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'.


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