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?
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?
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?
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,
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."
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.
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.
"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.
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.
Youtube Search Suggestions Present: President-Elect Obama.
Obama brush your shoulders off
Obama children singing
Obama fox news
Obama hillary umbrella
Obama is an arab
Obama lion king
Obama mccain roast
Obama never gonna give you up
Obama pledge of allegiance
Obama quotes the bible
Obama terrorist connections
Obama us citizen
Obama will win
Obama yes we can
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!
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.
*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.