Thursday, 10 March 2016

And just where do you think you've been?

Actually, I'm under no illusions that there's a Public out there thirsting for the latest pearls of wisdom from my keyboard, but one or two people have noted that it's been a couple of weeks since my last blogpost, and let's face it, that one was basically filler wasn't it? Has Vole hit the wall? Is it 'difficult 3978th album syndrome'? Has PV finally, blessedly, run out of opinions? Is it safe to venture outdoors once more? Is this, in fact, the liberation for which you have long since yearned?

Perhaps the answer is all of the above. Unlike Clarkson et al who as Stewart Lee points out, have,  controversial opinions for money 'to a deadline in the Sunday Times almost as if they weren't real', I can't churn them out like that. Many of my opinions are either overly-familiar to me and so (I assume) to you, or so predictable that they're fit only for ridicule. Occasionally I call a halt in my lectures when I realise that I've bored myself into a corner, and sometimes that happens on here too. It's not that there's a shortage of things to have an opinion about, it's often that I don't have a distinctive one: Lord preserve us from the 'hot take' which as far as I can see only fosters divisiveness and the crude magnification of minor differences. (Though I guess that constitutes a hot take in itself, and recent personal experiences lead me to believe that 'hot take' culture is now infecting the pursuit of academic research: too often those tasked with securing grant money for the institution are gently trying to warp research priorities, with the connivance of funding bodies and league tables which promote impact and visibility at the expense of depth.

I don't think blogging has had its day, and I'm grateful for the space in which to opine at reasonably length without needing to go through the peer-review process, but I'm finding Twitter useful for making links to interesting people, while the incredible pressure of work at the moment means that the space to think things through has entirely disappeared: blogging comes way down the list of priorities at the moment. It doesn't mean I'm not doing interesting things that some of you might find interesting. It's that I can't really talk about them, good and bad. I'm reading a PhD thesis I'm examining soon, for instance. I can't tell you what I think about it because that would be neither ethical or professional, but I can tell you that it's utterly fascinating and I'm learning a lot about the subject and some interesting new ways to view a field. Once it's all over and I can ask the author maybe I'll share some of the highlights for you. There was one quotation in there about Napoleon which seems particularly relevant to the EU Referendum campaign and the US election primaries though. Who wouldn't think of Trump, Rubio, Clinton, Cruz, Johnson, Cameron, Gove, Grayling, Farage and Co in these lines?

What else have I been up to? An lot of enormously enjoyable teaching: Hamlet and the Duchess of Malfi amongst them (working at a university is not at all like coping with the twisted, dark, suspicious, surveillance culture of Danish and Italian royal courts, obviously) but it's wonderful being able to immerse myself in extended texts like a PhD thesis and these plays. I'm completely exhausted but at the moment teaching is an absolute highlight. Admittedly the written work doesn't come in until next week, but every single class has been a joy so far.

What else? Well, I've been organising visiting speakers and finding interesting places to host them: on Monday Catherine O'Flynn and James Hannah are reading from and talking about their novels in the city's art gallery (March 14th, 6.00 p.m., free). There will be wine and cake (not free) and hopefully and audience which might not have considered walking into a university on a Monday night. Many more events coming. I'm also involved in the Birmingham Literature Festival (the gits held a 'breakfast meeting' in a bookshop one morning. I emerged from that considerably fatter and poorer, damn it. Like having a Narcotics Anonymous meeting in downtown Medellin. (Medellinistas: don't write in. I know your city has had a wonderful renaissance in recent years but all my cultural referents are decades out of date). I'm supervising a couple of PhDs and some very interesting undergraduate dissertations, and I've been to London on external examiner duties and stolen wholesale a lot of their ideas learned about fresh approaches to teaching and learning, then went down again to help plan a Festival of English which you should all either contribute to or come to. Also coming up is the Stafford Castle Open-Air Shakespeare: it's Othello this year and my colleague and I are once again writing the programme notes. It was lovely to be involved last year and we're hoping to really build on it.

We're also in the middle of rewriting our course structures (in both departments I work in). While there's an awful lot of bureaucracy involved and a certain amount of brick wall/head interface activity, it's rather lovely to be able to indulge in dreaming up whole new areas of teaching. In particular, the first-years will discover that all the world is indeed a stage, as I'll be getting them into a theatre with actors to learn the arts of acting, directing, producing and designing plays as well as interpreting and interrogating them. Sadly The Skinhead Hamlet will not be our first text. But one day…Then there are all the Governor activities, the course committees, the VLE assessment group, the union representation duties and the whole panoply of academic things. The one thing I haven't managed to do is any actual research recently, though I have been applying for funding which is close enough. I'm enjoying life enormously at the moment but something will have to give. I'm slowly recovering from a few months' Repetitive Strain Injury caused by work and the last thing I want is another bout.

In other news: isn't the new Suede album excellent? And the Cavern of Anti-Matter one.

Which is all basically a long and self-indulgent way of saying: I've been busy. But I'm back. Sporadically.

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