By Professor Paul Gough
The sleeve notes for a 12 inch vinyl record – or the ‘liner’ as it’s known in the US – comprise on average 700 words, roughly the same as this brief article, and thrice that of the ‘textual descriptor’ – the Research Statement - which is all that’s allowed when describing the content of a non-traditional research output [the NTRO] for the forthcoming research assessment exercise, habitually known, but in a different acronymic order, as ERA.
Unlike Research Statements, which many of us will have been crafting and drafting in recent months, sleeve notes are rather a dying format. They belong to the era of the pre-gatefold long-playing vinyl record: the ‘LP’ as it was lovingly called, or ‘Album’ if you were brought up in the 1970s.
Scratch any vinyl LP and you’ll rue the day forever. Scratch any practicing academic and you’ll discover the agony aroused by having to draft an ERA-ready ‘research statement’. As a guaranteed way of bringing a practitioner out in a rash it shares much in common with its distant cousin, the ‘Artist’s Statement’, and ranks only a little behind ‘The Impact Case Study’ for arousing deep and lasting consternation. Cue the sound of foreheads being clutched and pencils chewed.
So, can sleeve notes lend some succour to stressed practitioner academics as they agonise over their statement?
Once regarded as the cherished way into the world of popular music, many readers will recall poring over every precious word of the sleeve, learning the lyrics and dedications, the potted biographies and the name of the 3rd trombonist. Not forgetting the standard advice on how often to change your stylus. Unlike ERA, however, I don’t recall many occasions when I was ever in doubt and had to ‘consult my dealer’.
In the USA (where there is no such thing as a national research assessment exercise) the sleeve note ‘liner’ has long been celebrated. Indeed there’s even a Grammy Award for ‘Best Notes’. Awarded to the words that offer the judges an impeccably researched, definitive statement about the actual content - where it was made, its field of interest, its origins and intentions, perhaps even its contribution to originality. Beginning to sound familiar?
In a previous life I was part of the academy (in the UK) that agonised over research engagement and impact. We looked to Australia for a best working practice – namely the ‘Research Quality Framework’ in 2009 – when this fair continent had nearly grasped the nettle of impact, and then stepped away at the last minute. Along with my leadership peers in UK we agonised, we argued, then we accepted that ‘Impact’, just like ‘Research Statements’ was a lived reality. We simply had to fully prepare and future proof our institutions in the lingo of translational research, B to B, and the ‘Pathways to Impact’ that the research councils promptly (and in retrospect quite wisely) added into every pro forma for grant funding.
In truth, sleeve notes were pretty variable. The venerable US music writer Dan Morgenstern, who wrote 500 covers, amongst them Grammy Winners, advised that writing ‘should not be unmusical, it must not be poorly and clumsily expressed; a bad liner would be one that indulges in exaggeration and puffery’.
It’s a valuable lesson for those charged with writing any form of statement for ERA, whether it be 2 digit, 4 digit, impact case study, or statement. Hyperbole, rhetoric, mild exaggeration for effect is a no-no. If Cicero were around today he’d find it tough in academia. He would have to adjust his demagoguery to create a language that is categoric (but not deadpan), factual (without being soulless) and informative (but not exhaustive, or exhausting).
It’s easy to get it wrong, though our sector has radically improved on those clumsy early days. Many years ago I recall one respondent had answered the question in the pro forma about the ‘location of the work’ (meaning ‘Where was it exhibited, displayed, screened?’) and had replied ‘Still in my studio’.
So take heart in your writing. Think of the factual creativity of the best sleeve notes. Some institutions hire journalists to help draft them; some employ journal editors. Perhaps we ought to work with poets, just as Paul Weller did recently with Simon Armitage. Or other musicians? Bill Evans wrote insightfully about Miles Davis. And Johnny Cash wrote wonderful sleeve notes about his own music and others, including a fine poem for Bob Dylan’s ‘Nashville Skyline’ album. As music writer Laura Barton notes, he had to convince ‘the farmers, felons, and folkies’ who idolised Country but were suspicious of Dylan’s shape shifting, that here indeed was another musician worth their cautious attention. In 1969 Cash won a Grammy for his notes on the Folsom Prison concert album, with the memorable words – which may resonate with those of us still agonising over a pile of draft ‘Impact Statements’ - “The culture of a thousand years is shattered by the clanging of the jail door behind you.”
Paul Gough is Pro Vice-Chancellor and Vice-President at RMIT University. He is executive head of the College of Design and Social Context.
A painter, broadcaster and writer, he has exhibited globally and is represented in the permanent collection of the Imperial War Museum, London; the Canadian War Museum, Ottawa and the National War Memorial, New Zealand.
He has published widely in cultural history, cultural geography and heritage studies, and has written or edited eight books, including monographs on the war artists Stanley Spencer and Paul Nash. He has also published on peace gardens, sites of remembrance, and the street artist, Banksy.