Yes, it is possible to compare the worlds of academia and Love Island

Many historians will have spent this summer plying away at research leads in climatically confused, over and under-heated archives. I, meanwhile, of the swimwear-oriented 16-34 generation that hit audience figures of 1.7 out of 3.4 million viewers but lacking a Jet2Holidays ticket to Majorca, attended my research duties by casting a historians’ gaze over the contestants of Love Island 2018. Significant contributions to the field resulted: a body of research data that I believe could be vital to academics for weeks, if not months, to come (indeed, others have embraced the series as an under-appreciated educational tool too).

To use presenter Caroline Flack’s refrain, ‘in no particular order’, these ideas will remain on the island:

  • Grafting. Love Island contestants made a laudable commitment to the aim of winning their one true love(s) by ‘coupling up’. The effort this involves is called ‘grafting’. They worked and worked and worked: flirting, touching, kissing, creeping, cheating, lying, begging, bargaining, lounging, ‘doing bits’. Not unlike the world of academic networking, characters like Wes Nelson grafted cleverly and self-consciously: engaging his friends to stage manage alone-time with Megan Barton-Hanson, he then firmly stated his unwillingness to concede her to another man… The fruits of his grafting? He got the girl. But was this collaborative, casual or coercive?[*] The idea of grafting at a human relationship suggests the subjects of our efforts are in a one-way social vortex – a feeling that many academics will (if secretly) agree occurs at those events and locations where merry networks, relationship-building and collaboration are supposed to arise organically. But when we are grafted it is uncomfortable, ‘why are you working on me’, we wonder… Wes’ insistence that he would graft for his Love Island sweetheart was endearing but it was also deterministic. These unclear boundaries might be explored in some of our more mercenary academic interactions too.

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  • Loyalty. Not to be sneered at, this rather archaic of values made a comeback in this year’s Love Island. Albeit, in name only: in practice a ‘show of firm and constant support or allegiance’ was never paramount on any contestant’s mind, least of all its most vocal proponent, Georgia’s.[*] In an era when being ‘loyal’ to a university affiliation is a one-way street of miserly pensions, contract disputes, and fear of redundancy perhaps historians can learn to use Georgia’s version of loyalty too: tactically, voraciously and temporarily.

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  • Being mugged off. This happened a lot on Love Island: in the name of love and limited rules of play contestants deceived and thereby disrespected their friends and partners with a frequency akin to the intrigue of the Tudor Royal Court. In academia, as in Love Island, most will admit that a ‘passion’ or a ‘love’ of their subject is what drives their career trajectories: it’s not just a job, it’s an emotionalised lifestyle choice. Similarly, there are very few clear-cut rules in academia: questionable definitions and expectations of ‘excellence’, a deceptively glamourised and lawless realm of publishing, the never-ending play of cunning to ensure work is cutting-edge and showcases your difference, short-term contracts, funding competition and restructures that fuel internecine distrust and lies… Not surprising then, that academics regularly feel as ‘muggy’ as many declared they were within the villa. One of my favourite contestants, Laura, was made a regular ‘mug’ but she was celebrated for her decorous and (usually) mature response to her experiences of deception and disrespect.[†] I’m only guessing, but maybe Laura understood that being mugged off was part of her journey to success? She was annoyed and defensive about it but never debilitated. Her honesty about disappointment and idealistic outlook was maintained with a preservation of dignity that might somehow also be applicable to an academic career? A little mugginess goes a long way.
  • A love of nature. This was a curveball research insight. Jack, one half of Love Island’s winning couple, revealed a cornucopia of knowledge about the animal kingdom while living in the villa. Resting quietly on a bean bag by the swimming pool he started mornings meditating on Majorca’s migrant birds. Fuelling party conversations, he wowed his friends with facts about polar bears. His fascination for nature gave Jack a source of joy and interest in an otherwise claustrophobic and presumably repetitive environment. Lesson? Cultivate a love of nature: get away from your desk, look out of the window, feed your cat.

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[*] This isn’t a post on gender, sexuality, race and objectification on Love Island – for starters, please see: https://www.refinery29.uk/2018/06/200829/love-island-feminism; https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/newsbeat-44686074; https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/shortcuts/2018/jun/26/single-black-female-love-island-the-problem-with-race-and-dating.

[†] She wasn’t squeaky clean.

[*] Although since leaving with Sam Bird, in a loyal-ish couple, there is no doubt that some of those slurs against her best characteristic are being debunked: https://www.cosmopolitan.com/uk/entertainment/a22154239/love-island-georgia-loyal/

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‘But Miss, why are you working on reception?’

I am sat at a secondary school year 10 careers event, representing Higher Education. It is called ‘Meet the Professionals’. I also happen to work at this school as a part-time receptionist. As a representative of careers in higher education the pupils naturally ask, ‘but Miss, why are you working on the school reception?’

The answer to this innocent question is impossible to elucidate in a speed-dating-style set-up for 15 year-olds. Staying true to the aims of the careers event, pupils stump me with: ‘what is your favourite part of your job?’ How to explain, to school children whose outlets for creative and flexible thinking have been whittled away by curriculum changes and exam criteria, that the best part of my job is being free – and paid – to just think about history?

I can’t explain… because at that time, a month ago, I was a receptionist, a soon-to-be-Dr PhD student, a witness to the first round of strikes over pension cuts in universities, and an institution-less academic aghast at persistent evidence of privilege and inequality in recruitment and experience across academia. It would be unrealistic, deceptive and irresponsible of me to wistfully extemporize on the value of mere thinking, the life of the mind, amid such cynical and introspective times. I returned to my post behind reception feeling dejected.

I am aware that the one truly liberating aspect of my educational experience has been its transformative effect on my opportunities: like many of these school pupils now, my social status limited my chances but my education mobilised me. As far as possible, I wanted to encourage their highest aspirations. Yet, my immediately precarious existence, in which a delay has been unleashed on my housing decisions, my health and the hazy chance of a family and a future, prevents me from encouraging them to follow my suit. ‘But Miss, why are you working on the school reception?’ Because I have never achieved any step in my higher education without compromising myself financially, physically and psychologically, because though my start in life was no-where near as bad as some children, it was dramatically worse than most people who succeed in academia and I still pay for that.

The day before the event, I sheepishly tried to pull out, aware it would be incongruous to pose as a ‘professional’ when I didn’t even know if I had a future in this sector. Shouted down in the nicest possible way by the teacher who organised it, I was told that of all people to give advice to these pupils, I was ‘real’ and my example in other words was realistic: accessible. It was, of course, flattering to think I could set an example to anyone.

However, I am distinctly uncomfortable with the notion that the mere fact of my ‘disadvantaged’ background is the reason I should be proudest of my achievements: to succeed in academia required a certain amount of adaptation to this selective, intellectual world. It is embarrassing to me that in order to disrupt the course of my origins I had to subvert, deny and disassociate from them. Only in that way could I appeal to an intellectual audience; indeed, I often notice that when I slip up and betray my roots I incur a bit more suspicion, a little less benefit of the doubt from colleagues in some venues. In effect, I have conspired to maintain the very aura around academia that sets it apart from the real world and fortifies its exclusivity. Not only is the job of an academic hard to explain, but there is a sense of protectionism in the way many shore themselves up against the outside world. And for this reason, universities are often either completely out of touch with, or even disrespectful towards, undergraduates (amongst others).

This strike has exposed the multitude of real-world issues that concern all academics and HE professionals, it has also galvanized a cross-sector appreciation of entrenched privilege, at the same time, it has revealed a distinct lack of clarity about what academics do and why this is important, in particular the job of thinking. The creep of monetized education – the explicit link between degree and employment – speak to many commentators of an era in which creative and critical thinking is being exterminated.  Is this because non-academics, especially prospective students, are less and less likely to care about or value the mere act of thought? No. Is this because contributions from a more diverse range of ‘accessible’, more honest intellectuals would be necessary in order to popularise the value of thinking? Maybe. In effect, demystifying the work of higher education could help to bulwark the sector against political attack – the trade-off being that many an ivory tower would come tumbling down in the process.

Perhaps writing this post is just a bid for catharsis… or dignity, but it only takes trying to describe my work to a room full of teenagers, whose potential financial and psychological trauma I want no hand in, to realise that until the work of thinking makes sense to them, it won’t make sense to me.