Friday, 12 December 2014

REFonomics and REFormations 2014

Liz Morrish, December 12th 2014
This blog is a reflection on a panel discussion on The REF and the State of Higher Education Today. The panel was convened and supported by SAGE publishers to celebrate the launch of their new series SAGE Swifts, ‘a new short series of polemical texts’. The first two books in the series are Professor Derek Sayer’s (University of Lancaster) Rank Hypocrisies: The Insult of the REF, and Professor Thomas Docherty’s (University of Warwick) The University at War

The battleground, as was immediately evident, is the REF and concomitant manifestations of managerialism and audit culture in UK universities. Accompanying Thomas Docherty and Derek Sayer on the panel were David Sweeney, Director of Research and Innovation at HEFCE – and overseer of the REF process, and The Right Honourable David Willetts MP, former Minister for Higher Education under the Coalition government. 

I blog this encounter, firstly because it occurred just ten days before the release of the REF results on 18th December 2014, and secondly because it was a unique occasion; I am not aware of any other opportunity for the architects of the REF to debate with those who experience its effects. It is very clear that support for the REF is waning among those who supply the ordnance for their institution’s assault. This week’s Times Higher (11th December 2014) contains a leader, a lead article, and several other commentaries - all critical of the current methodology of the REF. The REF is part of the culture of UK universities, and it is time for a sober reflection on the cost –financial, and also intellectual and collegial – of REF 2014. 

The strictures of the REF (Research Excellence Framework) 2014 are well known to UK academic readers, but may not be widely appreciated further afield. Preparing a research unit for entry into the REF is rather like trying to make your way around London with a map of Paris. The assessment cycle takes place every 5-7 years, and yet priorities, expectations and reporting mechanisms have changed with each iteration. The 2014 exercise has required all HEFCE-funded research units to submit for evaluation four ‘best’ pieces of research for each research-active academic in post on October 31st 2013. These can be monographs, refereed journal articles, book chapters, etc. Pieces are given a ranking by what is claimed to be a process of ‘expert peer review’. Each of these research ‘outputs’ is graded 1-4 according to a judgement of: nationally recognised, internationally recognised, internationally excellent, or world-leading quality. Two other measures contribute to the unit/department’s overall score. The research ‘environment’ is evaluated according to whether it is conducive to producing quality research of in terms of its vitality and sustainability. The other measure is ‘impact’, and for each ten scholars entered, there must be at least one case study which details how their work has had impact – either economic or social. Paradoxically, the sort of scholarly influence desired by most academics carries no weight. 

David Willetts and David Sweeney laid out their contention that the REF was a necessary part of universities’ responsibility to account to society for their performance. David Willetts assured the panel that the growth of the REF, and its current complex methodology, have been driven by academics in order to make sure that talent was not overlooked by the research establishment. He was keen to stress that if there was a cheaper way of organising the audit, his successors in BIS would be willing to consider it, and that it might be time to refocus on collaboration, rather than competition. How he will wean Vice Chancellors and Universities UK away from their preoccupation with rankings and competition, he did not reveal.

David Sweeney of HEFCE cautioned the audience, largely comprised of practising academics, that universities cannot be the closed institutions they were fifty years ago, and that they must be open to society. This did not seem a controversial proposition. Sweeney did, though, enter into the polemical spirit of the SAGE Swifts series by taunting academics with the suggestion that it ill behove us to condemn a process we have taken part in. Perhaps Dr Sweeney imagines the REF to be voluntary, with some of us able to navigate our careers outside of its dominion, but his suggestion seemed rather like deflecting complaints from travellers queuing at Heathrow immigration by saying ‘well, you stood and waited , didn’t you’?

Derek Sayer, who lobbied to have his work excluded from his department’s REF return, took issue with the subjectivity and fallibility of the assessment methods, not with the necessity and desirability for assessing research. He has bolstered his critique of the REF methods and structures with a hugely impressive grasp of REFonomics. The government declares that the £60 million spend is good value for money, a figure disputed by Sayer who estimates the cost to be nearer £200 million when we factor in ‘opportunity costs’ such as time spent by university departments gaming the REF, and new appointments such as departmental research directors which were previously unnecessary.

Sayer went on to argue that the REF also fails in its claim to offer international benchmarking of UK research, since so few of the judging panellists are from overseas. Furthermore, the reduction in the number of panels in 2014 has meant that members of broad subject-themed panels are attempting to make judgements of significance, originality and rigour on research which may not even lie within their primary field of expertise. The lack of sufficient breadth and depth on panels means that the exercise amounts to nothing more than skim reading masquerading as rigorous judgement, and the resulting subjectivity certainly does not match the rigour of the peer review demanded for publication. 

Also in Sayer’s gunsights was the claim of the REF to encourage ‘selectivity’, and he identified this as particularly destructive of collaborative and collegial relations between researchers, as much worthy research has been excluded from submissions. In some departments, these REFugees have been placed under various degrees of ‘performance management’, even though they may have produced quantities of excellent research, as endorsed by international peer review. In other departments, harmony between colleagues has been replaced with antagonism as REFable scholars promise to scale the institutional hierarchy at the expense of those rejected.

Thomas Docherty reiterated that universities were not contesting the necessity of the REF. He asserted that universities have a duty to taxpayers and to students, but what is important is the way they fulfil that. Academics need to be aware of the history of universities, and their wider duty as stewards of the past, the present and the future. In monetizing those functions, by the charging of tuition fees, Docherty argues that the current regime breaks the generational bond. And further down the production line for the ‘global citizens’ which universities are claiming to produce for a 'fast changing' world, there lies the outcomes of growing inequality, which means these citizens will ‘get shafted’. Docherty argues that academics are not just servants of this state of affairs - we should instead be shaping it. The problem that Docherty identifies with the REF is that it drives academics towards conformity and safe research topics – delivering static ‘outputs’ rooted in a present disconnected from its past, which makes countering those forces less likely. At its best, the REF distorts research agendas and priorities. However, a graver hazard is that it will not be research selectivity and competition which is delivered, but a new selective and competitive academic will be formed, whose research trajectory is entirely determined by a regime peripheral to their own intellectual curiosity and academic judgement. Academics take a huge step in making themselves vulnerable when they submit work for publication. This is on the understanding that it will receive the full attention of a qualified expert in the particular specialism. They do not benefit from having this rigour superseded by some other, subjective and possibly under-informed, evaluation, with career determining consequences. 

In the discussion of the panel papers, several questioners mentioned that the REF has created a culture of anxiety (see this blog for a compilation of sources on the effects of university-as-anxiety-machine). One distinguished professor, admitted to being ‘terrified’, echoing Derek Sayer’s statement, “I think that fear is integral to the way that British universities work and I think the REF is the key instrument of that.”   The prevailing view was that the REF has become a disciplinary tool which has left academics exposed as the targets of potential institutional bullying. If it is a tool of accountability, we do not lack mechanisms for monitoring academics: NSS, QAA, module evaluations, teaching observations, internal audits, and even hourly ‘space utilisation’ surveys. The danger is that such instruments will exceed their original objectives and become weaponized in the hands of what Docherty calls ‘managerial fundamentalists’. 

We are in danger if we persist in allowing ourselves to be subject to this discipline, in the face of critiques like Docherty’s and Sayer’s – in the face of inconsistency and falsification – of moving from a culture of anxiety into a culture of psychosis. Sayer quoted Sir Peter Swinnerton-Dyer, former Chair of the University Grants Committee (later Universities Funding Council), as saying that the rot set in when Vice Chancellors saw the REF primarily  as a tool of discipline and reputation building, not for research funding.  This view of the utility of the RAE was echoed, in the Times Higher in 2007, by David Eastwood, now Vice Chancellor of the University of Birmingham, but written when he was Chief Executive of HEFCE, “The RAE has also been the key instrument for performance management in institutions”. 

Given the flaws and dangers outlined in the papers and the discussion, what surprised me was that there remained an appetite for some kind of REF research ranking and accountability exercise.  From what I heard from all the speakers and comments around the room, and from what I read in a selection of blogs, it seems that there is support for a research quality audit based on metrics (citations, journal impact factors, h-index etc.). To me, this reinforces the norms of academic capitalism, and those canons of the neoliberal academy: quantification, finacialization, competition, the creation of crisis, and the insistence that universities and individuals display ‘productivity’, and that what they research must be ‘improved’, ‘reformed’ and ‘held to account’. 

In my opinion, we should just accept that measuring research and measuring ‘excellence’, are like trying to apprehend a mirage. It will always evade us. Some things are just not measurable, or not measurable enough to satisfy the demands of rationality, equity and tolerability. It would be better ‘value for money’ if QR funding was distributed partly as developmental ‘seed’ money, and partly in response to bids from individuals and groups. To precis the arguments above – the REF is a colossal waste of money, and does not deliver on its claims.

But I am not optimistic. To use an analogy favoured by economist Paul Krugman, these are zombie ideas, which sheer logic cannot kill – they just keep shambling forward. No, indeed, it will take more than just disagreement to end REFonomics, especially when it cements the authority of those who rather like academics to be controlled.

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Braber on the concept of identity in the East Midlands

Braber, Natalie (2014). "The concept of identity in the East Midlands of England", English Today 30(2), 3-10.

When considering language variation in the UK, linguists have frequently considered the North/South divide and the linguistic markers separating the two regions, for example by investigating the vowel speakers use in words like ‘grass’ and whether the words ‘put’ and ‘putt’ sound the same or not. But it has been noted that this is not a straightforward division and that this situation is more complex. There are clear stereotypes for the North and South – but how do areas like the East Midlands fit into the picture? The boundaries between North and South are defined in different ways and in linguistic studies the East Midlands have been described as belonging to the North and to the South. Linguistically, the question has been raised whether there is a clear North/South boundary or whether there is a transition zone in the Midlands. Natalie Braber's paper revisits this question from the point of view of young people living in the East Midlands, to examine their sense of identity and whether this cultural divide is salient to them.
The East Midlands is a problematic area in its definition geographically as there is no overall agreement in which regions belong to the East Midlands, and people may have difficulty in relating this to their own sense of identity. It seems that for many the North/South divide is a natural one but what do non-linguists, and specifically young people, think? Although the East Midlands may be the geographical centre of England, it is not in any sense the perceived centre of England. It is an area which can be hard to locate perceptually and has been referred as ‘neither here nor there’ and as a ‘no-man’s land’. It seems that a definition of where the East Midlands is and what to call it is problematic, and this paper will deal with these issues to attempt to resolve them.
For the entire article, click here

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

High Framerate Cinema: continuity and change in discourses of immersiveness

The Digital in Depth:
An Interdisciplinary Symposium on Depth in Digital Media

Friday 30th May, 2014
Hosted by the Institute of Advanced Study and the Department of Film and Television Studies, Millburn House, University of Warwick.

Keynote Speaker: Dr. Lisa Purse (University of Reading, Author of Digital Imaging in Popular Cinema and Contemporary Action Cinema)

This symposium explores the ways in which depth imagery is constructed and consumed in contemporary digital practices, and the ways in which we might interpret it. Most digital platforms’ content is consumed through flat screens and yet many of their aesthetics seem anxious to convey the illusion of depth. This curious and ubiquitous paradox is visible, for example, in digital cinema’s most recent spate of 3-D films and the institutional dimensionality of videogames’ fictional environments through which the player wanders. In computing, also, user interfaces and head-up displays demonstrate a renegotiated relationship to the image that is dependent on deep spaces made immediately accessible for spectators and users.

The symposium investigates the different media that characterise contemporary culture and the aesthetic, cultural and political implications of their digital depth. How is this illusion of depth constructed, and to what ends? The symposium will investigate avenues through which academia might read and interpret both these images and the changing mediascape of which they are a part. It will also ask what these digital constructions of depth demonstrate about the changing culture that they help to construct.

David Woods will be presenting a paper on HFR in this event. High Framerate Cinema (HFR) is promoted as a leap forward in the cinema experience. This paper will illustrate how some of the claims made by its creators echo very closely those surrounding the introduction of widescreen processes in the 1950s. Chief amongst these is the promise of increased immersiveness, an idea which is of course also associated with 3D. However, then as now immersiveness proves to be a complex and contradictory notion in promotional and popular discourse, and the outlines of its principal meanings will be charted. While some of the issues raised by the term have remained constant across the period, the paper argues that the psychovisual characteristics of HFR do point to new configurations between cinema and other media platforms, specifically television and videogames, and prompt further investigation of the potential for new forms of onscreen presence. Moreover, these characteristics can operate in combination with other technologies such as 3D or IMAX but are autonomous from them, suggesting the possibility of an increasingly intricate and diverse media landscape.

Wednesday, 30 April 2014

The aesthetics of film and video: the legacy of some early industrial factors

TV is the New Cinema: Exploring the Erosion of Boundaries between two Media

Thursday 22 May 2014

12.30-7.30 pm
David Woods will be presenting a paper on the one-day symposium “TV is the New Cinema” organised by the Department of Communication and Media, University of Liverpool and the Department of Film Studies, Liverpool John Moores University.

The increasing erosion of boundaries between film and television is a phenomenon increasingly discussed among scholars, critics and other stakeholders. Publications such as the New Yorker (January 2012) and Sight and Sound (September 2013) have explored the matter in special dossiers. Filmmakers have increasingly been working across the two media (eg. David Fincher and Netflix’s House of Cards; Greg Motolla and HBO’s The Newsroom), while others seem to have found a more or less permanent home on television than cinema (Frank Darabont and AMC’s The Walking Dead) or even to pronounce an early retirement from cinema in order to work exclusively for television (Steven Soderbergh). Furthermore, year’s end Top Ten lists have started including television series, with episodes of Breaking Bad and Boardwalk Empire making some of the 2013 lists next to Academy Award nominated films such as Nebraska and The Wolf of Wall Street. Even major film festivals premiere episodes from television series (two episodes from House of Cards were offered a special screening at the 2014 Berlin Film Festival).  Successful television shows are now habitually adapted for the cinema and become entry points to huge franchises (Sex and the City), while television producers are invited to direct and produce major film properties such as Star Trek (J.J Abrams) and Avengers Assemble (Josh Whedon).

What do all these developments mean for the current state of the two media? Is the future of film and television intertwined? Is medium specificity not important anymore as a defining characteristic of each medium? To what extent can we still talk about film and television as different media industries? What is the impact of recent developments on the aesthetics associated with each medium? In what ways has the history of each medium influenced their current state? What is the role of the global entertainment conglomerates that control both film and television in this convergence between the two media?

TV is the New Cinema will explore these and a host of other questions, with a view to bring together film and television scholars to discuss the ways in which research and knowledge from both fields can help us understand the present and the future of these media. 
Woods’ paper examines an aspect of the historical and industrial grounding of the technologies of cinema and television. It argues that a key aspect of their strikingly different looks can be attributed to the different temporal resolution of the two formats, and that the reasons for this difference can be accounted for in terms of the technological strategies the two industries developed historically to minimise the use of expensive resources specific to their medium. The cultural complexities of the aesthetics associated with cinema and film were well demonstrated by the release of The Hobbit in high framerate in 2012, and the paper briefly outlines some implications of the often highly charged popular responses which this provoked.

For the event details: