Wednesday, 23 December 2015


From a student essay: 'Cloud computing provides extra hard dick capacity.'

Saturday, 19 December 2015

The End Days

That’s it for 2015. The teachers’ room is dark and silent, and the elevated discourse that is customary there (‘I had a packet of them McCoy Thai chicken crisps. They were fuckin’ rank.’) will resume but fitfully in the new year: there’s very little work before Easter. Yesterday was the final day of the last course of the year, and students were given their test results.

‘This are not my result!’ says Nawaf indignantly when I hand him the slip that tells him he’s nose-dived again. 

Yes, they bloody well are.

‘No. This are my result from the last course.’

Why the fuck would I be giving you those again? 

‘No, no. This is no the true. This is false. This is injustice.’ 

Fortunately it is not I who must remonstrate with him: the centre director and the academic coordinator are waiting in their offices, sitting ducks for the tearful, the indignant and the obstreperous. Go and see one of them, Nawaf. 

No, one of them, not me. 

Nawaf is a bit odd, to tell you the truth. The following is a sample of the kind of exchange he and I have been having over the past ten weeks:

He: (indicating an article he’s just read) I agree with this. Very good.

Me: What is it you agree with?

He: Well, he says A, B and C. Very good.

Me: But where does he say A?

He: (airily) I dunno. Maybe here.

Me:  Look at the topic sentence of the paragraph. Is he going to say A, do you think?

We establish via a few minutes of Socratic midwifery that the author actually says the opposite of points A and C, and that point B is entirely absent.

He: Well, yeah, I know!     

Me: Know what???

He: (as to a half-wit) That he’s saying X, Y and Z! And I agree with this. Very good.

Anyway, Nawaf and a handful of other litigants depart to see the people I’ve palmed them off to, and I go to the teachers’ room and faff about on the Internet so as to keep well out of everyone’s way. When after an hour or so I venture out again, Nawaf is still wrangling with the academic coordinator about his grades, which had been maliciously assigned. How could it be else, given that his essay had been perfect and his presentation trenchant and skillfully executed?

The fact is, Nawaf, that your essay was merely word salad and your presentation pointless, which is why they failed. Get it? It had nothing to do with the assessing tutors being in league to wreck your career. I had told everyone to keep their PowerPoint slides simple, but you put your entire introduction onto one slide and read it out word for word, likewise the conclusion. Between the two, we had a few random observations touching on weather and food prices in the UK and the USA. Or something. It was the ninth presentation of the morning, my mind was wandering and nothing you said brought it to heel. 

Anyway, by the end of yesterday morning Nawaf was told that his results would be passed on to the faculty he hopes to join in January, and it would be up to them to decide if they will accept him or not. I think they probably will. They don’t strike me as overly fussy: Christ knows how some of the overseas students manage to do degrees, given their lousy English. Nawaf’s English isn’t lousy – far from it. But his mind is a hall of mirrors in the form of a Mobius strip. Picture that if you can.


And now the good news. As of last week, my nephew (above, with my sister) may preface his name with ‘Dr’. If you are having problems with your laser – and they can be the very devil, I'm sure you'll agree – he might be able to sort you out, but don’t be pestering him with your piles or sciatica, he isn’t that sort of doctor. Well done, lad.   

Monday, 23 November 2015

I dreamt a dream tonight

Dream: I am watching an episode of a detective series on TV. The series has the gritty, hard-boiled, get-to-grips-with-it title of Kiss the Banana.

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

A Day in the Life V

This week is a reading week, meaning that the students in the university (as opposed to our little antechamber) have no lectures and are thus free to enjoy the luxury of total immersion in books  on International Business Management, and similar treats. Or just to bugger off and do nothing for seven days. I say 'reading week', but the university has decreed that it shall henceforth be termed 'Enhancement Week' because they think that sounds kind of like all like positive and dynamic and go-getting and stuff like that. Anyone who can coin such a term will never be persuaded of its cheesiness, and so Enhancement Week is the official designation, pending coinage of a cheesier. Anyway, reading week gave me reason to hope that my silent Monday evening Undergrad Language Support students might give the class a miss, allowing me to get home for seven instead of nine.

I asked colleagues how long one is expected to sit waiting for students to arrive before dowsing the lights and getting the hell out. Fifteen minutes was the consensus. But then suppose just as you were gleefully hightailing it out of the building, you met a single student coming in the opposite direction, (fuck!) late with a legitimate reason. You'd be forced to return to the classroom, reboot the computer, get all your bloody books and papers out again and resign yourself to trying to drag language out of a lone Trappist for an hour and three quarters. With a colleague who uses the same room for the same purpose, I discussed tactics for escaping unnoticed:

  • The windows don't open very wide and in any case appear to give onto an enclosed area, so forget it. You'd have to climb back in - and think what an unteacherly figure you'd cut to any arriving student, stuck there like a trapped burglar. 
  • There's a long, narrow corridor which is a definite risk: there'd be no chance of avoiding an approaching undergrad unless perhaps you were wearing a burka, which really would be taking it all a bit too seriously. 
  • The corridor successfully negotiated, you could go up the stairs, across the first floor and down the staircase on the other side of the building...
  • ...then you'd have to get your head down and charge through the brightly-lit entrance hall like a spider tear-arsing across a living-room carpet before reaching the escape-hatch of a back door that can only be opened by staff with swipe-cards.

I cannot believe that we actually sat and discussed this. Even so, on getting to the classroom I was pleased to find at the near end of the corridor a hidden staircase of the kind that permitted servants to move unobtrusively around grand houses. Perfect. I passed this on to Emma today.


In the event, five young Chinese ladies show up. Not as good as none, but better than one. They greet me cheerily but as always, once the lesson is underway they revert to the downward gaze and shy whispering that for them betokens modesty and respect but drives me scatty. We are doing presentation skills this evening, something they have requested, because they have presentations to make. The usual Chinese ploy is to write out the entire presentation, commit it to memory and then recite it. We spend a lot of time telling them not to do this: it makes you sound robotic, your written text will be denser than spoken discourse and thus more difficult to decode, and an unexpected interruption can put you off your stroke and once you have lost your place it can be hard to remember where you had got to. Fear of grammatical error dinned into them at school makes them reluctant to comply with our instructions, though. So this evening we make notes on the whiteboard for a chunk of presentation, and to their horror I require each of them to come out to the front and present the material from the notes only. This they do very well, so the atmosphere lightens. They have, as requested, brought with them the presentations they are working on. Thank fuck for that, because I am getting fed up of everything having to come from me, and the material I have brought is thorough but dull as a vodka and tonic without ice.

I call a five minute break. There's no teachers' room to retreat to, so no chance of tea. I take the lift to the third floor, walk down the stairs to the ground floor, go for a pee and, having thus exhausted the opportunities for diversion that the building affords, return to the classroom. I'm hoping for a buzzing, workshoppy hour with the girls collaborating on their presentations.

Lydia shows me her PowerPoint presentation. We reduce the amount of text on her slides and I persuade her to come to the console and present a bit of her work. This she does, and I give feedback.

'When are you giving the presentation?' I ask.

'I make last week,' she says.

Right. The thing is done, graded, fed back on, dead. They will not be making any more presentations this year. Nothing I did this evening was of any immediate use. 


Do not put yourself forward to do undergraduate English language support.

Never take anything for granted. Never assume that students see the logic in teachers' questions and suggestions. Check all your instructions even if you fear you are treating adults like morons - and this is my greatest fear.

Let's go home. There's gin and tonic to come.


Wednesday, 28 October 2015

A Day in the Life IV

An evening, actually. 

On Monday and Thursday evenings, I teach undergraduate language support groups. I don’t look forward to the Monday class. In a remote and cavernous classroom at the end of an unlit corridor of the nearly empty Dennis Wheatley building, I have a group of eight Chinese kids who have obviously taken a vow of silence - never a good thing in a language learner. On a dark Monday evening at half-past six, half way through our two-hour class, a chill and lonesome mood will often steal over me: fuck, what am I doing here? 

I arrive at the empty classroom at five in the evening to make sure the computer and the sound are working. The room could accommodate ice hockey, so I drag four tables to the front to make two islands close to the screen and whiteboard. The first student to arrive is Viola, a small girl who shuns all expression, facial and verbal. She does not return my greeting but sits down and begins solemnly jabbing at her smartphone. Over the next fifteen minutes more students drift in, silent as ghosts, park themselves and begin to prod their phones. I go out to the loo, then treck to the water cooler to fill my bottle of water and return at five thirty to find all eight students present, silent, intently flicking and poking their private mini-screens. Even though they are sitting in groups of four around the two tables I’ve placed close together, each seems completely alone. I’m supposed to teach them seminar skills.   

‘Right you buggers, for Christ’s sake put them fucking phones away and let’s get cracking!’ I shout. (Use the higher end of your vocal range for this, you sound friendlier that way.) We are going to do a dictation, but first I elicit phrases you can use to get someone to speak more slowly or more loudly, or spell a word for you. Or at least I try. Nobody speaks. I ask again for ways in which these functions might be realised and eventually Viola makes a suggestion. Even though I didn't hear what she said, I receive it as enthusiastically as a parent greets baby's first poo in a potty. Nobody else heard either but she will not be prevailed upon to repeat it. It's as if she expects to be billed for any word she utters. Never mind. Here are some phrases I prepared before the show, floating in on the screen:

  • Could you slow down a bit, please?
  • Could you speak up a bit, please?
  • Could you spell that for me, please?

We practise the stress and intonation and probably they are all thinking: ‘why did he spend ages trying to drag these out of us when he had them on a PowerPoint all along? Why the cat and mouse?’

So, the dictation. I make it clear that they can use the phrases on the screen should I make it necessary, and then read the whole paragraph at a rattling pace, finishing it in about ten seconds. Silence. It’s the same hermetic, solipsistic silence that accompanies the smartphone jabbing. I begin to think I may be invisible. The room gets bigger and colder. Weeks pass. Then Cassie says in a tiny, timid whisper: ‘could you slow down a bit, please?’ 

Now once they get the idea, it begins to work. Each member of four pairs is given a short text to dictate to the other and they actually start to laugh a bit as they use the formulas.  We are still a long way from seminar skills, the ten minute warmer has now lasted nearly half an hour and the speaking they are doing is one hundred percent scripted, but they are at least speaking. I suppose it’s a start.

At six thirty-ish I allow a five minute phone-poking break while I go to refill my bottle of water, and return to find the eight of them in silent, rapt communion with their screens. If there were such a thing as an e-monastery, a meditation period would be like this. The cold, lonely, far-from-home feeling visits me again: all this preparation for so little response or enthusiasm... I have this pathetic need to feel useful and appreciated and they're not making me feel either... Right, sod this. Only an hour to go and we can all get the hell out. Get a sense of proportion, you wuss. 

We watch a seminar discussion on You Tube. It’s staged by teachers and is rather too full of phrases for agreeing and disagreeing and holding the floor and what-not to sound entirely natural, but the kids manage to pick these out. I then give them a partial transcript of the discussion which they act out in their groups. They have not produced a single spontaneous utterance all evening, but they have practised a lot of useful language and done lots of pronunciation work, and next week they’ll participate in a discussion if I have to resort to water-boarding.

Seven twenty-four: sod it, let’s go. They troop out. Two even say ‘good night’. I must point out that they are nice kids. If I see them on campus they always smile and wave. It’s just that classrooms turn them into wraiths. I wait for three minutes or so, time enough for them to go along the dark corridor, round the corner and out of the building, before letting the fart I’ve been bottling since six forty-five. Instantly, the door opens and Cassie is back. I dive across the room towards her so that she might not enter the zone of befouled air, but to her I must look almost suspiciously pleased to see her. She will not be able to come next week, she tells me. Fine, fine, no problem, thanks for telling me, I gabble, almost forcing her out of the room. 

Usually I leave work in a hurry, anxious to get the earliest train possible. These Monday evenings I have nearly fifty minutes on my hands before I get the eight eighteen. I go to Sainsbury’s, there to purchase gin, a small reward to myself for not visiting GBH on anybody this evening. By half past nine I’m home. I shower, slip into something shapeless, light the candles and pour a devastating G&T. The sweetest part of any day is when you’ve shut the door on the world for the coming twelve hours.


My Thursday group  - all Chinese again - did the same lesson this evening and it went down a treat. Lots of participation, lots of spontaneity, lots of discussion. Even the most reticent of the students were drawn in and said their bit, and we all left together carrying on the conversation down three flights of stairs to the exit. I wish I knew exactly what made the difference.


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