Waiting for the Axe to Fall: Some Thoughts on ‘Failing’


This post came about as a result of several conversations, most recently, a discussion on twitter this afternoon with Liz Gloyn and Rachel Moss, lecturers in Classics and Medieval History respectively. We were talking about what it means to succeed – and with A Level results day looming, what it means when you don’t nail the result you expected. Academics are, in my view, Not Good with failure. We catastrophise about it. This is partly because there’s such a powerful expectation that academic success (at any level, not just university) is the same thing as consistent performance. We’re inclined to act as if a less than perfect performance is a permanent blot on your record.

The title for this blog post comes from the Middle English romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which I’m currently reading. After months of dangers and temptations of various kinds, Gawain finds himself inexorably drawn to his fate: to ride to the mysterious Green Chapel, where a knight will be waiting to deliver the blow to his neck that will surely kill him. As he rides nearer, Gawain hears the grinding sound of the axe being sharpened. He dismounts and stands, neck bared, willing himself not to flinch away from blade as it swings behind him. But, at the last, he “scranke a lytel with þe schulderes for þe scharp yrne” (he shrank back a little with his shoulders, because of the sharp iron). The poem evokes Gawain’s terror with hissing alliterative ‘s’ sounds, which echo the whistling blow of the axe – and we tremble with Gawain, not knowing if he is to die or be spared.

In this poem, Gawain’s failure to stand fast is revealed to be part of a test, to see how faithfully he can face (amongst other things) death. The poet perfectly captures the naked, vulnerable feeling of being tested and found wanting.

Now, most of us (fortunately) can’t relate to axes swinging in our general direction. But that feeling of sick anticipation of the results of a test is probably all too familiar, especially for anyone who’s thinking about next A Level results, which come out next thursday. Or think about how you felt on GCSE results day. Or when you got your degree results. Or, if you’ve done a PhD, the particularly nasty few minutes in the middle of your oral examination when they send you out of the room to discuss whether they’re going to pass or fail you on the strength of what you’ve said in the previous two hours (no, really, that’s how it works. It’s horrible).

I started thinking about popular stereotypes of academic success as a result of Rachel’s new tumblr project, titled, ‘This is How Academics Dress’. As she explains, there’s a particular image most of us have of what ‘a proper academic’ looks like – and most of us don’t measure up. This got me thinking that, in addition to this visual stereotype, there’s a biographical stereotype of the ‘proper academic’. Let’s call the ‘proper academic’ Tarquin. And, since I’m an English Lit academic, let’s have him do English Lit.

Tarquin learns to read aged about two. At four, he goes to school and is precocious, reading widely and writing a great deal. Tarquin devours books, and his nice middle-class parents take him to see the odd bit of Shakespeare. At secondary school, Tarquin continues to read widely, taking an interest in history and drama. He’s a bit of a poet. At GCSE he gains twelve A* grades, and at A Level he takes 5A*s, while acting in the school play. He applies to St John’s college, Cambridge and is accepted on a strong interview. Tarquin goes on to get a starred first, immediately applies for his MPhil and then his PhD, and graduates from the latter aged 24. He immediately picks up a Junior Research Fellowship and sets out to write his first book, which garners solid reviews and does well. His first permanent lectureship comes along just before his 30th birthday, and he dedicates the second book to his wife, Linda, who was a tower of strength editing the footnotes while the twins cooed in the Moses basket.

'Caritas' by Lucas Cranach the Younger. Image from Wikipedia Commons.

“Look, would you just put down the sodding apple so I can get dressed?” Linda wasn’t thrilled Tarquin was in the library again …

Admittedly, I am being slightly snarky here. I’m sure Tarquin’s a perfectly nice bloke, and there are male academics out there who manage to write acknowledgements to their wives and children without sounding as if they’ve never heard of wifework. And I must admit that elements of my biography mesh with the fictional one above, because I’m a privileged, middle-class white woman who isn’t trying to write her postdoc while bringing up children.

But do you need to be a Tarquin – to get your straight A* grades? Or are there times when failure isn’t really such a bad thing? I think this is something academics need to talk about more, to counter the stereotype of what success should look like.

I can tell this isn’t just something I worry about. I’ve got a 2:1, and my (woefully infrequently updated) academia.edu page tells me that one of the commonest sets of search terms that leads people to find it isn’t my name: it’s “postgraduate degree with a 2:1” or “PhD with a 2:1”. Clearly, there are a lot of people out there who would like to know whether or not you can do a postgrad degree with less than a first. It’s the same story with GCSE and A Level grades. A statement I’ve heard depressingly often (and it’s rarely framed as a question) is “you can’t go to Oxbridge without straight A* GCSEs” or “Oxbridge only let you in with straight A* grades at A Level”. Similarly, “well, they won’t cope with English Lit at university if they didn’t get the A*”. None of these statements is absolutely true, and some of them are very wrong indeed.

The positive side of ‘failure’ is that it helps you learn to pick yourself up and work out what went wrong. That’s a useful skill. And it also forces you to question what you thought was true. One of the chapters of my PhD thesis was approximately twenty years in the writing, because it comes out of the first time I can remember really struggling and failing to manage something. I didn’t learn to read until I was seven, which is quite late. It was frustrating, but it’s also fascinating looking back, because (unlike most academically bright people who learned to read early), I can remember very well what it was like to be an illiterate person in a world that expected literacy. So, when I started looking at medieval narratives of literacy and illiteracy, I felt motivated, much more than I might have been if I’d succeeded easily at reading myself. At some point, I’ll probably write the post that’s in the back of my mind, about being a dyslexic medievalist, and this is just one example of how it helps to fail first.

In the poem I described above, Gawain doesn’t, in the end, die. The axe blow he feared would kill him makes only a ‘nick’ in his neck, a tiny cut that stings his conscience more than anything else. He returns home thinking he’s been marked forever, that everyone will see the symbol of his failure and his shame. But his fellow knights don’t see it that way: all they see is that Gawain, who was almost certain to die, has come back alive. One little mis-step is nothing, they say.

I would not advise this as a definitive reading of the medieval poem (!), and if you know the poem you’ll probably acknowledge it’s more than glib. But there is practicality in this attitude towards failure. However dramatically horrible it feels – however much you imagine it in terms of dire consequences, monsters and impending doom – it probably looks more like a minor scratch on the surface to people around you.

If you’re reading this, and know someone with A Level results coming out – or if you’re waiting for them now – good luck, and stay calm!


The picture is ‘Caritas’ by Lucas Cranach the Younger, from Wiki Commons. I prefer to think of it as ‘Oh my god, why did I think I could take on three toddlers and the baby?’

Lest you worry I’m compromising some poor sod’s privacy with the image of AS Results, be reassured they are mine. Not too dazzling, eh?

University is No Place For Women, or, ‘What About the MEN?’

Punch Cartoon from 1887. Miss Ramsay is shown into a railway carriage marked 'First Class - Ladies Only'

Punch Cartoon from 1887. Miss Ramsay is shown into a railway carriage marked ‘First Class – Ladies Only’

In 1887, a woman called Agneta Frances Ramsay – who was not allowed to matriculate – achieved the highest result in the yearly final examinations at the University of Cambridge. The university did not grant her a degree, because she was a woman, and we all know that women do not belong in institutions of Higher Education.

Yesterday, I read that St Hilda’s college at Oxford, the last all-women’s college to go mixed (in 2008), has appointed a male Principal for the first time. This morning, I read a Guardian article censoriously asking ‘Why do we worry that few girls take up physics, but not that boys make up just 29% of English Literature students?’

I’ll go with the second question first. Why indeed, O Guardian? After all, there are such a lot of successful female physicists in the public eye these days, and everyone knows that no man can get his foot in the door of any career relating to English Literature. There are no male Booker prize winners, no male journalists, and at the highest levels of academia, the lofty status of professor of English Literature is reserved exclusively for the fairer sex.

If I were techie I’d insert a facepalm gif into this post, but as it is, you’ll just have to follow the link.

I admit, I don’t totally disagree with Laura McInerney, who wrote the Guardian article. She has a point that, by constantly focussing on girls, we risk ‘pathologizing’ them. If we only look at the stats for A Level, it’s possible to believe we should look at boys not doing English in exactly the same way as we look at girls not doing Physics. But we have to look further on.

Take an example. At the faculty of English Literature at the University of Cambridge (just to continue a fine tradition of acting as if the UK really only has two universities worth mentioning), I count some 13 male professors and two women, one of whom – the brilliant and inspiring Professor Helen Cooper – is about to retire. I wonder who will replace her? In the admin staff, I count 13 women and five men. I’ll leave you to guess what the pay disparities might be there.

If you’re interested, at the Department of English at the university of Leicester (picked randomly for comparison), I count 7 male professors and four women! Whoopie-do.

Obviously, I know that being a professor of English isn’t everyone’s dream job and I’m pretty sure the vast majority of sixteen-year-olds picking A Level subjects don’t spend their time thinking about it. As a former sixteen-year-old who wanted to study English Lit and Physics (the English Lit won out, can you tell?), I certainly didn’t. But all of those professors of English started out somewhere. And somewhere between choosing A Levels at 29%, and passing through university (my current second-year workshop has 19 women and five men, or just over 20%), getting a PhD, doing a postdoc, publishing and lecturing and possibly getting a professorship … somewhere along that line, something very strange happens to the numbers.

Sure, I know that maybe this is unfair. I can believe (though I’d love to see stats if you have them) that at the various times when Professors Richard, Stefan, Steve, Peter, Stephen, Simon, John, Christopher, Adrian, James, David, Geoff and Barry were choosing A Levels, there may have been less of a disparity between boys and girls doing English Lit. But were 87% of A Level English students over this period men? Really? I don’t think so.

Having moved neatly from A Levels to people with the top jobs at University, I’ll go back to the story about St Hilda’s electing a male principal, which I mentioned earlier. The college rather clumsily justify their choice on the basis that Sir Gordon Duff (for twas he) has a wife who was at the college. As Val McDermid brilliantly responded, they might as well have come out and said:

“His wife knows our little ways, so it’ll all be ok. Yeah, right. Mary Bennett must be birling in her grave.”

Now, I know there’s an honourable history to Oxbridge gaffes about gender politics. The topic has been a good subject for pisstakes since Chaucer wrote about Cambridge students in the Canterbury Tales, since Shakespeare wrote about Dr. Caius in Merry Wives. A woman who’d been a graduate student in the late 70s told me about her experience of turning up to the initial meet-and-greet. She was accosted by the wife of one of the hosts, who asked brightly ‘and which of the young men is your husband?’. On being told that, in fact, this young woman was herself one of the new doctoral candidates, the hostess beat a hasty retreat, explaining ‘well, I’m here to speak to the young men’s wives!’

We could go on about it for hours, digressing into the fantastic pseudo-medical hangups of Victorian doctors who believed women’s teeny little bodies couldn’t support a brain and a womb at the same time. I could get behind the idea (or 13-year-old me, freezing on the astroturf, could get behind the idea) that women shouldn’t be taught team sports like they do at boys’ schools, because playing hockey damages your capacity to breastfeed. I could snipe at the perception that still hangs around, that men don’t study English Lit because women are innately better at communication, while women don’t study Engineering because we’re innately crap at fine motor skills. Cos, of course, nothing in childhood development could condition those disparities in, ohno.

Once again I direct your attention to the fine work of Mr Stewart.

Something tells me you won’t be gobsmacked to learn that, actually, I don’t find myself convinced by all of this. A list of the Oxford heads of colleges tells you pretty quickly that heading an Oxford college is still a male-dominated field, with nearly three times as many men as women. I’m sure there are hundreds of complicated reasons for this, but there’s also one very, very simple reason.

Sir Gordon Duff, new Principal at St Hilda’s, was born in 1947. When he applied to Oxford in the mid-sixties, the only mixed college was restricted to graduates, and the remaining thirty-odd colleges reserved for the men. When Naida Clarke, better known as Lady Duff, went up to St Hilda’s, she was competing for a place at only five colleges. Could this have anything to do with the fact there are more male college principals – as well as more male English Lit profs, more male MPs, etc. etc.?  

Much is made of the fact that Oxford used to have women-only colleges in an age when such positive discrimination is seen by some as anachronistic, unfair, or symptomatic of the epidemic of ‘extreme feminism’ washing over our shores. Few people know that, in 2014, Oxford still has one single-sex house, the all-male permanent private hall of St Benet’s, which has announced its intention to take on women undergrads just as soon as it can find the space. I can almost taste the enthusiasm.

There tends to be a feeling that – in this modern, enlightened age – it’s only right to celebrate appointments such as St Hilda’s new principal as a victory for the feminism, in rather the same way that the cringey cliché ‘well, I don’t see race’ is sometimes presented as a victory of equal rights activism. It’s the same attitude that sees handwringing articles written about the lack of boys doing A Level English. And this is the point where I acknowledge patiently that yes, I’m sure Sir Gordon Duff is eminently qualified and I am aware it is a real issue when boys don’t access education, and I believe there are concerns to be registered.

But please, can we stop pretending we’re looking at a playing field that’s already level?


Check out the book Bluestockings, which is a speedy and approachable history of late Victorian and twentieth-century women’s education, albeit with a deeply annoying subtitle referring to these women as ‘the first women to fight for an education’.

See also Patricia Vertinsky, The Eternally Wounded Woman: Women, Exercise and Doctors in the Late Nineteenth Century.

Update: This article has just been published, discussing the gender inequalities in Higher Education with reference to the REF, the system through which research is assessed and – basically – through which your academic career is assessed. This is not a historical problem – it’s right here with us.