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.