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'. 

Tuesday, 1 September 2020

Intermittent Photos 7 - back to Puck Fair.

 Yes, more pictures of horses and people at the world-famous (in Kerry) Puck Fair and the lesser-known Beaufort Threshing Fair - from 2015 this time. 

All the food miles undertaken on the hoof

Funfair ride

Derek Ryan

Gillian's Hot Dogs, 2 a.m.

Hipster blacksmith

World's Greatest Funfair Ride (also available: JCB Challenge; Pitchfork Against The Clock; Leaf Blower Volleyball)