Choice

Still staying home, social distancing and on holiday but my partner is not. The weather has been good but today it is raining. What should I do? It seems I am spoiled for choice. Read a novel, write another chapter of my own novel. Type up the poem I wrote weeks ago but am not sure about. Paint, draw, sweep leaves in the garden but no, they are too wet and blowy. Perhaps I could build clay models, experiment with sculpture. Under the sofa where the dog and cat hair drifts needs cleaning. There is a pile of paperwork that needs sorting. I could resist the urge to pick up some work, do some more analysis, research a new topic, learn how to digitise my teaching, listen to a podcast. I could read the news again but it is too depressing. I could write to old friends that I miss so much but do they want to hear from me I wonder? I can’t decide so I make some coffee, brush the dog, trail string for the cats, take photos with my phone of the flowers in the rain and write this. I think about all the time I have gained, and all that I have lost.

Office

This week I am allowed access to my office for 30 minutes to collect some books and personal items.  Staying to do some work is strictly banned so I avoid the urge to sit down at my desk and turn my attention instead to the bookshelves  where my books stand in their spots like old friends. I turn the pages of a few, remembering  their weight, the different feel of the paper in each, I glance at contents, run my finger down an index and read the annotated notes I’ve left here and there in the margins. I turn to inserted bookmarks reminding me that something here is interesting or useful, or that I must read this at some point in the future. I return each to its place and pack a bag with the necessary for the next few months. The office is hot, it  faces the afternoon sun. I expect my plants will be dead and laugh aloud to find that five out of six have survived since early March without water or company. I take them to the sink where the coffee mugs and spoons from months past still lie on the drainer, and give them a soaking. Packing what I need I regretfully lock up. This was a good place. I wonder when we will return. On the way out I read the names of my colleagues on the doors as I pass. See you next week I think, on-line, in a different space, not here.

Pastoral

Summer is the time for research for staff and students alike. This year we are all in lock-down because of covid-19. Lock-down and social distancing are difficult for everyone and we deal with it in our own ways. For students who are away from home and family, it can be particularly challenging especially for those from overseas.

The uncertainties of border closures, partial or regional lock-downs, changing regulations on quarantine, air corridors and requirements for self-isolation confuse and create anxiety. Separation from family and close friends for extended periods leads to a constant state of uneasiness and foreboding that undermines concentration in all but the most focused individuals.

One of my students has completed her dissertation weeks before the deadline – she wants to go home and has rushed through the process. The others are in various stages, one has not started, two have written a couple of thousand words before stalling, another is plodding along. All want to go home while the going is good – their main fears are closure of routes and being stranded far from home if a second wave sweeps the globe.

Our online meetings have changed, they are still about the intellectual aspects of their work, but the balance has shifted to the pastoral. Each meeting begins with their assurances that they are well, and keeping happy. We focus on the academic then move to social chit-chat. This is when I am told that they are worried about their ability to concentrate; this they express as personal failure to cope with the stress or disavowal of the stress they feel. We share experiences, fears, worries and joyful moments, reassure each other that we are not alone.

We are learning new skills, how to read each other through poor connections, voice without video; cross-culture, cross-language, cross-generation. The cues are in a subtle change in pitch or tone of voice, the making or breaking of eye contact, pauses, gestures, the silent communications of sentient beings one to another. If anything comes of this pandemic let it be a gentler, more aware, more considerate world.

Finally we work through a strategy to complete the work.

Elevate to deprecate

Three courses into the nine courses on digital transformation for learning and teaching I think I know why it was named “Elevate,” Inspired to rise above the challenges social distancing imposes on us. I threw myself wholeheartedly into the training programme.

“Alternative assignments” was interesting and after the event confirmatory rather than revelatory. “Engaging students, was fun with lots of tips and techniques from the session moderators and fellow attendees. We played with various pieces of software, enjoyed the chat, not quite craic but getting there and well, any kind of social interaction during a still slowly easing lock-down is like having a party.

The third course “adapting your curriculum” to blended or fully digital means left me with a throbbing headache and a firm resolve to keep things as simple as possible for my students. I learned to teach many years ago in the days when a pre-prepared presentation was delivered on acetate slides during a lecture or other classroom activity. Technology quickly developed the same thing in digital, for example death by Powerpoint. We were told, as student teachers, to not say anything different to what is on your slide while the slide is in front of the student. The reason being that the mind cannot concentrate on too many things at one time.

So there I was one afternoon this week, at my laptop, in a virtual classroom with 106 other students, and a moderator assisted by several others. The session was fast-paced and possibilities boundless if you can find your way there in the first place, keep track of the lecture, the materials, the tasks, the links, and the continuous scrolling chat bar to the right.

A preparatory exercise had been sent to us the week before as several email attachments. Some of us had already downloaded and populated the working document. Before the session I already had it open and ready. To join the session we were emailed a link, this opened to the black space of Collaborate. We waited while the others joined. We could see the list of names grwing as people logged on. Slides were uploaded with a link to download them – some were repeats of what we had already been sent. We all introduced ourselves – important to establish a community and so we did.

Then the moderator talked to the slides, added voting polls, quick quizzes and other demonstrations of what can be done with digital technology – how to set it up was not explained on this occasion. Then we were placed in breakout sessions, still in the dark but with five of six people maximum. We are asked to talk about another form and to fill it in. it was not the same form as the one some of us had pre-prepared and had open and ready, so they posted a link. The link opened a piece of software requiring an app to be downloaded to convert it to PDF. I already had a PDF converter so I tried to quit but no – the app was not having it.

By now I had around 10 windows open, navigating back to the break-out session was tricky on a tiny laptop. I arrived to a voice saying my name over and over – are you there, have you completed the form? Which form? The link is in the chat. The chat now has 106 people in animated conversation and more links than you could ever want. I hit one experimentally, I don’t recognise it, but now we are out of the chatroom and back in the main session.

They are demonstrating another piece of software – Padlet, set up in groups by surname, pick the session with the letter of your surname. Here 25 attendees are posting comments on notelets in response to at least three questions. We are supposed to write, read, listen, post and comment intelligently on each other’s posts. We have 10 minutes. In the darkness behind the scene the moderator is moving the posts around. I hear my name and comments mentioned a couple of times, like a fly buzzing annoyingly while I’m trying to concentrate. I ignore it. Then its the Jamboard – well that was a bit of fun, not perhaps with 106 people taking part.

Finally the pre-prepared homework – the three-page downloaded document that I had worked on last week. It was now suggested that we complete the missing parts based on what we have learned today, to help, a moderator posts a link to a fresh form with additional information, tables, charts and so on embedded in it. The first three pages of this new form are of course blank because the information I so carefully completed last week is not on that form.

I navigate to my filing system download the new form and copy and paste the pre-prepared sections from the old one, but now the session is over and the moderator is thanking everyone and posts another half dozen links to docs that each require several separate actions to save, download, file or convert to a usable application.

This, is not elevation, it is deprecation – I am done, my brain is fried. The session was well planned but would have been better delivered as a week’s training course rather than a two hour module. Let me never do the same to my students – lesson learned – engage the students and try to not overwhelm them.

Time for a clean-up

I have not used this blog for a very long time. No excuse except in the face of a busy working life, it became a distraction. Now in lock-down and working from home I regret that I have neglected the quotidian experience of life and how important that is for health and happiness. The blog needs a spring clean, a fresh look and a more relaxed feel. In my absence of course the design and editing features have changed. I will have to learn over again how to edit the content. It has been so long, I do not like the clutter on my home page or the categorisations that seemed to make sense a few years ago. Simplicity – I’ll work on it.

Distancing

Is this yours? Our neighbour, suitably masked and reaching across the requisite two meters, profers a striped, wrinkled and hair covered thing. Holding it at arms length, gripped between thumb and forefinger, it looks like the sloughed-off skin of a snake or giant caterpiller, stretched, wrinkled and empty. Or, I think, a babygrow with truncated arms and legs and poppers at the rear end, favoured by parents with military aspirations for their offspring and a shortage of nappies. Either way he is a brave man to bring it round. Yes I say and grab it before he asks. I thrust a bottle of medical grade anti-everything hand gel at him – have a skoosh, leave it on the window ledge, and thank you.

Amongst the many trials of lock-down is that the vets are closed. Our cat, Sebastian, named after the athlete who in years past probably cycled round the local hills while training – but that’s another story – managed to open an old wound on his back. His back (the cat’s not the athlete’s) is scaly, hairless and well, pretty awful looking but we love him anyway. Periodically he manages to catch himself on a branch, or fight with another cat and his fragile skin splits open. Summer is not a good time – applying sunscreen to an unwilling cat is tricky enough, but an open wound on a cat in the season of flies and mellow fruitfulness is a difficult thing to manage.

What do we do we asked the vet who was homeworking and remote? We sent photographs. Try sudacrem they said. It made Sebastian vomit. The problem with a cat is it licks with sandpaper tongue, incessantly. The vet dropped off the inevitable plastic cone – make him wear that for a week or two they said. Oh dear we said. But we are past masters at cone fitting, its all in speed and pulling the head through complete with ears rather than pushing the cone over. Sebastian is also a master at getting it off. Fearing sepsis if the wound didn’t heal, we tied it tight – just short of strangulation and two weeks later the wound was healed and scab free.

Despite our daily brushing and grooming and pandering, the first thing Sebastian did was to run off returning several hours later with his back licked raw. Two months on and three repetitions of the routine we decided to rethink our strategy. Repeating the same process over and over and expecting different results is the definition of stupidity (or empiricism), or from a cat’s perspective, of genius. We asked our daughter who knows about such things, or knows people who know people who know. You should get him a surgical recovery suit she said. It’s like a babygrow for cats, it’s firm and tight and fits round the tail with a hole beneath for –. Yes, we said, we get it.

Surgical recovery suits are at least 10 times the price of a cone so we stuffed Seb into one and warned him, get out of that and you will wear a cone for the rest of your life. Well, he took to the suit quite well and despite walking bandy-legged while it stretched-in, he seemd quite content. We allowed him to get out into the garden convinced that even the largest of magpies would not approach a giant spitting black and green striped caterpillar with a fluffy tail.

Three days later the suit resembled a string vest where he had licked the fabric into holes. Another day and he came home without it and his wound, that had healed nicely, freshly peeled. What do we do now we asked ourselves – file down his tongue, sprinkle cayenne pepper on the suit?

No, that would just be cruel so we bought another suit, persuaded him gently into it and repeated the routine. Five days later he came in without it; open wound again. Back in the cone he went, healed again, peeled again. New suit. Right Houdini-Seb, we said, this time we really, really mean it. Stay in that suit or it will be suit and cone together for a month, and then – the crate.

This healing process was becoming expensive so we messaged the neighbours – if you find a disgusting green hairy thing on your grass or snared in a bush – it is ours – please give it back. So here today is my neighbour with the latest catsuit, not in purple lycra as you might expect, but small wrinkled and dead-looking, hair and drool-encrusted and with two large microfibre shoulder pads fashioned from old dusters.

Here kitty kitty – look what we’ve got for you.

(Content slightly fictionalised)

Elevate

Elevate – this is what they call our response to learning and teaching as we re-open. Blended and synchronous, face-to-face and online, we are ready – we will rise above and beyond. Covid lapping at our feet but we will not sink we will elevate, what a fabulously creative way to think. Bouyed up and inspired I sign up for 9 courses on pedagogy and digital tools. My calendar groans.

Man and Dog

The road to the common passes our kitchen window. It is like a daily private showing of Crufts. An old man with curly hair and a suntan matching the colour of his overcoat limps by. He is led by a brown wire-haired Dachshund, also elderly but more agile than his human. The dog waits, they exchange glances. A smile and a corresponding twitch of ears. They move on. I drink my tea.

Impact

A colleague posts a screenshot of his latest publication on Facebook. He is prolific. It is one of many. This one is particularly relevant to current and future development of formal and informal economy. Our ex-boss posts as a friend – is this your next impact case? Most of us hope for a first.

Wake-up Call

The cats woke me this morning. Two pairs of paws thrust inwards under the door pulling it sharply against its frame. Two pairs of hind paws kicking relentlessly on its outerside. The effect was like a drumroll. Even the dog who is now deaf and sleeps at my feet picked it up and for effect, barked loudly in my ear. I awakened from dreams of spotted hyenas racing across the savanna, thankfully they were hyenas and not metamorphoses of myself having just devoured my husband in tandem with my lover. For those who have not read the Joyce Carol Oates story, “Spotted Hyenas: A Romance” take my advice, don’t read it before sleeping. Two months into the new job and I am beginning to get the hang of it, starting to know people and winning some real rather than polite smiles. The speed of work is cranking up and I am wondering how to keep some time for myself to to write, by which I mean free creative writing and not emails, reports, administrative documents lecture notes or research articles. I write every day of my life in the form of lists and bullet points but it is not creative. My plan is to write for a few minutes a day on whatever comes to mind and just let it flow. But the cats are demanding their breakfast, I have lectures to write and I tell myself that it is in those routine processes of everyday life that I can make a difference, I just need to remember that I am human, and keep the hyenas from the door. It’s tough in the food chain, wake up and make breakfast, it’s time to start the day.

Powered by Journey.

Contingency Plan

“The writer has something to say – the academic is an apologist”

I identified closely with many of the sentiments and observations in Chris Walsh’s recent article in the Times Higher Education (THE) promoting his work on cowardice.  Academic work is constantly scrutinised for relevance, rigour, quality and contribution to knowledge. There are conventions in publishing that encourage particular writing styles and of course all previous relevant knowledge must be cited.  The publish or perish culture also forces us down a route of safe and sure publication, and the prevailing emphasis on objectivity renders the academic voice near silent. This week, for the first time in a long time, I dug out and re-read  some of my earliest papers. Two things struck me.  The first was how rough they seemed in  writing style, and how  much they would benefit from further editing, even although the editors at the time thought them good enough to publish. The second was the confidence with which I expressed myself in those early papers, which puts my more recent (yet more skilfully written) work to shame. In those early papers I had a voice, I was a writer with something to say and it came over strong and clear despite other shortcomings.  My most recent academic work is more refined, more accurate in its positioning in the body of literature, and follows the publishing conventions in our field, but it has no voice, or at least not one that I recognise as my own.  Has the academic world gone too far in silencing the subjective, sometimes quirky, but well-informed voices of the academic community? Have we, as Walsh suggests, become apologists for our own craft? Or is it just me?

Intellectual cowardice | Features | Times Higher Education.

Dear Facebook

I am so fed up with the advertisements that you place at the side of my FB page so I followed the link to find out how you select them. It’s based on what I like and post. If that is true my posts must be too boring to give the search engines any buzz words to guide their algorithms – let me see if I can influence the ads. Listen FB, I love rock music, art, fun places like Copenhagen, places I have not been like St Petersburg, Hong Kong, Colorado. I’d like to visit Greenland and sail round the Antarctic. I love the sounds and smells of markets in Africa, I want to be a writer. Community, creativity, interesting ordinary people interest me, not celebs. I love world music, poetry literature, language and culture. Please post ads for charities, disaster appeals and if it’s about food make it about alleviating hunger and not belly fat (oops – must never mention that again). If it has to be food I like wine and clean fresh food and recipes from around the world. My taste in film is eclectic – please don’t insult me by guessing one narrow genre. OK, that’s it for the day – back to preparing lectures on – guess what – international business ethics – put that in your pipe and smoke it FB, I am waiting to see what you come up with in your sponsored links – selected just for me. 🙂