Friday, 28 September 2018

A course is a half-formed thing

The phoney war is over, not that I think of the new term as any sort of war unless management is the enemy and we're the side that set off armed with sharpened fruit. Forget about the metaphors – it's Freshers' Week, Welcome Week, Induction Week or whatever you call the period in which you meet the human beings so badly represented by the inaccurate statistics I get sent. A tentative and unreliable list of student numbers becomes a smiling, slightly apprehensive (and shockingly small) number of faces in a bland room betraying pleasure, fear, excitement and trepidation. Especially those who received my welcoming gift: a free copy of Eimear McBride's A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing.

Some of my colleagues think that this is a terrifying idea: sending new entrants a full-on modernist stream of consciousness novel about an Irish girl who copes with familial and sexual exploitation through self-harm, but most of them aren't Irish and miss the top-quality gags sprinkled amongst the explicit scenes of rape and self-abasement. More seriously, I do it because it's one of the best novels I've read in decades, and because I want our incoming students to realise that literary study is an emotional, often disorienting experience. Too many of them come to us exhausted after the mechanical trudge to which the A-level system has reduced English. It's not the fault of the teachers, it's the rigidity of the examination. One of the key questions I pose to my first-years is 'how did this text make you feel?', and I follow it up with 'why?', so that they can start to examine their own cultural and social context and how it shapes their relationship with any particular work. As I keep saying to them, 'Bored' or 'I hated it' is as productive a response as 'Loved it', providing that there's a thoughtful answer to the follow-up question which can take in structure, plot, characterisation, individual experience, linguistic recognition and myriad other things.

Some of the incoming students have started reading it, others haven't, or haven't had a chance yet: we recruit right up to the first week of teaching and even further, but 'weird' is a word I've heard more than once, which pleases me mightily. I think of it as a process of creative defamiliarisation. Sadly though, I'm not teaching the first-years much this time: while I designed two of the core modules and taught them for years, what one might euphemistically call 'personnel changes' mean that I've had to hand over my beloved modules, including Making A Scene, to much better scholars than I. I have got my hands on Writing for Children though, which under my control will become a ruthless exercise in spoiling treasured memories. The process starts in Freshers' Week actually: we take the cultural temperature of our new intake by asking them to propose the book, song and film they'd use to justify humanity's continued existence in the face of an alien invasion. The music of Queen comes up with depressing monotony, and I do my best to discourage it with shameless subjectivity (and pointing out that they played apartheid South Africa).

Other than that, the highlight of the week has been the Timetabling department's decision to turn next week's lectures into an exciting form of scavenger hunt – due to a series of unfortunate events involving faculty laxness, personnel turnover and a magnificent new piece of software, I have no idea where my classes might be occurring. I like it. It adds a frisson of unknowability to an already stressful week which keeps the cardio-vascular system going. At my age, it all helps.

What else has happened this week? Well, between the efforts of my immediate boss and my UCU colleagues who patiently taught our managers to count, the threat of redundancy has been lifted for a lot of people in my department - not quite all, so the battle continues, but things are looking a little better. I went to a research seminar which covered a Bulgarian modernist poet and then female terrorists in Victorian novels (all beautiful and Jewish, basically), and have attended a lot of meetings, livened by the retirement do for a colleague who started teaching here when I was six weeks old. A leading feminist and communist who founded our Women's Studies degree (RIP) and terrified successive generations of the men in suits, she'll be much missed. People are about to find out that the secret to my union casework success was actually just asking her what to do, every single time.

Like a lot of people, I've also been keeping an eye on the Senate bin-fire that is the confirmation (or not) of Brett Kavanaugh to the American Supreme Court. I resent the fact that the US impinges so heavily on my consciousness but that's capitalist imperialism I guess. What I've seen of it is a combination of the purest bigotry, misogyny, the angry face of patriarchal power responding to the merest hint of token resistance, and a brave woman marooned in a political and cultural morass. I don't suppose other countries' judicial appointments are any better (in the UK it's a matter of going to the right school and university, making the right friends and never having to face any scrutiny - a polite exercise in privilege-continuance) but the naked exercise of power in the US is fascinating and horrible at the same time.

I've only had the chance to read one book this week: Gillian Darley's Villages of Vision. It's the recent edition of a 1970s history of model villages, estate settlements, communes, utopian settlements and the like, covering England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland. Darley's strength is a keen and critical eye for bad architecture and a keen social understanding of the cultural, economic and social conditions which generated these schemes, most of which failed.

Fairfield Moravian Settlement, Droylsden, Manchester

They range from rich men treating their tenants as decorations – moving entire villages out of sight of the big house, and requiring the inhabitants to wear stupid hats – industrial schemes designed to make sure the factory hands behaved themselves such as the one which included holes in the shutters so management could make sure everyone went to bed early – to racist endeavours such as the multiple Irish schemes (including New Geneva) which imported Protestant English and Scottish workers to displace the ignorant, Irish-speaking, truculent and Catholic natives with 'civilised' people. Some schemes seemed rather benevolent and fruitful, such as the Moravian settlements in Manchester, Gracehill in Ireland and elsewhere: despite being incomers, Gracehill was never burned down in the rebellions because its inhabitants didn't insist on converting everybody for miles around.

Plaque at Snig's End, disastrous attempt at a Chartist commune. 

Schoolhouse at Snig's end. 

I particularly enjoyed learning that the modern Tullamore has its origins in a hot air balloon crash in 1785 that burned the town down – the first aviation disaster in history. Anyway, I highly recommend it: it's a fascinating story of the mixed motivations fuelling these schemes, and I now know what to look out for when wandering about.

And now I'm off for the second weekend spent in polyester and a sports hall as I (hopefully) succeed win renewing my fencing coaching qualifications. I won't go into detail about it: I'm a bit touché on the subject (sorry*).

*Not sorry.

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