Friday, 22 June 2018

A short ride in a fast week.

Funny week this week - lots and lots of the more formal end-of-year administration to do, much of it important but also quite tedious, alongside some more enjoyable things, all conducted amidst an atmosphere of mutinous fury.

The week's main activities were Boards: mark entry deadlines, internal results board, external results board, meeting our external examiner and arranging for him to spend some time with our students. It's not all wearing tweed and wowing people with our fabulous knowledge: marking is soul destroying because there's a lot of it to do in a short space of time. Then we moderate it. Then I get to check that all four forms have been completed for each module, after which I send them off to an underpaid External Examiner from another university who checks that the courses are intellectually appropriate, assessments are fair and challenging, support is sufficient and so on. He meets our students who give him their perspective and then we all get together to go through every module's results, theoretically identifying strengths and weaknesses as we go along. We do it all over again in a few weeks for Results Boards and Resit Boards. Most of the time it is amazingly boring, but it does mean each class and each student gets careful consideration at every level. This year, our externals very politely pointed out that getting rid of excellent colleagues and courses is a ridiculous course of action.

All this is conducted, naturally, during the annual round of newspaper stories claiming that university grades are being massively inflated. In actual fact, the posh universities hand out far more top-class degrees than places like mine, and we all spend a lot more time explaining to students exactly what constitutes good academic practice. I did a degree in the 90s: 'learning outcomes', 'marking criteria', 'academic skills' classes, draft review tutorials, mixed-mode assessments and the like didn't exist. We hand-wrote what we thought might be an acceptable essay and got a grade. No wonder students are doing better now: we support them a lot better. I was one of two people who got a First in my cohort: I expected a 2.2 and still couldn't explain what was expected of me beyond 'good writing' and 'ideas': but I was armed with the middle-class cultural and social capital that let me guess what constitutes these things. I spend time explaining to intelligent students with no HE cultural capital what I'm looking for, and it works. I also think that my students are over-assessed, but that's a whole other post.

I'm an external examiner too - at an Open University centre in East London and a Welsh university. The small fee isn't the point: it's a contribution to the health of the whole sector, and it's a chance to see how other courses run. And to steal their ideas, obviously (or share your own). It gives you a sense of how your field is developing and a chance to be a good citizen - it's one of the things that I do which feels important, however invisible it is. Quite a lot of this week has been spent reading work by students at these universities – while I'm massively proud of my own degree, I'd happily recommend anyone take their courses (if mine are oversubscribed, that is).

Other highlights of this week: my colleague Daisy Black gave a performance of her feminist Chaucer re-tellings, Unruly Woman, interspersed with #MeToo renditions of familiar and new folk songs; I went to a PhD progress presentation on digital poetry that was rather thrilling, I gatecrashed the Science faculty's conference to hear about the Big Read project my Faculty says it's too poor to join, and I interviewed a mid-PhD stage student to see how he's getting on. Having worked as an employment office adviser for years, he's doing a philosophy/ethnography project on wordlessness as a concept and his only problem is too many ideas – not a challenge I've ever faced, sadly. It was just excellent to meet people doing such exciting things in so many areas.

Not, however, as exciting as the delivery of my new, massively over-engineered steam generator. You may all think of me as a risk-taking, devil-may-care cultural, political and pedagogical provocateur, but those who meet me in meatspace are always struck by the crisp perfection of my natty outfits.* I iron everything, less as a hobby and more as a calling: where some people pray, meditate or paint trompe-l'oeil scenes on their chapel ceilings, I find fulfilment and calm in ironing. The death of my most recent one a week or so left a gaping void in my soul and indeed schedule, healed a few days ago by the delivery of a bigger, more powerful, state-of-the art that promises crease perfection.

Quite frankly, I feel like breaking a bottle of bubbly on its prow or saluting it with Also Sprach Zarathstra or Fanfare every time I switch it on. Mentioning this on Twitter attracted a flood of ironing-sceptics including some good friends for whom I previously had some respect. You people are animals. 

Obviously the advent of The Beast has considerably cut down on my reading time, but I did get through a couple of old favourites: Iain Sinclair's book-dealing-and-antiquarian-serial-killer psychogeographical novel White Chapell, Scarlet Tracings and Jeff Noon's wonderful Pollen. Both highly-recommended. 

*Not entirely accurate. Even the one tailored suit I own looks like I robbed it from some rough-living person of a totally different build then buried it for a while.

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