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Dead Russian visits London

I find it impossible sometimes not to view the historical period I investigate through the lens of current affairs. The current debates about the place of Britain in the world, and foreigners’ place in Britain, inevitably resonate in my research, which is about European travel in the nineteenth century.

Alexey Bogolyubov, Fregat Pallada (1847), now in the Central Naval Museum, Saint Petersburg; image from Wikimedia Commons.

Goncharov’s ship on which he circumnavigated the world: Alexey Bogolyubov, Fregat Pallada (1847), now in the Central Naval Museum, Saint Petersburg; image from Wikimedia Commons.

At the moment, I am reading Ivan Goncharov’s report of his journey around the world in the 1850s. He writes a lot about his experiences in the south of England. His observations on the languages spoken by the English still apply today. To understand the following, it is good to know that French was the language spoken throughout Europe by travellers, diplomats, merchants and other people who wanted to communicate across borders. French, not English, was the European lingua franca. And yet, Goncharov writes:

everyone who wants to go to England must willy-nilly acquaint himself [with the English language]: whoever doesn’t know it, better not go to England. Here, like something rare, they hang a sign saying, in large letters, Ici on parle français.

Like a nineteenth-century equivalent of the signs you see on hotels in some countries nowadays – ‘we speak your language’, touristic shops and hotels in Goncharov’s London could distinguish themselves by speaking the common European language. Speaking this common language was not self-understood, let alone speaking further languages.

The isolationist views that many Britons today hold are still related to the low proportion of people who understand a foreign language. To make things worse, if the UK leaves the EU it may lose access to the Erasmus programme which allows European students to spend a semester abroad and improve their linguistic skills. If we don’t pay attention, Goncharov’s observation might therefore only win in poignancy the coming years.

The reason for both those isolationist views and the relative lack of interest in foreign languages has a lot to do with the economic history of Britain. A second episode in Goncharov’s visit sheds light on this. This episode, too, may sound familiar to travellers of the present day. As Goncharov landed in England, the famous Duke of Wellington had just died. He had fought Napoleon in the Battle of Waterloo and in terms of popularity could be termed the Churchill of the nineteenth century. Not surprisingly therefore, Wellington merchandise was selling like hot cakes. Goncharov could not resist buying something, and so he bought

a medallion of some sort from a boy. I wanted to give him fourpence for it, but by mistake I took from my purse a ten-kopeck piece. The little boy caught up with me, threw the money at my back, screaming like a stuck pig: “No use, no use!”

Paying euro-cents instead of pennies: it is a mistake I have made myself many a time when returning to Britain after a short trip abroad… and every time there was the suspicion with the person I was paying, that I was trying to play a nasty trick on them. The reason they thought so, was of course that the British economy and the pound sterling are among the strongest of the world. And they were so in Goncharov’s days as well as our own. For instance, because of their relative wealth, the British elite of the nineteenth century could easily travel around Europe and settle down cheaply in Italy or Spain.

However, it will depend on the coming British-European negotiations for the movement of people and goods, and on the strength of British industry, whether this comfortable position will stay the same. Ironically, the very possibility to keep an isolationist outlook will depend on the intercultural communication skills of British negotiators

 

I have quoted from Klaus Goetze’s (!) English translation of The Frigate Pallada with St. Martin’s Press (New York, 1987), pp. 32 and 37.

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Britain sacked Britain

In my last post, just before I left on a short journey, I mentioned the financial support many regions in the UK receive from the EU. Unfortunately, on 23 June many of those same regions voted to leave the EU. One of them is the Isle of Anglesey in Wales. 51% of its voters wanted to leave the EU.

I happened to be on the Isle of Anglesey last week. As a tourist. Now tourism drives a major part of the Welsh economy: about 10% of jobs depend on it. A good reason to take care of the tourism sector, you might think. But the majority of Welsh voters decided otherwise. Looking for things to do on Anglesey last week, here are some of the things I found:

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These leaflets have acquired a tragic note since 23 June. The blue flag with the yellow stars is ubiquitous, indicating support from everything from the European Fund for Rural Development to the European Fisheries Fund, and of course the Fund for Regional Development.

As I was turning the leaflet carousel, I imagined the shock that must have been felt in Wales on Friday the 24th with those people who spent sweat and tears to make these places happen. Which of them will we still be able to visit in three years’ time?

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Second strike, second chance

Today, universities and other education institutions in the United Kingdom saw another day of strikes. In an earlier post, I was trying to find a way of positioning myself with regard to the strike of 31 October.

In the meantime, I have learnt a lot about work relations in education in this country (and, again, similar things are going on elsewhere). Those doing the most ‘manual’ kinds of work, and therefore (?) receiving the lowest pay, were a minority among participants last time. (I have to say that professors were spotted this time around!) Today, the same was the case: cleaners, for example, did work as usual. Now I see that this may actually have a lot to do with the business models universities have adopted over the past years. Instead of employing everyone who works for them, universities have been outsourcing more and more of the work they need done. Their cafes and restaurants, their cleaning and their security are often run either by external companies or by daughter companies that universities create for this specific purpose. As a consequence, the staff employed by those companies are not directly employed by the university and can therefore not become a member of university labour unions. They are unable to officially participate in a strike organised by education unions, and, as far as I can see, get no legal protection or financial support from them if they were to decide to take any action.

Considering this, speaking out in solidarity with them has only become more important. Another remaining concern is the gap in salaries between female and male academics, as well as support staf. (which is very real even if you just consider the fact that women tend to end up in (economically) poorly appreciated jobs such as cleaning and caring, and men in highly appreciated ones; but even in comparable functions, men get more on average than women).

These concerns, however, run up against the realities of collective action: strikers have to make a single, clearly defined demand. The present demand for an inflation-matching rise in wages/salaries across the board, is what put me off last time. By now, I have learnt that many of my colleagues have similar feelings: demanding higher salaries for themselves, they feel, is unnecessary, unethical, and might lower academics’ image to the level of bonus-chasing bankers’. At the same time, strength still lies in numbers: only by showing up in person employees, students and other allies can really demonstrate they are serious about their worries. Luckily, we have some leeway in deciding how to contribute to this effort. So, instead of teaming up behind a ‘we want more than 1%’ -sign, I did some handicrafting this morning…P1020341… and was very happy that this contribution was well-received in town.

However, looking back, I should have gone for this one:

by Cobrophy on Reddit

(N.B. Short-term contracts have a way of boomeranging on the current academic system: having to move home every few years does leave employees with cardboard that’ll last a few rallies…)

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Struggling towards a better university? Yes please. Picket-lines over pay? Not so sure.

Here I sit, at my desk, at work, Thursday, eleven o’clock. Everything’s normal, this is where I ought to be.
Or not ought to be. For I am feeling weirdly conflicted about being here.

I work at a university department. And outside my window, my colleagues are on strike.

Employees of European universities have good reasons to be angry.

The way the universities’ money is being divided between hand workers and brain workers, between women and men, en between brown people and pink people, is unequal and becoming even more unequal.

People are paid for only a proportion of the hours they are asked to spend on their work. For teaching, for example, too few hours are being counted by the universities’ managers. Teaching, preparing classes, marking exams, communicating with students, being a mentor: all these things take much more time in reality than what teachers’ bosses seem to think.

A third important problem is that researchers and teachers are being judged by numbers: the numbers of students they attract, the number of doctoral theses they ‘deliver’, the number of articles they publish. Too little value is placed on things that take time and subtlety: helping a student who has problems at home; giving your ideas on the future of education, or helping make your town a nice place to live (feeling that your place has a history and that you are part of it, are important for your well-being); doing more exciting stuff in your classes than ‘going through the literature’ or ‘giving an overview of the period’; coming up with really novel ideas, even if you are no native speaker of common-room English but happen to have been born in China or Cameroon, which makes your articles a little less ‘fun’ to read (English is rapidly becoming the only accepted language for ‘serious’ publications, even though that means many people who are no academics cannot read your research results); or taking the time to read what other researchers have been up to (to prevent that you will be doing the same work all over again!).

So, problems enough. And these problems do not just exist in the UK, where today’s strike is taking place: universities in various European countries, and no doubt elsewhere, face exactly the same issues.

The universities themselves are not always very responsive to these issues. To give just one example: instead of hiring more teachers, they organise ‘relax’ sessions for their existing pool of teachers. One vice chancellor even sent out an email to all his staff, insinuating that they don’t care about their students and that they will be social outcasts if they participate in the strike. This message was almost enough reason for me to join the strikers in front of our building.

But do not universities and their employees share a common goal? Where is the conversation between management and workers? (This is exactly what a colleague also said to me.) Are the managers only there to ensure that their institution has a financial future (and I do understand that that is hard enough). Or a human future as well?

In spite of these issues, The higher education unions of Britain have chosen to focus on the slogan ‘13% pay cut (in real terms) since 2008’.

2008. Precisely. The year the crisis began.
It would not surprise me if real-term pay have been lowered equally drastically across all European sectors, and not just at universities.

Now I need to add that I am new to this environment. I don’t know precisely how unions and strikes and contract negotiations work at universities, and particularly in the country where I work now. This makes my observations stronger, but weaker at the same time: I realise that.
I was quite surprised, for example, to be found guilty of officially crossing a ‘picket-line’ when all I thought I was doing was say hi to my colleagues on strike, go to work and do some writing for myself. I had no idea there was something like an ‘official picket’.

I am doing no teaching or other work for which my bosses could ‘miss’ me at the moment, so I thought there would be no point in me striking (except, perhaps, my presence in the crowd).
All I would harm would be myself. You could even consider that the university is actually doing me a favour at the moment by providing me with an office, internet, supporting staff and tea water. But then again, as the picketers pointed out to me, the very fact that I consider it this way, and that the university does not seem to be valuing sufficiently the enormous contributions of all those PhD-students who teach for little or no salary, short-term contract workers who need to move to a whole different city or even country every three year, and 0-hour-contract, associate and honorary staff, is not right.

There is something rotten here. Education and research need rethinking.

But what I don’t understand, is why unions focus on salary levels, and then send pretty-well-paid members to the streets.
Because where were the cleaners, the data-entrists, the PhD-students, the fixed-contract workers this morning? I spoke to a couple of them at work. They were either afraid of striking/missing out on their meagre income (but didn’t they invent funds and stakingskassen for those people?). Or they felt they owed it to themselves to do their work. Or replied that they were actually quite satisfied with what they are being paid at the moment.
Perhaps even more importantly, where were the professors? (That is to say: I did not see any. But there may have been a few that I have not yet met.) If anyone is in a strong position to speak for those without a steady contract – if anyone has a paternalist obligation towards their juniors, it is them. But perhaps the strike focused too much on salary-levels for them to feel they had reason to protest?

Another thing I don’t fully understand, is why some picketers (only some of them!) try to prevent colleagues and students from entering university buildings, sometimes in quite nasty ways. I read on the English wikipedia that this is a well-worn strategy: ‘harming the business through loss of customers and negative publicity’. But I seriously doubt whether making people dislike you creates any understanding of the issues workers at universities have to deal with – and of the questions about education and research that we all have to deal with, as members of a society.

But all of this calls for a large-scale demonstration by students, parents, teachers – in short: citizens – rather than an employees’ strike.

And here I am, sitting at my desk, at work, scared of running into colleagues on strike (with whom I sympathise very much! Only I don’t see the use of my not meeting a deadline today, and I don’t identify with the pay demand the union has printed on their banners). I’ve only just begun my work here, and I’ve already come out as a scab.

P.S. Look out for my related column on the ‘mad professor’, or the ‘secluded scholar’ (whichever name you prefer), and the problem of ‘public engagement’.

Note: this column was posted a few hours after it was written.