Tuesday, 3 April 2018

Twenty five years of the REF and me.

Over on Twitter there has been a recent series of posts on the #REF, and a lot of contention about its use and its worth; and its impact on the humanities in particular. For an excellent summary see Ian Pace's blog The RAE and REF: Resources and Critiques. The raw emotion felt in response to the ill-treatment of many at the hands of RAE/REF managers is fully on display - and makes for harrowing reading.  The pressures on ECRs are very real and the REF leads many academic department heads and research administrators to make stupid, and inhumane decisions.  My own experience of the RAE and REF, however, is different, and as 240 characters won’t allow me the space to reflect how it has shaped my career - I have posted here instead.

I received my doctorate in 1985, via a system that seemed predicated on a belief that supervision was just one option, human contact a luxury, and emotions superfluous.  The five years spent as a doctoral student remain a low-point in my life.  Entirely unsuccessful in my attempts to find a job or secure a post-doctoral fellowship, I spent the next four years supporting myself doing a mixture of working building sites, casual teaching (mainly for US 'study abroad' programmes) and research for publishers.  As an institution uniquely open to the un-employed, the IHR tea-room became my only academic point of contact.  By 1989, I had essenitally given up any academic ambitions, when I was appointed as a lecturer in 'eighteenth-century social and economic history and humanities computing' at the Polytechnic of North London.   It felt miraculous at the time.  As far as I can remember this was the first permanent post to come up in the UK in my field of 18th century social history in four years, and I suspect I was appointed not for my historical expertise, but because I could cover both halves of the job description.

A few years later PNL became the University of North London, and I was charged with running the department of history.  The first RAE the 'new' universities could participate in came soon after, in 1992. No one else in the department thought it was worthwhile putting in a submission and there was no mechanism for organising such a thing, so I pretty much wrote it myself. The department at the time was a stunning place to teach (my best work experience in a 30-year career), but there was no research funding.  The annual research budget ran to some £2,500 between some 45 humanities staff.  One year there was an actual physical fight outside the committee where that £2,500 was allocated.  My colleagues were nevertheless a remarkable group of historians including people such as Kathy Castle,  John Tosh and Denis Judd. 

In the end, we were awarded a score of '3' - putting us about a third of the way up the list of 'old' university history departments. And with that score came approximately £90k a year in QR (Quality Related) funding for a staff of around 12, for the next four years. This radically transformed the character of the department. This was not all to the good. Arguably the focus on teaching changed and several colleagues whose world view was less grounded in the powerful values of the old poly sector let the funding rather go to their heads.  But the result of that RAE, and the redistribution of funding that followed, very much demonstrated that there was excellent research being produced throughout the sector.  I have always believed that the RAE was introduced under Thatcher as a way of disciplining the 'old' universities, and that the 1992 inclusion of the 'new' universities, was a part of the same strategy.  It worked.  Everyone substantially raised their game in the 1990s - or at least became more focussed on research and publication.  This was also a period during which student numbers were rapidly expanding, drawing in both money and new staff (following 10 years of decline and retrenchment).  My generation of historians for the most part doesn't exist.  Some made a career in the US, but most of my fellow doctoral students were forced to take jobs outside of the academy, and when expansion came in the early 90s, there was a new, younger generation keen to apply.  But following the 1992 RAE, my strongest emotion was a sense of self-righteous smugness - a belief that the purpose and drive that I found in my small department had been recognised, and the remarkable talents of its staff rewarded.

That success was largely repeated in 1996 -  and following that RAE I moved from the University of North London (later London Metropolitan University), to a 'Readership' at the University of Hertfordshire.  I was recruited as part of an RAE driven strategy following the poor showing of  Hertfordshire's very strong history department in the previous year's exercise.  Hertfordshire had failed to showcase the work of its recent appointments in its 1996 submission.   It was a bitter-sweet move for me - and I remain ambivalent about it.  But while North London did not seem to want to plan for the next RAE, Hertfordshire was actively strategising.  Over the next two rounds I was again tasked with writing a department's submission, and Hertfordshire's history department's score rose from a '2' to a '5*'.  In 2008 I also oversaw some seven submissions in my then role as director of the SSAHRI (Social Science, Arts and Humanities Research Institute) at Hertfordshire. In both these rounds, the 'new' universities seemed to make real progress; and the ridiculous hierarchies of the sector seemed to be gradually dissolving.  There was a recognition that even if the 'excellence' in the 'new' universities formed only 'pockets' they were nevertheless worth acknowledging and funding.  When, in 2001, the history department at Oxford Brookes received a 5* while Oxford University's history department was rated 5, it seemed as if anything was possible.  

For successful departments in my part of the sector, the RAE also gave new authority to academic staff.  Keeping staff, recruiting new staff, and providing a context in which academics could fulfil the requirements of the RAE became ever more important.  The number of staff promoted to 'Professor' expanded dramatically, and while salary scales did not move much, the distribution of posts between 'Professor', 'Reader', 'Senior Lecturer' and 'Lecturer' changed out of all recognition.  Where departments had traditionally had just one 'Professor', and while 'Senior Lecturer' was the height of most academic's ambition; promotions now came thick and fast.  In the process the amount of money spent on staff salaries increased significantly.   Along the way there were very difficult decisions to be made.  I personally only ever excluded one eligible person from the RAE, but the interview involved remains a raw memory.  By 2008, with the department I helped to lead riding high in the RAE (well in to the top third of departments), I was convinced that the new dispensation made sense.  A regular RAE, in combination with the greatly expanded funding available through the AHRC from 2004 onwards, created what felt like a largely balanced system of support that appeared to reward hard work and quality research wherever it was found.  Humanities scholars seldom acknowledge that the funding for their reserach via the AHRC increased from £20m to £100m in a single year (2004) at a time when universities themselves where increasingly obliged to give QR funding to the units of assessment that had 'earned' it via the RAE.  This substantially increased funding for the humanities as well.  As a beneficiary of the system, I was - of course - convinced by its fairness.

The advent of the REF and the arrival and changing level of student fees; the lifting of the cap on student numbers, and a powerful fight-back by the elite institutions (the Russell Group substantially upped its game in 2004), changed much of this. 

With the advent of first £3000, and then £9,000 fees, it became clear that government policy was shifting direction.  From supporting 'pockets of excellence' there would in future be a pattern of expansion and support largely driven by the prejudices of parents and employers.  The 'new' universities were being told to get back in their boxes.  At the same time, the inclusion of 'impact case studies' in the 2013 REF sent a strong message that near market and STEM research was likely to be prioritised in future.   

By 2013, and although Hertfordshire put in a stunning REF performance in history (ranked well in the top ten departments nationally and level-pegging with Cambridge), it seemed clear to me that this model of open competition would not be allowed to continue; or that hurdles were being built in to the system that would rapidly undermine the progress of the previous twenty years.  It was largely in despair at the direction of policy, that I took a post at the University of Sussex - as the least worst compromise I could come up with.  Again, this was a move made in response to a REF strategy.  In this instance it rapidly became clear that the relevant strategy existed primarily in the minds of the VC and head of school, and had not been agreed by my new colleagues - but there was a strategy.

After 25 years in the now not so 'new' universities, during which the RAE and REF seemed to form the basis for real opportunity and positive change - and the basis for grounded, long-term planning, I have since found myself in an 'old' university, where the REF feels more a threat than a promise.  Most of my colleagues would prefer the REF did not exist, and that research funding was simply allocated to them by dint of having secured a job at a 'good' University.  Having won the race to the finishing line they would prefer not to be obliged to compete further.   In my new 'old' university REF strategies are also closely monitored from the centre - and there are few opportunities to use the process in pursuit of coherent academic planning at departmental level.

For myself, I look back on this journey with mixed emotions.  The bureaucracy, the games playing and the constantly changing requirements of each new RAE/REF, served a series of British governments as a means of manipulating the university system.  First, it disciplined the 'old' universities, forcing them to take more seriously both research and public engagement - holding them to account for the public money they received.  And then, it hung the 'new' universities out to dry, by shifting the goal posts and ensuring that the system would be increasingly rigged in support of the 'old' ones.  In many ways, government - from Thatcher to Cameron and May -  played a community against itself - ensuring that all those academics who pretended to be part of a supportive community of scholarship would spend their time fighting madly to beggar their neighbour.  

But at the same time, I look to the promise of greater diversity offered by those early RAE's and cannot but think they must be at least a part of the solution.  The desire to get rid of the RAE is largely a cry to 'leave us alone'; and it is heard most loudly in the most privileged corridors of the academy.  And yet, when you look at the staff involved, if you measure their ethnic, class and cultural diversity, what rapidly emerges is a defence of the most selective process imaginable.  Most staff in the humanities in the 'old' universities (and the new) are white and middle class (myself included).  A substantial proportion come from 'academic' homes; and were given privileged access to an elite education by dint of their parent's social and academic capital.  If simply getting a 'job' frees you from ever demonstrating the significance of your work; and if all those people who did not get a job in the right corner of the academy are excluded from demonstrating the worth of their own labours, we simply re-enforce hierarchies of privilege to the detriment of the system.  Clear benchmarks, and transparent processes seem to me a better antidote to privilege than a strategy based on 'leaving us alone'.

ECRs have been dealt a rough hand.  The process of selection has been changed without anyone ever spelling out why or how.  The only explicit discussion of this I ever heard was at the AHRC, where the identification of the 'leaders of tomorrow' became an increasing pre-occupation from around 2010 as part of an emerging policy of concentrating research funding on an ever dwindling set of departments and research 'leaders'.  The path to secure academic employment is now predicated on a first class degree from the 'right'  university (read Oxbridge), followed by a funded doctorate at the 'right' university (read Oxbridge), followed by a post-doc (maybe London for varieties' sake), a book of the thesis, two articles, and success in the AHRC's 'New Generation Thinkers' competition.  And woe-betide anyone who fails to collect any one of these shiny tokens of achievement.  The effect is to raise the bar for secure employment while not being honest with the scholars who are in fact being judged and discarded at each stage.  The language of precarity actually hides an ongoing process of brutal selection.  This is a form of selection that re-enforces privilege and excludes scholars who have not travelled on this most banal, lock-step journey. To be caught in this system is very hard, but the REF is not the real issue. 

As I approach retirement I have become increasingly uncomfortable with higher education.  I look back and think with Malcom Chase that I would choose a different path if I was able to start over.  Higher education feels ever more akin to a factory for the reproduction of class and ethnic privilege - the pathways from exclusion to success ever more narrowly policed. Ironically it is not the 'neo-liberal' university that is the problem; but the 'neo-liberal' university dedicated to reproducing an inherited hierarchy of privileged access that uses managerialism and rigged competition to reproduce inequality.  To my mind, the REF was a game changing opportunity, and could be again.

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

Some thoughts on a monograph - James Baker's, The Business of Satirical Prints in Late-Georgian England

I was recenlty charged to say a few words at a launch event for James Baker's new monograph, The Business of Satirical Prints in Late-Georgian England.  I am afraid that in the nature of academic hardback monographs the volume is too expensive to actually buy, but the link to the publishers' page is here; and James has blogged extensively about writing the volume, and the 'soft' and 'hard' digital methodologies that went in to it.  I am posting a version of what I said, because in working up a few enthusaistic words with which to toast the publication, it also became clear to me that this book - or perhaps just books in general - are changing in dialogue with the changing nature of historical research and publication.  While I have been profoundly frustrated by what has appeared to me to be the slow evolution of the monograph (and historians' attitudes to it as a form), this book suggested that I had missed a subtle change along the way.   So, for what's it worth, this is pretty much what I said.

I was asked a few weeks ago to say a few words to help launch The Business of Satirical Prints in Late-Georgian England, and I thought - why not?  Before I had read the book, I thought I sort of knew both James and Georgian England, and the kind of book it would be.  And at the same time, given that James Baker is seriously into the Digital Humanities, I thought I knew a little bit about that too.  And when I got my grubby hands on the book itself – I thought – OK – that looks like a book – and I know a little bit about those too.  I don't really like them very much, but I own a few and have written a few.   So, all in all, I thought this would be a walk in the park that was unlikely to challenge any of my hard won prejudices or lazy assumptions.  

I was wrong.  This book confounded pretty much everything I thought I knew about James, and books, and Georgian England and the digital humanities. 

My first shock came in the acknowledgements (and yes, that is the first place I looked) – where James very kindly acknowledged both me and a bunch of other people for their support.  But uniquely in my experience, he did so by listing our Twitter user names.  I thank god I chose the relatively innocuous @TimHItchcock – but what this brought home immediately was that this was a book that was created in a self-conscious engagement with the digital humanities, and the modern practise of academic history writing. It may seem a simple thing, but it confounded and messed with the way we still represent books and book writing.  Despite the revolution in how we research and write books, we still pretend they are the product of old-school debate, musty research libraries, foolscap and ink - that they are written in some book-lined study, in the gaps between feasting at high table.  The acknowledgements said that this book was the product of a different technology, a different conversation, held in a different world.  As a result, though a very small thing, it felt remarkably radical – and that radicalism extended through the rest of the book. 

Next came the introduction – in which James outlined the intellectual forces that brought him to the topic, and which informed his approach.  The list went from Fernand Braudel and Robert Darnton to EP Thompson – temporarily lulling me into a sense of the familiar – before moving on to Bruno Latour and Franco Moretti.

Anyone who knows the field of eighteenth-century British history will realise in a minute that this is not normal.  You can do Darnton and Thompson, or if you are under 35 and working on a literary topic you can do Latour or Moretti – but bringing them together in the same analysis forms a profound journey across intellectual boundaries more secure than any physical wall.  Here was a mixture of Thomspon’s Marxist literary approach, with Braudel’s social science, and Darnton’s cultural history; with Latour’s anthropology of scientific practice; and Moretti’s tools based explporations.  What looked initially like a book defined by its topic – the late Georgian satirical print – rapidly emerged as a book defined by its intellectual ambition.

In the end, it fulfils that ambition.  It brings together a genre of description that Thompson perfected; with Braudel’s clear understanding of the materialities of life; with Darnton’s sharp ear for cultural difference – and then throws into the mix, Latour’s beautiful engagement with the cultural practises of production, and Moretti’s joy in deploying the tools of distant reading. 

The chapter that seemed to me to epitomise the book – not because it used any of the tools of the digital humanities, but because it contained a breadth of approach and understanding that transcends normal history writing – is chapter three on the mechanics of making prints.  It dealt with that magic combination of copper and paper and ink; of engraving, and etching and mezzotint deployed in pursuit of cultural impact.  It seemed to me that in that chapter, James captures perfectly the ambiguities of making – the extent to which every cultural act and every material act is a balance between purpose, materiality and constraint.  It felt to me he could have been writing about the evolution of the home computer, the internet of things, or the materialities of code. What he has nigh on perfected is a balance between cultures of materiality, and the limits to our ability to escape that materiality.

In the end, what I think I learned most fully from this book is that it is possible to practise digital history – to make new narratives, informed by new technologies, in direct engagement with old ones.  And that the outcome will look different to the kinds of books that historians have now been writing for over 200 years.  This still looks like a book, but actually it is something more than that - it is an encoding of a journey through data and tools; through history certainly, but also through the mechanics of the academy.

One of the complaints heard about the digital humanities – or indeed the digital revolution – is that it has not transformed how we do history, or sociology, literature or anthropology – that somehow it has failed to fulfil the early hyperbole.  But this book suggests that a different kind of history is gradually emerging; and that while it will no doubt retain the form of the codex, it is nevertheless different.  By self-consciously using the conditions of the present, to rework our inherited forms of history writing, this book represents a positive step forward. 

In other words, it is a radical, self-conscious, and technically informed experiment in genre.  It is a practical intervention in the creation of digital history.  Buy it if you really want to subsidse the commercial academic presses, or figure out how to access it in other ways, but read it.

Friday, 3 February 2017

Research Infrastructure and the Future of National Libraries

In my role as a member of the British Library Advisory Council, I was recently asked to present a few thoughts on how research infrastructure might change in response to the changing demands of academics.  This post records my notes for that discussion.  It does not record what I said to that committee on the day - and certainly does not imply that the British Library in any way endorses or subscribes to my views; but it does reflect what I believe is the necessary direction of travel in the provision of resources for academic research. 

I have been asked to speak for a few minutes about developments in academic research and the implications these might have for the British Library; and where I really wanted to start was with a quick appreciation of where we have come from.

It is important to remember that we are sitting at the centre of what was a 200 year project to create a comprehensive – divided, but universal - infrastructure for research and knowledge creation.  All you have to do is walk down Museum Row – from The Science Museum, to the Natural History Museum, to the V&A – each with their active Higher Education equivalent research staff – to remember that we inherited a powerful, cross disciplinary research infrastructure.  Or look back to the old round reading room of the British Library with its 400-odd volumes of an ever changing manuscript catalogue – seeking to encompass all of human knowledge.  Whatever your field, whatever you methodology, the nineteenth and early twentieth century created an infrastructure in stone and brick.
In the last fifty years much of this has either been transformed, or else become increasingly redundant – catering for an ever shrinking body of old-school scholars; while much of the effective infrastructure that underpins research has moved elsewhere.  Arguably 'Science, Technology, Engineering and Medicine' (STEM) subjects, with their greater resources have led the way in creating endless new data stores and distributed infrastructural kit.  And while buildings – like the Crick Institute, or CERN – represent a fragment of a constant ongoing rebuilding of intellectual infrastructure, they are just the tip of a much larger transformation that has taken a new form.

Through repositories like Cern’s Zenodo project; through the Genome project (with at the time, its seemingly huge demand for data storage), with Gold Open Access science journals (built on commercial publishing models, and incorporating their own data stores), with GitHub and with a collaborative project-based approach to research, STEM has created a new distributed knowledge infrastructure – because the older one failed first for their disciplines.  

In the process STEM has largely side-stepped the brick and stone infrastructure along the way – in particular the British Library.  You will not find a physicist or an astronomer in any of the Library’s reading rooms.  In other words the hardest end of STEM seems to me to have cracked substantial elements of this conundrum, and left the other two thirds of the research landscape – from the softer end of STEM, to social science, business and economics, and the humanities, largely eating dust, and reliant on an increasingly creaky twentieth century infrastructure.

So, in the first instance, it seems to me that we are challenged to rethink ‘research’ data, and publication as a new form of infrastructure.  So, the Library – or somewhere – needs to create a context in which notes and files, data stores of all kinds can be shared and curated – in a digital form.   And this data, or data store, needs in turn to be tied directly to the public commentary – or publication – built upon that data.

But in the process there is also something more subtle going on.  While STEM has led in a particular direction, it has brought with it a particular style of research organisation, which again changes the nature of the infrastructure required.  All you have to do is look at the evolution of the Research Councils UK – from its shared services centre, to an ever growing emphasis on inter-disciplinary funding – and emphasis on large team projects, and the training of Early Career Researchers to be ‘leaders’ – by which they mean project heads – to see a direction of travel towards large teams of ‘laboratory-ish’ groups, fronted by media friendly ‘interpreters’.  And of course, this is all combined with a precipitate concentration of research funding on an ever smaller number of ever more self-congratulatory institutions.

In other words, it seems to me that national research culture – and in a more chaotic way, international infrastructure as well - is faced with a twofold change.  First, there is a fundamental transformation in the most significant core of the research ‘infrastructure’ from bricks and mortar, to online - to immediately accessible data; with the tools to use it and ‘publish it’.

And second we are faced with a gradual, forced move towards larger and more ‘laboratory-like’ forms of research, in which collaboration – both virtual and face-to-face – are increasingly normal.
By way of a caveat, however, we are also faced with a multi-generational lag in which every variety of lone and independent scholar will want the same old, same old – to be available regardless of the cost.

All of which just leads me to believe that the evolving nature of research – mainly that based in Higher Education – needs urgent attention in the following areas.

  • The shared curation and storage of data and research materials – building on STEM models, but made friendlier to different data types.
  • We also need the tools to work with that data – and training that supports their use.
  • We need to explore different validation and authorisation models for ‘publication’.  At the moment we are allowing a multi-billion pound business to be built on national expenditure, and we need to reclaim elements of this – through new models of peer review and distribution.  These in turn need to be tied to data – vertically integrated from data to experiment to commentary - and more amenable to collaboration – with a traceable development path through all of it.
  • We also need a clearer commitment to non-HE researchers.  We need to acknowledge that HE – as gatekeeper of research authority - forms part of the problem.  And we need to keep a weather eye on the boundaries around who can research.  The BL certainly needs to create an infrastructure for HE research, but it needs to be an infrastructure that is open to everyone.

In other words, and as usual, the British Library needs to remember that it is a national machine for research and learning, committed to access to all knowledge, for everyone who needs it; and to use these first principles to navigate a remarkably complex and rapidly changing landscape.

We also need to remember, as William Gibson said: ‘The future is already here – it’s just not very evenly distributed’.