Nicola Vincent-Abnett

Nicola Vincent-Abnett
"Savant" for Solaris, Wild's End, Further Associates of Sherlock Holms, more Wild's End

Tuesday 20 October 2015

Dreaming Spires and the Democratic Process

There has been a debacle. I know this, because I have watched it unfold over the past several months.

The husband and the older dort both have degrees from Oxford University. It is a place, an institution, that we all have an opinion about and an understanding of. For most, it is still simply one of the foremost seats of learning in the World.

Academia is a strange world with rules all its own. 

Many of us have been to university, and an increasing number of people are getting their degrees. I’m ambivalent about that. I imagine I always will be. I went to university before the big push towards increasing the numbers of undergraduates in the UK. I went at a time when leaving school at sixteen was very commonplace, and getting A’ levels ensured securing and holding down a good job. Times change, except that not everything keeps pace. Not all progress is necessarily good, but sometimes progress seems to be halted altogether.

Academia is a strange world with rules all its own. 

There is a hierarchy of teaching and learning. Great teachers at the best universities generally continue their own studies. They become recognised in their fields by the research they do and the work they publish. 

Universities look to the best and brightest to fill certain academic posts from time to time.

I’m not talking about conventional jobs. There are all kinds of rules and regulations for advertising and filling positions, in any and all industries, and that goes for education too.

I’m talking about those rarefied positions that come with titles and status, for which candidates are nominated and elected, because there are still quite a lot of jobs like that in academia, and not just in Oxford and Cambridge, but all over the UK and around the World. These are very special chairs and professorships, established and awarded through various systems, generally determined by the universities offering them.

There is a long history of these appointments, so long, in fact, that Oxford and Cambridge each have five Henrician chairs (in civil law, divinity, medicine, Hebrew and Greek), created by King Henry VIII.

Today, I want to talk about one of Oxford University’s chairs. I want to talk about the Oxford Chair for Professor of Poetry.

Oxford is a big university by British standards. It has about 22,500 students, of which a little over half are undergraduates. Oxford university currently has fourteen students between the ages of 16 and 18.

The husband is a graduate of Oxford University. He studied English there in the 80s, and in the past few years he has renewed ties to the city and to the university, not least because our older daughter was an undergraduate at his old college, studying languages.

We found out quickly when the new Professor of Poetry was due to be elected. 

The Guardian on Wole Soyinka's nomination
At the outset, we were interested in the nomination of the Nigerian, Wole Soyinka. He is a World renowned poet and playwright, with a staggering breadth and depth of experience. He has been a political prisoner in his homeland, and an exile. He has been a teacher and lecturer internationally, and a Nobel Prize winner, the first, for literature, from Africa. He was commended in his Nobel citation as someone who, 

in a wide cultural perspective and with poetic overtones fashions the drama of existence

Candidates for the chair needed fifty nominations from Oxford graduates, Soyinka led the field with 149 nominators, including nods from Melvyn Bragg and Robert Macfarlane.

Simon Armitage was among the candidates for the chair in a second round of nominations. He’s a popular poet from Yorkshire, who studied Geography at Portsmouth Poly. You’ve all heard of him, I’m sure. He has taught mostly in British universities, but he also did a stint at the University of Iowa, and he’s made programs for the BBC on the  radio and for television.

I imagine that outside the realms of academia, on the streets of the UK, more people have heard of Simon Armitage than know Wole Soyinka’s name. It’s a pity perhaps, but I still imagine that to be true.

The people who really cared about the Professor of Poetry chair at Oxford lobbied very hard for Wole Soyinka. Those people included a Professor of English at one of the university’s colleges, who is also an accomplished, published poet.

If I didn’t know my own mind, I’d still trust her judgement.

The fact is, I’m not as much in touch with poetry as I might be. The husband is certainly rather more in touch with it than I am. I am, however, a writer, and so is he. I also have children who have passed or are passing through the education system, and one of them is in the arts. I’m closer to all of this than most people probably are.

Of course, the people closest to this appointment aren’t just the academics, they aren’t just people like my friend the poet/professor. The people at the heart of this, the people who will benefit from this appointment are the students. They surely deserve the very best teachers, since they are considered to be the very best, very brightest students.

The Professor of Poetry at Oxford University is a teaching position. The holder of the chair is required to give three lectures a year.

That might not sound like much, but the opportunity to hear lectures given by world class speakers at the top of their games is rare. When was the last time you had that privilege? To be a member of a student body with access to a Nobel Laureate… isn’t that extraordinary? I would’ve loved the opportunity to sit in that lecture every term.

Oxford University didn’t get a Nobel Laureate for its Poetry chair, it got the Yorkshireman.

Simon Armitage is the new Professor of Poetry.

From all that I’ve said so far, you might well be wondering how that could possibly have happened. The answer is that I’m not entirely sure. I can, however, tell you the process by which Mr Armitage was voted in.

An election was held. It’s as simple as that.

The magic word is Convocation: a legislative or deliberative assembly of a university. And it’s all about who can vote. In this case those eligible to vote were the Congregation: the members of the faculty both current and retired, and former members of the university admitted to a degree, so basically former students. The husband and the older dort, as graduates of Oxford University were eligible to vote for nominees for this chair.

I don’t know how many ex-students of Oxford there must be around the World, but, given that there are 22,500 students at Oxford right now, I imagine it’s quite a lot. I don’t know how many of those people had any interest in who might become Professor of Poetry. I don’t know how many of them are politically active. I imagine many of them are middle-aged, middle-class and white. I imagine many of them sit comfortably at home with their jobs and their 4x4s and their families, feeling very settled with life, thank you very much. I imagine many of them belong to Cameron’s Britain... You see how my imagination runs away with me when I feel politically agitated!

I like to think that quite a large number of the current student body were very interested in who might become their Professor of Poetry, not least the 850 undergraduates studying English. None of those people had a vote. I like to think that quite a large number of the current student body were very interested in any academic appointment that fielded a candidate who was also a political activist. None of those people had a vote.

So, all sorts of people, who might know very little, were able to influence the lives and educations of people who, conversely, wanted to know a very great deal. 

I’m not suggesting that those people who voted for the chair didn’t do so with the very best of intentions. Simon Armitage is a popular poet, people have heard of him, his books sell, and they’ve seen his face on the television and heard his voice on the radio. He's very Middle England. Melvyn Bragg even endorsed him… Well, yes, as a matter-of-fact, he did, but he nominated Wole Soyinka, so I’ve got to wonder what happened there.

The first Oxford University chairs were gifts of King Henry VIII, and we’ve come a long way since then. Before 1970 undergraduates were mostly considered to be minors, since they didn’t reach their twenty-first birthdays until their final years of study. In that year, the age of majority was lowered to 18, and now, of course, Oxford students are adults, except for the fourteen that I very deliberately mentioned when enumerating the current student population, above.

Currently, Convocation includes former students of the university. Perhaps that’s a hangover from a bygone age when students were thought of as minors and not capable of adult decision-making. I can’t help thinking that lots of Oxford University’s rules must have changed since Henry VIII’s days. Perhaps it’s time for a change in the Convocation rules to recognise the students.

We all know that given a chance, some students will vote for the glove puppet of their favourite StarWars character, or for the toaster in the JCR. But this is a two-tier system, and the first round process with its minimum of fifty nominations ought to mitigate against the silliness. 

We also know that students take their educations seriously. We know this because we have all seen the time, effort and energy that goes into getting the GCSE and A’level grades to secure places at our best universities; we know it because we have all seen the level of debt eighteen year olds are prepared to shoulder to get that education.

These students are not just adults, they are some of the best of us. 

I believe the current student body should have had a say in the election of the Professor of Poetry. If they had chosen Simon Armitage I would have applauded their choice, but as it is, they are stuck with a decision that was made on their behalf.

Jack Moran has started a petition to make the Oxford University Professor of Poetry election more democratic. It's too late for 2015, but changes can be implemented in time for the next election. You can sign the petition over here.

Lucy Newlyn, poet and Professor of English at the husband's old college has also been a strong supporter of Wole Soyinka, and of a more just system when it comes to the selection process for these posts. Her article in THE makes for compelling reading.

I didn’t get a vote in this process, because I’m not a former student of Oxford University, but the people I know and trust voted for Wole Soyinka, and, believe me, if I ever get the chance to hear him speak, I’ll queue around the block in the pouring rain to do it. 

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