Birmingham Cultural Studies Dept. Given Chop
hooverm at scc-fl.edu
Thu Jul 18 06:42:21 MDT 2002
Birmingham's cultural studies department given the chop
Thursday June 27 2002
Students of sociology and cultural studies at the University of Birmingham found a computer typed notice tacked to the door of the department this morning: "This department has been cancelled. Nothing else matters," it read.
Birmingham University this morning confirmed that the department - known internationally as the birthplace of cultural studies - was indeed being restructured. Although not confirmed, it seems likely that 11 staff jobs will be lost, leaving an estimated 210 students unsure of where they will be doing their degrees in September.
Staff received letters on June 20 informing them that the department would close "in its present form".
Sociology would be assimilated into the social policy and social work department, while the media, culture and society programme (MCS) would be absorbed into the institute of applied social studies.
The letter explains that the restructuring is taking place "against a backdrop of the outcome of the 2001 research Assessment Exercise". The university planned to maximise the number of five and five star ratings
in the next exercise. The department had scored a 3A.
Laura Topham who was expecting to go into her third year in the department in September, found the note this morning.
She said: "The department comes out top in the teaching score year after year. It was the first cultural studies department and you won't find a
cultural studies book without a reference to us. This was the best course I thought I could do, and Birmingham is supposed to be reliable. But it
seems they don't do enough research."
The department scored the maximum of 24 points in the teaching quality assessment last year. Degrees are highly popular with 600 applications last year for 40 places on the MCS course. Sociology is rated highest in the Guardian league tables every year they've been running.
Staff and students are angry at the way the department was closed. While rumors have been rife in the last few months, staff only received the letters informing them on the last day of term, too late to inform
students of what would be happening.
"None of us have been officially told, we are coming back in September not knowing what to. Someone's been told that we have to take courses in other
departments, but none of our courses we chose to do are running. I'm supposed to be working on my dissertation over the summer, but my
dissertation tutor has left and I don't know whether I will get the right support for it," said Ms Topham.
"It's a nightmare - we want to go to our department to find out what's happening, but no one's there," said the student, adding that she was
considering moving to another university rather than risk not being supported properly in her dissertation.
Dave Hall, the university's academic registrar, said that students had been consulted over the restructuring throughout the term, and that a meeting
with students had been arranged for next week and an email sent out to invite them.
Alice Wratten, a third year CMS student, said she had not been involved in consultation. "At the end of term we had a dissertation lecture and we were
told that there might be a couple of redundancies after the summer and that they might change. On the June 14 I asked my tutor and she said she didn't
have a job next term," she added.
"It's been very hard to get any contact with the university. I haven't received an email about a meeting. We know that some of the lecturers
have gone, but we don't know how extensive this is. Nobody knows anything."
But Dave Hall wanted to reassure students. "The degrees will be continuing, we're not closing the subject, we're restructuring the department," he
Cultural studies is taught across departments, he added, so other suitable tutors would be found for courses and the majority of courses would
remain intact and students would receive all the support they could offer.
The department had 15 members of staff. In the letter sent to them , professor Stuart Croft said that a "fixed and limited" number of posts would
remain. He goes on to outline four posts available and invites staff to meet with him to discuss them, or "enhanced terms" of early retirement or voluntary severance.
But the university said, when asked if there would be job cuts: "None at this stage. The changes will be important for some staff; we are currently
in discussion with a very small number about their individual position."
She confirmed that the department was being restructured because it went down in the RAE rankings this year.
The university now has a five-year plan that states that all departments must achieve at least a four in the RAE. The decision was made in
yesterday's council meeting to restructure, she said, adding that the university and the school of social studies believed the decision to be the
"best way forward".
Who needs critical scholarship?
Monday, July 15, 2002
Cultural Studies and the Battle for British Higher Education
By PAUL GILROY
This month the University of Birmingham announced that it was closing, or restructuring, three of its departments. Given the chaotic state of higher education in Britain, that was not
surprising. But the closures have attracted comment and
opposition, particularly because one of the units was the original program brave enough to use the term "cultural studies" to describe its innovations in the interdisciplinary study of media and culture. The program had played a major role in transforming scholarship around the world, and the
Birmingham brand name has remained strong, despite
increasingly virulent attacks on the academic probity and intellectual value of studying the media and popular culture.
The decision to close the department of sociology and cultural studies indeed reflects the sorry state of education in Britain; it is also, however, a sign of the strength of cultural studies both there and abroad.
Founded in 1964 as the Centre for Contemporary Cultural
Studies, Birmingham's program was the birthplace of
distinctive and pioneering interdisciplinary approaches to the study of class, culture, and communication. It built upon the intellectual strengths of the New Left -- particularly in the
field of history -- and drew powerful critical energy from the social and political insurgency of the late 1960s. At first meant exclusively for graduate students, it was started by Richard Hoggart, whose pathbreaking 1957 study, The Uses of Literacy, focused on the social impact on post-World War II
everyday life of nascent consumer culture, restructured gender relations, and the changing shape of households. As those inquiries became more systematic, an emerging field grew between the porous boundaries of the humanities and the fortified walls of the social sciences.
This cultural studies was committed to, but not defined by, ethnographic methods. It was engaged with, but not dominated by, structuralist and poststructuralist approaches to language
and meaning. Its innovative, critical analyses -- particularly of deviance, youth, and broadcasting -- helped to emancipate a desperate intellectual generation from a host of moribund and
Under the stewardship of Hoggart's Jamaican-born successor, Stuart Hall, the Birmingham center became known worldwide, its work circulated in a journal, a blizzard of stenciled working papers, and, eventually, a series of collectively written books. At its best, such work was not only political,
committed to a nonsectarian leftist agenda, but also grounded in educational and administrative practices that were usually democratic. Arriving to start my own graduate work at Birmingham in the 1970s, I found the conventional university hierarchy between students and teachers to have been deliberately recast; the privatized monastic rules of research
had been enthusiastically erased by people intent on
intellectual discovery rather than an academic career.
The original cultural-studies program created a global network of readers and interlocutors who, no matter how far from Britain, sensed and appreciated the unusual pedagogic circumstances in which the center's vibrant studies were being produced. Of course, it helped that the best work was theoretical without being theoreticist, and that it directed scholarly attention toward areas hardly taken seriously
elsewhere as objects of sustained academic interest.
The program was merged with sociology during the 1980s, amid an earlier phase of restructuring. The new department was required to accommodate substantial numbers of undergraduate students, altering its orientation accordingly. Rather than be imprisoned by the center's history, which had oddly begun to
acquire its own mythological value at that time, a new
generation of faculty members struck out into new areas: technology, citizenship, and the environment.
Conspiracy theorists may present the Birmingham closure as a matter of settling scores by colleagues envious of the reputation of its cultural-studies brand; or it may be seen as belated punishment for radicalism. Indeed, earlier incarnations of the unit had a history of conflict with administrators who found its innovations hard to accept and its political positions unpalatable. However, this month's
announcement has less to do with the specifically political character of cultural studies, either in the institution or beyond, and everything to do with immediate pressures on higher education in Britain.
It is far more accurate -- and indeed, more worrisome -- to understand the university's actions within the current crisis of British higher education. The symptoms are everywhere. The same week Birmingham unveiled its decision, a prime minister who had made "education, education, education" the clarion
call of his incoming administration was discovered to be employing private tutors to supplement the education his teenage children were receiving at an elite state school, thereby bolstering their prospects for Oxbridge admission. The Labor minister for higher education, Margaret Hodge, was pressing hard for 50 percent of British schoolchildren to go
on to higher education, to produce an intellectual rather than a social elite; at the same time, many grants have been abolished and levels of student debt are climbing steeply.
The country's older, richer, and better-established
universities are loudly pursuing a campaign to finance their operations by substantial increases in tuition. The newer, poorer, and less-respected ones, which have done most to widen access and make admissions more diverse, complain that requiring them to compete for research money to finance many of their operations is unjust and self-defeating. In the background, damaging disputes about the whole sector's apparent inability to address issues of institutional racism
and sexism raised by faculty members are rumbling on.
Morale among the professoriate is very low, pay and working conditions continue to decline, and higher education faces the prospect of huge job loses in the immediate future. The use of adjuncts and fixed-term contracts is becoming the new norm.
Despite this volatile atmosphere, the closing of the
Birmingham department seemed unlikely because it came after the unit had been awarded maximum marks in the government's assessment of teaching. The sociology program had also been judged, as seen in data drawn from government tables, to be providing the best undergraduate training available nationally. According to the market-based thinking that has
recently predominated among university managers, the
department, with student recruitment buoyant and a steady flow of graduate students and visiting faculty members from all over the world, was clearly a success.
But the closures of well-known departments at Birmingham, the University of Leicester, where the respected Centre for Mass Communication Research is also being shut, and elsewhere signal the start of a concerted attempt to reorganize higher
education in Britain, in the biggest shake-up since the
transformation of the old polytechnics into new universities a few years ago. The goal is an institutional pattern in which a small, well-financed group of research institutions will
compete in global markets, while the task of fulfilling the government's target of greater participation in higher education will fall upon everybody else.
Academic tenure was abolished in Britain during Margaret Thatcher's early years, but there has been reluctance to sack faculty members -- well-organized and enjoying widespread student loyalty -- as part of institutional reforms. The hand of university managers has now been forced by the government's
reluctance to finance higher education adequately.
Restructuring, with extensive redundancies among faculty members, is presented as the only alternative.
The rationale for closing the Birmingham department was
provided by its performance in the government's controversial Research Assessment Exercise. Disciplinary panels read the work of faculty members in each department. The resulting data
are then used to allocate money. Excellence in teaching does not bring equivalent financial benefits. The overall quality of research conducted in the Birmingham department was not felt to have been up to the level of excellence demanded by
university management. To consolidate the institution's
position among the emergent elite, administrators have decided that none of their departments will in future be ranked at less than level 4, the benchmark of national excellence. Cultural studies was ranked just below, at 3a, in 2001.
Apart from the financial inequalities of the evaluation
system, other problems with it exist. There has been, for example, inflation in the number of institutions considered excellent, partly because some have become adept at manipulating the procedures of assessment. The political battle is shifting toward the principle of peer review, until now considered fundamental. Panelists assigned to evaluate their colleagues' work may not be willing to discharge that thankless, Herculean task if closures and job losses are the
inevitable result. Whether the unsavory process will pass out of the hands of faculty members altogether, and into the talons of managers, remains to be seen. The procedures for the next round of evaluations will be available in the fall. A review of the entire system is now under way.
As for cultural studies, far from being a symbol of the
exhaustion of a project that has run its course, the
termination of the Birmingham department might be
reinterpreted as another measure of the impact of cultural studies as a project. It's not just that the "restructuring" proposed by the university will be easier because it is able to say that faculty members in many other Birmingham departments and disciplines are all now "doing cultural studies." Cultural studies, for good or ill, is everywhere.
Its worldwide popularity marks out a deeper realignment in the constellation of disciplines and scholarly interests. The mythic wellspring amid Birmingham's red brick is no longer needed. The current closures will be fought, but what is at
stake in that confrontation is the future of British higher education, not the future of cultural studies.
Paul Gilroy is a professor of sociology and chair of
African-American studies at Yale University, and a visiting professorial fellow at Goldsmiths College, University of London. He is the author of, among other books, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (Harvard University Press, 1993).
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