Fed up with the REF... and what about the babies?
In case you don't know the "REF" (the Research Excellence Framework, which sounds like the higher education of a "record of achievement") is the new version of the RAE (the Research Assessment Exercise, which was at least honest enough to admit that it was judgmental.. more like the old "school report"). It is the process by which the government evaluates the research "output" of University departments (and indeed of the individual academics within those departments) and then distributes (or not) money accordingly.
No surprise that I have little sympathy with this process. It's not that I think university academics should not be in some form accountable to those who (in large part, but not wholly) pay for them. But this process is overall a block on good, imaginative research in the humanities (and maybe in the sciences too). It dominates the thinking of University administrators (try appointing someone to a university job who -- whatever good reason -- doesn't look as if they are going to have a "robust" submission (that is new uni speak even among the dreaming spires) for the REF). And it sets a load of ingenious people off on the chase of clever ways to come out on top.. so that the government can thrash us all, or rather some of us, again. Divide and rule, it used to be called.
No department wants to be a three star (or whatever it will be called this time), else some slasher VC will come in and slash them (or, if they are VERY LUCKY INDEED, will give them extra research leave, and two new super-star colleagues (no teaching duties) so they can do better next time... dream on).
I realise, of course, that many of my own colleagues have done valiant jobs and spent weeks of their life in evaluating all this research activity in past assessement exercises, to ensure that the process is still a peer review, not some metric exercise -- which would reward the popular and bad (or to be fair the popular and good) at the expense of the brilliant and unfashionable. (A bit like Cambridge University Library thinking you can judge the value of a periodical on the basis of how many times it has been borrowed..). Dont think I'm ungrateful to them. But all the same, I dont like the system.
Today though, it isn't the higher principles, or "the system, that are annoying me. It is what the REF has done to my summer.
Now I haven't been research inactive over the last few years; indeed I have written a lot, had quite a bit of "impact" (another bit of uni new speak) and I have given two big series of lectures in the states (Sathers and Mellons) which took a hell of a lot of work to do, which other people would long to give and which I am dying to write up. What I wanted to do this summer was to get down to Roman Laughter (the Sather topic) and get it pretty well finished .. but hang on.
I have to submit 4 'outputs published between 2008 and the end of 2013. My Pompeii book is an obvious one, as is a big article about to come out on 19th century travel to Pompeii. After that I have a variety of things, including a new article in an exhibition catalogue on the secret cabinet in the Naples Museum, a total re-write of a piece on "Oriental Cults" I did a years ago (this is effectively a new paper, but will it count?), some stuff on Roman Britain in the late 19th century, plus a Darwin lecture on Risk... and a paper on Samuel Butler that didnt actually apear till 2008, although it was supposed to be out in 2007 etc etc.
What I ought to have done this summer was get down and conquer my Laughter book. That would have made the most intellectual sense, and it would have been best for the subject, and for me. But I sat down and thought, hell -- if I get to it now, it still might not come out by the end of 2013, there might be all kinds of hold ups, and the University of California Press doesnt quite get the REF issue...
What I need to be safe, I thought, is another sure fire article. So I wrote an article on the History of the Fitzwilliam Classical Collection, which I have enjoyed (a lot actually), and which I had promised... but in the end I only really did it because of the damn REF, when I should have spent the summer on Laughter.
So if anyone ever tells you that the REF doesnt skew people's research plans, I for one can tell you that it does.
Then just as I was reflecting gloomily on this subject, I was told that the most recent consultative document for the rules for the REF proposes normally giving women who have had kids no allowance in the evaluation unless they have had more than 14 months maternity leave in the 5 years (for most of us, who cant afford unpaid maternity leave, that would mean having had 3 kids in 5 years). The idea is supposed to be that you have your maternity leave and then are back to normal.(An alternative and, in my view, much better suggestion would be to credit women with an output for each baby... so one child born in the period and you would only need 3 outputs, 2 and you would only need 2).
This idea of not recognising the research effects of young babies is surely mad. I have tried writing articles with two kids under 3. It isnt about just the official maternity leave. What you need to write good articles and books in my subjects is uninterruptted thinking time. So what blights your productivity for a good while are the trips backward and forwards to feed the baby, the fact that you cant go to all those seminars you used to go to (people forget about you and what you might be doing), and you certainly cant go to conferences (unless you fancy sitting in the bog and expressing the milk for what seems like hours on end, while everyone else is networking).
If there had been an REF on these terms in the mid 1980s, I would have been a casualty (ie I would have been a failure).. and I probably would have left the University and got another job. 20 years on (and it takes 20 years) I am confident enough to say that that would have been a loss.
Where are our equal opps people when we need them?