I am in no-man’s land at the moment. Various minor deadlines of the past few months have been and gone. The book is here, tangible and closed after all those years. Christmas coming up. There’s a third project article to get on to – but that’s the main task pencilled in for 2017 …
Lots of ideas jostling around in my head that I’d like to take further. Medieval Swedish romance? Scandinavian and German chronicles? Or the Baltic as a starting point for thinking about literary spaces and/or looking beyond Europe? More than I can fit into the rest of this fellowship at any rate; but having decided that I’m not going to apply for any more short-term positions of this kind, I am strangely unworried by that. There is no point in rushing anything, which just accentuates this sensation of having more time than usual at this point in what has otherwise been a very busy year in one way or another.
Last week, I found myself using that time to return to the foundations and spend a few days concentrating on Old Norse grammar, specifically taking apart the ins and outs of the strong verb system so as to really understand how it works. There are still unanswered questions in my mind, which is perhaps as it should be, but it is always good to get to grips with Germanic philology like this: fun to trace how sounds and forms developed and changed, to grasp the processes behind the tables of conjugations and endings.
There is something honest about this kind of work. Just as reading early texts in the original is to come close to them – so understanding the evolution of the language in which they are written is to come closer to them still. The sense of comprehension is fuller. It is a form of reaching out emotionally and intellectually.
I suppose that is not a particularly trendy thing to say in an environment where the expectation is that research has to proceed in completely the opposite direction and show that the past ‘reaches out’ to the present in the guise of impact or solving social challenges or relevance or whatever.
Trendy or not, however, it still needs to be said. It is not that there is anything wrong with drawing connections between past and present – quite the opposite. The problem is that the current discourse goes far beyond that in the way it affects teaching and research in the Humanities, at least. Subjects such as historical linguistics or medieval studies might seem particularly vulnerable – and this is arguably evident in the extent to which one can(not) study them in the UK outside of English departments – but worrying only about them misses the point.
Take, for instance, a recent article in the Guardian that challenges the potential focus on teaching hours as a metric of quality in the Teaching Excellence Framework. Those who get their hopes up and expect sensible reflection on what good teaching actually is, will be disappointed. Instead, the author argues for extending the assessment of university quality to include opportunities for work experience and extra-curricular activities.
Utterly bizarre if you think about it: a fee-linked TEF that would have students paying more to have increased opportunities to do unpaid labour in the form of volunteering and work experience … but I digress. The point is that an article like that flips the purpose of higher education from what students put into their degree – into a question of what the degree gives students. Put slightly differently, going to university is no longer about students reaching out intellectually but about the utilitarian relevance of going to university for them. That switch in the conception of higher education as a whole is, I would suggest, in rhetoric and thinking very similar to the way politicians and funding bodies have flipped culture and the arts from something for society to engage with – into something whose relevance needs to be demonstrated to society.
I am not particularly optimistic. But in the here and now, working on Germanic philology helps me understand what I research and teach – and in that respect, it is time well spent. ‘Responsibility’ may be a loaded word these days … but integrity does come to mind as an alternative.