Luke's Notes

Sussex Stories 1: The Early Years 1990-98 Part 1

See also Contents and Introduction to this series.

It was beautiful

In the 2020s I bumped into an ex-colleague at the local swimming pool. She had been made redundant in some savage anti-education cuts at Sussex in 2012 and I had gone part-time by this point. We bemoaned the way the university (and universities in general) had gone and how great it used to be. We reminisced about Sussex in the past. 'It was a beautiful place' she said, looking wistfully into the distance. I was quite struck. It was an emotional reflection. On the way home I considered her words. I hadn't thought of the university quite like that. But it was beautiful back in the day, in hindsight at least.

Interview: definitely, definitely, definitely

If someone had asked me in 1990 what job in the world I would have chosen to do, any sort of job anywhere at all, I would have said Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Sussex. So when I rifled through The Guardian education jobs early that year and saw exactly this job there I was stunned. I later found out that Sociology had not had a new appointment for 12 years and this one was a 'new blood' post that had come about as a reward for doing well in some teaching or research review. It was a rare opportunity.

So, I applied myself to doing the best possible application I could. One of my referees, Ted Organ at Brighton Technical College, where I was teaching evening classes in GCSE sociology, told me he had been asked for a reference. This usually meant you were being shortlisted for interview, which I was then invited for, and I put myself full time into preparing for it. I managed to work out who some of the interview panel were likely to be, Jennifer Platt, as the subject (department) chair, and Pete Saunders as a professor. I had already met William Outhwaite briefly around that time and I guessed he would be on the panel. I got those three correct. The other members were Stuart Laing, Dean of the School of Cultural and Community Studies, and Sue Wright, an anthropologist, who was the representative from another group. I don't remember if there was also a Pro-Vice Chancellor (a senior management position) which often there could be.

At the interview, Pete, a convert to neoliberalism, asked me what I thought about privatisation, which was a big political issue at the time, following the Tory privatisations of utilities. I said I thought it wasn't great for consumers but was good for producers and shareholders. Surprisingly to me, this turned out to be exactly the conclusions Pete had come to from empirical work he had done on the issue. Sue Wright asked me what my methodological approach was, which was challenging because I hadn't thought about that a lot and didn't particularly have one I favoured. I was also conscious that Jennifer Platt, historian of sociological research methods, was on the panel. I was quite proud later that I came up with the answer that I was a methodological pluralist (I had been reading Gregor McLennan's book on Marxism, Pluralism, and Beyond). This was true in that I was open to whatever seemed the best approach in any case, but also made it sound thoughtful and theoretical (I thought at least) rather than that I just didn't know or didn't have one. I don't know what Sue thought of my cobbled-together answer, but I grew to respect her a great deal after starting at Sussex. I can't remember what the other questions were but I do know I was 100% focused on getting everything exactly right.

There was a lunch for department (subject group, it was called then) members and candidates and all the candidates were white men. This was later defended on the grounds that these were just the 6 best candidates. The candidates were each allocated a member of staff to go away with for a coffee and chat and I was given Mary Farmer, who was to become a very important part of my Sussex life. In later years the roles would be reversed and I'd be given the job of taking candidates for a coffee. I took one who had just given up smoking and was deeply regretting it that day. It became clear at the lunch for my post that one candidate was older and more experienced than the rest of us. He was the most qualified for the job by a mile but I decided all I could do was my best and to try to impress with what I had.

That evening Stuart Laing rang me at home, said they were offering me the job and talked about pay and terms etc. Just as he was about to hang up he suddenly said, "Hold on, I forgot to ask you if you want the job". This was the first point I lost my composure and I said very excitedly that I definitely, definitely, definitely did. 23 years later I met Stuart when I was giving a talk at a conference at Brighton University about the marketisation of higher education. Now a senior manager at Brighton, Stuart gave an opening welcome to the conference and then came over to say he had been on my appointing committee. Laing was now suited and neatly trimmed, compared to my memory (maybe imperfect) of long sideburns and floppy hair from 1990. I was impressed he remembered and said I too remembered very well, and that it had been one of the great days of my life.

If I hadn't got that job I had an interview the following week at Liverpool University which I then pulled out of. Out of about 50 applications that year these were the only two interviews I was offered and I've often wondered what life would have been like if I had ended up at Liverpool, with kids with Scouse accents. I was a better fit with the radical and interdisciplinary Sussex than with the more conventional Liverpool department and suspect I would have stood less chance of getting the Liverpool job.

I was 25 at the time of the interview, had not finished my PhD, had no publications, and no teaching experience at university level. It took a lot less in those days to get a university lecturing job but I was still quite under-qualified. I never asked what I had said or had had for them that day to swing it. I knew interview committees are often not unanimous and I later pondered who on the panel may have wanted me and who may have been less convinced. And maybe they offered it to the more qualified guy and he turned it down and I was second choice. Or maybe someone else was second choice and they turned it down and I was third choice. Best not to overthink things.

Arrival: I'm not a student

I started at Sussex in September 1990 then aged 26. Even then it was quite young to be a lecturer. There was an induction for new staff and I sat next to Julian Saurin a new International Relations lecturer about the same age as me who I think already had 3 children. I had 2 kids at that point and some thought even that a bit precocious. Julian worked on International Political Economy and environmental issues, and was well respected, especially by PhD students he supervised. He went on to become branch President of Sussex UCU (University and College Union) which I also did much later. He was a very important member of the university. He later taught at the Middle East Technical University in Northern Cyprus. We worked together much later at the Free University Brighton when he came back to the UK. He now lives on the beautiful Isle of Harris in Scotland.

My first day of employment at Sussex came along. It was September the 1st in the vacation and I knew that university lecturers often worked at home. But I decided I should be in my office on the first day. I went in. There was no key for me so I borrowed a master key from the porters. They thought I was a student (this became a theme for a few years with the porters) but took my word for it that I was a new lecturer and entrusted me with the key. Porters were very important pre-email. They lugged great sacks of post around the campus to the different schools and put it in the school pigeonholes. We used to write paper memo after paper memo in those days on small bits of paper that you stapled closed. When you went into the porters' lodge to get your post there was a lot of good-humoured piss-taking both ways.

When I entered my office on day 1 it was still full of the belongings of the previous occupant. I stayed anyway and left her a note at the end of the day saying I had started and would it be OK if I used the office. When I next went in there was a reply from her. I can't remember the contents exactly but it was irritable. Everything seemed very laid back, but there were plenty of individuals who were friendly and welcoming. William Outhwaite was one early on. It was William who suggested I write on environmentalism and this led to my first book Ecology and Society. He also pointed out, when commenting on my writing, that environmentalism had an 'n' in it. It stood me in good stead for the future. The political scientist Bruce Graham worked hard to support and encourage new young members of staff. He would have lunch with us, ask us about our research, and give us tips. He had started at Sussex in 1964, near the beginning, and served in senior roles at the university. He was gentle, thoughtful, and generous with his time.

The subject chair, Jennifer Platt, started my employment a month before term started to give me preparation time and gave me a reduced teaching load for a term so I could work on finishing my PhD. I think at the time this was a fairly novel and flexible approach. She was very protective of me, protesting vigorously when she found I had been given an admissions role soon after starting (admissions was a school not a subject group responsibility, more on this division shortly; in fact, I loved being involved in admissions). You were given courses to teach but this consisted of a course title and rubric. You were then left to make up the topics and reading yourself. It was a huge amount of work. Decades later new staff were only expected to teach already set-up courses, something the union had an input into winning I think. Despite that, early career lecturers still had much more to do than later career people in terms of preparation and they did not get reductions in teaching load anywhere near enough to adjust for that. I tried to increase reductions in such cases when I was later Head of Department but it was still not nearly enough. I recollect that levels above told me even greater reductions would be too much.

My first course was the amazing Themes and Perspectives in Sociology which still runs in some form. Courses then were mainly centred around seminars. Lecture series would have lectures relevant to the course but not necessarily linked at all to the topic of the week. They were seen as extras and contextual rather than the base of the course as later became the pattern. Lecturers from other departments would drop in to lecture on Sociology courses, and vice-versa.

Early on, the Sociology group had an awayday with a consultant and flipcharts etc. It was quite unusual to have this sort of thing in those days and an only just emerging trend. At the opening icebreaking session we all had to get into small groups to talk about the Sociology group and come up with one word each to describe our feelings about our colleagues. It was supposed to warm us up and generate goodwill to get us started. But in the report back one generally mild-mannered member of staff said their word to sum up their feeling for their colleagues was 'contempt'. The facilitator did a double take and she had to check if this is what the member of staff had said. They confirmed. Everyone looked impassive and no-one seemed surprised. Much later in my career I realised this person had less respect for people who did not do research of the sort they favoured. Luckily I did not fall foul of this preference.

From secretaries to co-ordinators

When I joined Sussex I was assigned a secretary. Each secretary in my school worked for 4 or 5 academics. Their job was primarily being a typist although some would do some organisational assistance too. As they typed our letters and reading lists they got to know a lot about us and what we did. I felt very uncomfortable as a 26 year old having a middle-aged woman as my secretary and I hated to ask mine to do anything, so often I just did not. My first secretary was Margaret, who was lovely, lively, and friendly. In fact, all the secretaries (or later, co-ordinators) who were my first port of call were lovely. After Margaret there was Pat, and later Lisa when Pat retired, and Linda after her.

During Pat's time computers were introduced and academic staff were now expected to do our own typing. Some of the secretaries struggled with computers and took retirement. It freed up those left to become administrators (called co-ordinators) and the admin load on academic staff decreased. Administrators later even started to do curriculum work which lessened the load more. Sometimes it could be grating when people from the marketing, admissions, or teaching support departments saw us as stereotypically fusty out of touch ivory tower academics and told us how to do our jobs, when they were not educators and we were the ones who had daily contact with students. But mostly these units were very helpful support for us.

Students, seminars, offices - and chairs

There were about 10 staff in the Sociology group in those days, with a low turnover, and about 40 students in each year. Seminar sizes in the 1990s were a maximum of 12 and frequently smaller. I taught some courses with just 3 or 4 students. We often held classes in our offices. Mine was E436 in Arts E, it's imprinted on my mind, and was quite small. It had 4 other chairs crammed in, aside from my own, so with any group over 4 there would be students perched on my desk, window sills, chair arms, and even on the floor. No-one complained. Most of us knew most of the students. That's the case now no more. In the 2020s we have, I think, 30 staff or more with probably 150+ students in each year, maybe more.

I practiced quite student-centred learning. I tried to get students to determine the themes and questions on the topics we were discussing. I didn't know this at the time but later realised this was quite a Freireian approach to teaching. As time went on I became a more didactic teacher, setting the themes more top-down, guiding students through them, and imparting a fair bit of knowledge of my own. But towards the end of my time at Sussex on my Alternative Societies module I returned more to the Freireian approach. I was often just 5 years older than the students. Many I taught in my first years at Sussex will now be in their 50s. There will be a smattering of grandparents amongst them.

The chairs in my office were commissioned by Basil Spence, the architect who designed the Sussex campus buildings. Incredibly, when my building was knocked down many years later in the post-2007 era these were being thrown out, which just about summed up the level of respect for the Spence university in these later times. So, I took some home to preserve them. They were beautiful but not very ergonomic. In the 2020s I eventually sold mine on eBay and they were bought by collectors, not for much but at least they were kept up.

I was working ridiculous hours and bringing up two small children and was often tired. I took to locking my office door and lying on the floor to have a nap. Much later we would move into a building with glass panels in the doors and walls. The afternoon naps had to end. Before that one of my colleagues in Arts E was seen through a window overlooking his office, slumped in a chair and apparently unconscious. Banging on his door failed to bring a response. The porters were sent to open the door urgently and staff got in. The academic in question was just asleep, a very deep sleep.

There were many mature students in those days, whose life experience added so much to the discussions. I would guess a third or so of my students were visibly mature, the official designation of mature then being anyone over 21 on arrival. When £9000 fees were introduced in 2010 the most obvious effect on my classes was sadly the almost complete collapse in mature students.

Students handed in non-contributory essays 2 or 3 times a term and then we had assessed essays on top of that. It meant that we were nearly always marking. Essays were handwritten. When word-processing requirements came in it was a great relief. External examiners expressed shock at the amount of marking we gave ourselves to do at Sussex. But keeping the marking up was defended to the hilt by many; it was the 'Sussex way'. I think this was one rare example where I did not defend the unique traditions of the university at the time.

When it came to assessed essays it could sometimes be a problem getting students to focus on doing them well, or doing them at all. For some, they were here to learn, not for the assessments. Most were over the moon to get a 2.1. First-class degrees were few and far between. Most years we had none. Fast forward to the 2020s and assessments are the centre of it all. I get students coming to me 2 or 3 weeks into the course asking how they can get a First. Now we get many First-class degrees every year. This is not grade inflation. It's because the students have upped their game. This is partly because of the pressure to get high grades and the desire to. It's also because of the internet. Students are just very well informed due to instant and easy access to the world's knowledge. To find a niche bit of information you no longer have to spend hours browsing paper newspapers and shelves of books in the library, probably put off from doing so in the first place by the low chance of you pinning down what you want to know.

Sociology held a weekend residential conference for students and staff every year towards the start of the academic year, at the Isle of Thorns conference centre in the Ashdown Forest. If I remember correctly, there had been Italian prisoners of war here (although I don't think it was a prisoner of war camp) and there was a large barn where horses had been kept, with murals all over the walls painted by the Italians. The university later sold the centre to raise money. The sociology lecturers took turns organising the conference and I organised one on a theme suggested by David Harrison - 'The Third World and Development', terms that were still favoured at the time. I tried to make things more interesting by inviting Clive Crook from The Economist to speak. He started his talk by saying he felt like a meat-eater at a convention of vegetarians. The fabulous Aiden Foster-Carter from Leeds University, a Korea specialist, also spoke. Aiden ditched his planned talk to give one attacking Clive Crook, calling him 'Crook by name, Crook by nature'. Crook had left by then. If I remember correctly, Aiden borrowed a guitar a student had brought along and treated us to a few songs in the evening.

At one Isle of Thorns conference Jennifer Platt was chairing a talk and appeared to promptly fall asleep at the start of the session, sitting in full view at the front by the speaker. I was sure she was fast asleep, she looked completely out for the count. But she woke up just as the talk ended and incredibly asked very pertinent and spot-on questions about the topic. Jennifer had a headmistressy manner and some people were scared of her. I liked her a lot. She was head of the group when I arrived, very helpful and thoughtful towards me, and principled. She specialised in the history of sociology and was a major figure in British and international sociology. I replaced her as head of the group when she retired in 2002 and spoke at her retirement do. She remained active on the campus long after retirement, attending seminars and coming in to use workspace she was entitled to as an emeritus professor. I still see her husband Charles Goldie, a mathematician at Sussex (retired), from time to time. Charles must take some sort of anti-ageing drug as he doesn't look a day older than when I first met him back in the 1990s.

The legendary Tom Bottomore, long Professor of Sociology at Sussex, was retired but still about when I arrived and he spoke at one Isle of Thorns conference. He was a non-dogmatic Marxist, with interests in political and economic sociology, which could have equally described me. I only met him once or twice. He appeared to be friendly and unpretentious. He and William Outhwaite were friends and worked together in Tom's last years. He died in 1992 a couple of years after I arrived. Another Marxist legend at Sussex while I was there was the Hungarian philosopher István Mészáros, whose book on Marx's Theory of Alienation I had read as an undergraduate. He was an anti-Stalinist and had had to flee Hungary after the suppressed revolution in 1956.

After a few years at Sussex, we noticed that our undergraduate sociology students were flagging mid-way through the second year. They didn't have the energy from being new at the university, nor the pressure that came with being nearer the end. So we instituted a 'halfway there' meal for staff and students in the middle of the second year, at a popular and inexpensive large Italian restaurant in central Brighton. The department paid for the food and attendees paid for drinks. It was popular for several years and then take-up started to become thin on the ground and we ended the practice. My school had an annual meal out in Brighton, for staff, I think it must have been a Christmas thing. People took partners but I took my kids who loved it, foodies then and ever since, my son is now a chef. Taking the kids didn't go down very well with the Dean (Head of the School). The future chef, the youngest of my kids, would fall asleep leaning against me during the meal and I would have to carry him home.

Admissions

I was involved in admissions for many years at Sussex. In the early days academics would deal with all applications and interviewed more or less every undergraduate applicant. Most days I received a batch of UCCA (as they were called then) forms to be dealt with, bound in an elastic band. Then, every now and then, a day would be booked out to interview candidates. It was interesting but a lot of work. Later on, we stopped interviewing by and large, except for mature Access course applicants. Later again, administrators in the admissions office took over dealing with the applications.

For several years I was on the Admissions Criminal Convictions Sub-committee. We had to look at applications from people with convictions, sometimes very serious ones with long sentences. In some cases, the applicants were still in prison and planning for life after release. We had to assess whether they would be a potential danger to people or property if they came to Sussex, whether to admit them and, if so, whether to offer them accommodation on campus. It was a different world for me and fascinating. When I became Head of Department (HoD) in 2002 I had to give it up as HoDs could not be members of the committee. I was gutted.

I was also involved in widening participation (WP). We would make lower offers to applicants from WP backgrounds. Not all subjects were willing to do that. Once or twice a year I would go to a school in inner London and meet pupils who met certain criteria - English not their first language, unstable home background, economic deprivation etc. I would just chat to each pupil about social issues and tell them they were very bright and able and would be great at university (which was always the case). The idea was that they would see a university lecturer was just an ordinary person and that the lecturer saw them as university material. I'd make them all an offer of an interview or a conditional place. I don't know if the university kept data on whether any of these pupils went on to university so I don't know what effect this had. But the school teachers were very enthusiastic about the scheme. We ran taster sessions for pupils from such schools on the campus. I started a Sociology annual day conference for A-level students and we would target WP schools and give them priority booking. A school in Tower Hamlets always sent a coachload of pupils and the social composition of the lecture theatre changed completely when they walked into the room. I think Sussex still has a WP team but I don't know whether they run such outreach schemes visiting schools any more. Sussex later abolished altruism, too expensive, so I'm guessing not.

New Ideas of Socialism

Near the start of my career at Sussex, I gave a paper on 'New Ideas of Socialism' at the Social and Political Thought (SPT) seminar series at Sussex. The paper was later published in the journal Economy and Society in 1992, my first proper publication. The room was packed. It was 1991 or so, soon after the collapse of so-called communism and amidst the rising hegemony of neoliberalism. Not many people thought socialism had any future so I think the title may have sparked interest. Soon afterwards I developed my course on 'The Death of Socialism?' (DoS?). I always had to say "it's with a question mark" and this caused great mirth amongst many, especially the economists who said the question mark should be removed. The New Ideas seminar was at the end of the day, about 5pm, and I was so tired from the long wait all day for it and general stress that I was unable to answer questions all that well (the same issue was to be repeated at my Professorial lecture more than 20 years later). At one point Alan Cawson, political scientist and expert on corporatism, kindly took it upon himself to defend me against some of the criticism I was proving unable to answer.

Alan had a room across from mine and became very interested in the emerging internet, dial-up only in those pre-broadband days. He was one of the first people to realise how important the internet would become and later switched from being a Professor of Politics to Professor of Digital Media. People were not online at home at the time so Alan came in some weekends to access it in his office. I remember coming in once or twice on a Saturday to pick up some things I needed and him calling me in for strong black coffee he made in his room. We were both a bit worse for wear from, as he said once, 'too much red wine'. Alan was another friendly and encouraging colleague, and I would have been unlikely to get to know him without Sussex's interdisciplinary structures.

When 'New Ideas of Socialism' was published I sent a copy to my colleague Pete Saunders who was then on a sabbatical at Bremen University in Germany (where many years later I gave a talk at, of all places, the Bremen Tram company, to public transport managers from across Germany). He sent me a long handwritten critique in the post. He then wrote it into a reply article for Economy and Society. He used the title 'When Prophecy Fails' from a seminal sociological study looking at how people who predicted the end of the world maintained their views when that did not happen. The researchers actually infiltrated the group in question. I'm not sure the study would fare well in an ethical review now. Pete's idea was that I was also trying to maintain the case for socialism when it had been shown to fail. I was allowed to write a reply to his critique which I called 'Rescuing the Middle Ground' and both were published in the journal. A bit later I met Michèle Barrett at a conference, someone I admired a lot for her book Women's Oppression Today on Marxist-feminism. The book had been an important one for me from my undergraduate days onwards and I used it for teaching throughout my career. Michèle had been on the board of Economy and Society when our articles were considered. She said she felt it was out of order for a senior member of the sociology group to write a critique of a junior member of staff in the group, but I had relished it and enjoyed the discussion and told her so.

The New Ideas article came out of my PhD written in the late 1980s which was on the possibility for a pluralist socialism after the collapse of communism and after the rise of neoliberalism. My last book on Alternative Societies published in 2023 is on the same topic. It was a bit of a theme throughout my career. (See also For a Pluralist Democratic Socialism).

The Death of Socialism? course ran all the way through my career at Sussex until my last year. I once told the Head of Politics that it was one of the most important things in my life, which was true. Politics (who at that point were hosting the course) tried to delete it one year because they had a big deficit and the income that came from the fees of students on the course went to Sociology as I was a member of Sociology staff. That was how the budget worked and they wanted all the money kept in Politics. I couldn't see why they had to delete it rather than just suspend it. Everyone wanted things tidy and final. It wasn't really logical. But the student reps put up a fight to retain the module and it was saved. Thanks Emma and fellow reps, I haven't forgotten you. Many degrees and courses have been deleted because applications dropped for a year or two, with no sense that things can change.

The overall mood of the DoS? seminar group/s often reflected the times. In the 1990s after the collapse of communism and with neoliberalism spreading around the world most students on the course thought socialism was dead, including the socialists. Then as climate change became more obviously a major issue, central planning and collective ownership seemed to many the obvious solutions and socialism seemed to have more of a future with the students. Positive support would ebb and then things like the financial crisis and the rise of the populist left, Corbyn, Sanders, Podemos etc brought hope for it back. The last term I taught it, Autumn 2023, Corbyn had been defeated and other firm left movements were in retreat. Trump and the racist right were on the ascendancy. Starmer was Labour leader. The pro-socialist students were pretty gloomy about socialism's prospects.

Next post: continues with the early years 1990-98.

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