Archive | November, 2021

Accent-ism and UK universities

21 Nov

Fiona Hill’s excellent autobiography, There is nothing here for you here: Finding opportunity in the 21st century, has got me thinking about accent-ism and British universities. Dr Hill has had a stellar career: a PhD from Harvard, positions at a series of US think-tanks, has served in senior roles on the US National Security Council, and has worked with three US presidents. What is remarkable is that she comes from very straitened circumstances in the north east of England. Her book devotes considerable space to issues of class and gender (and some attention to race in relation to the US).

She tells – movingly – of a humiliating experience at an Oxford entrance interview, of being dismissed as a ‘common northerner’ by a fellow student at St Andrews, and of the very real constraints that poverty placed on her education choices and route. She also tells of acts of kindness, luck and good advice that helped her along the way. Also coming through the book is the sheer hard work and determination that – over the long haul – beat the social immobility traps that shape British society.

One thing that comes across in the book is how she was self-conscious of her north east accent as it signalled that she was an outsider and somehow did not belong in particular higher education settings. This got me thinking about my own experiences at British universities and what it’s like to have a regional accent. I can only speak from personal experience of the universities that I have worked at on this island – Lancaster, York, St Andrews, Manchester and Durham – and my professional networks. In all of these places (with the possible exception of Manchester) I have been struck by the absence of regional accents among academic staff. The most common accent among academic staff – born on the island of Britain – is accent-less English. It tends not to be the posh received pronunciation of past decades, but a modern iteration of it. In a few cases I have worked with ‘mockneys’ – middle class academics with a faux working class twang (I suspect it was adopted during their school years to avoid bullying). But, in general, the main accent among UK-born academics is no accent or a very suppressed regional accent.

There are a number of reasons for the absence of regional accents. Academics from “the regions” (and I can see how problematic that term can be) often stay close to home. There is also the need to be understood – in teaching, supervision and communication with colleagues. As a result, those with strong regional accents might try to ‘flatten’ their accent simply to be understood. A long time living away from one’s place of origin (and daily interaction in and with that accent) will usually bring a flattening of accents.

But I think class plays a major role in this too. As I understand it – and this comes out very well in Fiona Hill’s book – the English class system (and it seems more pronounced in England than elsewhere in the UK) is about legitimately fitting in at ‘the right level’. Dr Hill’s book records numerous incidences of middle class people thinking “What is she doing here?” when she opens her mouth and speaks with a regional accent. In universities – which serve as mechanisms for the reproduction of the middle class – this “What is s/he doing here?” mentality is the backdrop to a lot of interactions and calculations.

It is very probably at play in hiring processes where, as we know, unconscious bias is often at work. If you sound ‘right’ then people can concentrate on what you’re saying. If you sound different … well that’s an additional piece of baggage to go along with the understanding. Perhaps there is some conscious bias going on too, wherein regional accents are equated with being ‘thick’ or an outsider who does not belong. In all of this it is difficult to get away from class – a subject many English people (if I can generalise) are experts on, but often find uncomfortable to acknowledge. I am not sure that the nomenclature around the ‘widening participation agenda’ (schemes to encourage communities and groups who traditionally have not gone to university) is helpful. Why can’t we just call this ‘class’ (as well as ‘race’)?

I am conscious of my regional accent. It is very often the only one in the room. I have had quite a few experiences where I very clearly did not ‘fit’ – and a few humiliating job interviews early in my career where the principal form of communication from the interview panel was a sneer. Although, as a full-time, male professor I cannot claim to have done badly. And the accent-ism that I notice must be nothing compared to the very many academics in UK universities who do not have English as a first language. Nor am I seeking to compare accent-ism – at least in my case – with the racism and gender discrimination that is plain to see across the sector. There are also lots of regional accents to hear in the universities in Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland (with the exception of St Andrews).

Yet accent-ism is worthy of discussion. It is wrapped up – as Dr Hill suggests – in imposter syndrome, as well as feelings of belonging, and the subtle structural factors that shape UK academia.

Two thoughts on Austin Currie

18 Nov

Austin Currie died earlier in November and his passing has – rightly – been marked by respectful obituaries and a funeral attended by many of what might be called the Irish political establishment. Currie was a leader of the Northern Ireland civil rights movement and then had a prominent political career as a founding member of the Social Democratic and Labour Party, a minister in the Northern Ireland parliament (before its collapse), and a member of the parliament in the Republic of Ireland. It was a very full political life, with lots of highs and lows.

Two thoughts struck me when thinking about his life and passing. The first is the inconsistency of many (political) lives, and the second is that so much energy is taken up at the intra-group level. Let me explain those two thoughts.

There is no doubting Austin Currie’s extraordinary bravery in the civil rights movement in the late 1960s. Inspired by events in the United States, he and others took direct action to expose the shocking levels of anti-Catholic discrimination prevalent in Northern Ireland. Perhaps his most famous piece of direction action was engaging in a squat or sit-in in a council house that had been awarded to an 18 year old Protestant women while 260 people – many of them Catholic families – were on a waiting list. All of the houses in that particular development – in Caledon, Co. Tyrone – went to Protestants. Currie and his fellow squatters showed immense bravery. It was a time when the police force showed little compunction in using violence against Catholics, and Currie and many other civil rights protestors were often assaulted by the police as they protested and marched in support of very basic rights.

But fast forward two decades and Currie moved south, based himself in Dublin, and stood for election for Fine Gael – one of the two main political parties in the Republic of Ireland. Even on a good day, a committee of experts would be hard pressed to know what Fine Gael stands for – other than keeping themselves in power and thereby perpetuating social injustice. It is – and was – a conservative political party. Over the decades, its prominent members made little effort to understand Catholics in Northern Ireland let alone deal with their plight. No one can blame Currie for moving south. He and his family were regular targets of violence and intimidation. The sheer constancy of the threats must have been exhausting. But to join Fine Gael – a party firmly in the rear-guard of just about every rights movement – serves as a good reminder that many people are inconsistent in their beliefs.

Certainly many people are consistent. Bernadette McAliskey – to mention a contemporary of Currie – has been consistent in her support for rights and minorities over many decades. But many people change over time. Support for causes may be an ‘age and stage’ thing. For many people, career, life, family and health may mean that they are only politically active for a short period of time. Staying the course takes a special type of commitment (or a lack of choice). A common expectation is to believe that political leaders – especially strident ones – will stay consistent over time. But to do so often incurs costs or requires very significant energy.

The second thought relates to intra-group conflict and tension. Austin Currie was consistent in one thing – he did not believe in violence. This brought him into conflict with those in the Catholic-nationalist-republican community who believed in violence and more forceful ways to attain rights and oppose British rule. Many in Currie’s home territory of east Tyrone saw Currie as a sell-out or too respectful of British rule. This was especially the case from the late 1980s onwards when Sinn Fein was in the ascendant. I remember being at a Tyrone senior football game (in Ennis, I think) and the announcer introduced Currie as a “special guest from Tyrone’. He was roundly boo-ed. The key point is that much of Currie’s energy (and this applies to all politicians in deeply-divided societies) was not devoted to inter-group contestation. Instead, it was directed at intra-group debates. Like the constant threats to his life (and that of his family) this must have been wearing. While engagement with “the other side” may not have taken place every day, the micro-geographies of deeply-divided societies means that one usually lives among those of your own identity group. As a result there would have been little escape from the immediacy of consultation or even confrontation with the in-group.

End of two thoughts