Thursday, 6 May 2010

Memo from above: 'even if you're with us we're against you'

- you shall above all things be glad and young
for if you’re young,whatever life you wear

it will become you;and if you are glad
whatever’s living will yourself become - e.e. cummings -

I wanted to write a post about remembering libraries, buildings and institutions which will no doubt come under threat in these increasingly digital times. I'm part of the problem, at least at the moment, as I’ve stopped using libraries in my PhD because I realised that a) I need to own books because I annotate, always go back to them, and I'm trying to build course materials for teaching, b) second-hand books and second-hand bookstores are an economical and eco-friendly way of doing a), c) after working in a bookstore I’ve got about a years worth of reading saved up on six shelves in my bedroom, and d) the internet, between online stores and online archives, stocks infinitely more useful material for what I study than my university library does, with almost no exceptions (typically if I can't find it online I'm going to have to go to a copyright library, interlibrary loans have become unfeasibly expensive for the most part).

I still love libraries. When I'm filling in PhD research gaps I'll be living in one, when I'm teaching I'll always need one, when I have children they will be sent to one.

My education as a child and teenager, a time of little money and no clue, was based on chaos, not school. Before I even left the house to visit a library I would have a plan: “I will read the first green book on the left,” or “ten paces in, turn right, first book that has an even-numbered sticker.” It never failed. I read about mechanics, quantum theory, space, dead languages, sport, ancient architecture, modern art. I had favourite authors, Steven King and Terry Pratchett in those days, but I always loved that there were so many things I didn’t know anything about, too many to map, and yet I could just stumble on whole areas of knowledge, spend a day or two with a book, and then I’d know a bit more about the world.

Somehow Google’s ‘I’m feeling lucky’ button doesn’t have that same mythos to it.

But this didn't become the reason I really wanted to blog at four in the morning, though maybe it made me think about threatened institutions. Have you heard about the Middlesex University Philosophy debacle? In brief this is an incredibly successful department, profitable, and highly rated by the RAE, the best rated in the entire university. It’s still being closed. The reasons are almost wholly unclear, and that such an attack should go unexplained and undebated is despicable. The worst fears, that this might be a way for a few to profit in the short-term, are second only to a wider fear that even if University departments play the game, get the money, get the scores, get the students, and put out the research, then it’s still not enough. This attack, unfortunately, is larger than the travesty occurring at Middlesex.

There’s a great post here which gives plenty of details and links to other key reading.

The international outcry against the closure is strong, but still building, and I would urge you, please, to sign the petition and join the Facebook group. Middlesex students are currently engaged in an occupation of the Mansion Building on campus after two senior members of staff, Ed Esche and Margaret House (third down this list), cancelled a meeting they had arranged for over 40 people and refused to debate the issue. Whilst you might not fancy a trip to join them you can also read their blog and follow them on twitter (@saveMDXphil). Protest emails can be sent to,,, and, key senior administrators for Middlesex (please B.C.C. in the Middlesex protestors -

Any support, during the occupation and the aftermath, would be much appreciated. Maybe a few tens of thousands of requests for clemency from around the world can do something here, this is the wrong kind of chaos to be learning in.

Here’s a copy of the email I sent:

Dear All,

I’m writing as a PhD student from another university to add my email to the litany I’m sure you’ve already accrued.

I work in an English department, but philosophy has always been central to the subject of, and approach to my research, ever since my undergraduate. As my work and my methodology have developed I’ve realised just how central philosophy is to the ideal of university study; philosophy is thought in context, a striving to understand our place in the world by the power of mind alone. When a department wholly embodies that ideal, performs outstandingly, achieves international standing, and yet is still threatened with destruction without clear reason, then the message this sends out, both in academia and in the wider world, is deeply troubling: philosophy, it seems to say, doesn’t matter; the ideals you’ve held, they don’t matter either; and, as a means to a noble end, playing by the ever changing rules of the university as business also counts for nothing.

Please don’t let these ideas spread, please don’t kill Middlesex Philosophy.