Well, they're not about teaching any more!

Posted by September Blue Friday, 26 December 2008 1 comments

I had a dream about a job interview in which:

a) one of my friends, it turned out, had an interview for the same position, except his was at eleven in the morning and mine was half-past five and that meant they were interviewing all day and oh my God I'm up against about fifteen other people and the panel will be so fed up by the time they get to me;
b) I had nothing to wear! Specifically, nothing that would go with a skirt which I wouldn't wear to an interview anyway in real life. (I have an interview suit. It might well not fit now.) And it took me from 11 till 5 to find a top to go with the skirt;
c) Just as they were about to call me into the interview room, some strange mutated monsters (think Predators) rose up to threaten people the world over, and humanity was evacuated into space.

Merry Christmas, everybody!

I have been productive!

Posted by September Blue Thursday, 18 December 2008 1 comments

Yes, yes I have. Here's what I've got done so far today:

- One library shift, featuring actual work getting actually done!
- The last last absolute last work I have to do for the first-year essay grades (except for the thing I have to do tomorrow morning, because ARGH)
- Sorted out a list of final Things I Need To Do to an article that's currently leaping its way towards publication like a salmon trying to return to the place of its birth (and there are bears at the top of the waterfalls, oh yes there are)
- A lot of scanning for one of my other jobs. A lot of scanning. The scanners are temperamental, and only one in three attempts to scan a page actually worked, meaning I also did a lot of deleting (also: the OCR program we use for this tells you, when you select 'Delete Current Page', that 'This will delete the current page! Are you sure you want to do this?).

And I was going to do some preliminary investigation work on a postdoc proposal my head of department wants to hear about, but this involved trying to work out how Bizarre Arcane Funding System works so I gave up, because it is now half-past eight and anyway I think understanding that one involves sacrificing a goat and reading things into its entrails, and I do not have a goat.

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Posted by September Blue Tuesday, 16 December 2008 3 comments

I just marked 86 undergraduate essays in six days. Six days, ladies and gentlemen, and six days which included four library shifts, a job application and a Christmas party at that. My department so owes me a puppy.

And with the self-congratulations over my time management abilities out of the way, here's what I actually wanted to say: God, I am terrible at time management. Really really bad at it. I have a lot of experience at doing seventeen things at once (advice: if you are a PhD student, and you already have three jobs, and someone offers you another one working on organising a conference, the answer is 'HELL NO' and not 'Will there be wine?'. Actually, no - the answer is 'Will you help me talk one of my other bosses into taking leave from that job?', because the conference will be better, but you will be so busy. Make sure there's wine, too), so I can mostly get everything done on time, but that's not quite the same as being good at getting everything done on time. And this, I don't think I'm any good at.

I procrastinate, and then I panic. That's it, basically. That's what I do. It got stuff done when I was an undergraduate, and it got me through my PhD, but I'm not a student any more! And if I have to do things like marking 86 essays in six days, I at least want to be able to do so in such a way that I don't feel like I'm ditching all my friends and putting my life on pause in order to Get The Work Done, because earlier on the afternoon when I could have got some of the work done I was watching Battlestar Galactica, and now I'll feel guilty if I spend any of my time doing or thinking about anything other than work.

Yeah, and I haven't even seen the most recent episode of Battlestar Galactica yet. People, I am procrastinating from my procrastination. What the hell.

All right, so here's the problem: I can't tell whether I'm just bad at time management, or whether my belief that I'm bad at time management cripples my ability to manage my time by including anything other than work in it. Effectively, I suppose the two are the same, and one of these days I probably am going to raise my head from a stack of undergraduate essays I'm marking on a library shift to find that two of my other bosses have fired me, my friends have all dropped me and written a tell-all confessional bestseller about the experience ('Reply to your emails RIGHT NOW or I'll assume you are dead in a ditch!': The September Blue Story), and my boyfriend's left me for a voice-activated Dalek, and I still haven't done the dishes. It's probably the second one, to be honest. And that was a great mindset for getting me through a PhD; it's just not helping me now. So, new semester's resolution, I am Working On It.

I gave up guilt for Lent once. Did I mention that? I really did, and that was during the PhD and everything. I can provide a detailed theological justification for it, too But, wow. Difficult.

Actually, you know what I really need to do? I need to sleep.

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One shelf

Posted by September Blue Thursday, 4 December 2008 5 comments

First line(s) from the books on one of my shelves, selected entirely randomly. (This is only counting the books you can see; my bookshelves runneth over.)

1. Perhaps it was merely the book she was reading, but Sarah Petursson felt uneasy.
2. London. Michaelmas Term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln's Inn Hall. Implacable November weather.
3. He was lost. He wasn't used to being lost. He was the kind of man who drew up plans and executed them, but now everything was conspiring against him in ways he decided he couldn't have foreseen.
4. The ice was thin and loosely attached to the rock. I could see water streaming beneath the opaque layer undermining its strength.
5. Behold! I am not one that goes to Lectures or the pow-wow of Professors.
6. It is quite true that I wasn't doing anything that morning except looking at a blank sheet of paper in my typewriter and thinking about writing a letter. It is also quite true that I don't have a great deal to do any morning. But that is no reason why I should have to go out hunting for old Mrs. Penruddock's pearl necklace. I don't happen to be a policeman.
7. 'Resurrection, like politics, makes strange bedfellows', Sam Clemens said. 'I can't say that the sleeping is very restful.'
8. The Animal Tales collected in this group of folk narratives are not animal anecdotes, nor tales of magical animals such as we find in the Fairy Tales.
9. It was on a mild, fragrant evening in late September, several weeks after she had moved to Glenkill, Pennsylvania, to begin teaching at the Glenkill Academy for Boys, that Monica Jensen was introduced to Sheila Trask at a crowded reception in the headmaster's residence.
10. At first, the damage didn't look quite that bad. There was a jagged crack running through the front door's glass, but that could have happened in a hundred innocent ways.
11. When the big man came in, there was a movement in the room like a lot of bird dogs pointing. Piano player quits pounding, the two singing drunks shut up, all the beautiful people with cocktails in their hands stop talking and laughing.
12. Imagine for a moment that, once Spectre had been safely defeated by Sean Connery, they turned the set of You Only Live Twice into a theme park - with a sliding roof over an artificial beach. Imagine they also put in a wave machine and heated the whole thing up to a steady 30 degrees centigrade.
13. Derek Strange got down in a three-point stance. He breathed evenly, as his father had instructed him to do, and took in the pleasant smell of April.
14. I leave these verses as they stand, although they contain innumerable examples of what I now see to be errors of literature, and one or two examples of what I have come to think errors of opinion.
15. It was my liver that was out of order. I knew it was my liver that was out of order, because I had just been reading a patent liver-pill circular, in which were detailed the various symptoms by which a man could tell if his liver was out of order. I had them all.
16. The ideological roots of Socialist feminism lay in the popular democratic tradition of the late eighteenth century, and in particular in the radical egalitarianism of the 1790s.
17. And so let us beginne; and, as the Fabrick takes its Shape in front of you, alwaies keep the Structure intirely in Mind as you inscribe it.
18. It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.
19. When Sean Devine and Jimmy Marcus were kids, their fathers worked together at the Coleman Candy plant and carried the stench of warm chocolate back home with them.
20. Observe now your own epoch of history as it appears to the Last Men.
21. Light came through the window, trickling morning all over the room. Tatiana Metanova slept the sleep of the innocent, the sleep of restless joy, of warm, white Leningrad nights, of jasmine June.
22. Nothing but stars, scattered across the blackness as though the Creator had smashed the windscreen of his car and hadn't bothered to stop to sweep up the pieces.
23. "We should start back," Gared urged as the woods began to grow dark around them.

More scenes from a library

Posted by September Blue Monday, 1 December 2008 0 comments

One of my former students comes up to the desk with a stack of books. Smart student, lots of books, and we're talking about the courses he's taking when he suddenly points at an old hardback and squeals.

Me: You what?
Him: Look, look, it's Beckett!

And indeed it is: the hardback book on Samuel Beckett he's pointing at has an image of Beckett's face stamped into the cover, the kind you can just see at an angle when the light catches it.

Me: Nifty.
Him: Wow. I didn't even see that! That's amazing!
Me: At least you noticed it now and not at three in the morning when you were writing the Beckett essay.
Him: Or when I came home late drunk. I'd have woken up all my flatmates.
Me: Heh.

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The place isn't the same when they're not here

Posted by September Blue Tuesday, 25 November 2008 1 comments

A Student I Have Not Only Never Taught But In Fact Have Never Even Seen Before: Hi! Um, wait, wait - hi. Um, can I tell you something?
Me: Yes?
Student: I stole a sandwich off the buffet table over there yesterday and I feel really bad. It was one of those little triangle ones? You know, the pointy ones? Like this? *bending his hand into a triangle shape*
Me: It's... okay, really, I don't think anyone cares that much.
Student: But I feel so BAD.
Me: Well, you can say ten Hail Marys if you want, but really nobody minds one sandwich.
Student: It's fine?
Me: It's fine.
Student: Great! *indicating the post-barrier dividing the hall into four* Can I borrow one of these post things?


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I'd send this if I could

Posted by September Blue Saturday, 22 November 2008 2 comments

Dear Professor So-and-so,

I am writing to apply for the lectureship in something vaguely close to my field, currently advertised on jobs.ac.uk. While I know you’re going to get several hundred applicants for this one alone, you should hire me ahead of all those people, and I’ll tell you why.

First, my research. I don’t exactly have a lot of time to work on this these days, what with the four jobs I’m juggling to pay the rent and the arrival of a computer that can actually play Jedi Knight: Jedi Academy, but I’m still fairly good at it. They gave me a PhD and everything. I have some fancy-looking conference presentations on my c.v., and nobody ever falls asleep during mine, I promise you. Also, this really swanky journal just accepted one of my articles. And I have plans! Oh, I have plans. Great plans, wonderful plans, monograph-worthy plans. I can tell you all about them at an interview, or while weeping bitterly into a gin and tonic at closing time, whatever works for you. If you’re at all unsure about my ability to juggle teaching, research and administrative work in a new job, please bear in mind that I mostly finished my PhD thesis on the library circulation desk after teaching to the point of exhaustion all day. Pay me enough to spend all my library time actually reading the books, and I promise you I’ll bring in so many publications that they’ll create a whole new RAE/REF classification of ‘awesome’ just for your department.

Second, my teaching. I’ve taught everything from first-year introductory courses (‘Books and You: Don’t be afraid!’) to final-year honours classes, and everyone from precocious Foucault-reading school-leavers to sullen forty-year-olds with authority issues (and vice versa). I’ve taught tutorials, written lectures, put course handbooks together, refereed student flamewars on WebCT, and right now I’m supervising the dissertation of a student who chose her theoretical approach based on the nifty structure of a course I ran a couple of years ago. I KNOW! Anyway, being a hiring committee you’re no doubt going to hear a lot of bullshit about how people find the huge first-year classes so very rewarding and totally inspiring and not at all below their true station in academic life, so I won’t bore you with the Dead Poets Society spiel, but I will tell you that I mean what I say. If you want to hire someone who’s going to view their career path as one long march towards teaching a single postgraduate class in psychoanalytic representations of the (m)other in illustrated children’s poetry, 1921-1927, then go ahead and hire the twitchy-looking person who just used the word ‘rewarding’; if you want someone who can and will happily teach your first-years, hire me.

Thirdly, my ability to play nicely with other children. Okay, take a look around your department. You have PhD students? You have a PhD student who always turns up to help with all the boring department tasks like clearing up after parties, who’s always there to fill in seats any time the ‘we look bad, get down here now’ mass e-mail goes around about poor staff attendance at department seminars, who will never cause you heartache? That was me. Admittedly, by now I think my department would pay you to take me away, but the fact that I coped so quietly and so sweetly for so long in a department that can simultaneously complain about PhD students not showing any kind of interest in the running of the department and about TAs having the temerity to speak during department meetings remains a mark in my favour, I think. Also, I’ve worked on a bunch of conferences, can make it across a whole building in 1.2 seconds with a data projector under one arm, am adept at the kind of networking that involves juggling comments like “Let me introduce you to someone who might be interested in that project” with comments like “And your wife doesn’t understand you, right?” at the same event, got the administration to Do Something about various things, and resisted the urge to punch someone in the throat for telling me, while I was doing four jobs and a PhD, that these would be the best days of my academic life because all I had to think about was my thesis. Also, I take up very little space and don’t mind having an office without a window.

Yours in begging, pleading, get-me-out-of-this-dysfunctional-snakepit despair,

September Blue.

Posted by September Blue Friday, 21 November 2008 0 comments

So here's the problem with my department: it has no short-term memory. I don't mean that it collectively forgets stuff. I mean that on certain matters, and by 'certain' I mean 'most', it is incapable of retaining new information.

Like the case of the postgrad conference folder. Back in, oh, 2003, 2004, the department thought it would be a good idea if the PhD students organising the postgraduate conference put together a folder of information about what they'd done, who they'd contacted, and what needed to be arranged for when. Maybe it would have been; but, things being things, people got busy and the folder never got made. Nobody claimed it had been made; nobody claimed it would be made; nobody connected to the project was ever under the impression that it existed. So later that year, when the secretaries wanted to know where the folder was, people let them know politely and with no confusion that the folder did not exist, and so the matter passed.

Until the next year, when the secretaries wanted to know where that folder was, and people explained once again that it didn't exist, and the matter was dropped. And the year after that, when the secretaries wanted to know where that folder was, and people explained through gritted teeth that THERE WAS NO FOLDER, and the matter was dropped once again. And the year after that, when the secretaries were very annoyed that someone from the previous year-group was obviously holding on to that folder, still, because it wasn't available to give to the new group, and people wept softly in corners and spent long nights drafting the most unambiguous e-mails possible about the non-existence of the folder. And last week, when the secretaries decided they'd had enough of this folder going missing year after year, and requested copies of all the documents in it so they could build up a folder of their own.

It's possible I'm missing out a few conversations about the folder, here. There were a lot. Anyway, what I'm saying is that I think most of the department's dysfunction can be traced back to this same idea - that once it has got an idea into its collective head, that idea is there forever, no matter what else happens to interfere with the facts.

I'm grumbling about my department a little here because I've just had dinner with a friend who got his PhD today, and who's one of my favourite academics in the whole wide world (even after his baby bit me). He's also great to talk to about work matters, because although he graduated from my department, he was distanced from it for so long that its bizarreness just seems absolutely ridiculous to him. I mean, I know it's ridiculous, too, but you don't realise how much of its oddness you've internalised as just the way things are until someone else interrupts your story with a 'they told you whaaaaaaaaat?'

So here's the slightly less funny things the department has got into its head recently:
- TA allocations are divided up entirely at random. The fact that they hugely favour the same few individuals year after year does not in any way impact upon this randomness.
- The department has absolutely no obligation to let current TAs know if they won't be teaching next semester. Word will get round from the people who did, so they'll hear about it eventually.
- Post-PhDs like me doing hourly-paid teaching are a persistent annoyance, and are only still attached to the department because they don't want to leave [gosh, who would?]. It is, therefore, totally acceptable to ask them on very short notice to teach 25% of the first-years, but to drop them from the list of end-of-semester party invites because they're not staff.
- Post-PhDs like me whine, and we don't understand how things work, and we don't appreciate how much the department's done for us, and we persistently let it down, and we need to grow up and act like professionals and stop taking everything so personally.

This can get to you after a while.

My friend staged what I can best describe as an academic intervention, insisting that I get an old research proposal together and submit it to funding bodies for this year's consideration, pointing out to me that it's really really interesting and that it would work very well with one increasingly trendy research area, giving me names of people and departments to contact about taking this further.

"And also," he said, "you have got to leave this place before it drives you insane."


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Cognitive Dissonance-Requiring Casting Decisions Of Our Time

Posted by September Blue Wednesday, 19 November 2008 0 comments

1. Doctor Who as Hamlet (in the current RSC Hamlet)

2. Jimmy McNulty as Oliver Cromwell (in Channel 4's Civil War bildungsromantitragedwhateveritis, The Devil's Whore)

I know they're both great actors, but that's always going to be weird.

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All right, really?

Posted by September Blue Tuesday, 11 November 2008 1 comments

A girl from secondary school has just added me as a friend on Facebook. The only, and I mean only, conversation I remember having with her is queuing up for shotput aged fourteen when she told me that she'd had just about enough of my cheek and would be waiting behind the PE block after school to batter me. (I mean, presumably there were conversations leading up to that because as far as I recall it didn't come out of nowhere, but, yeah, we weren't exactly friends.)

I know Facebook is a strange place anyway, full of friend requests from people you don't even remember very well, and there's a few people I'm friends with on Facebook whose names I'd honestly struggle to remember otherwise, and maybe that's not a bad thing, really, because maybe the world needs more of it, but I draw the line at being the Friend of someone who, for all I know, is still waiting behind the PE block. I mean, come on.

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That last post is not happy enough. This will fix it.

Posted by September Blue Thursday, 6 November 2008 3 comments

New shoes! New shoes! Okay, I can't walk in them for very long, but NEW SHOES!

New shoes

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Posted by September Blue 3 comments

"I thought you weren't doing the genetics test."
"No, I was going to think about it. And now I've watched Heroes and I've made up my mind."
"I don't think you're taking this very seriously," says my mother. She might have a point.

As well as the geneticist, I have appointments with a neurologist, an orthoptist, a hospital optician, and the ophthalmologist who sent me on to all the above, as well as the contact details for a vision impairment place that might be able to give me some useful advice for dealing with photophobia (if we were living in a parallel universe where I actually contacted them). The orthoptist has already seen me once and I don't know what she's still doing on the list, except that for most of that appointment she was fascinated by my condition and asked me questions I couldn't answer about precisely what they'd done in my childhood operations to deal with it so well, so maybe she's just curious and hoping I'll be able to do better than "Um... something with the muscles, I think?" in the future. (I won't. I don't know what they did. But in my defence, I was four years old and under general anaesthetic at the time.)

Plus, I'm not doing badly. I haven't had a migraine for a while now, and while I feel like a bit of a dork wearing sunglasses in November, I can't be doing that badly if feeling like a bit of a dork is the worst part of it. So maybe I'm not taking it too seriously, but it doesn't seem too serious. Certainly not enough to warrant the variety show of medical professionals it's getting, anyway. Right? Right.

(And then I remind myself that the variety show comes because there is possibly something wrong with my brain, something that might well be getting worse, and I feel very serious indeed.)

The ophthalmologist said it was obvious I'd spent a lot of time in hospitals, and I can guess why. The tests haven't changed much in ten years, and none of them bother me; shine bright blue lights into my eyes, put my face in a metal frame and crank another light closer and closer and closer for whatever strange Orwellian purpose that machine has, tap my eyeballs with cotton-buds to test their reflexes, and I smile happily and sit still. The exception is eye-drops, but these days instead of throwing myself to the ground and screaming in pre-emptive pain I look suspiciously at the nurse and say "Is that atropine? I hate atropine," and she tells me she's sure I'm used to it by now. The ophthalmologist said I had a very sensible approach to all this. I didn't make any Heroes references with him, but I must have seemed pretty relaxed.

There are downsides to seeming relaxed in such environments. When you seem confident enough to trade jokes about being somebody's ideal publication before you ask for a layperson translation of the line he read out from the Great Big Book Of Weird Eye Stuff, you probably shouldn't be surprised when the answer's "It means that possibly part of your brain is missing." And several minutes of "Oh, no no no! Not in a bad way! It's not a new thing, you have a PhD, it's obviously not affected you that badly!" later, my heartrate had almost returned to normal.

And then he talked to me about the different variations of my condition and the hereditability of said different versions, and I got confused again and said "So, wait, if mine might be autosomal dominant, what does that mean?", and he said "Oh, it might be like Huntington's," and then I hit the ceiling with enough force to ricochet across his office. ("No no no! It's okay! No! I don't mean it's like Huntington's, it's not like Huntington's, it's just the pattern of how it's inherited that's the same, please can you climb out of that drawer now?")

But the facts remain. My condition is sometimes accompanied by wider deformities of the central nervous system, and these come in many different flavours, and they are so varied and the condition is so rare that there's no pattern to follow. It's possible that my migraines and photophobia are connected to that, and it's possible that they're not. The doctor did reassure me that pressure to publish is still pressure to publish in the medical sciences, so people are going to write up the weird and unusual cases disproportionately, etc etc etc, but my condition is weird and unusual enough as it is and he's not immune to the lure of that. By the end of the appointment, his desk was covered in abstracts and articles he'd printed off to show me while I was waiting for the atropine to do its work, and he was pointing out various interesting things this condition has done to other people. "Learning difficulties - well, you're okay there!" he says happily. "And these hand abnormalities! Have you seen these? And see, more CNS things - gait ataxia, brain stem atrophy -"

We look at each other.

"- I'msureit'sveryrare."


Probably I'm fine. Probably the worst I'll ever have to deal with is looking like a bit of a dork in sunglasses when it's November. Probably nothing's going to get worse. But if I have to go through all this hassle all the same, I should get to make jokes about living in a world where rare genetic conditions mean that you can fly.

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More like a found news ticker than a found poem

Posted by September Blue Wednesday, 5 November 2008 1 comments

Youtube Search Suggestions Present: President-Elect Obama.

Obama antichrist
Obama brush your shoulders off
Obama children singing
Obama dance
Obama europe
Obama fox news
Obama guns
Obama hillary umbrella
Obama is an arab
Obama jews
Obama krypton
Obama lion king
Obama mccain roast
Obama never gonna give you up
Obama obama
Obama pledge of allegiance
Obama quotes the bible
Obama rally
Obama socialist
Obama terrorist connections
Obama us citizen
Obama votes
Obama will win
Obama xcel
Obama yes we can
Obama zone.

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Essays 6: Revenge of the Son of the Bride of the Sith

Posted by September Blue Tuesday, 4 November 2008 0 comments

Essay 51 - ...what? This one needs some big corrections, but I don't even know where to start. It's like trying to guide someone through putting up shelves with a kipper.

Essay 52 - Terrible writing. Brilliant ideas. And sadly, despite something one of my students once told me as evidence for why I should change his grade, in the real world it does indeed matter where the commas go.

Essay 53 - Passionately and eloquently argues for two contradictory ideas. You're messing with me, aren't you?

Essay 54 - similar to essay 51. Earned the glorious honour of getting listed on the second-marking grade sheet (all our essays being exchanged with another member of staff and checked for grade consistency before going back to the students) as 'HELP!'

Essay 55 - This was absolutely brilliant. I hope it's the student I think it is.

Essay 56 - Not quite brilliant, but still fairly shiny.

Essay 57 - Best grade of the whole batch so far. These creative responses can really, really work sometimes.

Essay 58 - Good analysis, but slightly worrying in terms of student's future life choices, viz. responding to early modern love poetry of the woe-is-me-life-is-as-nothing-until-my-love-looks-my-way variety as a) obviously a sign of deep, suicidal depression from the speaker and b) clearly proving that his love is real and genuine. (One of my fellow TAs suggested 'FYI - beware of angsty boys bearing mix-tapes, because BELIEVE ME it gets old fast' as an additional comment, but we decided against it.)

Essay 59 - Ah, the many tactful ways I have learnt to say 'You have some good ideas but have totally misread the question' over the years.

Essay 60 - Why is this one printed in blue? It clashes with my marking pen.

AND THEY ARE DONE! O frabjous day, callooh callay!

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Essay 41 - I gave this a pretty good grade, but I still think I might have been too mean. I'll flag it up to look at tomorrow when I have coffee in front of me; it did have some genuine problems, but it's not the student's fault that these particular problems are the ones that drive me crazy.

Essay 42 - The opposite problem! This one's answered the question that all my plagiarists, may their names be howled in Hades, went for, and while it's very good I'm now wondering if my effusive praise and brilliant grade is partly because the student actually wrote it themselves. Maybe go back to this one before the coffee.

Essay 43 - Hee, this one mentions an academic marking essays. It's like one of those infinite regress pictures.

Essay 44 - Oh, student, you are going to absolutely love heavy theory. Really. I want to see your face when you discover Derrida, and kind of wish you'd been at university fifteen years earlier to truly get the most of it.

Essay 45 - It is a sign of my great age and boringness that I almost want to thank this one for writing their essay in a larger font. omg, I can read it!

Essay 46 - This one is in 10 point, just to show me. (But it's very good.)

Essay 47 - Dialogue: not your friend.

Essay 48 - Another plagiarist. Tar and feathers.

Essay 49 - This one has such a clever last line that I just know the student was smiling when they wrote it. I hope there was a victory lap around the room, too. (Which reminds me of something a girl in my Masters class once said: "You know how sometimes when you're getting to the end of your argument, and you're really pleased with yourself, and you start doing little twiddly show-off things like you're throwing your own victory parade? With Kristeva, you can hear the damn trumpets from page 3.")

Essay 50 - Oh, clever. Student, I am seriously proud of you.

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Essays, IV: A New Hope

Posted by September Blue Sunday, 2 November 2008 1 comments

*pause to rearrange blog layout, because that's going to get me through the marking faster, obviously*

Essay 31: They're a bitch to mark, but I'm loving these creative-writing essays.

Essay 32: That said, I wonder about students like this one, who can write like a Pulitzer-winning angel; are they going to be this good at writing analytic pieces as well? Aren't they going to feel a bit disappointed if they turn out not to be and their grades plummet once creative responses aren't an option?

Essay 33: Moral nuance: not a big thing in first-year essays.

Essay 34: Yeah, see, when I warned everybody off using 'they have many similarities and many differences' as an argument, I was not actually suggesting 'they have lots of similarities and only a few differences' as a replacement. Really.

Essay 35: This is an interesting one, because I think I know who wrote it and (for the sake of anonymous vagueness) they're a student whose pre-university background was in a profession which has the potential to be traumatic and harrowing in a variety of ways, and the student's chosen to write about that very thing. Effectively and well, so it's not awkward to mark. Just interesting.

Essay 36: Do not eat your thesaurus. It never helps.

Essay 37: I think this student did something really interesting without realising it, and then moved on to say eighteen varieties of the same thing about rhyme. I did a lot of underlining, and there may have been arrows.

Essay 38: This one answered the question I'd say is by far the toughest (although it's on the shortest texts, which might explain a lot about its popularity). Made some good points intermittently. There's a weird feeling with some of these and-now-I-will-proceed-to-discuss-imagery essays; I think a lot of the time these students actually quite like having opinions of their own about the text, but they've been trained to write in the kind of way that stamps down on that, and so it comes through in patches and bursts, as if there's some quietly-fought battle hiding under the type.

Essay 39: defied all rational description.

Essay 40: Brilliant ideas, very strange tangly structure. This can be fixed.

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Essay-marking 3: Son of the Bride of the First-Year Essays

Posted by September Blue Friday, 31 October 2008 3 comments

Essay 21 - I think this student is both smarter than me and on hallucinogenic drugs.

Essay 22 - More creative writing. I am very impressed with the quality of the student creative writing this semester. Except, in this case... well, see, they're supposed to be responding creatively to a particular text, and not so much in this case. So although it's a great piece they've written, it won't get the grade it would in a creative writing class. Alas, student.

Essay 23 - The exact opposite of 'The Waste Land and Me' - spotting all the right things, really knowing their stuff about poetic terminology, but it reads like they've been taught to write by catching a poem and drowning it in formaldehyde.

Essay 24 - This one has some excellent turns of phrase. They seem to seep out by accident (I get the feeling this student's learned to write the same way the writer of Essay 23 did), but they're great all the same.

Essay 25 - So good that my current choice of marking implement (metallic turquoise gel pen) seems to tarnish it somehow.

Essay 26 - ESL student doing a creative piece, where some of the ESL idiosyncrasies actually work surprisingly well.

Essay 27 - This one is really, really good, and the student's clearly done a lot of reading. The critics do swamp the student's own ideas a bit, as critics are wont to do, but we can work on that.

Essay 28 - I swear we went over the problems with 'many similarities and many differences' the week before these came in.

Essay 29 - Excellent ideas, somewhat lacking in execution. When even the Victorianist marking your essays thinks your sentences are unbearably long, you might want to work on knowing when to stop.

Essay 30 - Another good grade, another very similar registration number. (This is one of the main problems with anonymous marking, especially when you have a lot of essays to mark; seven-digit registration numbers that will quite often differ by only one digit pave a dangerous path into confusion and chaos when it comes to submitting grades.)

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Essay-marking, part 2

Posted by September Blue Thursday, 30 October 2008 2 comments

Essay 11 - ARGH. I wish we had a whole separate grade category for essays like this one (garbled, repetitive, nonsensical, half the length it should be, etc etc etc). Since we do not, I will console myself with stories of people handing essays back In The Old Days with comments upon them like 'I am returning this perfectly good paper to you because some idiot has scrawled nonsense all over it'.

Essay 12 - This one won't get a much better grade than Essay 11, but I don't mind ones like this anywhere near so much - the student is clearly trying, just has real difficulties with basic writing skills. That can be worked on. (Preferably in primary school teachers why are you letting children get through the system without knowing what a comma is, but whatever.)

Essay 13 - Yay for student creative writing! (The essays I'm marking at the moment are a mixture of creative/analytic responses to texts, which is an... interesting idea.) And this one's very vivid and pretty creepy (deliberately so!), which is great fun to read even when the exposition is a little clunky.

Essay 14 - There had to be a plagiarist sooner or later. And to this one's credit, I got almost to the end of the essay before turning to Dr Google. (Oh, the shame - usually I'm much quicker off the mark than that.) It looks like it's about 70% plagiarised, with another short paragraph that I know has to be lifted from somewhere and can't find. Thanks to some judicious word-swapping and sentence-rearranging, Turnitin passed it through as fine.

Essay 15 - OH for heaven's sake TWO plagiarists in a ROW is just not FAIR. This one seemed a little bit less dire at the start, but by the final pages had degenerated into copy/paste/right-click-thesaurus to the point where the final sentences didn't even make any kind of sense.

Essay 16 - Written by the student themselves, o frabjous day! And this is an interesting one, because it's doing a lot of things right but has also headed off down the wrong road from the start, in the model Stanley Fish described re: hypothetical journal articles nobody would want to read as 'The Waste Land and Me'.

Essay 17 - I love this one.

Essay 18 - More creative writing! And very vivid, although possibly would have been better served had someone confiscated the author's thesaurus beforehand.

Essay 19 - Whoever is in charge of the language proficiency requirements for exchange students needs to be fired. This student is clearly trying very hard, but I can't at all follow what they're saying.

Essay 20 - MORE PLAGIARISM! Greeeeeeat. And the thing is, if I turned up my existing speech on secondary sources and referencing and plagiarism to make it sound even more scary, I'm fairly sure it wouldn't touch the ones who already think I won't spot it, and the overly nervous ones who are worried about accidental plagiarism would fret themselves into panic. Sigh.

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Essay-marking, live! (Part 1 of several)

Posted by September Blue Sunday, 26 October 2008 2 comments

*Pause to hunt down interestingly-coloured pen.*

Essay 1 - Two sheets of paper. One of which is the cover sheet. For a 2000 word essay. Huh. Oh, no, it's just in REALLY tiny font. I'm putting this one back in the pile, my eyes can't deal with that at 11pm.

Essay 2 - What is it with students inventing their own paragraphing system? Loads of mine do this two-tier thing, where a blank line means an actual new paragraph while a line break means, I don't know, a change of subject within the paragraph or something. It's really curious. But this is an interesting essay - no real argument, no clear train of thought on anything, but clearly written by a student who really likes poetry and wants to talk about how it sounds. This is the kind of student whose grade could go up a lot in essays to come.

Essay 3 - This one worried me. It's a close-reading of a poem in which the student's chosen the most negative, bleak, life-is-nothing interpretation of everything, to a point beyond misreading (e.g. the poem mentions 'a town', and the student writes that not naming this town contributes to the apathetic and boring feeling of existence the poem describes... and on, and on, for a whole essay). Yeah, this one goes into the Discuss With A Colleague pile.

Essay 4 - Wow, this one can write. I am so impressed by how confidently some of my students write when it's their first university essay; I don't think I was anywhere near this brave. (Although, here's a frightening thought - I was having lunch with the person who taught me first-year English as an undergrad the other day, and he remembered which short story I'd written on for that first essay. ERK.)

Essay 5 - CONGRATULATIONS STUDENT for getting every single presentation category ticked in the 'unsatisfactory' box! This takes real dedication. Ignoring the stylesheet and all my advice risks getting one right by accident; this, my friends, is skill.

Essay 6 - I feel a little sorry for students who've spent however many years at school being taught how to write a book report, and then get to university where their book report is going to get the same grade this one will. It's a pretty good book report, too.

Essay 7 - This is odd. It starts off without an argument, it continues for a long time without an argument, and then it sort of picks up an argument without realising it on page 3. Your subconscious already wants to write literary criticism! Trust the Force, Luke!

Essay 8 - This was brilliant. Really brilliant. But so cautious! Half an essay written in the form of "Possibly this is going too far but it occurred to me possibly that in my opinion maybe it could be argued that [really insightful point here]." Whoever this is (all our marking is done anonymously), I wish they'd start sitting next to the student who wrote Essay 4.

Essay 9 - If you're not sure what the question means, then adding "This proves how [question here] is true" every fifth sentence is probably not the way to go.

Essay 10 - Oh, the dreaded essay written by the exchange student whose English really isn't up to essay-writing level. I feel mean telling them off for this as if it's something they can just Work Harder At - it's truly not their fault that the language-proficiency tests done with some of the exchange universities are really not up to scratch - but, all the same, I can't even understand what this one's saying half the time.

Also, I need more sleep

Posted by September Blue Friday, 24 October 2008 1 comments

OH MY GOD YOU GUYS a bunch of us just went out for drinks and we were at this fancy new restaurant which to be honest was kind of expensive and I think they didn't like it when we just ordered starters but whatever because it's mid-semester break and this means we can go out and wilt into chairs and compare stories from teaching all night long so anyway there we were talking about the temperature because three of us said the room was too hot and the other one said she was suddenly freezing cold and she held up one of her arms and it was covered in goosebumps and then an empty wine-glass moved across the table towards her all by itself and she didn't see it but two of us just stared and stared and then we put the glass back and tried to jiggle the table or lean on it or something to see if we could make the glass move that way and it wasn't budging and then the waiter came over so we said "Is this place haunted?" and he blinked at us and we said "No REALLY is it really HAUNTED because that glass just moved ALL BY ITSELF we SWEAR" and he said he'd go away and ask someone if they'd heard anything because he was new and then we never saw him again.

Which I think is possibly because he's a student in our department. And because he's still in the kitchen telling the chef that TAs just absolutely lose the plot at mid-semester break. Which is fair.

(But I swear, that glass moved.)

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Posted by September Blue Wednesday, 22 October 2008 0 comments

I share an office, so people who need to talk to their students will usually end up doing it with a few TAs present. Annoying, but, you know. Mostly we don't pay too much attention to what someone else's student is talking about; this time, because my friend is teaching the creepiest student alive, I did.

Not that I knew she was teaching the creepiest student alive. I knew she was teaching a student that seemed to have some problems beyond a more typical glowering-bratty-teenager model - this student had, for example, suggested during a discussion that the death penalty should be brought back and extended to cover a wide range of crimes, and shrugged off someone else's 'What if innocent people end up getting executed?' with 'Doesn't matter - people are shit and there's too many of them anyway' - but hey, sullen misanthropy is something students have grown out of before, I'm sure. And mostly we all assumed he was putting it on as an act.

Having heard this kid speak now, I am fairly sure he's not.

And the thing is, he didn't even say anything disturbing in that meeting. No threats, nothing like that. He was polite and attentive. I wish I could put into words just what was so disturbing about him, but I don't think I can beyond saying that he held a conversation like he was talking to ELIZA. This wasn't shyness, or social awkwardness, or autism failing to pick up on social cues - this was a blankness. I didn't even look up from my own work, and it still made my skin creep.

My friend's half-course has finished, so she's not teaching him any more. Other people still are. The student support people are 'keeping an eye on him', which seems epically ineffective as a tactic - but what else could they do, really?

I don't even know what this kid looked like. Maybe I'll see him in a newspaper one day.

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Teaching and politics

Posted by September Blue Friday, 10 October 2008 3 comments

As a general principle, I'm fine with the idea that my students shouldn't be unduly influenced by my own views. True, since they're taught by a person rather than a series of PowerPoint slides, I don't think it's possible - let alone desirable - to act as if I have no opinions of my own when I'm teaching, but my opinions shouldn't be presented as unilateral truth. Or maybe they shouldn't even be presented. Donne was a genius, fine; people who write on whiteboards with permanent markers should be tarred and feathered, okay; but nobody in my class needs to know whether or not I go to church or where I stand on Trident, and they certainly don't need to hear that my opinions on any such matters are The Truth, disagree with me and your grades will pay the price.

So that's the theory. Simple enough.

A while ago, I was teaching an introduction to forms of literary representation using three images of Guernica/Gernika after the Luftwaffe bombing. One photograph of blackened, half-destroyed buildings; one aerial map of the town showing the areas hit; one copy of Picasso's painting. I recommend this to anyone teaching the same kind of thing, too. Forget starting off with George Eliot and medieval allegory. Anyway, the way we talked about the pictures treated the bombing unambiguously as a Bad Thing, but I thought that was fairly non-controversial - until a few weeks later, when one of my students handed in an essay on an unrelated topic that turned into a paean for Franco somewhere around the middle of page 3.


I know my students aren't always going to share my views on politics. I know my students aren't always going to share my views on history. But I did think we might have some common ground on the matter of fascist dictators.

I was reminded of this recently after talking about another incident of several years ago with one of my colleagues, in which I cut a student off mid-sentence and didn't let him finish voicing a particularly homophobic opinion (something beginning with the words 'Of course, all right-thinking people are obviously repulsed...', if I remember right). It's the only time in my teaching career I've ever done that, and I don't regret it. To that student, I'm sure, it looked like I was stamping down on discussion by only letting the views I agreed with get heard. To the others? Who knows.

So then, what's my role in those situations? I shouldn't be using my position of authority as a political pulpit, and my students have every right to hold whatever bizarre, repellent or horrifying views they want. Should I keep in mind that the quiet, sullen student at the back might very well disagree with whatever the rest of the class is saying, and attempt to balance the discussions accordingly? Give equal time to pro-Franco views? Make sure the students are aware that there are at least two sides to every story and that it's not for me to make moral judgments? "Okay, everybody, I see what you're saying, but let's remember that the supporters of baby-bayonetting have a right to their opinion as well?"

It'd be disingeneous to pretend I was morally torn on this issue. I have absolutely no problem whatsoever with the idea that viciously homophobic and pro-fascist students might feel marginalised for their views, really. Ideally, fine, I'd let them bring their ideas to the discussion, and hear them out, and then gently nudge them with a series of non-confrontational questions and possibly a poem or two into a position where they realised what was truly important in life and tearfully repented of their ignorance, and they'd be the first students to stand on their desks and recite 'O Captain, My Captain' on my last day - but the semester is too short for ideally. And while I could avoid all potential confrontation by refusing to discuss any emotionally charged subjects and making sure any strongly-held views got dissipated by an unstoppable bland wave of let's agree to disagree, I don't think this is the point of studying literature.

I wonder what this looks like from the students' perspective.

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Posted by September Blue Tuesday, 30 September 2008 1 comments

Dear Students:

I need to know if you're off sick. And if you're off sick with a condition that might keep you out of tutorials for a while, or that might mean work gets handed in late, then it would be good to let me know that, as well. Beyond that, believe me, there are no details that I want to hear.

I was eating a sandwich, too.

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A sea of faces

Posted by September Blue Sunday, 28 September 2008 3 comments

65 new students this semester. The people in Room Bookings, who have had it up to here with the department and have placed the secretaries on an official warning, say the rooms are not too small; those rooms all have a capacity of 20, and 16 students plus one tutor does not equal 21. But the people in Room Bookings determine room capacity on the assumption that tables will be laid out individually and facing the front, students sitting in rows, and that isn't the way most of us want to teach.

Incidentally, who knew that Room Bookings could put people on an official warning? This is troubling.

Here's how I want the rooms set out: tables in a circle or a horseshoe or a big central block, students sat round the outside. They should all be able to see me, and they should all be able to see each other as well. It's not a lecture, it's a discussion, etc. But with the bigger class sizes, the people at Room Bookings have allocated our classes to teaching rooms in a science building, and here all of the tables are laid out in rows, facing the front.

Room Bookings will not agree to lay the tables out 'boardroom style', as I have learnt it is known, 'just for the Arts people.' What, you people can't teach if they're facing you? Babies.

So some of my colleagues have given up, and run tutorials like lectures, all the students sat in rows facing. Some of them get the students to sit in the aisles between tables, balancing notepads on their knees if they can't reach a surface, so that everyone can be seated in a circle even if the tables aren't. The rest of us ask the students for a hand moving the tables into one big block in the middle. And this works okay, except now the rooms seem really crowded, and late students have to inch their way sideways down a wall to find an empty seat, but, well, let's just call that added incentive to get here on time. That hurdle is jumped.

The next hurdle is remembering everyone's names.

I'm useless at recognising faces. They just don't seem to register to me in a way that lasts once they're out of sight. It is one of my ongoing fears that one day I'll be the sole eyewitness to a terrible crime, and I'll be sat around with the police artist and the photofit people, and they'll say 'So, the murderer looked straight at you for ten minutes when you were three feet away...', and I won't be able to do any better than 'I think he had hair.'

I think most of my students have hair. I also think most of my students are teenagers living away from home for the first time, and thus cannot be guaranteed to have the same colour, style, or quantity of hair from week to week. So there goes my usual method.

I know some people don't think it's worth the effort to learn all the students' names, especially when you've got, say, more than thirty in a single semester. But I teach much better, and they get much more out of the class, when I can recognise them as non-interchangable individuals. I've asked them all to sit in the same places for the first couple of weeks, and begun the first class with an introduction exercise they have to say something about what they've done or what they like, and my seating plans detail name/hair/memorable thing for each student, because I don't like the idea of any of them seeing my notes for the other ways I remember who they are (blonde hair, straight, longish - black-rimmed glasses - giggles a lot but shy, looks at tables when she talks - possibly going out with scarf boy who sits on left?). And I have the library system, with its neat passport photo of every student on their record. So I'm trying, and I've told the students I'll have their names perfectly by the start of week 3.

But sixteen all packed into a little classroom with no room to breathe - for now, they're still just a sea of faces.

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Well, this counts as a record

Posted by September Blue Friday, 19 September 2008 1 comments

One of my first-year students is annoyed with me. Apparently my e-mail address as given on the department website doesn't work, and so the student tried to contact me via the internal mail address book instead, and that didn't work either, and so the student had to resort to contacting one of the other TAs and asking him for help, because I am just impossible to get hold of. As is the undergraduate secretary, whose e-mail also doesn't work.

This isn't a record because of the inexplicable failure of the university e-mail system (my e-mail address on the department website and on the university mail address book works fine for everyone else, as does the undergrad secretary's). It is a record because I haven't even met the first-years yet, and already one of them is mad at me.

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Tales from induction week

Posted by September Blue 4 comments

From the assortment of administrators, librarians, technicians and minions who made up the welcome wagon. For the first five days of semester, we ran a general information desk that served as first point of call for all inquiries.

- An eighteen-year-old boy, looking perpetually lost, came wandering over at least once a day. The last thing he asked was "Where can I get something to make my bed look nice?"

- Parents: "Is there any way we can find out how [son] is doing in his exams and so on if he won't tell us himself?"

- At least four new students came to ask why they hadn't been told about the introductory sessions for their classes, only to find out that the system had them down as 'No current course of study'. Ah. Well. That's a problem. But Registry once entirely forgot about one department's entire year group of incoming PhD students, so I'm not jumping to student-blaming conclusions on this one.

- Parent: "Does she have to buy the books for all her essays?"
Minion: "Er, she can. The department will give her a list of required reading and recommended reading for whatever course she's -"
Parent: "And the recommended ones, will she have to buy those?"
Minion: "She'll have to read them. She can buy them if she wants. Some copies will be in the library."
Parent: "And will she be told which ones are in the library?"
Minion: "She'll get her reading list on Thursday. She can check it against the library catalogue if she wants to know which books are in there. It depends on what course she's doing."
Parent: "English."
Minion: "...right. She should buy the core books. And the recommended reading, that'll be stuff that might be useful for her work, so she can read it if -"
Parent: "When will she know if it's useful?"
Minion looks at Student. Student looks at feet.

- It's a lot easier to answer 'When do I get my personalised timetable?' when you have a large stack of completely blank timetables next to you. Personalise away! You can even doodle in the margins.

- Parents: "Are we allowed to go to the Residences talks as well, or is that just for them?" I don't know. Do you plan to be living there?

- One woman asked whether she had to go to 'all those lectures' for her classes, complained that the university had not yet made lectures available via podcast, and then asked if there was a limit to how many of her course credits she could 'use up' on learning strategies and writing skills half-credit modules as replacements for the core modules for her degree.

- One set of parents came boiling over with fury about The State Of His Room, meaning their son's perfectly average room in the university residences. "It's tiny!" and "There's hardly any furniture, just a bed and a desk with a chair and some shelves and things!" and "It's not clear which cupboard in the kitchen is his!", and on. The student didn't seem that bothered.

- About three hundred newly arrived students couldn't get their personal computers hooked up to the university network (complaints logged under 'The Internet doesn't work'). About two hundred and eighty of these turned out to need an ethernet cable. My answer to "But, isn't it wireless?" went from an explanation of the effects of multiple breezeblock walls on wireless signals (day 1) to pointing out that with the size of their rooms, there wasn't anywhere an ethernet cable wouldn't reach anyway (day 5).

- Parents, third day of semester: "So she's in this talk now. What are we supposed to be doing?" Getting a coffee? Going home?

- Student with handwritten timetable, concerned that he had a lecture clash. Checking his against the central teaching timetable revealed that one of his 'lectures' was a lab practical with several different timeslots. "See, when you got that one off the timetable -" "No, my dad did my timetable for me."

Kayak semaphore

Posted by September Blue Sunday, 14 September 2008 1 comments

IMG_2739, originally uploaded by victorianitas.

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Sympathy for the devil

Posted by September Blue Thursday, 11 September 2008 0 comments

My life is full of 9am meetings at the moment. Since I am not a 9am person, this is making me grumpy. (Really, am I not paying enough of a tribute to the gods of early mornings by starting work at 8.30 five days out of seven? Can't I keep my two precious, precious mornings where the alarm clock doesn't wake me at all?) But it's induction weekend coming up, and so meetings there must be, including meetings where both academic and admin staff are present.

Well, there weren't any fights. I suppose that's a plus.

If most of your university time is spent around academics, your view of the non-academic staff is shaped by the views of those around you. Non-academic staff are something like the pest snails in my aquarium: they turn up out of nowhere, they reproduce at a staggering rate, and they get everywhere. Oh, maybe they eat algae. Still. Algae. Small price to pay.

This meeting, I got to see better than ever before just what the academic staff look like to the admin people. And. Well. I hate to phrase it this way, but we are a bunch of whiny self-centred little brats.

One meeting, about one very specific topic, and I counted:
- two people asking totally irrelevant questions about administrative matters that, they wished everyone else in the room to know, made them unhappy
- one lengthy grumbling interlude from the members of one particular department, re: a change in university policy that the academic departments are split over anyway, that required an actual shushing from the person speaking at the time
- four people saying some variation of "If I have to come in on Monday...", with the definite implication that though such a strenuous task might turn them into a broken and shambling wreck, they would be willing to make such a sacrifice for future generations of academics to continue the noble fight after they had gone.

Oh, people.


Posted by September Blue Wednesday, 10 September 2008 0 comments

[September Blue] says (23:25:40): "Results 1 - 10 of about 451,000 for entourage eating e-mail" Oh GOODY, it's not just me.
[Laz] says: (23:26:35): you really want "Results 1-10 of about 451,000 for entourage regurgitating email" methinks.

Two days of fighting with Entourage, and I'm reconsidering my initial glee over getting Microsoft Office from work for £6. No, legally and everything! And the only downside is that it will eat three weeks worth of e-mail every time you start up Entourage! Although to be honest, if that was the deal upfront I still might've bought it just for Powerpoint.

(Okay, any Googlers who got here for desperate Entourage e-mail consumption problems: if your incoming e-mail is set up as a POP account, check Mailing List Manager and you'll likely see some rule set up about moving all your messages to Folders On My Computer. If it's an Exchange account, then it's just being cranky for reasons unknown to the combined wisdom of all the IT people at my work, but you can fix it by deleting your account preferences completely and then setting up the account again. Your gobbled e-mail is probably still there saved to Folders On My Computer; if it's not immediately obvious, and a search isn't turning it up either, go to Sent Directly to Me under Mail Views below that, and they will all magically appear there.)

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I can't help but find this ominous

Posted by September Blue Monday, 8 September 2008 0 comments

A week before the start of the semester, and I'm setting up Entourage on my computer. (I hate Entourage, but there's a huge epic fight going on between Apple Mail, my ISP, and my university network, and I'd rather just not get involved in that right now.)

At the moment, it's updating my folders.

More specifically: at the moment, it's showing me the words 'Now updating Students' next to a blue bar that's inching further and further to the right.


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Some advertising works wonderfully on me

Posted by September Blue Sunday, 7 September 2008 2 comments

And it's not even from Apple! These are from the back of an art journal I acquired a few copies of recently (and by 'acquired', I mean 'rescued from a skip' - they were too nice to be pulped). I have nothing interesting or insightful to say about the advertising techniques here, except that everyone who doesn't believe me about what HMV stands for shall henceforth be referred to image 2 in an appropriately smug manner; I just love the design work.





Also, I want that chair.

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Or, Why I Have Not Been Writing Anything About My Own Academic Work On Here Recently. To which the short answer is: because I haven't been doing any. I'm busy, but that's not why. Being entirely honest, it's more because I struggle to care at the moment.

This doesn't mean I don't care about my subject. I still find my subject pretty interesting, especially now that the PhD jitters have worn off a bit, and I would continue to find it interesting if I gave up academia entirely tomorrow. Translating that interest into actual academic work, though - writing journal-format articles in academic prose, hunting down what Big Name Theorists have to say about related matters because someone might ask me one day and I should have an answer, trying to get published - that stuff is getting to be somewhat more of a drag than it used to be. To put it mildly.

Okay, okay, I know. It's part of the job, it's the difference between being an academic and being someone who knows a lot about X obscure field of Victorian literature (and while I think about half my readers already know what this is, I'm going to leave it blank here anyway in fear that future academics won't work out who I am and decide not to hire me based entirely on this post, so obviously I do still care about this academic stuff a little). It's what I need to do to get a job, and I shouldn't claim I want to be in academia if I whine about having to do all the boring stuff ("Klinger, aren't you ashamed of yourself?" "Yes, sir! I don't deserve to be in the army!"). I know this. And, yet.

Imagine it this way: There's a party. It's a great party, full of the kind of people you really want to talk to having fascinating conversations about stuff you find interesting. It's not perfect - of course it's not perfect - but still, you know you'd rather be in that room having those conversations than at any other party on the planet.

Now, imagine also that there are chores to be done at this party, and that everyone must take time out from the really fun stuff to get those things done. Glasses need to be collected and washed, bowls of Twiglets* need to be refilled, sandwiches need to be made, someone's got to phone taxis home for the semi-conscious drunks - you know the sort of thing (especially if you've been to some of the conferences I've been to). Also, periodically someone's got to write letters to the neighbours explaining what's going on over here and why they should continue to support it through their patience, assistance, and donations of time, money and Twiglets. And those letters are very time-consuming and boring, etc etc etc, and nobody likes doing this stuff - but it's the price you pay for getting to have the fun conversations, and so that's what everyone does. Everyone. Including all those people having the fun conversations

Now, imagine further that the party is in a small house; that more people want to get in than there is room for people inside; and that anyone on the waiting list has to hang around outside the house, in the mud and the rain, waiting for a possible vacancy.

And. Further. That the people waiting outside have to prove their dedication to the party by:
- explaining that really, they are seriously good at writing begging letters to the neighbours;
- finding ways to demonstrate their Twiglet-bowl-filling abilities, even when they are allowed near neither Twiglet nor bowl;
- and pressing their ear to the window while standing awkwardly in a flower-bed, trying to hear enough of the fun conversations to prove that they really do know what's going on and totally could have something great to contribute if only someone would let them in.

See what I'm saying, here? It's not that I don't want to be part of a scholarly conversation about a topic I find interesting. It's just that I am standing in a flowerbed, and it is dark, and there are slugs. That scholarly conversation is full of people who have library access and can go to conferences, two things which are far from certainties for most unemployed post-PhDs; how are we supposed to keep up with the current state of research in our area when the means by which that knowledge is usually transmitted is restricted access only? At least I'm lucky enough, working in a university library, to have all the borrowing privileges I want plus a few I probably shouldn't have - what are my post-PhD friends supposed to do, buy personal subscriptions to all relevant journals themselves?

So, back to the boring stuff. The bibliography-checking. The academic-prose-ifying. The conversion of MHRA into MLA formats, with all the wailing and rending of hair that goes in its path. This stuff? This stuff, I would manage to do with minimal grumbling if it was the price to pay for being part of academia, in the same way that I wouldn't mind cleaning glasses at the party if it was the price to pay for joining in the good conversations in the living room. But cleaning glasses outside in the cold? Less tempting, that. Less tempting by a long, long way.

* - Twiglets, for those of you whose upbringing cruelly deprived you of the experience.

Things heard on yesterday's train

Posted by September Blue Saturday, 30 August 2008 3 comments

Man on phone: "So I said, you know, he already takes her swimming, he takes her to school and everything, but she's not his kid, is she?" Pause. "Well of course he's going to get on with her, he's basically a kid himself."
Teenager #1: "George Lazenby, then... I don't know. Then Sean Connery?"
Teenager #2: "I'd say Pierce Brosnan, then Sean Connery."
Teenager #1: "Oh, yeah! George Lazenby, Pierce Brosnan, then Sean Connery."
Teenager #3: "I'm going to have to ask you both to leave this train right now, while it's moving."
Mother to small child: "Look at all the cows!"
Small child to mother: "Mummy, what happens when you die?"

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Insta-post! Just add water!

Posted by September Blue Monday, 25 August 2008 2 comments

1. My [great-]uncle once saw a ghost in the Australian outback. A man in a dusty coat, some time near the end of the First World War. Maybe he was walking home.

2. Never in my life have I ever managed to skim a flat stone more than three jumps over water.

3. When I was five I planned to marry my friend Fiona, live in a cottage in the woods we would build out of the stones from an old sheep-pen (we'd settled on the plot already), grow a small garden, have horses instead of cars, and heal sick animals for a living. I've had worse plans.

4. Secondary school was, as I always suspected at the time, not in fact the location of the best days of my life.

5. I will never forget being caught right underneath sheet lightning on top of a hill during a storm. The whole world froze blue-white.

6. Once I met Timmy Mallett. I was absolutely terrified and begged my parents to take me away.

7. There’s this boy I know who once knelt down and sang 'Words' to me in a public place, then didn't speak to me for two days before complaining about all the spectators that now thought he liked me when he totally didn't and what had I said to them, then got drunk and spent a whole party following me around begging me to kiss him, then denied even thinking any such thing because "God, why would I?", then started going out with a girl who looked eerily like me. Eleven years later, he's a very good friend and my intermittently on-call translator for Screwed-up Boy.

8. Once, at a bar a massively bearded alcoholic vagrant called Railway Dave asked me to marry him.

9. By noon, I’m usually wishing I could go home and get some teaching preparation done, these days. Sad, but true. (Note: do not mistake my total panic for conscientious devotion to the job, here. I've got a terrifying amount of unfamiliar stuff to teach this semester, and it's giving me nightmares.)

10. Last night I dreamed about a tornado, as I have been doing on and off for about six months now. I haven't looked up what tornados are supposed to symbolise in any of those dream dictionaries because I'm guessing it won't be good.

11. If only I had a large reef aquarium of my very own.

12. Next time I go to church I will once again catch myself wondering who thought outlining the large picture of Jesus in glitter was a good idea, even if the large picture of Jesus could be defended on aesthetic grounds in the first place, which, truly, it can't. Reformations have started for less.

13. What worries me most is thinking about who I want to be when I grow up. I'm 28...

14. When I turn my head left I see some of my fish, Disraeli and four of the PRB (who are neon tetra and as such don't have individual names).

15. When I turn my head right I see my other fish, Orson, and the bubble nest he built. I am so proud.

16. You know I’m lying when I say anything about how much I liked working on my PhD. For some reason I tend to say this a lot, maybe so I don't have to turn every polite enquiry into my academic life into one long wail of agony, but it is all lies.

17. What I miss most about the Eighties is the way I could wrap myself up in a book like a blanket, to the total exclusion of the rest of the world, for hours and days on end. I can't read like that now.

18. If I were a character in Shakespeare I’d be killed off in Act I.

19. By this time next year I will have an academic job if I have to sell my soul for it.

20. A better name for me would be Beth, according to two people who don't know each other but both picked the same name unprompted. And then told me about it in a slightly disappointed way, as though I really should have been called Beth and the world is slightly out of joint because I wasn't.

21. I have a hard time understanding how people can stop and ask for directions when they're only a little bit lost. That's like admitting defeat!

22. If I ever go back to school, I’ll expect my friends to stage an intervention. Do I look insane to you?

23. You know I like you if I describe you as 'interesting'.

24. If I ever won an award, the first person I would thank would be the foolish awards committee, because what on earth would I be getting an award for? My PhD acknowledgements narrowly escaped being a bitter and vitriolic list of everything that conspired to make my life more difficult over those four years ('and special thanks go to Estates & Buildings, for planning that major noisy renovation work all around my office for the last few months of writing up! Love you!')

25. Take my advice, never get tabasco sauce in your eye. Trust me. I feel so strongly about this one that I want to tour schools warning the next generation.

26. My ideal breakfast is
made by someone else.

27. A song I love but do not have is Steve Earle, 'Number 29'. It reminds me of my dad.

28. If you visit my hometown, I suggest you go and get some of my friends who've been saying for years and years that it's a dump and they're getting out as soon as they can, grab them by the collar, and say 'This is your chance. There will never be a better time to leave than today.'

29. Why won’t people leave better newspapers behind them on trains? Guardian and Indy readers, you are stingy, stingy people.

30. If you spend a night at my house you will likely be woken by pigeons in the morning.

31. I’d stop my wedding for a sandwich, to be honest. I don't have any principled objections to marriage, but I find it difficult to imagine myself in a position where I'd get that enthusiastic about my own.

32. The world could do without war, infectious disease, bad coffee, bus drivers who pretend they don't see you and keep driving, that proposed remake of The Lady from Shanghai with Nicole Kidman in Rita Hayworth's role, wasps, the gritty debris that gathers under sofa cushions, and men who do not know what they want.

33. I’d rather lick the belly of a cockroach than eat an oyster.

34. My favorite blond(e) is my friend and undergrad flatmate James, whose hair has been described as 'polluted beach colour'.

35. Paper clips are more useful than swearing at vending machines when there's a money-jam that needs dislodging.

36. If I do anything well it’s building flat-pack furniture.

37. I can’t help but stay awake as long as possible, just to spite being tired.

38. I usually cry only when something is really shaking me up. Films, books, sad songs - nope.

39. My advice to my [hypothetical future] nephew/niece is that your grandparents rock, and you should remember that.

40. And by the way, I was just listening to the Richard Marx song 'Hazard' (shush, now) and how did I never notice that he's responsible for the girl's disappearance? She 'went out walking all alone', but he 'left her by the river'? He did it! Him! The townspeople were correct: the boy's not right!

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Posted by September Blue 3 comments

On a date last week in a sidling-up-to-trendy bar, the man I was with asked if I'd always planned to go into academia. Not really, I said, which is both true and not that unusual; lots of young academics seem to wear the same faintly confused expression, as if they'd closed their eyes for a second and woke up somewhere they didn't even know existed. I wanted to be a doctor. And then before that, I wanted to be a palaeontologist. And then before that, I wanted to be a vet. And then before that, a writer, I think? And before that a Jedi. Although, to be honest, I still want to be a Jedi.

"Well," he said, "you must have been quite academic at school, right?"

And three hundred miles away, all my old teachers clapped their hands over their faces and shrieked as one through their twitching fingers.

I was academic in the sense that I was clever and liked reading, yeah. I got good GCSEs and decent A-levels, and I didn't set fire to anything on school property. But from the time my dad called me downstairs after a parents' evening and said "I think your German teacher wants you dead," my future in higher education was, let's say, somewhat uncertain. It would be nice to claim that my teachers didn't appreciate my true genius. Really, though, I was just a brat, and a brat I remained for the rest of my time at school. Clever enough to get good grades without putting in much effort, and reluctant to put in any effort at all so long as there was something - anything - better to do with my time. What were they going to do to me? Put me in detention? Detention was half an hour of standing outside the staffroom, at lunchtime when I had to be at school anyway; homework was two hours of pointless busywork in my own time. This wasn't a difficult choice.

After a while, it took on the form of a semi-principled stand, and I stopped claiming I'd just forgotten to do the homework yet again in favour of protesting that I had to do it in the first place. It couldn't be about helping me to do better in exams and coursework, because I was getting excellent marks for those anyway; it couldn't be about improving my understanding of the subject, because if that needed improving, I wouldn't be doing as well at the exams and the coursework anyway; so what was it about, if not just jumping through hoops to justify the hoops being there? My teachers told me that there would come a day when I wouldn't be able to sail through on minimal effort, and come that day I'd be grateful for developing a work ethic. I shrugged, and went back to pointedly reading Solzhenitsyn in detention, which was where I spent most of my lunchtimes. I'm fairly sure I still have outstanding detention, come to think of it.

There were a few of us who took the same approach. Kate got into an argument with our biology teacher about whether or not she should improve her presentation ("but you already marked me down for it, and I still got an A - so who cares?"). Vicky proudly showed her GCSE grades to her French teacher on results day - excellent, despite predictions of failure, shame, and a life on minimum wage on the Morrisons tills - to be met with "Vicky, I don't even want to look at you right now." We talked through classes, put our feet on the tables, competed with each other about how many different store cupboards we had been sent to sit in to Think About What We'd Done. All of us got threatened with suspension at least once; during one incident, all of us got called in individually to be interrogated by a very angry head of IT, who told us all without reservation that if he ever managed to prove we'd done the thing he suspected we had then we were gone, that minute, and it was going to take some pretty impressive grovelling if we even wanted to be let back in to sit our exams. (He never did prove it.) We were brats. We were awful. We were the reason I couldn't ever be a secondary school teacher.

When I was thirteen, after several weeks of not doing any homework at all, my English teacher reached over my desk, grabbed me around the throat with both hands, and shook me. The whole class went quiet and stared. He let go, we looked at each other in stunned silence for a moment or two, then he told us all to read up to page 53 and left the room. I'm not sure in retrospect what's more surprising: that one of my teachers tried to strangle me, or that the rest of them never gave in to the temptation.

So, no, I wouldn't say I was particularly academic at school.

"So why did you decide to go into academia?" the man I was with asked, after a heavily summarised version of the above.

Huh. Good question.

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I take it back

Posted by September Blue Sunday, 10 August 2008 0 comments

I'm now up to 2,307 words of the article, including a couple of paragraphs copied over from the original draft I was working on back in March. I thought that these were all good words. But, no.

2,307 words, of which three are - and I quote - 'somethingy somethingy something'.

Why do I do this to myself?


Posted by September Blue Saturday, 9 August 2008 1 comments

The politics of sharing a desk, one moment among many:

"Have you got the bottom drawer? What's in the bottom drawer?"
"Middle drawer?"
"The other scissors."
"Top drawer?"
"Stolen stuff and crisps."

In the library, we are moving boxes of books. Heavy boxes of books. Seventy-nine heavy boxes of books. In the world below stairs, a strange land of Escher-like corridors stacked with faded posters, ancient dust-covered boxes of type, and something we think is a machine for binding books, I'm both the only woman and the only person under five foot nine. My colleagues have mastered the art of saying in a very gallant way "Oh, you shouldn't be carrying that! That's heavy!" as they neatly sidestep out of the way of me and the painfully heavy box of books I'm juuuuuuuust about balancing.

My forearms are bruised from carrying the damn things, and my forearms are not looking wonderful anyway after the bad sunburn I got a couple of weeks ago. Still pink, especially under the library lights, and still peeling off in little flakes of gruesome. It's gone beyond "ouch!" to "ew" to "Wasn't that an X Files episode once?"

In better news, I now have 1,624 words of the article I put on hiatus in spring while I was finishing some other stuff. At least 75% of them are good words. I feel very productive.

(I should add that the stolen stuff in the conversation above referred to stuff sneaked from the stationary cupboard, not, you know, actually stolen stuff. I firmly believe that most office-based work is one long drawn-out episode of stealth warfare over the good stuff in the stationary cupboard.)

um, really?

Posted by September Blue Tuesday, 22 July 2008 2 comments

(An American traveller writing to the (London) Times on the subject of rail travel in Britain. Oct 1, 1890.)

If the traveller wishes to get from the up platform to the down platform, or
vice versa, he is obliged to cross over the line by a bridge or under the line
through a subway, but he cannot cross the line itself. I am aware that the
raising of the platform several feet above the level of the line has two
advantages; it prevents accidents, and it makes the getting into a carriage very
easy. Nevertheless, these bridges and subways are a sore trial to my temper, and
I would willingly risk (as I do in America and generally on the Continent) being
knocked down by an engine rather than climb those stairs, and I have frequently
rushed across the line, much to the consternation of the amiable but too careful
officials. The expense of lowering the platforms to the level of the lines would
be so great (to say nothing of the advantages mentioned above) that I know it
will never be done; but I cannot say that this knowledge makes the inconvenience
more easily borne, or reconciles me to the awful thought that for ever and ever
travellers in England must perpetually ascend bridges and descend subways.

How is this even controversial?

Posted by September Blue 3 comments

Two and a half of my jobs are in the middle of a pay restructuring process. Still. I grow weary of this. Leaving aside all the fill-in-the-blanks griping about management and bureaucracies and The Problem With Higher Education Today etc etc, though, here's a thing: why can't it just be about the money?

No, I'm serious. I don't mean the work itself; I'm fine with not getting paid a fortune to do any of the things I do. I mean the discussions about the jobs, and what the pay is for the jobs, that come up two or three or sixteen times a year. The kind of discussions that involve me snapping at one of my bosses, for the first (and hopefully the last) time, when he responded to my "But you agree I've been underpaid for the last two years?" with "I think you're taking this a bit far - it's not like anyone deliberately set out to pay you less than you should have been." The kind that include every single discussion about teaching pay, which by unspoken academic law cannot take place without a litany of disavowal: it's really good experience and we need it for our cvs and really we should be grateful there's any teaching for us at all and of course we care about the students and we're not in this for the money and we know the university's budget is struggling and we know the department's doing all it can and we hate to even vaguely imply otherwise - so, um, will we be paid for office hours this semester? Sorry to ask so bluntly! Sorry to ask at all! Sorry to keep bringing this subject up when you've already said that you think it's a shame you can't pay us all as much as you'd like to!

Oh, now, look. Discussions about pay are just that - discussions about pay. It's not personal. I didn't complain about being underpaid for two years because I worried that everyone above me in the hierarchy was a evil moustache-twirling villain who went home and kicked their dog every night. I really don't care whether they underpaid me through malice or forgetfulness or accident or what. I complained because I wasn't getting paid what I should have been paid. Ditto, teaching, where I know that the department is operating under tough financial constraints and that the people responsible for budget allocations would pay TAs generously if they had all the money in the world to do it. I believe the sympathy, and I appreciate the sympathy, and continuing to haggle over pay does not mean I am rejecting the sympathy or calling anyone evil - it just means that I'd like to get paid, please, because
I'm operating under tough financial constraints as well.

Yeah, a bit grumpy today. But, honestly. Here's the kind of pay issue I'm talking about here: in one of my jobs, which involves working quite closely with students (I was going to specify whether it's the teaching one or the non-teaching one, but I doubt it matters) , the pay restructuring has involved reclassifying something which was once paid work into something that's neither paid for nor on the contract. It's not essential for doing the job, but it is useful (both for me and my colleagues and for the students), and it's understood that people in my particular role will be spending a couple of hours a week doing this particular duty anyway, even under the restructured pay system.

Oh, I do not think so.

But do you know how difficult it is to have a conversation about this that doesn't turn into a) a debate about whether I naively misunderstand the pressures of university finance or b) a debate about whether I cruelly underestimate the purity of my boss's convictions in truly, madly, deeply wanting the situation to be otherwise? And that's not even getting into c), in which I struggle in vain to find a way to phrase my objections that doesn't come across as 'I don't care about the students - I'm in this for the cash.'

I like my jobs. I do. I'm just not doing them for free.


Posted by September Blue Thursday, 17 July 2008 1 comments

Get home from work at quarter past ten, tired and bad-tempered and annoyed with the boss who wants eight weeks of work done in two. Slump up the road, down the other road, up to the door and place key in lock. Turn key.


Key turns half-way and no further. Hmm. Try jiggling it round in lock, plus various combinations of pushing door forward/pulling door back while turning, without success. Hmm.

Take key out of lock. Examine key. Examine other keys on ring. Try all of those, just in case. Step back and inspect building door is attached to, just in case. Establish beyond doubt that key and door belong together. Lick finger, run along edges of key, place key in lock, turn.


All right, this is not funny.

It looks like someone has clicked the snib on the lock from the inside, thus preventing anyone from getting in without help from someone on the other side of the door. Consider this. Decide neighbours couldn't possibly be that stupid, and that failure of door to open is merely illusion of own tired mind. Place key in lock. Turn key.


Third Law of Shared Buildings: one of your neighbours is always that stupid.

Try pressing buzzers of neighbours' flats with dim hope that anyone will answer - buzzers rung after ten at night in this building tend to be rung by crazy shrieking banshee friend of one of the neighbours, who should not be encouraged. Indeed, buzzers go unanswered. Consider the idea that one of those buzzers must to person who put snib on lock in the first place. Wonder if they are the same person who allows crazy shrieking banshee friend to wake everyone up at 4am. Fume in ineffective silence.

Consider options.

Friends a few doors down have big shared garden, separated from my building's small shared mudpatch and mattress graveyard by two walls and whatever lies in between them. If walls climbable and mysterious area navigable, could get into back of building and bypass need for security door. Call friends.

Phones go straight to voicemail.

Curse world.

Consider other options. At the back of mudpatch/mattress graveyard there are the back walls of two grand-looking houses. There might be some space there, or at least some way to climb through from the other side. Head off to investigate.

Access to houses behind locked gates in big wall. Only way in without key is to Spiderman it forty feet up along very narrow top of mostly-medieval wall until a point where the ground comes up to meet it on the side where the houses are. Consider that a) wall was designed to repel invaders, b) climbing along wall means climbing past small clusters of teenagers smoking outside pub, several of whom I will probably end up teaching next semester if I end up falling off a wall in front of them because the universe would not pass up a joke that good, and c) climbing on important mostly-medieval things possibly punishable by death at hands of tourist board. Decide to call this plan B.

Return to own door, just in case. Try key in lock again. Just in case.


Wish death upon neighbours.

Notice lights still on in empty-looking restaurant below flat. Go in, find head waiter clearing tables. Explain situation.

Head waiter looks sceptical. "Why you not have key?"

Show keys to waiter. Explain ineffectiveness of key at its usual task. Waiter produces own keys, heads outside to door, places key in lock...


Waiter grumbles. "Your neighbours, so much trouble. Always they come in asking to be let in here. Always they shout. Sometimes they bang door. So much trouble."

Agree, fervently. Commiserate. Share with waiter latest exploits of crazy shrieking banshee friend of neighbours. Realise am still standing outside on pavement.

Waiter promises to find other waiter who will go through kitchen and attempt door from other side. Disappears back into restaurant, reappears several minutes later looking determined. Waits with me until footsteps are heard on other side of door. Smiles.

On other side of door, mysterious unseen waiter pulls at handle, then attempts to turn lock.


Turn to head waiter. Raise arms, eyebrows. Head waiter leans into door and shouts to other waiter in langauge I do not speak. Other waiter shouts back. More rattling. Head waiter shouts some more. Other waiter conquers lock.

Clunk. Door opens.

"They had turned snib on door!", head waiter says. "Who would do stupid thing like this? You should leave them note."

Oh, I will. Believe me.

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I feel so bad

Posted by September Blue Wednesday, 16 July 2008 0 comments

I'm skipping work today to put some time in on an article I need to get written... well, two years ago would have been good, but let's just say 'soon'. The two jobs I should be doing this afternoon and evening aren't shift-work, thankfully, but the work in question does need to be completed at some point, and there's a lot of it. So, guilt. Especially since I know there was a time when I juggled four jobs plus the PhD and still managed to get stuff done - why can't I be that productive now?

It doesn't help that the article's stalled again at the reading stage, and this never feels like work unless I'm taking copious notes I'll never look at again just for the hell of it. It's so difficult to measure progress this way. Pages read? Books read? (What when none of them are useful?) Percentage of full thought process complete? I wish there was a unit for calculating this. I don't feel like I'm getting anywhere, plus I'm skipping the jobs where progress is not only measurable but pays by the hour.

(And lo! My phone beeps with a text from a colleague asking in a puzzled way if I'm not usually around on Wednesdays. Sigh.)

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Arts postdoc with a new job, a new city, and a lot of very old books.

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