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December 08, 2010

Letter to Leighton Andrews about HEFCW Withdrawal of Funding for books on Welsh culture and in Cymra

Follow-up to Catastrophic Cuts to the University of Wales Press. from The Midnight Heart

Dear Leighton Andrews,

I am writing to you to express my concern at the HEFCW withdrawal of funding for University of Wales Press (UWP). The proposed changes which deny funding to books in the Welsh language and discussion of Welsh culture are, at best, misguided. I hope that you will read my reasons for thinking so and consider them carefully.

It is naïve to think that these kinds of projects can survive in the narrow world of academic publishing without support. The truth is that, if the funding is withdrawn, the books that would have been published by UWP will appear instead with lesser publishing houses, and fewer quality publications will mean less funding for Welsh academics. This is not to do with the projects’ merits, but, if we are honest, in the publishing houses beyond Wales, there is still a dubious suspicion that writing about Wales is too myopic, provincial or narrow to merit publication.

I hope that I do not have to convince you or HEFCW of why such writing is important and significant. Numerous Welsh critics and cultural commentators have described how the act of foregrounding and championing Welsh culture is a crucial task. I would emphasize too that though the readership of these books is limited, UWP is recognized internationally. I am currently living in the United States and imagine my pleasure when I found on the shelves of my local university library, Pennsylvania State, so many of the publications on Welsh writing in English produced by UWP: books like Katie Gramich’s Twentieth Century Women’s Writing in Wales, Diane Green’s Emyr Humphries, Harri Garod Roberts’ Embodying Identity and Matthew Jarvis’ Welsh Environments in Contemporary Poetry. These books and more are all here in the Penn State Library being read by American students and scholars, ordered by librarians who know that UWP though is funded, it produces quality.

I am a scholar of literature, as well as a poet, and, naturally, I write about Welsh literature. Although I studied at an English university for my BA, MA and PhD (Warwick University), I am from Wales originally and I always had a strong interest in writing about Welsh literature and culture. When I came to decide what topic to choose for my PhD thesis, groundbreaking works on Welsh writing in English published by University of Wales Press inspired me to write about poetry by women in Wales. Books like Stephen Knight’s One Hundred Years of Fiction and Kirsti Bohata’s Postcolonialism Revisited suggested to me as a young scholar that there was at least one publisher that appreciated accounts of Welsh writing. Had these books not existed, had this space for publication not been available, I am not sure that I would have spent three years and a PhD on a topic that would never be published. Considering today’s tough job market and the requirement for publishing work, it would not be a wise decision to write a PhD on Welsh culture at an English university—- that is if the changes that you propose go through.

This brings me to another point. Your plan is to pass on the funds that would have gone to the University of Wales Press to the universities in Wales to distribute where they see fit. This plan, however, makes some huge assumptions about who is producing academic commentaries on Welsh writing in English. I was a PhD student at Warwick University, where I had a funding package, and I now am affiliated to the University of Northampton. Someone like me will be excluded from publishing, because the funds available will be a closed shop with access only for those who have a job in Wales. Again, I would point out, that in the current job climate, it is unrealistic to imagine that every scholar working on Welsh culture will be able to find a job in Wales. I would add too that these funding arrangements are effectively excluding students and scholars who attend universities or find jobs outside Wales. This is the exact opposite of how things should be, because such students and scholars are taking the study of Welsh culture beyond the borders of Wales and emphasizing that Welsh culture is an object worthy of study in any university.

This will be the state of academics working on Welsh writing in English, but the cutting of funding for books in Cymraeg, the Welsh language, is just as bad, and it seems to break the very terms of HEFCW’s own Welsh language scheme. This scheme describes how HEFCW will “assess the linguistic consequences of any new or revised policies and initiatives when formulating them” and it explains that HEFCW will “ensure that new or revised policies and initiatives will promote and facilitate the use of Welsh wherever possible”.

I cannot tell you how short-sighted these cuts really are. As a possible future author of books that would normally be funded through this grant, it is true that my concern is personal. My objections, however, go beyond personal concerns. What you are effectively doing is putting books on Welsh writing in English in a ghetto, where the arbiters of quality research are university officials rather than experts in the field. Those students at an English university and those scholars who find jobs in scant supply in Wales will be excluded from producing quality monographs on Welsh writing in English. You are crushing the hopes of young scholars, and seriously damaging the study of Welsh literature as a serious topic equivalent to English literature. You have to ask the question, why would anyone be so foolhardy as to work in a research area where their enquiries would never be published?

I know that HEFCW only have the best interests of Welsh academia at heart and that this idea was probably supposed to improve that environment. I would, however, ask that you seriously consider the concerns of myself and other academics. There are serious implications to these cuts which can only be detrimental to Welsh scholarship. Please value the contributions that Welsh academics make to this area. The books may not make a huge amount of profit, they may not have as high a profile as some research, but they are fundamental to imagining a Welsh literature to challenge any on a world stage, to imagining a Welsh culture that is rich, multiple and vivid.

Please consider my views on this matter. I would be grateful if you would do me the courtesy of sharing this letter with the full HEFCW Council.

Sincerely,

Dr. Zoë Brigley Thompson

University of Northampton


November 28, 2010

Follow Up: Letter about HE Cuts: Reply from my MP Chris White and my reply to him

Follow-up to Letter to my MP about Higher Education Cuts from The Midnight Heart

Last month, I wrote a letter to my MP complaining about the proposed Con-Dem Coalition changes to higher education. I received a letter which did not really address the concerns in my last note, and I have replied again.

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Dear Chris White,

Thank you so much for getting back to me. I really appreciate it.

Thank you too for the points made here. I wrote to you about the funding of teaching in Higher Education and you seem to have replied to me about the rise in student fees. Regarding the rise in student fees, I realize that in these proposed changes, some provision has been made to help economically disadvantaged families. I am also aware of the claims made by the Browne Review, though I must point out that I feel that this review was fundamentally flawed, as I stated in my last letter.

Since you are writing to me about student fee rises, I must tell you that I am fundamentally against it. From the point of view of someone who has worked in higher education, these changes in student fees represent a move towards the commercialism of the US Higher Education system, which is fundamentally flawed. It turns Higher Education into a business where students are customers and lecturers are service providers – I cannot tell you how damaging this is to education. An education at university should not be merely focused on summative learning – passing exams, meeting grades – but also about formative learning – learning to question assumptions, considering moral/critical conundrums etc. Only this kind of education can create a ‘big society’.

You have not really answered the objections that I described in my last letter. I suggest that you haven’t answered them, because they are extremely serious objections. I would refer you to them again.

The proposed changes will only deepen the class divide between Oxbridge and Russell Group universities, and the post 1992 institutions. The Browne Report talks about giving students “choices”, but all this means is that students who have the money will go to the better-off universities and those who don’t will be left with badly funded ones. Bad funding means of course large class sizes, harassed staff and few facilities, and so the vicious cycle continues, as student satisfaction is the measure of university success, and how could students ever be satisfied at a badly funded university?

I have taught at a Russell Group university (Warwick University) and at a post-1992 university (Northampton University). I know what the differences are in terms of affluence, education and confidence. I would emphasize, however, that just because my students at Northampton were attending a post-1992 university did not mean that they did not deserve a decent education. Many of them were lacking in confidence and needed more support, but many developed to be great scholars.

If the Browne Report has its way, however, there will be huge pressure on post-1992 institutions. They will not be able to compete, because they will not be funded properly, and this will mean larger class groups, more hours for overworked lecturers, and fewer facilities. Inevitably, the students that suffer will be working class students who can only afford to go to a post-1992 institution.

You tell me that you will be voting in favour of these changes when they come before the House, but you have not really convinced me that you honestly believe in these proposals. What you have convinced me of is that you are a party man representing the concerns of the Conservative Party (which far from represents the whole country) rather than your constituents. I would urge you to reconsider your position, as I am sincerely doubtful that it represents the interests of your constituents and the future generation to come who will have to deal with the consequences of this proposed wrecking of Higher Education in the UK.

Sincerely,

Dr. Zoe Brigley Thompson


November 09, 2010

Letter to my MP about Higher Education Cuts

Writing about web page http://www.demo2010.org/

Dear Chris White,

I am writing to you because I am very concerned about the recommendations of the Browne Report and proposed changes to higher education. It seems to me that the government is treating higher education like a business, when the act of providing a stimulating and worthwhile education is far more than simply providing a business service.

The proposed changes will only deepen the class divide between Oxbridge and Russell Group universities, and the post 1992 institutions. The Browne Report talks about giving students “choices”, but all this means is that students who have the money will go to the better-off universities and those who don’t will be left with badly funded ones. Bad funding means of course large class sizes, harassed staff and few facilities, and so the vicious cycle continues. The Browne Report tells us that student satisfaction is the measure of university success, but how could students ever be satisfied at a badly funded university?

I have taught at a Russell Group university (Warwick University) and at a post-1992 university (Northampton University). I would emphasize, however, that just because my students at Northampton were attending a post-1992 university did not mean that they did not deserve a decent education. Many of them were lacking in confidence and needed more support, but many developed to be great scholars.

If the Browne Report has its way there will be huge pressure on post-1992 institutions. They will not be able to compete, because they will not be funded properly, and this will mean larger class groups, more hours for overworked lecturers, and fewer facilities. Inevitably, the students that suffer will be working class students who can only afford to go to a post-1992 institution.

Frankly, I am disgusted by the current government’s approach to this issue. It is a cowardly approach, if, when a government hits hard times, things like education are handed over to the whims of the free market (a market which took us into this economic crisis in the first place by the way!). I cannot support you as my MP if you support such an approach, but I continue to hope that you will represent my view as a member of your constituency.

Please contact me by e-mail when replying.

Sincerely,

Dr. Zoe Brigley Thompson

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Attend the demo against higher education cuts in London on Wednesday 10th November 2010: http://www.demo2010.org/

Demolition

Write to your MP here: http://www.theyworkforyou.com/


November 03, 2006

Bruce Andrews Hits Back on 'Anti–American Books'

Writing about web page http://www.foxnews.com/oreilly/

The poet, Bruce Andrews, explained on Fox News recently why he includes supposedly ‘anti-American’ books in his university class. He does really well in defending himself. See the clip at the link above and scroll down to the blue box. Click on ‘Outrage of the Week’(!).


September 27, 2006

Hugo Chavez's Book Club

See the story here: http://money.cnn.com/2006/09/21/news/funny/chavez_chomsky/index.htm


July 22, 2006

Dead White Males versus Virago Women Writers

I read an article by Philip Hensher yesterday in The Independent entitled ‘Dead white male seeks publisher’ (21st July 2006, Arts and Books, p. 5).

Here Hensher considers Virago’s reissue of women’s classics that first brought the press to prominence. He praises Elizabeth Taylor’s novels, but damns Antonia White’s novel cycle:

The first one, Frost in May , I quite enjoyed in its naive way; it’s a very simple and fresh story about conventional school life. But after that: what a load of rubbish. The three other novels are extraordinarily technically inept. She can’t describe anything other than through a film of tremulous awareness. She can’t contrive incidents naturally at all. The characters have nothing to say apart from how they feel about each other. The whole thing is swathed in the most appalling snobbery – “each piece of furniture, old or new, had that inimitable air that comes from being acquired in the century it was made.” Lots of people like it, but I find it terribly difficult to regard it as in any sense a “classic”.

I am going to send this link to Sherah Wells who is writing her PhD on White. Maybe Hensher doesn’t like White – I am not familiar with the books so I can’t defend her – but what disturbs me is his idea of the “classic”. It seems rather elitist and traditionalist. The point of Virago’s books is that they are supposed to be an alternative canon, something to offset the problems of male literary canons (see my entry on Harold Bloom: http://blogs.warwick.ac.uk/zoebrigley/entry/is_harold_bloom/ and also on canonicity: http://blogs.warwick.ac.uk/zoebrigley/entry/notes_on_canonicity/).

Hensher goes on to note how on losing his copy of Thackerey’s Pendennis , he is unable to find a new edition. His conclusion is:

Of course publishers aren’t really arbiters of literary quality. All they do is publish books which they believe will sell, and the label of “classic”, in this context, is really only a marketing tool. But I do find it rather odd that, these days it seems much easier to sell books by dead women authors than even the most famous of male authors.

While it is true that publishers are only interested in selling books, Hensher’s logic is not so sound for a number of reasons:

1. While there are now many books by ‘dead women authors’ in publication, there are many more which are only available via a research trip to the British Library.

2. The only reason that so many ‘dead women authors’ have been published is because of the painstaking work by women like Sherah Wells, who have worked hard to recover and republish women’s texts.

I suggest that if Hensher is so worried about Thackery, Disraeli, Meredith and Peacock that he should do something about it just as the feminists have and stop using ‘dead women writers’ as a straw man so to speak.


July 21, 2006

Write to Your MP Today!

The Israel–Lebanon crisis is spiralling out of control. Please feel free to use this template to write to your MP, if you so choose.

Dear …,

I am writing to you out of concern over the Israel–Lebanon conflict. Israel has now defied a demand by Kofi Annan for there to be an immediate end to the crisis and the UK should not be condoning these actions. As the MP, Clare Short stated yesterday, 'massive killing of innocent Lebanese civilians and destruction of infrastructure' amounts to war crimes. I am very disappointed that this government is allowing this to happen without intervention. Our ambivalence about civilian deaths in Lebanon has given Israel the sign that it needs to continue and this is unacceptable. Please represent my views in parliament.


June 18, 2006

'The gulf between the arts and New Labour is growing wider'

Writing about web page http://arts.guardian.co.uk/comment/story/0,,1779342,00.html

See the above article by Martin Kettle, which suggests some worrying political trends regarding cultural value and the funding of the arts.


February 05, 2006

Literature and Free Speech

Writing about an entry you don't have permission to view

Like others, I am very concerned to see the events that have taken place in response to these Danish cartoons caricaturing Islamic symbols. The cartoons featuring satirical versions of Islamic symbols were first published in the Danish newspaper, Jyllands Posten, in September last year. Now the situation has escalated with their republication in France, Germany and elsewhere. The situation is complicated with guilt on both sides and the way that the publication of cartoons was handled was insensitive as I will explain in a moment.

These debates have a great weight for the future of literature and free speech. Of course, we always knew that attacking religion could be dangerous. We only have to remember Salman Rushdie and the death threats that he suffered after the publication of The Satanic Verses . Even now, Rushdie's readings tend to be high security affairs with the audience being searched and police officers on guard at every exit. However, I think that we have to realise that this religious outrage in response to criticism in not a simply 'Islamic problem' as some would lead us to believe.

Remember the Sikh protests at the Birmingham Rep last year over Behtzi by Gurpreet Kaur, a play that showed a rape in a Sikh Temple. BBC News quoted Mohan Singh, a local Sikh community leader as saying: 'When they're doing a play about a Sikh priest raping somebody inside a gurdwara, would any religion take it?' Another example could be the Christians currently protesting in Birmingham over Jerry Springer, the Musical . Also think about the censorship in the US due to the extreme Christian right.

Perhaps one might argue that the Islamic reaction is more extreme. Have there been any cases recently of Christians or Buddhists or Sikhs carrying placards stating 'Butcher those who mock our religion' or burning embassies? Perhaps not. But if this is an extreme reaction, I think that we have to question why this has occurred. Does such a violent reaction have something to do with the vilification of Islam – Mulsims being invaded, repressed, imprisoned, reduced, threatened, attacked etc etc?

But to get back to the issue of free speech, we have to take some responsibility for the reaction of Muslims to these caricatures, yet on the other hand, we should not – cannot – back down on the issue of free speech. Free speech is not a sacred cow as it has been described by some critics in the last few days – it is a fundamental principle of our society and to endanger it is to endanger our freedom. The BNP have been banging on for years making racist and rude statements and as we have found out recently, to involve the law in repressing such speech does not work. Rather it is consensus which punishes such culprits through exclusion and stigma.

I guess that I have a number of points to make here:
1. That violent reactions to criticism of religion are not a specifically Islamic problem.
2. That attitudes towards and treatment of Muslims needs to improve, so that members of the Islamic faith do not feel that they are singled out as a minority and vilified.
3. That violent protests and calls for punishment of those who speak against one's beliefs are not valid or useful – rather the answer should be counter-criticism or exclusion of the speaker.

Unfortunately, as a minority of Muslims react violently to the cartoon's published, it reinforces the cartoon's original criticism – that Islam promotes a culture of violence. Those who know Muslims will realise that although Islam contains violent elements, this is only a part of modern Islam. My fear is for literature – how will writers be able to write anything critical about Islam or a Muslim character – or indeed in relation any of the religions in this current climate – when such a feeling of fear is being created? How will journalists and cultural critics be able to act similarly? Every culture or religion needs criticism and freedom of speech is freedom itself.


December 30, 2005

World Cup Prostitution and UK Tolerance Zones

'Prostitution is, in my view, as much an abuse of human rights as paedophilia. It is based on men's superior economic power, driven by demand rather than supply; it exists not because women have an inescapable need to sell their bodiesbut because a minority of men belive they have a right to sex whenever they want it. Nothing could demonstrate this more dramatically than the fact that so many punters are willing to have sex with trafficked women, not caring that they have been coerced into prostitution.

This belief isn't universal but it is widespread, as we can see from estimates that three million football fans will visit a prostitute during the World Cup in Germany next year. Forty thousand prostitutes are expected to arrive in German cities in advance of the tournament and, according to NGOs who work in the field, substantial numbers will have been trafficked.

This is a horrifying insight into a certain kind of male sexuality, but I don't find it easy to discern the difference between a football fan who has sex with a trafficked woman and one who buys it from a desperately poor mother who is dependent on crack. Do either women have a real choice?

In reality, both are victims of abuse and people who campaign for tolerance zones in this country, no matter how well intentioned, are ensuring that the abuse will continue. Many men want to have sex with children, judging by thepopularity of paedophile sites on the internet, but would anyone seriously suggest tolerance zones for paedophiles? As long as they follow through on promises to help women escape from prostitution, Home Office ministers are quite right to decalre that the Government is not in the business of colluding in the sexual exploitation of vulnerable people.'

From: Joan Smith, 'Kerb-crawlers deserve zero tolerance', The Independent , 30th December 2005, p. 29.


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