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In Your Room

Here comes the fear… I continue to be excited and energised by thinking about how to embrace the positive possibilities of teaching next year, and not too alarmed (which is not to say, not also infuriated) by the mismatch between universities’ bold promises about face-to-face-in-person (f2fip?) teaching and what a lot of emerging research is saying – hey, if we suddenly have to switch to 100% online, that’s just more of a challenge, right? – but now I’m also scared. Not about my courses, but about what happens to students in the times in between.

If our answer to the question “where are students supposed to be all week, and who are they supposed to spend it with” is “in their room, alone” we have a monumental mental health crisis coming.

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About this time last year, I think, I was asked to contribute to a PGR training course, for a session covering social media and blogging. It never happened due to the strike action at the end of the autumn term – and that is starting to feel like a really serious gap in those students’ training. It should now be obvious that this topic deserves more emphasis than being scheduled in December (by which time, one suspects, student attention may be dropping off), going hand in hand with a different focus: this is not (just) about public engagement and self-publicity, an optional extra that tends to reinforce the idea that PGRs and ECRs are expected to do more and more to have any chance of an academic career. Rather, in this new world, it looks more and more like THE essential toolkit for networking, in the absence of conferences and the like, since the informal networking element is precisely the aspect of conferences it’s hardest to replicate online. Continue Reading »

Not just at the moment, while my brain persistently refuses to sustain joined-up thought, but as a career-long habit, I come up regularly with ideas that I’m entirely incapable of realising; not only because of lack of time or energy but also because of lack of skill and talent. That’s my entire musical career, obviously – perhaps I should have tried to become a Malcolm McLaren-style impresario instead, finding other people (and other people’s money) to realise my plans – but also plenty of passing whims that swim into view around 4 am, hang around for a few days and then drift off again… Continue Reading »

My online jazz composition course has come to an end, leaving me feeling rather bereft – I really didn’t expect that I would respond so enthusiastically to being given homework, and if I’ve learnt anything from the experience it’s the importance of structure and direction, as well as the right balance between openness and clear limits. Plus, a reminder of how much students hate any sort of peer review or assessment – I was the only person to comment on other students’ compositions as we’d been told, and that was with massive trepidation and because I like the online discussion. Looking ahead to next term, it’s really important to get students interacting with one another rather than just doing the ping-pong thing with me (someone makes a point to me, I respond, someone else responds to the original point by addressing me, and so on), and this is a reminder that I need to do a lot more than simply ask people to do this. Continue Reading »

Take Two…

This is something of a negative and/or holding post, but it seems worthwhile putting it down as a marker to myself if no one else… As I’ve mentioned before, one of my resolutions for lockdown was that I would finally make some progress on my Thucydides musical project. This hasn’t got anywhere, partly because of the ongoing brain fog issue (in the light of recent scary newspaper reports, I’m trying to take the optimistic view that once again I’ve got off lightly compared to others and so this will pass if I just take it easy, rather than contemplating the thought that this might be permanent), but partly as a result of the jazz composition course I’ve been doing online. As I’ve noted, this has been enormously valuable as an exercise in seeing things from the student perspective (and I really feel for the tutor, as he’s falling into exactly the traps that I would fall into, trying to engage with students in a normal manner although this takes much more time than usual, and trying unsuccessfully to get people to make use of the chat facility between classes). But I have also learnt a lot about jazz composition, especially when it comes to modal approaches. Continue Reading »

Doubling Down

As the old proverb (sometimes attributed to Solon) has it, gods, give me the confidence of a mediocre white man on the Internet. Am I being hasty and unfair, leaping to judgement on the basis of fleeting interactions with ‘The Mystic’ (brooding headshot with goatee, quote about chaos and perfection, cover image of some heavily tattooed wrestlers) or AwesomeDude (avatar of a dog, cover image of a Dilbert cartoon)?* Yes, quite possibly. But if they not only ascribe that wretched ‘The society that separates its scholars from its warriors…” quote to Thucydides, but firmly reject gentle correction from the Thucydides Bot, they’re gonna get judged… Continue Reading »

Not Fade Away

Thinking that we’re getting older and wiser, when we’re just getting old…

We’ve recently started watching The Kominsky Method – yes, two years late, but by my standards that’s finger right on the cultural pulse stuff. If you don’t know it, highly recommended: proper Hollywood stars Michael Douglas and Alan Arkin, showing off their acting chops in a subtle chamber-piece comedy as an actor (mostly making a living as a coach) worrying about his prostate, and his recently widowed agent. It feels more like a credible (and big budget) indie film than a US television series, including the fact that it’s only eight episodes per season. Lots of dry, dark humour and lots of reflections on age and what it does to you. “You know, I wake up every morning,” says Norman, Arkin’s character, “And my first thought is, what part of me is not working today?” Ouch. Continue Reading »

Boost for Bertie!

It’s a very long time since I had any direct contact with UCAS forms or the whole process of undergraduate admissions. At that time, a vital part of the knowledge handed down by more experienced colleagues was how to recognise examples of what one might call Lake Wobegon School of Reference-Writing: Where all the students are above average, and one of the best I have ever taught, and uniquely well suited to the degree programme in question. We could have filled our admissions quotas many times over with such applicants, which would be fine for the bottom line, but a slightly depressing teaching prospect, especially thinking of the better students we might miss because their teachers were more honest and/or less practised in talking up their charges. Oddly enough, such boosterism was wholly associated with fee-paying schools.* Continue Reading »

Imperial Sunset

Around twenty years ago, I used to daydream occasionally about a revival of the eighteenth-century Royal Navy. Oddly enough, this coincided with a rather bumpy patch in my role as stepfather to a teenage boy; who of us in such a position wouldn’t sometimes dream of an institution that would take them away for a few years, feed and train them, and then either return them as a mature, disciplined adult with prospects, or not return them at all? I suppose this may be why elderly Telegraph readers occasionally call for the return of National Service to lick delinquent youth into shape, but that always struck me as far too short a period of service. Continue Reading »

How on earth is it the middle of June already? Whether I think of this in terms of the end of the academic year (since I’ve finished all my marking, and am up to date with external examiner stuff) or of the end of strict lockdown (however temporary that may prove to be), it’s hard not to be seized by a feeling of panic, at all the things I meant to do and haven’t done, and all the things I’m supposed to get done before the end of the summer that I should have started already. Of course there were Reasons – there always are – but I was so confident that I would at the very least make some progress with my Thucydides music project… Continue Reading »