“Quote” of No Confidence: “Inconvenient Objects” at Aberystwyth University

After
Before

Like most professionals – secret agents excepting – I talk about my work at the slightest provocation.  Besides, academics are expected to drop their names freely in the hope that it may take root in a crowded field scattered with formidable grey matter and fragile egos.  There is a reason I have not yet mentioned one of my latest projects – the exhibition “Inconvenient Objects.”  For a while, it was my blood pressure monitor that had to do most of the talking, delivering clinical statements geared toward a strictly limited audience listening out for official pronouncements that can be made to serve as quantifiable substitutes for my, to my mind, tell-tale cries of anger and frustration. 

The power of words is at once affirmed and eroded in the act of our being rendered speechless, be it by way of silencing or sheer incredulity.  There is no irony in the fact that, in this case of speech free and curtailed, seemingly innocuous curls of quotation marks are at the heart of the matter. 

And just what was – or is – that matter you may well ask after reading this abstract and oblique preamble?

Since 2012, I have been involved in staging exhibitions in the galleries of the School of Art, Aberystwyth University, where I also teach art history and exhibition curating, as well as serving as Director of Research.  Most of those exhibitions – Queer TastesUgly, and Alternative Facts among them – are projects that I, with the assistance of the School’s senior curator, create for and realize with groups of undergraduate students each year.  All of those shows draw entirely from the School’s collections of some 25,000 objects of visual and material culture.

The School of Art at Aberystwyth has the distinction of being one of only two art schools in the United Kingdom that also operate as accredited museums.  I try to make use of that nearly unique status in all my teaching, and curating – in which many prospective students express an interest in their applications – provides me with an opportunity to link art history, theory and praxis in practical, public-oriented and creative ways.

I have long regarded the School of Art’s museum collections and public galleries as a mother lode for staff and students alike, as it enables them to generate and showcase their research.  The project for the current show, with which the galleries reopen to the public after over a year during which our collections lingered in the Pandora’s box that is the pandemic of which the previous project, Seeing Red, had been a casualty, was for students to investigate and interpret objects that might pose challenges to cultural institutions due to their subject matter or the politics and ideologies they bespeak.

The selected works range from Third Reich photography to a bust of a Congolese pygmy chief, but also feature groups of female nudes executed by male artists, graphic images of starvation in 1970s Ethiopia, unauthorised sketches of patients in a mental institution and scenes of bullfighting.  However rewarding the digging, the mother lode, in this instance, turned out to be a minefield.

The mining metaphor is borrowed from and alludes to one of the best-known examples of institutional critique, a practice of interrogating collections and museum spaces that artist-curators have employed since the 1970s.  Fred Wilson’s Mining the Museum was one such landmark project in which the legacies of colonialism were made transparent through the juxtapositional display of objects as outwardly disparate but intimately related as silverware and slave shackles to remind us how and on whose backs the wealth of the United States was built.

“Inconvenient Objects” was conceived to create awareness about the responsibility of contemporary museums such as ours and the role that exhibition curators play in making artifacts and their at times problematic histories accessible to the public.

The centerpiece of the exhibition, an early twentieth-century bust ostensibly created in the service of science and not intended as a portrait of the subject, Chief Bokani, was previously shown as an ethnographic “specimen” in the University’s geography department.  In the context of the exhibition, the plaster bust – created by one of Wales’ foremost sculptors – encourages debates about ethics and ethnicity in art and science. 

Wilson, unearthing a similar bust at the Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College, New Hampshire in 2005, had asked: ‘[Can we] extricate ourselves from the violence involved in acquiring these objects?’ The question remains whether “we” – as cultural institutions – can fulfil our civic mission by removing ourselves from the public discourse of reckoning? “We” have a lot to answer for if we don’t ask.

“Inconvenient Objects” so fully lived up to its title that it was ordered shut and hidden from view.  The word “inconvenient” was apparently central to the university management’s claim that the show posed a reputational risk.  I say “apparently” because what issues the university had with the show was never clearly – let alone directly – communicated to the curatorial team.*

Being that I also serve as the School’s “Equality Champion,” I had envisioned “Inconvenient Objects” as an opportunity to demonstrate that our University is committed to participating in the debate surrounding Black Lives Matter and the legacies of colonialism and empire in which sculptural objects such as our bust of Bokani are enmeshed.  Some three thousand words of gallery texts were in place to clarify those objectives.

After nearly two months behind closed doors – a hiding away that is now part of its story – the show was once again opened to the public, and it is scheduled to remain so until 1 October 2021.  With the addition of a single label, and a sign advising “viewer discretion” at the entrance, nothing has been altered.  And yet, everything has changed.

Our senior curator, who designed the poster, was obliged to place the title of the exhibition in quotation marks, indicating that we do not really mean what we say or else that that “we” does not refer to representatives of our institution.  In effect, the museum has been disabled from reflecting upon itself because such a critique – widely practiced elsewhere – might reflect poorly on the academic institution under which it is subsumed.

Minor adjustments though they may seem – a concession that allowed us to hold on to the title of the show – those quotation marks signal a disavowal, a lack of commitment and self-confidence.  They undermine the common endeavor to mine our public museums, instead of simply minding the store, an engagement with history and civics that should be all of our business.

*Curatorial team: Audrey Corbelli, Ciara Donnellan, Eve King, Orla Mai-Riley, Farrah Nicholson, Lucia Paone-Michael, Katie Rodge and Katarzyna Rynkowska, with contributions from Cara Cullen and Sarai David, and support from Harry Heuser (text and concept) and Neil Holland (staging and design)

Tickets for this free exhibition can be booked via Eventbrite.

Eyre Apparent: Adoption, Adaptation and the ‘orphan child of accepted literature’

The most recent item to enter my collection of ephemera is a somewhat tattered, unpublished radio script (pictured above).  It is held together by rusty staples that attest to the authenticity to which, as a cultural product, it cannot justly lay claim. I still do not know the first thing about it. When was it written? To whom was it sold? Was it ever produced?

Initial research online revealed at least that Hugh Lester, the writer claiming responsibility – or demanding credit – for the script, was by the late 1930s a known entity in the business of radio writing, with one of his adaptations (a fifteen-minute dramatisation of Guy de Maupassant’s story “The Necklace”) appearing in a volume titled Short Plays for Stage and Radio (1939).   Rather than wait to ascertain its parentage, I decided to adopt Lester’s brainchild after spotting it lingering in the virtual orphanage known as eBay, where the unwanted are put on display for those of us who might be enticed to give them a new home.

Getting it home – my present residence – proved a challenge.  After being dispatched from The Bronx, the script spent a few months in foster care – or a gap behind a sofa in my erstwhile abode in Manhattan – before my ex could finally be coaxed into shipping it to Wales.  I occasionally have eBay purchases from the US mailed to my former New York address to avoid added international postage; but the current pandemic is making it impractical to collect those items in person, given that I am obliged to forgo my visits to the old neighborhood this year.  I was itching to get my hands on those stapled sheets of paper, especially since I am once again teaching my undergraduate class (or module, in British parlance) in Adaptation, in which the particular story reworked by Lester features as a case study.

As its title declares, the item in question is a “Radio Serial in Three Half Hour Episodes” of Charlotte Brontë’s 1848 novel Jane Eyre.  It is easy for us to call Jane Eyre that now – a novel.  When it was first published, of course, it came before the public as an autobiography, the identity of its creator disguised (‘Edited by Currer Bell,’ the original title page read), leading to wild speculations as to its parentage.  An adaptation, on the other hand, proudly discloses its origins, and it builds a case for its right to exist by drawing attention to its illustrious ancestry, as Lester’s undated serialisation does:

Announcer: We take pride in presenting for your entertainment at the first chapter of a distinguished dramatisation of Charlotte Brontë’s world famous novel, Jane Eyre.

An interesting choice of phrasing, that: while the source is pronounced to be ‘world-famous,’ meaning popular, this further popularisation by radio is argued to be ‘distinguished,’ meaning, presumably, first-rate – unless ‘distinguished’ is meant to suggest that the child (the adaptation) can readily be told apart from the parent (source).  Is not Jane Eyre ‘distinguished,’ whereas the aim of radio serials, plays for a mass medium, is to be popular, if only temporarily? Clearly, Lester aimed in that announcement to elevate to an art the run-of-the-mill business of adaptation that was his line; and run-of-the-mill it certainly was, most or the time.

One expert on radio scripts, commenting in 1939, went so far as to protest that radio had ‘developed almost no writers,’ that it had ‘appropriated almost all of them, at least all of those who could tell a good story.’  The same commentator, Max Wylie – himself a former radio director of scripts and continuity at CBS – also called ‘radio writing’ the ‘orphan child of accepted literature.’ To him, most radio writing was no ‘radio’ writing at all, at least not ‘in the artistic and creative sense,’ but ‘an effort in translation’ – ‘a work of appropriation whose legitimacy depends upon the skill of its treatment but whose real existence depends upon the work of some able craftsman who quite likely never anticipated the electrical accident of the microphone.’

Instead of approaching adaptation in terms of fidelity – how close it is to its source – what should concern those of us who write about radio as a form is how far an adaptation (or translation, or dramatisation) needs to distance itself from its source so it can be adopted by the medium to which it is introduced.  However rare they may be, radio broadcasts such as “The War of the Worlds” have demonstrated that an adaptation can well be ‘radio writing’ – as long as it is suited to the medium in such a way that it becomes dependent on it for its effective delivery.  It needs to enter a new home where it can be felt to belong instead of being made to pay a visit, let alone be exploited for being of service.

Jane Eyre was adapted for US radio numerous times during the 1930s, ‘40s and early ‘50s.  The history of its publication echoing the story of its heroine and their fate in the twentieth century – Jane Eyre was apparently parentless.  Brontë concealed her identity so that Jane could have a life in print, or at least a better chance of having a happy and healthy one.  In the story, Jane must learn to be independent before the man who loves her can regain her trust – a man who, in turn, has to depend on her strength.  Similarly, Jane Eyre had to be separated from her mother, Charlotte Brontë, because she could not trust the male critics to accept her true parentage.

On the air, that parent, Charlotte Brontë, needs to be acknowledged so that an adaptation of Jane Eyre does not become an impostor; at the same time, the birth mother must be disowned so that Jane can become a child of the medium of which the parent had no notion – but which is nonetheless anticipated in the telepathic connection that, in the end, leads an adult and independent Jane back to Mr. Rochester, the lover who betrayed her and must earn her trust anew.

Lester’s three-part adaptation retains that psychic episode in Brontë’s story:

Rochester: (In agony.  Whispering through a long tube) Jane! Jane! I need you.  Come to me – come to me!

In radio broadcasting, ‘[w]hispering through a long tube’ can be made to suggest telephony and telepathy – and indeed the medium has the magic of equating both; the prosaic soundstage instruction revealing the trick makes clear, however, that the romance of radio is in the production, that, unlike a novel, a radio play cannot be equated with a script meant for performance.

Being three times as long as most radio adaptations, Lester’s script can give Jane some air to find herself and a home for herself.  And yet, like many other radio versions of the period, it depends so heavily on dramatisation as to deny Jane the chance of shaping her own story.  One scholar, Sylvère Monod has identified thirty passages in which the narrator of Jane Eyre Jane Eyre directly addresses the audience.  And yet, the most famous line of Brontë’s novel is missing from Lester’s script, just as it is absent in most adaptations: ‘Reader, I married him.’ How easily this could be translated into ‘listener’ – to resonate profoundly that most intimate of all mass media: the radio.

Lester, according to whose script plain Jane is ‘pretty,’ is not among the ‘distinguished’ plays of – or for – radio.  Exploiting its source, by then a copyright orphan, it fosters an attitude that persists to this day, despite my persistent efforts to suggest that it can be otherwise: that radio writing is the ‘orphan child of accepted literature.’

Sea Change at Aberystwyth University

Poster by Neil Holland, based on a design by Lauren Evans

Once a year, I stage an exhibition with undergraduate students of my module “Curating an Exhibition” at the School of Art, Aberystwyth University.  The student curators choose objects from the School’s collection, which, over a period of about three months, they research, interpret and narratively arrange in relation to a given theme. The theme for the 2018 exhibition (on show from 21 May until 28 September) is “Sea Change.”  The idea for it came to me watching CNN, where the phrase is frequently heard in promotional spots for Fareed Zakaria’s program.  What, I thought, would happen if we considered the literal meanings of each part of the phrase to examine how life along the coast is transformed and transforming as a result of environmental and socio-political developments.

Installation view showing John Roberts’s large painting Fond Farewell (1973)

As always, the narrative evolved gradually, shaped by the objects selected by the exhibition curators.  This is the text panel introducing the exhibition:

‘Sea change’ is one of the many expressions introduced to the English language by Shakespeare. It appears in The Tempest as a reference to death – and transformation – by drowning.

This exhibition of works from the School of Art collection explores both the metaphorical and the literal meanings of the phrase.

Today, ‘sea change’ is widely used to suggest moments of upheaval and reorientation. It may denote the end of a personal relationship or a geopolitical shift affecting the lives of millions. Whatever its measurable repercussions, ‘sea change’ is always felt to be profound.

Change may be dreaded or desired. It can mean at once breakdown and a chance for renewal. The storm that wrecks a ship and lays waste to dreams brings firewood to the beachcomber. The engines that turned villages into mill towns also transported workers to holidays by the sea.

Plate, from the series Cumbrian Blue(s) (1998) by Paul Scott

Many aspects of modern society were shaped in the Victorian era. Seaside towns like Aberystwyth owed their transformation to the Industrial Revolution. Since then, our coastal communities have continued to adapt. New challenges, from Global Warming to Brexit, lie ahead as Wales is celebrating the ‘Year of the Sea.’

The prints, paintings, photographs and ceramics on display encourage us to consider what we gain or lose through stability and change.

Works by Keith Vaughan feature prominently in the exhibition

Artists whose works are featured in this exhibition include Jean-Antoine Théodore Gudin (1802–1880), Honoré Daumier (1808–1879), Wilhelm Kümpel (1822–1880), Hans Saebens (1895 – 1969), Carlo Bevilacqua (1900 – 1988), Gertrude Hermes (1901–1983), Keith Vaughan (1912 – 1977), Robert Tavener (1920–2004), Gwyn Martin (1921 – 2001), John Vivian Roberts (1923–2003), Bernard Cheese (1925–2013), Terry Bell-Hughes (b. 1939), Chris Penn (1943–2014), Alistair Crawford (b. 1945), Paul Scott (b. 1953), and Kate Malone (b. 1959).

Curators: Lauren Evans, Gerry McGandy, Mike Kirton, Clodagh Metcalfe, Sophie Mockett, Ivy Napp, John Roberts, and Michelle Seifert; with support from Harry Heuser (text and concept) and Neil Holland (staging and design).  Additional assistance by Karen Westendorf

Alternative (F)acts: Curating as Creative Response

Our Japanese ‘Merman’ made for a suitable poster boy.
Poster design by Neil Holland, based on an idea by Sarah Selzer
Once a year, with the help of the head curator of the School of Art, Aberystwyth University, I stage an exhibition with a group of students who are enrolled in my undergraduate module “Curating an Exhibition.” The shows draw on the University’s vast collection of art and artefacts. The student curators are given a theme and set out to create a narrative by selecting objects in response to it. That is quite a challenge, considering that the exhibition is put together in just over three months from initial planning to display.
 
Past exhibitions include Untitled by UnknownQueer Tastes, and Matter of Life and Death.  This year, I was all set to use the colour red and its connotations as a theme . . . until the inauguration of Donald Trump and the ensuing dispute about the size of the audience made me see red in a different way.  This gave me the idea for a more urgent, topical show.
 
That show is Alternative Facts: Interpreting Works from the School of Art Collection. It opens on 22 May and will be on display until 29 September in one of the School of Art’s galleries in Aberystwyth, Wales.
 
The introductory panel explains the theme as follows:
 
The phrase ‘alternative facts’ is a recent addition to our vocabulary.  It has come to prominence in a political climate in which views and actions are shaped more by emotions than by reliable intelligence.  Reflecting this shift, Oxford Dictionaries declared ‘post-truth’ to be Word of the Year 2016.  And yet, alternative facts are as old as language itself.
 
The works in this exhibition range from a sixteenth-century woodcut to twenty-first century ceramics.   They make statements about religion and war, consumer culture and the media, humanitarian crises and the economy.  They contain references to historical figures such as Princess Diana and Nelson Mandela as well as fictional characters such as Mickey Mouse and Moby-Dick.
 

Using a current catchphrase as its premise, Alternative Facts explores the varied and conflicting functions of material culture: as representations of reality, as social commentary and as propaganda.  Political caricatures by James Gillray and Honoré Daumier are exhibited alongside documentarian images by photojournalist Erich Lessing.  Autobiographical and self-reflexive sculptures by Claire Curneen and Verity Newman are confronted with the hoax of a sea monster made in Japan.  Collectively, these objects raise questions about faith and falsehood, truth-telling and myth-making, authenticity, authority, and freedom of expression.

 
Alternative Facts also invites a closer look at the role of curators as trusted interpreters and reliable storytellers.  Our readings are not intended to be the last word. The gallery is a forum for discussion.
 
Curators: Tom Banks, Natalie Downes, Amber Harrison-Smith, Néna Marie Hyland, Brit Jackson, Frida Limi, Dean Mather, Brad Rees, Sarah Selzer, Magda Sledzikowska; with support from Harry Heuser (text and concept) and Neil Holland (staging and design)

Recycling Questions: Just What Is or Ain’t an Adaptation?

As a product of postmodern culture, I lay no claim to originality.  Indeed, I have always been thoroughly unoriginal, and, occasional anxieties of influence notwithstanding, often gleefully so.  As a child, I ripped off comics, tore apart magazines and took whatever images were available to create collages and parodies.  Using an audio tape recorder, I appropriated television programs by inserting my voice into mass-marketed narratives, transforming a saccharine anime like Heidi (1974) into a subversive adolescent fantasy.

My postmodern past (note my de Chirico take on a mass-produced vase)

No evidence of my early experiments is extant today; but adaptation became an enduring fascination and a field of study.  As a student, I wrote essays on adaptations of Frankenstein and on Brecht’s revisitations of Galileo Galilei – Leben des Galilei (1938/39 and 1955), as well as Galileo (1947).  I produced an MA thesis on translation (“Meister Remastered”) and a PhD dissertation on the relationship between stage, screen, print and radio (“Etherized Victorians”).  The latter I recycled as Immaterial Culture, published in 2013.

Now a lecturer in art history, I have repurposed some of the above and pieced together a Frankenstein’s creature of an undergraduate module I call Adaptation: Versions, Revisions and Cultural Renewal.  In a series of lectures and seminars, the course (at Aberystwyth University) investigates the processes involved in translative practices that range from the reworking of a literary classic into a graphic novel to drawing a moustache on a copy of the Mona Lisa.  It explores relationships between form and content, genre and mode, integrity and hybridity, durability and transience, culture and commerce, as well as art and the environment.

As I state in the syllabus, many products of culture endure by shifting shape: stories are turned into sculptures, plays are reimagined as dramatic canvases and mass-produced ephemera are recycled for art. What survives such transformations? What is lost or gained in translation? What are the connections between – and interdependencies of – so-called originals and the works that keep coming after them?

Given the monstrous scope of the course, another question emerges: Just what is not an adaptation? It is a question that becomes more complex if tackled by anyone who, like me, regards originality as a myth.

Much of what is published on the subject is limited to matters of narrative, of what happens when telling becomes showing, or vice versa.  Linda Hutcheon’s study A Theory of Adaptation opens promisingly – if somewhat patronizingly – with the following statement: “If you think adaptation can be understood by using novels and films alone, you’re wrong.  The Victorians had a habit of adapting just about everything…. We postmoderns have clearly inherited this same habit….”

Hutcheon does not quite deliver on her promise of inclusivity.  Unable or unwilling to break the “habit” of adaptation scholars who came before her, Hutcheon’s study also concentrates on “novels and films,” the word “film” appearing on 229 pages, compared to, say, “painting” on 17 pages, including index and bibliography.   There is no mention at all of collage or assemblage.  Left out are the projects of Dada, Neo-Dada and Pop, as well as the debates about Kitsch, Camp and Pastiche that were central to Postmodernism.

Hutcheon’s definition of “adaptation” is at once too broad and too narrow.  Her brief statements on “What Is Not an Adaptation?” are welcome yet imprecise and contradictory.  What is worse, her definition is at times arbitrary.   She states, for instance, that “fan fiction” is not a form of adaptation, offering no explanation for its exclusion.

I agree with Hutcheon that adaptations need to be readable as a version, an acknowledged take on or taking of something we perceive as same yet different.  Adaptations are not copies, and, as spurious as they may sometimes strike us, they are not fakes, either.

Hutcheon distinguishes between parody and adaptation, claiming that the former does not need to be acknowledged.  If unacknowledged, parodies – or any other form of adaptation – cannot operate qua adaptation.  They are like irony in that respect.  You just can’t be ironic all by yourself.  Any dance of the index fingers needs an audience.

As I see it, adaptations, be they parodies or pastiche, anarchic or reverent, have to exist as concrete products – rather than ideas or themes – that are distinct from yet related to other products with which they engage or from which they openly borrow in more or less creative acts of transformation.

Am I an adaptation?

Hutcheon, who does not insist on a change in medium as a criterion for adaptation, cites a source that identifies as a “new entertainment norm” the “process where integral elements of a fiction get dispersed systematically across multiple delivery channels for the purpose of creating a unified and coordinated entertainment experience.”  The resulting products are not meant to exist independently but serve as a deliberate fragmentation for the sake of maximizing market potential and profits by increasing the potential audience.  Is this still adaptation? Perhaps, if the audience rejects to buy the lot.

Buying the lot is something I rarely do.  I pick and choose, take apart and transform according to my own desires and limitations.  And pick apart I must when I read Hutcheon’s comments on radio drama as a form of “showing” like “all performance media,” at which point her study recommends itself for recycling as pulp.  Anyone who appreciates the hybridity of radio plays would balk at such simplifications.

Trying to make a case for elevating their cultural status, Hutcheon asks: “If adaptations are … such inferior and secondary creations why then are they so omnipresent in our culture and, indeed increasing steadily in number?” Well, junk food is “omnipresent” – and so are feebly argued studies – which does not make either any less “inferior.”  Besides, the question is not whether adaptations are good, bad or indifferent.  The question is: what are and what ain’t they?

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Teaching by Numbers That Don’t Add Up; or, Not in the Mood to Celebrate an Anniversary

On the eve of the tenth anniversary of broadcastellan, I look back at what this blog once was and what it has been reduced to over the years.  The neglect is due in part to the fact that I struggled to engage an audience or generate interest in my study on radio, which, under the title Immaterial Culture, was eventually published as an academic book in 2013.  I think a copy of it still lies in some corner of the Theatre and Television department of Aberystwyth University, the institution that is my current employer.  It attests to the lack of imagination, ingenuity and respect of said institution that my offer to deliver a lecture on the subject has never come to fruition.  But that is only one of my grievances.
 
Why there is so little going on here at broadcastellan has mainly to do with my being too busy to devote time to what is essentially a hobbyhorse I can no longer ride at leisure.  My life has changed considerably since that first tentative entry in May 2005; in terms of my academic career, it has not changed for the better.
 
As a zero hour contract employee at Aberystwyth University, I work virtually daily for little or no pay.  No pay, you ask? How can that be? Well, I spent months creating two courses in art history that I delivered at a university in China in October 2014 and March 2015.  I received no compensation for this preparation; the work was simply not time-tabled, nor thought of as deserving of pay.  There is no shortage of examples; so I consider the most recent one.  Today, I was denied pay for work that was expected of me.
 
Showing my support for the university, I agreed to teach a course that apparently no full-time member of staff would touch.  For this dubious privilege I was to be remunerated on an hourly basis.  On that iffy foundation, I was to prepare a series of lectures and seminars.  No, let me revise that: I received no money for the preparation.  If the hourly lecture rate is meant to reflect preparation, the rate is below minimum wage.  I am accustomed to this practice, having worked under such conditions for years.  In this case, there was quite a bit of research, the subject being The Language of German Politics.  I have not lived in Germany in about a quarter of a century and have not voted since before the wall came down (which is just about the time I left).  I was told that the instructor who had taught the course previously did not leave behind any notes on which to draw.  If it was a part-time instructor, I can sympathise.  Why leave behind your intellectual property, even though such rights are violated routinely at institutions of higher learning that take everything from you and take credit for anything you do (such as publishing a book or staging an exhibition that happens despite one’s work for the university, not as a result of it).  Anyway, I enjoy a challenge; a member of staff recently referred to my sense of enjoyment as masochism.
 
Agony it certainly turned out to be, at times.  I did not receive a contract for signing until three weeks into teaching, at which point it was impossible to withdraw.  There is no mention of pay for grading assignments in the contract, and there were to be 63 individual written papers and 21 final exams to grade.
 
On average, I spent over 40 minutes reading and marking each essay or translation submitted, sometimes considerably longer.  For each piece of writing up to 1000 words I was permitted to claim the staggering amount of £2.53.  This meant that I worked below the minimum wage, and in many cases quite significantly so.
 
This is so demonstrably unreasonable that I expressed my incredulity to the Human Resource department of Aberystwyth University.  After all, the task of evaluating the effectiveness of a translation is not simply a matter of right or wrong. As someone who has studied translation theories, I regard translation as an interpretative act that is – or should be – to some degree open to debate.  It is a debate I could hardly afford to have with my students, at least not at the rate of £2.53 per 1000-word manuscript.
 
I was familiar with these appalling pay rates from other teaching assignments at Aberystwyth University and have tolerated them heretofore without comment.  Though assessing a translation is not equivalent to reading a manuscript mainly for its content, the pay rate is the same.

This by-the-numbers approach to remuneration – and education  is detrimental to the quality of teaching that an institution like Aberystwyth University can deliver when it is relying on part-time staff.  I tried not to short-change students by providing fewer comments, as records will bear out.  I read each submission literally word for word in order to assess responsibly and provide detailed and constructive criticism on matters such as word choice and sentence structure.  This, I believe, is as it should be, and I expect neither praise nor gratitude for my conscientiousness.
 
As a zero contract hour employee at another department of the same university I routinely meet with students for tutorials.  It is an important aspect my teaching.  Anyone’s teaching.  Due to the decision of the European Languages department to pay me only for the hours I spent conducting lectures and seminars, I was unable hold individual meetings with my students there.  This contributed to student dissatisfaction, instances of which were brought to my attention just as I was about to depart for China.
 
Yes, I had another teaching commitment, on behalf of Aberystwyth University, while three of my courses were going on here in Wales.  I took off for Beijing with a sense of failure in the face of adversity; and, despite the module coordinator’s assurance that she had ‘heard a lot of praise for [my] teaching,’ the message left me disheartened.  Had I been permitted to conduct tutorials, I would have been able not only to address student concerns but also considerably to bridge the gap created by my China assignment.
 
It had been suggested to me to mark more leniently to ease tension.  However, I reject the notion that the lowering of standards should be considered as a measure to assure or boost student satisfaction.  Instead, I followed the departmental marking guidelines from which my standards were derived.
 
Being unable to meet with students resulted in spending more time assessing performances so as clearly to explain how each mark was derived.   This effectively lowered my pay for each assignment.  As I told the head of department, I do not think it fair to our students to provide fewer comments as a result of staff members’ time constraints.
 
Not being able to hold tutorials, I was also forced to spend more time responding to student inquires via email.  This time is not remunerated, either.  That I had to spend time in class detailing marking criteria, for instance, also limited the time allotted to delivering the material (almost all of which I created myself, as no lecture notes or presentations were available from previous years on which to model my own performance).
 
The department’s decision to cut corners further by denying me payment for a meeting with – and requested by – the module coordinator to finalise work that requires double marking is, apart from being unjust and insulting to me, a shortsighted decision that impacts negatively on the marking and compromises its fairness.  I had assumed it to be a matter of course that I should be paid for such time; I stated in an email to the module coordinator that I would bill the department at the ‘meeting’ rate, upon which the meeting was called off.  I have informed the department that I am unwilling to conduct a discussion about marks via email, thus without pay.
 
I told the department that I would not accept any further employment under the same conditions.  To do so would mean to accept Aberystwyth University’s exploitative practices.  The contract is phrased in a way that only underscores its inadequacies.  There is mention of time and a half pay and double pay, for instance.  Such a contract can never be honoured when the work in question is teaching.  I routinely work weekends and late into the night.  There is no mention anywhere of remuneration for any time spent designing or preparing for courses or responding to student email. There is also no mention of marking.  As a long-time zero hour contract employee I might be expected to be familiar and perhaps even reconciled to such terms; but teaching languages is, as I said, vastly different from teaching other subject matter, as language comes – or should come – under closer scrutiny than in other disciplines.  Responsible teaching of languages will therefore almost inevitably result in a pay below the minimum wage for part-time staff.

All the while, my dedication to teaching has made it difficult for me to pursue my career as a writer, from which I derive as yet no income.  For a year’s worth of teaching, I get paid under £10,000.

"Untitled by Unknown"

Every spring, the students of my “Staging an Exhibition” class are doing just what the title suggests: they curate a show at Aberystwyth University’s School of Art galleries. And every summer, I have to come up with another idea for another spring. This year’s exhibition, on show now until 12 September, poses a particular challenge. As stated on introductory panel, most of the works on displayed “have no official title. The identity of their creators remains unconfirmed.” This opens the debate as to their value and relevance: “Do their uncertain origins mean that these objects are unworthy of our time and attention?”
Untitled by Unknown: Curating ‘Hidden’ works from the School of Art Collection investigates the effects of doubt and mystery on our estimation of visual culture. The thirteen curators not only researched the objects but also needed to think of ways to interpret in the absence of verifiable facts.
Viewers are “encouraged to reflect on the ‘hidden’ lives” of the objects chosen by students: they include photographs, watercolours, prints and miniature paintings. Each work is identified only by the number by which it is filed and can be accessed in the School of Art collection’s online database.
The idea was to let visitors of our exhibition in on the curatorial task, to suggest that while a “lack of facts can be an obstacle,” it “can also be an opportunity for personal engagement.” Visitors may well question our interpretations and uncover alternative stories. Perhaps, they know more than we do about some of the mystery objects in our collection.
Untitled art works by unknown or anonymous artists often have no chance of being displayed—at least not until their mysteries are solved. Still, public museum and galleries have a responsibility of sharing the works in their collection.
Untitled by Unknown is not intended to show astounding works from exceptional artists. It is here to open a debate about what should be on display and how it may be shared.
My thanks to the students involved in making the show – and my class – possible: Jessie Davis, Karolina Hyży, Justyna Jurzyk, Kate Largan, Charlotte Raftery, Laura Roll, Elizabeth Salmon, Melissa Sarson, Belinda Smith, Julia Steiner, Stephanie Troye, Veera Vienola, and Eleri Wood.
Our thanks also to curator Neil Holland for all his help and expertise.