Background as foreground

During the Covid lockdown period, we’ve all become strangely familiar with other people’s bookshelves. As interviewers and interviewees have all forsaken television studios, suddenly their homes become the backdrop for the performance of professionalism and seriousness. As we scrutinize their collections, we consider how much their choices convey meaning. What has fascinated me is how similar they all are, but like many signifiers, bookshelves are shifting ones. In the UK a background of while bookshelves seems more or less universal. They may be tidily arranged or interspersed with heaps of books and ugly file folders, sometimes a few ornaments. Meanwhile, in the US commentators seem to prefer to be framed by the old money insignia of glass-fronted, oak bookshelves to denote their Harvard club class credentials.

If bookshelves are now a status symbol, then we should not be surprised to find they have given rise to a competition which apparently Rishi Sunak wins.

bookshelves rishi

We have been conditioned to admire the spectacle of celebrity interiors, but I wasn’t expecting books to displace the gold toilets and hot tubs and become the standard for emulation. Are we witnessing a new domestic Overton window, only to find it intensifies our personal anxieties?

Those who cannot rely on their own taste and sophistication must procure the discernment of others. We learn that some celebrities, whose home décor is now exposed to the pitiless appraisal of the media, have paid to have their bookshelves curated. I quote from the article recounting Gwyneth Paltrow’s literary makeover which details the approach to shelving books.

Gwyneth remodeled her L.A. home a few years ago and when she moved in she realized she needed about five or six hundred more books to complete the shelves….In the family room we integrated the books into her existing collection so that it felt very light, inviting, and easy to grab off the shelves. In the dining room, we stuck to a more rigid color palette of black, white, and gray since it was less of a space where one might hang out and read.

This logic may elude academics, but some of our managers may share some of Gwyneth’s apprehension about the semiotics of household interiors. This blog post came about as a result of swapping Twitter messages with Kate Bowles who has written a wonderful piece about the difficulties of camouflaging the reality of our homes when they feature as the backdrop to Zoom lectures or meetings.

In common with several other universities across the world, Kate’s had sent a video to staff suggesting the kinds of backgrounds considered acceptable. The implication, of course, is that, left to the judgement of academics, those interiors might confound the professional image the university would want us to convey.

As so often with Kate’s pieces there is a skillful meditation on a lexical ambiguity. There is the literal background which perhaps reveals more about the hinterland of a lecturer’s life than the employer is comfortable with. The piles of laundry. The chattering children.  All need to be airbrushed out of focus so as not to disturb the notion that the academic may be at home, but they and their home are still entirely clothed in corporate drag – and the gendered implications of drag are deliberate paradox.

“Top line: remove all signifiers of your human weaknesses from shot” reads one article on working from home. It’s not just human weaknesses that must be removed, either. It is any evidence of our humanity. Teaching, or learning, in Hong Kong may take place in small spaces shared by several generations of family members. One professor recounts seminars that have been accompanied by the sound of a student’s grandfather playing mah jong, together with a momentary sighting of a brother strolling by in his underpants.

And that’s the point that Kate makes. We don’t all have access to private and exclusive study space. As Petra Boynton writes, “Staff and students who are poor or in precarious situations are inconvenienced further by working at home. Space, quiet, light, heat and time are privileges, not, as some management assume, universals”. Taking them for granted presumes norms of propriety which are highly classed and age stratified. For example, one colleague of mine was told that on no account were Zoom lectures to be recorded in a bedroom – far too suggestive. But what if that is their only private space? How about the kitchen? Does wifi coverage extend to the shed?

Unsurprisingly, most universities will recommend that academics should be seated in front of a bookshelf. I find this deeply ironic. I once worked for a vice chancellor who was keen to introduce shared offices and hot desking (for us, not him, and we resisted). Early on, we raised the issue of where to house bookshelves. The response came back that academics didn’t need books – these were just ‘academic bling’. It is interesting that such disposable encumberances are now the preferred background when it is a question of appropriate branding. At this point background becomes very much the foreground.

This all reminded me of a blog post by Philip Moriarty late last year during the pay and pensions strikes. Although taking strike action himself, Philip had a sense that another tactic might be more effective.

So let’s stop trying to repeatedly use the same seventies strategies to attack a 21st century problem. Let’s think a little bit more about what really matters to university managers.

It’s not the students*.

It’s not the staff.

It’s the brand.

He has a point when we read ‘intelligence’ like this:

The strongest brand in the world is not Apple or Mercedes-Benz or Coca-Cola. The strongest brands are MIT, Oxford, and Stanford. Academics and administrators at the top universities have decided over the last 30 years that we’re no longer public servants; we’re luxury goods.

Some universities have even become ‘super brands’.

Reputation is like a supertanker: it’s pretty hard to turn around unless you do something very wrong…Those six über-universities are the ones ­people want to believe are the best: they are well visited, very rich and beautiful to look at.

So, when it comes to backgrounds that promote the brand, university managers are very aware that staff ARE the public face of the university. ‘We are the university’ is a slogan that academics have been keen for them to hear, but managers have defended ‘the university’ as a managerial enclosure. Nevertheless, academic staff and their domestic backgrounds find themselves unexpectedly propelled into the foreground and charged with the expectation of reputation enhancement. You would hope it would be a rewarding and mutually beneficial exchange of favours.  However, in a previous post, I suggested that some universities have been less than accommodating to the pressurized circumstances many employees are facing as teaching, supervision and research shift online.

And in a recent HEPI Policy Note co-authored with Nicky Priaulx, we cite work by Gail Kinman and Siobhan Wray who found that many universities do not even meet Health and Safety Executive management standards in terms of levels of psychological hazard. Workloads have escalated, and the control that academics have traditionally maintained has been diminished to the point where universities are becoming increasingly stressful and unsafe working environments. “The findings quantify the perceptions of academics that their working environments have quite rapidly deteriorated into a situation where urgent action is required, and indeed mandated, by the HSE”. [Kinman and Wray 2020 cited in  Pressure Vessels II, HEPI Policy Note 23, p.9]

You may wish to foreground these thoughts when you decide how many cushions to fluff or bookshelves to pose; whether to shave/ wear makeup or iron the shirt you’re wearing. Consider how willing your managers have been to meet your needs for space, privacy and psychological wellbeing in the workplace before you allow them to appropriate your home as a screen on which to advertise their brand. Mi casa is definitely not su casa. And don’t hurry to get that post-lockdown haircut. Set it as your university profile picture.



3 thoughts on “Background as foreground”

  1. Admiring your blog. I use my bookshelves as a backdrop for Zooming because they are the only organized space in the entire house :). Incidentally, my friend Paola Gori-Giorgi tweeted a link to your admirable, yet frightening column about university management and burn-out. I have retweeted it. I can confirm most of it based on my experience. The one element that I don’t find in my Department is the burn-out itself. I am inclined to attribute this to the fact that our Chairs have always rotated and have always returned to teaching and research (I among them; I was Chair for 4 years, 18 years ago). People in the higher administrative levels, not so much.


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