default option that could be overridden by ticking a box or clicking a button. I'd strongly appreciate if not showing the email address was the default option but you could override that. (And please don't tell me I might not be able to judge the implication of ticking that box. When I enrolled at this university, I was supposed to decide whether or not to sign over all intellectual property and copyrights of what I do during my degree to the university by ticking a box, and as far as I remember the default option was 'yes'. Now tell me about implications...).

Yet, it's not only that you can't tick such a box. I am even told I should not provide my contact details anywhere else on my profile. This is supposed to be uni policy, not departmental. (I am told, no idea about the true state of affairs.) So, even if I want to be contacted by people who come across my profile, I shouldn't give them the opportunity - for reasons of privacy. This might finally force me to become a Facebook user to enable other people to contact me after conferences. Somehow, I fail to see how this is beneficial for privacy. And it doesn't even stop there. Here is where logic finally fails me: I am affiliated to two departments, one already using PURE, the other not. All the while this stuff goes on in one of them, the other maintains an on-line list of all research postgrad students including (!!!) their email addresses.

PS: It appears that on the site within PURE, you can reveal the email address if you are visiting a PhD student's profile from within the uni network (being on campus or connected via VPN); but it still won't show on departmental sites.

Name withheld


Dear subtext

I wonder if you could forward to Derek and Lesley [late of Robinson's newsagent] my thanks for their 27 years of friendly, courteous, and efficient service to this customer?

It would be much appreciated.

Bob Bliss

University of Missouri-St. Louis


The editorial collective of subtext currently consists (in alphabetical order) of: Sam Clark, Rachel Cooper (PPR), Mark Garnett, George Green, Ian Paylor, David Smith, and Martin Widden.