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Posts Tagged ‘coronavirus’

It Wasn’t Me

One of the weirder experiences this summer – another minor symptom of the whole lingering plague thing – has been an intermittent feeling of total dissociation from my own publications: looking at books and thinking, well, I know I wrote this, and I can recall the circumstances and motive and so forth, I just don’t feel as if it’s mine. This is probably not unconnected to struggles with getting any new writing done; besides persistent fatigue and brain fog, apparently I need to feel like the sort of person who writes academic sentences for more than the odd hour at a time in order to actually write any – and actually writing some, as I have managed to do occasionally, unfortunately doesn’t seem to do much to convince my psyche that, yes, this really is what I do for a living. I do feel extremely sorry for the various editors who have had to put up with delayed submissions and requests for extensions because of chronic existential crisis. (more…)

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We’re back in the season of lecture fetishism. ‘Workshy’ lecturers are being ‘ordered’ back into the classroom to provide ‘proper’ value-for-money education rather than cut-price online stuff, while apparently the university life of a Times‘ columnist’s offspring would be ruined by having too much online learning. What’s striking is how far their conception of what should be restored is the sort of lecture that went out of fashion, at least outside basic introductory courses in the hard sciences, decades ago: to quote the old joke, the lecture as a means of transferring information from the lecturer’s notes to the student’s notes without passing through the brains of either. And, as I commented last week, some of the defences of the shift to online learning are equally ignorant of what actually happens in lecture rooms these days. It really feels like a debate about the current state of popular music between adherents of 7″ flexidiscs and proponents of cassette singles; not just total indifference to the content (hey, maybe someone should suggest to the Times that it’s easier to promote decolonisation and cultural Marxism in in-person classes where there are no recordings…) but utter ignorance of how technology and techniques have changed, and what the real issues are. (more…)

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I’ve spent a fair amount of time recently preparing next term’s teaching – it’s been one of those weeks when the lingering effects of the plague make me incapable of stringing coherent thoughts together for more than five minutes at a time, and the better prepared I am for the new academic year then the bigger the chance I may be able to get writing done then, if the brain finds its way out of the doldrums. Bibliographies, guidance on assessment tasks, seminar texts, thumbnail pictures for the VLE. And then we come to the description of teaching and learning methods, and summary of how students will be expected to engage with the modules… Hmm. Can I get back to you on that? (more…)

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Roots and Culture

It’s an interesting coincidence that this week I happen to be re-reading Marshall Sahlins’ Apologies to Thucydides. Sahlins explores the contrast between the idea of a monolithic, predictable and universal ‘human nature’, such that behaviour is assumed to be determined by a limited number of normative principles (an idea he associates, slightly unfairly, with Thucydides; it’s rather a feature of one tradition of the modern reception of Thucydides), and the idea of ‘culture’ as innately human but also endlessly various, highlighting the many different ways in which one might understand and relate to the world, society, other people etc.

What is striking about UK government pronouncements about the lifting of coronavirus restrictions, echoing most of their rhetoric throughout the pandemic, is their combination of these two positions: a rigidly absolutist concept of national culture. (more…)

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What are conferences actually for? There were plenty of reasons for asking this question even before the pandemic, above all because of concern about the environmental impact of lots of academics merrily jetting round the world, and various people have been getting quite excited that, if nothing else, the plague might have broken us of the habit, or at least made us familiar with alternative approaches. I remain in the ‘undecided’ camp, at least as far as real-existing online conferences are concerned (I’ve participated in three in the last month). (more…)

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A year ago, I was in London, coming to the end of an intensive week of workshops and rehearsals with the amazing group of actors and creative people with whom I was exploring the dramatic potential of Thucydides’ Melian Dialogue. Yes, long days with a bunch of people from different households in a room with the windows shut because the weather was so awful; lots of warm-up exercises with us all in a tight circle breathing at one another; breakfast and lunch in crowded cafes; evenings in restaurants, either solo or meeting friends. All leading up to a gathering on the final day of seventy or so people in a small theatre for the 45-minute performance and subsequent panel discussion. Another time, another country… (more…)

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Here we go again… The return of lockdown brings some very familiar feelings: relief that what seemed like pessimism in early December (stocking up on cat food and soya milk in anticipation of possible Brexit disruption, deciding to stick with entirely electronic reading lists although students were asking about hard copies of stuff in the library) has left me in a better position than I might have been, frustration and uncertainty about how to modify teaching plans again. This term should have been easier (and maybe still will be) as we’ve all got better at the different elements of online learning, not least by working out which ones aren’t worth bothering with. However, someone somewhere was obviously feeling optimistic at a critical moment, and so we’re currently scheduled to have less recorded and asynchronous stuff and more face-to-face time in any given module – although the latter will now be online for most if not all the term. A more precautionary approach would have been to assume that we’d be lucky if we could just carry on in the way we have been, but no… (more…)

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A crucial element of Thucydides’ depiction of the plague in Athens is that it appears as, so to speak, a heuristic crisis: it is an event that no one can make any sense of. It’s not that fifth-century Athenians were unfamiliar with epidemics, in myth, literature and reality, but all of those had an explanation in terms of their inherited concepts and assumptions. In this situation, however, every explanation falls short – belief in the fulfilment of oracular prophecy or other supernatural explanation, rumours of enemy action, even the more recently developed ideas of the doctors. Whatever the actual nature of the disease – and this point holds true even if we follow the idea that there wasn’t actually a single plague, but a multitude of more common diseases, perceived as a single baffling phenomenon – Thucydides shows how its unfathomable and irresistible nature then became the dominant influence on behaviour, sweeping away the traditional institutions of religion, law and social norms by revealing that everything was actually random and unpredictable. Why pray when it doesn’t help? Why deny yourself pleasure when you might die tomorrow? Why obey the law when you probably won’t get caught? Why strive for virtue when it doesn’t bring any reward? Why worry about what the neighbours think when they might be dead tomorrow? (more…)

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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. (more…)

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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. (more…)

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