Wednesday, 16 December 2020

For whom the OfS bell tolls

THE ironically-named Office for Students is taking an advent-calendar approach to publishing a slew of disturbing documents reinforcing their Ayn Randian approach to learning, and faced with choice of marking or reading them, I made the wrong choice on every level. 

While the image of a Vice-Chancellor being rousted from his bed in some agreeable college mansion at 4. a.m. by jackbooted goons appeals on an atavistic level, I was actually quite disturbed by the discovery that the organisation that tried to hire Toby Young and makes your average Vice-Chancellor look clever and altruistic has 'powers of entry and search'

All I can do is turn to fiction. 

The clocks had just struck thirteen when the door splintered and finally gave way under the weight of a ram. In poured the OfS in their tight black uniforms. 'OFS! Get on the f***ing floor!' screamed a voice familiar from a million Spectator podcasts. 'And make yourself decent'. The confused VC grabbed a mortar-board to hide his shame before being dragged out of the grace-and-favour lodge, across the manicured lawn (in contravention of college by-laws restricting access only to those with a congratulatory first) and thrown in the back of a Black Maria of the kind that haunted the dreams of SMTs across the land. He'd known this day would come. If only he'd taken the job at Bristol or Chester - he'd have made it across the border and into the warm embrace of HEFCW given a few minutes' head start. 

Hours later he was hauled out of the van in a dingy basement under the OfS Lubyanka. Through the hood he could dimly perceive the received pronunciation sobs of others like him - clearly Gove, Williamson, Barber and Dandridge had decided on a Night of the Long Knives, egged on by their lickspittles in the Mail and the Telegraph

 What do Air Bud, a Comma & a Police Interrogation have in Common?

Eventually he found himself standing in a harshly-lit interview room, its sole decoration a portrait of Nigel Biggar, foot resting on a suppliant native. Without warning, the hood was pulled off and a bucket of cold water thrown over him. From behind, a voice whispered in his ear. 'You knew you'd end up here, eventually. It's not like the old days. Back then, you could rely on Vice-Chancellors to behave. Both of them'. Our VC blinked in the glare and choked back tears. 'But…what have I done? I've read the memos. I made the medieval Latinists promote employability'. He paused. His voice broke. 'I even made the quantum physicists take an entrepreneurialism training course. I had the ceramics people throw NSS bowls and made the glass makers etch their TEF score in crystal'.

The educated voice sounded sympathetic. 'I know', it soothed. 'You did what you could to drag your 'university' into modern times and make it customer-friendly. But it's my friend Market here. He's not convinced you really mean it'. The speaker moved round into the prisoner's line of sight. He had a weaselly, hungry face and the eyes of a man determined not to let ignorance shake his self-belief. This was a man who knew that Britain was 'better than the Belgians'. A tarantula sat on his shoulder looking slightly friendlier than its owner. 'We've been through the stats' said Williamson, silkily. 'Did you know that not one of your graduates has founded a hedge fund in the past three years'?

The dishevelled VC pulled himself together. 'I know. I'm sorry. But we've been working on social mobility and access. Look at the nurs…'

But before he could finish the word, Williamson had given a slight nod and his unseen colleague smashed a cosh into the poor man's kidneys. 'If you dare cite demographics, my friend here is going to be very angry. And he went to Durham. You don't survive the LARP club hazings up there without learning a thing or two about pain'. The other man stepped into the light. A woolly cap covered a balding head. Stubble spread like fungus across the Mekon-like face. He appeared to have dressed himself in the dark from the Fat Face bins. The VC blanched. He knew that smell. 'Shut tha' face', said Dom. 'I know your sort. I've re-edited more blogs about the Woke Blob than you've had cosy dinners down the Lodge with building contractors'. The face pushed itself into the VC's. 'Now tell us: where are you hiding the cultural Marxists?' 

By now his victim was on his knees and sobbing uncontrollably. Another brutal blow to the head reestablished his attention. 'I DON'T KNOW!', he screamed. 'We closed Women's Studies. We fired the sociologists. Modern Languages went years ago. What more do you want?'. 

'I want to know about this', hissed the notorious disruptor. 'And you'd better talk fast: Priti's outside and she's been looking at your Tier 3 visa licence. You don't want to be left alone with her'. He shoved a print-out into the poor man's face. It was an email chain with certain words circled in red: 'Thunberg'. 'Climate Emergency'. 'Honorary Degree'. For a moment, the hapless chap felt a moment's relief. He could explain. 'Oh, that. We were quite pleased with that. The students asked for it, and you always tell us to listen to the Student Voice. A bit of paper, some friendly local media coverage and a meaningless statement about possibly eventually getting recycled loo paper in the executive suite. Ticked all the boxes'. 

A moment of silence ticked by ominously, broken eventually by the crunch of steel-tipped Bullingdon brogues on chancellorial genitals. 'You listened to the wrong students, pal. Big mistake. We know you hid the bust of that slave trade thought leader who endowed the business school bogs. We heard that history professor talk about the 'discursive turn'. You slow-walked your KEF engagement. Ferguson applied for a job in Finance and wasn't even interviewed. Do you know what we found in the English department?'. 

His victim shrugged. He'd forgotten they still had one. 

'No Spenser. No Blyton. No Hemingway. Not even Roth. Kipling was filed under "Colonial Voices". We found Fanon. Equiano. McBride. Adichie. Eddo-Lodge.' the hapless bureaucrat just stared. He'd never heard of any of them. It had been years sine he'd read anything other than a balance sheet. Besides, he was cured. He loved Big Dom. But it was no good. The other man shook his head. 'It's too late for you. You're for the Long No Platform now'. And with that he turned away, pausing only to spit in the tired man's face. 'Take him away. Sell the buildings to a private provider. And send in Gopal. She's been getting uppity'. 

70 Years of 1984 by George Orwell: How London Inspired the Novelist's  Dystopia | Entertainment | Culture | Luxury London 

Happy Christmas, VCs everywhere. Sleep well.


Thursday, 26 November 2020

We also serve who sit and blog

 I'm only in semi-lockdown: face-to-face teaching is still happening in reduced circumstances for a little longer but compared with my former 10 hours per day in the office, life is changed utterly. Has it meant that I've written those books? Got those grant applications written? Tidied the garden? 

No, of course it hasn't. Nor have I horsed through nearly so many books as I expected. There's been a lot of sleeping, compulsive slacking and - weirdly - I wake up every morning with my hands gripping the uprights of my bedhead like a prisoner begging for parole. Go figure. 

However, I'm not alone. I've been slowly browsing Montaigne's essays. It's a shame he was born and died in the 16th century: he'd have been a superb social media content provider. Perhaps even an influencer! Here he is on idleness in isolation: 

When I lately retired to my own house, with a resolution, as much as possibly I could, to avoid all manner of concern in affairs, and to spend in privacy and repose the little remainder of time I have to live, I fancied I could not more oblige my mind than to suffer it at full leisure to entertain and divert itself, which I now hoped it might henceforth do, as being by time become more settled and mature; but I find – “Variam semper dant otia mentem,” [“Leisure ever creates varied thought.”—Lucan] that, quite contrary, it is like a horse that has broke from his rider, who voluntarily runs into a much more violent career than any horseman would put him to, and creates me so many chimaeras and fantastic monsters, one upon another, without order or design, that, the better at leisure to contemplate their strangeness and absurdity, I have begun to commit them to writing, hoping in time to make it ashamed of itself.

If that's not the birth of a blogger, I don't know what is. The Essays are fascinating - often very short, quite aphoristic, often charming in their sense of self-doubt (one essay is titled 'What Do I Know?', which might rule him out of contention as a purveyor of hot takes on 24-hour news channels), and only occasionally a bit 'you what mate?', but very personal, in a break with the literary conventions of the day. I remember the essays being mentioned in my undergraduate degree, but I never got round to reading them (see above, or blame my tutors' obsession with us reading every single word of Henryson and Dunbar, upon whose work I have not built a career - sorry, Scotland). In contrast to me, Montaigne retired to his agreeable tower in the Dordogne, stocked with a sizeable (for those times) library of 1500 books and industriously wrote his essays. 

Amongst them is chapter 38, Of Solitude. Written during a period of plagues and wars, Montaigne has a sharp eye for the motives of the public office-holder in such times: 

let us boldly appeal to those who are in public affairs; let them lay their hands upon their hearts, and then say whether, on the contrary, they do not rather aspire to titles and offices and that tumult of the world to make their private advantage at the public expense.

Between the American election, the Grenfell Tower enquiry and the daily revelation of pandemic-related corruption on an almost incomprehensible scale, it's hard to imagine many public figures passing this test. But the danger, says Montaigne, is to ourselves: avarice and corruption are contagious - only a fool doesn't offer a bribe if everyone else is doing it. How would you get anything done otherwise? We're all isolated or semi-isolated for health reasons, but Montaigne - who voluntarily withdrew from public life for a number of years - insists that the wise man withdrawn because he isn't strong enough to resist the inner temptation to join the crowd and become corrupt otherwise (a point taken up in The Miners' Next Step, a syndicalist classic from South Wales which warned a hundred years ago that the workers' representatives, once wined and dined by the class enemy, would inevitably lose sight of their purpose). Even if you hide yourself away, says Michel, you're left with your own strengths and weaknesses, played out on a domestic rather than a public stage. 

Now the end, I take it, is all one, to live at more leisure and at one’s ease: but men do not always take the right way. They often think they have totally taken leave of all business, when they have only exchanged one employment for another: there is little less trouble in governing a private family than a whole kingdom. Wherever the mind is perplexed, it is in an entire disorder, and domestic employments are not less troublesome for being less important. Moreover, for having shaken off the court and the exchange, we have not taken leave of the principal vexations of life:

“Ratio et prudentia curas, Non locus effusi late maris arbiter, aufert;” [“Reason and prudence, not a place with a commanding view of the great ocean, banish care.”—Horace, Ep., i. 2.]

ambition, avarice, irresolution, fear, and inordinate desires, do not leave us because we forsake our native country

I wondered during the first lockdown whether we would all decide to be kinder, gentler, less selfish people having experienced clean air and quiet streets: the rush to buy yet more SUVs and re-fill the verges with litter swiftly disabused me of that notion, yet I can't say I'm a better person for it either. The same things and people annoy me; I have 'left undone the things that I ought to have done, and done the things that I ought not to have done' (to steal from the splitters' prayer-book). Perhaps the idea of turning enforced idleness into an opportunity for spiritual renewal is rightly the precinct of the wellness cranks and hucksters: life's too fraught for most of us, so perhaps we shouldn't feel too guilty about turning to biscuits and box-sets instead of writing that novel or copying the Sistine Chapel on your living room ceiling (though that would be cool). Michel considers gardening and prayer as potential hobbies but rejects them both. He's not really convinced that his preference - reading and writing - is any better. It's morally and physically injurious: 

“This plodding occupation of bookes is as painfull as any other, and as great an enemie unto health, which ought principally to be considered. And a man should not suffer him selfe to be inveagled by the pleasure he takes in them.”

The answer, he says, is to avoid being sucked into a kind of competitive virtue - don't believe that everyone else is designing vaccines or achieving enlightenment via yoga in their spare rooms. Other people might be claiming to read only the Great Works, but Montaigne is brave enough to admit that sometimes you just need to relax with some trash:

I for my part care for no other books, but either such as are pleasant and easy, to amuse me, or those that comfort and instruct me how to regulate my life and death…Wiser men, having great force and vigour of soul, may propose to themselves a rest wholly spiritual but for me, who have a very ordinary soul, it is very necessary to support myself with bodily conveniences

We definitely shouldn't go as far as Montaigne: while his counsel of self-reliance sounds great, there's a disturbing quality to his extreme definition of independence that in our day would end up in foil-covered windows and bags of excreta: 

Wives, children, and goods must be had, and especially health, by him that can get it; but we are not so to set our hearts upon them that our happiness must have its dependence upon them; we must reserve a backshop, wholly our own and entirely free, wherein to settle our true liberty, our principal solitude and retreat.

Cope with absence and loss, fine - but it's a radical isolation that insists community is a luxury rather than a necessity (one suspects he doesn't count the staff). Montaigne sees solitude as the justified reward of the public servant who has given his all and has nothing more to add to society: a time to recover, but also to prepare for death, something he feels is overlooked in our activity. We've probably done plenty of that this year, though the powerful seem happier contemplating the deaths of countless others in pursuit of abstract ends than valuing each one. 

That's probably enough. But next time you hear Johnson or Rees-Mogg coming out with a Latin tag, remember what Montaigne says about this kind of performance, in 'Of The Art of Conference':

…we see so many silly souls amongst the learned, and more than those of the better sort… Knowledge is a thing of great weight, they faint under it: their understanding has neither vigour nor dexterity enough to set forth and distribute, to employ or make use of this rich and powerful matter… the weak ones, says Socrates, corrupt the dignity of philosophy in the handling, it appears useless and vicious, when lodged in an ill-contrived mind. They spoil and make fools of themselves: 

“Humani qualis simulator simius oris, 
 Quern puer arridens pretioso stamine serum 
 Velavit, nudasque nates ac terga reliquit, 
 Ludibrium mensis.” 

 [“Just like an ape, simulator of the human face, whom a wanton boy has dizened up in rich silks above, but left the lower parts bare, for a laughing-stock for the tables.” —Claudian, in Eutrop., i 303.]

Neither is it enough for those who govern and command us, and have all the world in their hands, to have a common understanding, and to be able to do the same that we can; they are very much below us, if they be not infinitely above us: as they promise more, so they are to perform more.

Saturday, 14 November 2020

Always Winter, Never Christmas

 I'm way too tired to do any blogging this week. Too tired to have any opinions, despite quite a lot going on in the world, from Trump to Cummings to England finally beating Ireland at soccer for the first time since I was 10 (1985). Well done you! 

My students and colleagues are all exhausted - the sheer extra effort involved in writing then recording and editing lectures, then doing face-to-face classes while simultaneously trying to get the online crowd involved, and the sheer time and effort required to get anything done via live chat (most students won't talk online) is very sapping. Many of the students are struggling to engage – either they're coming down with the coronavirus themselves, caring for others, or just plain stressed out by the situation: large numbers aren't reading the primary texts, attending classes, watching the recorded lectures nor joining the online classes. It really feels like we're making even more effort than usual with less and less purpose. For the first time ever we haven't recruited a full slate of module and course representatives, such is the mood amongst the students. I've always liked Mr Tumnus's line in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe about life under the Witch: 'It's always winter, and never Christmas'. If Britain's looking for a new motto, that seems to sum things up nicely. 

I'm spending the weekend marking - I don't even know which half of Universities Minister Donelan's sentence in her confused and dishonest letter to VCs to adhere to: should I pass everyone to ensure 'good outcomes' or mark rigorously to ensure that 'standards are protected' (the accompanying letter to students helpfully gives a direct link to the universities' complaints procedure, but somehow forgot to include contact details for the Minister or indeed any way to give the government any feedback on its own performance). If our students do well we're threatened with intervention on the grounds of grade inflation; if they don't achieve high grades we're punished for failing them. Ironically, it's unfashionable ex-polys like mine that mark most harshly, afraid of playing into the hands of the Daily Mail: it was a Russell Group university that changed all of a friend's entirely justified grading on the grounds - as was explained to her by the head of department - that 'XXXXX University students get 2.1s and 1sts'. You can't upset the customers. The latest wheeze is to judge universities by their students' salaries after graduation: so if you educate a local population of poor people who want to serve their community in low-paid but important jobs like nursing social care or teaching, you're a Bad University. If on the other hand you have the kind of Business School that churns out asset-strippers and hedge-funders, or have a conveyor belt from the lab to British Aerospace's weapons design unit, you're a Good University. 

Some of the international students have admitted defeat and gone home, including a group of the final Erasmus cohort. It's always been an enormous pleasure to have them in class, and it's desperate to think that their last experience of Britain before it enters political self-isolation is of a miserable, sick country with no idea what it's doing or what it's for. If Britain thinks it will have friends in the next generation of Europeans, it's deluded. 

I've always liked teaching face-to-face and still do, but the absurdity of trying to make myself and the students intelligible while wearing masks for lecturing really struck me this week. Mind you, it could be worse: the posh universities are fencing their students in and deploying riot police squads. Not a great look for next year's brochures. By contrast I switched on the TV the other day to see my own VC looming out of the screen on BBC news, making a string of salient and coherent points. Things have got to be bad when we find common ground. (Don't worry, it'll all be over by Christmas). 

Ah, enough of this. It's been a tough week. As I've only managed to read half a book other than those for teaching (this week: Riders, Anne of Green Gables, Haroun and the Sea of Stories, Barthes's The Pleasures of Text and Doris Lessing's The Good Terrorist. The half-book I read is Ian McDonald's early Out On Blue Six, a slightly manic but enormously enjoyable early work bought because I liked his Brasyl and The Dervish House very much. 

Oh, and I have new neighbours. Noisy Adult Baby neighbour has been replaced by a lovely family with an actual baby. The walls are very thin, so I wake every three hours when it needs feeding. Before long I'm going to develop some kind of Pavlovian response to its crying. Anyway, it's been a while since I posted any photos so here are some cheery ones from my annual Welsh conference at Gregynog in 2016. I will never tire of taking pictures of sheep. 

Wednesday, 4 November 2020

Reasons to be Cheerful, part 1 (in a series of 1)

 Yet again I find myself posting around midnight - partly because it seems to be the only free time I have at the moment, and partly because if blogging isn't for solitary weirdos to bash out their reckons in the small hours, what is it for? 

The other reason is – naturally – coronavirus. If this were a normal year I'd be at, or hosting, an election night party. Over recent years I've hosted bashes for all the worst events: multiple Conservative victories, the loss of the Scottish independence referendum, the EU vote and Trump's first victory. In my defence, I did call all these results correctly, but as it turns out, being right doesn't make you happy (every academic's motto). Maybe I'm going to break that run, but I think Biden is going to win handsomely this time - the popular vote is in the bag and even in the rotten electoral system they have, the new Democrats will be spread widely enough to tip the balance. I can't see the surgeon voters coming from new Trump supporters. 

So the pandemic has at least prevented company-loving misery from drinking all my whiskey and vomiting in my orchids (you know who you are). 

While I do enjoy the endless speculation and weirdness of a US election, I do resent the rest of the world's dependence on the outcomes: an egalitarian society wouldn't live in hope or fear of one local political event, and equally none of the rest of us should rely on the US for inspiration, support or anything else. it just encourages them. All the Scandinavian countries had their global moments and gracefully withdrew without throwing their toys out of the pram: it's about time the UK and the US did the same. All this stuff about being democratic examples to the world is pure hypocrisy: there isn't a dictatorship in the world that doesn't depend on American or British support, weapons or finance. It's craven and embarrassing to be so addicted to the ins and outs of a distant place which doesn't care a whit for the rest of the world and yet it's  so important and so fascinating, albeit in the same way that a particularly big car crash is fascinating. One involving an oil tanker, a coach load of heavily-armed kids and convoy of clown cars. 

The best election night I had was in 2008 - I went alone to see Sigur Ros play live in the local gig venue which was utterly wonderful, and bumped into that year's cohort of (much-missed) Dutch students who invited me to their election party – either they had different ideas of coolness or it was pity, but a good time was had by all. Or by me, anyway. 

I won't be staying up tonight - I've a very full day of teaching and meetings, but I'm looking forward to talking to my several American friends and colleagues, to this year's students. including one or two Americans, and to my relatives in the Ozarks and California. I do think Trump will lose, but it worries me that he has three months of squatting in the White House and burning everything down, from the evidence to the forests. Will Biden be a radical, reforming president? Of course not - he's right of centre by European standards, but while civil, thoughtful and calm conduct in office should be a low bar, recent history across the world suggests that we shouldn't take it for granted. Don't get your hopes up – Obama's administration was surprisingly light on meaningful activity and did some terrible things – but at least we can look forwards to a few years of waking up and not experiencing a sense of dread when you look at your phone. 

If you're still feeling nervous, here's a bit of the Sigur Ros magic to transport you back to that magical day when Hope was the order of the day, and some classic Americana to cheer and admonish. We've been starved of the stuff recently, after all. Normal Eeyoreish angst will resume on Friday. 

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Monday, 26 October 2020

Some midnight content

 Here I am at midnight trying to sort out tomorrow's two face-to-face seminars. Not because I'm slack and always do my homework the night before, but because it took most of last week to do last week's teaching and record/edit/post the lectures for this week's class (favourite moment: when the automatic subtitles got closer than usual and claimed that Angela Carter wrote The Sardine Woman - if only she had). 

Tomorrow sees me exploring anthropomorphism in the Children's Lit class, and popular engagements with politics in the other one, using the Doctor Who episode 'Oxygen' (serviceable but not the best) as the primary material. I published a journal article comparing old Who with Star Trek using a Foucauldian angle once. I thought it was pretty good but the REF reviewer judged it insufficiently critical of Foucault to be worthwhile. Which wasn't the point, but never mind. 

Despite the best efforts of the university and even me, the students are disappearing both from the face-to-face classes and the online ones, while the pre-recorded lectures are going unwatched by most. Some of it is for very good specific reasons, other people are struggling with the pandemic, and the small minority who wouldn't have put in any effort under normal circumstances have seen no reason to change their ways now. Last week saw the return of the 'value for money' objection to what we're doing…only slightly undercut – not that he saw it that way – by the admission that the student hadn't bothered reading any of the primary texts assigned for any modules. I try to see the best in everyone especially in trying times, but the paying-customer mentality tests me sorely. Especially as the live contact time here is exactly the same as it was before The 'Rona. I'm so old and boring that I use the analogy of the gym membership: you don't get fit simply by joining the gym and watching other people exercise (the gym on the retail park in town had panoramic windows. Quite often you'd see McDonald's customers munching burgers while staring in at the serried ranks of people on exercise bikes staring out at them. I like to think both sets of people got something out of the encounter). 

There has been a bright spot in the last week. Following the Tories' tone-deaf defence of their decision to subsidise arms manufacturers and the like while letting children go hungry, some visited the office of my sinister and dishonest MP to engage in a spot of public shaming (the old ceffyl pren as it's known in Wales). Sadly he won't see it because while he insists that everyone should be back at work, he exempts himself. 

Anyway, here are a couple of photos from what was my last visit to the ephemera museum The Land of Lost Content back in 2015. I like them because they're disturbing on a number of levels. 

Not long afterwards I spent a wintery afternoon in Llangollen, when travel to Wales was legal. 

Thursday, 15 October 2020

Reasons to be Cheerful?

 We're all – I presume – experiencing a weird new emotion that's equal parts terror and boredom, brought on by the formless, endless future of a pandemic without end so I won't go on about it. I'm still in the classroom as well as teaching by video and again, have mixed feelings about it: I don't think it's safe but it is what I'm good at. When it comes to on-screen teaching I feel like Norma Desmond: 'it's the pictures that got small'. To add insult to the various injuries, I also seem to have suffered what footballers refer to as a 'groin strain': I can still ride a bike but walking is a bit painful. I'm not just Norma Desmond: I'm the Fisher King. I just hope my minions don't decide to slit my throat and bury me in a bog to restore fertility to the stricken land like the old days (or as we put it these days: hope they don't murder me to improve applications and NSS scores)

There are bright spots though. It's so good to see and talk to students again even though I'm fully aware that we're only there so management can get to the top of the Great HE Willy-Waving League Table. it's also wonderful to have a few Erasmus students here despite everything. Not sure whether they're here in the spirit of going to the zoo or if they're on an anthropology field trip ('Roll Up And See The Cargo Cult Next Door Before It's Too Late (Oh, And The Cargo Is Stuck At Customs'). My friend and colleague Keith has just appeared on the Jodie Whittaker episode of Who Do You Think You Are? (following in the footsteps of our colleague Jenny who was in the Jack Whitehall episode). Donald Trump's definitely going to lose (but will he notice?). The autumn leaves are a delight. Sophie Mackintosh's new novel The Ticket is  just as good as her first one, The Water Cure: in both novels she makes what might otherwise be quite familiar dystopian plots much more emotionally and psychologically immediate by removing all but the most basic realist devices to evoke the sense of a weightless nightmare rather than an expository novel. Weirdly, the world-building is more convincing than one that spends its time trying to prove that everything could happen: instead the narrative assumes its own basis in reality and the reader assents, leaving all concerned to get one with the real core: female psychology and culture in a patriarchal world. I actually haven't been reading much outside the texts I'm teaching at the moment (The Handmaid's Tale, the SCUM Manifesto, Robinson Crusoe, The Fire Next Time, Oroonoko, The Passion of New Eve, The Emperor's Babe and a couple of others). I am halfway through Mrs George De Horne Vaizey's More About Pixie, one in a series of Improving Novels for girls from the 1920s - I got interested in stories featuring children from the wilder fringes of the Empire and still intend to write something about them. The most famous is Anne of Green Gables fame: red hair, bad temper, barely civilised: she's definitely Irish. Then there are Nancy and Princess Gwyn in Olive Dougan's forgotten novels. Pixie is perfect though, from the name to the continuous horror and fascination with her wildness. Who could resist passages like this?

'Sylvia mentally repeated the phrase as it sounded to her ears. "Oi'm like that meself!" and came to an instant conclusion. "Irish! She's Irish. I'm glad of that. I like Irish people"'

Faith and why wouldn't she? Anyway, next up is cult 1920s classic Lud-in-the-Mist by Hope Mirrlees, which looks fascinating. 

I've also been listening to a lot of new music, after barely listening to any during the first lock-down. Weirdly, reading the obituary for cryptic crossword setter Chifonie (whose puzzles I liked a lot) lead me to buy an album of hurdy-gurdy music. 

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I confess I'd love to play one even though I don't have buboes or wish to join a crusade to liberate Jerusalem. I just like drones and sympathetic strings - the Hardanger fiddle and the nyckelharpa also appeal. Oh god. I've become Professor Welch, without the professorship. Late Junction also got me to buy Meara O'Reilly's postminimalist Hocket for Two Voices and Anna Hytta's Strimur:

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Lanterns on the Lake getting a Mercury Prize nomination reminded me of how brilliant they are: I loved Beings and bought the rest the other day, along with the new Fleet Foxes album and Sarah Davachi's Cantus, Descant, Bill Callahan's Gold Record, Hannah Georgas's All That Emotion and Bjork's Homogenic (only about a decade behind the rest of the world). 

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I admit that I only stumbled across Lanterns on the Lake because I couldn't remember the name of the wonderful Stars of the Lid. No, me neither. 

So anyway, there's always a crumb of comfort to be found. 

Thursday, 8 October 2020

Yma o hyd…

Well, here we are at the end of a second week of term. We've been teaching in person and by video, and my colleagues and I are exhausted: it's a lot of extra work turning loosely scripted lectures designed to be dialogues into lengthy monologues and recording them in time for the students to watch them before in-person and online seminars and fora. The light relief has been the subtitling: any complex or foreign words, and any delivery in a less than Californian accent is instantly garbled into a beautiful form of poetry. Not great for students who need subtitles, admittedly, but editing the nonsense generated by inadequate software would triple the time spent on any task. The various apps employed have all crashed in various and baroque ways, but we're muddling through. I am looking forward to the end of lockdown though, when academics from across the university can gather round a pyre made of Ed-Tech evangelists and party like it's Oxford, 1555

We're pretty much sitting round speculating how much longer in-person classes will continue. I'm enjoying them, despite the weirdness. Both our new first-years are sparky, engaged and interesting, and management assures us that our student body is sufficiently different from students at all the institutions that are suffering outbreaks that we can relax and carry on. In fact, the students' mental health depends on it! How convenient – especially for an institution which sacked most of the mental health staff – that the perfect outcome is the one that management, in their spacious individual offices, most wanted. What a coincidence.  I'm also enjoying the way we're being thanked for our work, warned of the dangers of burnout, and simultaneously told that something called 'carousel assessment' is coming. That's right, kids: ALL MARKING, ALL OF THE TIME. Again, something that sounds great if you're drawing a massive salary not to teach. However, while I'm convinced that the paramilitary wing of HE executives are determined not to let a good crisis go to waste, I have some sympathy for the VCs and their acolytes: they've been left to twist in the wind by a government that is itching to shut down a few of the more unfashionable institutions (like mine) and spoiling for a fight with the non-existent Forces of Wokeness that they imagine have turned Britain into such a nation of snowflakes that it has (checks notes) elected Conservative governments for a full decade and opted to leave the European Union. No doubt some macho VC's are beating their chests because their campus is still open, but others are holding out because there's no money left. Why there's no money left is another question: a hopeless addiction to ripping off the children gilded élites from various shady countries isn't a particularly ethical or sustainable business model enormous bonus-fuelled exec salaries, insane bond issues and shiny Ozymandiac buildings are part of the reason but it's also true that the £9250 fee hasn't kept pace with inflation and education does cost money. Not every HEI has a small county or decent little Rembrandt to take down to Cash Converters when things get tight. 

Anyway, it's nice to meet some students and my new colleagues, even if it's from 2 metres (I assume that anti-metric types think coronaviruses are hoaxes anyway), behind a mask. I do miss sitting around chatting: a surprising amount of my research and teaching ideas come from idle conversations. I miss conversations per se: a video meeting or class is a series of monologues punctuated by awkward clashes as we all miss the non-verbal cues that tell us so much. When I'm not on-campus my conversations tend to be with the bin, or the laundry basket until they get bored and wander off. I used to shout at Radio 4 a lot too until I gave up the whole channel as a bad job. Higher life forms (flies, mice) have learned to avoid the place, especially if they spot the Twitter app open: they know there's another explosion of impotent fury coming. Perhaps it's better just not to know anything: I've friends who are living proof that ignorance is bliss. Or one could just assume the worst and be very occasionally pleasantly surprised: as a long-term Stoke City fan, I can recommend this option. 

Enough of this. Have some photos, this time from the 2015 Stoke Ceramics Biennial in the abandoned Spode works and Minton Library. Whenever anyone tells me I have a big head I agree and show them the pictures. 

Tuesday, 29 September 2020

The view from the lectern


So here we are, a couple of days into the new academic year. I'm at one of the institutions that is doggedly insisting on face-to-face teaching: students can opt in to slimmed-down classroom sessions on a slimmed-down curriculum, with others tuning in online, and everyone getting pre-recroded lectures and a live online class later in the week. I've done three face-to-face sessions so far, and a lot of induction talks. The atmosphere is very weird. Some students don't want to be in class at all; others are desperate to be back. Some have quiet home spaces and reliable tech; some have one of these or neither. We have a last cohort of Erasmus students, but they're confined to their rooms for another week – I hope they think it was worth it. I'm not sure exactly why we're here. Other universities have cancelled all face-to-face classes as a precautionary move; others have cancelled classes after a coronavirus outbreak, and my national union has called for all teaching to move online. My branch has mixed views, as do I. I'm not convinced that management (largely ensconced in large private offices sealed off from large groups of people) genuinely thinks that the staff and students are safe, and I suspect that the motives are financial and also competitive – we need the cash and I have a sneaking suspicion that 'we're still open' is seen as a victory. However, most of our students don't live in halls of residence as they're almost all from within 35km and the stereotypical student night-life doesn't really happen here. There isn't a huge influx of people from all over the country forming a hotspot for the exchange of fluids/disease - our students are the local community and vice versa, so I suspect our infection rates will be no different from the surrounding area rather than fuelling outbreaks. 

We're using large classrooms but allowing only a few students in at any one time. They're widely spaced behind single desks - there's no seminar format, only serried ranks facing a lecturer who is forbidden to move around. Whether it stops us getting infected remains to be seen, but it's certainly retarding any progressive pedagogical practise. It's interesting seeing the way the students tailor the online experience too. Virtually none want to turn on their cameras, which is fine by me, though I will award extra credit for cats (demerits for any dogs polluting my stream). I wish I didn't have to appear on camera  either: there's nothing more distracting than seeing a student being physically sick). Some are happy to talk, most aren't: use of the chat function is far more common. The lack of facial expressions and other cues makes it very difficult to have a conversation or general discussion. 

The pleasures are those of every new academic year: fresh faces and new ideas. The pains are the obvious psychological and emotional wounds caused by months of deprivation - of fresh air, of company, of debate and stimulus. Oh, and the awful, awful IT experience: I haven't yet managed to get Panopto (the lecture streaming/recording system named by ironic scumbags) to live-stream anything or record a whole live lecture. Today it broadcast slides for a lecture I gave the previous day, then cut off anyway after 20 minutes. I have a badge which reads 'Ed-Tech Will Not Save You' (courtesy of @DrDonnaLanclos). 
It's tempting to get a new one: 'Not Only Will Ed-Tech Not Save You, It Will Push You In'. The HEI ecosphere is packed with salesmen flogging shiny applications that promise managers an end to the misery of employing actual human beings, owning buildings and books and equipment, or doing things that can't be made, done and assessed algorithmically. The pandemic has been like a lottery win for these people, as desperate decision-makers shell out the readies for anything that promises a zipless education without any human contact. They largely don't work for anything beyond the monologue that I thought we'd largely abandoned, at least in the humanities. When they do work, they promote a linear and uncritical model of pedagogy that literally isn't worth having. The Open University knows how to do it properly - everyone else wants to do it quickly and cheaply. Having gutted my curriculum to make space for the hours-hungry new model, I tried to get management to admit that the students would have a worse education than under normal conditions: they wouldn't do it, which I thought was shameful. 

Not sure much of this rambling makes much sense, but then again, I'm not hearing much sense from many quarters, including the government. I've lost track of what our extra local restrictions mean, and long stopped understanding why I can meet a few friends in the pub but the same friends couldn't sit in my garden, for instance. Personally, the lockdown has been mixed. I've gone from being in the office for ten hours a day every day of the week to popping in for a couple of hours to teach. I miss my friends/colleagues (largely the same group) and of course seeing friends and family elsewhere, but I've lost a ton of weight through getting out on the bike every day and not living on colleagues' baked goods, but I miss chatting with students and colleagues over tea. I miss the random conversations, the thousands of books I have at work, unexpected breaks and solidarity. I've had to install home internet, but I also installed a new kitchen. I've given up on Radio 4 for ever, while Radio 3 has become my happy place despite the vandalism of Late Junction's abolition. I've been for badger-spotting walks, but I miss gigs and concerts. The radical narrowing of my horizons has led to a reduction in opinions. Or rather I still have a lot of opinions but on few subjects: I bore myself, which is why I've largely replaced blogging with photos. 

Ah well, this too shall pass. 

Friday, 25 September 2020

Intermittent Photos No. 8: Looking down on you all.

I found myself alone in London one day, heading to a book launch promising a keynote lecture by Stephen Greenblatt, the Renaissance expert. It was quite disappointing so I won't dwell on it, but it did give me the chance to go up the Shard to do some photography. Not being a London resident, I don't mind it (other than morally): if I lived within sight of it, I'd be looking out Guy Fawkes's old recipe books. But on the basis that the only place your eyes can't be soiled by ugliness is from within said monstrosity, I bought a day-and-night ticket and paid two visits, sandwiched by the nibbles-and-anecdotes act from the august professor (surrounded, I'm sorry to say, by people who clearly thought they were the embodiment of a new Renaissance and whom either Cromwell would happily have flayed alive).

The Shard itself is clearly a monument to and a mausoleum of speculative capitalism: most of the floors were empty and the residential spaces are simply glass-and-titanium piggy banks for various shady types, but the experience was still fun. I enjoyed the Americans in the lift explaining that £35 was a lot of money for a building and a view which were both disappointing compared with the big tower in Jacksonville. Judge for yourself.  I enjoyed the people on the viewing platform, discussing mortgages and yoga classes while staring idly out at one of the world's most historic and cosmopolitan cities. I appreciated the wit of an architect who designed a photography deck encased in blurry, highly-reflective glass, and I enjoyed the way the price of a cup of tea rose exponentially the higher you got up this glorious folly. 

Is it better than Jacksonville? Well, given that the view encompasses every postcard of London you can buy, plus the opening credits of Eastenders and Yes Minister, I'd have to say yes, despite never having had the pleasure of Jacksonville or indeed Florida (I've been to Fayetteville, AR and Austin, TX: that's quite enough). By day, the scale of the city and its geography are revealed. By night, the city as a set of networks becomes clear. However, I'm always a bit dubious about these superior-perspective panoramas: they encourage a sense of domination, rendering the messy life of ordinary humanity invisible. It's no coincidence that mountaineering, hobby flying, aerial photography and aerial bombing were largely pioneered by the same small clique of extremely rightwing men in the early decades of the 20th century. 

Thursday, 10 September 2020

Intermittent photos 8: Change and Decay

 These are from a visit to Calke Abbey in Derbyshire. It's very much a place that evokes differing reactions. The National Trust took it over from the last scion of the dynasty that built it, an old man who'd retreated to a room or two in this massive mansion as the impossibility of upkeep overwhelmed him. Rather than restore the place fully, the trust stabilised the building and its contents at the point they took possession. To people wanting to glory in the possessions and hegemony of the ruling classes, it's a deeply unsettling place: to those for whom 'mutatis mutandem' holds no fears it's an object lesson in decay…or perhaps progress: the best the National Trust could do for the family was to note that one of them once declined to attend a public hanging. While they owned vast estates, they made absolutely no contribution to public life, preferring (as the endless rooms of taxidermy attest) to shoot anything that moved across several continents. It's enough to make one turn to Matthew Arnold whose habitual term for the toffs was 'Barbarians'.