The end of the academic year is always bittersweet. There's always the violence-inducing and inaccurate comments from friends and family: 'looking forward to a three month holiday then?', but there is the sweet release of marking your last essay. I love teaching and find 99% of the students I teach to be delightful people with whom I am happy to socialise outside class when we bump into each other. Then marking comes along and the pressure to get through 150 essays on a limited range of topics within a very short space of time turns me into a misanthropic git of the worst sort. The usual safety valve – gleefully circulating the most outrageous howlers – is no longer the done thing, so you trudge through it, gradually losing your own humanity and running the risk of forgetting theirs.
Then summer comes and your attention turns to rewriting last years bad lectures, designing new courses and now and then reading a new book. I graduated 20 years ago so it's probably time I stopped reading out lectures delivered to me back then.* Before you know it, term starts again and all is forgiven: I find that I've actually missed the classroom and the company of the returning students, as well as looking forward to the new starters who will laugh at my jokes for at least one week. The next load of marking is far beyond the horizon and all's well with the world.
It's a bit different this semester. I'm technically on sabbatical, though I'm still course leader which makes things a bit tricky. It means that as I'm still around in the offices I see all the students I'd like to teach without actually doing any teaching, and I feel bereft. Other people are having those odd conversations, pointing them in interesting directions that I may not know about, and giving great lectures. It's all gravy for the students but I've a bad case of FOMO.**
Meanwhile in the outside world, things are getting very nasty indeed. The government wants to get rid of all their overseas-trained doctors: so that's goodbye to my post-retirement age da who still works 7 days a week in the NHS because there aren't enough doctors. Then Amber Rudd, who has a very shady record in business including – and this makes my head spin – directorships of dubious companies located for taxable purposes in the Bahamas, has decided that she wants to exclude foreign students from the country unless they're attending 'quality' courses at 'quality' universities, whatever 'quality' means and ignoring the fact that overseas students' fees keep an awful lot of universities afloat, never mind the manifest cultural benefits of international education. She also wants British Jobs For British Workers, despite her party employing an Australian tax evader to run its anti-immigration election campaign, and a Canadian to be Governor of the Bank of England. Her colleagues meanwhile have decided that universities are going to be ranked 'gold', 'silver' and 'bronze', like the egg and spoon race at your local school. And then, to add xenophobic insult to moronic injury, the government has decided to sack EU academics working in British universities – the ones who actually understand trade law, diplomacy, international relations etc. etc. – from giving them advice on the Brexit process because they might be spies. Never mind: no doubt she's met a cab driver who reckons he knows how to sort it out.
How long before Jo Johnson and Mrs May tell me that I can only teach literature from England by English people which celebrates how wonderful England is? The Collected Works of Melanie Phillips, Richard Littlejohn and Boris Johnson (poetry collection and comic novel about suicide bombers, both of which I have unfortunately read).
What am I trying to say? That the experience of teaching lots of young and not so young people from all over the world is a joyous one. Hopefully they benefit from my work and their encounters with their classmates, and I know I certainly do. But all the pleasures and gains feel like nothing compared to the murk of xenophobic, paranoiac, philistine nastiness emanating from our elected representatives. I want to contribute to making the world a better place but they're making it smaller, meaner and more hostile.
Enjoy your weekend.
*To avoid a tedious exchange of letters with my local paper, head of department and the QAA, this is a joke. Nobody would claim ownership of the puns which constitute 80% of my lectures.
**The young people inform me that this stands for Fear Of Missing Out. Given that my life thus far resembles that of an agoraphobic Trappist, there's a lot of Out to Fear Missing.