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Why is your book so expensive?

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My book, Social Housing in Performance, is available for pre-order. It is, as you will have noticed if you clicked on the hyperlink in the last sentence, prohibitively expensive at £67.50 (and that’s with a discount). Almost immediately that I tweeted news of my forthcoming publication, I received replies going, ‘Gah! But the price!’ The high price is especially an issue because of the subject matter of the book — the fact it deals with class injustice and its cultural dimensions — and because many people who will (hopefully) want to read it won’t have loads of money, or access to a university library. So I’ve written this to a) explain why it’s so expensive, because I feel that needs justifying. And b) to tell you how you can read it at a much cheaper price, or for free.

Why is it so expensive?

Academic books are expensive. The reason for this is because they are very niche, and publishers don’t expect to sell more than a few hundred copies, if that. Because they have to make their money back, and because these books will mostly be purchased by university libraries, who are much better off than the average human household, they are priced very high. That way, the publisher makes their money back on their investment in the book.

The academic who wrote the book typically makes very minimal returns on any sales — totalling in the tens, or if we’re lucky, hundreds of pounds. Considering academic books take years if not decades to complete, we do not win financially in this model (see here for a rant about that).

So why publish with an academic publisher?

There are two reasons. The first is that I genuinely didn’t believe there was anything like a market for the trade publication of an arts criticism book about estates, class, arts and culture. My experience of unsuccessfully trying to sell a non-fiction book to trade publishers in the past had taught me that I would need to convince commissioning editors that the book is likely to sell (tens of) thousands of copies. In order to publish a trade book, you either have to be writing about an extremely hot topic, or else you have to be famous. The public interest in class and the arts is extremely current, and five years ago when I was working on the proposal for this publication I didn’t know how to articulate the market for it, indeed I didn’t think there was a market for it. No one was really talking about this stuff. I know there are some academic books, particularly sociology ones and arts criticism by well-known writers, that sell very well. But as I am a) unknown to the wider public, and b) writing about a very specific subject, it seemed unlikely that a trade publisher would bite.

The second is a career progression reason, and therefore selfish — but I don’t apologise for that. Every six years or so, UK academics have to submit our work to the Research Excellence Framework (REF, formerly RAE), where its ‘quality, significance and rigour’ is graded anywhere between 1 and 4 stars. In my current job, I have to evidence that I am capable of producing 4* outputs (yes, even though I am an ‘early career’ scholar), in order to pass probation and be promoted. Although the REF panel are not supposed to take where an output is published into a consideration when assessing, there are still good reasons to choose an academic publisher if you are hoping to submit a book to REF. Most obviously because with an academic publisher your book will be subject to a rigorous peer review by someone in your discipline, which means there is quality control and you can have some confidence the academic world thinks your work is worthwhile. Additionally, despite the rules around not using publishers as proxies for quality, I don’t doubt that many of the REF assessors do factor some element of publication prestige into their assessment (they have to read thousands of submissions in a few months, they must make shortcuts somehow).

But I still want to read your book!

Thank you! I have been working on this material for nearly ten years, and I really want it to reach as wide an audience as possible. My contract says that it will be available in paperback at some point, which will reduce the price to somewhere in the region of £20, which is still a lot, but will be affordable for some. I’m not sure when that will be. In the meantime, you might like to request that your institutional or local library orders a copy, you can ask the librarian how to do this. The more hardback copies that sell, the more likely it is that the book will receive a timely paperback release.

There are a couple of ways to get a free copy: For those of you who teach and hope to use the book on a course, you can request an inspection copy from the publisher once it’s out (click here for details of how to do that). You might also like to write a review of the book for an academic journal, or for a newspaper or blog — in which case you can email publicity@bloomsbury.com or academicreviews@bloomsbury.com after publication and ask for a review copy.

Once the book’s out I’m going to arrange a launch where I’ll hopefully have discounted copies. I’m also happy to share any discount codes I’m given, and to send out digital versions of chapters once I have them, especially to those who need to read the book for research or study purposes. You can find my email in the contacts section of this website.

 

 

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Rights, copyright and exploitation: Five things academics can do to improve the experience of publishing

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This is written from a UK arts and humanities perspective, and may not be entirely applicable outside of that context

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This week, I was presented with yet another shitty contract by an academic publisher, and it was the final straw. The breaking point as I snapped under the weight of resentments that I’ve been harbouring towards academic publishing culture for the past eight years. I am 34. I have been writing and publishing academic papers since I was 26. I have, to date, published well over a dozen articles, chapters and book reviews, have edited journal special issues and have just submitted my first book. Some of my stuff is very good. I say all this not to brag, but to point to the fact that even with this relatively wide experience and despite my dedication to my work and eagerness to please (maybe that’s part of the problem), my publishing experiences are still unsatisfactory. Indeed, once it comes down to the contract, publishing has almost always left me feeling exploited, cynical and played.

Having been handed yet another contract where I’m expected to sign my worldwide copyright and all other rights, save the ability to actually share my work, over to a very profitable company, for no remuneration whatsoever, at massive personal cost in terms of effort and energy, I’m feeling extremely cross. Not only, and not even primarily, at the publishing houses — who after all are only following the ‘profit no matter what’ business model that has now become the prevailing morality in our culture — but at myself (for not challenging the culture sooner) and at my colleagues and mentors. Literally none of whom have ever discussed copyright, subsidiary rights, contract terminology and negotiation, meaning I have willingly signed rights to my work over to publishers on almost every academic paper I’ve ever written.

Perhaps my feeling annoyed at colleagues is unfair. So far as I can tell the conspiracy of silence (try asking someone about the terms of their publishing contract) is not so much because people don’t want early career researchers to know their rights, but because even many senior academics are unclear about those rights, how to protect them, how to enforce them, or what a standard academic publishing contract actually means in practical terms. After all, very few of us will ever directly make money from our academic writing. (For those of us signed up to ALCS, we should be aware that signing over copyright (and other subsidary rights) means we are not entitled to collect to royalties from secondary uses). Added to which the fact that we feel so relieved after years and years of painstaking research, more months or years of working through drafts, responses to reviews, edits and so on, to have finally completed the article, chapter or book, that we just want our work out there as soon as possible. We don’t want to delay the process, risk our relationship with editors, have someone else publish similar work, have our work pulled at the last minute, or (and I think this is especially the case for women) be perceived as difficult. So we shut up. (Perhaps we are also embarrassed that, as people whose job is ‘being clever’, we have absolutely no idea what we’re doing in this regard). (Perhaps there are also those of us who cling jealously to our ability to negotiate fairer contracts, figuring that it’s a skill that’s basically a finite resource we’d like to keep for ourselves).

However, I’m not willing to continue participating in a system where virtually nobody openly discusses our writing and its monetary value, or talks about how to protect it. So I am writing this blog for two reasons. The first is to raise the issue in a public forum in the hope it generates conversation and sharing of stories. I am especially interested to hear about how academics have protected their work, and about any initiatives colleagues are involved in around training postgraduates and ECRs to better understand their rights and how to negotiate with academic publishers. The second is to relay a series of simple strategies that I suggest we take up to start pushing back against unfair publishing conditions.

For anyone confused about what publishing rights are please click here for more details (this is a North American perspective, and much of it deals with trade/fiction publishing but it’s a good overview). On UK copyright law specifically, see here and here.

We have to ask for better terms when we are handed a contract that is blatantly exploitative.

The terms we are willing to settle for will obviously differ from person to person, but I’d say at the bare minimum giving up copyright and all subsidiary rights is an immediate no. Instead, ask whether the publisher is willing to publish with a licence to publish agreement. Also check book contracts for unhelpful clauses such as those where the publisher has first right to first refusal on your next monograph. Because ECRs and those with precarious contracts arguably need publications more than established and senior researchers, the onus is on permanent staff to push for better contracts every time we publish. We have to do this so that we start to make it against a publisher’s interests to offer the most exploitative contract as standard. (Advice on how to negotiate here, and here).

It is worth remembering that many of the big publishers, such as Taylor & Francis, will present you with a copyright assignment request as standard, but have a policy of allowing writers to switch to licence to publish when asked. So ask.

If the publisher can’t give you satisfactory terms, go elsewhere.

We have to be willing to do this. Maybe it means you don’t get to place your monograph with a prestigious University Press. Perhaps it means that publication will be delayed while you look for another journal, or submit that book chapter as an article. Remember the quality of your work is in the work and not the publisher (this should also be how REF panels approach it). Going elsewhere simply means you get to publish without feeling compromised and perhaps even see some money if your work is a surprising commercial success.

Lobby from positions of power.

Editorial boards, series editors and others in positions of influence with academic publishing houses should lobby in the strongest possible terms to have contracts presented to their writers meet a minimum standard of fairness. No copyright assignment and access to percentage of subsidiary rights, for example. Where appropriate, editorial boards should take advice on this from e.g. Society of Authors, UCU or similar.

We have to educate ourselves and our communities.

This means we have to start getting a grip on understanding rights, permissions, etc. and we have to share and disseminate strategies we have used to negotiate better contract terms with our colleagues. We should also create opportunities for training in contract negotiation for ECRs and postgraduate researchers (and others who might need it).

Use and share available resources. 

Those of us with agents, membership to the Society of Authors, or with other means of having contracts vetted and scrutinised by experts should routinely do so and should, as above, share insights from the process with colleagues, students and postgraduate students.

On a final note: is it an absolute madness for me to think about setting up my own publishing imprint, with a central aim of establishing an ethical contract model for academia? Would anyone else be interested in thinking about the feasibility of this, or gathering to discuss academic publishing rights issues? If so please email me at k.beswick@exeter.ac.uk and I will try to arrange a meeting or gathering where interested parties can discuss.

Some reflections on actor training, inequality, casting and industry

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Recent debates about the acting industry and its (in)ability to deal with inequality resonate deeply with me. Not only as a theatre and performance scholar concerned with issues of class, race and gender representation, but as a former performer, and, perhaps more importantly, trainee performer. Reading the #DearWhiteCentral posts, the Labour party’s Acting Up report, the tweets, blogs and comments from students, actors, teachers, agents and directors — as well as conducting my own research into actor training and inequality — prompts me to reflect on my experiences of training as a performer, and particularly of the understanding of industry and my place within it that I absorbed during training.

My performer training started young. I danced from the age of four or five: tap, jazz and modern, once a week on Friday evening. Later, once I realised dance was not my calling, I moved into acting. Throughout my childhood and teens I ‘trained’ in various ways: I took classes, I was a member of several youth theatres, I performed in numerous school plays, and I eventually attended both a university, where I undertook some specialist actor training modules, and a conservatoire, where I focussed on screen acting.

Being part of a theatre community, performing in shows, developing and devising work with my friends and peers, and thinking and writing about theatre, have been life-long and identity forming experiences for me. At the places where I connected most with my creative self, where I felt most ‘at home’, we didn’t really think about ‘industry’ in any real sense. We were too busy making the work we wanted to make and feeling elevated, supported and finally seen by one another. But during my burgeoning love affair with the theatre there were also many experiences with teachers and institutions that felt altogether less nurturing, supportive and community-building. Invariably, looking back, these were experiences where ‘industry’ (by which I mean the mainstream film, television and theatre industry) was evoked in one way or another.

It’s difficult, if you haven’t been exposed to that kind of institution, to that way of thinking about art, to describe exactly how the concept of ‘industry’ filters into performer training. It is a more or less ‘invisible’ part of the curriculum. It might involve a passing reference to ‘professionalism’ (usually to silence dissent), or a discussion about your ‘casting’. It often involves workshops or seminars with ‘industry professionals’.  It certainly involves understanding work in commercial mainstream theatre, television and film (and leading subsidised theatres) as the apex of a respectable acting career.

The first experience I remember having of this kind of ‘invisible training’  was aged five, when my dance teacher took me to one side and said, ‘You need to pull your socks up. This behaviour is unprofessional.’ I remember this so clearly because it was a line I had overheard her using on other little girls. Other five-year-olds. So unable to grasp, aged five, the concept of professionalism, that many of them actually bent down and tried to pull up their literal socks.

It set a pattern that would become familiar. For my first ‘professional’ audition (God knows what for), a youth theatre I was part of took a group of us to a central London stage school where we took workshops before we went to read for the casting director. These workshops were held by adults who, we were warned, were ‘professionals’. One hauled me out in front of the entire group of fifty or so other young people to point out how miserable I looked. He used me as an example — reminding us all that looking anything other than perky and relaxed would make us ‘un-castable’. I was thirteen, and this ‘professional’ was a man in his thirties. I was so embarrassed I seriously considered never performing again.

Later, at university and especially in drama school, tutors would offer thoughts about my ‘casting type’. ‘Council estate,’ said one during a private critique. ‘That’s all you’ll be able to play.’ While another told me, in front of my peers, that I’d likely find myself cast as ‘abused women’ (the fact I was in an abusive relationship at the time was a secret that only added to my shame in the moment). At the wedding of an actor friend I attended a few years after graduating, the director of a well-known training institution approached me after the ceremony. ‘You’ll work.’ He said. ‘You have a very commercial face, for something like Casualty.’ I had not even introduced myself to this man, and had, in fact, left the acting profession by this point.

Voice classes, camera technique, dance and movement, acting interpretation: we were constantly reminded (although never explicitly) that, eventually, we would be in service to an industry that expected certain things and would position us in particular ways.

At an audition workshop I took at drama school, a casting director who worked for the BBC had us perform a scene in which a young woman had just been raped (there was no warning that we’d be dealing with this material, and no acknowledgement that some of us might find it triggering or otherwise difficult). He wanted us to emote hysterically at the camera. ‘No,’ I said. ‘She isn’t hysterical. She is in shock, she’s being calm and rational here.’

‘You’ll never work with that attitude,’ was the response. ‘You give the casting director what they are asking for.’

The pervasive spectre of industry was a seriously limiting feature of my creative development. Rather than flourish into the kind of performer I had hoped to be, rather than take risks, innovate or experiment, I found myself, time and time again, powerless in the glare of other people’s versions of me; other people’s versions of ‘industry’s’ version of me. There was rarely a sense that I had any agency to resist this image of myself. The fact that the industry I was preparing for peddled, very often, in racist, classist, misogynistic stereotypes did not once feature as part of any actor training I undertook.

My decision not to have a career as a performer stems, in large part, from the cumulative effects of my exposure to the mainstream acting industry, which was only worse once I graduated and started attending auditions. The end game of all of them, of course, was to act like the version of the part the casting director, producer or director wanted. In that sense, my training had prepared me well. But I was increasingly unable to do it, and eventually I suffered from such severe performance-anxiety that I would throw up before I had to go on stage.

What does it mean when we ask students to unquestioningly maintain industry norms? What happens when industry standards require actors from minority and disenfranchised groups to recreate representations that might work to sustain their disadvantage? What role does training play in maintaining the status quo?

In an academic paper I wrote recently I explored these questions in relation to a National Youth Theatre outreach project that I spent some time observing in 2010. But the criticisms I raise in that paper have wider implications. Reflecting on my own experience as a reasonably confident, slim, able-bodied white woman, I am surprised at how deeply my negative experiences of training affected me. This isn’t to suggest that I was not entitled to my emotional response, but rather to point out that if it was difficult for someone like me, who is normalised in the culture, to process the way my training projected stereotypes onto me, it is likely to be far more difficult for those whose bodies are already ‘other’. Before today I hadn’t put these memories together to form a coherent narrative. Of course, there are many paths in life, and I am grateful that I held on to the parts of the theatre and performance world that I loved, and that I have managed to have a career where I feel seen and creatively inspired. But I do wonder what kind of performer I might be now if we had been encouraged to resist the idea of industry. I wonder what kind of industry we’d have if actor training gave actors the critical tools to resist.

REF: We need to push back against a system that has lost its way

 

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I am not against the assessment of academic research, in principle. Universities are institutions that receive public funding and there are good arguments for robust quality-checks of the business that goes on in them. However, the Research Excellence Framework — the current system by which university research is assessed, known by most of us ‘REF’ — has lost its mind.

As anyone who works in a university will know, rather than the twice-decade external audit of HE business that I imagine (hope) the framework was conceived as, REF has now become HE business. At most universities, whole layers of bureaucracy have been created — at a financial and human cost vastly outstripping the return of even the most stellar REF results — to game the system: annual, internal practice REFs where we are required to assess one another’s work in a project designed, surely, to create internal tensions; case-studies written to articulate the impact of projects that haven’t happened yet; research-plan monitoring to ensure we are all ‘REF compliant’; the implementation of complex IT systems where research can be stored, graded and recorded for easy REF access.

Meanwhile, academics are encouraged (read forced by the threat of career suicide if they resist) to produce outputs — not on the basis of the value of their research to the public, or their desire and readiness to express ideas to the world, but on the government-mandated requirement that every five or so years, academics have two, or four, or six (or whatever the Higher Education Funding Council for England, HEFCE — the quango currently in charge of this mess until UK Research and Innovation takes over in a few days time — decides they want us to produce) ‘world leading’ publications ready for scrutiny. Yes, you are expected to produce ‘world leading’ publications, regardless of whether you are a scholar no one has head of a few years out of your PhD, or a professor with 40 years experience and an international reputation.

The result is that research is no longer assessed by the REF, but rather produced for the REF in a worrying Orwellian model that utterly compromises academic integrity and against which we should fight back. The recent news that, as of REF2027 (or 26, who knows when it will happen considering we haven’t even had REF2021 yet) all books and book-length works are required to be available Open Access (i.e. free of charge to the public, as academic articles published in journals already have to be) is yet another nail in the coffin for UK research quality, announced by a body that is ostensibly in place to maintain the country’s research rigour.

The Royal History Society have written a comprehensive list of the ways that this requirement poses a threat to research in that discipline (it is worth reading in full as it is applicable across all humanities and possibly beyond). Quite why HEFCE would want to cause widespread anxiety by announcing this now, almost a decade before the audit happens — but, ironically, too late for those of us with book contracts with international presses due for delivery after 2020 — is beyond me. It feels like yet another attack on Higher Education by those gunning for its demise.

Whatever form the Open Access requirement takes, and however much HEFCE protests requirements will be made in ‘consultation’ with universities (I am preparing another post on the tyranny of ‘consultation’), this is a change that will — as HEFCE admit — require ‘a lot of work’ to implement. No. An audit process should not take resources away from the thing being audited. Our ‘hard work’ should be in writing the books, reading the books, and teaching our students — not in ensuring that we ‘comply’ with a complex top-down mandate or else risk our careers.

It is outrageous bordering on a national disgrace that we are now in a situation where the government is effectively interfering with the material substance of the research that goes on in our institutions. That we are increasingly unable to publish with the presses most suitable for our work, and must, instead, find ‘REF compliant’ publishers compromises academic objectivity — not to mention its rigour, reach and international credibility. I also wonder how it is even legal for the government to interfere in the market this way, forcing publishers who work with academics to either give their product away for free or else lose all business (I realise there are also questions to be asked about the ethics of some of the commercial academic publishers in relation to academic writing, but that’s a conversation for another time).

What can we do? I am asking seriously. How do we push back against this creeping threat to our work, its substance and our lives? The process of a peer-review quality check on research should not dictate the sector to this degree. REF in its current form is simply not sustainable, nor conducive to the health of research institutions or the people in them. This is violence by bureaucracy and it cannot be allowed to continue.

Ten things about working in academia that no one told me and I wish someone had

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Academia. What a weird job. At least in the humanities. There you are, reading dense, impenetrable books and thinking very very hard about a subject so specific others will wrinkle their brow, raise their eyebrows and go ‘Plays about council estates? You can get a PhD in that?’, when all of a sudden you realise you are building a career and you have absolutely no idea what you’re doing. Weirdest of all, there’s almost no training, yet, nonetheless, the moment you start your first job everyone presumes you are already familiar with basic aspects of the academic system that nobody bothered to tell you about.

Here are ten things I had to work out for myself, which I pass on in the hope that they might help you (please note this is a UK arts/humanities context and the below points may not apply to STEM, or to all international contexts, so take them with a pinch of salt):

  • You have to pay to attend conferences, even when you are giving a paper

This is the first thing that really surprised me about academia. I seriously struggled to accept the premise that I would give my labour to realise someone else’s event and pay for the privilege. No thank you, I thought. My paper can stay in my head and I will save £250 and the price of a train ticket to Lincoln. But then I attended and organised some conferences and understood that they are expensive to run, funding is scarce and the price of a conference fee usually just about covers running costs. (Having said that, conference organisers: please, I paid to be here. Give me lunch, and a pen).

The exception is if you are an invited speaker, or the keynote. Then you can usually expect some form of remuneration – at least a fee waiver and the cost of travel. If they invite you and can’t be arsed to pay for you to be there, they don’t really want you. As I learned recently when I paid to attend a conference at which I was an invited panel speaker (I agreed, against my better judgement, because otherwise every invited speaker would have been a (white) man), and the organisers left it to me to buy drinks for everyone in the pub afterwards. If the organisers of that conference are reading this, I will not be contributing to your special issue, please stop sending me emails.

  • You call the shots

You do not have to wait for someone (a supervisor, your line manager) to give you permission to write a journal article or present at a conference (if you are part of a large project or research team or discipline where your supervisor is default co-author ignore this advice and ask whoever is in charge before you use shared data). You can just do it as soon as you think you are ready. Do it before you’re ready, no one will mind.

  • People don’t remember bad conference papers (unless they are given by the keynote)

Honestly, I promise, if your paper is boring or poorly written, riddled with errors or unconvincingly argued, 90% of the audience, at the very minimum, will switch off and doodle on their conference programme, or check to see how long it is until the free wine is served. The exception to this is if you are offensive towards a minority group, or if you are a famous scholar. People remember and engage with good papers. It will not ruin your career if you give a presentation that is forgettable. What I am saying is, speak at the conference. Now is the time (once you have some findings and some ideas about them, or one of the two).

  • There are ways to earn money from academic writing

Not a lot of money, but a bit. Despite what people will tell you, some unknown scholars get advances for their first academic book, so you should at least ask if an advance is a possibility. I would advise not agreeing to publish with any publishing house that expects you to pay for the privilege.

ALSO: As soon as you publish anything sign up with the Authors Licensing and Collecting Society (ALCS, click here), who will collect money for secondary rights due for your work and pay you any funds collected twice annually (you’ll likely receive more than you expect). Do this for everything you publish, however niche, in a book, journal or magazine. If and when you publish a book register with the British Library’s Public Lending Rights service (click here), who will pay you when your book is borrowed from public libraries.

But…

  • Protect your copyright

I am so cross that I have happily signed copyright over to academic publishers when I didn’t need to. I find it unbelievable that I had to work out for myself that I didn’t always need to, and that none of my colleagues have ever thought to mention to me that this is often optional. If you are presented with an agreement where you are asked to assign copyright to the publisher, you should write to whoever sent you the agreement and ask instead to publish with a licence to publish agreement. You are not being difficult. This is an option that many academic publishers offer, but most of them won’t tell you about (although some will charge for). Check the publisher website before you submit and choose only to publish, where you can, with those who let you keep the rights to your work for free.

Join the Society of Authors and actively campaign for better conditions for academic writers.

  • No one cares if you aren’t an amazing teacher

Except you and your students, obviously.

It takes lots of us a while to find our teaching stride. Don’t be disheartened if it doesn’t come naturally, if you get mediocre (or even bad) evaluations or if students seem hostile or indifferent to your charms. Teaching is hard, we all know this. Students can be unreasonable and teaching evaluations are heavily biased. You aren’t going to lose your job because you gave a boring lecture. I swear.

  • Feedback is a gift

It won’t always feel that way. Often, even the most benign of criticisms about our scholarship will feel deeply wounding. Even praise will sometimes feel deeply wounding (this evening I have had to text four friends to cope with an email I received from a colleague calling my latest chapter ‘very interesting’). Peer reviewers can be snarky and pompous and deliberately cruel. But feedback is a gift. Those offering thoughts on your work are doing so because they want you to make it the best it can be. Feedback is a gift. Feedback is a gift. Receive it with grace.

  • No one cares if you skip a meeting

It took me a long time, having worked in ‘industry’ (scare quotes because I hate that word, but it is nearly midnight and I can’t think of another), to wrap my head around the fact that you can just give apologies, not attend a meeting and no one will care. I think this is an unspoken secret, because I’ve never heard anyone actually say it out loud. But almost always, at any academic meeting, half to one-third of the invited participants won’t be there, because they have other things to do. And that’s fine.

  • Everything takes, on average, three times as long as you think it will

This applies both to things you do yourself (organising events, writing articles and books, preparing teaching, marking etc.) and to things you are waiting for others to do (such as peer review, reply to an email, send you the article they promised for your edited collection, answer the phone). The latter is infintely more maddening.

  • You can ask what the acronym means

Universities are riddled with acronyms. Some of these (REF, TEF, HEFCE) etc. are national, some (SCUDD, ACLA, RGS) discipline specific, some are institution or even department specific. You will spend a lot of your working life sitting in the meetings you do attend, struggling to understand what everyone is on about and surreptitiously googling acronyms under the table. Save yourself the bother, ask.

 

New Project, Please Sign Up

Hello. Happy New Year.

I mentioned online, and on my Reasons to be Single blog, way back in late summer, that I had this idea for a sixteen-part weekly mail-out. In fact, the idea was to publish the book that I started back in 2014, a spin off of my Reasons to be Single Blog, which sadly never got commissioned — despite some early interest from publishers — but the idea has kind of spiralled into something else since then. I don’t want to write that book at the moment. I especially don’t want to write it for free.

So this mail-out is a new project, where I’ll be doing some experimental writing that is a mash up of fact and absolute fiction. At the moment I am utterly obsessed with the space between the real and the not real in theatre and literary fiction and non-fiction, the authentic and the fake, the cultural obsession with reality despite our receding — culturally, politically — from trust in experts and reliance on anything like fact (for more on this, I am working on an academic book, which I’ll point you to in the near future). I am not sure where this new project going, exactly — but I know I find it much easier to motivate myself when there are people reading as I write. I know that it is called ‘Sixteen Parts: A Love Story’, and that each entry will be about 5,000 words long. I like the idea of writing a novel length project really, really quickly, like a draft.

I want to capture the experience of being inside yourself and the world at the same time, and that sensation where your mind feels like a computer where all the tabs are open on your browser and you just keep opening more.

I want to say things that are unpalatable and true, but, at once, not true.

I think women’s writing is always most interesting when we’re experimenting with form, and I have always been obsessed with the internet and the different formal structures it has created for writing. These are under-exploited and undervalued because the book, the novel, the ‘industry’, is still and is set to remain the dominant literary form.

I don’t think Sixteen Parts is going to be funny, at least not in the way Reasons to be Single was funny. And it will definitely be more difficult to read than anything I ever wrote there, if only because of the length.

It would be massively motivating for me to start this new project with even a very tiny readership.

Please do subscribe here, the first post will go out this Monday, 8th January 2018.

Thanks for reading,

Katie.x

How is the housing crisis connected to poor service? And other questions I tried to answer on Twitter today

Another day, another Twitter row.

Today I found myself embroiled in an argument about towels that, as often happens online, got way out of hand very, very quickly. It began (prepare for the least dramatic story of all time) when a woman named Holly tweeted a company called Handy, complaining that her cleaner (a contractor employed by Handy), had ruined her towels by using raw bleach on them. According to Holly the cleaner had then hidden the towels, so that she found them bleach stained and ruined in her bathroom. She did not name the cleaner, and posted a picture of the damaged towels to evidence her complaint. It was an unremarkable exchange of the type I have seen many times (and indeed engaged in myself) online. Increasingly, customers, who are often disempowered in exchanges with commercial companies, make their complaints in public to ensure they will be taken seriously.

It’s understandable — when one can spend hours, over months, (as I have) on the phone to internet providers trying to sort out the broadband connection at one’s elderly grandmothers’ house, to no avail — that people increasingly use public means to resolve consumer disputes. It was only when I threatened to publish an article about how paying for non-existent broadband for eight months had caused my isolated grandmother distress leading to health problems that the issue was finally and swiftly resolved (with an apology call from the P.A to the CEO of a multinational corporation).

Very quickly, Holly’s tweet attracted vitriolic replies from swathes of Twitter users whose profile description read ‘Marxist-Leninist’ or otherwise marked their hard-line leftist positionality. They objected to her tweet on several grounds: that tweeting the company would lead the to cleaner’s dismissal; that Handy is a terrible company that no ethical person would consider using; that hiring a cleaner is immoral in its own right; that we can’t expect high standards from people earning low wages; that a towel can still be used once it has been stained with bleach, so what the fuck is this bitches’ problem anyway?

I was really disturbed by the level of anger towards Holly. It was another example of what Jon Ronson calls ‘public shaming’, in his excellent book So You’ve Been Publically Shamed. Public shaming, as Ronson points out, is a phenomena that has intensified with the advent of the internet and through which individuals are hounded, harassed and humiliated on the basis of single acts, often taken out of context or wilfully misunderstood. As Jonson forensically details, the repercussions of this shaming can have life-ruining consequences — leading to the breakdown of relationships, loss of employment and prolonged low self-esteem. The culture of public shaming, which often serves to bolster the self-esteem of the shamers, who signal their own virtue by condemning someone else, is extremely disturbing to me. It serves to shut down sensible, nuanced debate, acts as a smokescreen that bullies use to justify their behaviour, and stops us from listening with respect to those whose views or behaviours might jar with our own sense of right and wrong. Also disturbing is the extent to which males from both sides of the political spectrum take delight in shaming women.

So that was the first reason I disliked the tone of responses to Holly.

However, I also felt they were entirely unjustified and critically naive. There is no evidence that I have seen that the cleaner Holly used was fired, or received any disciplinary action. We do not know his name, or anything about him other than he is employed by Handy and that he is male — so there is no justification to the claim that Holly making a complaint publically made things worse for the cleaner. To say that you object to a tweet on the basis of a hypothetical firing is bizarre, pedantic and needlessly argumentative in the extreme. Until any firing can be conclusively evidenced, it is simply a straw man. And even if the cleaner were fired, this, surely, would be the decision and responsibility of the company — and if this were the only infraction, dismissal would be an overreaction bordering on illegal, assuming the employee is contracted with Handy on a permanent basis and not self-employed; assuming that the bleach got on the towels by accident and he panicked and hid them.

Presuming Handy does use self-employed staff instead of contracted employees, as is common in the gig economy (it enables companies to operate poor employment practices, acts as a loophole to escape employment rights, and should, in my view, be illegal), is it reasonable to berate Holly for using their services? Only if you believe that structural inequality will be overcome through boycotting, and only if you can also evidence that every single commercial exchange you personally are engaged with does not exploit or oppress workers (good luck with that if you own any products mass produced in the developing world, shop in high street stores, buy your food produce from supermarkets or have ever eaten in a fast food restaurant). By all means, point out the company’s poor practices (if they have them), so that she can make an informed decision. But how does abuse help here? What productive change does directing anger about employment practices at an individual who does not work for the company make?

I also take issue with the idea that employing paid domestic staff is somehow equivalent to slave labour, immoral in its own right. Almost everybody with any disposable income, to one degree or another, employs people to do things they could do themselves — whether that be taxis to drive us, someone to cut our hair, paint our house, proof read our work, make us our burger or rub the callouses off our feet. The idea that employing someone in the domestic realm is somehow shameful seems to me deeply sexist. Cleaners, nannies and home chefs (jobs which are often subject to the ‘do it yourself’ clarion call) are most likely carrying out work traditionally undertaken by women (how many of those shouting ‘do your own cleaning’, would be as quick to cry that everybody should ‘clean their own gutter’, ‘mend their own shoes’, or ‘fix their own roof’?). So long as the person undertaking the domestic work is being paid a fair wage and is not otherwise exploited, there is no inherent immorality to employing them. Unless you see employing anybody as morally suspect — or unless you think that domestic work is so menial it does not deserve a wage. Indeed, in many developing countries where unemployment is rife it is seen as a duty to employ staff once one has the means to do so, and an act of deep selfishness to carry out jobs for yourself when you might give someone a livelihood by paying them to work for you.

As I pointed out in my tweets, it is patronising bordering on offensive to suggest that low-paid workers should be expected to deliver a poor service. It is one thing if poor service or no service is delivered in protest of low wages (there is no evidence Holly’s cleaner was doing this), it is quite another to suggest that low-wages per se result in poor work. I don’t know what Holly’s cleaner earned, but I worked on minimum wage for more than ten years, and in salaried jobs have been employed on lower than minimum wage (if you work out salary on a per-hour basis) several times. I regularly give my labour for free in writing projects and volunteer work. The quality of my output has nothing to do with how much I am getting paid and everything to do with how fulfilling I find the work, how far I feel supported by my managers, how much other stressors compete for my time. I fully believe in decent wages for everybody (in fact, if it were up to me we would all be given the same base salary regardless of occupation), however, I don’t think that the only reason to do a job well is for money. I don’t think because someone is earning less than me it entitles them to do their job poorly. And I fully stand by my belief that if someone wilfully or accidently damages someone else’s property in the course of his or her work, it is not the responsibility of the person whose property has been damaged to withhold a complaint in case the employing company overreacts. This is why we have employment laws!

Nor do I believe any of the outraged tweeters would have resisted complaining had it been their property ruined during a paid-for service. Are these people telling me they don’t complain when half their meal is missing from a delivery, when a waiter spills wine on their shirt and doesn’t apologise, when a shop worker gives them the wrong change, when they bring home a new pair of jeans to find the zip is broken, or discover a scuff on their box fresh white trainers? No, a towel is not rendered useless by bleach, but nor is a t-shirt rendered useless by a permanent coffee-stain: that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t mind if a barista spilled an ice-latte over my clothes and then lied about it.

We are all disempowered (though not of course to the same degree) by the neoliberal system. Those of us employed by corporations and institutions that erode our rights, and those of us who use the services of companies focussed mercilessly on profit. As I pointed out (to much outrage) in my tweet, the appalling tragedy at Grenfell Tower, a result of the wider housing crisis, deregulation, managed decline and systemic devaluing of the poor, is a smoking monument to a system that puts profit over quality, safety and lives. The erosion of ‘consumer rights’, which include the right to expect decent services and respect from companies you have paid to carry out work for you (as well as the right to not be poisoned by cosmetics, not to be lied to about the ingredients in your food products etc.), is related to the erosion of the rights of tenants to live in safe housing. It is also related to the erosion of workers’ rights. Concern with profit is the driving motive behind the erosion of rights at all levels. Like other rights, consumer rights were hard won — our current consumer rights are a testament to the progressive turn that happened in the UK in the mid-to-late 20th Century (a turn that saw the provision of social housing, the NHS, and the introduction of many workers’ rights). When companies of any size know they can get away with poor, shoddy, unsafe work, with treating their customers badly, with employing people on exploitative contracts to shore up the bottom line, with using hazardous materials, they will usually do it. The neoliberal model that places economic value as the only value is deeply troubling and contributes to insecurity, anxiety and powerless in small as well as large ways.

Does this mean I think, as some of the outraged tweeters have suggested, that having your towel damaged is in any way equivalent to losing your life or your home in a fire? No. Categorically and absolutely not. And anyone suggesting that I don’t know or care about the housing crisis on the basis of one tweet is woefully misinformed. This is not about equivalency. My whole academic career has involved thinking about how the micro and the macro are related. I am interested in how the seemingly mundane and the spectacular intertwine. For years I have been writing about the ways in which quotidian newspaper, television and stage depictions of council estate residents creates a culture that justifies violence towards the poor. (And how many people listened before the systematic devaluing of council estate residents became painfully clear?) I care about how small instances of disrespect and feelings of disempowerment in our lives are connected to larger structures of power through which systemic violence is enacted.

I have no idea what Holly-with-the-ruined-towel’s salary is, but I can tell you that the basic costs of living leave me with less than £20 in the last week of almost every month (and I am employed in a relatively high-paying profession). People using the services of companies who exploit workers are not uniformly rich, right wing or uncaring. Often they are stuck within a system that leaves them with no other option but the least expensive. Sometimes, the affordable option is the exploitative option. On her timeline, Holly explains that she hired a cleaner as a one-off treat to make her home nice for a visit from her mother. Just as we don’t know whether the cleaner was fired, we don’t know whether Holly or her mother are ill, whether this was a birthday celebration, whether Holly has been working long hours to afford basic expenses and has had to sacrifice a meal to afford a cleaner. We don’t know important contextual information and so we are not in a position to act as judge and jury. It is not the world’s biggest crime that her towel was ruined. It should (this should go without saying) not result in a cleaner losing their livelihood.

But it is not ‘entitled’ to complain about poor service. Indeed, it is one of the only avenues we have to power, one of the only ways we can still enact our hard-won rights — threatening the bottom line is often the only way profit-driven corporations will listen. When you publically shame someone for complaining about poor service, you are not the hero in the story. You are a bully, diverting attention away from the issues you purport to care deeply about, signalling your own virtue instead of actually making a difference; you are showing your own lack of knowledge about the history of struggle for basic rights. If your issue is that someone might get fired for a minor infraction, make a fuss about employment rights. Structural change will not be brought about by attacking individuals every time their actions do not appear to match your politics; listening to others, considering their points of view with respect and care and without abuse (as I hope I have done here), does not mean agreeing with them. You can contest objectionable behaviour without resorting to insults. If what you want is a better, fairer society; less pain and more kindness, then you don’t get it by piling vitriol on someone you don’t know for a single action, taken out of context.

Ok. Goodnight.