Writer and Author

Tag: Teaching

Head to the Hills – or rather do not head to the hills

We all know the scene, the deserted cottage on the Moors/up the mountain. Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

We’re all familiar with the scenario. When pestilence sweeps through the land or the zombie apocalypse hits, our heroes head out of town and try to find somewhere to batten down the hatches. In John Wyndham’s classic The Kraken Wakes husband and wife reporter Mike and Phyllis Watson try to make it to their remote cottage in Cornwall as all other hope fails. Similarly in Wyndham’s Day of the Triffids sanctuary is found and hope of a normal life are found in a rural location.  In Terry Nation’s 1975 series Survivors, sanctuary is found outside the cities away from infection. The first series shows the main characters searching for somewhere remote to hole up and subsequent series see them forming a community and getting back to nature. This is what one is supposed to do in a pandemic. I’ve had many a conversation with friends about the perfect blot hole for when society finally came crashing down (what can I say – I belong to Generation X), what it would look like, where would it be. But that was all fantasy, the reality is very different.

This weekend scenic spots all over the British Isles saw heavy traffic as people ignored the warnings about gatherings. The government has issued specific guidance for the owners of holiday homes and second homes that heading for the hills does not count as essential travel. The problem is that, while this might be the course of action that characters take in fiction, in reality, going to that isolated cottage is going to put extra strain on communities that really don’t have the resources to cope. All over the weekend community leaders and police forces have been warning out-of-towners away. It turns out that, in reality, if you are going from an area with a high rate of infection, to somewhere isolated with less infection, all you’re doing is potentially bringing infection with you. Actually, this salient fact is in the fiction. In Survivors, for example, there are numerous storylines where infection is brought into isolated communities. But those stories are talking about a truly cataclysmic pandemic. While Covid19 is bad and we need to do all we can to flatten the curve and make sure the NHS can cope with what’s to come, this is not the end of society as we know it. Yes, this is a once in a century event and it will shape the rest of our lives in ways we don’t yet know, but this is something we will get through – as long as we look out for each other and don’t act like assholes.

Personally I’ve been too busy getting ready for teaching to resume this week to go gadding about the countryside – oh, and I don’t have a holiday home. I had my first online seminar today. It’s going to be a huge adjustment for all of us but I’m just hoping my students feel supported enough to get through this disruption to their education. Starting university this year has been a roller coaster for any first-year students and my heart goes out to final years. It had already been a turbulent year before we had heard of coronavirus and social distancing. It’s hard not to feel helpless as this thing keeps smashing through our daily lives. All we can do is get through day by day. There’s very little that I can say that won’t sound trite because this is simply too big.

As well as teaching I’m also helping to organise our first online PhD game night on Wednesday. As I wrote yesterday, Twitter has been brilliant with help on that. But there is something about this time that almost feels like the early days of social media all over again. We’re looking at how to connect, how to stay together, in more meaningful ways I think. This isn’t about social media as a utility, it’s about social media as a lifeline. That’s what it was for introverts or scattered families and friends when it was new and shiny. Then, as it became ubiquitous, we began to shun the alwaysonness of it all. I even want to talk on the phone these days. Times really have changed.

On Strikes, Teaching and Times Past.

Striking Victorian belles. Image by Dr Bob Nicholson @DigiVictorian

Image by Dr Bob Nicholson @DIgiVIctorian on Twitter

It’s been a year since I’ve posted here and a very busy year at that. I’ve had a little more time lately – although that is a relative term when there’s a thesis brewing – so here I am again. As the nights draw in it becomes a time for reflection and getting nostalgic. We’re almost at the end of the second universities strike in two years. Tomorrow is the last of 8 strike days in the UCU strike and I’ll be heading to the picket line again. I was brought up to respect unions and the power of collective action and bargaining. My mum was an actress.  Joining the union, Equity, meant that you could work. Getting your Equity card was your badge of professionalism, it meant you’d had at least five paying jobs. As a journalist, I applied for my NUJ card as soon as I started studying. It meant that I could blag my way into nightclubs but over the years I’ve been glad of my union membership. As a freelance journalist knowing that you have the support of a union behind you when you’re otherwise out on your own is a huge thing. There was a strike in the first journalism job I ever had, at BBC Northern Ireland in Belfast. I was freelancing but I wouldn’t cross the picket line. Solidarity is an important thing  – though on that occasion I did go into Broadcasting House when the picket went for lunch. I was too precarious not to.

Well, I’m still precarious. I love teaching but it does feel like being back in those early journalism days. My first cheque was for £30 if I remember rightly. I was dead chuffed (that was my rent back then). That’s the thing with now and gets down to why I’m striking. It might feel the same as those days hustling for a story but it’s not the same. Now I teach both history and journalism as a doctoral tutor and this is necessary because I’m doing my doctorate unfunded. It’s not how I planned it but funding is hard to get. That’s a subject for another day though. I rely on teaching around campus because fitting a doctorate around any other type of work is next to impossible.

I’m striking because I’m paid hourly and those hours aren’t the hours that I invoice for, those are the hours allotted. For each hour I teach I get paid three more. That sounds like a good deal but in those three extra hours, I’m supposed to give feedback to students, mark their work and, most importantly of all, prepare for my teaching. I am given one hour to prepare for teaching. This is actually a pretty good deal by academic standards. But I’m a latecomer to academia. I’ve worked in the private sector and the public sector. I’ve even designed material for the purposes of teaching others in those environments. I would have got balled out of it if I’d taken an hour to prep. If you don’t believe me take a look at the rates recommended here. Now OK, that’s corporate tech training but still, for Instructor-Led Training – which includes design, lesson plans, handouts and Powerpoint slides – the recommended rate is 34:1. That’s 34 hours to every one taught.  I’d love to know if anyone outside very, very high-end corporate actually manages to get that ratio but even in the basic stuff I used to do the rule of thumb was 7 hours prep for one presenting. That’s not the reality in academia.

I’m also striking because this term by term merry-go-round is probably it for the foreseeable future. Fixed-term, fractional contracts are the norm for post-doctorate jobs and quite a bit post-doc at that. I’m also striking because this situation is absolutely head wrecking for those of us reliant on it. It’s also not fair on the students who are paying over £9,000 a year for their education. I’m striking because something has to change, for everyone’s sake.

I’ve had cause to think about my own time at college over the past week as well. Last week I learned that one of my old lecturers had died. I have fond memories of Muiris Mac Ghongail. He taught me when I was doing my degree at the Dublin Institute of Journalism in the late 1990s. Muiris was never boring, always inspiring. His classes were always well attended. We’ve got a Whatsapp group at the moment because it’s 20 years since we graduated next year. The news was shared on there and all day my phone was beeping with memories of Muiris. I was heading to the picket line that day, listening to stories of teaching now, of workloads, of lack of contact with students. Every now and then I checked the Whatsapp messages. The same memories kept coming up – that he was a great dissertation mentor and also that he used to take us down to the pub on occasion and hold forth. Now I don’t oversee dissertations at the moment but I know that my students complain about contact hours with teaching staff. They want more than drop-in office hours and I sympathise. I’ve seen student suggestions on our uni student app that they would like to spend more time with teaching staff. The pub has been suggested. I remember going to the pub with Muiris. He was always entertaining and those were definitely memorable evenings but I’m not sure I would be happy to see a revival of what was fairly normal in the mid-90s. Muiris was very generous with his time but other teachers would only ask certain students. There was a lot of resentment about a certain boys club we female members of the class could see back then. It’s all water under the bridge now but it’s another reason I’m not sure I’d be in favour of a return to that kind of completely relaxed interaction. It’s too easy for lines to blur, for favouritism, for things to get messy. But looking back on those days, on days when I didn’t graduate with a debt, when we only had 30 to a class when we could just drop in on teachers. Something has definitely been lost with student numbers climbing and we can feel its loss and so can our students.

So we strike and try to slay the neoliberal beast. It’s only taken 10 years to get to this, the removal of the cap on student numbers and the speeding up of the marketisation of education under Cameron and Gove. People have a choice in this election for change or more of the same with bells on.

 

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