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.