Prize and fall

If I want to represent a hero conquering kingdoms and countries, that lends itself superbly to representation in the moment; but a cross-bearer who every day takes up his cross can never be represented, either in poetry or in art, because the point of it is that he does it every day… Courage lends itself superbly to concentration in the moment; not so patience, just because patience struggles against time.

— Søren Kierkegaard, Either/Or (tr. Alastair Hannay, 1992), The Aesthetic Validity of Marriage

It takes forty men with their feet on the ground to keep one man with his head in the air.

— Terry Pratchett, Small Gods.

Normally I try to avoid mentioning institutions by name, but it would be absurd to do so in this case. The institution in question is the University of Strathclyde; I know a few people who work there, but I’m not going to indicate whether I do myself. You can therefore consider the following to be the jealousy of a disappointed rival or the grumblings of a disaffected employee as you prefer.

In the THE Awards announced a week or two ago, Strathclyde was named University of the Year 2012. (The timing of the awards in late November might suggest that “… of the Next Five Weeks Or So” would be a more appropriate title, but this doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue.) The university was praised as a “bold, imaginative and innovative institution” with “an extraordinary understanding of where it was, where it wanted to be and how it was going to get there”.

These accolades seemed surprising from the THE in particular, given that its last prominent mention of Strathclyde had been as Exhibit A in an article about UK universities getting their fingers burned adventuring in India, after the failure of their much-trumpeted Noida campus. Other recent appearances of Strathclyde in the HE media included the fiasco of the new timetabling system which, combined with a campus merger and an inopportune fire, left it holding classes in a local cinema and the gigs venue in the Student Union building; and of course its spectacular investment in a new technology centre, financed substantially by a £57M loan. (I don’t know the financial details of this last project, but one can’t help wondering whether it’s connected with the cuts to staff and courses that provoked some bitter opposition last year.) It seems, at the very least, that the THE Awards panel didn’t see an extraordinary sense of direction as being inconsistent with a rather bumpy journey.

The language of the commendation, of course, is the clue that lets us resolve this anomaly. Adjectives like “bold, imaginative and innovative” recognisably come out of the same box as “brilliant”, “visionary” and that most over-worked of all, “excellent” — that last thoroughly eviscerated by the late Bill Readings sixteen years ago but still spreading its lich-like power across the sector. It’s difficult to object to these words, except on the grounds of vacuousness, until you start to contrast them with a different vocabulary: words like “reliable”, “professional” and “competent”. I’m not suggesting that this second set of virtues is incompatible with the first set, and still less am I suggesting that the triumph of Strathclyde demonstrates that one can happily achieve excellence without first achieving competence; nevertheless, it must remain a suspicion. Sir Humphrey Appleby, let us not forget, deployed as a crushing insult the sort of compliments in which Strathclyde is basking, and while the joke may sometimes be on Sir Humphrey, Jim Hacker stands as the epitome of the incompetent who firmly believes that a bold and transformational vision excuses one from paying attention to detail.

Why does this matter? Mainly because, on the whole, what makes the difference in teaching is not innovation but competence. Preparing lucid notes and lecture material; assembling appropriate problem sets; controlling a fractious class; carefully balancing an exam paper… these aren’t the deeds of the world-bestriding colossi, but they’re what create an environment in which it’s possible for students to learn. It’s nice to know that the place in which you’re studying is making a great name for itself in the world, but if that institution can’t also provide a teacher and a class of twenty with a room containing twenty seats, twenty desks and some means of displaying information, then all the reputation in the world isn’t much good to you.

Everybody, it seems, loves prizes, just as practically everybody loathes quality assurance. I’ll admit to a share of the latter loathing myself, but not because QA is all about the deeply boring stuff and prizes are about the exceptional and the inspirational. The tempter afflicting QA is the Little Tin God of Paperwork, and his worship is a pretty soul-destroying affair; but he is as nothing compared with the tempter afflicting prizegivings, who is the Great Big God of Rampant Bullshit. Every iota of effort that a university management spends pursuing the latest prize is an iota that it isn’t spending trying to make the computer systems function, or counting the seats in lecture rooms, or identifying the database errors that cause a department to be classified as overstaffed because the database is counting former employees who are now deceased. Maybe I’ve been reading too much Gibbon lately, but every triumph of the THE variety reminds me of the later Roman emperors pulling resources from the provinces to glorify the courts of Ravenna and Constantinople, while on the frontiers the legions grew shabbier and in the forests beyond the Rhine and the Danube the barbarians were massing.

Next November, there will be another University of the Year, and Strathclyde will join Sheffield, York, Teesside and the other former recipients of the award. In ten years’ time, it seems safe to say, nobody who wasn’t personally involved in the achievement will care much about who was University of the Year 2012, any more than they’ll care what won Best Innovative Product in the British Turkey Awards. But a decade, surely, is the shortest timescale over which the real achievements of scholarship or education ought to be measured. Perhaps Strathclyde’s “bold” strategy will have succeeded, in which case the university will have no need to deck its solid success in ornaments. Perhaps it will have come to less than hoped, in which case the THE Award may end up looking a bit like President Obama’s Nobel Prize — a statement which said more about the hopes and fears of the prize committee than it did about the recipient or what he had accomplished. But I’m certain that, if Strathclyde exists at all by then, it will be because a lot of boring people ignored the lures of boldness and imagination, and sacrificed their careers to the despised arts of competence.

According to James Gaines’s patchy but engrossing book on the Musikalisches Opfer and its context, one of the earliest acts of Frederick the Great’s successor was to build an obelisk honouring that Great Man’s common soldiers, “about whom his ******* memoirs say nothing”. Actually, I think the obelisk misses the point. You can’t build monuments to competence: its place is in foundations rather than superstructure. It’s like the difficulty of portraying virtue in art described in the Kierkegaard quotation at the top of this post. If competence — whether leavened with brilliance or not — is to have its monuments, these must be the monuments it constructs for itself: in the context of scholarship, the great libraries; the great centres of teaching; the great traditions of the academic disciplines.

Imagine awarding a prize to the Academic Discipline of the Year, or the Musical Genre of the Year. Alternatively, imagine awarding a prize for the Most Competent University of the Year, or the Most Inconspicuously Indispensible Academic of the Year. Some virtues are too big, and others too particular, to be recognised by prizes. What does it say about universities if these are no longer the virtues that matter to us?

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3 Responses to Prize and fall

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