Reflections on being back at home

Posted by September Blue Monday, 31 December 2007 1 comments

There's a lot of grumbling I could do about the small town I come from, but I can't fault it for reminding me why I'd never be happy settled down for good in a city.


That photo's from the traditional family Christmas Day walk (featuring also the traditional family Christmas Day short-cut in which my uncle always ends up trying to scale a close-to-vertical footpath as his siblings stand back rolling their eyes, the traditional family Christmas Day moment of panic as somebody realises that several of the children have headed off in a completely separate direction, and the traditional family Christmas Day complaints by by southern relatives that it's so very cold up on the hills, which must by right of ancient tradition be accompanied by copious mockery from the rest of us.)

At the top of that hill, people have been carving their initials into the stone for a long time. This is less interesting when it's anything from the past twenty years or so, especially since this is a small town and the mysterious initials are less mysterious and more 'oh, isn't that Diane's brother's son?', but the oldest ones are worth looking at. 'G M', whoever he was, must have spent a long time on this:

"G M 1908, A C 1945"

But 1908 is nothing compared to the land around it. It's very, very old here. Some of it's old in a pleasantly rustic way, but up on the hills, scattered with standing stones from a long, long time ago, it's beautiful in a way that turns bleak and creepy very fast. Our best local author is Alan Garner, who writes about the landscape as something ancient and magic; if you want a feel for how disturbing this can be, I can't phrase it better than this.

Sun and dial

You should be so lucky

Posted by September Blue Sunday, 30 December 2007 2 comments

A few days after handing in my PhD thesis, when I was still coasting on a wave of euphoria so high I couldn't even feel what should by rights have been a fairly nasty hangover, one of my non-academic friends from long ago got in touch to ask what I was up to. She'd been out of the loop for a while, so I not only explained that I'd finished the thesis but gave her a brief overview of the months leading up to it - last buses home from the university, sleeping in offices, living out of vending machines - just to underline why I was so pleased the thing was done. Yay! I said.

Yay! she said. And then she added: But now that your cushy student life is over, you'll have to get a proper job and join the rest of us poor sods in the real world!

So I shot her. No, I didn't. I don't quite remember what I did, except that I think some of the other people in the office took me for a coffee and spoke to me in calming tones for a while. I'd had the exact same argument with this girl a couple of years before, which is why I was so careful to point out that "Thesis done!" came with a backstory of "...and it was really hard work, before you ask," and in a sense I wasn't even surprised to find out that she hadn't quite got it this time, either. And hey, I got to read books all day, right? I was doing what I loved, right? She has a 9-5 job in an insurance company; why on earth would I complain? Obviously, I must not understand the workings of the Real World. I was lucky.

Okay, this isn't a post on Why Some Of My Friends Are Clueless. Thing is, this attitude isn't exclusive to my friend, nor to the non-academic world. The recent fight in the academic blogosphere over whether junior academics should ever - dear God! - look for jobs at other institutions comes from the same root, with the people in the 'no' camp arguing on the grounds of ingratitude and selfishness on the part of the job-hunters: if you really loved your subject, and if you were really dedicated to your department and your students, you wouldn't care where you lived and worked! You're getting to do a job you love, at a time when there are dozens to hundreds of unemployed academics who'd be so glad to get that job they'd never complain about anything, and you're still not happy? Don't you know how lucky you are?

And we internalise it, because we recognise that there's truth in it - life of the mind! getting paid to do what we love! teaching the next generation! reading books all day! Does life get better than this? - and resolve to appreciate our blessings and not complain about anything but plagiarists, and thus we rise through the ranks, until we're junior staff somewhere with a massive admin workload and bitchy colleagues and far too much teaching of students who just don't care and not enough time left for the research our heads of department are breathing down our necks to make sure we publish, and realise this is not what we thought we were signing up for, and then we snap and decide we hate everything, everything, about our jobs, except obviously we can't complain to the people on the rungs above us, so instead we get drunk at department functions and explain our woes to the PhD students, who nod and look thoughtful and say they're taking our warnings on board, but who are actually thinking - I guarantee you - something like "Oh, diddums, I do thirty hours a week at a retail job I hate, and you've got the job I want, and you complain because you have to go to meetings? Don't you know how lucky you are?" And so it continues.

Lucky or not, we're all going to go insane if we think like this.

I work for the university now, in several different jobs which still don't pay me much combined, but I've done jobs that were harder and paid me less. The lowest-paid was a care assistant, for which I got minimum wage (and because I was under 21 for most of it, not even adult minimum wage) and worked ten- and twelve-hour shifts, split between day and night. It's a hard, important, underappreciated job that deserves to be paid much, much better than it is - God knows how my colleagues were managing to raise families on that kind of money - but it's not the worst job out there, by a long way. I remember Dorothy, an 89-year-old resident, telling me about working in the mills when she was sixteen; 6am to 6pm six days a week, no talking on the job, half an hour for lunch, an hour's walk there and back, and all the pay to her mother at the end of the week. Since me and one of my colleagues had just been grumbling about working the dreaded 1-10pm shift, I was expecting her to follow this with a dressing-down about not knowing we were born, which wouldn't have been out of place. Instead, she said "I'm so glad you girls don't have to work like that any more." There were people (the boss included) who didn't seem so bothered by the terrible wages care assistants got, because it's a vocation, and you wouldn't do it if you didn't love it, but Dorothy and her friends weren't among them; the loudest protests I heard about our pay when I was working there came from former mill girls.

Which isn't to say that academics don't have it much better than care assistants, nor that care assistants don't have it better than 1920s mill girls, nor that 1920s mill girls didn't have it better than 1850s child chimney-sweepers. (People working 9-5 jobs in car insurance come somewhere between 'academics' and 'care assistants', I reckon.) But there isn't a point on that scale at which all complaints become irrelevant.

And yet, this seems to be how we think. As one example: my TA cohort was recently caught up in a pay dispute with the university over a proposed hefty pay cut to our already-measly wages. A lot of people were reluctant to take the protests beyond office grumbling and into actual negotiations, and they weren't entirely unreasonable in that; nobody wants to piss off the department, and some teaching for low pay is better than no teaching at all. Still, most of the reasons given centred around TA work not being a real job, because it's something we're training to do and because it's something we need for our CVs anyway. If we're doing this for the experience, not for the money, we should consider it a favour that the university pays us at all. And they could always give our teaching to somebody else; we should consider ourselves lucky to get any teaching, shouldn't we?

Well, no. Individually, the university is indeed doing me a favour by giving one particular group of first-years to me rather than another TA; collectively, the university benefits far more than we do by giving all those groups of first-years to TAs rather than hiring teaching fellows. We do need the experience, but this doesn't stop it being exploitation. That's what makes it exploitation. And yes, we love the work, and we didn't go into academia for the money, but I'm not asking for a company yacht and a £15k bonus, here. I just want my three jobs to add up to enough to pay the bills. Please.

We do need to accept that we're lucky, that there are people out there doing far worse jobs and living far worse lives than ours. But if we act as if all our good fortune will be snatched away from us the minute we dare to express any discontent with anything, we're only going to be hurting ourselves. It's not a betrayal of everything we stand for if we want to move to another institution, or if we protest a pay cut, or if we point out that sleeping in the office is not exactly the best way to spend a night, and smiling through all of that won't create solidarity with the rest of the world. It'll just drive us crazy, and then we'll snap and start biting students or something.

We do live in the real world. We know that, right?

It's like the world's least interesting, most footnoted reality TV

Posted by September Blue Saturday, 29 December 2007 0 comments

Page 135 of the thesis read-through, and things are looking up. And down. Sort of. I still feel like a complete and utter fool for not catching all the typos, but the thing as a whole is turning out to be a lot more interesting and readable than I remembered it being. (Admittedly, 'readable' always sounds like a backhanded compliment for academic prose.) Maybe all I needed was several months of not reading the damn thing, after all.

And perhaps a bit more time spent in my favourite city bookshop with a coffee, a stack of things I haven't read yet, and unlimited WiFi. That helped.


Even more fear!

Posted by September Blue Friday, 28 December 2007 6 comments

You know how some people can't stand hearing their own voice on an answerphone? How they (we) cower away, hands over ears, squeaking "Do I really sound like that? I don't sound like that, do I?", and refuse to be in the same room if the thing needs to be replayed? I am also like that with my work. When I'm writing, I can revise and rewrite ad infinitum (and if I had a different supervisor, that might not be an exaggeration; I see your stories of supervisors sending Strongly Worded E-mails and raise you my supervisor appearing out of nowhere to shout 'Go back to your desk and write your damn thesis!' at me down corridors), but once it's done, it's done. Gone. Over. I never want to see it again. Re-reading my own work is like operating on my own scalp, without anaesthetic or a mirror.

As you can guess, then, re-reading my entire PhD thesis as viva preparation is not my idea of fun.

The agony is of several types. First, there is the stabbing pain experienced when spotting a typo, or a messed-up reference, or a 'p.???' next to a quotation, or on at least one occasion an actual missing word and how the hell did I not notice that?, knowing that my examiners will see exactly the same thing and that there is nothing I can do to fix it, short of sneaking into their offices with Tipp-Ex, which let's just pretend is ethically beneath me. I knew this was coming, and numbed myself to it with Twiglets and several episodes of The Armando Iannucci Show to reward myself with when the pain gets too bad.

Second is the growing realisation, radiating across my soul like the tendrils of a migraine, that I cannot actually write. This isn't true, really - my academic prose style might not be anything to lead troops into battle with, but it is, she says humbly, usually somewhere around 'decent' - but re-reading brings all the flaws to the front. All the flaws. Every single awkward sentence construction from pages 1 to 36 is now scratched in letters of fire on the thin, trembling membrane of my self-esteem, and I only stopped there because I couldn't bear to read any further.

Third is a nagging ache, threatening to explode into something terrible. Re-reading, you see, means reading my entire thesis from front cover to back, in that order. And I, um... I haven't actually done this before. Obviously, I've read and re-read all of it, at different points, and obviously I've done some thinking about how various chapters fitted together, and obviously I've re-read the second half of chapter 3 with the new conclusions from chapter 2 in mind, and so on, but I've never actually read through the whole thing as an entity in its own right. Yes, maybe this would have been a good idea, but, listen, the only time when I had the whole thing together to read was at 4.30am on the night before the submission deadline, and I was very, very tired and had not yet entered the weirdly euphoric state I ended up in for most of the next day, and also I was busy with more immediate matters like making my footnotes not be in 2-point font (about which, screw you, Word) and trying to nestle enough office chairs together to sleep on and getting images in the right order for my appendix and working out a battle strategy for a fight over the printer the next day, which never actually happened, as it turned out, but had the potential to be fairly draining if it had, and anyway, by that time it would have been too late to do anything substantial even if I had read the whole thesis cover-to-cover, right? Right.

Or wrong. Whatever. It's too late, now, and if I find any massive structural problems at this point, even Tipp-Ex and a skeleton key won't help me get them past the examiners.

Apple and me: a history

Posted by September Blue Thursday, 27 December 2007 2 comments

Macintosh II (er, 1990)? - My first love. No, well - my third love, if we're counting Fiona B., who at age 7 I decided I was going to marry and live with forever in a small cottage in the woods - we'd even picked out the cottage, I tell you truth - and Oliver P., whose mother still has in her possession a letter I wrote to him the year before that, which states that he's the best boy in the whole world, asks him to marry me, and ends 'PS This is a love letter'. Yes, now you laugh, but did subtle ever get any of you anywhere? Exactly. Anyway! My mother started doing some work from home when I was nine or so, and her work sent a massive, creamy-beigeish-grey behemoth home with her, and thus it was that my soul was contracted to Apple from a young and tender age. It had black-and-white games (Glypha! Crystal Quest!). It had seven different alert sounds. It was The Future.

(Also: I just looked Crystal Quest up on Wikipedia to see if anybody ever completed it, and found out that it was one of the first games to appear on Windows Vista in 2007. The Mac-vs-PC jokes write themselves, I tell you.)

Performa 6800 (1995-ish) - Oh, so advanced. Or so we thought at the time ("it's like a CD player, but in the computer! And it's even got a fake-LCD screen!"), but I am loath to mock the technological limitations of the past in case my grandchildren one day read this blog and laugh at me for failing to predict the combination microwave-teleporter-videophones they'll all be carrying in their pockets. I loved this computer when it arrived; I loved it when it got old, and slow, and my parents bought a new one and let me take it to university, where it sat on a desk in my bedroom and ignored my flatmates saying things like "three-gig hard drive? Serial ports? What does it run on, coal?" because it was mine and it was precious to me. And because I'd customised all the sound effects, so error alerts were Lando Calrissian saying "I've got a bad feeling about this" and the startup sound was Han Solo telling you that no mystical energy force controlled his destiny. I think Jawas also featured somewhere. Oh, shush.

iMac (2001) - My baby, my only, my sweet (until I can afford a laptop, when it'll retire gently and spend the rest of its career telling those young iPods to get off its lawn). It's getting on a bit now - it couldn't find its hard drive the other day, which caused some consternation - and it can't run, well, anything, at least not anything created in the past three years, but it's loved and cherished as much as it ever was. This is the computer I used to kiss goodnight (to the resigned bewilderment of my at-the-time boyfriend); this is the computer I talked down from a kernel panic with murmurs and coos (and fsck, but I'm sure it was the sweet talk that did it). It's smooth, it's shiny, it's covered in flowers, and I take great delight in telling haughty why-don't-you-get-a-real-computer commentators that I chose it for the colour scheme alone.

iPod (2002) - The hard drive finally gave in six weeks ago, but until then, the iPod was virtually indestructible. It's been dropped, dropped again, dropped onto cobbles at high speed, dropped in water, covered in milk, left in a pub, lost behind a TV cabinet, and the battery never even faltered. For some reason, though, it never would play Bruce Springsteen's 'Jersey Girl' without skipping around like crazy, no matter what version I copied across, not once in all those years.

iPod Shuffle (2007) - As presented by my Masters-in-Biology brother:
"That's tiny. You could eat that."
"Why would you want to eat it?"
"You could put it right in your mouth and eat it. It's bite-sized."
"Don't eat my iPod."
"In one go. You could eat it."
"But don't."
"But you could."
"But don't."

Fancy-Pants New Shiny Silver Keyboard (2007) - It's not the keyboard I'm unimpressed with, as such, it's the having to buy a new keyboard just because I spilt coffee over the old one. Which, following some rapid cleaning and slow drying out, I thought I'd got away with, until a few days later when it suddenly decided it didn't like any key but 2. But it really liked 2. "2222" it typed in the Google address bar. "222222222222222." And on and on, ad infinitum, until I finally gave in and found an Apple store and paid Apple yet more money I don't have for a clunky silver laptop-style thing that claims not to work in 10.3.9. (Which it does, btw.) I did get to play with the iPhone in the shop, though. "And," as I pointed out to Laz, "at least I got that online application form done before I got the new keyboard."
"Yeah," she said. "But you filled it out entirely with 222222222222222."
Future search committees: really, you do want to hire me. Just look beyond the semiotic.

iPod Touch (2007) - So wonderful, I'm not even a teensy little bit annoyed I paid £50 for a Shuffle I no longer need six weeks beforehand. Nor am I annoyed about the old iPod clunking to a halt, or the coffee casualty of my last keyboard, or Apple removing 'iPod Download' from iTunes and claiming it was an upgrade, or the removal of the Dogcow from print setup screens far and wide. I forgive Apple everything.

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New baby

Posted by September Blue Wednesday, 26 December 2007 1 comments

This time on Christmas Eve, I was grumbling about Christmas being a paean to capitalism and how little I loved that.

This time on Christmas Eve, I was sharing head-shaking, eye-rolling confusion with one of my old friends about a mutual pal who's done that annoying girl thing of ditching all her female friends the second she got a serious boyfriend.

This time on Christmas Eve, when asked, I said that all I wanted for Christmas was my PhD.

But no more.

I have embraced the consumerist ethic, condensed into small, shiny objects nobody really needs. I have become, I fear, that girl who relegates friends and family to Plan B once the new love raises its head. And what I have now means so much more to me than a PhD ever could.

In short: I don't need you any more, world. I have an iPod Touch now.

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Of all the trees that are in the wood...

Posted by September Blue Tuesday, 25 December 2007 0 comments

Of all the trees that are in the wood

As before, plus:

'So Much Wine' (The Handsome Family) - I can't believe I forgot this one, as any song that begins 'I had nothing to say on Christmas day, when you threw all your clothes in the snow' deserves pride of place on anybody's Christmas album. It's got that Del Amitri-esque trick of balancing lyrics of relentless despair with a chirpy tune, too ('Listen to me, butterfly: there is only so much wine you can drink in one life, but it will never be enough to save you from the bottom of your glass'), which would surely fit somebody's Christmas, but I was just listening to it while reading a blog post on the MLA convention, which gave it a whole new twist. Good luck, brave souls.

'When The Water Gets Cold And Freezes On The Lake' (Herman Dune) - Herman Dune are a French band my brother's crazy about, but I could take them or leave them, this song excepted. Good breakup songs are difficult to pull off this simply ('I love the smell of your hair and the blue of your eyes / But you're far too complicated, and you tell a lot of lies'), and the return to a freezing lake as a point of resolution is something sharp. This should be the other bookend of a mix CD that begins with Joni Mitchell's 'River'.

'Christmas In Washington' (Steve Earle) - which has very little to do with Christmas or winter or anything related, really, but earns its way onto every such playlist simply by virtue of being really, really good.

'Through December' (Laura Viers) - Haunting, mournful, sounds like the concept of 'bleak' set to music, but it's gorgeous. (On a related note, I had this playing on repeat when I was marking my last batch of undergraduate essays.)

'Christmas In Nevada' (Willard Grant Conspiracy) - I can't, by any rhetorical charades, make the lyrics here look like anything festive, but I can say that it's so musically upbeat that by the time the singer hits 'I'll take my pay and buy a gun / Steal a car and hope it runs / Find a place to make my name', it's up there with 'God bless us, every one!'

I fear the viva (Bedtime Story Edition!)

Posted by September Blue Saturday, 22 December 2007 5 comments

For the non-British readers out there, I think 'viva' translates to 'dissertation defence' ('-se,' fine, fine) in other parts of the world. Or, at least, I used to think so. Since then, I have read a cheery piece on Preparing For Your Dissertation Defense that included, in all seriousness, the suggestion that you bring homemade cookies for the panel, and while I'm mostly sure that the author just has some very eccentric views on the whole process, part of me is convinced that you people on the other side of the Atlantic have found a portal into some cozy parallel universe in which academia is actually fun, and that the viva-equivalents in that universe cannot be compared to the trial by fire we have in this one.

Or, I don't know, maybe we just have different customs surrounding these things. But, seriously: cookies? Taking cookies to your viva here would be like taking a scarf you'd knitted yourself to your court hearing ("just for you, your honour!")

Anyway, so, the viva. I am afraid of the viva. I am very afraid of the viva, and the day creeps closer, and my fear grows. Instead of curling up into a corner and gibbering to myself, then, I'll tell you all a story about the last experience I had with these things. Are you sitting comfortably? Excellent. (People who know me in real life: you've heard this already, so feel free to get back to the present-wrapping I'm sure you're avoiding.)

My department has a version of the viva which falls at the end of your first year of PhD study. It doesn't grant you a PhD, but it does bump you up to 'PhD candidate'. This process has a reputation of being an hour or two of sheer, sheer terror, and the reputation is not undeserved. They are tough. They are very tough. They tear you and your work into itty, bitty shreds, and then sit, stopwatches in hand, while you assemble a papier-mache version of the Sistine Chapel from the remains. You are not there to have fun. You are not their colleague. You are their prey.

In practice, mine was nowhere near the terrifying experience I was expecting, but that's immaterial for now. What's important, or what was important to me at the time and remains important for this part of the story so if you'll just bear with me a while longer thank you very much, is that I was sure it would be. This is back when I was scared of discussing my work in public, terrified of presenting conference papers. I was a nervous wreck for days leading up to this, and I'd also promised myself that if they failed me - if they even sent me back for revisions - I'd give up the PhD and quit academia for good. And I meant it.

I walked into the room, trying not to shake too obviously. Intimidating Professor #1 told me to take a seat and 'make [my]self comfortable', which the tiny part of my brain not shrieking 'OH GOD OH GOD THEY'RE GOING TO LAUGH ME OUT OF THE ROOM' found darkly funny. Intimidating Professor #2 explained the process, Intimidating Professor #1 pulled out a heavily-annotated copy of the piece of work I'd submitted, along with a list of what I'm guessing were questions or concerns and which at any rate filled an entire page in his tiny handwriting, and declared that we'd begin.

I could feel my heart beat in the back of my throat.

Intimidating Professor #1, he of the reputation of roasting students alive at such events, he that I once heard someone at a conference compare to Torquemada, asked his first question.

And this should be the bit where it all goes right, and where I tell you about how sweet it felt when I realised I could answer his question, after all, and that I could get through this, and that I could too be an academic! Reach for those stars! But what actually happened is that he asked the question, I said "Well -," and the entire building plunged into darkness.

A fuse had blown, it turns out. And it was a December morning, when there's not much in the way of natural light. And the Intimidating Professors had closed the blinds before I came in, just in case - I'm speculating here, but I may not be far from the truth - one of the other students tried to give me hints via Semaphore from across the courtyard.

And there I sat, in the darkness, with the weight of Intimidating Professor #1's question hanging over my head, thinking "Huh. Well, this can't be a good omen."

The story has a happy ending, though; I passed with flying colours, decided to stay in academia after all, etc. etc. And people have cheered me up about the impending viva by pointing out that I probably won't get a repeat experience of The Day The Sun Died.

(Except, though, I'm fairly sure that helped. Because while the Intimidating Professors were fiddling around with the blinds and looking around in baffled confusion and discussing what the problem was, I was thinking up an answer to IP#1's question. Maybe my supporters are right, and the electrics won't fail and it won't happen again, anyway. But there might be tough questions. And so I'm going to plant a friend by a fuse-box, just in case.)

Dear Man Strolling Casually Beneath My Window,

It's December. Is this really the right kind of weather for a kilt-with-bare-legs-and-sandals combination?



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Out for a walk

Posted by September Blue Wednesday, 19 December 2007 2 comments

My supervisor e-mailed me today with a list of things I should do to prepare for my viva. What I wanted to do was run away to sea, but we don't have a sea, and so instead I took my camera and walked down to the river to spend a few hours in the fresh air.


It didn't feel too much like winter (defined in via a two-stage process: a) how far away from your front door you can get before realising you forgot your gloves, and b) whether or not you can be bothered with the effort of walking all the way back up 61 steps to get them once you do), at least until I got out of the shelter of the buildings and down to the river, at which point it was suddenly very cold indeed. But it was a good walk, with just me and a man walking his dog and a few bemittened children stamping on frozen puddles in the whole world.

Green leaves

Here's what puzzled me, though. I haven't walked that way for years, and at one point on the riverbank, there was a new council sign bolted to the railings saying "In the interests of safety, no golf allowed." Hmm. There was a fair-sized stretch of grass and trees, but it was very lumpy grass and quite a lot of trees, and golf doesn't seem like the sort of game you can play just anywhere. Admittedly, my experience with the sport is limited to waitressing in a golf club one summer, but I would've thought you needed a golf course. Or at least some holes in the ground, into which golf balls can be hit.

Also, it's possible that the members of the club where I worked were doing it wrong, but golf never came across to me as the kind of game that needed safety warnings, except a) to spectators ("FORE!") and b) in the event of thunderstorms, because golf apparently addles the part of the brain that warns the rest of us not to stand outside holding a large metal pole in the air when there's lightning. (I am not joking. People needed repeated warning about this.)

Also, even assuming there is some small kind of Extreme Golf that a) can be played in areas that do not resemble a golf course and b) is a danger to public safety, has this really been a common enough problem for the council to put up a warning sign? Well, yes, apparently. Yes, it has.

There weren't any golfers out today, though. All was peaceful.

Tree by the river


Posted by September Blue Monday, 17 December 2007 2 comments

One of my students plagiarised their* last assignment, and I have no way of proving it. Curses.

All right, in fairness: it's possible the student wrote the assignment themselves, and this is why Google, Turnitin, and a search of everything relevant in the university library have failed to turn up anything incriminating. And here, we must tread carefully, lest we end up as The Bad Guy in future stories of the academic wunderkind whose idiot tutors refused to believe in their genius and hauled them in on plagiarism charges, and it was then, as they will describe it in their bestselling memoir Those Who Can't - Teach!, that they learned the sad truth about how universities are staffed by angry, bitter, jealous, dried-up old has-beens who exist only to crush the life out of creative young minds.

Don't think I haven't thought this through.

So, yes, it's possible that the work is their own. I won't deny that. But it's also possible that Mercury is inhabited entirely by tigers, and I'd give that possibility better odds. I've taught this kid; I've read stuff written by this kid before. It reads nothing, nothing, like this. And it doesn't help that the student in question has attended no lectures, missed the maximum allowable number of tutorials, did none of the reading as far as I could ever determine, and has a history of plagiarism already. Still, I can't prove it; I can't even call the student in for a meeting about it, which would be the usual Plan B, since it's the end of semester and students have all left campus now; and I need to give a final grade. And department regulations are clear on this: innocent until proven guilty.

* Singular 'they' is fairly common in informal British English, and I have no idea why we don't all accept its use in every situation. (It comes in particularly handy for describing one's students in gender-neutral non-identifying ways on one's blog, for instance.) What's the point of backflipping through awkward neologisms just to reinvent the wheel?

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The Christmas playlist, v.1.0.3

Posted by September Blue 0 comments

'River' (Joni Mitchell)
'O Little Town of Bethlehem' (Jewel)
'O Come O Come Emmanuel (Sufjan Stevens)
'Sixteen Maybe Less' (Iron & Wine/Calexico)
'It Came Upon a Midnight Clear' (Sixpence None the Richer)
'7 O'Clock News/Silent Night' (Simon and Garfunkel)
'Carol of the Bells' (Vienna Boys' Choir)
'Merry Xmas Everyone' (Noel Gallagher)
'Mary's Boy Child' (Sissel Kyrkjebø)
'Let It Be' (Joan Baez)
'Hark! The Herald Angels Sing' (most of the Rat Pack, apparently)

Re: 'Let It Be' - no, no, I know it's not. But it's on there anyway, mostly because I love how forcefully she sings 'There will be no sorrow', as if it's an order.

Sex for shoes

Posted by September Blue Sunday, 16 December 2007 4 comments

From one of the women's glossy magazines in our staffroom, on an article titled 'Inside the Male Mind'. Item no.2: Men forget anniversaries because, (insert essentialist evo-psych babble here). Followed by:

How to handle it
Next time there's a special date looming make yourself more of a goal. Mori research recently discovered that although 38% of men in stable relationships want sex three or more times a week, only nine per cent get it - a statistic you could well capitalise on! "The part of the brain responsive to sex hormones is two-and-a-half times larger in men than in women, so make it obvious what reward he'll be getting at the end of the evening," explains counsellor Suzie Hayman. "Then suggest he buys you some sexy shoes or eveningwear for the big day and he'll feel like he has control over the situation with an end-goal he values."

Words fail.

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Posted by September Blue Friday, 14 December 2007 0 comments

(Once a Week, Nov.8, 1862)

Dreams are the accompaniment of both idleness and work. They "come through the multitude of business," and occupy the lazy brain; they are associated with the sluggard and the enthusiast; they are honoured as challens of supernatural advice, and blamed as the offspring of sheer sensuality. We dream with our eyes open as well as shut - by day as well as by night. But the phenomena of dreams have defied scientific experiments and metaphysical inquiries. Now and then it seems as if some law were discovered, but the experimenter is soon baulked. You fancy you can account for a dream, but you can't make one. It may sometimes be analysed, but I believe has never been composed. You do not know how it will turn out. Impress your mind strongly with this and that set of ideas, and lo, the whole slips out of the place where you put it, and another occupies your sleeping thoughts. You can't cook a dream. The skilful speaker can count, with tolerable certainty, upon producing an impression something like that which he wishes upon the waking mind; but, when we sleep, we move out of the reach of his persuasive machinery. But although we cannot construct a dream, or order it beforehand, it may sometimes be directed while in progress with ludicrous effect. Many accounts are published of the way in which the thoughts of a dreamer, once fairly committed to the dream may be effected. He is played with helplessly. An encyclopaedia will give anecdotes and references to books about dreaming, in which most absurd results have been obtained by dictating to the sleeper. A man has been made to dive from his bed under the persuasion that he was in the water, and being pursued by a shark. With far the most of us - indeed, with very few exceptions, - the land of dreams is a strange independent land, and our sleeping life unaccountably cut off from the real world.

Words may waken, but they seldom influence us. We hear, and do not understand; there is a break between the minds of the speaker and the sleeper; the sounds are not interpreted by the brain. This is the more curious, as many persons talk in their sleep; the tongue obeys the thought, although the ear wll not convey it, except, as I have said, in very rare instances. Perhaps the most curious thing connected with dreams is that experience does not correct them. People who, when their eyes are open, go about quietly on the face of the earth ordering their carriages, paying their cab-fare, or trudging in the dust, fly in their dreams. Some people lead not only a distinct but a continued life in their dreams. They take the thread up, for several consecutive nights, with a consciousness that they are dreaming. Most dreams, however, are distinct. They may be repeated, but are without connection.


I will not, however, dwell over our sleeping dreams; but I must say, by the way, that I pity the man who does not know when he is "dropping off." The consciousness of standing on the threshold of sleep when you are at liberty to indulge in it, is delicious. You are awake and not awake. The dream god has his hand upon you, though he has not yet led you away. You feel his magic presence, and the gentle dissolution of your waking thoughts under his touch. To you it is a private setting of the day. The sun goes his own road and at his own time, but you sink into a twilight of your own. You do not really "fall" off, nor is it a steady descending slide into the night; the border land is broken, and you don't reach the level plain of sleep without some retrospective glimpses of the weary track along which you have passed. I pity the man who tumbles into his bed and sprawls away into a dream before the bed-curtains have done swinging at the shock of his plunge. No, it is far better to wait a minute at the palace-gate and let the proper ministers close your eyes and carry you in with irresistible but kindly touch.

A man who bursts into the mysterious land, like a mad bull through a hedge, with a snore for a bellow, deserves to have a nightmare let loose at him, and be ridden out of the palace of dreams with a shriek.

A sense of perspective

Posted by September Blue Thursday, 13 December 2007 0 comments

My neighbour is crying.

I don't know her. They're a couple, around my age; I've nodded at her on the stairs once or twice, and I once helped him talk a panicking, fluttering pigeon out of the hallway. I know their names, because the numbering system in our building gets hazy on our floor and we often end up with each other's post. But I don't know her, and I don't know him, and I can't exactly go round at two in the morning and ask if everything's okay.

(I mean, I could. If it was panic rather than distress, maybe. But as with people crying in public, there's no helpful way to interfere, and I lean towards the idea that any time 2am sees you sobbing in the living room, you want the world to leave you alone anyway.)

I'm marking student work, and getting more and more annoyed by how many times I've written 'Follow the stylesheet!' in the past three hours. I'd worked myself into a whole lather of rage about it, when the eighth student in a row failed to do the one simple thing I explained to them four times in class, etc, etc, you know how it goes. It's annoying. It's really, really annoying. And tiring, and infuriating, and wrath-inducing, in cumulative amounts, with every time I write the same. damn. thing in the margins.

But whatever my neighbour's going through sounds worse.

I don't care so much about my essays any more. I hope she's all right.

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It's not you, it's me.

Posted by September Blue Thursday, 6 December 2007 5 comments

A student ambles up to the lending desk with a book. I check out the book and hand it back to him. He nods, puts his card back in his wallet, and then, looking as if he's suddenly remembered something, beams broadly at me. "Have a nice life!" he says.

Some questions come to mind.

1. Was it... was it something I said, O mysterious student? I mean, I know it was just a 24-hour loan, but I thought you knew that, too. Maybe you wanted something more? Were you hoping for a semester-long thing? Um. Gosh. Well, this is awkward.

2. While I have, I think, used the 'have a nice life' line myself a few times in my not-entirely-praiseworthy past, it typically comes with a more dramatic buildup. Shouldn't there be some kind of argument here? Hurling of crockery? Throwing of wedding ring into river while country rock chords crescendo in the background? All I did was smile and tell him when the book was due back. I feel a little wronged.

3. We're never going to see that book again, are we?


Posted by September Blue Wednesday, 5 December 2007 1 comments

A few people in my department have been warning me recently about teaching fellowships. "They'll exploit you!" is the refrain. "Get one as a temporary thing while you're looking for a Lecturer A post, but watch out, because they'll really exploit you!"

I'm torn.

See, on one hand, they're right. Teaching fellowships carry a heavy, heavy teaching load. I know this already, but it's sweet and good of them to warn me. They want me to do well; they want me to go into the job market with my eyes wide open. They care, and this is good.

On the other hand, 'exploit' is a funny word coming from the people who currently pay me TA rates.

I have learnt to nod, smile, thank them, and then rapidly change the subject. It goes down better than what I want to say, which is, yes, teaching fellowships are exploitative, but, people, they are salaried posts, and I've just spent the past semester writing lectures for advanced classes on what works out as the same pay I got for babysitting when I was fifteen. And babysitters, unlike your TAs, typically get access to the fridge.

People expect more of you when you have naturally curly hair.*

Posted by September Blue Tuesday, 4 December 2007 0 comments

And so, I had this dream in which I discovered my hair was actually a wig, and I phoned my mother, and she said that it was a 'permanent wig' I'd had for the past twenty-five years, because some kind of fungal infection had turned all my hair green. "But it can't be a wig," I said, "it grows!" and she explained that permanent wigs draw up nutrients from the scalp to do that. Annoyed, I told her I wanted it removed, and she sighed, very impatient, and said that I could if I wanted, but I should be aware that my actual hair colour was a very fair red, and did I really think that would look good on me? Which I didn't. But then again, if this was a wig, I'd never be able to accept compliments on 'my' hair ever again now I knew I hadn't grown it myself. And all the time, part of me whispered "but you knew it was a wig, really. Your hair is too nice to be your own."

In other news, I think I'm getting worried about my viva. Can you tell?
* - For the uninitiated...

Music Mondays: The Weakerthans, 'Pamphleteer'

Posted by September Blue Monday, 3 December 2007 0 comments

[Part 1 of an occasional series.]

There's this movement you pick up when you spend too much time in cities. Duck your head - just a little - step sideways, turn your hands palms-in, and keep walking. "Would you like -" No. "Do you have time -" No. "Did you know -" No, and I don't want to, and please don't tell me, just let me get past you without acknowledging that you were ever there. It's not personal; it's just that I have somewhere to be, and I don't have time to stop and decide whether or not to care.

If the Weakerthans' 'Pamphleteer' was what it claims to be, a song about a lonely soul handing out pamphlets for a cause nobody's interested in and reflecting on a lost love while he does it, I'd like it less than I do now. It's sweet enough, and it's a clever conceit, weaving phrases of manifestos and protest songs into a hymn of unrequited love: 'Why do I still see you in every mirrored window, in all that I could never overcome?' When he trails off with 'I am your pamphleteer, I'm your pamphleteer,' you know it's not just the city he's singing to. Still... the power of those lines is lessened somewhat when they're is turned into a faux-profound backdrop for yet another "She's not interested in me - :(" song, surely? I'm not going to argue 'Pamphleteer' describes the history of socialism, or that it's making some grand, detached, post-post-modern comment about the material it's using, but then it's not a love song, either. More than anything, it's a song about that little sidestep dodge on a busy city street.

It would be difficult to argue that the Weakerthans are cheapening the history of left-wing protest, for a start. Lead singer John K. Samson, formerly of anarcho-punk band Propaghandi, co-founded the not-for-profit collective publishing company Arbeiter Ring; they've sung 'Solidarity Forever' on stage before, and while their own songs aren't as blatantly political as Propaghandi's, you can still feel it there. Winnipeg's Golden Boy statue becomes a 'Golden Business Boy' in 'One Great City!', crowing out his love for the town while his wrecking ball smashes it apart. (Of course, it's Winnipeg - all cities are Winnipeg in Weakerthans songs - but equally of course, it's every other city too. I heard them sing this live in England to a crowd that turned the refrain of 'I hate Winnipeg' into 'I hate Manchester', and it fit so well you couldn't even see the join.)

And if 'Pamphleteer' does shrink the political into the personal, it at least does so beautifully. You wonder how a figure eloquent enough to describe the 'rhetoric and treason of saying that I'll miss you', or present himself as a 'spectre haunting Albert Street', can be so helplessly, awkwardly silent in the face of whoever he's singing to. (I don't think any lines ever written sum up awkward as well as these ones do: 'How I don't know what I should do with my hands when I talk to you; how you don't know where you should look, so you look at my hands.') The grand, swooping chords don't clash with the quiet, half-abashed tune under the voice, but blend into it. When the fragments of protest songs and slogans turn up, there's no way to parse them neatly and keep them separate from the pamphleteer's own voice: 'Sing oh what force on earth could be weaker than the feeble strength of one like me remembering the way it could have been.' The lyrics in the liner put the line from 'Solidarity Forever' in quotation marks - 'Sing, "Oh, what force on earth could be weaker than the feeble strength of one" like me remembering...' - but that doesn't seem quite right, either. Really, what this needs is a quotation mark that fades out on a gradient. Weakerthans album liners never put line breaks in the lyrics; probably that's why.

It's the 'Solidarity Forever' line that makes it for me. This isn't a song about hopeless causes, or about one individual's romantic woes appropriating a history of political struggle. If it's unclear whether pouring out one's heart to someone who doesn't want it is a metaphor for pressing a heartfelt pamphlet to someone's chest and watching it flutter ungrasped to the ground, or vice versa, then maybe it's supposed to be. What matters is the absence of connection, the isolation, the weakness of being just one when 'just one' counts as nothing at all. If there's any kind of political principle underlying this, it's that nobody can feel like a whole person without someone else caring enough to champion whatever they care about. And that sounds like a fine one to me.