• Thu. May 30th, 2024

Do Strikes Affect English Departments More?

ByRebecca Palmer

Feb 10, 2023
Picketers protesting outside building

My typically lecture-jammed week has become a wasteland. All of my English Literature lectures and tutorials are cancelled in support of the UCU industrial action, which is demanding improved pensions, stable job security, manageable workloads, and the closing of pay gaps. With a 25 per cent fall in higher education salaries against inflation since 2009, I am glad to support my hardworking tutors and lecturers in this vital act of protest. But, as I while away the strike days reading and meeting with my Autonomous Learning Group in non-university buildings to simulate a tutorial, many of my peers in STEM remain locked in the King’s Buildings for a gruelling 9-5. 

What prompts the significant disparity in strike participation between the Literature and STEM departments? Perhaps the Humanities are easier to teach online than STEM subjects, which require labs, equipment, and hands-on teaching. It’s no coincidence that STEM students have more scheduled contact hours. STEM striking may have a disproportionately negative impact on the learning of their students. To compensate for the strikes, recordings of my philosophy lectures from the Covid years have been uploaded online for my perusal. It may be that the lab-bound STEM students cannot afford this convenient luxury. Those among the STEM staff who are striking have removed material affected by the strikes from their students’ finals.  The same measure has not been instated in Literature courses. Perhaps then, it is more feasible for Humanities students to self-teach content than those in STEM. It is also possible that academics and teachers in STEM have more opportunities outside of the University for employment than those in humanities. Some work in private companies alongside their teaching, rendering the current action over pensions and pay less consequential for them. An unnamed student commented that her architecture lectures could continue thanks to the lecturers’ part-time jobs as architects. But is the imbalance in participation merely due to such practicalities, or are there larger factors at play?

If the act of writing itself can be considered a form of protest, then, unsurprisingly, the Literature department has a historically supportive relationship with industrial action. A powerful tool of dissent, literature often challenges dominant narratives to rail against inequality and oppression. Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, for example, passionately critiques the exploitation of workers during the Great Depression. In amplifying marginalised voices, he easily breeds our empathy. Awareness and, thus, understanding of this suffering inevitably pierce literature, as reading a poignant call for justice can permeate our own worldviews. In Murakami’s Norwegian Wood, students attempt to dismantle the establishment of the university itself.  The eventual failure of the strikes suffuses the text with an anticlimactic sense of impotency and fosters pathos. 

Literary protests are embraced by the syllabus at Edinburgh.  There is even an entire third-year course devoted to doubt and dissent in Medieval English Literature. Second-year students are studying Gaskell’s Mary Barton this semester, in which Mary’s father, John Barton, participates in the Chartist trade union action of the Industrial Revolution. Gaskell presents the strikes as a necessary and justified means to demand better wages and working conditions.  John receives five shillings for pawning most of his possessions.  This is the same amount carried as loose change by the mill owner’s son. Money thus serves as a salient symbol for unjust wealth inequality. In our turbulent times for industrial action, Barton’s call for justice and literary protest may particularly resonate within the department. 

Image Credit: “Teachers, College Lecturers, and Department of Work and Pensions staff on strike against pay offers lower than inflation, i.e. pay cuts” by Roger Blackwell is licenced under CC BY 2.0.