No dark sarcasm (two)

As a follow-up to the last blog, I should now like to address a second article, which was a follow up to Owen Jones’ LabourList.org>posting.

Alex Canfor-Dumas provides, with Josh Glancy, a riposte to Jones also on LabourList.org, and in many ways it is a perfectly reasonable exposé of some of the logical shortcomings that I also found in Jones’ piece – namely that it cannot help but loving Oxbridge in spite of the fact that it also wants to abolish it.

However, Canfor-Dumas, like Jones, also succumbs (inevitably, perhaps, because he is studying there) to some Oxbridge-centrism.

He concludes his piece as follows:

“Beneath the privileged veneer of drinking clubs and anachronistic formal clothing, Oxbridge provides an exceptional educational experience that is both available to and embraced by students from a wide range of backgrounds. There is an environment of scholarship and a culture that celebrates original thought and glorifies academic achievement. Britain needs more, not less, of these qualities. Oxbridge is not perfect, but it is here to stay – and rightly so.”

“Exceptional” cannot but find its way into the article come its climax. For the myth of being exceptional is what keeps Oxbridge alive. Woven into this understanding of Oxbridge, then, is an apparently unquestionable value attributed not to what should be general, but to that which is ‘exceptional’ or ‘out of the ordinary.’

In my last post, I explained how there are grounds to argue that Oxbridge is not particularly exceptional – and I’d like to pursue this further here.

For, Canfor-Dumas (and Glancy) end their post by saying that Oxbridge has “an environment of scholarship and a culture that celebrates original thought and glorifies academic achievement” – and that the UK needs more of this!

What this statement implies is that Oxbridge is the only beacon of academic excellence in the UK – and that the other 150-odd higher education institutions can go hang themselves. Apparently (if I can take this interpretation further) they somehow do not encourage (I’m not sure I want to use the word ‘glorify’) academic achievement. This is the preserve of Oxford and Cambridge, whose good example should be followed.

So… what are those other 150+ institutions doing? What are they doing with all of those really smart kids that do not even want to go to Oxbridge? One would fear somehow that those other institutions (and I take it that mine should be included here) are not only not encouraging academic excellence – but that they are even stifling it.

Since I work at a higher education institution that is not Oxbridge, I have to take exception to this. And since neither Canfor-Dumas nor Glancy brings this matter to much light in their article, I shall endeavour to do so here.

In my last blog, I wrote about how students tend to be proud of their alma mater, no matter who she is. Of course, Oxbridge students are no different – so Oxbridge-centrism is as natural to Oxbridge students as egocentrism, or the ability only to see things from one’s own point of view, is natural to humans. We can read, see, hear, and feel many different things, but since we only ever have our own bodies through which we can filter the world, we will always only ever experience the world for ourselves.

I am partial to a recent advert, or ‘manifesto’ as its producers call it, for Bacardi rum. Not only is this because I like Bacardi, but it is also because, simple (simplistic?) as its message is, it says that we are all together, and that we should act not in a solipsistic manner (I enjoy the idea of cutting up white headphone leads) but together.

Even though this is an advertisement (though perhaps significantly an advertisement for a substance that is what we might call mind-altering when consumed in enough quantity), I want to agree with its secondary ‘message.’ If its first message is ‘buy Bacardi,’ which people can take or leave, its secondary message is, as mentioned, that we are all together.

Thinking in terms of togetherness, or ‘withness,’ then, is what I want to explore here in terms of higher education. What is posited in both Jones and Canfor-Dumas’ postings is the sense that it is to Oxbridge alone that the burden of excellent education must fall.

This is simply not true, as the 150+ other higher education institutions in the UK testify. We can therefore rework the Oxbridge-centrism that Canfor-Dumas and Glancy (cannot help but?) display when they write, as I shall repeat, that: “Oxbridge provides an exceptional educational experience that is both available to and embraced by students from a wide range of backgrounds. There is an environment of scholarship and a culture that celebrates original thought and glorifies academic achievement.”

In its place, we can say that higher education provides an excellent educational experience that is both available to and embraced by students from a wide range of backgrounds. There is throughout higher education an environment of scholarship and a culture that celebrates original thought and glorifies academic achievement.

I have replaced Canfor-Dumas and Glancy’s use of the term exceptional here with the term excellent. I have changed this precisely because Oxbridge is not exceptional in pursuing these tasks. It is perfectly normal for Oxbridge to pursue scholarship and original thought, but that is because all higher education establishments pursue these goals – and Oxbridge is included among these higher education establishments.

I am a lecturer in film. You can, as far as I am aware, study film at Oxbridge – both at undergraduate and graduate levels. However, the opportunities to do so are relatively limited: it forms part of Modern Languages and English degrees. That is, you can do the odd module on film. What is more, Oxford for one has a Master’s in Film Aesthetics, while there are in British film studies academia a number of lecturers who did their doctorates at Oxford or Cambridge.

I don’t want to rehearse in great detail why I think film is a legitimate course of study, since this is not my point here.

Briefly, though, I think it is of pressing importance to study film and audiovisual culture more generally because they are such all-pervasive phenomena in our screen-filled world. These media often do not encourage us to question what they show to us, nor their legitimacy as a whole. Instead, then, university (and school) courses in film and media offer us with the opportunity to encourage critical thought with regard to film and media.

Critical thought itself is a valuable commodity – while understanding how and why images and sounds work in terms of creating meaning is also of great value to those who precisely wish to have, for example, a recognised brand in the world.

As such, not only is the study of film of some cultural urgency (because it dominates so much of our attention and, by extension, our thought), but it also endows one with skills that transfer well to all aspects of life, but, for the sake of placating anxious students, in particular the business world/the world of work.

To take an example: some people, Margaret Hodge included, have argued that to study film and media is to undertake a ‘Mickey Mouse’ course. That a term from the media (‘Mickey Mouse’) is used to define such courses demonstrates quite clearly the extent to which we freely and unthinkingly use media terms in everyday discourse. That is, so pervasive is, in this instance, Mickey Mouse, that we use it to dismiss such courses, while to couch the criticism in these terms reasserts the precise validity of needing to think through what Mickey Mouse is and what influence he has had on our society.

I can imagine that a thorough analysis of Mickey Mouse alone would have to take in the following, if not more: the history of art, particularly animated drawing styles; the history of film; sociological aspects of what a mouse means; psychological and cognitive aspects, in terms how and why the image is pleasing to have the popularity that it does; a theoretical understanding of mass media, such that we can work out how the image of Mickey has become globally recognisable; an economic history of the deals that similarly have allowed Mickey to become dominant as a global brand. And so on.

I arrived at film from a background in Modern Languages and then in Philosophy. Even though I want to turn my back on neither of these subjects, and in fact feel that it is truly important not only to maintain an interest in these, but to expand my interests further outwards, I find that film is the culmination of more or less all subjects and disciplines.

The reason that I give my personal journey towards film is to posit that I see it not as a lesser field of enquiry than the more traditional subjects that I studied before it. The range of approaches that one could take to Mickey Mouse alone also suggests that to study film is to have to take on a massive amount of information that in fact by definition transcends, or better incorporates, many academic disciplines. And therefore that while film might be considered a ‘soft’ topic in some corners, it is in fact very hard.

Indeed, while some film scholarship admittedly does not help itself in terms of being accessible and ‘relevant,’ many students find film in particular a disillusioning object of study – precisely because it is not as easy as they thought it was going to be! As is often the case, that which on appearance seems most ‘natural’ and ‘easy’ is in fact the most complex thing.

And the reason that I want to make this point is to bring us back to the discussion of Oxbridge-centrism raised earlier. If one cannot study film in any great detail at Oxbridge, at least not really until post-graduate level, and if you are convinced that we should spend more time studying film and audiovisual media more generally, because they are dominant in terms of shaping how we understand and interpret the world, then Oxbridge probably not where you want to go to study your degree.

We could knock Oxbridge for not providing a full undergraduate program in film – but this would be counter-productive, because it would re-affirm that it is only when Oxbridge does something that it is truly ‘valid.’ As if UCL were not responsible for pioneering the study of English literature; and as if Birmingham were not a true pioneer of Cultural Studies (also not really available at Oxbridge).

Better than knocking Oxbridge, though, would simply be to recognise that all higher education institutions – even if with economic incentives working somewhere under the surface (they have these at Oxbridge, too) – encourage critical and original thought. And going to any or many universities can help provide students with the means to develop their capacity for critical and original thought.

Let me put this another way. Film is, for me at least, of vital importance for us to study. Not only can you not really study this at Oxbridge at undergraduate level, but even if you could, you might as well go where the teaching is the best that you will receive in the UK. I will sound arrogant when I say this, but part of me means it: if you want to receive the best tuition in film in the UK, maybe even in the world, then you might as well come to my university, Roehampton, to learn with me. It is not that my students miss out on Oxbridge, then, but that Oxbridge students miss out on me.

Naturally, my egocentrism here is obvious to the point of easy ridicule. But it serves to illustrate the Oxbridge-centrism that clings to the idea that Oxbridge is the be-all and end-all of higher education.

I have not met everyone working in film studies in the UK, but after a fairly aggressive few years of conference attending and networking, I can say that I know a good representative crowd. Rarely do I find among them academics who would not hold their own in more or less any academic forum, particularly on their area of expertise (of course).

I don’t know who is the ‘smartest’ of them all (which is not at all the same as being the best teacher, anyway), but I find the absolute vast majority of these academics to be smart – certainly smart enough to challenge me and, I guess, a good many if not most 18 year olds. And this is regardless of the institution at which they teach.

In fact, I know a good number of the Oxbridge staff members who teach film studies. They are all smart, too; but, again, not necessarily more or less smart than a lot of other people at other universities in the UK.

Having a doctorate is basically a necessity nowadays to be an academic; those few academics who do not have a doctorate are typically quite senior and the product of an era whereby some students went straight from undergraduate study to higher education teaching. Back in the ‘cowboy’ days of the 1950s and 1960s, this might have been possible. But not nowadays. And even these academics are smart, too, even if they don’t have the requisite qualifications.

The reason that I mention this is that you cannot just get a doctorate like that. You must present your work to a panel of academics both from your institution and from at least one other. The idea is to ensure standards across the board – be you from Oxford, Cambridge, Roehampton (my employer), or Worcester (my hometown).

As such – at least in theory – smartness, while not necessarily being equal, at least meets what is perceived to be the minimum requirement not just at Oxbridge, but at all higher education institutions.

What is more, all universities have external examiners and peer review panels made up of academics from other institutions, including Oxford and Cambridge, who judge standards of teaching, as well as procedural and structural standards. These are also designed to ensure parity across all institutions.

It is not that we should think about which academics are best, then. If you want academics to nominate who is best, then each academic might as well nominate themselves (as I did above). Rather than ranking themselves, though, academics might be better off remembering that they are in this together.

Contra Canfor-Dumas and Glancy, then, we should have good faith that all academics are doing their best; they are all – perhaps with some exceptions (though arguably at Oxbridge as much as anywhere else) – good at what they do; and they all take pride in doing it.

Besides which, none of this has yet included the students, who will respond to different teachers in different ways and at different moments in their life. As such, who can know who is the ‘best’?

Well, we can all apparently know who is the ‘best’ – because we live in a country that obsesses over league tables and the like. What is more, academics take part in a particular process called the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE), now redubbed the Research Excellence Framework (REF). The National Student Survey (NSS) also judges which university offers the best student experience – and produces a league table with the results.

With these and other surveys taking place, there is in fact a cacophony of results, with each university (naturally) bigging up those tables in which they do well, while keeping hushed about those in which they do not.

This article suggests that the RAE and the REF apply different enough criteria that the same institutions during the same period of time can have quite different scores. How we are supposed to know which is the best way of measuring the ‘best’ is surely difficult. I look at such surveys with some scepticism.

In spite of this, one might still contend that Oxbridge are excellent because they do well in many of these surveys across the board. There must be some reason that they manage always to do well…

History no doubt plays a part here. When you happen to be several hundred years older than many of the other universities in the UK, then the accumulated wealth, procedures, facilities, and, for example, collections of materials (I mean books in libraries, etc), do of course help when comparing this to other institutions.

Oxbridge are excellent universities. I am contending, however, that their excellence is not unique to them. This article suggests, among other things, that the UK in fact has the best academic system worldwide when we consider not just the top universities but the top 300 or so. Our money goes further and gets better results than American universities when we take into GDP, league tables, and various other factors.

Bizarrely, the rest of the world does not feature much – suggesting some possible (likely?) Anglo-American-centrism in the tables that the article analyses.

However, I mention it to say that if we factor in time/history, then the UK universities do even better. Or rather, Oxbridge of course does well, but perhaps not as well as it should do in terms of the advantage that its age simply has/should give to it.

What might also be interesting is how these results would read when compared with the socio-economic status of the average student at the university. This is a slightly different question to the fees structure, but I’d be interested to see both which universities cater for the richest kids, and whether those universities offer significantly better results for one’s sterling.

However, the focus here is to say that academic excellence is not confined to Oxbridge, excellent though Oxbridge is. Even if academic excellence were confined to Oxbridge, as seems to be Canfor-Dumas and Glancy’s take on things, the ‘Oxbridge ethos’ of encouraging academic excellence everywhere could presumably only be put into practice by recognising, encouraging and nurturing the development of other academic institutions. It would be folly to think that one could provide the entire nation’s higher education in just two provincial cities.

To this end, it is only logical that Canfor-Dumas and Glancy extend their argument not to abolish Oxbridge, by spreading the academic love around the UK more generally.

Fortunately for the two authors, this has already happened. What could happen a bit more in recognition of the achievements and aspirations of other universities, though, is a loosening of perception that only Oxbridge counts.

Instead of such Oxbridge-centrism, which is reflected by the media’s obsession with Oxbridge more generally, we might see that excellence that takes place everywhere. The excellence of smaller universities that, in spite of the material and historical disadvantages that they have, still pull their weight.

All universities are together in pursuit of excellence – both in terms of the staff members and their research and in terms of encouraging students to do the same. It is an act of solipsism – though one to which we are all susceptible – to feel that one is the only person really working hard here. As an act of solipsism, one feels one ought to cut those white headphone leads and tell them that we others are here and we are doing our best, even if in slightly different ways.

As an act of solipsism, believing that other universities might not want to or simply are not encouraging academic excellence is also an act of bad faith.

One can understand why there is bad faith around: resources for universities are scarce and becoming only more so. In this climate, we distrust others, since they might well be scheming to get as much back from as little investment as possible – the academic equivalent of the welfare scrounger.

Furthermore, scarce resources mean that those who have them guard them jealously – part of their reasoning naturally becoming that somehow they deserve those resources for some cosmic reason often attributed to their exceptional nature.

Good faith, however, believes that others can and will do their best – and that they should not be unfairly treated as a result. It believes that we are all in this together. And if we recognise this much, then maybe we will be able to encourage the excellence, or even to realise the potential, not solely of a/the few, but of the many, perhaps even (as an aspiration) of us all.

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About wjrcbrown

I am a Lecturer in Film at Roehampton University. I am a sort of filmmaker.
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