Monday, 19 March 2018

Birthday # 59

It was my 59th birthday on the first of the month and a friend was to treat me to Macbeth at the National Theatre. The country was like Antarctica, trains were few and where running, jammed. I got to Kings Cross on the 28th of February on the only train of the day to make it there from Peterborough. I needed to get to my niece Danielle's place at East Dulwich, and queued to buy a ticket.

'You want a ticket to East Dulwich?' the bloke at the counter asked, mystified. I might have asked him for a sedan chair.

'Er, yeah...' 

He explained patiently that I could 'use my debit card like an oyster.'

I hadn't a clue what he meant by this and asked for elucidation. So, for other provincial innocents: you tap your debit card on a yellow blob at ticket barriers, and are granted instant access to trains. You don't need a ticket. If you lost your debit card, presumably the finder could happily tour London at your expense for hours until you noticed it was missing.

I got to East Dulwich and waited in a cavernous, open-plan bar for Danielle to come and meet me, foolishly ordering a glass of well-chilled Pinot Noir in a glacial pub on the coldest night since the woolly mammoth died out. Then we had a home-made Thai curry for dinner and I thawed out.


I was far from the happy 59th Birthday Boy this March 1st. There is something stressing me out at the moment which I have to keep quiet until it's resolved and there are times when it occupies me to the exclusion of all else. So I set forth rather reluctantly for the National, wearing a T-shirt, a shirt, a pyjama top, a jumper and a heavy jacket, enabling me to roll to East Dulwich station and fetch up in the National Theatre foyer encased in a ball of ice. I explained to Lorraine the reason for my preoccupied demeanour, we drank an extortionately expensive (but palatable) glass of wine apiece, then took our seats.

This was without rival the worst production of a Shakespeare play I have ever sat through. I spent the first half wondering where the hell we were, and who all these people could possibly be. The set was a black nowhere, dominated by what looked like half a black railway bridge adorned with tall, black dish mops. All this stood before a backdrop of shattered black bin liners. Black, black and more black. Subtle, huh? Everyone wore layers of shabby combat gear except King Duncan, who looked like an Italian pimp in a red suit, black shirt and red shoes. Pretty much every UK regional accent was employed as if the National operated a quota system, some mad notion of 'diversity and inclusion'. What in this bleak nowhere was there to covet? Why were Mr and Mrs Macbeth so eager to rule over  it?

Lady Macbeth read her husband's letter as the Olivier's revolve trundled her on. She appeared to be living in a bleak cell painted institution buff, full of mismatched plastic folding chairs and open suitcases spilling clothes and shoes. Other such modules appeared, each as cheerless as provincial train station waiting rooms, making a total bollocks of Duncan's line about  the castle having a pleasant seat. It didn't: it was a shit hole. The Macbeths gave their dinner party in an ugly canteen with two formica- top tables and grub in billy cans. This scene did actually come to life, despite Banquo's ghost meandering round like a sleep walker, because the embarrassment created by Macbeth's behaviour and his wife's attempt to make light if it was genuinely sphincter-winking and after the departure of the guests, the fear the couple exuded was palpable. I felt it was, anyway. Lorraine was underwhelmed as we went to the bar at the interval, where a glass of wine and a stewed coffee cost eleven quid.

After the interval, Macbeth's motivation for butchering Duncan finally became clear: it was to nick his trousers.

The evening's proceedings dribbled on. In a drab room with a grubby sofa and tatty rug, Ross - here a female thane with a Yorkshire accent - broke the horrible news to Macduff of the massacre of his family. I found this quite moving: how many people in Ireland, Syria, Libya and God knows where else have received similar intelligence in such ordinary surroundings, when everything familiar suddenly drains of colour and significance... or maybe the interval wine was getting to me.

At length it was over, and we got up and stretched as if a boring meeting had finally broken up. After a journey through what looked like Siberia, I got back to East Dulwich, sank a bottle of wine, and so to bed.


The following evening was delightful. Danielle and I had a few drinks at a cosy pub, and she treated me to dinner at a lovely Chinese restaurant, bless her. After, we drank a great deal more wine at home. The following morning she said she felt rough but texted me as I was on the train home to say she felt better and had been to the gym. Only then did I reflect that I'm forever 28 years her senior.


Bonding with my niece's cat, who's as appalled at the threat to free speech on university campuses as I am.

Monday, 4 September 2017

Come Again?

It's  always gratifying when students spontaneously make connections between the vocabulary you presented today with words and concepts introduced in earlier lessons: shows that some people out there are really taking in items of language and weaving them together. Today we came across the idea of 'upgrading the infrastructure of a city'.

'There was a word like that a while ago,' Coco (Chinese) said. 'What was it?'

I said I couldn't remember and asked for a clue.

'Taking something. Taking the piss? I think yeah. Taking the piss.'

Stumped, I said I'd have to think about it. A few moments later, after rifling through her notebook, Coco showed me the phrase she'd been trying to recall:

'...and keeping pace with recent developments...'

Wednesday, 30 August 2017

Elina Duni Quartet

The Albanian language has held a fascination for me for some time - I'm always attracted to the obscure. When in Greece I met Albanians and told them I was learning their language, their initial reaction was usually one of suspicion, then once they realised I was not a spy or a member of the Albanian mafia, more like 'whatever for???' I don't speak Albanian well and can read it with only moderate success. I can only pick out odd words from the stream of speech unless an indulgent native speaker is prepared to slow down and repeat stuff. But as I said, it fascinates me with its mix of home-grown, Latin, Greek, Turkish and Arabic vocabulary all transformed slightly to conform to Albanian rules of sound combination. 

This is the wonderful Elina Duni, whom I only discovered last week, performing in Tirana a few years back. The song is Ka nje mot e gjysem viti, 'it's been a year and a half', i.e., since we fell in love. Hope you like it.


Thursday, 15 June 2017

Tell me if I'm missing the point.

In the abstract reproduced below, Swedish gender scholar Åsa Carlson seems puzzled that most women think they're female and most men think they're male. This egregious failure to understand the way things are requires explanation. There are, admittedly, among male / 'male' and female / 'female' non-human animals differences in body size, in markings, in plumage and in pre-coital display, and mate selection based on this. Then there is the matter of which parent guards the eggs, tadpoles or cubs, and which one might snack on the placenta, or the offspring or the sperm donor, and what atavistic impulses might prompt such behaviours, but worrying about whether they are male or female is silly because the animals blindly performing these acts have no words for male or female, so these cannot be natural categories. Obviously.

Maybe there's room for a paper on what we shall term dendrism, defined as the human projection of the categories 'evergreen' and 'deciduous' on a diverse range of woody life forms whether they self-identify as such or not. Then there could be a new field, Emancipatory Dendrology, to keep a few more academics off the dole queue for a while.

Sunday, 14 May 2017

A Day In The Life V

Last month I went with a friend, Lorraine,  to Stratford-upon-Avon to see Antony and Cleopatra. Well, does you good to get out once a decade or so. Tickets for the Royal Shakespeare Theatre go fast and the B&Bs are much contended for, wherefore get ye fixed up with your earliest, ye were best: we booked in January for April 10th, which was none too soon. 

We put up at the sign of the Travelodge. The man at reception was a cheeky cockney sparrer type, tiresomely bantering and chortling as he signed us in and handed us our swipe cards.

'Dashed familiar, that chappie at the desk, I thought,' I said to Lorraine as we rode the lift to our floor.

'Dunno what things is coming to, truly I don't,' she replied.

The hotel was a newish building that looked like lots of places you've been in before. With its blue-grey carpeted corridors and floor-to-ceiling windows on the landings, it might have been a health centre, a university admin block or... where do I know that faint, soap-powdery smell from?... the nursing home where my dad spent the last three years of his life. Shit. Still, we would use the rooms only for showers and sleep, the beds were comfortable and you can put up with Nescafe for breakfast once in your life.   

I hadn't been to Stratford for ages. I saw Glenda Jackson and Alan Howard do the Peter Brook Tony and Cleo in 1978. I remember in the bar at the interval overhearing a lady offer a trenchant observation on Jackson's performance: 'well, she's very good, isn't she, but she's not wearing all that Egyptian jewelry Cleopatra should wear.' In the early eighties I led at least three trips of overseas students from Cambridge every summer. In 1983 a colleague and I took a coachload of adult students to see a matinee performance of Twelfth Night. The students had been well-prepared by their teachers for one of Shakespeare's most popular comedies. On the outskirts of Stratford we decided to distribute the tickets, and Lynette and I each took a wad to hand out. They were for Henry VIII, one of Shakespeare's least popular histories. I don't know who'd fucked up and never found out what any of the students thought about sitting in the Stratford dark for three hours on a sunny afternoon, in utter incomprehension. Or maybe I've erased it from memory.

Anyway, apart from that occasion, I always liked visiting Stratford. This time, I hardly recognised it as we walked into town. The hotel was quite a bit further from the town centre than its publicity would have one believe, situated on a charmless dual carriageway lined with terrace houses, Subways, KFCs and other franchises with garish signage. My mental image of a small town of half-timbered houses, their gardens teeming with delphiniums, hollyhocks, lavender and phlox was way off beam, probably deriving from repeated visits to Anne Hathaway's cottage. The town centre was dull as beans. Everything on Henley Street was closed and had anything been open, we wouldn't have wanted anything that was on offer. Shakespeare place mats, Shakespeare pencils, Shakespeare pens, key-rings and pessaries, all manner of Shakespearey tat to be carted off to Italy, Spain, China, Japan.  (I made up the bit about the pessaries.)

Not much like this at all, really.
Feeling the shakes coming on, we looked for a pub and found one which purported to be Stratford's oldest. It had a very snug snug: ten or so people felt like a dense crowd. Lorraine had a G&T, this most curiously served in a great balloon of a glass, wherein the barmaid sloshed such quantity of ice that the niggardly British pub measure of gin must needs be drowned. I had to ask her to remove some lest the gin have no effect. Is there no respect for alcoholics left? I had a pint of Guinness followed by a glass of utterly dog-rough red wine that cost seven bloody quid. At the adjacent table, an ineffably tedious old git with a deep voice and posh accent was regaling his lady companion with his views on the productions on offer at the RSC this season, all of which he appeared to have seen several times already. How did she manage to stay in her seat, smiling and nodding through this? I should have offered to punch him, and feel ungallant for not having done so.           

We wandered over to the theatre where heaps more Shakespearoid tat was on offer (L:'Who the hell wants this stuff?') and took our very good seats in the stalls. The production was a good one if a little on the tame side. (One reviewer characterised it as 'all dressed up with nowhere to go.') I couldn't make my mind up about Josette Simon as Cleopatra. Why, alone among the Egyptians, did she employ an unidentifiable foreign accent? Why the odd inflections and swoops in her delivery? Why was she so like Eartha Kitt? I prefer, overall, Eve Best in the Globe production of 2014, which I have on DVD. Her Cleopatra is like a nice Rodean girl gone Alternative, and she handles the dynamics of the Globe space beautifully.

Back in Stratford, in the final scene just after she gets the old immortal longings in her, and between becoming fire and air and giving her other elements to baser life, Cleopatra was briefly naked. In his review on Tripadvisor, an American visitor thought this was a bit near: 'well, I guess they do it to pack in the punters'. I'm sure they do. No doubt every straight male in the auditorium had booked in advance and made the pilgrimage to Stratford merely to cop that five-second leer at Josette Simon's tits and snatch in the last five minutes of a three-hour performance.

I don't know how well fed the citizens of Stratford-upon-Avon are; there might be some fantastic spots to eat, but why, in a town where several hundred hungry visitors are emerging from the theatre at half past ten every evening, is only one bloody restaurant open? We had booked our table weeks in advance at the only establishment willing to feed you after ten in the evening, this an OK but unremarkable curry house. The alternative would have been to go back to the hotel where they could do us a microwaved spud with baked beans, so to hell with that.

'Well,' said Lorraine as we drove home, 'was that a worthwhile expedition or not?' 

Overall, I think it was. At least we know that if there's a next time, we'll do a matinee and be able to choose a better place for dinner. We'll take our own wine rather than pay the Royal Shakespeare Theatre's absurd prices for interval drinks. And most importantly, we will not stay in a hotel that reminds me of my dad's nursing home. 

Thursday, 4 May 2017

Toilet Paper

Manchester Metropolitan University's Department of Toilet Studies and Intersectional Plumbing Research Unit find that school toilets are ableist, sexist, westist, adultist, classist, white supremacist and heteronormative. Smash school toilets with the iron fists of the peasant masses.

Friday, 28 April 2017

La Semana Pasada

I've been teaching Spanish teenagers this past week. This was for want of other work, not the desire to educate the young generation: others are far better qualified to do this than I am. The colleague with whom I shared the classes is the mother of teenage kids and knows what tends to enthuse fourteen year-olds, how to react to their rapid alternation of reasonable and obnoxious, and how to impose discipline when necessary. The two lovely Spanish group leaders were likewise of maternal generation. They obviously love the kids and the kids love them back. Me, I felt a bit out of it. I last taught teens in 2005, did so reluctantly and never felt good at it. My classroom persona developed for a grown-up audience. He's quick-witted and funny, knows a little bit about a lot of things, and is able to combine these things to create an illusion of greater expertise on this and that than is actually the case. He asks the question 'why?' more often than any six year-old and I see him sometimes as a sort of budget Socrates but more often as P.T. Barnum. It would take longer than a week for me to learn to see through fourteen year-old eyes, and the course finished today.

Yesterday I had the kids preparing poster presentations about London, in anticipation of their visit on Saturday. They had downloaded and printed photos of all the usual tourist sights, researched online and written short texts about them, and in a small room full of pens, scissors, pritt sticks, stacks of discarded sandwich wrappers and plastic bottles, eleven kids were assiduously cutting out their pictures and texts to make posters. On You Tube they played ad nauseam the irritatingly catchy aural bubblegum hereto appended, joining in the chorus:

Tenor: Shimmy shimmy yay, shimmy yay, shimmy ya 

Omnes: Swalla-la-la

'Steve, what is mean 'swalla'?'

'I believe we are being invited to consider the act of fellatio, interrogating and problematising the fellator / fellatee power imbalance in relationship to the ejaculate.' 

'OK. Jew can giff me a pen?'


This kiddie-pop they would alternate with patriotic military music and funereal Semana Santa marches. Standing amid this mess and racket, I felt I was slumming it until I saw how carefully most of the kids were making their posters, and what pains they took to design them well. I had asked the two Spanish group leaders to come in at the end of the lesson to give the posters a wider audience than just me, and the kids' pride in their work and need of our approval was palpable. I stopped feeling like a baby-sitter and realised I had been an educator after all.

Not all of the time, though. José is boisterous, noisy, disruptive and unfocused. He was a pain in the arse for much of the week, alternating manic clowning with loud complaining: 

'Steve, theece compyooder iss a SHEET! Nothin is gwork! (slamming keyboard with open hand) See? ¡Joder!'* 

The other kids thought he was a hoot, ('teacher, this is very crazy boy!') which encouraged him to be more like himself than ever, and half an hour before lunch he'd be bouncing off the walls. On Tuesday I tried working closely with him, sequencing and scaffolding and all that stuff, trying gently to bring him to heel a bit. I didn't manage it very well. At one point he shot out of his seat as if released by a spring, leapt across the room and tipped Elena out of her chair, his motivation presumably that it struck him as a wizard wheeze at the time. When the hilarity this occasioned subsided, he was once again playing to the gallery as I was trying to set up an activity and finally I fucking lost it. I roared 'SHUT UP!!!' at a decibel level that would have been audible three doors down the street. Well, it seemed to work. He apologised, calmed down, stopped pulling Aisha's plaits, and we proceeded relatively peacefully for the rest of the lesson. I thought, sod the caring and sharing: let's reintroduce matutinal five mile runs, cold showers, fagging, detention and the tawse.

The group leaders contacted José's mother to inform her that he was driving us nuts and could she please advise. This is how we learned that he had been diagnosed with ADHD and had not been taking his medication. There was some odd back-story to this, a matter of his having been told that the pills were vitamins and he didn't think it necessary to take them. Or something.  Anyway, his mother said she would call him every morning to tell him to take his tablets. On Thursday he was a different kid, calm and biddable, or a least as calm and biddable as most fourteen year-old boys get. The teacher who was responsible for the social programme told me today that the effects of the medication were clearly wearing off by early evening. I am grateful that I was not expected to join the group for dinner at Pizza Express.

I worry a lot about teaching (boy, do I worry) and spend a lot of time preparing for MA sessions and EAP classes. This past week was no less worrying, because I find teenagers so unpredictable. Something will seem to be going swimmingly, then one kid will suddenly turn sulky and down tools and the lesson will start to go down the shitter. Things I thought would work well would be glumly received and stuff I was afraid would bore them to death would fly. This morning at break my colleague said of José 'I think he's only taken half a pill this morning', and my heart sank: what was I going to do for ninety minutes with a group already in end-of-term mode and José like a wasp in a matchbox? Friday is market day here, with three streets of stalls. I cobbled together a swift task sheet: what vegetables and fruit can you see? Find one you don't know the word for and ask the owner what it is. Find a stall that sells Spanish produce: does the owner speak Spanish? Ask the bloke who sells samosas where he's from, (Pakistan) and what's in a samosa. Interview some people: do they come here every week? Do they live locally or drive in specially? ¡Vamonos!    

It was the best 'lesson' of the week. The sun shone, the five kids talked happily to stall owners and passers by, had a natter in Spanish with the bloke who sells Spanish produce, and Aisha, who is of Moroccan heritage, was pleased to learn that the samosa seller was a 'muscle man'  just as she is. The stall holders were all very good-humoured and the elderly people the kids button-holed were kind as grandparents. Everyone was thoroughly delighted with the whole thing. I should probably - no, certainly - have completed some lengthy form detailing every possible problem a teenager might encounter in broad daylight in a pedestrianised area of a small market town well-peopled mostly by pensioners, and what plans I had to troubleshoot and fire-fight, but sod it, I didn't, and we survived.  

'Teacher! Selfie!'

'Teacher, write, please!

I posed for photos, wrote valedictory messages in notebooks, and left 'em laughing when I went. Now, just as souls are said to desire reincarnation, I feel the desire to go back and do it again, properly this time.

* Spanish for 'fuck!'. You probably deduced this from context.

Saturday, 22 April 2017


I got a letter today from Spec Savers informing me that my eye-test is long overdue. They're right, but I can't afford new specs until summer. I found myself at Leeds station the other day idly wondering why it said 'heartburn' on the departure board. On closer inspection I worked out that it said 'northern'.


Extraordinary title here for an article by (who'd a thunk it?) a 'femme woman of color'. I thought at first 'Chatroulette' must be a French or Belgian town, or maybe a Parisian arrondissement: might be worth going there to expect a few penises. It's actually a web site. (chat + roulette - sometimes us educated types are too clever for our own good.) All the usual preoccupations are here: race, gender, sexuality, along with all the familiar jargon - autoethnography, embodied self, marginalized communities. I'm beginning to think that Women's / Gender Studies articles are generated by algorithms rather than by sentient beings.


Midnight yesterday was the deadline for my MA students' dissertation proposals. I looked on the University's VLE this morning to check that all were safely gathered in. Three were late and one was showing 80% similarity to something submitted to a university in the US. I felt a familiar rolling sensation in my guts and it took two hours to talk myself out of thinking this was all my fault. Teaching doth make paranoiacs of us all.  

Saturday, 11 March 2017

Ask, and ask often.

This video Feminism for Bros lasts less than two minutes but I defy anyone to watch it through to the end without cringing in embarrassment. It's sphincter-winking stuff. Consent in sex, it tells us, must be explicit and elicited for every move, especially if you're male. Note, though, that the woman recklessly touches the man's chest without requesting prior permission, then asks 'do you like that?' He does not remonstrate but, you know, did he really want that and did she really respect his autonomy here? Not every touch and grope from either party is explicitly sanctioned by the other, so the ambiguity is pretty chilling. It's a good job the video finishes where it does. Imagine if it went on a bit longer, and after the two of them have had further intervention from their campus Consent Counselor:

'Can I introduce my penis into your vagina?' (Be explicit about what goes where.)
'May I make an initial pelvic thrust?'
'I guess.'
'I did not feel that consent was explicit enough there. Let me pose the question again. May I make an initial pelvic thrust to push my...'
'Yeah, I know what you meant. Go ahead.'
'There. Can I make another? '
'That'd be two in total so far.'
'Yeah, look, just do it, right?'
'I have to say at this juncture that I have concerns about your tone. Of voice, I mean. Is it OK if I...'
'Dude, is this a fuck or a Q and A? Just fuckin do it, already.'
'You wanna watch a movie instead?'

Even if every sexual encounter proceeded in this stultifying manner, in the event of an accusation of assault, how would anyone demonstrate that consent had or had not been given? Nobody could, as anyone can lie. We are no further forward, then. Next step I suppose will be to make it mandatory to video all sexual encounters, and the chillingly-named Panopto software, now found in most lecture theatres, could be installed in all student bedrooms. Meanwhile go here, where Jeff E. Brooks-Harris & Christine A. Quemue of the University of Hawaii have prepared a seminar on how not to rape someone. Not only is consent fun, you can make a few bob out of promoting it.

Sunday, 5 March 2017

Mad Metaphors #3

Slightly confused here. 'Women of all genders' - isn't that exclusionary in SJW terms? I mean, what about biological females who menstruate but don't identify as women - or men, or human? And wasn't the pink triangle a gay male symbol back in the days before we were adjudged to be too close in privilege to straight men to be in the running for the Oppression Olympics?

Mad Metaphor #1
Mad Metaphor #2

Saturday, 18 February 2017

Deep Joy in the Peerimost Reviewal of Academic Articloaders

Back in November I marked a literature review from an MA candidate. This was a short, not terribly important practice exercise for the real thing and carried only a small percentage of the total marks for the module. I could make no sense of it and gave it 0%. A colleague suggested this might be too crushing for a first assignment: could I not whack it up to 10%? I suppose the candidate had sat down and at least tried to organise the material, however inappropriately, so I agreed. Here is a sample of her style: 

Natural order hypothesis is imperfect because of methodological consideration. In my point of view, lack of collegiality and the personal nature of suffered via the years are noticeable and prove that there is something close than the traditional argue with to the leader. The grammar was the basic knowledge of the language. There are six factors to decide whether the theory is right or not suitable. He scored more because of his clarity and simplicity in the tongue. This method is extremely susceptible on the grounds of scientific insufficiency. It is recycled theory ideas. The second language acquisition theory is more delegate of the intuition and personal understanding of pre-systematic times.

The writer continues in the same vein for another 950 words or so. English is not her mother tongue, but that doesn't seem to me to be the problem. The language is eccentric but not wildly inaccurate. Vocabulary choice is a bit off sometimes, the writer hitting upon the next word along rather than the one she's aiming for, but individual sentences are mostly well-formed. Trouble is, they seem only vaguely connected to one another. The real problem is that she doesn't know what she's talking about and is simply flanneling. Readers cannot be expected to pore over essays for hours, attempting to construe what writers may or may not be trying to say, so sod it, give it zero. Oh, OK then, if you insist, give it ten.

Today, I found this online:

Critical thinking and critique in new materialist perspectives is all without and diffractive: POST/modern/structural/human/humusist/anthropocene and PANpsychic/semiotic. They are therefore nondebunking and deauthorized immanent critique practices as the/an art of formal negation, curating and dosage opening for new and clinical practices, and quality is seen as tendencies at the origin of forces regardless of the complex that derives from them. They are working/s and writing/s with and beyond the subject: Inner outer always eroding but creative dimensions of life only relationally super-, supra-positioned until something comes to matter, makes happen, and/or decision making. Learning, action, and change beyond assumptions and post-accountability thus fiction as method and school of thought: Method is/as a bridge to philosophy and here my profession entrance. I call it material eco/edu/criticism. It is of a minor type. It is a bi/lingual criticism beyond representation, stumbling between major neoliberal and minor mine languages as in major and minor literatures (Deleuze, 1986) “restoring life to primary life” (p. 108). I ultimately argue for applying philosophy and inter-intrasemiotic thinking to foster and build educational cultures of innovation conceptually, methodologically, and theoretically, social innovation and social enterprise.
That is the first paragraph of a peer-reviewed article. I didn't manage to read it through, so I can only tell you that in the two paragraphs that dribble on from this one, the writer makes my MA candidate's effort look like an essay by Bertrand Russell. This woman's peers actually read it and actually approved it for publication. 'This is good stuff,' they must've said. 'Maybe a tad too cohesive: take a few verbs out, drop a few subject pronouns, maybe muddy the relationship between thoughts here and there to reduce the coherence factor a tad and it'll be right as ninepence.' And there it is: a grey wall of poker-faced drivel, seriously offered up for our serious consideration.

So maybe I was too harsh on my MA candidate's mini lit review. Should I encourage her to submit it to the ELTJ? 


Next up for the MA group is the dissertation proposal. To prepare them for this, I gave them two proposals from previous years, names and other identifying features removed. One of the proposals was carefully thought out and excellently presented, and the other was umm... neither of those things. The writer kept repeating the same small set of threadbare ideas, and kept referring to whiteboards and board pens as 'teaching methods', which pissed me off big time. The candidates were given a set of assessment criteria, read both proposals, then in groups assessed away.

I suppose people who are themselves being continually assessed are often disposed to evaluate their peers' work harshly: they set out with a kind of 'gotcha' mentality. It was dismaying, as I circulated, to hear them shitting all over the first proposal (the good one) and then bigging up the crummy one on the reasonable assumption that I must have chosen a good one and a bad one and then probably given them the bad one first.

So yeah. Maybe that peer reviewed article is actually a model of clarity and it's just my prejudices getting in the way.


Pour faire un poème dadaïste

Prenez un journal
Prenez des ciseaux
Choisissez dans ce journal un article ayant la longueur que vous comptez donner à votre poème.
Découpez l'article
Découpez ensuite avec soin chacun des mots qui forment cet article et mettez-le dans un sac.
Agitez doucement
Sortez ensuite chaque coupure l'une après l'autre dans l'ordre où elles ont quitté le sac.
Copiez consciencieusement.
Le poème vous ressemblera.
Et vous voilà "un écrivain infiniment original et d'une sensibilité charmante, encore qu'incomprise du vulgaire"

Tristan Tzara, 1920.

How to make a dadaist poem

Take a newspaper
Take some scissors
Choose from the newspaper an article of the length you intend your poem to be
Cut up the article
Then carefully cut out  the words that make up the article and put them in a bag.
Shake gently
Next take out each cutting, one after another in the order they come out of the bag.
Copy them conscientiously.
The poem will resemble you.
And there you are: 'an infinitely original writer, of charming sensibility, though unappreciated by the vulgar herd'.

Tuesday, 20 December 2016

Oh, The Humanities.

A while ago I came across the Twitter account New Real Peer Review, whose curator supplies abstracts of, and links to, recondite journal articles by academics in the fields of gender studies, queer studies, women's studies, postmodernism, deconstructionism, post-deconstructionism, post-post-deconstructionism, and what-not. It seems that if you want to make your mark in these disciplines, you must search out areas of experience hitherto innocent of concerns of sexuality and ethnicity and any other identity you can pinpoint, and try to open them up to such considerations whether the subject matter resists them or not. Black disabled lesbians and Scrabble? As yet up for grabs. Marginalised gender identities in the BBC shipping forecast? I'm coming to that. How about sex and accountancy? Accountancy has to be a real weenie-shrinker, right? Spreadsheets don't get most people horny, so accountants probably save up their lust for the evenings and weekends, like almost everybody else. Well, here we are told that: 'There is a paucity of research on sexuality within accounting studies in general, and next to nothing on lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans* (LGBT) sexualities in particular'. (Rumens, 2015) Bet you'd never thought of that - proving the author's point! At the Little CHEF (Centre for Hammering English into Foreigners) 99% of our Chinese students study business and accountancy related subjects, so this paper could make for illuminating reading on next year's pre-sessional courses. 

Picture the reaction.

The other week a young French lady asked me to help her write a commentary on The Wife of Bath's Tale. (I do language, not content, you must understand.) She told me that she was expected to set the tale in its Mediaeval context and then ponder whether or not Chaucer had written a feminist piece. This struck me as dumb: how can you set the piece in its Mediaeval context and then claim it as feminist piece 500 years before feminism? I'm not saying Chaucer wasn't a feminist avant la lettre - I know fuck all about literature, after all. However, it does seem you get points from your lecturers if you can lasso a bit of feminism together with pretty much anything else. 

But what speak we of mere undergrads when we have an example here direct from the top floor? Harvard's Dr Jennifer C. Nash has opened up black women's arseholes for us to look into. 'I place my work in conversation with other anal theorists, showing how my investment in black anality both builds on and departs from existing scholarship' (Nash, 2014). I didn't know you could be an anal theorist. 'So, what do you do, then?' No doubt breaks the ice at parties. Anyway, Nash reckons that black women's sexuality is regarded as 'toxic' (buzz word) and 'wasteful', hence it's connection with the ring-piece. How likely is it that many people think of black women's sexuality as 'toxic' and 'wasteful', or agree with Nash's assertion that black women are generally seen as 'grotesque' and 'unfeminine' when so many black women are so beautiful? But this is another key to keeping your job in gender studies: bang on at mendacious length about how oppressed and marginalised you are, even if you are a professor or student at an Ivy League University and thus one of the most privileged and self-determining people in the history of the planet.

Another thing you must do is make your abstracts as inscrutable as you possibly can:

''This essay undertakes a critique of recent trends in affect theory from the standpoint of the “human motor”: a trope that presupposes a thermodynamic psychophysiology distended between energy conservation and entropy. In the course of reanimating thermodynamic motifs in Marx's labor power metabolics and Freud's trauma energetics, the essay broaches entropics as a poetics of depletion that offsets affect theories promoting open-system metaphors. Open-system affect theory sometimes amalgamates emancipatory post-humanist gestures inherited from Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari with neuroscientific terms. In the course of “liberating” affect from subject-oriented topoi, this “liberation-scientistic” admixture expropriates organic matter's degeneration over time. An “entropical” perspective also challenges Antonio Negri's Spinozaist affect conceived as a capacitating power that encounters... ''(Ball,2015)

OK, that'll do. You get the idea. Or more likely, that dispiriting verbal sludge make it impossible to descry any ideas, thus defeating the object of writing a fucking abstract. Now, we can take the piss out of this tosh as much as we like, but we need to consider too that people are paid to produce and teach it, and students pay to learn it. Can someone tell me what conceivable intellectual worth this pretentious horseshit could have? What benefit do this writer's students derive from being taught by someone that cranks out such minge-dribble for a living? And what can they do with the knowledge other than perpetuate the insanity? (For some background to this article, go here, where the journal editors manage to illuminate matters hardly at all.)

Anyway, reading the abstracts on New Real Peer Review inspired me to write one of my own, and I'm considering submitting it as a proposal to some upcoming conference, my own small Sokal-style hoax. It's no more or less barmy and pointless than these papers presented at the American Culture Association National Conference in Seattle earlier this year: 

  • Sensual Folds, Textured Erotics: Centering the fat queer man’s belly as site of sexual pleasure. 
  • Grunge Feminism: the subversive hypertextuality of the queered voice performed through the body.
  • Boys are from Mars, Girls are from Venus, I’ve got a Yum Yum, Mom has a Penis: Gender-blind voice casting and butch desire in Bob’s Burgers.
OK, this is mine:  
Sailing By: Intertextualities and Intersexualities in the BBC Shipping Forecast.   


Using non-interventionist externalities as a heuristic, this paper explores queered, quasi-queered and non-queered maritime spaces in an attempt to deconstruct and problematise issues of self-positioning and othering that stem from the placing and subsequent re-positioning of marginalised identities within sea areas. Practices of emancipatory gender negotiation and renegotiation embodied within existing socio-linguistic paradigms are critiqued and found insufficient to account for deviations from - and challenges to - hegemonic discourses of masculinity and / or ‘masculinities’ as reflected in gendered nomenclatorial systems, e.g., 'rising quickly' or 'falling more slowly'. We call for a more critical interrogation of the aforementioned praxes and narratives and argue for more nuanced, imbricated and critical connections between mimesis and affect, with a view to destabilizing hetero-normative articulations of subjectivity, and positioning a meta-stable externality as a paradigm for anti- (or non-) normative shipping inclusivity.

Key words: queer, maritime, sea, gender negotiation, to, for, a, heteronormativity, and. 

Sunday, 20 November 2016

Developing a civilisation calls for grit and spunk.

A group of students from China and Thailand are discussing the inventions and discoveries that have contributed the most to the development of civilisation and the quality of modern life. Among anaesthesia, refrigeration, the compass, etc., they include semen. 'Yes, semen has very big influence on civilisation,' they agree.

Chinese and Thai speakers have a strong tendency to place stress on the first syllable of a word and to simplify consonant clusters, so after the discussion I have to drill:

SEmen Oo


It makes a difference, folks.

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Intercourse and Erections

No, it's not what you think.

A colleague was working on summary writing with her class. She asked the students to discuss their favourite leisure activity. Many Chinese students will not discuss a topic without first checking their dictionary aps at length, often in mid conversation. As this is extremely trying for the listener, it is discouraged or forbidden in most classes - a ban difficult to enforce in a large group. Anyway, after the students had discussed their preferred activities in pairs, the teacher asked one or two to tell the whole class what they like to do in their spare time.

A Chinese female student says 'intercourse.'

'Sorry, did I hear that right?

'Yes, intercourse. I enjoy it very much here. It's not the same in my country.'


'My country, no time for intercourse, but here even strangers doing intercourse, specially in the pub. I like very much.'

You, dear reader, have understood by now that she had looked up 'socialising' in Chinese and chosen the wrong word from the list of decontextualised items her dictionary proposed. How my colleague dealt with the matter her e-mail (from which I took the exchange above) doesn't say. I'm not sure how I would have handled it either. 'You've just told a large group of near strangers that you really enjoy a good fuck, sweetheart. Do you want that to stand or would you like to amend the statement now?' Universities are prudish and censorious places these days, deeply into censorship and repression in the name of diversity and inclusion. To correct the error might be seen as 'lexis-shaming' or 'connotational colonialism' or something.

A while ago I was teaching a group of Chinese students language for presentations. Such phrases as 'moving on now' and 'I'd like to turn now to...' are known as 'signposts'. I drew a signpost on the whiteboard and asked if anyone knew the English word. My question, as usual, met silence. Then one timid young lady offered:

'An erection?'

Saturday, 15 October 2016

By the way,

I need to point out to my new Taiwanese student that in English, we put given name first and family name last. This way 'Hung Dennis', as he signs himself, will avoid overselling himself on campus. I also have a Queen Wang. So fancy that.


I'm teaching a module on research methods for our TEFL MA. I have not done this before and was afraid of being shown up as less than omniscient - see blog title. The first two sessions with a group of extraordinarily enthusiastic people went well. I could congratulate myself for successfully stimulating and moderating some very lively debate. I do, sometimes. But most of the time I feel more like I put up enough front to fool everybody, and got away with it.


HR sent me a form to complete for my contract. There were sections requesting information about one's religion and sexual orientation and these annoyed me, as it seems to me that neither is relevant to any of the teaching I do and therefore nobody's bloody business. Back in the 80s I would have ticked the box 'Gay Man' with pride and probably highlighted it in pink. Of course nobody would have attempted to elicit the information then; it was necessary for us to be in-your-face about it to dispel the miasma of prejudice and lies about those of us who are homosexually inclined. I now agree with the view expressed by Gore Vidal thirty-odd years ago that gay and homosexual should be adjectives to describe acts rather than nouns to designate people. I'm a gay man only when having it away with another man in reality or fantasy and 'gay' does not apply in any other circumstance. HR is basically asking what makes my cock stiff, and they can fuck off.

I am reluctantly and resentfully ploughing through a compulsory on-line 'training' course in diversity and some other-buzz word that temporarily escapes me. Along with some useful stuff pertaining to the law, there is an intolerable deal of poker-faced piety. You are asked if you think it's OK to shake a student's hand. I don't know what the university's official position on hand shaking is: maybe these days it counts as 'inappropriate touching'. But when you work with people from Saudi Arabia or Algeria and quite a few other countries, you could give offense by not shaking their hands, so it depends. Context doesn't appear to matter to the designers of this course, though. They want to know if you think it's OK to make jokes about someone's sexual orientation. Well, again, it depends. Who's making the joke? What is the joker's relationship to the one at the receiving end of the joke? Is it a good joke? Obviously if you want to pass the course, you cannot say what you think. You will have to whip out the sal volatile and flute 'gracious me, no, whatever next?' This small measure of self-censorship grates on me and I fear an even greater degree of tongue-holding may soon be required of us if university students over here become as censorious and irrational as the ones in this nauseating video from Canada.


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