Scholars of Wales stare disaster in the face

M. Wynn Thomas bemoans the grudging, shadowy, marginal, maverick and shaky existence of Welsh studies

‘Welsh Studies’: a limp term, I’ve always felt. Whoever heard of ‘English Studies’ in England? There, as in every other confidently established country, constant self-sustaining reflection on its own complex distinctiveness is so hard-wired into public consciousness and routinely mainstreamed in its education system, as in its popular culture, that it is taken for granted and thus invisible.

Not so in Wales. And so ‘Welsh Studies’ is the only term we have to describe the collective effort by scholars and writers in a multitude of different disciplines across the Sciences as well as the Arts to review every aspect of that which has made, and continues to make, us the people that we are. 

Without such intelligent, rigorous, reflective self-knowledge, Wales – like any other national community – would cease to exist.

Because at bottom every such community is a conditional ideological construct – what Renan vividly called ‘a daily plebiscite’. 

Such intellectually structured forms of self-reflexivity are therefore universal in national communities across the globe, recognized as being of the first importance for the ‘body politic’. Consequently, they are actively supported, and promoted by their universities – key modern institutions for the purpose – and securely underwritten by indispensable financial and other guarantees.

But this is not the case in Wales. Here, ‘Welsh Studies’ in any meaningful sense has never been ‘mainstreamed’ and thus robustly ‘institutionalised’, by any of our academic institutions. It has always enjoyed a grudging, shadowy, marginal, maverick and decidedly shaky existence. 

A generation ago the study of Welsh history was in serious danger of disappearing, as a cadre of historians reached retirement age and, with no policy of guaranteed replacement, universities dragged their feet.

Had it indeed disappeared, then there could now be no Huw Edwards with his popular TV overviews of the long, colourful Welsh past. 

In Welsh universities, the existence of ‘Welsh Studies’ has always been disgracefully precarious. But currently it is facing a threat as serious as any.

Indeed the scholars of Wales are currently staring disaster in the face. 

The Higher Education Council for Wales has announced that as from early this summer the modest funding arrangements (currently £132,000 a yea) upon which Welsh Studies publications have largely depended for the last fifteen years will be discontinued. And no decision about whether or not it should be renewed will be made until at least the end of 2014. 

That immediately places at risk preparation for the 2020 Research Excellence Framework, the new system for assessing the quality of research in UK higher education institutions.

Although not all Welsh Studies publications are dependent on a distinct funding stream, the great majority are. When this stream dries up, it removes from presses and from most scholars a crucial means of guaranteeing quality production to the census deadline of the end of 2019. Consequently, young scholars will have to think very hard before entering the field of Welsh Studies, and established scholars may have to consider retraining for services elsewhere.

For those prepared to take the above risks, planning for REF would be very heavily compromised. Since presses would require submission of texts by mid-2018 in order to guarantee publication, most scholars – even if funding were to be resumed – would have only from late 2015 (the process of agreeing a contract with a press could not reasonably be completed before then) in which both to research and to publish their monographs.

That is less than three years in total. 

One is left wondering whether those with the power to reach fateful funding decisions actually have any active experience of research these days. Or has the clear divide of ‘career paths’ between management and scholarship that now sadly characterises the higher education system begun to produce the expected pernicious effects?

This situation is so worrying that it calls for a powerful, concerted, and clearly focused response. Consequently the Learned Society of Wales has in mind to co-ordinate a campaign to address what is an urgent problem. Longer term, the formation of a ‘Welsh Studies Association’ would seem to be very much in the interests of scholars in all the numerous relevant disciplines that embrace Medicine and the Sciences as well as the Social Sciences, Arts and Humanities.

M. Wynn Thomas 
Professor of English and Emyr Humphreys Chair of Welsh Writing in English at Swansea University, and 
Vice-President of the Learned Society of Wales.

11 thoughts on “Scholars of Wales stare disaster in the face

  1. “Because at bottom every such community is a conditional ideological construct – what Renan vividly called ‘a daily plebiscite’. Such intellectually structured forms of self-reflexivity are therefore universal in national communities across the globe, recognized as being of the first importance for the ‘body politic’.”

    Absolutely agree. Renan still, for me, provides the best explanation of a nation, particularly his idea of ‘forgetting differences’ as part of the nation building process. But that is for another day…

    But what your article and the example of higher education funding demonstrates very eloquently Prof. Thomas is that the ‘daily plebiscite’ in the subconscience of the national collective is largely informed by ‘daily dictats’ of an oligarchy (however democratically that oligarchy may have been formed in the first place), whether in government, cultural institutions or the commercial world, through the discourse and messaging it employs. Ultimately, it is the oligarchy which determines whether to forget or remember a given collective identity, and the collective plebiscite will only reflect that decision in due course as a subconscious response to that dominant discourse.

    As you suggest, this is no more a complicated question than whether the Welsh oligarchy chooses to remember (and thus sustain) a Welsh national construct, or forget (and thus abandon) it. And in this respect it is no different to the question being asked of national oligarchies around the world every day: we all know the nation is a construct, but to what extent does that construct bring reassurance, comfort or meaning to our world. Is it worth remembering or is there a better alternative?

    On such decisions nations come and nations go. The rest is just a question of time. As long as the HEC is aware of their role in this process…

  2. While sympathising entirely with the Professor’s objectives, thinking in terms of a separate discipline of ‘Welsh Studies’ might not be the best means to those ends. Although the so-called ‘politically correct’ who have to make a living in academia are too frightened to say so, subject areas confined to particular cultural sub-groups are generally not well-regarded. They can marginalise where the more effective strategy is to integrate into the mainstream.

    The duty lies with the Universities themselves to make a positive effort to integrate local elements into all appropriate courses. Of course, exceptions need to be made in two specific subjects, Welsh Language Literature and Welsh History, which ought to have separate departments, but even there experience suggests that scholars need broader knowledge if they are to fit the Welsh dimension into the broader context. For example, the late Sir Rees Davies was able to write authoritatively on the conquest of Wales because he was able to bring his wider knowledge of the whole medieval concept of Lordship to the task.

    Finally, by way of friendly advice, someone really needs to come up with a better name for the top academics’ club: ‘the Learned Society of Wales’ sounds, to put it very politely, a little too Harry Potter for most people to take seriously.

  3. “…thinking in terms of a separate discipline of ‘Welsh Studies’ might not be the best means to those ends. Although the so-called ‘politically correct’ who have to make a living in academia are too frightened to say so, subject areas confined to particular cultural sub-groups are generally not well-regarded. They can marginalise where the more effective strategy is to integrate into the mainstream.”

    I’m afraid that just isn’t how the (British and International) funding councils work John, who very much use cultural ‘buckets’ to administer and distribute research grants. Take a look at the AHRC website and you’ll find funding categories divided along cultural lines (and it’s not just ‘national’ cultures but gender, race, sexuality, etc.). If you ain’t organised into a cultural ‘brand’ (and vigorously promote it) you don’t stand a chance these days and will be drowned out by those who are (particularly with international funding opportunities). The days of discrete ‘technical ‘disciplines’ are long gone in academia and research funding: the ‘mainstream’ you talk of IS ‘cultural’ and ‘multi-disciplinary’, and is mainly the consequence of the popularity of cultural theory over the last 30 years.

    We can have a long discussion about whether that is desirable or beneficial to scholarship in the long term, but Professor Thomas is accurately reflecting the Faustrecht of the contemporary funding world and those interested in safe-guarding a modicum of funding for Wales-related studies (across all sorts of disciplines) would do well to heed his words.

  4. Phil, what you say is extremely depressing and only confirms the growing impression that contemporary academia must be an increasingly unpleasant work environment for serious scholars. Any secret envy us private sector types might once have felt for those in the proverbial ‘ivory towers’ is long gone.

    Yet does it have to be this way? One of the better arguments in favour of devolution – and this is coming from one who is not a fan of the whole process – was that it would enable Wales to experiment with new ways of doing things. This is one area where a bit of innovation could give us the edge over the rest of the UK.

  5. Perhaps the paper should have been pitched in a more accessible way. The lead about Renan was not helpful, nor the use of alarmist phrases such as “the scholars of Wales are staring disaster in the face”. And why Renan? Was he that influential on Welsh political thought as compared with religious discussion in the 19th century?

    I would have been more interested in knowing in greater detail what funds are being cut and the effect. Furthermore, is there another way in which the same results can be achieved without financial assistance from the Higher Education Council. The word “presses,” is mentioned, which may be an expensive proposition nowadays as compared with producing material for use online.

    A touch of realism would have helped the case.

  6. John,

    The attractiveness, or not, of academic focus today is very much a matter of taste and opinion, though I think it is fair and accurate to say that many within the profession lament the passing of a more structured, technical (perhaps predictable?) approach. Equally, many would argue that the deconstruction of that old edifice is precisely the point (and objective) of the new thinking; the edifice, in their opinion, only reflected the perspectives of old power centres and was structured to perpetuate them. The importance of poststructuralist thinking on the development and direction of the humanities over the last 30 years or so cannot be over-exaggerated in my opinion.

    Perhaps contrary to what you think, the raging battleground of this struggle has largely been in metropolitan English academia (in the UK context) and its front lines are in gender studies, race and post-colonial studies, rather more than in regional studies such as ‘Welsh’ or ‘Scottish’ or ‘Northern’. What is certain (to focus on just one area) is that an ‘English’ degree is no longer about learning to appreciate a ‘canon’ of English literature or the technical characteristics of different genres of writing as much as it is about attempting to understand the English-speaking culture, as recorded in its writing, by applying a prism of critical theory.

    If you catch them on a good day, and they open up to you, you may even find that a lot of Welsh scholars believe Welsh academia to be something of a reluctant traveller on this poststructuralist crusade – that Welsh institutions are all a bit, well, too traditional and too old-fashioned (don’t be fooled by the Methodist Revival, we Welsh are really rather Catholic at heart…). This is obviously a source of great frustration to the Young Turks and rather comforting and reassuring to the old guard.

    You pays your money and you takes your choice though, as my old dad used to say…

  7. Phil, there is material for half a dozen debates in your last post. It is impossible to reply to all as they deserve, but here are some thoughts that occurred while reading your words…

    “Don’t be fooled by the Methodist revival, we Welsh are rather Catholic at heart”. Although meant as an aside, this is certainly food for further thought. You seem to be making a broader cultural point beyond the obvious fact that there are far more practising Roman Catholics in Wales than Methodists, Wesleyan or Calvinist. Are you saying we Welsh should abandon our cherished self-image as Nonconformists, in every sense of the expression, because we are actually rather deferential to hierarchy and intolerant of challenges to orthodoxy? If that is what you suggest, without necessarily agreeing with the proposition, it is definitely a question we should at least be asking ourselves.

    Intolerance of challenges to orthodoxy is certainly a major problem in the universities system, both in Wales and England. What you seem to be describing is a process of old orthodoxies simply being replaced by new ones.

    The universities system seems to be increasingly political, small-p and big-P. That is why there is some substance to the notion that most really original thinking comes from ‘outliers,’ people who use the knowledge provided by the system but who operate outside it. This is certainly true of history at the moment.

    Or is all the above itself an exercise in unreconstructed structuralism and therefore, from what you say, a stoning offence in current academic circles?

  8. John,

    1. On your first paragraph… Yes, that is what I am saying. For a certain period of time Wales had nonconformist (small ‘n’) social leadership, but I’m not sure the flock was in any way less catholic (small ‘c’) than it ever had been, and I’m not sure that the intellectual basis of that system was any less dogmatic than the previous one. Perhaps there were moments in the early 20th century when it could be argued that a truly nonconformist popular movement existed in some of the industrial communities of the south, but trades unionism and socialism quickly developed its own hierarchies, ritualism and iconography. A march to the pit head behind the union banner and brass band on May Day does somewhat resemble a romería to a hill-top hermitage in Spain, I feel… At the very least it serves the same community function.

    2. On your second paragraph… I agree, and have argued the point for some time. A new orthodoxy is simply replacing an old one. But that could simply be a function of an age-old dialectic process that has always happened and always will. There is nothing special about the fading orthodoxy, and there will be nothing special about the new one, so to speak. Some, of course, believe they’ve found the Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything. But I don’t know what all the fuss is about since Douglas Adams discovered that that was ’42’ back in 1978…

    3. On your third paragraph… If anything universities are becoming less political. A dark shadow of corporatism, ‘utility’ and the market economy looms large over British academia nowadays and academics are routinely whipped into money-making shape by all manner of business school quackery. Good = what sells, not what is original or scholastically robust. If original work is more prevalent outside the system, it is for entirely the opposite reason than the one you suggest. I massively generalise of course, and there are some excellent people doing excellent things as well of course.

    4. On your fourth paragraph… I wouldn’t dare to pass judgement on your ideas John, or try and categorise them in anyway, but broadly speaking ‘un-deconstructed’ ideas are not so much ‘stoned’ nowadays as politely dismissed and ignored, rather like an old aunt or uncle who is shifted off to the conservatory during a family party because she/he lets off the odd expletive and/or fart…

    But please, don’t take my thoughts too seriously. I’m just a Johnny-come-lately doctoral student. But spending c.20 years outside the Abbey precinct before taking the cloth does make one a little more cautious of credo and dogma, healthily so, I hope. Perhaps you could be tempted to take orders as well?

  9. Phil, your first paragraph is very perceptive. While one hopes there is still a touch of Twm Sion Cati rebelliousness in the national character, you are right that a strong degree of conformity, tradition, and ritual, in different forms, is a common theme throughout Welsh cultural history.

    It is also impossible to disagree with your second paragraph. Structuralism, deconstruction, etc, even Marxism in some respects, have each in their turn made some valid points but have each in their turn over-reached themselves when they pretended to be 42 and ignored the valid points made by others.

    You are right to raise the very real issue of the commercialisation of the universities in your third paragraph, but it is so-called ‘political correctness’ that poses the greater danger there. This is not to suggest that everything that the ‘politically correct’ say is necessarily wrong – no serious thinker can argue in favour of racism, for example – but the very concept of ‘political correctness’ is a dangerous restriction on the freedom of thought and discussion that is essential in any quest for genuine truth.

    The weakness of your fourth paragraph is that you probably lack the learning experience of being a libertarian, Unionist Christian in Wales. There are quite a few generally intelligent people on the political left or the nationalist fringes who treat any challenge to their carefully constructed realities as a personal affront. It is like telling them that not only is there no Santa Claus but that you have just murdered him. It must be stressed that this is – obviously – not true of all nationalists and leftists, but you might be surprised at how many visibly shut their minds down when debate reaches a certain point.

    Finally, yes, the idea of a doing a doctorate does tempt – there is always a sense that education is not complete without one, especially after one has a Bachelor’s and a Master’s so that a natural human desire to do things in threes kicks in. Yet there are so many other tempting things one would also like to do – travel, books, etc – and only so much time and so much money. Then there is the choice of subject – the ideal would be to do something different from previous degrees. Finally, there are also times for someone who is not optimistic about the way the world is going when a real cloister seems more tempting than the academic one.

  10. The illusion that Wales was a Nonconformist nation was one that the Nonconformist churches were keen to promote for obvious reasons of self-interest and political influence. Unfortunately it was not based on reality and was never true despite Gladstone’s assertion that, “It was not very far from the truth to say, though I admit there is some element of exaggeration, but only a very limited one, that the Nonconformists of Wales are the people of Wales.”

    They never achieved their aim of being the religion that had the support of the majority of the Welsh population. This compares unfavourably with Anglicanism in England and Presbyterianism in Scotland at their heights.

    Evidence of this is the fact that nonconformity did not campaign to become the established church of Wales but settled for the lesser aim of disestablishing the Anglican church in Wales. They could not have become the established church because they did not have the support for it.

    And it was also the case, as Phil points out, that trade unionism, the Labour Movement and socialism had gained in influence and displaced the Nonconformists in terms of political influence. Whether that means that the general populus remains Catholic in its culture is a bold claim. The change from nonconflrmity to left-wing politics also marked a growth in secular attitudes which persists to this day.

    Phil’s point about the corporatism engulfing universities is all too true. As Professor Steve Jones, one of Wales’ most famous geneticists, said recently:
    “Young lecturers are often under pressure to produce a certain number of articles within a set period of time. This results in their spending time on spurious research areas in order to meet their targets rather than contributing to the world of scholarship. There is obviously good work going on but the impression I have gained is that often occurs in spite of the system rather than because of it.”

  11. Professor Thomas is being disingenuous. When he talks of a national community he actually means a nationalist community. The message here is Wynn Thomas only welcomes nationalist views and opinions. He states that “Although not all Welsh Studies publications are dependent on a distinct funding stream, the great majority are. When this stream dries up, it removes from presses and from most scholars a crucial means of guaranteeing quality production”. He makes it sound as if Welsh presses are for publishing scholarly articles. He does not mention his secret wish that they should spread Welsh nationalist propaganda. It is his belief that all English language medium writings and articles should be cleared away so they can be replaced by Welsh language writings and articles. There are fat cats within Literature Walesthe Welsh academy who earn 50K salaries presiding over the presses he laments the demise of. Ask Professor Thomas if he knows anything about the gravy train? Ask him if he welcomes this money instead being spent on helping Syrian refugees, or promoting political ideas that ar opposed to those of Saunders Lewis?

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