The post-modern apprenticeship

Suzi Feay recently wrote on both the internship issue and the current state of journalism.

She wrote as follows:

As I wandered I bumped into a few people I knew, agents and editors, scurrying around in between meetings. I stopped by Verso’s stand to chat to Rowan Wilson and to congratulate him on the publication of Intern Nation by Ross Perlin, which exposes the exploitation of young workers. It’s a hot topic at the moment, so in the seminar on breaking into publishing it was a bit odd to hear several industry advisers uncritically recommending internships as the best way in. It was left to Danuta Kean, a shrewd industry-watcher and cultural commentator, to deliver a blistering denunciation of the practice. She pointed out that if you are told to come in at a certain time and given a specific task to perform, as many interns are, then the company is breaking the law on the minimum wage by expecting them to work for nothing.
Kean argued passionately that the practice, favouring London-based graduates who can be supported almost indefinitely by their parents, leads to an out-of-touch industry where the upper-middle-classes are disproportionately represented. She drew an intriguing analogy with newspapers, arguing that the recent catastrophic falls in sales are at least partly due to this class bias and the lack of reflection in staff of society at large. I personally think the prevalent shoplifter’s mentality (I really want it, so I should have it for free) is more to blame for the current crisis in journalism, but it’s an interesting idea.

Now, we have known about this for years, but this doesn’t mean that it’s not important. There have been an awful lot of pixels excited on the education vs experience debate. For interesting takes on Kelvin MacKenzie, see:

Just after the turn of the century, I found myself at the end of my first year of an English degree with nothing much to do. Panic set in, and a student knew a girl who worked in publishing. I ended up on a two-week work experience gig. I paid for my own transport, so it was effectively pay to work time.

After the two weeks were up, I was offered a job. The pay was twelve thousand pounds. Before tax. And travel. Barely subsistance. I was also offered a summer as a sound engineer in the Albery theatre for more … almost twice as much. Effectively, I was asked to choose whether to stick with the university education or do it hands-on. I ended up with a phd.

Now the internship system is iniquitous, yes. Just as the wages offered me made the job doable only for those with some sort of support network. But an internship is really an apprenticeship. Let’s treat it as such.

Now, here’s the rub. The goalposts have changed, and then some. A university degree is soon going to cost 9k before stuff like food and travel. And, for most students doing the humanities, they’re an utter waste of time. Teaching at most universities is currently remedial. This is wrong.

So. Using Richard Carstairs logic (yes, I know), this means that choosing an internship over a degree pays you 9k. You’re taught for free. And taught useful stuff.

Big firms need to wise up. Establish an educational wing. Offer combined vocational/academic degrees. Free labour for the company, free education for the interns. Universities have had their day. They are old-fashioned, flaccid institutions which can’t manage to work out what to do. They are already turning into dichotomous places – soon an academic will be teaching or research.

Both Suzi’s shoplifters manage to get away with it. The perfect compromise.

Shakespeare, education and independence

I, along with many, many others, have done and do still bemoan the state of preparedness of students when they rock up to university, clutching their brace of braces, their four poached A*s.

Obviously, it depends on the tutor they end up with, but should they alight on one such as I, they tend to get one hell of a shock on receipt of their first essay mark. ‘But, but, but I always get As’, they say, staring in disbelief at the steaming C grade which rises from the page like an indoor firework, promising much, delivering sweet FA.

Just to give you an example or three, here are some real (and I mean real) lines from real essays:


‘I have insofar presented observations of kate’s convincement …’

‘shakespeare might not have anticipated an audience of 2009; therefore he cannot be held accountable for our distaste’

‘our youth is fleeting and spent in poverty and old age,’


It seems odd that not one of these students chose to read what they had written before submission – and these are by no means the worst offenders. They were simply the first ones I found that I’d noted down. I’m not sure which is worse, their writing or their reading. Too, too often I hear the fateful words ‘that wasn’t what I meant’, and my heart sinks.

Many moons ago, I was studying music in Los Angeles and was in a class run by Scott Henderson, one of the fusionistas of the day. He recounted that when he was recording with Joe Zawinul, legendary keyboard stroker of Weather Report fame, he recorded a solo and immediately asked if he could re-record it. ‘Why?’ he was asked. ‘Because it’s not what I wanted to say’. ‘So why did you say it?’

It’s different with writing. You write. You read. You edit. You polish. It works. Oh, ok. The point. The point is simple. Almost as simple as the essays too often delivered. These students are brought up in a culture where they are taught to test. They are simply not taught to read. They don’t have the time, for starters. They are given lists of what thou shalt write.

A student, and a bright one, on my asking her why she kept using such poncy phrases – you know the ones, those cod-academic words and formulations which scream ‘I have no fucking idea what I’m doing but I think I can fool you if I write lexis often enough’ – said simply ‘we were told that academics never say word, they say lexis’. I sighed and pointed out that it didn’t work in her essay and it sounded poncy and what’s wrong with just saying what you mean. She just repeated her maxim. I asked who told her this, and she said ‘my 6th form tutor’. Ah, I said. Answer me this. Who am I? ‘My tutor’. Yes, but more generally? ‘An … academic?’ Bingo! Did your 6th form tutor have a phd? ‘No.’ Did he/she ever teach at university? ‘No.’ And yet you take their word on what an academic will write over mine? Silence.

Everyone likes to be given simple instructions. Do this, and this will occur. Cause – effect. But the study of literature simply is not like that.

To study literature you need to do one thing above all others – read books. These need to be real books, not books about books. And yet there is increasingly no need.

The Guardian has launched a set of resources for teachers. They are designed, no doubt, with the best interests of both teacher and student at heart. But, like york notes, spark notes and all the rest, the fuck children up. And Universities will increasingly do the same, as parents demand their darlings be drilled rather than educated. Fucking idiots.

They fuck you up, your mum and dad

But only when they attend to your every need. Ignoring the fact that the Guardian may put these cheat books out of business, the real problem is that they replace the one great need for students. It is no longer necessary to read the text, so by the time they’re at university, they have forgotten how to. To add insult to injury, they then proceed to expound with no little eloquence on one text. Impressed at their sudden ‘getting’ of it, you ask a question, or, more daring, pose one.

Suddenly, you’re stuck with Nigel Tufnel being asked the fatefull question, ‘why don’t you just make ten louder?’

‘But … this one goes up to eleven …’

And, once more, you hold you head in your hands. Stop it, Guardian. You’re not helping. In fact, you’re making it worse. This may well be why so many of your bright young journalistic things write such egregious tosh. It’s not because they don’t read, but because the can’t – they see the words, but no meaning reaches their dull little brains. And when they read it back, they don’t think to themselves ‘what a load of shit’. They just smile, and wait for the credits to appear in their bank accounts.

They may not be able to read, but they sure can count.