Bloomsday

June 16 is Bloomsday, named for the day on which James Joyce’s novel Ulysses is set. 2006 is the 102nd anniversary of the date in the novel. It is a day for public readings, conferences, and festivals. And as in many previous years it will also be a day for debating the merits of allowing literary estates to fall into the hands of individuals. Stephen James Joyce, the novelist’s grandson is just one example of how this can go wrong. Stephen controls the publication of Joyce’s work; he has even admitted to destroying letters to Joyce and many scholars believe he has destroyed letters by Joyce himself. This article in the New Yorker gives some background to the whole sorry mess.

But after the many lawsuits Stephen has brought against scholars, actors, and even the Irish Government, 2006 looks like being the year for the backlash. Carol Schloss, and English professor at Stanford University is planning to sue the Joyce estate for the right to quote from the published works. She is going to be represented by Lawrence Lessig, founder of the Creative Commons projects, which is attempting to change the copyright environment for the benefit of everyone. Here’s his blog.

Boris Johnson

Oh dear oh dear. The lecturers’ pay dispute is over it seems, though if the comments here are anything to go by the ballot of union members will be close. The sense of relief is palpable, but I’m not convinced that anyone sees this as a long-term fix. One thing the dispute has done is reveal serious problems with British higher education. Teaching staff are demoralised, management have shown themselves to be insensitive, unprincipled, and cack-handed, the government has demonstrated that it doesn’t care, and students and parents have shown what they really think: they want a degree on the cheap and are not really interested in quality. They certainly don’t want to pay for it anyway.

Much more worryingly though, yesterday I found myself agreeing with Boris Johnson, the shadow minister for higher education. Worse, I even felt respect creeping in. Johnson is a very English creature; a professional buffoon who plays the bumbling fool to get his way. Some time ago Johnson appeared in the media to order lecturers back to work. It didn’t go down well. Now this may just be political expediency, but this post on his blog suggests he has learned a few things about the way HE works. I’m impressed that a politician is finally recognising that British universities depend heavily on very low paid, part-time teaching staff; in fact they could not operate without them. I’m not sure I would go as far as Johnson in reforming British HE along market lines–though I would allow a free market in fees as long as bursaries and scholarships were properly provided–but he is right that radical and wholesale changes are long overdue. It won’t be cheap.

Final Offer

What a joke. The university employers, who were given a telling off by a Commons committee over lies they told to the media, have made a final offer of 13.1% over three years. As this article in the Education Guardian points out, this is the fourth “final offer” the employers have made. Really they don’t seem to have a clue.

Lecturers’ Pay

The pay dispute between academics and universities in the UK has revealed quite a lot about how universities and their senior management really operate. Now that the boycott of assessment is starting to bite universities are abandoning quality assurance measures in order to push students through to graduation. Students will be awarded degrees with incomplete marks, making a mockery of the lengthy process of designing and validating courses. Now external examiners are expressing their doubts that quality is being maintained, but it seems university heads don’t care and in some cases will abandon the external examining system for this year. The external examining system is a cornerstone of assessment in universities and abandoning it destroys the value of a university degree. Without external checks, how do we know the degree is of high enough standard?

The lecturers’ unions–the Association of University teachers (AUT) and the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education (NATFHE)–have a valid claim for more pay. Even the university employers agree that academic pay has fallen far behind comparable professions. But there is one group of academics whose problems are not being addressed and whose conditions of employment are truly appalling. According to a survey conducted by the AUT and reported in the Times Higher Education Supplement (THES) short-term contracts are “endemic” in British universities. In 2003-4 around 66,000 academics were on fixed-term contracts; almost 20% replying to the THES survey were hourly-paid, which means they are paid per hour for their contact hours with students. These academics are not paid for preparation, marking, or for keeping up with their field. They have no career progression, no pension, no maternity pay, no sick pay, and no job security. Many of them have contracts at several universities, or have other jobs. They earn between £10 and £35 per contact hour. It’s a scandal that the current pay dispute will not end.

But the survey also shows that British universities have failed to address a fast-approaching piece of legislation. The THES article explains: “From July 10, they will have to justify why staff employed for four years or more on fixed-term contracts have not been moved to open-ended or permanent status.” The speed at which the universities addressed the problem of lecturers refusing to do their marking suggests they will not be able to do that.

Print On Demand

Victor Keegan in The Guardian book pages has been writing about Print On Demand (POD) , a way of publishing books by uploading the polished manuscript to a website so that readers can order a proper, bound copy from online retailers. In his first piece he describes how easy it was to publish a book of text message poetry and sell it at “cost” price. His most recent piece covers covers several more services and he is clearly taken with the idea that this will disrupt traditional publishing. POD certainly makes printing small-run books a lot cheaper and will allow individuals to publish books independently of a publisher. But POD doesn’t seem to me to be quite what it seems, at least not in every case. Some of the POD publishers, for example, charge quite high fees for “extras” such as copyediting and advice; others make their money from submitting book titles to the major catalogues. Very few POD books sell through traditional bookstores, most of which (including Amazon) want a 50% discount from the publisher. What this means is that if the POD publisher takes £4 per copy you (the author/publisher) have to charge £10 and offer a 50% discount to make just £1 per copy.

Does that add up? Well maybe not for aspiring authors with no ready audience, which is most of them. But if you’re publishing to an existing audience it just might. Selling through Amazon would net you a pound, but selling direct from the POD site through your own website would be worth £6, or say £3.99 if you set the price at a more reasonable £7.99. Keegan mentions republishing out of copyright books, and that’s a good idea, but there are also possibilities for journals, small magazines, and small independent publishers who don’t want a lot of unsold books hanging around but already sell their wares through a website. Watch this space.

Burning Cars

Jean Baudrillard can always be relied on to give an interesting analysis of current events and this article from New Left Review offers a warning that all is not well in Europe. It discusses the riots in France in autumn 2005 and argues that not only is French society is collapsing, but “not just theirs … [it is] the whole Western model which is disintegrating; and not just under external assault—acts of terrorism, Africans storming the barbed wire at Melilla—but also from within.” Budrillard’s analysis concludes that the Western model only survives because people aspire to it; narcissistic modern Western societies, he believes are suffering a crisis of self esteem. And those aspirations are in decline: people from outside no longer want to be “mothered” by the West. Baudrillard ends with an attaack on intellectuals like himself: “Of course, nothing will prevent our enlightened politicians and intellectuals from considering the autumn riots as minor incidents on the road to a democratic reconciliation of all cultures. Everything indicates that on the contrary, they are successive phases of a revolt whose end is not in sight.”

Plagiarism

At about this time of year, in universities all over the world, academics are marking essays and grading exams. They are also discovering that large numbers of students are plagiarising the work of others, mostly taking material directly from web sites and passing it off as their own. This is a problem that has been growing for several years now, but based on my own contact with students and the experiences of British academics I know, I believe it’s becoming critical. I’ve been giving some thought as to why so many students choose to cheat and have come to the conclusion that this goes way beyond the fact that it is easy and carries relatively low penalties. This is the leading edge of a revolution that the universities will have to embrace or find themselves humiliated and sidelined. Here are a few things I think could be done to address the issue, in no particular order:

1. Academics need an incentive. Catching plagiarists takes a long time, is very boring, and does nothing for your career. It’s easier just to ignore it and get on with work you’d prefer to be doing. I suspect a lot of plagiarism goes undetected for just this reason. Worse still, if you’re a part-time university teacher you will receive little or no payment for marking essays in the first place, so there is a strong temptation just to forget about plagiarism and pass the problem on. Universities rely far too heavily on goodwill and the plagiarists know it.

2. Penalties are too weak. Given that plagiarism isn’t always easy to detect, those plagiarists who are detected should be heavily penalised. More often than not plagiarised essays get a mark of zero, but plagiarists are often allowed to resubmit the work or retake an exam and can get decent grades in the end. Very few fail the module for which plagiarism was detected but even if they did they could still get a respectable degree. In some universities plagiarism that is detected after the marks have been agreed can not be revisited, so it is theoretically possible for a student to plagiarise all of year 2, get caught for one essay in year 3, have the year 2 plagiarism uncovered and still get a first class degree. This is well known and plagiarists are exploiting it; they are not all stupid.

3. Technology is not the enemy. The Web has made cheating easy and it has also made it easier to detect if humans can find the will, and the time, to use it. Plagiarism detection software and university subscriptions to the “essays for sale” websites need to be deployed more widely. In this respect the problem is a human one, not technological.

4. The academic model has changed, but many academics haven’t noticed. The Web has seen the rise of new ways of collaborating and publishing, new ways of licensing, and new ways of thinking about the ownership of intellectual works. It used to be the case that information was stored in university libraries and academics were the ones who had control over it. The skill of “scholarship” was the ability to find, organise, and recall detailed information at will and it is still a major part of what is taught in universities. In reality all scholarship requires is time and patience, something academics used to have in large amounts. But search engines have taken most of the labour out of it. Information no longer has value–there is a glut–and many plagiarists are simply reacting to this new market. Anyone can be an academic these days–patients research their own diseases, enthusiasts produce polished websites about their favourite subject, or contribute to an encyclopedia–what really counts is informed interpretation. All the plagiarists are doing is collecting data, like the journeyman academics of the past, but fail to see the difference between data collection, attribution, and ownership.

5. Assessment methods invite plagiarism. In the humanities at least, but in other areas too, assessment is done largely by exam and by assessed essay. There are technological threats to the sanctity of the exam room of course, but the assessed essay is the place where most of the malpractice takes place. Reducing the value of assessed essays is one way round the problem, but universities need to be more imaginative than that, thinking up new ways of testing their students on a regular basis. I’d like to see them embrace the new order, perhaps allowing students to submit reading diaries in the form of blogs, which could be written over a period of time and would be available to the public–and to peer review–or as websites; these could be hosted by universities for years after the event and in many cases could become a useful resource. Online publishing of assessments means that over time many eyes could look them over and the chances of getting caught even long after the event are quite high–of course this assumes a degree obtained by deception could then be taken away. Universities could look to what happened here, where a journalist did what many students are doing: he borrowed material straight from wikipedia and other websites. Online assessment methods wouldn’t eliminate plagiarism, but they might make it easier to spot, especially for software, as well as giving students more of a stake in the work they were submitting–everyone would know whose work it was.

I believe there are two main things to take from all this. Firstly that students need to feel they have a stake in the work they are doing, and secondly that plagiarism needs to have consequences, be it a failed year, a failed degree, or simply the humiliation of being shown up as a fool on a public website. As things stand academia risks its own humiliation: students are already taking academics for fools.

Shed Fan

Sheds seem to be all the rage at the moment. Not only was 2005’s Turner Prizewinner a shed (one that had been rebuilt as a boat, sailed down the Rhine and turned back into a shed), but lots of articles about them seem to be appearing everywhere. This is partly because people are beginning to work from home in large numbers and find a garden office is more cost-effective than moving house, but it’s also generating interest in writers, probably the group best known for shed-based working. Back in May 2005 the BBC ran a magazine article about sheds, but now even the professional journal The Author is soliciting information from Society of Authors members about their writing spaces. The journal doesn’t have a web space for some reason, but here’s a sample from the Winter 2005 “Sheditorial”:

“…it’s a curious fact that the places where authors write, and the possessions they have around them, exert an extraordinary hold over the imaginations of readers. Sheds have a particular cachet. Bernard Shaw’s celebrated revolving writing shed at Ayot St. Lawrence is now in the care of the National Trust. An exact replica of Roald Dahl’s shed has pride of place in the Roald Dahl Museum, and the original is still carefully preserved.”

I’ve even fallen victim to shed fandom myself and have written about it in the next issue (Number 20) of The Reader.

Does Poetry Matter?

This article in The Guardian newspaper caught my eye the other day. The question of whether poetry matters or what use it might have has been with us a long time, but maybe it’s asked more often, and by more unexpected people than before. George Szirtes thinks it does matter and says why:

[A letter writer in a newspaper argued that] what matters is the price of bread, the cost of shoes. Of course that matters. That, too, is life. And yet paradoxically, as it will seem to the correspondent, one major central European poet said in 1989: “When people have no shoes they want poetry; once they have shoes they need fewer poems.”

Correspondents with several pairs of good shoes might raise their eyes at that, but bookshops all over now reasonably well-shod central Europe can bear witness to it. Not to mention those raw towns and ranches of isolation we all inhabit.”

Extravagant Punctuation

November 7 marks the 200th anniversary of the conclusion of the Lewis and Clark expedition, which mapped the land route across the North American continent. This article celebrates the achievement and laments the loss of the rivers and waterways the explorers describe. One quotation from Clark stands out, describing the moment they first saw the pacific: “Great joy in camp we are in View of the Ocian, this great Pacific Octean which we been So long anxious to See.”

As the article points out, Clark was a terrible speller, but he could “capture a moment.” Herman Melville, on the other hand, seems to have been good at both; he is probably also the finest writer about the sea. A new biography of Melville, by Andrew Delbanco, came out recently and has been well reviewed, notably by Michael Dirda in the Washington Post, and by Jay Parini, in The Guardian. Parini’s conclusion, that Melville’s work is “not only relevant but urgent” is one that I would agree with.