Thursday, 31 January 2013

It's not all work, work, work

Well, actually it is. But the very best thing about being (or appearing to be) an academic is that sometimes you get paid for having the very same conversations with people that I would have for free, at length, in any situation.

Take today. I came in and did some incredibly tedious administration, the details of which I'll save for the day I contract writers' block and/or want to get rid of large numbers of you, dear reader. But as a reward, I had a tutorial lined up for one of my MA students. Not the one whose thesis is 'all popular culture is contemptible', another one. She's doing a dissertation on the Country House in 1930s literature. She's looking at Nancy Mitford's Highland Fling and perhaps one or two more or her novellas, Henry Green's Living, Loving, Party-Going trilogy, Waugh's Vile Bodies, Wodehouse's Summer Lightning and Agatha Christie's Seven Dials, and perhaps Michael Arlen's work.

Now that might at first glance sound like Downton Abbey Studies, but it's really, really interesting, especially for someone like me who thinks that the interwar period is the most interesting one in centuries. Once you've picked the country house as a setting – for comic capers, murders, political discussion, love affairs, dancing or whatever – you've got a focus for social, cultural and literary change. Why, for instance, is the country house a great place for a murder mystery? Partly because non-aristocratic readers would never have got in the doors of these places, and like to imagine toffs either bashed on the noggin or dragged down to the cells. They're on the front-line of economic and social change too: servants eyeballing their feudal masters while spitting in the soup. You've got the landed gentry gradually getting poorer as capitalism takes over, leading to the race for American heiresses, the generational slaughter of WW1, the battle to preserve 'heritage' and older modes of life while the kids indulge in suspicious 'cosmopolitan' pleasures (jazz, cocktails, motor-cars), and the ambiguous love-hate relationship between city and country. Politics rears its ugly head as bone-headed patriotism meets the harder-edge of Nazism (the British aristocracy was very open to ideas about blood and soil, and to the weirder mystical fringes of European fascism). And of course the end of Empire and the causes/effects of two world wars are played out over the snooker and bridge tables of the country house.

So there's a lot to say and I'm really looking forward to reading my student's take on it… and to getting back the books I've loaned her. I always feel nervous watching them leave the office. I've been burned too many times! But it's great to just talk about books and ideas, wandering round the office picking up 'just one more' to add to the pile, realising not only that someone else shares your particular enthusiasms, but that they'll have a different, interesting take on it. Though it's slightly embarrassing to realise that I actually own every single book that might be useful, like some kind of bookish magpie.

For all my moaning, this kind of thing happens much more than you might imagine. OK, it's true that one high-achieving student didn't know who the prime minister is and what party he's from, and that she thought Russell Whateverhisnameis's Good News and the bloody Mail Online is sufficient to keep her informed. And it's true that another good student from this city had never heard of Wales (which can just about be seen from the top floor of Vole Towers), but neither of them are stupid… just er highly-specialised. There are plenty of students around who are much brighter than I am, whether they know it or not. I've read more than they have because I've been using up precious oxygen for longer, but before long they'll be streets ahead.

That's why I like teaching. You can't relax or fake it. It's also why I like teaching here, where snobs wouldn't expect to find intellectual ferment. I'm really looking forward to teaching Ben Masters' Noughties in a couple of weeks. It's a campus novel which isn't nearly as clever as the author thinks, nor as progressive. In particular, I'm looking forward to my students reacting to these bits:
She doesn't go here – Oxford, that is – not being academic … Lucy had been accepted into the University of Northampton… to study Travel and Tourism.
In our epoch… curiosity and aptitude are irrelevant (not at Oxford, mind…). [Academic work outside Oxford is] one colouring-in exercise per semester supplemented by extracurricular binge-drinking and blowjobs
Anne, now studying Socio-Bio-Dance Studies with History at some uni up north.
John (a blond pretty boy studying applied Agriculture with Media Studies at some university down south)
Natalie (huge girl studying Golf Course Management and Experimental PE at some university out east).
Holly (tiny girl studying Fuck Knows at some university near Wales)
Rob (I've no idea what Rob studies: perhaps a BA in Throwing Up, or a short course on The Reception of STIs…)

And so, endlessly on: a narrator who professes not to be a snob while obsessively dividing the world into sensitive, troubled Oxonians and animalistic Others who spend their time having meaningless sex and studying for meaningless degrees in laughable places without (unlike our hero) dramatising their experiences with set-reading references, analogies, quotations and obsessive alliteration. The kids are going to love getting their teeth into this one.

I wonder if Masters would like to visit us for a talk…

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