If we attempt to stifle satire, the joke's on us

6th February 2015 at 00:00
Further education has a strong and noble tradition of humorous dissent. Laugh along, managers, and you might learn something

As we try to come to terms with what happened at the Paris offices of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo last month, the role and impact of satire is centre stage. And further education has its fair share of satire in both blogs and novels.

When I read in TES that a novel by Stephen Grant about life in FE was being legally challenged by a college ("The lecturer's tale that is stranger than fiction", Further, 7 November), I immediately went out and bought it. Without that challenge I may never have heard of the book, A Moment More Sublime, as its publisher's marketing had not reached me.

There is a nice irony there: instead of ignoring something it wishes had never been published, the college makes a big fuss and ensures it gets even more attention. It brings to mind the age-old tradition of attempting to suppress literature, which assures both notoriety and extensive readership.

I became a lecturer in 1980 and was an avid reader of the Wilt novels by Tom Sharpe, which humorously portray life in an FE college in the 1970s. The main attraction to us lowly lecturers was the satirical, often cruel depiction of FE managers, particularly the principal and heads of department.

Sharpe was no more compassionate in his characterisation of students, in particular day-release apprentices and their complete lack of interest in liberal studies or college life. The reason we loved the Wilt novels so much was because, as in all good satire, there ran a deep vein of truth that we lecturers recognised. We proudly referred to our Wood One and Meat One students (construction and hospitality to the uninitiated), and despairingly shared our failing techniques for maintaining their interest and engagement.

We recognised the behaviour of our own senior managers in the chaos and crassness of the fictional college's petty squabbles, power struggles and teaching challenges. But, of course, we did not recognise ourselves in the foibles, craziness and laziness of the protagonist Henry Wilt.

The Wilt novels did not lack verisimilitude (look it up in your dictionary, as Wilt's class had to). Indeed, they were only too accurate. And isn't humour a good way of releasing tension when things become overly burdensome and difficult?

You've got to laugh

When I was a principal in the late 1990s and early 2000s, an alternative newsletter called Virtual College, written by an A-level English lecturer, satirised the communication sheet I produced each month. It was cleverly done and made me belly-laugh on occasion; particularly effective was a cartoon of me sitting on the roof of my garage, gazing at the stars for inspiration while watching Teletubbies (the author's idea of the origin of our vision and values process). The cross-college quality team (the principal's "muses") were caricatured as Greek goddesses rising out of the sea. These images were created more than a decade ago but still I remember them.

Many managers (not all) were offended and thought the newsletter should be banned. I felt the complete opposite: it was satirical, not malicious, and shouldn't be treated with disdain. I also knew that any attempt at suppression was likely to fail and could be counterproductive.

My favourite part of Grant's A Moment More Sublime is the internal sabotaging of imposed service agreements by lecturers through a photocopying scam. I remember my own obsession with photocopying as a head of department in 1990 and my failed attempts to control costs. This led to my first humbling managerial realisation that ultimately I could control nothing, not even photocopies.

The gap in perspectives and desires between lecturers and managers has always been, and I suspect always will be, fodder for humour, ridicule and satire. For example, if you haven't read it yet, take a look at the Dancing Princesses blog, which uses fairy stories to highlight concerns about managerial practices and disdain for lecturers and their priorities.

Grant lampoons the extent of managerial malevolence and excess. That's what satire does. He also offers up the "expanding laziness" of lecturers for mockery; it's not all one-sided. Inevitably, the book focuses on cynicism and battles over pay cuts, staff reductions and the threat of strikes. This is the reality of lecturers' concerns.

A Moment More Sublime is not great literature but it holds its own in the English tradition of academic satire, standing alongside the Wilt books, Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis, David Lodge's trilogy of campus novels and The Further Education of Mike Carter by Richard Ayres.

As Philip Roth said in 1975, "satire is moral outrage transformed into a comic art", and I believe we senior managers must rise above any sense of personal attack or outrage. Perhaps we should also ponder Jonathan Swift's words. The author of Gulliver's Travels wrote in 1704 that "satire is a sort of glass wherein beholders do generally discover everybody's face but their own", which explains how it can receive a "kind reception" without causing offence.

Dr Lynne Sedgmore is writing in a personal capacity. She is executive director of the 157 Group of colleges


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