Ph.D. Octopus

Politics, media, music, capitalism, scholarship, and ephemera since 2010

Merrie England

with 5 comments

by apini

I recently finished David Lodge’s Changing Places – a book in my favorite sub-genre of fiction, the campus novel. I’ve read Lucky Jim at least 5 times.  I read Lodge’s Small World last summer, as well as The British Museum is Falling Down.  I’ve just ordered Malcolm Bradbury’s The History Man.  I particularly like the sub-sub-genre of British campus novels, but on the American side of things, I’m now reading Alex Kudera’s Fight for Your Long Day and read Jane Smiley’s Moo during college.  I’ve even had my PhD Comic book signed by Jorge Cham!

One thing that struck me, finishing Changing Places, is a particular trope of British campus lit that the ‘university teachers’ or lecturers tend to find themselves in academia by chance.  Jim Dixon doesn’t seem particularly committed to his subject, and neither does Philip Swallow.  They stumbled into academia in a time when you could become a lecturer with only an MA.

This is interesting for a number of reasons.  First, from a literary perspective, it gives the British campus novels (mostly from the 1950s-1970s) much more universal and comic appeal, since people seem to stumble into their academic jobs, much like many people stumble into their jobs.  American campus novels, even intentionally comic ones, tend to be slightly more depressing – people have made quite a commitment to their PhDs and their academic careers, and therefore the humor tends to come from a darker, more ironic place.  Whereas Jim Dixon and Philip Swallow mock the sillier aspects of academic publishing and the weird and wonderful characters that make up the humanities academy, Jane Smiley’s humor comes from the administrative debacles of university life.  PhD Comics also tend to emphasize the poverty, frustration, and administrative hassle of academic life.  This is starkly illustrated by Changing Places, where Euphoric State (US) is plagued by student protests, tenure battles, and interdepartmental sexual intrigue, while the University of Rummidge (UK) flummoxes a visiting US academic in a comedy of manners and eccentric personalities.

More practically interesting is the attitude this happenstance gives the characters.  “Lucky” Jim Dixon’s fairly easy decision to leave academia is particularly interesting given current university career office advice in the UK.  Like the US, UK universities claim oversupply of PhDs for available jobs.  Unlike the US, the PhD here is roughly 5 years on average (including the masters) as opposed to 7 or more.  So university careers offices play up the ‘transferable skills’ aspect of the PhD.  At my university, there were regular career events aimed at advertising careers outside of academia – at the BBC, at think tanks like History & Policy, in the civil service, as a trade history writer, in museums, as a 6th form teacher, in journalism, in academic publishing.  This was always accompanied by a talk from a really terrifying careers specialist who would tell us how many people actually get jobs in academia in the UK (not very many) and how to sell our PhD as a set of marketable ‘real world’ skills.  And in fact, I have a number of friends with PhDs in the UK who do work in ‘real world’ jobs, from university administration, to finance, to consulting, to primary and secondary education.  All of them from humanities or ‘soft’ social sciences. This could be another reason for a slightly more relaxed attitude toward non-tenure track academic positions (as discussed previously in my post here).

Another reason might also be illuminated by these books.  The relaxed attitude in the 1970s was precisely when my supervisor and his generation were coming into academia.  They now write us letters of recommendation and suggest career options along the way.  While I spent the last year of my PhD panicking about jobs, my supervisor kept calmly telling me that something would come up.  He was right (luckily!) but his relaxed approach did not match either the state of the job market at the time, or the changing demand for history lecturers.

And a final, cultural reason.  Dixon, Swallow, and the others are representative of a certain British ‘seat-of-their-trousers’ approach to professionalism.  It is a point of pride that the British are a nation of amateurs, embodied by the stuffy academics at Cambridge in Chariots of Fire.  It is unseemly to be too professional or too prepared– it looks like you are trying too hard and taking yourself too seriously.  Not that people don’t try hard!  But a huge difference emerges from the observation of undergraduate attitudes at Harvard and Oxford, for example.  At Harvard, people conspicuously ‘lived’ in Lamont, the undergraduate library/study center.  When asked how they were, it was constantly “busy”.  At Oxford, on the other

"I'd rather be punting"

hand, while people do still spend a huge amount of time in the library, it is almost clandestine, as everyone pretends that they are so naturally good that they don’t need to do any work, go to any lectures, prepare for class.  Dixon’s student, Michie, is an example of the ‘wrong’ kind of student, who frustrates Dixon with his persistent interest in a subject that Dixon is unprepared to teach.  Similarly it is seen as unsporting to be too competitive for a job.  So at interviews for longer-term or more permanent positions, candidates go to lunch together with the faculty, where one can only assume, they are judged on their ability to be civil to the competition.

With a turn to a more US-style model of university funding, and the rise in undergraduate fees, it might be possible that this more casual and relaxed approach to academic jobs will fade into the kind of marketing-based, top-heavy corporate university structure found there.  At which point the type of campus novel humor could see a similar, more depressing/ironic shift as well.  While I’m generally not opposed to tuition fees here, that is one change I would definitely not encourage.


Written by apini

May 12, 2011 at 03:45

Posted in Academia

5 Responses

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  1. Have you read “On Beauty” by Zadie Smith? I loved it.


    May 13, 2011 at 00:21

  2. Yeah! Forgot that one. I did like it in the end, though there were lots of frustrating moments. I should read it again, probably. (and that book added to the mix brings in the ‘all told from male academics’ perspectives’ aspect of campus lit – except for Moo…)


    May 13, 2011 at 05:09

  3. You make a number of really good points here. I was recently talking to a professor who graduated from a UK university with her PhD and now teaches in the US, and she also talked about the fact that a lot of her classmates had gone straight into other professions after their phds, and saw the phd as just an interesting project they had done along the way.

    Also the difference in superficial attitudes at Brit universities vs American really is striking. I remember having to bite my tongue every time I wanted to say I couldn’t go out for a drink because i had reading to do when I did my masters in the UK. Come to find out, though, I learned quite a lot from going out to the pub with fellow historians–probably more than I would have if I’d stayed home with my reading. This really seems to be a cultural thing, so I can’t imagine it changing even with changing fee structures. After all British students do work very hard, they just disavow it.


    May 13, 2011 at 05:20

  4. […] trips to Princeton for a trip to the record exchange or a performance of Dido and Aeneas.  The campus novel did nothing to disabuse me of this […]

  5. […] between academic life in the British and American campus novel are significant (again, as discussed previously), there are far more commonalities for the students themselves. Most notably, too much […]

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