Since it’s Christmas, and I’ve had a few, a true confession or two: my highest professional ambition is to appear as a special guest on The Muppet Show, followed by being a performer on Strictly Come Dancing, followed by getting to do Desert Island Discs. I’m enough of a realist to realise that Top of the Pops is now beyond my reach, unless I can manage a guest spot with the wonderful Trwbador. (Yes, I know it’s also been cancelled. So’s The Muppet Show. In my fantasy, they’d bring it back so I could appear on it. They’d also bring Katya back to Strictly in the event that I get to dance on it, so I could have her as my partner. It’s a daydream, for goodness’ sake).
Why am I thinking of this now? Because I’ve just heard an interesting programme on Ralph Vaughan Williams, whose music I love, but which was spoiled by the fact that I couldn’t stop wondering why they’d invited Stuart Maconie as their special guest. Nothing against the guy as a DJ and humorous bloke from Wigan, but his qualifications as an expert on Vaughan Williams? Ah, yes; being a relatively well-known DJ and humorous bloke from Wigan. He might get onto Strictly, at a pinch, and has probably already been on Desert Island Discs. And then of course one thinks of the wonderful and amazing Mary Beard, the only classicist or ancient historian who can really claim to be in this sort of league; not only already a guest on DID, but one of the possibles answers to the Grauniad‘s Quiz of the Year 2012 – that’s real brand recognition, being a plausible enough answer to a trivia question. And then the mild feeling of satisfaction two days ago on finding Richard Miles’ Ancient Worlds book in the Fiction section of my local bookshop – and the genuine annoyance on realising that the book has neither acknowledgements nor bibliography, ‘cos obviously Richard knows all this stuff inside out without any need to rely on the research of others. And the stab of jealousy on reading about Christopher Kelly’s Attila book being Prince Philip’s holiday reading, despite (a) I’d never remotely write such a book, (b) none of my books would interest Prince Philip in the slightest and (c) I wouldn’t actually want to have written any book that Prince Philip would remotely enjoy reading…
The point of this? The absolute pervasiveness of modern celebrity culture, I suppose. To varying degrees, I simultaneously envy and despise all three colleagues their success, while being equally aware of both my inability to emulate them and the fact that I’m utterly compromised myself already – after all, I appeared on BBC4 this year summarising the plot of Lysistrata, a subject on which I possess no expertise whatsoever, badly. Of course I believe that if only I had the chance to shine in the popular media, I would do it without compromise or loss of integrity – while having enough experience of the system to know that this is exactly what my dear colleagues must have thought as well. I suspect that most academics suffer from some version of the myth of A.J.P.Taylor, brilliant historian bringing high-powered thought to the masses; of course he was denied academic preferment as a result, but that was in the unenlightened past – but we forget that the loss of stigma attached to successful media appearances today has been accompanied by, to an alarming degree, the reduction of high-powered thought in those appearances. We’re no longer punished for trying to be Taylor, but the system won’t allow us to do the same as him either. He could genuinely claim to be bringing high culture to the masses, using the media to educate; we’re just providing cut-price (or free) content for media companies, and desperately striving to construct media-friendly personalities through blogs and the like in the hope that someone might notice us.
Perhaps that’s what bothers me so much (besides the envy, natch): the dark side of breaking down the barriers of elitism. Taylor sought to extend something of the privileges of being taught at Oxford to a wider public; now, our students – okay, maybe this is just because I’m not lucky enough to be in Oxford – bring the expectations of that mass audience to their studies, and cite popular works of history far more readily than the academic tomes we recommend, and are far more impressed with the tweets of well-known popular historians than with those of their lecturers. I don’t think this is just a reflection of the ineptitude of us the latter in new media; rather, there has been a significant shift in the hierarchy of academic authority. If I was less tipsy, I would link this to the shift, at least in the UK, from TV history programmes based on a series of academic talking heads to programmes based on a single all-knowing photogenic authority figure (hi, Richard). As lecturers, we have to negotiate explicit positions in relation to such figures – I’m going to have to deal with twenty essays that take Peter Heather as the last word on late antique barbarians, so actually it saves time if I make my position clear in class – and decide whether we resign ourselves to being second best, mere academic specialists, or try to find an agent and start competing on their terms. There doesn’t seem to be a third way.
For the moment, the status quo seems to be just about manageable. Students aren’t terribly impressed with their lecturers as authority figures, but we do support them personally in a way that Tom Holland is never going to be able to do, and we work in the service of the institution that does the indispensable job of providing them with a degree certificate – so, they respect above all because we have the power of marking their work, not because we’re inherently figures of academic authority. Even this unsatisfactory situation may not last: in the face of increasing fees, students are likely to be ever less impressed with the fact that their teachers are (in media terms) nonentities – this is of course the great selling point of A.J.Grayling’s project, that it provides some sort of contact with people that the students’ parents will have heard of – and the advent of on-line courses creates the possibility of building university education around a much smaller number of teachers with already-established profiles (doubtless supported by an army of even-less-well-paid dogsbodies to do all the marking and administration). So, for the majority of us, the future choice may be between redundancy and trying to build our own media profile, in the face of ever-stiffening competition. Maybe a third way would be possible, but we’re running out of time to develop it.
I’m enough of a realist to know that I am never in a million years going to be able to build up a media profile such that I get to appear on Strictly before I’m too old to avoid getting voted off in week 1, if at all. However, I still quite like the idea of Desert Island Discs, and of contributing to radio programmes on, say, J.G.Ballard and the Peter Broetzmann Octet – and, more importantly, I do actually enjoy teaching university students, and discussing ideas without having to gear everything down to the lowest common denominator and dispense with bibliographies. But I’m also enough of a realist to think that it’s probably a good idea that I’d developing a range of skills in the curing, smoking and home brewing line…
N.B. I would hope that this would be taken as read, but in the current circumstances, it’s probably worth stressing that I am blogging in an entirely personal capacity.