From 007 to Registrar

A distinctive new approach to the campus novel

Unlikely as it may seem this brief book offers the most exciting representation of a Registrar since Lucky Jim. Set in a real university (York) but with fictional (we hope) characters there is plenty to enjoy here:

The present and past lives of James Kerr, university senior manager and former intelligence officer, collide in this campus-based thriller. He is drawn inexorably into the world of international espionage and geo-politics while simultaneously trying to cope with a home-grown crisis. Set in Beirut, York, London and Brussels, the story draws on the spy-writing tradition of Ian Fleming, John le Carré and Charles Cumming.

It’s good fun, it’s short and dead cheap and the proceeds go to student causes (I am advised by the author) so why not give it a go? You can buy it via the Kindle Store.

I have to say I really did like it but then every Registrar likes to imagine themselves in this kind of role sometimes…

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Still waiting for a decent new campus novel?

Fertile territory for Higher Ed fiction?

Previous posts on Higher Ed fiction have looked at the end of the campus novel and some flickers in the embers with a few more recent offerings including the Marriage Plot. More recently I also posted on satire in HE which covered, among other things, an unpromising series of British novels which didn’t seem to add greatly to the corpus.

Now Inside Higher Ed has a piece on a professor and a former university president (both in the US) who have both just published new academic novels. The synopses do not inspire confidence. The first, Academic Affairs, seems to hinge on an extraordinary set of circumstances:

As the book opens, Smithfield University graduate student Jim Hagedorn — who identifies as gay, and who is theoretically monogamous with his long-term partner, Kevin — discovers that he has accidentally impregnated his classmate and rival, Sally. Meanwhile, Jim’s thesis adviser, the successful but tormented sociologist Bill Massy, finds himself in the same boat with Smithfield’s provost, Esmeralda Marcos. Marcos has other problems, notably the outrageous request made of her and Smithfield’s president, Roger Turner, by Stanley Egbert, a would-be major donor who is willing to pony up $250 million in exchange if Marcos and Turner will adhere to his conditions. Turner would rather decline the offer, but he’s pressured to accept by Smithfield’s board chair, Peter Hagedorn — Jim’s brother. And that’s just the beginning. (Academic Affairs runs to more than 500 pages, and they’re densely packed.)

The new campus bonkbusters?

The new campus bonkbusters?

The other, Signature Affair, looks like a bit of wish-fulfillment:

Cochran had written a full draft of what would become Signature Affair — the story of Steve Schilling, the charismatic and successful president of Eastern Arkansas University, whose spiraling sex addiction threatens to destroy his marriage and career. Schilling loves his wife, Suzanne, but he can’t seem to stop falling in love with other women as well: an old girlfriend from graduate school; the widow of a major donor; a faculty member; a political contact; even the university’s mailroom supervisor. Indeed, Schilling’s affairs are so numerous that it becomes rather difficult for the reader to keep them straight; Schilling himself manages it only by giving them each a different color of stationary on which to pen him romantic missives, which all five of his paramours are apparently eager to do.

Cochran didn’t set out to write a novel about sex addiction, he said, but as he was in the midst of writing the book, golf superstar Tiger Woods’ now-notorious affairs began to make headlines. As Cochran read news coverage of the scandal, he started to notice parallels between Woods and his protagonist, and he found himself thinking, “This is the guy I wrote about!”

Indeed. It looks like we might have a bit longer to wait for a great new campus novel.

That Higher Ed joke isn’t funny any more

Satire in Higher Education.

I’ve written before about books covering higher education in general and the commented on the end of the campus novel as well as its  possible reinvention.

More recently, there has been a series of books intended to capture the humorous and darker side of British higher education life:
A comic portrayal of modern university life seen through the eyes of a Professor of Christian Ethics. Married to the daughter of a baronet, he is rich, successful and eminent. Yet, as he approaches retirement, he is caught up in a conspiracy involving sexual harassment, victimisation and fraud. As he seeks to escape from the web of deceit that surrounds him, he uncovers the dark side of the modern university.
Written anonymously by a prominent academic this comic novel exposes the petty jealousies, excitement and intrigue of campus life in the twenty-first century.

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I failed to get excited by the extracts of this series I have read. However, others were more enthusiastic:

‘I charged through the opening chapters with a growing sense of horror,
paranoia–and recognition. This is a rattling read, and a chilling expose
of political correctness on campus.’ Boris Johnson, [then] Shadow Minister for Higher Education

And seeking to occupy similar terrain there is the  Wading through treacle blog:

The ‘action’ (used in the sense of the narrative and in no way intended to imply that anything active actually occurs at Burston Central) takes place during the spring and summer terms. Car parking is still important, and the anarchy over kettle ownership rumbles on. And as for the ‘multi-functional devices’ which have replaced personal printers….maybe they’re working better. Or maybe not.

So, apart from this latter splendid effort, there really hasn’t been a lot to get excited about on the satire front. But then this very amusing video emerged which was an informercial for a fake online for-profit university. As the Chronicle reported:

At first blush, it might seem like an ad for another online university you haven’t heard of. But “Let’s Profit Off Each Other” is, in fact, the slogan of the fictional “For Profit Online University”—the subject of an 11-minute parody infomercial that, according to the blogSplitsider, was created by former writers for The Onion, a satirical website, and has been airing at 4 a.m. recently on the cable-television channel Adult Swim.

And it’s quite brutal. Some of the gags: FPOU is “proudly unaccredited,” and its students use proprietary online “thoughtcoins” to download facts, purchase “class points,” and buy sandwiches from Panera Bread. FPOU’s enrollment policy? “Technically, if you have a credit card, you’re already enrolled.” Faculty? “Don’t like your professor? Our instructors are easy to replace because they’re spread across the whole world. And they have no way to contact each other.”

Traditional universities aren’t spared, either. For instance, an FPOU transfer student’s testimonial about his bricks-and-mortar college experience: “There were constant sexual assaults, suicides, and building collapses.” FPOU, in turn, promises to do away with “crumbling campuses, full of corrupt, anti-Israel professors.”

It really is very good indeed. Unfortunately, the video itself seems to have disappeared at time of writing.

And then there was this report in Times Higher Education:

The scandals that sometimes line these pages – from stories about grade inflation to sexual harassment and dodgy overseas dealings – often seem like the plot of a theatrical farce. So it was only a matter of time before a play was written about the current dramas besetting higher education.

Sellout – a “political comedy” by dramatist David Lane – gets its first rehearsed reading at the Exeter Northcott Theatre, University of Exeter on 24 January.

At its heart is Frank, a 48-year-old senior lecturer who has just returned from enforced leave after complaining about the fact that student “Jessica Charter was ushered through to her next year of study despite not just failing but getting one of the lowest marks the department’s ever seen”.

When it comes to students, Frank takes the old-fashioned line that “somewhere in that throng of leggings, ironic flat caps and deck shoes is something we’ve never seen before…We need to push them, it’s what they’re paying for.”

Yet everything the lecturer stands for is under threat, from a head of department who wants him to “closely monitor [his] stakeholder interface” and a younger colleague with an Excel program to “time [her] student allocations to the minute”.

With depression, excessive alcohol, collapsing families and doomed office romances thrown in, it is clear that Mr Lane has an amusingly bleak view of university life that is likely to be familiar to many academics.

Amusingly bleak? Bleak for sure. Anyway, perhaps satire in higher education does have a future.

Zombie University

Zombies in the Academy: Living Death in Higher Education

Very excited at the news of the publication of Zombies in the Academy: Living Death in Higher Education. Ever since the launch of the zombie course at the University of Baltimore there has clearly been plenty of room for further undead related higher education activity. This is though a very serious text with serious intent:

Zombies in the Academy taps into the current popular fascination with zombies and brings together scholars from a range of fields, including cultural and communication studies, sociology, film studies, and education, to give a critical account of the political, cultural, and pedagogical state of the university through the metaphor of zombiedom. The contributions to this volume argue that the increasing corporatization of the academy—an environment emphasizing publication, narrow research, and the vulnerability of the tenure system— is creating a crisis in higher education best understood through the language of zombie culture—the undead, contagion, and plague, among others. Zombies in the Academy presents essays from a variety of scholars and creative writers who present an engaging and entertaining appeal for serious recognition of the conditions of contemporary humanities teaching, culture, and labor practices.

Zombie university?

Zombie university?

Some of the chapter titles give more information about the thrust of the arguments here:

  • ‘Being’ post-death at Zombie University
  • University life, zombie states and reanimation
  • The living dead and the dead living: contagion and complicity in contemporary universities
  • Zombie processes and undead technologies
  • Virtual learning environments and the zombification of learning and teaching in British universities
  • Mapping zombies: a guide for digital pre-apocalyptic analysis and post-apocalyptic survival
  • Undead universities, the plagiarism ‘plague’, paranoia and hypercitation
  • EAP programmes feeding the living dead of academia: critical thinking as a global antibody
  • Zombies are us: the living dead as a tool for pedagogical reflection
  • Escaping the zombie threat by mathematics
  • Toward a zombie pedagogy: embodied teaching and the student
  • Living-dead man’s shoes? Teaching and researching glossy topics in a harsh social and cultural context

Really looks good and the ideal book for reading on the beach this summer.

Secrets and Interdisciplinarity in 1928: The Combination Room

A reminder of the opening of the Trent Building

The office recently received a copy of this commemorative brochure from the opening of the Trent Building of what was then University College Nottingham.

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Front plate

The booklet contains a set of line drawings of the Trent Building together with a detailed and somewhat florid commentary by the then Vice-Principal of the College, Frank Granger.

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The Trent Building

It includes some great descriptions of the intended use of the different parts of the building including some nice words on the wonders of the refectory (which is now the Senate Chamber):

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The Refectory

But my favourite piece is this:

The next plaisaunce to the Refectory is the Women’s Common Room. Then there is the Combination Room, which is a suitable name because the staff will meet there in the leisure moments they spend amid their work. There they will discuss the points of contact of their several disciplines. It is expected that the meetings will sometimes be in secret, and continue the College tradition of secret societies.

I like it partly for its references to leisure time and the sadly discontinued secret societies (although if they were still in existence then I guess I wouldn’t know as they would, of course, be secret) but mainly because of the idea that interdisciplinarity should be encouraged was part of the building design. Combination Room may be a slightly odd title but the principle was a thoroughly sound one and still valid today.

The best book ever written about university life?

Cornford’s Microcosmographia Academica

A reminder about or introduction to a brief and essential piece of reading for everyone working in higher education.

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The almost timeless (well, apart from the fact it only features blokes and has an ever so slightly Oxbridge feel) Microcosmographia Academica is of course the essential text for all those with a keen interest in academic politics and university management.

Read it. Now. You know it makes sense.

The reinvention of the campus novel?

A new direction for the campus novel?

The Chronicle Reviewc has an excellent article on a new campus novel from Jeffrey Eugenides about leaving campus behind. A five year old post on my other blog includes reference to a couple of articles, including one by David Lodge, on the ‘end of the campus novel’. The core of the argument here was that campuses really just aren’t funny places any more. However, things seem to have moved on and this piece reviews the terrain nicely:

Philip Roth, that swallow who likes to alight on familiar territory, can be credited with at least two recent efforts—The Human Stain (2000) and Indignation (2008). Richard Russo, amid his working-class classics, gave us Straight Man (1997). Tom Wolfe, whose Ph.D. in American studies long ago slipped from sight as he became the champion of hard-nosed showy journalism and the “reported” novel, turned his kids into stringers to help him produce I Am Charlotte Simmons (2004). David Lodge offered a rollicking trilogy, from Changing Places (1975) to Small World (1984) to Nice Work (1988). J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace (1999), one of his most powerful books, showed that a campus novel won’t cost you the Nobel. Younger novelists, from Jane Smiley with Moo (1995) to Zadie Smith with On Beauty (2005), show no sign of letting the form recede.

And looks at what makes a ‘campus novel’:

Yet the more you think about the “campus novel,” the more you realize how it has outgrown its neighborhood, and is more complicated than it seems. Is it any novel that begins on a campus, or must matters peculiar to campus life—the life of the scholar, the privileged atmosphere of the ivory tower, the excessive focus of its older denizens on tenured security, the hierarchically rigid interaction of lifers and young people—form the heart of the story? If a story just “happens” to take place on campus, is that enough? Do novels about scholars, and novels about students, belong in the same category?

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The new Eugenides book, “The Marriage Plot” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, October), is described here as:

the most entertaining campus novel since Wolfe’s I Am Charlotte Simmons. Entertaining, for sure, but also poignant, insightful, wise, and elegiac.

Sounds great (but still think “I am Charlotte Simmons” is a rather weak effort from the normally brilliant Wolfe) as this quite nicely demonstrates:

“Some people majored in English to prepare for law school. Others became journalists. The smartest guy in the honors program, Adam Vogel, a child of academics, was planning on getting a Ph.D. and becoming an academic himself. That left a large contingent of people majoring in English by default. Because they weren’t left-brained enough for science, because history was too dry, philosophy too difficult, geology too petroleum-oriented, and math too mathematical—because they weren’t musical, artistic, financially motivated, or really all that smart, these people were pursuing university degrees doing something no different from what they’d done in first grade: reading stories. English was what people who didn’t know what to major in majored in.”

Thanks for that Jeffrey. I won’t take it personally. The new novel does sound very good indeed and I certainly do hope that it does serve to breathe new life into the genre. We need it.

“Top scholars should lead research universities”

Top scholars should lead research universities:

Review of fascinating new work in University World News.

Research universities should be led by brilliant scholars and not merely talented managers, says Warwick University fellow Amanda Goodall. It is not sufficient for leaders to have management skills alone, Goodall states in a new book. In Socrates in the Boardroom: why research universities should be led by top scholars, Goodall challenges the orthodoxy of “managerialism” which began in the Thatcher era and continued during the Blair decade. Using a mix of empirical research of 100 universities and interviews with 26 of their leaders in the UK and the US, she concludes that institutions led by highly regarded academics perform better.

Goodall gives four reasons why leaders should be able scholars. They are more credible to academic colleagues and appear more legitimate which, in turn, extends a leader’s power and influence. A top scholar provides a leader with a deep understanding and expert knowledge about the core business of universities which informs decision-making and strategic priorities. The leader sets the quality threshold: “The standard bearer has first set the standard that is to be enforced.” Finally, she says a leader who is a researcher sends a signal to the faculty that he or she shares their scholarly values, and that research success is important to the institution. It also transmits an external signal to potential job candidates, donors, alumni and students.

Some choice quotations here too:

When Goodall asked Patrick Harker, University of Delaware President, if non-academics could lead research universities, he replied: “To be the leader of a jazz group you have to be able to play. That is true of higher education as well. You might not be in the classroom or laboratory now but it helps if you have been there.”

One UK vice-chancellor told her: “A successful international businessman should be appointed as CEO into an international business. An editor of the Financial Times will have been a competent journalist. A vice-chancellor of a university must have been an academic to understand the culture. Universities are profoundly intellectual and can only be led by an academic.”

Have bought a copy now and look forward to reading it!