And on the subject of open correspondence:

Posted by September Blue Thursday, 29 November 2007 0 comments

My students would like it to be known that the debate over realism between Henry James and Robert Louis Stevenson is both more entertaining, 'and maybe more accurate', if you add a silent 'p.s. - Your mother' to the end of every relevant piece.

Cover letters

Posted by September Blue 0 comments

Dear Hiring Panel of Wonderful People who are a Credit to the Profession and no doubt Lovely In and Of Themselves As Human Beings Too:

I would like that job you are advertising. Please.

My PhD, which is nearly completed - no.

My PhD, which was completed in - no. No, that's a lie.

I have almost completed a PhD in - no. Never say 'almost'. 'Almost' means 'not.'

My PhD, which is finished in the sense that I have written it and given it to the examiners, and there is nothing more I can do, people, I swear, but I haven't had the viva yet so I don't count as 'passed', but I SWEAR to you I will, I swear, I swear....

My new flatmate

Posted by September Blue Monday, 26 November 2007 0 comments

Above the kitchen table, where I do most of my teaching-related work:

James Dean

Because when you're buried in undergraduate essays, you need to look up to a sight that'll numb the pain.

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Posted by September Blue Sunday, 25 November 2007 2 comments

Best out-of-context snippet of academic prose this month, yes/no?

To an accumulation of misfortunes within regular stanza length, another line,and misfortune, are added.

I've been reading it and re-reading it for eight minutes. I'm hypnotised. Maybe the flu* has something to do with that, but I maintain there's a strange and fragile beauty in this line.

ETA: WAIT, no. This one wins the much more prestigious 'holy hell, did I just READ that?' award:

[A] spirited Negro version of Lady Isabel and the Elf-Knight from Texas is not injured as a ballad because the narrative is turned, according to a common habit with the coloured race, into direct discourse.

...well. That'll stop you falling asleep at work, flu or no flu.

* - It's probably a cold, but I'm upgrading it to flu for the sympathy vote and to stress the fact that I have been ill for a week. I do not get ill for a week. One of the benefits of spending half my childhood in hospitals was developing the immune system of a Cylon, for heaven's sake. I really resent this, and so 'flu' it is.

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I have:

- Chaired a conference panel right after dropping an overhead projector on my thumb (which went numb, then purple, then burst into agonising fiery pain). Kept everyone to time, thought up a question to ask the question-less speaker at the end of the session, and waited until the audience had left the room before slumping against the wall and sobbing.

- Made it from one side of the arts building to the other in 43 seconds with a data projector under my arm.

- Was once in the position of standing in front of the Most Annoying Man on the Planet in the audience after a fancy-pants speaker's talk, and answered his "You MUST let me ask the next question! It is IMPERATIVE that everyone else in this audience hears it!" with a polite "I'm sorry, but Professor Hotshot only has time for three questions," rather than bopping him on the forehead with my microphone.

- Found something constructive to say about a student essay which turned into a paean for a twentieth-century dictator somewhere around page 2.

- Dealt with several delegates' enquiries at a conference evening venue, when I was in the middle of a hugely messy pseudo-breakup with someone. (Literally 'in the middle'. They tapped me on the shoulder.)

- Got Maintenance to fix the large gap in the moveable panelling in one of my classroom walls, which was at one point so big that me and the History guy teaching in the next room could (and did) wave to each other at the start of each class. You think this isn't so impressive? You don't know Maintenance.

- Fixed the stapler. Fixed the other stapler. Fixed the printer. Kicked the photocopier into abashed obedience. Searched for lost wedding rings at a conference, keeping a straight face throughout. Accidentally burnt a hole in a reference list and then put out the embers with the palm of my hand, either because I'm that stupid or because I care that much. Peeled lecherous academics off scared-looking postgraduate students, peeled lecherous postgraduate students off scared-looking academics, and dragged a howling drunk Masters student down a department corridor and into a taxi in the early hours of one morning. Showed Ivy League boys how to dance. Learnt how to stop hating my research. Not gone insane.

This is best done with a parable.

There was once, in some entirely fictional department in some entirely fictional university, at the end of a long, dark corridor, an office with 'Teaching Assistants' on the door (printed, incidentally, on a sign so old that I don't think the font used even exists any more). This office had several desks. 'Several' is the word here.

TAs who were also PhD students still working on their theses used the office, but only for their scheduled office hours. It was, after all, a cold, dark place, and PhD students had their own desks in a much nicer office down the corridor. TAs only relocated there permanently once their PhDs were finished, in what we'll generously call the 'gap stage' between the end of the PhD and the start of the first job that pays you enough to live off.

With the job market being the way it is, and with university finances being the way they were, the department's TA numbers crept higher. The desks in the TA office filled up, and other people's office hours involved a carefully-choreographed pantomime of eyebrow signals and coffee breaks when a student turned up.

Desks in the PhD office needed to be Officially Assigned to new students, and thus students at the other end of their PhD life - preparing for the viva, making post-viva corrections - had to be dislodged. Where to put them? The department did not want any of its young to go deskless, but space was short, and, well, they were still students, so - ah! Most of them teach, don't they? And even if they don't, there's loads of space in that TA office! Problem solved.

Except for the evictees, who turned up, box-files in hand, to discover that a) there were indeed several desks in the TA office, and b) 'several' meant 'four', and those four were full.

The department meant well. It's just that they didn't have much cause to take the long walk down the dismal corridor to the less-than-pleasant TA office themselves. Why would you, unless you're a TA or a student looking for one? The currents of academic promotion had long since carried them away to better rooms on nicer corridors and the TA office had become in their minds a grand and limitless place, with desks for all and ample shelving. It's not as good as having your own office, of course - they knew that much - but beggars can't be choosers, and so when TAs and end-stage PhD students began sentences with "But I don't have a desk," they smiled in a collective, avuncular way and reminded their young charges that there was "always the TA office." Really, they meant well. They just didn't know that by 'no desks', the students meant 'no desks, anywhere, including the less desirable ones in the TA office, which we would still take, because they're better than no desks at all.'

And all of this is what went through my head during the three versions, I am not kidding, of the following conversation which I found myself having this week:

DR. HELPFUL (in various guises): So, how's the job hunt going?
ME: Eh. Miserable. There's been nothing advertised for weeks.
DR. HELPFUL: Well, you know what you should do? You should start applying for temporary one-year posts. And you should start looking for jobs all over the country, not just in the places you want to live.

No, see, when I said no jobs...

"So you have a job? Well, I have FOUR."

Posted by September Blue Tuesday, 20 November 2007 0 comments

There is a post about the Many Woes of Being the Lowest Rung on the Academic Ladder* coming up (c'mon, you know the blogosphere needs another one). Consider this a trailer. Voiceover: "Somewhere, in the gutters of academia..."

SCENE: Library desk, late at night.

FRIENDLY LIBRARY PATRON: Don't they ever let you two go home?

DR K: If they're not watching the doors.

ME: We're only here until ten.

DR K: They appreciate us really. In a non-financial sense.

FRIENDLY LIBRARY PATRON: Surely you've got enough experience for a promotion now.

DR K: It's worse than you think. I've actually got a PhD.

ME: I only have a Masters, so I get the computer with the broken keyboard.

FRIENDLY LIBRARY PATRON: Well, they should let you be lecturers!

ME: Yes! Yes, they should!

DR K: To be fair, this is a lecture I'm writing now. For which I'm getting paid - oh wait, I'm not.

FRIENDLY LIBRARY PATRON: You need fresh air and sunshine, both of you. Like they used to do with pit ponies. You should get taken out to gambol on the grass once a year.

ME: I like this idea.

FRIENDLY LIBRARY PATRON: Maybe they can let you have a day off for the London Olympics.

DR K: If we're still doing this in 2012, I am actually going to kill myself.

(* - 'Being the rung', not 'being on the rung'. Those on the rung step on us. It is the way of things.)

Some fights aren't worth having.

Posted by September Blue Thursday, 15 November 2007 2 comments

At a university library, somewhere near you...

"I need to renew three books -"

"Okay -"

"- because my essay's due in next week, and I can't come in on Monday because I'm in London then, so it's those three that are due back tomorrow, I think it's tomorrow, it was after the lecture last week that I picked them up, and I returned the other ones already so I don't need those."

Interrupting patrons is frowned upon, even when there's a large queue growing behind them and all of them would thank you for cutting in with "You had me at 'renew'!", so it's best to smile. Scan card, load record, renew books, all in one smooth movement. (I'm good at this now.) "They're yours until next Thursday."

"What about the one I took out today?"

That one's a week loan too, which means it's also due back next Thursday. So I say "That one's a week loan too, which means it's also due back next Thursday." One of these late shifts, my mind-meld with the computer will become complete.

"Can I renew that?"

"Yes, if you still need it by next week."

"Can I renew it now?"

"But... it's already due back next week, and it's only a week loan -"

"Can't you just renew it like you did with the other ones?"

"I can't give it to you for longer than a week at a time."

"No, renew it." (With a silent "you moron.")

"They're all due back next Thursday, I really can't -"

"What if I'm not here then?"

"I'm sorry, I'm confused. I thought you wanted the other books until next Thursday?" (With a silent "If you're not here, our tears will flood the sorting shelves, but your books will still be late.")

"I did! I don't understand why you can't just renew this one too."

"But it's due back - Wait, see." I hit a couple of keys and turn the monitor screen towards her. All I was doing was bringing her record back up on the screen, but she must have heard the clack of the keyboard as the sound of surrender, because as I point out that all the week loans are due back next Thursday, this one included:

"Ah! So you did renew it." And she looks at me with the kind of exasperation that would like to let me know what a long, long day it's been, and that if she wasn't such a kind spirit she'd have Words To Say about this kind of behaviour.

I've been here for eleven hours. I only had fifteen minutes for lunch. My indignation can't even be bothered to get to its feet. So I look chastised, and say "Yes. Yes, I did."

She leaves satisfied.

Exiled to a Land of No Internet

Posted by September Blue Monday, 12 November 2007 0 comments

My phone line gets activated in nine days, not that I'm counting or anything, and I am left scrabbling for brief moments of internet access at work in between marking student assignments (the joy, the bliss, the occasional showers of apostrophes). My new home is an 1890s top-floor flat, complete with ridiculously high ceilings, gently undulating floorboards, tree shadows that creep across the windows at night, and a thing with feathers that perches in my chimney and scared the living hell out of me when it made its presence known a few days ago. I love it, love it, love it. And this is handy, since after carrying all my books up 61 steps to get them into the place, I am never moving house again.

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Posted by September Blue Saturday, 3 November 2007 0 comments

(Century, August 1889)

Within the memory of many of us the practice of giving small sums of money to servants was so uncommon in this country as to be accounted altogether a foreign custom. If the recipient of such an attention happened to be a full-blooded American, the chances were that his response would be marked by anything but a sense of gratitude; and the servant of foreign birth, if he had been in this country long enough to breathe in the inspiration of this environment, was apt to look at the incident from an equally American standpoint. There is little need that any one, in the height of this summer season, should take the troubleto point out in detail the changes which mark the present system. There is no longer an American sentiment on the subject. As employers drift into the policy of estimating and relying upon tips as a partial substitute for their wage-list, there is no longer any place in the service for him who will not be tipped. Two of the three parties in interest, the employer and the guest, have conspired to get rid of the servant of the old school, and therefore it is that the third party, the servant, whether native or foreign-born, is much condemned to have the itching palm.

While this is, as you can gather, a piece about the evils of tipping, it's also of interest for what it says about class systems, ideas of (paid) work, the proper attitude and social position of servants, and questions like "How far is democratic government compatible with the tip system?"

The most evident injury of the new system is on its social side, in the feeling of insecurity and injustice which it has brought into a large part of our social life. The born American never used to have any of the grudges against his richer neighbor in wihch so much of the revolutionary feeling of other countries has its roots. He saw nothing unnatural in the notion that consumers should be graded into classes according to their ability and willingness to pay, and that each class should get what it paid for. If his neighbor, who paid twice or thrice as much as he, got hotel accomodations which were proportionately better than his, he had no feeling of personal wrong; he enjoyed his own contentedly, in the devout belief that the time was coming when he should be able to pay for and enjoy that which would be more to his liking. His confidence in his own future made him a believer that, even in such a matter as hotel privileges, he could ask in the long run no better test than open competition and the market price. The tipping system has changed his whole position. The grades of accomodations are no longer fixed by competition alone, but surreptitiously and by corrupting the servants. The ordinary guest must still pay the rates which are proper for his own scale of accomodation, but in addition to that he must now compete with his richer neighbor in tipping the servants, or else he will not get even the accomodations for which he pays. In other words, he must pay higher rates in order that his richer neighbor may perpetuate a system under which he may decrease his rates by bargaining in part with the servants instead of with the employers. Is it any wonder that the new system brings about a chronic discontent which used to be unknown?

More below the fold.
The corruptible servant can and will sell his services below their real value, for he is selling that which does not really belong to him, but to his employer, or to the guest whom he is neglecting because of a refusal to tip: whatever the price he gets, it is so much clear gain to him. So the larcenous servant can afford to sell napkins or tea-spoons much below their market price. So the negro laborer at the South can afford to sell to the cross-roads storekeeper the stolen cotton or the farm products at a lower price than the lawful owner could have accepted. Public opinion makes the position of the "fence" or the collusive storekeeper unpleasant; why should it deal any more tenderly with teh man who tips? The only point in his favour is that he is ignorant of the full extent of his evil work; and to balance this is the fact that he is willing, for the sake of present ease, to bribe a servant to appropriate to him what belongs to neither of them, but to compel employers to recognize this as a system of licensed spoilation, and to drive other guests into doing even as he does.

There is, moreover, a political side to the evil which is generally overlooked. The Romans held that it was beneath the dignity of a free man to take money in return for personal services; and the Roman law of contracts was very seriously modified by the persistence of the idea down to the latest times. Circumstances seem to show that there was some truth in the notion; and yet we must have personal service, and it must be paid for, in default of slavery - the infinitely worse alternative which governed the ancient world. So long as the employer stood between guest and servant, taking the guest's money and therewith paying the servant, the connection between guest and servant was so indirect as to obviate many of the evils which the Roman instinctively feared, and the somewhat aggressive independence of the American servant did the rest. The system of tipping, bringing in a direct but surreptitious money connection between guest and servant, cannot but result in a steady degeneration of the servant's moral fiber. It gives the servant a mercenary mode of thought which is unhappily too familiar to most men to need much specification here. The worst of all results is that it corrupts the servant's whole conception of duty; duty is no longer something to which he is bound, but something which someone else is bound to bribe him to do. When such a conception of duty is daily borne in upon the heart and practice of a circle of servants, which is steadily extending from the employees of hotels to those of railroads, steamboats, and every conceivable variety of personal service, and when all these men are not only servants but voters, how can it be expected that we shall leave a man a virile conception of his duty as a voter while we corrupt him as a servant? He will not bring you a glass of water at a hotel table, or handle your luggage on a steamer, without an extra gratuity; why should he vote even for the ticket of his own party unless he is tipped for his trouble? How far is democratic government compatible with the tip system?

It is said that there is no remedy. There is none which will take effect without effort, but sincere and persistent effort could find a remedy. Some of our clubs have already found that the social evil of tipping, the sense of insecurity and inequality which it introduces among the members, is not "clubbable." They therefore pay the servants honest wages, and make the offer of any further tip or gratuity an offence against the club. Let us extend the club feeling and find in it the remedy. It was in the hotels that the evil first began its vicious course, and in them the remedy must find its beginning. It would not be a difficult matter for a hotel to announce in its advertisments, in its offices, and on its bills of fare, that its servants are paid full wages, that any of them accepting tips will be dismissed at the end of the week, and that the guest is requested not to tempt the servant by offering him gratuities. Only a few cases of vigorous enforcement would be needed. The results would be profitable to the employers, and pleasant to the guests who do not tip, and to those who are coerced into tipping. They would of course be unpleasant to those few who wish to tip; but these are just the social pests who underlie the whole system and who deserve no consideration.

We know of at least one hotel where the non-tipping plan was tried, we believe, with considerable success.