Category Archives: General

Being Privileged

Hello. My name is Mike, and I am privileged. 

This is not a confession. I am trying to beat neither my breast nor your brow. I am, instead, hoping to understand better the kinds of privilege that I enjoy, the effects that they have, and the ways in which I hide them from my own attention.

Most of what I say will long have been obvious to other people, in its general application, but no doubt also in its specific application to me (if for a much smaller audience). Late to this party, I am trying to catch up – but I thought it might be helpful to try catching up in public, just in case there are others around as slow on the uptake as me.

All the forms of privilege that I am going to talk about are widespread; they are general to the point of being banal. The ways in which those generalities play out in any given life are, however, particular. In order to talk about my privilege, I am therefore going to have to talk in some detail about myself. Making myself the centre of attention is (to say the least) not the most obvious antidote to the problems I am about to describe, but I have managed to persuade myself that it makes sense in this case. I have, after all, been trained to write as if with neutral authority, downplaying the specifics of my identity and position – and that is itself one of the patterns of behaviour that helps to keep my privilege undisturbed. I am hoping this particular endeavour will be more self-subverting than self-serving, though I wouldn’t like to take bets.

This is going to have three main parts. I am going to begin by describing some of the kinds of power that I enjoy as a senior academic. (I first typed ‘relatively senior’, then ‘fairly senior’. It was a struggle to delete the adverb, and not just because I am denial about the big birthday that is not very far away.) I will move on to describe various kinds of privilege that feed into and shape that power – an Argos catalogue of unearned advantages that have helped me get to the position I’m in, that help me stay in it, and that reinforce the power that I exercise now that I am here. Finally, I will turn to my obliviousness to that privilege – and to some of the factors that conspire to keep my privilege out of sight and mind.

Power 

I have considered sticking a post-it note to my bathroom mirror, saying ‘Remember: you’re the establishment now.’ I need reminding that I occupy a position of considerable academic power, whether I acknowledge it or not.

This is difficult to write about without falling into laughable self-aggrandisement, but as a senior academic (there’s that shudder again), I am inevitably a gatekeeper. I mark students’ work; I conduct vivas; I vet applications for PhD places; I write references for students’ and colleagues’ job applications; I sit on appointment panels; I contribute to my department’s promotions committee; I review book proposals for publishers and articles for journals; I scrutinise grant applications. I have more opportunities than I can quickly name to influence who gets to enter my corner of the academic world, who gets to speak here, and who gets to be taken seriously – and those opportunities are built in to my job.

Alongside all this, there are the activities more obviously connected with my role as a university teacher. I have very considerable freedom to set the syllabus for my own teaching, to choose reading lists, to design assignments, to specify what I am looking for from students in those assignments, and to mark the results. I get to tell a whole bunch of people what counts as academic knowledge, and to do so in a context where I have some power over their results, and so over the course that their lives might now take.

I don’t want to overstate the case: I exercise this power only in a small domain, I exercise it alongside many others, it is properly limited in any number of ways, and there are some fairly robust systems of accountability that hedge me about. But the power I wield is nevertheless considerable and, whatever fantasies I may entertain about my responsible exercise of it, I need only look about me to see the possibilities for irresponsibility that it brings with it.

In my own case, this power is dramatized to an almost absurd degree by my role in the Common Awards partnership. Durham University is the validating body for a wide network of Theological Education Institutions, working with the Church of England’s central bureaucracy to monitor academic standards for thousands of students and hundreds of staff all across the UK. A constant stream of requests for my approval of changes and new endeavours crosses my desk, and I get to say ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ to each one. Again: I am not alone, there are quite a few checks and balances, and were my purpose different I could explain just how limited this power turns out to be in practice. There is, however, no denying the fact that in this role I carry the rubber stamps saying ‘valid’ and ‘invalid’, and that I am required to use them pretty constantly. The power could hardly be clearer, even were my metaphorical rubber stamps to be replaced with literal ones.

At a subtler level: however much I fear (and I do) that the academic world is full of people who know that I am a second-rate scholar – people who have seen through me – I do believe that, on the whole, I am taken seriously. That doesn’t mean I regard myself as a big name. I don’t think, for instance, that future generations of PhD students will (or should) be writing theses on me, or that my surname will ever turn into a widely used adjective. I do recognise, however, that I get to play a visible role in the evolving conversations of my discipline. (We’ll need to come back to the fear side of this equation later, not least because it is bubbling up even as I type. I’m itching to take back what I have just written, or to qualify it out of existence, even though that very itch plays its part in my ability to deny the power that I wield. For now, however, I am forcing myself to leave the claim in place.)

One way of summarising all this is to say that my position brings with it power to shape the reproduction of the academic institutions of which I am a part. I get to shape the next generation of my discipline, of my department, of my university, of the professional associations of which I am a part. And I get to shape them by drawing on the standards of judgment that I have internalised and that I inhabit. I get to shape them such that those standards are preserved and passed on. In that sense, I get to influence the reproduction of these institutions so that the next generation looks like me.

I am the establishment now. And, yes, that is a scary thought.

Privilege

From power, we turn to privilege. By ‘privilege’, I mean the basket of factors that have given me an advantage over others, in my journey towards the position of power that I now occupy. I mean the factors that help me stay in it, and that make the exercise of that power easier and more effective. In particular, I mean those factors that sit beside the kinds of formal qualification, accumulated expertise, and institutional experience that get named in job descriptions and CVs, and that are discussed in job interviews.

In this section, I’m unavoidably going to sound smug – unbearably so. I’m going to be talking about all sorts of things that work in my favour, things that make my academic life easier. This is meant to be an acknowledgement of unfair advantage, not a flaunting of my capital – but I recognise that the effect might still be somewhat sickening. I only hope it is also useful to see how privilege functions in a case like mine.

First, I look the part. I am a middle-aged White male. I have never had the experience of turning up for an academic event and having someone assume that I am the assistant, the driver, or the person delivering the food. I have had the experience, when standing next to an academic who is not a middle-aged White male, of having people wrongly assume that I must be the researcher or the speaker that they were looking for.

In fact, I look the part so thoroughly that I can get away with a lot. You could think of my whole academic career as an experiment in how scruffy I can look before I cease to look the part – how dishevelled I can be before people start thinking that I can’t be the serious academic that they were expecting. Of course, I go in for an obviously middle-class scruffiness, so I’m not pushing the experiment all the way – but the answer turns out to be that, if you look like me, you can get away with a lot.

And I was trained on a diet of theologians who looked like me. Not only do I benefit from other people thinking I look the part, I benefit from knowing myself that I look the part. I was trained on a white, Western canon of theological texts. It was a training in which Black and Asian writers were, if they appeared at all, confined to their own week (often just after the week on feminist approaches): they were niche, not normal; nobody expected me to identify with them, emulate them, or look like them. These eccentric bodies did not perturb a curriculum that orbited a White sun: a system in which I learnt to think that theologians looked like me, and that I looked like a theologian.

Second, as well as looking the part, I sound the part. I speak with some kind of generic received-pronunciation accent. No doubt there’s a Henry Higgins out there who could position me more precisely, but to most ears (including my own) I probably just sound middle class. I was once at a restaurant in Italy with my family, and after the meal a German man from the next table came over to ask us where we were from, because we sounded just like the clearly enunciated audios for the English language training course he was taking. (I’m also, by the way, the kind of person who can unthinkingly throw references to My Fair Ladyand to Italian holidays into a paragraph like this, and assume that he won’t distance himself from his audience by doing so – and that’s another point I’ll have to come back to.)

I grew up in Southend, on the Thames estuary. At school (though not at home or church) I spoke with some kind of estuarine Essex accent. I wasn’t particularly aware of it at the time, and made no conscious effort to leave it behind, but it has now completely vanished. I can’t even fake it now, without sounding like a generic Guy Ritchie mobster. Now that it has gone, I sound like most people expect English academics to sound, and no-one has ever told me that I don’t sound like a professor.

There is another way in which I sound the part. I do a lot of writing and speaking as part of my job, and I know that I pass pretty convincingly as a purveyor of the kind of English that an academic should produce. And yet I think of myself as writing and speaking in a voice that is my own. I am not adopting a tone or style that foreign or uncomfortable to me. The kinds of English I leant at home, at school, and at university were a good preparation for the language I now speak – because academic English has deep entanglements with White, middle-class speech.

There’s an interesting side-effect of this. Because I sound the part – or, rather, because I have so seldom had to worry about whether I sound the part – I can experiment with speaking in simpler, less academic registers without worrying that people will stop recognising me as an academic. I can try to cut down on the long words and the technical vocabulary. I can focus on simple explanations and colourful analogies. My success in that may be very uneven, but I have never had to worry that, if I succeed, I will stop sounding like I belong behind my podium. I can also get away with jokes, sarcasm, and puns, without worrying that my audience will stop taking me seriously (another claim that I regularly test to its limits). I can even be self-deprecating, and (as I did right at the start of this whole piece) describe myself publicly as ‘slow on the uptake’ without worrying that I’m going to reinforce anyone’s worries that I’m not a real academic. I am (without really noticing it) too secure to worry about that.

So: I look the part, and I sound the part. I also have the right background. Most obviously, I went to university in Cambridge. I don’t think I’ve ever got in a door simply because some hearty figure explicitly favoured a fellow ‘Cambridge man’. I am certain that I have never secured an advantage by wearing a college tie, because I don’t (see above, under scruffiness). But I have lost count of the number of occasions on which I have discovered that a fellow academic was at Cambridge at a similar time to me, and that we have some shared reference points, some shared history – and we have relaxed a little more quickly in each other’s company than we might otherwise have done. That has to have had at least a subliminal impact on the extent to which we recognise each other as belonging in a shared academic world.

I also benefit from one of the key features of a Cambridge education, as I experienced it: a rigorous training in getting away with it. I went through the Cambridge supervision system – which, in my case, meant a regular experience of reading and discussing my essays one-on-one with senior academics. That was, for me, a training in speaking the right kind of language, and in bluffing my way through when I had only a thin skin of knowledge to draw upon. Of course, my own experience of that system was shaped by the fact that I was treated like I belonged. I didn’t have to put up with a barrage of micro-aggressions – all those subtle and not-so-subtle signals that I wasn’t quite what my supervisors expected. And it helped that I entered the process with an accumulated stock of academic confidence, drawn from my previous educational experiences. With that background and that confidence, it proved to be an extensive and effective training in sounding like I know what is going on.

More specifically, doing a PhD in the Divinity Faculty in Cambridge meant that I was part of a large enough residential cohort that I got used to intense conversation directly in my sub-discipline. And thanks to Cambridge’s power of invitation, I also got to hear many major names from the wider theological world – and not just to hear them. I got to meet, to talk to, and to be part of small-group discussions with, a whole roster of big names. It was easy to come out of that experience (given the confidence with which I entered it, and the absence of experiences of exclusion within it) feeling a sense of belonging in my own academic discipline. I can therefore walk into, say, the reception at the start of a Society for the Study of Theology conference and feel that this is my crowd: the conversation is of a kind I recognise, the references are ones I get, the names mentioned are people I know. I’ve had a training in feeling part of this conversation.

I have also internalised standards of judgment that constantly reinforce my sense that the conversation I am a part of is the theological conversation – a sense that has been bred into many of those around me, too. I was, for instance, trained in an academic community in which, on the whole, everyone read the same books – or at least one in which we read strongly overlapping collections of books, knotted together by a forest of cross-references and citations. We each, that is, read selections from the same established canon of White, western theology. And because we were all reading the same things, it was easy to think that what we were reading mattered – and that most of what mattered was somewhere within our ken. We were trained to think that seriousness was not just illustrated by but consisted in an ability to engage in depth and detail with that canon – and we were trained to display just that seriousness, and to recognise it in one another.

There is, however, another, less academic sense in which I have the right background. I am well-rooted in a certain kind of White culture. I can quote Monty Python, The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, Flanders and Swann, and Tom Lehrer; I can discus Lord of the Rings and Doctor Who; I know my way around Harry Potter, The West WingBuffy the Vampire Slayer, and Battlestar Galactica; I can dig back to Blue PeterJohn Craven’s Newsround (i.e., the real Newsround), Ivor the EngineBagpuss and the Clangers. In lots of UK academic contexts – especially in conference bars – this provides a shared world of references and jokes that are clearly generation-specific, but that otherwise pass as generic. We all know this stuff, don’t we?

And, more generally, I drop references all the time that probably signal that I am a middle-aged, middle-class White guy – remember Henry Higgins and the Italian holiday, for instance – and expect that in the average university common room in the UK, most people will recognise what I am on about.

Because I look the part, sound the part, and have a recognisable background, I fit easily into White, middle-class, English academia. As far as I am aware, most of the other White, middle-class, English gatekeepers in that world have to spend very little energy negotiating how to respond to me. I am, from their point of view, recognisable; I am safe.

And I could go on. I’m cisgender and heterosexual, and although I get into serious and sometimes upsetting conversations about gender and sexuality, I can always walk away from them: they are seldom conversations about my experience, my body, or my right to live as I do. I am cis in a world built on cis assumptions, and so the people I engage with don’t have to expend energy on establishing and remembering how to engage with me, or what pronouns to use for me. As a man, I can travel around the UK, walking in the dark from train stations to hotels to restaurants, without it occurring to me to worry about my own safety. I have never been stopped and searched, never had to explain myself to the police. (Actually, there was one incident many years ago, when I was part of a group of friends heading off in on holiday together in a minibus. The police pulled us over, possibly on suspicion that we were heading off to sabotage a hunt – but we sent such unmistakable signals of respectability that they politely let us go on our way the moment they had seen our clothes, heard our accents, and registered our general demeanour.)

All of these factors – and many more – are woven around any actual academic ability, labour, and achievement that I display. They seem to mean that, on the whole, people in the academic worlds that I inhabit give me the benefit of the doubt. People tend to assume that I know what I am talking about, even when the evidence is thin. If I am quiet in a meeting, people are (it seems) pretty likely to assume that I understand what is going on and even that I am judging the other people in the room, rather than that I am lost. If people don’t understand me, they are fairly likely to assume that the problem is theirs, not mine.

And this sense of academic belonging is written deeply into my body. A year or so back, I was showing the daughter of close friends of mine around the university – and I took her and her family into a lecture room, to show her something of the kind of teaching space she could expect. Everyone else went and sat on the ranked seating; I headed to the front – and automatically took on my teaching persona. I stood differently – I am told that I changed shape, embodying my academic authority in my posture and deportment. That’s my space, up there at the front, and I know how to inhabit it. I belong.

Obliviousness

My first section, on power, risked sounding laughably self-aggrandising. My second section, on privilege, risked unbearable smugness. In this section – on all the ways in which it is easy for me to overlook or deny both my power and my privilege – I have to risk sounding like I am offering a series of excuses. Again, that is really not my intention. I have been slow on the uptake – slow to acknowledge the power I have accrued, and slow to recognise the forms of privilege that enable and reinforce it – but I could and should have been much faster. I am not trying to exonerate myself, but to understand the processes by which – with others’ help – I have managed to hide these things from myself, or persuade myself that I didn’t need to take them seriously. By offering this analysis, I’m hoping to make it harder for myself – and perhaps some others in similar situations – to get away with this kind of inattention in future.

There is one very good reason why I (and others like me) might need that post-it note stuck to the mirror. It turns out to be very easy to convince myself that I am still a member of the rebellion even though it should by now be obvious to everyone that I work for the Empire. (Or the First Order / Final Order – pick the Star Wars reference that works best for you.) There are, in other words, many of us pillars of the establishment who are still telling ourselves the story that we are part of a scrappy insurgency.

In myself, I can identify two main factors contributing to this. The first is simply the fact that succeeding to power does not feel like you image it will feel. It is similar to becoming an adult: few of us end up feeling the kind of confidence, the kind of stability and responsibility, that we imagined our parents to be feeling. (I realise this is a comment that makes sense for someone who grew up in a protective and supportive household, where I really could trust that there were adults who would sort things out if they went wrong. That’s another advantage that I enjoy.) We become adults, but we never become what we imagined adults to be. It is the same with academic power. When I was a student, and even when I was an early-career researcher and teacher, I projected on to the senior members of my department all kinds of security and mastery – and although I have now become a senior academic myself, I have never become what I imagined a senior academic to be. I still struggle with social awkwardness and anxiety; I still feel like an impostor – and it never occurred to me that my own teachers might feel that way.

The second factor is simply that I carry with me the memory of being an outsider, and that it is more vivid than the knowledge that I now belong. I am still the boy who – with the hand-eye co-ordination of a pineapple and the physical grace of a radiator – was picked last for sports teams in school. I am still the teenager who came from a context in which it was unheard of to go to Cambridge, and who arrived at university knowing himself to be on foreign soil. I am still the student who, having arrived at university to read maths, believed the story that admissions for maths were more truly meritocratic than those for other subjects, and that it was intellect rather than privilege that had taken him there.

These stories go deep. I still remember the slight disappointment I felt (alongside some delight) when I realised that my maternal grandfather had been to university in Durham, as part of his ordination training. It disrupted the story I had told myself (and others) about coming from a non-university family – and I was reluctant to let that story go. I also know that I tell myself the story of having been an outsider in Cambridge even though I also know how quickly and how deeply I learnt that I belonged. I used, for instance, to go on restless night-time walks around the city. On one of the very first of these walks, within a few days of arriving in Cambridge, I found myself in a dark alleyway, and saw the silhouettes of two large men standing at the far end. It occurred to me (for once) to feel slightly nervous – it was, I think, the small hours of the morning, and they were definitely looming. I carried on, however, and as I passed them heard one talking earnestly to the other about the difficulty of mapping between certain kinds of Riemann surface and the complex plane (or something like that). I remember thinking, with a small burst of relief, ‘Oh, this is my place! These are my people!’ (whilst also realising that this response might not be quite universal). Finally, I remember that, by Christmas of that first year, I was already thinking of Cambridge as home and of Southend as a place to which I was returning for a visit – and feeling irritated resentment towards those of my new friends who expressed homesickness, or who still found Cambridge intimidating, or who spoke of the snobbery that I had expected but not in the event encountered.

That last comment, by the way, reflects a pattern that I have also seen in myself in other contexts. After feeling very much out of place and anxious – and doing things like giving myself a (low) numerical target for the number of new people I would force myself talk to during my first couple of conferences – I began to feel unexpectedly but delightedly at home in the Society for the Study of Theology (and especially its bar). And I felt irritated resentment towards those who pointed out the forms of exclusion, the power games and bad behaviour, that continued to mar its life. It took me a shockingly long time to recognise the part that various of the forms of privilege mentioned in the previous section had played in my own experience of welcome – and to see how very uneven was the reach of that welcome. (I’m pleased to say that SST has, in recent years – though not through any effort of mine – been taking very seriously the need to put its house in order in this regard.)

More generally, there are still so many easy ways of framing myself as the outsider, the person on the low end of various gradients of power. I work in universities rather than in business or in politics, which automatically makes me someone who critiques from the sidelines, with much more knowledge than power. I’m an academic rather than someone in university management – and so on the receiving end of diktats and initiatives that I can’t easily influence. (And even though I am now, in my Common Awards role, somewhat closer to management, I still don’t wear a suit and tie, so you can see on which side of the divide you will find my heart.) I’m a theologian – and theology is (I still tend to assume) a discipline looked down upon by other academics. Among theologians, I think of myself as not really having a sub-disciplinary home: I’m not a proper dogmatician, or a theological philosopher, or a historian: I’m a generalist, a dilettante, who doesn’t quite belong anywhere – or so I can still tell myself. And – like, I think, the majority of my colleagues at all levels of seniority – I still fear being found out. Most days, I think I’m only just getting away with it, passing as a successful academic only because no-one is looking too closely at what I can’t do, what I don’t know, what I’ve not managed to understand.

In other words: I never really have to face up to having power. I never have to ask myself about the privilege that has enabled that power – because I don’t see the power, and because I do see everything in my past and present that resembles a disadvantage. And I inhabit academic spaces in which I am not often faced – or was not often faced until recently – with challenges to this comfortable delusion. I could think I was reading everything that mattered without reading voices from outside my bubble; I could think I was hearing all the voices that mattered without hearing from people who did not sound like me; I could think I was seeing all the faces that mattered without noticing the absence of people who did not look like me.

In fact, it’s not just that I am not often faced with questions about my position – I am actively encouraged not to take those questions seriously. The academic training that I received deeply shaped my sense of what questions are interesting, what kinds of evidence are telling, what kinds of rigour valuable. And that sense was very narrow in scope. I emerged from this training, for instance, much more likely to see merit in an analysis that really gets to grips with the logic of anhypostatic Christology than with one that really gets to grips with the social location of people who talk about Christology in that way. I was trained to see high-octane intellectual skill in the former far more easily than I see it in the latter. Imagine, then, that I am shown two pieces of work. The first is superb on the technicalities of high Christology, but is frankly rather slipshod where it touches on that Christology’s entanglement with Christian lives and politics. The second is superb on the entanglement with life and politics, but frankly rather slipshod on the technicalities of high Christology. I emerged from my academic training ready to dismiss the latter as not being serious, while treating the former as brilliant but flawed – or perhaps just as brilliant. It was, in other words, a training in looking elsewhere. It was a training in thinking it a distraction or an irrelevance to pay too much attention to the politics of my own academic work. I was formed to be a member of an academic community that maintains its power by strategic inattentiveness.

One last thing. In academia, there is always someone more irresponsible than you – someone who pays less attention, someone who draws boundaries around their world more blatantly, someone who wields their power more destructively, who does more to exclude and marginalise those who don’t look like them. It is therefore easy – very easy – to go on telling yourself the story that (compared to them) you’re one of the good guys – and then quietly to drop the parenthesis.

So what?

The story I have just told is primarily psychological – a story of the mental work I do to hide my privilege from myself, and of the personal history that fuels that work. The story is not simply psychological, however. My story takes the form it does in part because of the way intellectual work is perceived in our culture – which means it is very common for people to arrive at academic power trailing stories of outsiderdom. My story takes the form it does in part because of the way the academic community I entered systematically hides its own power, the better to exercise it – the result not so much of individual scheming and manipulation, but of the long-term emergence of self-protective structures by something like institutional natural selection. My story takes the form it does in part, perhaps, because of the way that the whole university sector is set up to reproduce our societal status quo while fostering the ineffective development and expression of critique. We are a safety valve that keeps business as usual from boiling over.

Nevertheless, the point of writing all this is to help myself think through the workings of privilege in my own particular case – and perhaps to help others who recognise parallels in their own cases to do the same. And the point of doing that is simply to encourage us to do something about it: to encourage us to work to find out how to inhabit differently the power that goes with our position, to take more notice of what it is that we are helping to reproduce, to challenge the exclusions and the gradients of respect and attention that shape our academic world, to listen to a wider range – a much wider range – of voices.

That work is already being undertaken by a huge number of people. It is varied, complex, deep, and ongoing. And so the next step for someone like me is not particularly to initiate or to innovate, but to learn – and to join in. I have put myself at the centre of this particular piece of writing, but nobody (including me) should think that this places me anywhere near the centre of the ongoing endeavour to make the academic world more diverse, more welcoming, and more open.

I am, as I said at the start, playing catch-up – and I know I have a very long way to go.

Applying for Jobs

I wrote this for a Departmental postgrad handbook, the publication of which has now been delayed – so I thought I would post it here.  I’ve been involved in another shortlisting process this week, and it only served to reinforce these ideas.

Writing an Application

I am not an extrovert.  The process of writing a job application – a document in which I am supposed to praise myself to strangers – is a peculiar kind of torture.  I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve done it now, but it has never lost that sting of embarrassment and awkwardness.

I think, though, that I have now learnt how to do it.  Of course, you’d have to ask the members of the Department here, who read my application for my current job, whether I did the right thing – though I guess it can’t have been too awful, given that I’m here.  But my confidence is not based so much on that, as on the fact that I have also now had the experience of reading hundreds of other people’s job applications.  Probably more than a thousand.  And whilst I won’t pretend that it is as unpleasant an experience as writing my own, I do find it dispiriting in its own unique way – because so many people who write them throw their chances away.

So, here is some advice from a serial application reader, about how to make sure your application is not prematurely thrown on to the ‘reject’ pile.

You have seen an advert for an academic job that you would like, and you have decided to send in an application.  How do your maximize your chances of being one of the lucky few chosen to get called to interview?

It is worth remembering that the first and most important purpose of your application is to get you on to the shortlist.  That may sound obvious, but it actually underlies everything else that I’m about to say.  Imagine that I’m in charge of this particular job search.  Imagine me sitting with a huge pile of applications in front of me – often fifty or a hundred, sometimes many more – and with not very much time.  I’m not asking you to feel sorry for me, just to picture the situation.  Imagine me trying to make a fair but quick decision about which applications to throw on the reject pile, in order to get it down to a manageable size – an initial long list.

At this stage, I can promise you that I am not going to be reading each application in great detail, developing a rich and well-informed picture of each applicant’s individual character and strengths.  There simply isn’t the time.  Rather, I’m going to be skimming through the applications in haste to see which of them match their selection criteria.  In fact, the last several times I’ve done this, I’ve had a spreadsheet open in front of me, with the name of every applicant down the side, and a list of criteria across the top, and I’ve simply gone through writing some variant of ‘Yes’, ‘No’ or ‘Maybe’ in every box.  Only when I’ve used that process to weed out most of the applicants will I spend more time with the applications still standing, trying to make a final selection.  So that is what you are up against, at least to begin with.

But – and this is the most important thing to realize – in any well run process, you will have been told in advance what the criteria are, in whatever ‘Further Particulars’ or ‘Person Specification’ or ‘Job Details’ document was made available to prospective applicants.

So, in order to maximize your chances, you need to follow these simple rules.

Rule 1: Read the Further Particulars carefully.

Rule 2: Read the Further Particulars carefully again.

Rule 3: Read the Further Particulars carefully one more time.  (If you’ve reached this step, you are already ahead of the majority of other applicants.  Trust me.)

Rule 4: Find out whatever else you can about the job.  If it is an academic job, do you know someone in the relevant department?  Give them a ring and ask them to tell you what sort of person the department is looking for.  Do the Further Particulars give the details of a key contact, and invite you to get in touch?  Use them, and ask them whether they can give you more detail about what they need from the appointee.  Unless you take up stalking at this point, you’re not going to do yourself any harm, and you may get a clearer sense of what the criteria in the Further Particulars really mean.

Rule 5: Don’t simply submit the same application for every job.  Just don’t.  Your aim in your application is not to say how great you are in the abstract.  It is to show that you fit this job, and that this job fits you.  The application you wrote for another job last week will not work for this job, unless the two jobs are identical.  If you haven’t got time to write a fresh application for this job, then you don’t have time to apply for this job.

Rule 6: For any application where you are allowed to write a covering letter, do so – and use it to set out clearly how you meet the criteria given in the Further Particulars.  After a brief and formal opening paragraph, the content of which doesn’t really matter, take those criteria one by one, and write a paragraph highlighting the ways in which you meet that criterion.  So, if they say they want someone who can teach modern Jewish philosophy, who has published at least two articles, and who can juggle flaming torches, you should write a covering letter with a paragraph that highlights the experience you have teaching modern Jewish philosophy, a paragraph pointing out that you have one article published and another on its way, and a paragraph explaining that you can indeed juggle three flaming torches, and on a good day four.  Follow the order in which the criteria are given in the Further Particulars; use the same language that they use.  Make it as easy as you can for a panel member reading your application to see at a glance that, yes, you meet their criteria – or that you come close, and are on your way to meeting them soon.  You may be able to combine a number of the smaller-scale criteria into a single paragraph – but try to make sure that you still clearly cover all of them.

Rule 7: Tweak your CV so that it provides clear evidence to back up your letter.  Your letter can refer the reader to your CV for more detailed evidence (‘As you will see from my CV, I have juggled flaming torches in market towns across West Kent and South London’).  See below for more CV advice.

Rule 8: Make both documents – your letter and CV – clear, uncluttered, and readable.  A covering letter that is six dense, narrow-margined pages of unbroken prose in Comic Sans (and, yes, that does happen) is not going to do you any favours.  Unless you are given different instructions (did you read the Further Particulars?) the rule for non-academic jobs tends to be a one-page covering letter and two-page CV.  For an academic job, I’d aim for two pages for your covering letter, without getting too precious about hitting that length exactly, and let the length of your CV be determined by what needs to go in it to provide full evidence of the way you meet the criteria.  Aim for well-ordered clarity and simplicity – for professionalism, elegance, and readability.  Avoid dense complexity like the plague.

Rule 9: Check what you have written.  And check it again.  And again.  And again.  And then get someone else to check it.  Eliminate typos, clumsy formatting, bad grammar, awkward phrasing, sentences of baroque complexity, any impressive-sounding phrases that you don’t actually understand, and any lavish adjectives that aren’t matched by the evidence.  By the time I’m on application number 75, I’m just about ready to scream at every covering letter that reads like a bad entry in a highbrow literary prose-writing competition.  Just cut to the chase!  Tell me what I need to know!  Please!

Rule 10: Select good referees.  Choose people who know you and your work.  Choose people who like you and your work.  If possible, for academic jobs, choose people who are prominent enough to be known to your selection panel.  Ask them (if at all possible) well in advance, and then send them a copy of your application (both the letter and the CV) and a copy of the Further Particulars.  If they have to send in the reference themselves (rather than being approached by the selection panel), send them a polite reminder a week before the deadline.

Rule 11: And, finally – read those Further Particulars yet again, and make sure you’ve done everything you were asked to do, exactly as you were asked to do it.

And good luck!

Creating a CV

I have always found writing a CV an anxiety-inducing task.  It’s not awkward in quite the same way as writing a covering letter is awkward, because it is more formalized, so it feels less like you’ve been asked to tell a roomful of people just how marvellous you are.  But I could never shake the feeling that I simply didn’t have enough to put in my CV, and that other people’s were bound to be much more impressive.

Just as with covering letters, though, the experience of reading hundreds of other people’s CVs, as I have sat on numerous appointment panels, has helped me to realise that approaching the task the right way can make a big difference.  Just as with your covering letter, you can put yourself quite a long way up the pile just by writing your CV sensibly.  I should say, though, that I only really know about CVs written by candidates applying for academic jobs, so if you’re applying for some other kind of job you’ll need to take the following advice only cautiously.

The first piece of advice, though, goes for all job applications.  You should definitely produce a new CV for each application.  That doesn’t mean you need to start each time from scratch, but it does mean that you need to rework the content and presentation so that it matches the job you’re applying for.  (And this is the one bit of the advice I’m giving you that I have consistently followed myself – so I now have a hard drive littered with the carcasses of dead CVs, because I’ve written so many.)

Just as with your covering letter, remember that your CV is going to be looked at by people who have a number of criteria in mind, and are checking to see that you meet them.  So your task in laying out your CV is to make sure that all the evidence they need is very easy to find.  It’s not a bad idea, for instance, to rearrange the CV so that its main sections follow the order of the criteria from the job description – though do remember that, by convention, your list of publications should come at the end (and that’s where an appointment panel member will automatically turn if they’re interested in what you’ve written).

If you’re applying for an academic job that requires someone who has a PhD, the education section of your CV only really needs to tell the panel about your PhD, any Masters-level degrees, and your undergraduate degrees.  No one on the panel is going to be interested in what exams you passed at school – unless there’s a criterion in the job description about ‘a good general education’, or something similar.

When you give your employment history, briefly explain your key duties for each job – if (and only if) it will help you demonstrate that you meet some of the criteria from the job description, or if it will help you demonstrate that you have directly relevant experience.  Use, where you can, some of the language from the job description.  If they say they want someone who can ‘communicate clearly in written and spoken English’ for instance, and you had a summer job as a tour guide, you might want to say that it ‘required clear oral communication with diverse audiences’ or something similar.  Do keep it brief and relevant, however. I, for instance, have finally been persuaded that I no longer need to mention my teenage paper round, even though it did demonstrate some key paper-folding skills and an ability to work on my own when tired and cold.

If you have some teaching experience, look through any written feedback you got (from formal student feedback questionnaires, or from peer review, or from a mentor, or whatever) – and quote it, briefly.  (If it is good, that is.  This is not one of the settings in which you are being asked to demonstrate laceratingly honest self-awareness.)

Include as full a list as you can of any presentations you have given at conferences or symposia or seminars, or to other audiences outside the university.

List whatever other of your involvements or activities you think are relevant.  And remember, they are relevant if you can tie them to the criteria given in the job description; otherwise, they are not.  Mentioning you were in your university chess club is probably going to be ignored in all bit a few rather unusual academic contexts.

When listing publications, you will probably feel (like almost everyone else who has ever produced a CV for an academic job application) that you don’t have enough to put down.  Don’t scrape the barrel – the panel are not going to be interested in the paragraph you wrote for your school magazine when you were eleven.  But do put in commissioned pieces that are not yet written, and forthcoming pieces, as long as you describe them as such honestly, and are clear about their exact status. Oh, and if you list book reviews at  all, separate them out into a distinct section of your list, even if they’re kind of all you have for now.  It doesn’t do you any good at all if someone looks at your bibliography and thinks, ‘Oh, that’s a good long . . . oh, hang on a minute, they’re all book reviews!’

If you’ve had any reviews of or responses to your published work, quote them briefly.  (Again: only if they’re good.  It might be possible to win points by quoting a review of such startling, excoriating venom that you elicit awed sympathy from your reader – but that’s quite a high risk strategy.)

Finally – and I cannot stress enough how important this is – make sure your CV is neat and well presented.  You need, I am afraid, to become utterly, obsessively geeky about formatting.  In particular, you need to learn to use indents properly, and paragraph spacing.  Your CV should be neat, clean, readable, and elegant.  It should look thoroughly professional and polished, with headings of consistent style, consistent spacing around paragraphs, lists that have been formatted consistently, consistent punctuation in the bibliography . . .  You get the picture?

Imagine a panel member reading through a stack of a hundred applications on a late night train, with tired eyes and an incipient headache.  Imagine them faced with CV after CV that is a jumbled mess of crabbed 10-point scrawling, hunting wearily to see which of the criteria each one meets, and how well.  Then imagine them turning to your CV, and finding light spaciousness and legibility, and all the evidence they could need laid out in exactly the order they are looking for. You might be amazed how much difference that can make.



On Connoisseurship

I like cheese. I like trying new cheeses; I like returning to old favourites; I like knowing the cheeses that I like. If you ask me about my favourite cheese, you’d better be prepared to settle down for a bit to listen, because it’s a subject on which I have quite a bit to say. I even – I admit it – like turning my nose up at inferior cheeses, and not just at the cheeses but at the shops, the restaurants and the nations with poor cheese selections. I am, in my own small way, a cheese connoisseur.

It may be a trick of the light, but I think there is more and more such connoisseurship around. I can without exertion think of people I know who are coffee connoisseurs, music connoisseurs, car connoisseurs, game connoisseurs, beer connoisseurs, television serial connoisseurs, whisky connoisseurs, Dr Who connoisseurs, computer connoisseurs, book connoisseurs, tea connoisseurs, film connoisseurs, and Buffy episode connoisseurs.

Yet I am deeply ambivalent about connoisseurship as a way of engaging with the world.

Good

On the one hand, connoisseurship is a good thing.

To be a connoisseur is to be engaged in delighted exploration of some small aspect of creation. It involves a formation in discrimination – the ongoing discovery that some small portion of your view is not a blandly monochrome smear, but is richly dappled, and beautiful.

To be a connoisseur can also mean a delight in inviting others on journeys of exploration. It can involve becoming an evangelist for the beauty of some small aspect of creation, infectiously teaching others to taste a richness there that they have been missing.

And to be a connoisseur sometimes goes with a turn away from mass produced items – the repeatable and predictable – to smaller producers, to artisans and cottage industries. It can be a small, and very enjoyable, gesture of resistance to economic empires.

Bad

On the other hand . . .

To be a connoisseur can mean that enjoyment becomes harder to come by – that one cannot simply drink a cup of cheerful coffee, but must analyse and compare and criticise, reserving one’s delight for the very few occasions on which one’s exacting criteria are met.

Worse, to be a connoisseur can lead to a delight in disliking: an ever more finely honed ability to pour scorn on the items that fall short: the inadequate, the ordinary, the mainstream, the popular. Some connoisseurs can be recognised by their grimaces: the sign of the permanent bad taste in their mouths.

Still worse, to be a connoisseur can involve the cultivation of superiority, an education in despising the lumpen mass of ordinary people who never look beyond their instant coffee, who think a cheese is just a cheese, and who think there is no telling difference between a Mac and a PC.

To be a connoisseur can mean developing a taste for luxury, to justify spending more and more on less and less, year by year willing to divert more and more resources and then still more into one’s quest to complete one’s collection or further one’s education – until one is willing to make purchases that one’s undiscriminating former self would have regarded as obscene.

And to be a connoisseur can require a training in falsehood, learning to declare distinctions where no distinctions exist – relishing the subtle tastes of an expensive wine that in a blind tasting one would confidently have identified as plonk.

Ambivalent

There is more and more such connoisseurship around – and I am very ambivalent about it. I am ambivalent about my own tendencies to connoisseurship (part of my general geeky obsessiveness): a version of every paragraph above could turn up in my self-description. And I am ambivalent about its spread around my world.

It strikes me that I could start collecting examples of connoisseurship, refine my categorisation of its problematic and positive features, identify excellent exemplars of these vices and virtues. Perhaps, in time, I could become known as someone who displays fine discriminating taste when it comes to displays of fine discriminating taste . . .

Our brains have just one scale, and we resize our experiences to fit.

XKCD 915: Connoisseur – Randall Munroe – Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.5 License

Oh, and just in case you’ve been wondering: the quick answer is probably Curworthy. For now.

 



In memoriam

Andor GommeOn Friday afternoon, my father-in-law, Andor Gomme, died at home. This isn’t the place for proper reminiscences, but I wanted to post a brief note on one tiny part of what we have lost. Amongst all the other things that he was, you see, he was a quite remarkable academic, and he taught me more about what it means to be one than, I think, anyone else. I can’t imagine, though, that anyone will ever say of me what must certainly be said of him: No-one who met him could ever think the word ‘academic’ a synonym for ‘narrow’ again. With seriousness, with delight, with a vast store of carefully culled detail, and with spacious clarity, he wrote on Dickens, on D.H. Lawrence, on Jane Austen, on Shakespeare, and on literary criticism in general; he edited several Jacobean tragedies; he taught his way through the works of Doris Lessing and Paul Scott; he wrote standard works on the architecture of Glasgow and of Bristol, a masterwork on the architect Francis Smith, and (most recently) on the development of the English country house; he produced an edition of Bach’s St Mark passion – the list goes on and on. I’m not sure universities make people like him any more.



Gone quiet

Sorry for the blog silence. I’ve only got a little bit more to do on the Rowan Williams series, but there just has not been the brain space to do it at the moment. It’s not so much the absolute lack of time (though that’s been true for much of the last week or so), but the difficulty of changing mental gears after a day of wearing my Head of Department hat and worrying about undergraduate admissions, departmental handbooks, and assessment and feedback strategies. And now, just when I have a bit of time, I realise that my notes for the remaining posts are on the laptop, and the laptop is off with Hester who is currently away from any internet connection…

Watch this space – but it’s probably best if you don’t hold your breath whilst doing so.



Comments

I’ve finally caught up with the fact that Akismet is doing a great job of catching comment spam on this blog – so I haven’t had to deal with the stuff manually for quite a while. So – if I’ve ticked the right boxes – I’ve turned off the need to register, and the need to get your comments individually moderated by me before they appear. Hope that makes it a bit easier.



Interregnum

I’m going to be away from the blogface for a week or so, so the series of posts on ‘The Body’s Grace’ will be interrupted. I’ll get back to it towards mid August. I hope then to get round to the question of biblical moorings for RW’s argument, to a few criticisms I have, and – probably right at the end – to the claim that, as far as RW’s theology goes, you can’t have ‘The Body’s Grace’ without the ecclesial stance that he has taken to the sexuality debate since becoming Archbishop: to see the latter as a betrayal of the former is to misunderstand both.



Dan Hardy on the public nature of theology

Dan Hardy died on the 15th of November last year. Earlier this month, in Cambridge, I presented a version of the following paper at a celebration of his work in Cambridge. It’s simply an exposition of one of his papers: Daniel W. Hardy, ‘The public nature of theology’ (An address to chaplains in institutions of higher education in the UK, 1991) in God’s Ways with the World: Thinking and Practising Christian Faith (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1996), 206–216.

The characteristic heart of Dan Hardy’s lecture to a 1991 gathering of university chaplains was his description of God’s work in the world. God is at work, Dan said, forming social life, at work drawing existing patterns of social life beyond themselves and towards Godself. God’s work is found where social life is becoming itself: in the contexts in which, and processes by which, societies take account of themselves, of the configurations of their social practice, of their visions of the common goods that bind them together – and so labour to repair and extend that life.

Dan speaks of God’s involvement in this work in a variety of ways: the activities by which a society becomes more fully social ‘exemplify God’s activity in the world’ (215); this activity ‘perpetuates God’s work’ (214); it can be identified ‘as God’s work’; God is the ‘highest basis’ of society (215). ‘God works through the ways in which society fashions itself’ (216) (all emphases mine).

What activity are we speaking about, more precisely? Dan will not let us get away with any shallow or simplistic account of society’s self-formation; the lecture provides (208–9) a characteristic Hardy list of the key ways in which this labour of repair and extension takes place:
• societies labour to know the world more truly (to test their existing patterns of life and thought against the resistance of the world, and to discover in the world new possibilities for action);

  • societies labour to understand and imagine directly their own ways of acting (construing their social life in such a way as to identify its fractures and to see ways in which it might develop);
  • societies take account of and work to replenish the language they speak (a constantly evolving inheritance of metaphors and similes, of idioms and grammatical habits that make possible whatever conversation a society can sustain);
  • societies take account of and labour on their culture (a constantly proliferating collection of stories and representations, investigations and escapes, in many media, that carry the identity of the society).

In all this, Dan’s focus falls on the labour of taking account, but above all on the labour of extension and repair that is built upon such account-taking: the labour by which societies become more social. True, he opens with a description of the plight of English society that at first seems more backward looking, even to the point of having a touch of nostalgia about it – referring to an England where ‘people almost always felt that social life was stable, in such a way as to allow everyone to know where he or she stood’ (206), and to the fragmentation that has eroded this stability as new, conflicting or competing interests have emerged: English society losing its ways of being together. But this hat-tip towards nostalgia is only a hook, and Dan uses it to pull the head of the reader around to face forwards – to the creation of society as a never-ending task, a task that always requires the imaginative weaving in of those strands that threaten to pull society’s temporary settlements apart. Sociality is a task, and being a society is not a given but a hope and a goal.

Speaking to an audience of university chaplains, Dan also describes the place of institutions of Higher Education in this society. They are institutions whose job is to concern themselves explicitly with a society’s means of reproduction, repair, and extension – in all the ways I have described (knowledge of the world, understanding of society itself, the study and replenishment of language, and the critical interpretation of culture). Universities are, or should be, engines that drive the processes by which societies become more social.

This labour of sociality (and the work of universities within it) is a participation in God’s work – and Dan assumes that his audience of Christian chaplains are amongst those who can acknowledge this fact; they are, indeed, involved in the characteristic form that this acknowledgement takes: worship. But Dan makes it clear that it is neither the case that only those who worship can contribute to proper formation of social life (and so participate in God’s work), nor the case that those who worship simply add an extrinsic, decorative gloss to a labour of social formation and transcendence that can function perfectly well without them. Quite where between these two poles it is appropriate to stand, Dan does not explain – at least, not in this paper. Here, he contents himself with warning his readers against two characteristic temptations, and then helping them to understand that their task is to negotiate some way between these temptations. On the one hand stands the temptation to think that the Christian, especially the ordained chaplain, has power – such that the Christian is capable of producing proper sociality, either in a Christian enclave or as a mover and shaker in the wider world. On the other hand stands the temptation to think that Christians have no responsibility, no gift to give, no vocation that has anything to offer to the work of those who labour on public sociality.

Dan does offer his audience a hint of where they might stand between these two temptations. Their role is, in part, to hold all those (including themselves) who labour on the formation of society open to the deepest vision of what is going on. Penultimately, their role is to remind people that they are about the formation of a sociality that is whole, that is one; it is to keep alive rumour of a common good. Ultimately, it is to draw those labourers into worship: into the acknowledgment of the ‘highest ground’ of their work, yet Christians can pursue their penultimate task even where the deepest spring of their vision – the God acknowledged in its worship – is not, or is not yet, recognised by the social labourers they seek to help. Their role is certainly to speak, as Dan puts it, ‘from the deepest awareness of the truth of God’s work in human life’ (206, my emphasis), but not all the speech that comes from the deepest awareness of the truth of God’s work in human life will be speech explicitly about God.

Dan barely touches in this paper on the content of the vision that Christians might help society pursue; that is, he says little the nature of the common good. It is clear that he has in mind some form of unity-in-diversity, in which a single society is forged from diverse communities and tendencies and possibilities – but the point of his piece is not to offer to his audience (or to suggest that they can offer to their audiences) a fully formed vision of social flourishing. The Christian task, as Dan describes it, is to assist at the emergence of social vision from within the contexts and processes by which a society already takes account of itself and works on itself.

Here it matters that Dan’s audience was a gathering of Christian university chaplains in England. The church in England (and not just the Church of England) is, Dan says, well placed to carry out the kind of task he has been sketching, because unlike the American churches, the English church is ‘immersed in social life’ (208). ‘Church life in this country’, he says, ‘is deeply immersed in the means by which English sociality occurs’, in ‘the means by which the public is a public’, in ‘the devices and means by which the public sustains itself’. He is well aware that the English church, too, faces the temptation to become sectarian, to withdraw from immersion in public sociality into a place where they can simply be themselves – what Dan calls ‘the sectarian route of establishing group or individual identity’ (211). But he holds that, nevertheless, the English church is still ‘by its nature public religion’ (209), that it works ‘right within the places by which English society continues’ (210). Such a church is well placed to be sociality’s midwife. University chaplains are one example of the way in which this immersion works: they work right in the heart of the universities by which English society is itself.

Dan’s counsels to the gathered chaplains, then, spell out what this immersion means for them, and what it means for them to assist with the emergence of social vision from within the university contexts and processes by which a society already takes account of itself and works on itself. They must, he says, pay attention to ways in which social life is being formed (and in which society is transcending itself – repairing and extending its life). They must pay attention to the institutions that contribute to that formation/transcendence – in one of which they themselves work. They must do this because they are seeking the ways of God in the world, and with the awareness that it is truly God’s work that they are seeking. And they must realise that their vocation is to show others how these institutions, these patterns of social formation, are part of a bigger picture – ultimately a picture whose lines of perspective converge on God. Their job is to hold up a mirror to the university labourers in the fields of sociality, in order to show those others what work they are all about. A chaplain’s job is to ‘help the universities identify themselves and their future’ (212), and ‘to hold up for the university the vision of the society it exists to serve’ (214) – and in and through that (and, perhaps, only in and through that) to call the university to worship.



God’s Plan

A quick exchange on providence:

Does God have a plan for my life?

Yes. God published it a while back. God’s plan is to kill you, and give you life.



One movie meme

From Faith and Theology

1. One movie that made you laugh
Kind Hearts and Coronets. Perfect.

2. One movie that made you cry
Most sad films will make me cry a little. Pan’s Labyrinth, for instance.

3. One movie you loved when you were a child
Watership Down (1978). Trips to the cinema were rare, and I remember getting very excited about this one.

4. One movie you’ve seen more than once
Die Hard. In it’s own way, unimprovable.

5. One movie you loved, but were embarrassed to admit it
I’m not really embarrassed by my taste in films. I’m quite happy to admit liking some romantic comedies starring Hugh Grant, and even some starring Tom Hanks, for instance. (I even quite liked Titanic – but I didn’t ‘love’ it.)

6. One movie you hated
Baby’s Day Out. A shockingly poor film.

7. One movie that scared you
I’m easily scared. The Sixth Sense took me straight back to my childhood fears of the dark, for instance.

8. One movie that bored you
Gone with the Wind. One Christmas when I was young. I stayed awake by playing with my new Lego set.

9. One movie that made you happy
Cinema Paradiso

10. One movie that made you miserable
Schindler’s List

11. One movie you weren’t brave enough to see
Oh, the list is long. I tend to avoid all horror. Am unlikely to see, for instance, 30 Days of Night any time soon.

12. One movie character you’ve fallen in love with
Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman) in Casablanca.

13. The last movie you saw
State of the Union – Hepburn and Tracy.

14. The next movie you hope to see
I’ve just been given the DVD of Elizabeth: The Golden Age.