Friday, 4 October 2019

Beware of the Leopard

Another Friday rolls by and I feel both aged and exhilarated. Aged by the relentless series of organisational failures that have enraged students and thus their academic supporters, and exhilarated because you never feel more alive than when you're trying to guess where Timetabling have hidden your class today, whether it clashes with other compulsory classes and whether there will be enough tables and chairs (answers: in the cellar with no light and broken stairs, in a disused lavatory behind a door marked 'beware of the leopard'; yes it does, and no there aren't). How we've managed shrinking student numbers with inadequate rooms is a question for the Metaphysics department, if we still have one.

Well, we'll see who rusts first.

The actual teaching has been a delight: introductory lectures for American Literatures (room for 30 people, 39 students present); Children's Literature (room changed without notification), learning labs (campus, building, room and time changed within two hours of class starting, no notification) and later today (I assume), Populist Texts where we're taking a Cultural Studies approach to Black Panther because it's interesting and we're what the kids call 'woke', though I confess the grammatical horror makes me blanch. Which is ironic when we're talking about blackness.

The other delight of the week was the two-day marathon that is writing Academic Enhancement Plans: an 18 page document that involves navigating the world's worst database to cut and paste statistics into a Word document so that we can then add a short commentary and RAG rate them (i.e. use traffic light colours to denote bliss, indifference and horror), then send said statistics back to the people who already had them, and who show little actual interest in any of the prose-form things we say to them except when someone snitches to senior management about what I write here.*

Why we lack a system that can send the relevant person the relevant figures, already RAG rated so that we can do the important bit of saying how we'll fix the bad bits is clearly a question for my superiors but I will note that I missed two days of writing lectures and research (sorry, 'generating outputs') for which failure my colleagues and I will no doubt be roundly criticised by some other aspect of the Terror. Added to the general sense of pointlessness is the unavoidable fact that with recruitment at rock bottom, all the stats for my course are statistically insignificant.

That said, the major issue for my courses is BME attainment and turning from general awareness to cold hard facts is salutary: worse progression through the years and a lower chance of achieving a First or a 2.1. The reasons, of course, are complex and the classes are so small that individual situations make a huge difference to how they're doing, but the plain fact is that these students have been failed at school level, are more likely to be economically deprived, and we're failing to make up for this at university. My course is culturally open - analysis of texts and theoretical approaches reveals that we teach more books/poems/plays by and about people from ethnic minorities than pretty much anywhere else, and we've always highlighted postcolonial theory and related ideas even when we're looking at texts generated by the hegemony (I dream of offering a modules called The Brits Are At It Again which could cover pretty much every subject), but it's not the complete answer. I keep thinking about offering a discrete module on BME Literature and Theory (we have one called Women's Writing), which has some attractions in that it would highlight some amazing work, but I fear that unless it was compulsory, it would attract BME students while most others would avoid it. Also, the staff is all-white and while it's horrendous to think only BME students and staff could study or teach this material, white authority explaining black cultures is not a good look.

We offer enormous amounts of academic support, but I'm damned if I'll put on classes specifically for BME students as if they were a problem, which is how the Office for Students metric obsession wants us to think. Some years ago when I was a governor someone proposed monitoring black students' usage of the library so that we could contact them to encourage them to do more. Imagine the headlines if that got out: 'University Stalks Black Students'.

No doubt there are sensible and progressive ways to close the gap, and universities should be at the forefront of correcting social injustices, but it's a tricky one. Luckily we do have experts on hand, and a lot of bell hooks' work in the library so we'll get there. At least, I sometimes tell myself, we haven't avoided the issue entirely by simply not admitting more than the occasional token BME student, as certain other institutions seem to do. In my deepest fantasies, I get a reply from the head of learning and teaching to whom I appealed for help with this, back in the halcyon hours of March 6th 2018.

In other news, I've managed to read a couple of books in between the form-filling and the fever dreams of form-filling. I read Margaret Atwood's The Testaments in two sittings. The cover design is rather lovely, but more significantly, the green Handmaid seems like a deliberate assertion of difference from the TV series' now iconic design, as though Atwood is determined that the reader understand from the start that they're separate cultural projects. I have to say that I didn't find the sequel as richly rewarding as The Handmaid's Tale though most of the writing is as stylish as ever. For a realist novel, the resolution felt rather wishful: without wishing to give away spoilers, I'm not sure that media exposure of a regime's evils is enough now we're in an era where our rulers label everything inconvenient 'fake news', while generating actual fake news seemingly with every breath. What did convince me, at least in my current despondent frame of mind, is Atwood's refusal to imagine a popular uprising for justice and equality. Little sign of that happening anywhere. What I liked most was the return of Professor Peixoto and the other historians at the conference. It's the oft-overlooked framework to the central narrative in the original text, and one which locates Gilead's origins in forms of male arrogance and superiority that pop up everywhere. The professor's exegesis of Offred's and Lydia's testimonies are colonial and confident: he makes little jokes and establishes a gap between what women write (personal, unstable, untrustworthy, limited) and what men write (history, fact, judgement). In the end though, I think The Testaments is a bit too comforting, a bit too keen to help us believe that justice will be done in the end. I don't believe in the inevitability of progress, in divine purpose, or in the Marxist march of history. Things happen for reasons but there's no linear movement towards the right answers.

I have also acquired a second-hand Kindle to play with. I'm deeply conflicted about this because other than loading it with PDFs, it means I'm tied to Amazon to some extent. However, my house is literally stuffed with thousands of books and I'm struggling to carry enough volumes when I go on holiday, so I decided to try an e-reader for books I know I'll only ever read once, and for travelling. The physical experience is OK, but I am detecting a weird change in the way I read. Everything on the screen seems less substantial in a way, and I find myself more aware of a pressure to read more quickly rather than carefully. I don't quite understand why yet, but it's definitely real. It feels more like consuming something than engaging with it as I do with paper books. Perhaps it's the thrill of the new, perhaps something else. For the record, I read Katherine Arden's interesting Russian folk story-influenced bildungsroman The Bear and the Nightingale (enjoyable and evocative but could have done with a little more editing), Catherine O'Flynn's Lori and Max (her first children's novel, and one which worked really, really well) and Becky Chambers' The Long Way To A Small Angry Planet which I mentioned previously.

It's not the only device that's been on my mind this week: I somehow lost my mobile phone at work which is obviously an enormously expensive and bureaucratically tedious mistake to make, but one which made me realise quite how dependent I am on it psychologically. Losing access to email away from the office, instant news from a variety of sources and the power to comment instantaneously was both stressful to an embarrassing degree, but also liberating to some extent. I may have mentioned that I don't have an internet connection at home, partly through lethargy but partly because I know myself well enough to predict that I'd never be able to switch off either from work or idle, aimless browsing. Having a smartphone meant I could access the good and the bad whenever I wanted, without the temptation of spending my life staring at a large screen promising all human life all the time, inviting me to point out everyone else's mistakes too. Or as Randall Munroe puts it:

And now I must away to write the two lectures for Monday that I should have written if I hadn't spent  two whole days wrestling with stats that your average Raspberry Pi could have provided before it was even switched on. Enjoy your weekend.

* Hi Snitchy!

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