Bad Company

In 1924, the Croatian writer Miroslav Krleža was travelling on a night train from Riga to Moscow, and fell into conversation with a Lithuanian schoolteacher of German heritage who was reading Oswald Spengler’s Prussianism and Socialism. She had, she said, become interested in him when he held a lecture in Riga the previous year at the invitation of the Courlandic German Bund.

“But everyone was disappointed with the gentleman. He is a boring, elderly professor with illusions of grandeur, who earned a pretty fee with his lecture. The Courlandic German Bund had to pay for his trip in a sleeping car, first class, all the way from Munich to Riga and back, and on top of that even the door receipts, and then he came, read from his papers for half an hour, and at the banquet did not speak a single word with anyone the whole evening. A disagreeable, opinionated fool!”

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Working in a Coalmine

My email inbox this morning contained one of the oddest invitations I’ve received in a long time – odd, to the degree that I’ve just spent ten minutes trying to check whether it’s actually an elaborate bit of phishing, or a practical joke on the part of whoever suggested my name. The message offers the opportunity to become a Detailed Assessor for the Australian Research Council – to write extensive peer review reports on, say, 5-20 applications per year, term unspecified. This is of the order of being asked to pay £20 to secure my fabulous First Prize of unscheduled pancreas removal. Continue Reading »

Stupid Boy

Reasons why the department really should be paying the fees for my online jazz composition course, #47… I’ve commented before that we teachers in higher education have to be very, very careful about extrapolating from our own experience as students; leaving aside the extent to which very many things have changed in the decades since we were undergraduates, most of us were extremely atypical, and what suited us may not be remotely useful for the majority of those we are now teaching. My class yesterday evening emphasised the corollary of this: most of us lack any experience whatsoever of something that is absolutely central to the difficulties experienced by the students who need help and support the most: the feeling of being completely crap and useless. Continue Reading »

I for one am overjoyed at the announcement of the government’s cunning plan for getting students home for Christmas, as it solves at a stroke the knotty problem of what to do with my Thucydides class in the final week of term. It’s always been the case that student attention tends to be lagging by then, and attendance dropping (especially for classes later in the week, as most of them disappear off home), which then creates the dilemma of whether to plough on with material regardless for the few who do turn up, having then to repeat it all at the beginning of next term, or just have an informal chat and knock off early, which then seems like short-changing the few who do bother to turn up. My solution in recent years has been a session on ‘Thucydidean Games’, not essential for the core elements of the module but containing potential both for serious analysis and for just playing some games, depending on the general mood. Continue Reading »

I Was Wrong

I was wrong – about so many things (thank you, the anonymous gentleman at the back), but I’m thinking specifically of developments in higher education this autumn. I really thought, after my scheduled face-to-face-in-person seminar was switched online for the first two weeks of term as part of a ‘staggered return to campus’, that I wouldn’t be back in Exeter until 2021. And I certainly imagined, as the case numbers rose (nationally and on campus), that we’d be online by now – officially, I mean, rather than the de facto situation whereby the combination of students isolating and students voting with their feet leaves me talking to one or two masked students in a room and simultaneously trying to engage with the larger numbers on the screen. Continue Reading »

Nothing But Flowers

It’s Reading Week – or, as various people have sagely commented on the Twitter, At Last I Can Catch Up On Sleep Get Ahead With My Teaching Prep Write Those Reviews Comment On Postgrad Drafts Spend Some Time With Family Do A Bit Of Reading Finally Get Some Research Done Hey Where Did That Go Week. And that’s in a normal year. This autumn, I imagine I’m not the only person who has found the switch to online teaching and the constant worrying about students thoroughly draining, absorbing every minute of the working day and disturbing every night – with the result that I both need to sleep for a week and have a list of overdue commitments that is at least twice as long as usual. Continue Reading »

Mr Pitiful

There’s a lovely moment at the end of Goodbye Lenin!, after Alex has finished his elaborate attempt at persuading his mother, through fake news footage, that Germany has reunited because of the desperation of westerners to flee to the east. “Wahnsinn,” she says, and the first time I saw the film I took it in the sense that Alex takes it: that’s incredible, that’s crazy, wow! Later viewings – and this is a film that bears repeated viewing; watching it last night for perhaps the twentieth time, I saw some things I hadn’t noticed before – make it clear how far there are substantial gaps between how Alex interprets his world (and tries to control it and the people in it), and the reality. Continue Reading »

Welcome to Tomorrow

There are basically two kinds of opinion piece on the place of technology in higher education. A: anything which potentially distracts students’ attention from my dispensing of Truth in the time-honoured manner must be banished! Down with laptops, mobile phones and ballpoint pens! B: get with the programme, daddio! All the hip youth is on TikTok now so we must convert our mouldy old lectures into 15-second dance clips! Continue Reading »

More Than Words

Pretty well all my mental bandwidth at the moment is taken up with teaching – learning new computer systems, recording lectures, correcting auto-captions (the variants on ‘Thucydides’ – Through CDC, These Sedatives, Civil Liberties – are a marvel, but isn’t the bloody AI capable of learning from my constant corrections?), checking online discussion fora and wondering why no one is participating, waking at 3 am to worry about the fact that no one is participating… So, an exchange of tweets with the great Shadi Bartsch is pretty well all the intellectual engagement I can currently muster. Even there it’s taken me nearly a week to work out what I actually think, by which point it would seem weird and even rude to push the conversation further (plus, I realised that I was doing this as the Thucydiocy Bot, which is a not-terribly-secret identity but nevertheless not immediately identifiable as me…). Continue Reading »

It’s possible that some people reading this will remember the Grauniad‘s ‘Readers Recommend’ music blog. The set-up was simple; every week, the writer in charge of it would set a theme – ‘Songs About the Sea’, for example – and people would comment on the blog with their recommendations, arguing both from quality of music and relevance to theme (and occasionally sheer brass neck; I once got Roxy Music’s Avalon accepted as a pick for ‘Songs About Myth’ through an elaborate structuralist analysis that showed the lyrics really were a deep engagement with the Arthurian legend, references to samba notwithstanding), Continue Reading »