Unwomanly war

I have just finished reading Svetlana Alexievich's The Unwomanly Face of War, in the Penguin translation from 2017. I had heard of it before but came across it by chance in the municipal library, in the section devoted to Nobel Prize winners. (Well, some of them: I haven't seen Rabindranath Tagore or Gabriela Mistral there.) I'm glad I did find it.
            Not that it's a light read. In fact it's one of the grimmest books I know. Alexievich interviewed women who had fought in the Second World War, in the Red Army - the organization which actually did stop Hitler. Hundreds of thousands of women were mobilized or volunteered, from 1941 on, and they were not just nurses and cooks and drivers but also machine-gunners, artillerists, snipers, guerrilla fighters, combat medics, tank crew and frontline pilots. They were combatants in the most murderous combat in history, the four years of slaughter and genocide that the Germans called the Eastern Front.
            But after the Victory, their story was not just forgotten, it was repressed. The Stalinist regime conducted a loud celebration of triumphant masculine heroism.  The women - apart from a few officially-designated heroines - were expected to swallow their trauma and fade back into private life as wives-and-mothers-and-workers. Which most tried to do, only to find other women suspicious and many men rejecting. The longed-for gender normalization in peace became a second war for some.
            Alexievich began to collect their stories around 1978 and went on for seven years, tape-recording some interviews and making notes of others, from what we sociologists would call a large snowball sample. Alexievich wasn't a sociologist or a historian, and in writing this, wasn't acting as a journalist either. She was a novelist, and the interviews became the raw material of a great literary work giving a multi-voiced collective portrait of the experience of women in war. It's not like Life and Fate or War and Peace, or for that matter All Quiet on the Western Front, which have central characters and a story line. It's a quilt of hundreds of episodes and different voices and emotions. But it does have an implied narrative, I think, which is Alexievich's reading of the changes brought about by mass violence.
            The distinction between journalism and literature became a legal issue when Alexievich was sued over a later book, Boys in Zinc, and forced to defend herself as a writer in court. (The lawsuit seems to have been a political manoeuvre by the resurgent authoritarian forces in Belarus.) But The Unwomanly Face of War is even more complicated. The author's project, and the speakers' act of telling, become a running commentary on the story itself. For me the most moving thing in the book is not the description of horrors but the short chapter about the women who found it impossible to speak. The cataclysm of the 1940s was still working in their lives.
            Alexievich couldn't get the manuscript published at first, but perestroika made it possible and a censored version came out in 1985. I presume this translation is the uncensored version; it pulls no punches. Penguin have put on the cover a contemporary picture of one of the officially-recognized heroines, who commanded a squadron in the Red Air Force. She's in dress uniform with all her medals, which include the Soviet equivalent of the VC.  She looks about seventeen. She is looking over her shoulder, with an absolutely unreadable expression.

Launching "The Good University"


I'm delighted, and of course nervous, about the imminent launch of The Good University in Melbourne and Sydney.
There has been some online discussion, but the moment when the launcher and the launchee face the people, and the people hold the actual book in their hands, and can talk back, is drama. Here are the details, please come if you can! (If you can't, try: http://www.publishing.monash.edu/books/gu-9781925835038.html)
Melbourne: Wednesday 6 March, 6.30 for 7, Readings Bookshop, 309 Lygon Street, Carlton. To be launched by Jeannie Rea, chaired by Nathan Hollier. Please book here: https://www.trybooking.com/book/event?eid=467389&
Sydney: Friday 8 March, 6 for 6.30, Gleebooks, 49 Glebe Point Road, Glebe. To be launched by Mehreen Faruqi, chaired by Kurt Iveson.  It's free, but to help with catering, Gleebooks appreciates your booking by telephone (02)9660 2333 or online at http://www.gleebooks.com.au/BookingRetrieve.aspx?ID=311903

In other parts of the world, the Zed Books edition is available here: https://www.zedbooks.net/shop/book/the-good-university/forthcoming/ .
In North America, the Zed Books edition is distributed by Chicago University Press: https://www.press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/distributed/G/bo39583362.html

To remind you, here is the chapter list:
Introduction
1. Making the knowledge: research
2. Learning and teaching
3. The collective intellectual: university workers
4. The global economy of knowledge
5. Privilege machines
6. The university business
7. Universities of hope
8. The good university

And a correction! In the book I mention Times Higher Education as part of the Murdoch group. I'm out of date: it was sold to venture capitalists. And it's just been sold again: https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/new-owner-times-higher-education.



Survive and thrive at an academic conference


Conferences are an important part of university life. They are where you get know-how, visibility and connections. In conferences research disciplines convene, new research is revealed, future directions are debated. They are labour markets and places where reputations are negotiated.

But conferences can be very problematic, especially for new players. They can be alienating, intimidating – and very expensive. But there are ways of dealing with the problems. I have written five posts about how to make conferences work, and have now brought them together in a single document. You can download this as a pdf, absolutely free of charge, by clicking here.
Feedback welcome, please!

Coming Soon, To a Bookshop Near You: "The Good University"


Knowledge matters, for a democratic and sustainable world. Universities are at the centre of the global economy of knowledge. And universities are in trouble.
That’s not the official view. To managers and media, the higher education sector is booming. There are more than 200 million students worldwide, many of them ‘first in family’. Unprecedented amounts of money are flowing, and university presidents, rectors and vice-chancellors earn enormous salaries.
Yet universities are now unhappy places to work – for an increasingly precarious workforce, under heavy-handed managerial control. Corporate capital has moved in on the sector, siphoning off profits from research, tuition and loans. There are enormous worldwide inequalities in university research, and growing economic inequalities within universities. Many market-oriented governments have practically abandoned the idea of public universities, redefining higher education as an industry of vocational colleges operating as competing firms.
How has this come about? What can be done about it? What alternatives have there been? How can we democratise universities?
Like many other university staff and students, I have been wrestling with these questions for a long time. To answer them we need to think carefully about the work that universities do, the character of their workforce, the social effects that universities produce, and the worldwide picture of knowledge. We need to understand what has happened in the recent market turn and managerial takeover. And we need to learn from the many attempts, over the last two centuries, to invent new and more democratic models for universities. Only then can we offer a transformative agenda for universities.
The Good University is my report on these issues, ending with proposals for a new vision for universities, and thoughts on the politics of change. I don’t offer a blueprint, though I do sketch some possible designs. I’m basically offering starting-points for readers to work from, in the circumstances they face themselves. Democratic change will demand collective struggle and inventiveness.
The book will be published in the next couple of months: internationally by Zed Books https://www.zedbooks.net/shop/book/the-good-university/forthcoming/ and in Australia and Aotearoa/New Zealand by Monash University Publishing http://www.publishing.monash.edu/forthcoming.html.

Here is the chapter list:
Introduction
1. Making the knowledge: research
2. Learning and teaching
3. The collective intellectual: university workers
4. The global economy of knowledge
5. Privilege machines
6. The university business
7. Universities of hope
8. The good university
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