Towards a model for the Mental Health Collective’s Fellowship

What inspiration could the University of Cambridge offer?

Amy Pollard, February 2019

Summary
The Mental Health Collective’s Fellowship brings together experts from all stripes on the social and collective dimensions of mental health. It is founded on the premise that convening spaces where these diverse experts can engage meaningfully with one another will be a means to advance partnerships, knowledge, learning and innovation.

This discussion paper offers a starting point for exploring questions of what the Fellowship should look like in practice, and what kind of model we should build. It takes inspiration from scholarly practices and conventions found at the University of Cambridge to identify a number of elements that may be useful for the fellowship.

These elements include:
· Critical friendship, with a constructive approach to work-in-progress.
· Striking the right balance between support and scrutiny.
· Recognising the limited resource of headspace, as well as the limitless potential value of additional perspectives.
· Commenting on someone’s work does not make you responsible for it.
· The people who have given feedback on your work or have given it a platform are not necessarily co-opted into a movement behind it.
· Giving credit where it’s due.
· Not stealing ideas.
· Facilitating scrutiny.
· Acknowledging debts (especially those that can’t be repaid).
· Recognising the relevance and value of voices that aren’t in the room.
· Thinking about the implications of what people have said already, rather than asking them to reapply their lens to every new situation.
· The power of fun as a means for overcoming being intimidated.
· The creative ways in which people can develop ownership over intimidating and scary things.
· Not presuming that “getting” what something means is the only way that listening to it can have value.
· Looking at meaning as something that develops through dialogue between people, rather than as something that one person creates and controls.
· Showing respect by maintaining curiosity about others.

The paper concludes with a reflection on how the Mental Health Collective’s Fellowship can distil the essence of best practice in scholarship — the stuff that genuinely, intrinsically drives up quality — and let go of the stuff that is irrelevant, gets in the way or might be superseded by innovation.

The paper suggests that practices that are true to the best of scholarship can be separated from forms that are preoccupied with being ‘elite’. In an age where we have ‘had enough of experts’, the paper makes the case for a more faithful rendering of what expertise is and how it develops.

Purpose
The Mental Health Collective’s Fellowship brings together experts from all stripes on the social and collective dimensions of mental health. It is founded on the premise that convening spaces where these diverse experts can engage meaningfully with one another will be a means to advance partnerships, knowledge, learning and innovation.

But what should the Fellowship look like in practice? What kind of model should we build? The purpose of this discussion paper is to offer a starting point for exploring these questions.

Background
My formal education consisted of ten years at comprehensive school, two years at a local Further Education college, and then seven years at the University of Cambridge. Like many people coming from a comprehensive school background, initially I found Cambridge to be quite intimidating. I was fortunate to attend King’s College, traditionally the college with the highest proportion of state school students; and the Department of Social Anthropology, the disciplinary hub for understanding culture and social relations.

Over the years, the company of other former state school students combined with an emerging understanding of how culture, power and knowledge relate to each other, and led me to become less intimidated. It also led me to be more open-minded about the university’s institutions and less given to dismissing these as wholly concerned with the reproduction of privilege. I don’t have a particular interest in Cambridge “traditions”, in the narrow sense, but I’ve come to the view that some of the practices and conventions to be found at the university have a core nub which, over centuries, have helped make it one of the world’s great centres of scholarship.

It is the nub of these practices and conventions from which I seek to draw inspiration. I include both practices that would be seen as “Cambridge things” and also those that permeate throughout scholarship (and I just happened to learn about at Cambridge).

1. The Writing-Up Seminar
PhD social anthropologists conduct fieldwork, immersing themselves mind, body and soul in a particular social context — often unfamiliar to them and far from home. As I have written elsewhere, it is common to return from that experience somewhat traumatised[1]. Nevertheless, the task of the PhD student is to write-up the notes from their fieldwork, analyse them in relation to the existing literature and to make an original contribution to knowledge in the form of a dissertation.

At Cambridge, a key institution to assist in this process is the weekly writing-up seminar, attended by other students who are also writing up their PhDs plus a senior representative from the department who acts as a moderator. Each writing-up student takes it in turns to circulate a draft piece of writing, and then present it at a seminar where they invite questions, comments and feedback.

Sharing and presenting your writing at a writing-up seminar is often an anxious experience. By definition, the work being shared is in emerging, draft form and therefore the presenter is conscious that it will have shortcomings (even if they don’t wholly know what the shortcomings are or how to resolve them). There may be some traumatic experiences that lie beneath or adjacent to the text. The presenter is torn between being open about their vulnerability (and benefiting from the support of their peers), versus concealing or glossing over it (and benefiting from a more robust scrutiny of their work).

In my experience, the most successful writing-up seminars were ones where both support and scrutiny were given — especially when these elements were offered simultaneously. The most productive feedback was given in the mode of “critical friendship”: constructive, honest, candid and encouraging. Seminars worked best when the feedback from peers prevented the presenter from pursuing an unproductive path, affirmed strengths, corrected mistakes and supported them to find a way forward. If the presenter was truly barking up the wrong tree they might be on the receiving end of properly justified scepticism; but if feedback strayed into cynicism then the moderator would intervene.

It was also important that the presenter came ready to receive this feedback. It helped when they indicated (directly or through implicit cues) what they were needing in terms of support and/or scrutiny. It helped if they were open-minded to new ideas, reflexive about what more needed to be done, and able to clearly convey why they had taken key decisions around their research.

In my view, the ‘value’ of the feedback was at least as much about how much headspace the presenter had to receive, process and respond to a comment, as it was about the ‘quality’ of the comment itself. To that extent, limiting the attendees at writing-up seminars was a reflection of the need to protect (and make most efficient use) of headspace, rather than a dismissal of the validity of prospective comments that might have come from outside the room.

Which elements might be useful for our fellowship?
It would certainly not be practical or desirable for the Mental Health Collective to convene a seminar on a weekly basis. However, there might be some useful elements in terms of creating practices which help early work-in-progress to move forward:

· Critical friendship, with a constructive approach to work-in-progress.
· Striking the right balance between support and scrutiny.
· Properly justified scepticism when required, but a calling out of cynicism.
· Sensitivity to the fact that trauma may lie beneath, or adjacent to the work.
· Recognising the limited resource of headspace, as well as the limitless potential value of additional perspectives.

2. Peer Review[2]
The writing-up seminar is one mode of peer review — the process whereby work is examined by those whose feedback is relevant and whose opinions you respect. In scholarship more broadly, “peer-review” typically refers to the process whereby papers are accepted for publication in academic journals.

The term “journal” derives from the idea that these publications are scientific diaries. They are intended to serve as permanent forums for the presentation, scrutiny and discussion of research. In that sense, they are much more like diaries than bibles. They record what is going on in a particular field so as to facilitate further discussion and enquiry: they don’t claim to offer a last word on “the truth”.

There are lots of different types of peer reviewed journals, and the format of the peer review process varies. The overarching principle is that reviewers give feedback on a paper both to improve its quality, and also to advise the journal editor on whether it is suitable for publication (so, a paper might be of high quality but better suited to publication elsewhere). In “single-blind” peer review, the identity of the reviewer is anonymous but the reviewer can see the author’s name on the paper. In “double-blind” peer review, the identity of both the author and the reviewer are concealed from each other. Some journals practice “open review”, where those reviewing and writing the work are fully identified. There are pros and cons of each different system, and editorial processes for prestigious journals are often accompanied by energetic debates (and sometimes controversy).

Importantly, each actor within the peer review process has their own responsibility and independence. The author of the paper is expected to consider feedback from peer reviewers, but they do not have to follow every word of the advice if they can explain why they hold a different view. Peer reviewers do not “sign-off” the work (there is no implication that they are the boss), nor does their review of the paper imply political support for it. Usually, the author explicitly assumes responsibility for any errors and shortcomings of the text (and also takes the credit in the form of citations). The editor is responsible for justifying the paper’s status as worth recording in the ‘diary’ of scholarship — but otherwise, debate that follows from publication is seen as part and parcel of the academic process. It is the author (not the editor or the peer reviewers) who is the primary, active agent in terms of promoting or defending the work.

Which elements might be useful for our fellowship?
It would not be sensible or desirable for our fellowship to have a peer-reviewed journal. However, the principles of peer-review and the editorial set-up of journals offer some useful elements:

· Commenting on someone’s work does not make you responsible for it.
· In some contexts it might be best that the person commenting and the person whose work it is know each other’s names, but in other contexts this might not be appropriate or desirable.
· There is a distinction between considering whether work has high value, versus considering where the right forum to share it might be.
· The people who have given feedback on your work or have given it a platform are not necessarily co-opted into a movement behind it.
· Work should be shared widely when it is ready for maximum scrutiny, but that does not imply that it is claiming perfection.

3. References, Citations and Acknowledgements[3]
A core point of difference between academic texts and those written in other settings is that the former are typically littered with references, citations and acknowledgements. As an undergraduate, my initial reaction to these conventions was to feel irritated. The citations and references seemed to imply that there was an endless back catalogue of texts that I ‘should’ have read. The acknowledgements at the front of the books felt like false modesty, and it was far from clear to me whether all those who contributed had been acknowledged or whether certain names had been included for political reasons.

Whilst this reaction wasn’t wholly unreasonable, there is also much to appreciate about how references, citations and acknowledgements facilitate scholarly enquiry.

References and citations tell you where ideas have come from. They are a key protection against plagiarism and enable authors to get due credit for their work. This, in turn, allows for some measurement of how far different pieces of research have had impact on their disciplines. Pursuing citations is a key incentive for academics as they build their reputations and careers — crucial given that writing papers and books typically earns the academic very little (if any) money.

References and citations also allow the reader to trace the genesis of an idea or a piece of evidence so as to be able to scrutinise it. Without these it would be impossible to verify whether a piece of scholarly writing was standing on the shoulders of giants or built on a house of cards. Whilst few people take the trouble to go through all references and peel back the layers of work beneath, being able to do so facilitates accountability of the canon as a whole (not just individual papers and books).

Acknowledgements, at the front of a book, outline the debts that are owed that can not be repaid in the form of citations. They typically list those who provided support in the wider sense — loved ones, critical friends, editors, teachers and (in the case of the social sciences) research subjects. Acknowledgements tend to be more personal and offer a glimpse into the private world of the author. As such, they tend to lie outside the cut and thrust of scholarly arguments. Someone who failed to do their references properly could expect to be called up on it immediately; but it would be highly unusual for someone to be publicly taken to task over their acknowledgements section. This, my view, is a shortcoming of scholarly convention.

Which elements might be useful for our fellowship?
It would be annoying and inappropriate to apply the conventions of scholarly writing to the diverse forms of work that experts within the fellowship undertake. However, there might be some useful elements we could draw on:

· Giving credit where it’s due.
· Not stealing ideas.
· Facilitating scrutiny.
· Being clear about where ideas come from.
· Acknowledging debts (especially those that can’t be repaid).

4. Photos on the wall
The seminar room at Cambridge’s Department of Anthropology has lots of pictures on the wall. These are black and white framed photographs of former lecturers who have been powerhouses of the discipline: People such as Bronisław Malinowski, Earnest Gellner, Jack Goody and my PhD supervisor, Marilyn Strathern. There was a strong (and successful) movement to include Sue Benson — a much beloved and highly regarded lecturer whose teaching legacy surpassed her publication record.

There are date stamps under each photo, and interestingly, these refer to when the person started and finished their work in the department, rather than the dates of their birth and death. It can be rather unnerving to see people you know to be alive hanging on the wall with dates underneath — but at least it tells you that you shouldn’t email them!

For some time, I thought that the wall of ancestors was there because of a combination of showing off, wanting to give inspirational role models and an insensitivity to how intimidating these could be to state school students like me. I believe there is some validity to these points.

However, I have come to the view that the wall of ancestors also serves a very important scholarly function. It serves to bring people into the room, who are not in the room.

As the lecturer or the person presenting, when you stand at the front looking out over the audience, you see the black and white faces of the titans of your discipline looking back at you. These people can not ask a question in a seminar; they can’t make a comment; they can not criticise you in front of your peers and colleagues. But they look back at you.

Almost certainly, you will have a familiarity with the analytic style and body of knowledge that each of those black and white faces represents. You will be able to imagine what they might say. Consciously or unconsciously, as you speak in front of this wall of ancestors, these figures have an intellectual presence in the room.

Which elements might be useful for our fellowship?
We won’t have a seminar room or a place to hang pictures, but nonetheless there may be some valuable elements here:

· Recognising the relevance and value of voices that aren’t in the room.
· Finding imaginative ways to bring those voices ‘in’, even without their presence.
· Respecting people’s boundaries in terms of their contributions, and not asking more of them.
· Thinking about the implications of what people have said already, rather than asking them to reapply their lens to every new situation.

5. Formal Hall
There is a rather esoteric Cambridge institution called Formal Hall. These are sit-down dinners held in colleges, where people dress up in gowns and black tie.

As an undergraduate, I found that Formal Hall dinners were usually boozy, silly and raucous. You would be able to speak to people from across your college, studying all different subjects. Often there would be Formal Hall exchanges between colleges, so you’d mix with people from across the university. It is said that there are some Formal Halls where arcane rituals and rites take place, but in seven years at the university I never encountered much beyond the odd occasion when someone would say grace. Many unusual things happened at Formal Hall, but we made most of these up ourselves.

Initially, I took a dim view of the requirement for formal dress. It seemed pretentious, elitist and insensitive to the cultural background of students such as myself. But in practice, once we had got over the initial oddness of it all, Formal Hall was an important vehicle for me and my state-school friends to take ownership of being at Cambridge. We treated the formal dress as a dressing up costume, and extended this by attending Formal Hall wearing an array of ridiculous things[4]. Testing boundaries, we played out with our insecurities by asking highly inappropriate questions to the Provost, who handled them with admirable grace. Sometimes our need for ownership at Cambridge became very literal: friends of mine progressively stole cutlery until they had accumulated an entire set of silverware. The same impulse played out in the annual challenge we set ourselves to gate-crash as many of the posh, expensive Cambridge balls we could[5].

I look back on this now with a mixture of embarrassment and pride. Whilst this was immature undergraduate stuff, at the time it served a crucial purpose for breaking down our sense of intimidation. Becoming less intimidated was, of course, a prerequisite for our participation in the substantive, scholarly life of the university.

Which elements might be useful for our fellowship?
I wouldn’t dream of suggesting that our fellowship should involve posh sit-down dinners, but I think there are some useful elements we can draw from these social practices:

· The power of fun as a means for overcoming being intimidated.
· Tolerance of the fact that when people are feeling intimidated they may test boundaries.
· The creative ways in which people can develop ownership over intimidating and scary things.

6. The experimental poetry scene
By the time I became a postgraduate, Formal Hall had served its purpose for me and I no longer felt any desire to attend. In my MA and PhD years my social life centred around another Cambridge institution that, on first impressions, can seem to be knowingly and deliberately intimidating: The experimental poetry scene associated with figures such as J.H Prynne, Ian Patterson and Keston Sutherland. A night out with the poets typically involved a relatively short set of poetry readings followed by lots of drinking and discussion, sometimes about poetry but also about the torment of the creative and scholarly process.

This kind of poetry is not the type you can ‘understand’ in a straightforward sense. One of its defining characteristics is the way it fractures text and makes a mockery of the question ‘what is this poem about?’[6]. Over time, I came to the view that honouring the effort and intention of this poetry was not really a matter of understanding it, per se. As the audience, you weren’t supposed to capture the meaning; you were supposed to allow it to penetrate you. When listening to the words, you should allow them to reverberate in your soul and listen to the reactions. If you could bear it, you should speak these reactions.

The pain of the poets derived, in part, from the shame of having words enter inside your core, and the fear of what might happen if you found your own words to bring them back out again. For the authors of poetry, it came from the vulnerability of offering something that would allow your innards to be seen in a way you could not consciously intend — of knowing you were saying more than you had said; and knowing that this was beyond your control.

The meaning of these poems is not controlled by the author — it emerges through a delicate dance between the poet and listener, as they reflect and respond to each other. It would be the height of disrespect to say that you “got” this poetry. What mattered was that you were listening whole-heartedly, and you were bringing yourself to the words as much just as you were straining to understand the intention behind them.

From the perspective of the poets, the most offensive or distressing reactions to poetry were not the ones that mischaracterised their work — nor criticisms that their poetry was impenetrable or useless[7]. To truly irritate a poet, you had to falsely claim to have understood the meaning of their poem in a way that they contested; and to claim a solidity and permanence to that meaning that shut down further curiosity.

Which elements might be useful for our fellowship?
Poetry is a well-loved medium for experts by experience, and I think there are some useful elements we can draw from the social practices of poets:

· Not presuming that “getting” what something means is the only way that listening to it can have value.
· Not presuming that if someone hasn’t “got” what something means then they haven’t been listening.
· Looking at meaning as something that develops through dialogue between people, rather than as something that one person creates and controls.
· Showing respect by maintaining curiosity about others.

7. Post-nominals (letters after your name)
Graduates from Cambridge are entitled to put “MA (Cantab)” after their names. Those from Oxford are entitled to put “MA (Oxon)”. This does not convey that the person has a masters degree (although this is a common misunderstanding). It indicates that the person has received their bachelors degree from Oxbridge. Having a bachelors degree from any university can be represented by the more commonly used post-nominal, “BA (Hons)”.

Opinion differs amongst Cambridge alumni regarding whether or not it is appropriate to use the “MA (Cantab)” after your name. Many people feel that it is misleading and dishonourable to use it, given that those outside the Oxbridge system could reasonably assume it means you have an MA. Others feel that, given the fact they have a right to add the letters (and many people do use them), there’s nothing wrong with doing it. For those of us who have names that might be subject to discrimination or bias, it can be helpful to have a visual marker of association with Cambridge.

Post-nominal letters in the UK have a long and wide-ranging history. The letters after people’s names can relate to decorations, awards, academic qualifications, learned societies, professional bodies, the armed forces, religious institutes and (usually public) schools. There is no regulatory body that approves them. It is very common for someone to read the letters after someone’s name and not know what they mean. That does not, however, imply that the letters mean nothing — the meaning is constructed in relation to the institution that confers the post-nominal.

Most people who have the right to put letters after their name do so selectively. You might use them in your email signature, a CV, an online profile or a business card, but not on a day to day basis. You might include them when engaging with some audiences, and in some contexts, but not others. It is at the discretion of each person to decide whether and how to use post-nominal letters, so long as the relevant institution recognises their right to do so.

Which elements might be useful for our fellowship?
Fellows of the Mental Health Collective have a right to use FMHC after their names, as and when they choose to do so. As this is a new convention, we can draw out some useful elements from existing post-nominal practices:

· There is no reason why the post-nominal FMHC should be less legitimate than other post-nominals in the UK.
· The validity of post-nominals is defined by the institutions they are associated with.
· The meaning of post-nominals is constructed in relation to the institution that confers it.
· As an emerging institution, the Mental Health Collective is in a position to lead the construction of meaning for the FMHC post-nominal.
· The use (or disuse) of FMHC is wholly at the discretion of Fellows.

Final thoughts
 
No amount of time spent at Cambridge could ever prevent me from being, at my most vulnerable core, a comprehensive school girl. The enduring sense of not-belonging within powerful institutions animates my interest in how they work.

However I did, as an adult, develop a deep sense of belonging at Cambridge. I chat to my Oxbridge friends daily (although I married the boy next door). The more intimate I became with its conventions and practices, the less I saw Cambridge as a generic “powerful institution” and more I saw it as a place where people do some things that are useful for advancing scholarship; and some things that are just about ego and bluster. Over time, I felt more able to cut the wheat from the chaff.

I am sceptical of the view that it is the intake of high-achieving students that make Cambridge special. For me, the idea of an ‘elite’ university is founded on a false premise. Science is a process of enquiry as much as it is a body of knowledge, and it is process — the practices and the conventions of scholarship — that generates the integrity of that knowledge. The tradition of limiting the intake of Cambridge students to those who are judged to have the greatest ability and aptitude for learning is, I think, a pragmatic one grounded in the need to make the best use of scarce resources (in the case of scholarship, the most important resources are headspace and time). A limited intake is not, in and of itself, a prerequisite for driving forward knowledge.

The decision to frame itself as ‘elite’ has some negative consequences for Cambridge, both reputationally and in terms of its substantive mission to advance disciplinary knowledge. Too often, it means those who have valuable and relevant contributions are not in the room, or, when they are in the room, find that they are too intimidated to speak. Being seen as “an Oxbridge person” whose privilege compromises their legitimacy is painful for me and my state school friends, and the assumption that Oxbridge is an elite place where “people like us” don’t belong only serves to deter those who could make a valuable contribution (and gain from the experience) from applying.

We could belong, and we did.

With this in mind, my vision for the Mental Health Collective Fellowship is that it distils the essence of best practice in scholarship — the stuff that genuinely, intrinsically drives up quality — and lets go of the stuff that is irrelevant, gets in the way or might be superseded with innovation. I’d like to explore the hypothesis that conventions and practices which are true to the best of scholarship can be separated from forms that are preoccupied with being ‘elite’.

If this hypotheses holds water, the Fellowship of Mental Health Collective has an opportunity to be radically more inclusive, without sacrificing the things that matter for driving forward the quality of knowledge, learning and innovation. If we can get this right, including people who are not ‘the usual suspects’ within the fellowship should have no bearing on the meaningfulness of being recognised as a Fellow, nor its status as an honour.

We should challenge our assumptions and preconceptions about what does and doesn’t drive knowledge, learning and innovation; as well as our assumptions and preconceptions about who does and doesn’t belong. This is as much about carefully preserving the best bits of established institutional forms, as it is about a determination to extinguish the boring, useless guff and discrimination that has historically sat alongside them.

In an age where we have ‘had enough of experts’, it is time for a more faithful rendering of what expertise is and how it develops.

Acknowledgements
This paper owes a debt to Owen Barder, Madeleine Brettingham, Simon Burall, Charlotte Faircloth, Sam Ladkin, James Laidlaw, Ed Mayo, Elaine Moore, Annabel Pinker, Marilyn Strathern and Matthew Taylor (alphabetical order). I’m grateful to Anselm Eldergill, Richard Grange, Edward Holberton, Antonis Kousoulis and Anna Warhurst (alphabetical order) for their comments and feedback. As always, my work is underpinned by Paul Newsom.

Responsibility for the text is my own.

Endnotes
[1] Pollard, A (2009) ‘Field of Screams: Difficulty and ethnographic fieldwork’ Anthropology Matters. Vol.11 №2. https://www.anthropologymatters.com/index.php/anth_matters/article/view/10

[2] This is not a Cambridge convention per se, it’s a set of practices that are common to scholarship as a whole.

[3] This is also not at all exclusive to Cambridge.

[4] For example, there was one memorable occasion when I ate a three course dinner dressed as a giant vagina.

[5] Our record was three balls in one night. I have a small scar from being impaled on a cast iron spike when trying to climb over the walls of St John’s College in a ballgown.

[6] For an example, try J.H. Prynne’s ‘Rich in Vitamin C’. Jacket #2. http://jacketmagazine.com/06/pryn-kins.html

[7] They were rather accustomed to these critiques.