Just say no

Or, dang I do have problems with Academic Advice literature, don’t I. Not all of it! #notallacademicadvice #butalotofit

‘Do yourself a favour’, reads a recent headline in the Times Higher Education. ‘Learn to say no’.

Those acquainted with my half-formed musings will know that I have what we might call a one-sidedly fractious relationship with the THE. This is not based entirely on the fact that all that sub-Private Eye material (and you may also know of my dislike for Private Eye) about their parody university is the least funny thing ever to be marketed at university academics, up to and including that ‘JSTOR and Chill’ t-shirt. Rather, I find that the hot higher education #content provided by the THE runs the gamut from ‘useful and interesting’ to ‘actively damaging to the profession‘, taking frequent pit stops at ‘oh, this shite again’ and ‘I appear to have nutted my head entirely through my desk’. It is to the latter that I shall now turn.

This is a bit mean (perhaps a lot mean). The subject I’ll be wittering on about today is the article I linked to at the top of this post, by researcher Helen Kara, which takes the classic Academic Advice form: you are doing this thing wrong. Stop doing this thing wrong.

The thing in question is: academic overcommitment: saying yes to too much. Kara’s piece is well-intentioned and makes some good points: stop saying yes, she argues, because its unfair both to yourself and to those who rely on you. Say no, keep your workload manageable, and actually perform the responsibilities you take on properly. She notes that ‘saying “no” can be really difficult, particularly if the person asking is, for example, senior to you, or someone to whom you owe a favour’ – or if you’re early in your career. Kara provides some scripts for these situations, and they are genuinely (genuinely. I’m not being sarcastic here, for once) really useful. This is, in many ways, a really valuable piece, and I don’t want you (dear reader) to discount it just because muggins here has capital-V Views about it.

The thing is. The thing is the thing is

It’s nice to have recognition that ‘just saying no’ is harder for those further down the ladder, and that indeed there are other factors that can make refusal difficult, or at least complicated, for people at all stages of the careers. It’s nice to have some scripts to use. But recognition is really all this is, scripts notwithstanding. Academia is a favour and reputation economy with some very big power imbalances indeed; the various pressures of this can’t always be dissipated by even the politest of refusals. As academics we navigate a landscape that can’t be easily sorted into yeses and noes, that is far more complex than appeals to judgement and agency make clear.

And the other thing is.

Kara ends the piece with an appeal to ‘ethics’, which I’ll quote in full:

There is an ethical point to this, too. We forget to notice that if we don’t look after ourselves properly, we can’t do our jobs or look after other people. I love Deborah Netolicky’s memorable description of ethics as the “unsexy undergarments” of academia. I think we should pay attention to ethics all the time, just as we remember, every day, to wear our undergarments. People who overcommit are a danger to themselves, risking their health and happiness, and that can damage their families and friends as well. They are also a danger to their colleagues: I know from experience, as someone who is quite good at managing time and workload, that a collaborator who misses deadlines can cause great stress in my life. So for our own benefit, and for the benefit of our colleagues, families and friends, we have an obligation not to overcommit, and that means learning to say “no”.

Yes, I see the point here. It’s not ethical to let people down, and we should strive never, in the course of our work or otherwise, to damage or impede the lives of others. This is not a small issue. But if you’re going to raise the topic of ethics in a piece like this then questions are going to be begged, and those questions are going to go beyond questions of personal ethics to questions of institutional, societal ethics: the contexts that personal ethical choices take place within. Kara has done really useful and interesting work on research ethics, and my intention here is not to minimise or trivialise that – though I would argue that her handwaving final paragraph does that for her. But ethics in higher education is larger than the personal or the interpersonal, and when you are dealing with the cavernous power differentials of this profession it is dangerous – and yes, unethical – to frame the disembodied agency of the individual as the sole site of ethical choice. I’m overstating what I assume is Kara’s actual position, but I’m taking it from the paragraph above.

And that brings me back, not without trepidation, to the wording of the piece. ‘Learn to say no’. The article circles around the word ‘no’, returning to it at the ends of paragraphs, always with the same implication: ‘no’ is clear. It is to be used to claim agency. Learn to say it, and your agency will be recognised and respected.

Except. ‘No’ swims through so much of what we are told, in social environments that may be challenging or dangerous, we should say and do. ‘Just say no’ to drugs. ‘No means no’. ‘No’ claims agency, keeps you safe. Except when it doesn’t.

Learning to say ‘no’ guarantees nothing. It does not guarantee that a person who wants something from you will not use the power they have to get it anyway. We err, and we endanger ourselves, when we trust this word. It carries no spell to preserve us. In the light of scandalous abuses of power in the academy, I do not believe that this is the ethics of refusal we need to focus on.

OK, it may be that I’m going a bit over the top in response to a light-heartedly-toned piece about agreeing to do too much peer reviewing. And I do want to make very clear that this is not something that I’m entirely qualified to speak on: I have not experienced harassment or abuse within academia, and I am not equating the mere experience of being subject to unequal institutional power relationships to the experience of being abused through them. But decisions over workload take place within the same mesh of reputation and obligation and power that harassment and abuse does. We all negotiate this every day, no matter where we sit in the hierarchy or what things we are trying to procure or avoid. The great, great majority of these interactions will be relatively benign, but even within them ‘no’ is subject to negation or negotiation: a refusal to take on an admin responsibility may be ignored, overruled, or renegotiated, often for perfectly sound reasons. Kara’s ‘no’ essentially takes place in an empty political space, in which words carry the full weights of their intentions: no means no. There is nothing more to say.

This captures much of my unease with a lot of Academic Advice Literature. I find it tends, as a feature of the genre, to depoliticise: to strip acts like saying ‘no’ of their political weight, to site the forces pushing against them into the (depoliticised, depersonalised, degendered, deracialised) bodies of shy or unwilling individuals. Just claim agency, just say no. I am not arguing against Kara’s purpose, in the sense that more refusal – and, crucially, more freedom to refuse – and thus more manageable workloads would be a pretty uncomplicatedly good thing. However, I’m uneasy with this depoliticisation, and most of all with Kara’s formulation of personal ethics. It’s not victim-blaming – I don’t think one can really be termed a victim of promising to write too many book chapters, even if they are painful to do – but it partakes of some of the same mechanisms, some of the same blinkeredness, and some of the same language. Learn to say ‘no’, by all means. But understand what ‘no’ can’t do, too.

 

Multum in Parvo (said the cupcake toppers)

Walking towards work yesterday, feeling a bit fragile (I’d responded to grief at the memorial service for Lisa Jardine by hitting the wine with aplomb and the canapes not at all, and then crashed a Finnegans Wake reading group in a nearby pub, something that I suspect Lisa would have found hilarious), I wondered a bit why I was trudging down a cold Bancroft Road and not, eg, at home on a sofa with a cat on me. I had a hangover, and I was sad, and January stretched in cold puffs of breath all around me, frozen and uninviting.

I had reasons to go in, of course. Good ones. Ones that made me think of Lisa. She didn’t meet the brilliant first year student I was due to talk to about Beowulf, whose sheer intellectual curiosity astounds me on a regular basis. She never knew – though I’m convinced she’d have adored – the guest speaker for our graduate seminar, a young digital humanist who is transforming scholarship while wearing brightly-coloured DMs, making jokes, and being outspokenly, excellently feminist. I don’t think she ever met the MA students I saw there, but I think she’d have liked them and their proposed PhD projects a lot, and offered up her expertise and her scholarly network the way she always did: generously, good-humouredly, and with great glee at the prospect of new and exciting scholarship. She didn’t get to attend the wonderful salon at the V&A last night, organised by the brilliant Lisa Skogh, but she’d have loved it – loved the international focus, loved the voices of young scholars raised in democratic discussion with the great and the good. I wasn’t even teaching yesterday, and still I have this long list of people and projects I’d have loved to share with her.

I forgot to take the programme for Lisa’s memorial service out of my handbag before I left yesterday morning. I’d quite like to prop it on my office shelf, next to the magazine cover with Alan Cumming’s face on it (he watches benevolently over my scholarship), but I’m not sure I can: seeing her wide smile in the picture on the cover would always be a reminder that I don’t get to see that smile in person any more. It still has the effect on me it always did: I smile back, infected by her joy, but the difference is that now I start to cry, too.

We’ve talked, a bunch, about how we go on without her – without her clout, yes, her ability to make things happen, but above all her personality, her warmth, her kindness. I guess we do what people always do when they lose someone: we work with the resources we have, we make virtues out of what we have to give and to share ourselves. I met some of the best people I know through Lisa, and I learnt not just skills (although the skills are invaluable) but an attitude to life, to my teaching, to my research, that shapes everything I do. Tuesday night reminded me not just of the brilliance of the people who gathered around Lisa, but of their infinite variety. She encouraged us not, necessarily, to be like her – unless the occasion called for it – but to be ourselves, to revel in our individuality and the individuality of others: and to treat these things as virtues, as drivers of good teaching and good scholarship, good living, and (when necessary) bad behaviour. I wish beyond words that she was still here, but I know that the resources that we have, encouraged and shaped by her, are wonderful.

Roll up, roll up: AtB portraits to benefit Nepal!

Hey hey lovely people of the internet,

Would YOU like a *bespoke* Avoiding the Bears portrait of yourself, or your friend, or your pet? Have YOU always dreamed of posing for Holbein (ahem) in your finest, with your best scientific instruments and stretchy skull thing? Well, dream no more! A version of this dream may be about to come true!

tills

Tilly and Maximilian approve this message!

I, a person with no discernible practical skills, want to do something to help the victims of the devastating earthquake in Nepal. Nepal is very close to my heart, and some of the best people I have ever met live there. I won’t rattle on about my feelings here, because this is not about me, but I want to do something that isn’t watching rolling news in my pyjamas and crying, so this is what I’ve come up with: drawing funny pictures. I mean, this has got to be good for something.

So, I will draw pictures of you – yes, you, or anyone else you would like – with a historical figure of your choice. Ever wanted to hang out with Henry VIII? Chill with Confucius? Max and relax with Margaret of Anjou? All of these things can be achieved, for a small payment to one of the charities helping to get food, water, shelter and medical assistance to the wonderful people of Nepal.

2015-04-27 11.09.36

This is a quick sketchy picture of my sister’s dog interviewing professional sadness merchant Charles Dickens. Your picture will be much better than this.

What to do:

1. Choose which sort of picture you would like:

  • A5 black and white portrait of you and a historical figure of your choice: £15
  • A5 colour portrait of you and a historical figure of your choice: £20 (more expensive because painting is difficult, right)
  • A4 black and white picture: £20
  • A4 colour picture: £30
  • Plus £5 for every additional figure (I will totally draw you with multiple members of the seventeenth-century Royal Society dressed up as the Backstreet Boys, if that is your wont)
The Earl of Essex is taking time out from his beard-grooming routine to support this important cause

The Earl of Essex is taking time out from his beard-grooming routine to support this important cause

2. Given the time-sensitive nature of all this, I don’t want to take donations myself – but instead to cut out the middle man and get the money to charities ASAP. So: please make a donation to one of the following charities (chosen because I know they are reputable…). Giftaid that donation, if you’re a UK taxpayer. Feel free to donate more than the price of your chosen picture if you can.

  • The British Red Cross
  • Oxfam
  • Unicef
  • Save the Children
  • HVP UK – this is especially close to my heart: this charity supports the Hindu Vidyapeeth (HVP) movement in Nepal, which runs schools and associated social projects. I volunteered at several of the schools a few years ago – they really do wonderful work. They desperately need funds to support the schools and the communities around them at this time.

4. Send a screenshot of that donation, and/or the confirmation email, to me at kirsty dot rolfe at gmail dot com, along with the following:

  • Details of the kind of portrait you would like (see above for what’s on offer)
  • The name of the historical figure(s) you’d like in the picture, along with any other details about them you’d like me to know/that I’ll need to find visual record of them (if you have a picture, please attach it!)
  • A picture/pictures of you/your friend/your pet/etc so that I don’t draw you or them totally wrong
  • Your address so I can send you the completed picture.

I will then:

1. Draw that picture

2. Scan that picture and send you a nice electronic copy (on a proper scanner! Promise not to take bad photos on my phone, like I do with my own stuff)

3. Post the hard copy of the picture to you at no extra charge (no extra charge! whoo). Due to finances I can only do this if you’re within the UK, BUT: if you’re outside it, please let me know in your initial email and we will work something out.

Obviously cartoons are not an instant art form (would that they were) but I’ll get your picture done and posted ASAP.

Please get in touch with me at kirsty dot rolfe at gmail dot com if you have any questions, any requests not mentioned above (eg you want to make a giant donation and get a great big picture. I can totally make that happen), or if you’d like to buy any picture already featured on this site – I have a lot of them knocking about.

Please don’t make me draw cars. I hate drawing cars.

Kirsty x

P.S. Here are some more examples of me historical portraitin’:

He is, you know

He is, you know

What do you MEAN Poirot isn't an important historical figure

What do you MEAN Poirot isn’t an important historical figure

WHAT DO YOU MEAN JARVIS ISN'T AN IMPORTANT HISTORICAL FIGURE

WHAT DO YOU MEAN JARVIS ISN’T AN IMPORTANT HISTORICAL FIGURE

He’s gettin’ married to the widow next door, she’s been married seven times before

I’ve enjoyed Wolf Hall a lot, not just because I enjoy everything that David Starkey expresses distaste towards on principle. It’s really well made! It has Noted Fit Ginger Damien Lewis™ in it! And major hats! And Claire Foy being petulant! Anyway, in celebration of the final episode screening tonight (which I’m going to miss because I’m going to a pub quiz, as I am a great lover of pub quizzes), I’m sharing one of the first songs (re)written many moons ago for the Electric Renaissancists, the now-long-dormant historically-themed Belle and Sebastian covers band started by Sarah and me…

Play the video, and read along!

HENRY AND THE DISSOLUTION

Henry wrote a Catholic book
He showed it to Sir Thomas More today
Henry where did it go wrong
You used to persecute the Lutherans

Henry was a teenage monarch
He wed his brother’s wife when he was young
He gave himself to books and learning
He gave himself to being number one
Henry I don’t know if you are gonna have a male heir
Henry I don’t know if you are gonna have a male heir

Henry met a girl at court
They went under the covers for a grope
Fell asleep till it was morning
He dreamt about a church without the Pope
Henry never felt so good except when he was ruling
Henry never felt so good except when he was ruling yeah

Henry let’s get a divorce
You can have new wives whenever you want
But you will be disappointed
You will have six wives and only one son
Henry you kicked all the monks out in the Dissolution
And the song you wrote was ‘Henry and the Dissolution’
Dissolution… (x3)

The best looking boys are traitors
The best looking girls are losing their heads
So Henry where does that leave you
Dressing in furs and looking well fed
With Cromwell on your shoulder saying everything when you talk
With the floors in Whitehall Palace creaking every time that you walk
If you’re ever feeling blue then write another song about the Dissolution
Write a song about the Dissolution
Call it ‘Henry and the Dissolution’
Call it ‘Henry and the Dissolution’

The Dissolution… (x4)


 

In addition, here’s some Rylance Eyebrows fan art, as inspired by a conversation with Heather:

eyebrows

To be clear: this is fanart of Rylance’s EYEBROWS, not his EXPRESSED VIEWS ON STUFF.

 

And a cat:

cat

Training the cat to be his factor in Antwerp

 

Remember, readers, hold your friends close, but your enemies closer.

tumblr_njezxeG1ok1qbhtsso3_250

‘YOU’RE MY BEST FRIEND YOU ARE CROMMERS’

 

In which life is not like a piano playing competition

This blog post is brought to you from a cold day in Devon, at the turning of the year. I hope it’s warmer wherever you are. I am flipping chilly. Perhaps the chilliness of my fingers is causing a certain chilliness of the soul, thus prompting me to get mad about stuff. Anyway, I present to you: my final rant of 2014. Happy New Year!

This post was prompted by an article in the Guardian shortly before Christmas, in which various representatives of professional bodies bemoaned a terbil falling-off in the number of sons and daughters of this ruined empire learning to play Mozart sonatas on the pianoforte. In particular, the chair of the British Federation of Narked Piano Teachers is apparently most put out that there are not enough children in the lanes and shires of this great land squaring up to a baby grand on the regs and being all like ‘C’mon, Wolfgang Amadeus, let’s be having you’. Those who are engaging in the Great British Arpeggio-off are all too often, she complained, doing so on electric keyboards, which will not do at all. Most significantly, she informed the Grauniad, parents are leaving it far too late to sit their darlings down at the pianner with a book of ‘My First Godawfully Difficult Arrangements of Nursery Rhymes’ and threats of naptime sanctions. Many children don’t start learning, she said, until they are seven or eight: far too late to compete with children from the Far East, where they play piano good and know how to do other stuff good too.

[pause so you and I can just headbutt furniture for a bit]

I wish, I really wish, discussions about education didn’t devolve so frequently into hair-rending over how we can’t compete with China! We can’t compete with China! We can’t compete with these generalising and racist ideas we have about Chinese kids where they’re never seen as individuals but as a terrible superhumanly-skilled threat to – what, exactly? To us ‘being the best’ at something that’s never really quite defined? Is this about the death of empire again? Is this about missing ‘being the best’ at subjugating and enslaving people at various corners of the globe? Because it sure as hell isn’t about playing the piano.

Going ‘we have to compete with China!’, slapping ourselves and them into an implied league table of Good Pianner Playing, is scaremongering; and it’s also missing the point entirely. Appealing to xenophobic competitiveness in this way is basically a way of manufacturing a motive: why learn piano? to beat the Chinese! to be the best, considered via the terms of value of international renown! There’s no acknowledgement that there might be value to this endeavour outside of this closed circle – playing piano is something you do in order to be a virtuoso, not for anything else.

I had a big rant about this with my dad’s partner, who’s an English educator who also plays the piano very well, having started when she was about eight upon managing to acquire a relative’s old piano. She plays the piano because she loves to play the piano. It is a thing that she does that makes her happy (and makes people around her happy, too). There are complicated things that go into and come out of any playing of the piano, and a hell of a lot of them have nothing whatsoever to do with virtuosity and its values. Is it necessary, always, to make things about being the best, about being a virtuoso?

This kind of guff is not confined to the ol’ Joanna. It can sometimes seem that, whatever sparks your interest, you really should have started it ages ago, you know. Here’s a partial list of topics I’ve encountered people saying this sort of thing about:

  • Various musical instruments.
  • Foreign/dead languages.
  • Dance.
  • Football.
  • Skiing.
  • Horse riding.
  • Cycling.
  • Coding.

I’m not saying that the people who tried to teach me these things said this – by and large they didn’t in the slightest – or that my lack of skill in them is not, at base, due to my own abilities and interests and laziness. But ‘get ’em when they’re young’ is so engrained into the discourse surrounding these sorts of things that it can be very offputting; it can feel that you’re already starting on the back foot. Should have started earlier. I’ll never speak French like a native now. That chance is long gone, like my youth.

Did we learn nothing from Beverley Knight? Shoulda woulda coulda are the last words of a fool!

If we treat education – in anything, from geometry to gardening – as something that only has a very narrow range of valid outputs, we have a problem. Some people take up gardening, and love it, and are competitive about it, and compete in the Chelsea Flower Show, and that’s brilliant. Some people take up gardening, and love it, and tend wonderful gardens that bring them joy. Some people start community gardens. Some people breed new kinds of roses. Some people become botanists. Some people write books about gardening, or contribute to helpful gardening communities online, and some people go to National Trust gardens and look at the borders and dream. All of these things are valid and wonderful and infinitely changeable and combinable, and damn anyone who goes ‘You really should have taken a proper horticulture course after your GCSEs, you know. It’s too late to do anything about that now’.

I’m reminded of turning up at university as an undergrad and thinking ‘Yeah! I’ll do some extracurricular activities!’ and finding – it felt, at least – like everything was about achievement: you played sports to get Blues, you directed plays to get a start in the theatre world, you wrote for the student papers because you were damn well going to be an award-winning journalist. The outcomes weren’t, of course, as singular as that, and I don’t want to be disrespectful to the people for whom that was the case – they are hugely talented and driven and awesome, and well done to them. But it felt – to my unseasoned, imposter-syndromey eyes at least – like there was little room for trying things out, for doing them for fun and curiosity.

And that brings me (cough. ahem) to 2014, and the profession I’m currently engaged in. I love academia. I quite possibly love it more right now than I ever have done: I’m working with ace, inspiring people, on things that are 100% up my intellectual street (I keep pausing in my proofreading to go ‘ahhhhh this is so cool! Listen to this!’ to my long-suffering officemates. That’s how much I like it). But dang me if there isn’t a lot of shoulda woulda coulda in academia, and dang me if that hasn’t been a trouble for me this year. 2014 has had, er, its challenges (please imagine me dancing through the Land of Euphemism in shoes made of Decorous Lies, there). What didn’t help – what never helps – is the feeling of belatedness that professions that rely on self-direction tend to foster. I’ve felt, at times, like I slipped, and like all the shoulda woulda couldas, all the stuff I should have done last week or last month or while I was in the womb, stampeded over me like the herd of wildebeest over Mufasa in The Lion King. Sorry for reminding you of that traumatic moment at such a festive time of the year.

For example: I bought a book about ‘surviving your viva’ shortly before, er, my PhD viva. The argument of the book was basically that one should start preparing for the viva before one even starts one’s PhD (I am not even kidding here). One of the first points informed me that if I was reading this a week before my viva date, that was too late.

I mean, when the hell else would you start reading a book about vivas? It’s not exactly a fun read. ‘Ooh, when you’ve finished Game of Thrones, you must start reading That Dumb Viva Book! It’s so thrilling, I couldn’t put it down!’

The author of said viva book is pretty savvy, though. They know their market. Academia is a goddamn guilt industry. Ask any academic of your acquaintance how work is going, and count the number of things they say that have to do and that they feel bad about not having done yet. This isn’t just the province of PhD students and early career researchers, reading THE articles about whether or not we’ve done enough publishing/teaching/black magic to succeed in today’s competitive job market: it’s the lecturers and the professors and the professors emeritus, juggling teaching and supervision and admin and writing books and editing collections and organising conferences and sitting on the university development committee and lord knows what else. ‘I should have done this review. I should have typed up these minutes. I should have read this thesis I’m examining already, oh god I don’t want to rush it’.

Having a lot to do is, um, common to pretty much every job. And so is stressing over it. But it does frustrate me how at times the discourse around academia, and especially early academia, is so fixated on belatedness, and so fixed on a particular end result. The perfect academic always eludes us, no matter how much we chase it: I’m not sure I can ever be all the things that the THE tells me I need to be. And, frankly, you can exhaust yourself trying to do this – not just publishing lots or whatever (this is a pretty good thing, tbh) but self-censoring, never talking about problems, because you’re afraid of being seen as less than the perfect academic automaton. The pressure to do that is great; it’s a cultural pressure rather than one coming from specific people and places, but it’s there.

I quite desperately want to believe that this isn’t the only way to do academia. Firstly, that there’s other avenues for people with scholarly experience outside the academy – they are most certainly there, and I know wonderful people who are engaged in them, and it frustrates me how little lip-service is paid to them while people are doing PhDs and MAs. Secondly, and more personally to me right now, I desperately want to believe that I can be an imperfect scholar, my imperfect self, and can make jokes and talk about my problems, and learn enough French to use it in my work and in my life even though I came to it late. And pick myself up even when I trip.

That’s my new years’ resolution, I think. More Beverley Knight, less stressing over whether I should have done things earlier, or more quickly, or entirely differently, in the past.

(I have nothing much more to add to this, and can’t think of any pictures to draw, so here is some meme-ing that was inspired by my current work and illustrates my highly professional attitude to everything)

John Doge

John Doge

Misc.

I’m currently laid up in bed coughing, while a whole heap o’ work hangs over my head. I’m considering putting a picture of my Halloween costume from the year before last* in the powerpoint for a conference paper, which probably means I’m delirious.

Anyway, for your delectation, here are some recent(ish) Things I have Made and Done.

*I was working from home and taped an EEBO printout to my face.

1. Something about NEWS

I made a painting for my supervisor and took a picture of it. My phone camera being top quality, it’s a little blurred and stuff, but hey ho. Click on it to make it bigger, if you so desire.

news

How to have fun: 1. draw Ben Jonson

2. Something about LOVE

My lovely friends got married and they like science fiction (this is an understatement) so I made them this. Apologies for the flash – I didn’t think to take the picture until I’d framed it, and for some reason my phone camera does not like to focus without the flash. Yes, I should get a scanner, but that’s become a running joke now, right? Click on this one, too, if you’d like to see some exhaustively-researched Time Lord outfits.

jim and swyrie

Dracula is tiny, this is CANON

3. Something about TASTY FAILURE

Last month I attended the rather excellent Failure in the Archives conference run by the also rather excellent Centre for Editing Lives and Letters (see Liesbeth Corens’s Storify for tweets from the conference!). I’d managed to fail (heh) to sign up in time, but emailed the redoubtable organiser, Brooke Palmieri, to see if I could come along anyway – and the answer was yes, if I baked something (there’s a bit of tradition of home-made baked goods at CELL conferences).

Anyway, I baked some Gingerbread Failures, which had the advantage of being On Theme no matter what shape they turned out to be.

Here they are in situ at tea time, courtesy of Professor Lisa Jardine’s excellent photography skills:

archive failure

And here they all are in my kitchen in Oxford:

archive fail2

archive fail

Have you ever used one of those teeny tiny icing nozzles? …have you strong hands for crushing your enemies?

This might be my favourite:

undefined span

It is EEBO-TCP fanart, that’s what it is

I hope you’re all having a more healthful and productive Thursday than I am having *coughs* *watches another gif of a happy boston terrier*

giphy

And that sweet city

In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.

He said, ‘Don’t sit with your back to the fire, it’ll make you feel sick’.

He pointed at a picture of John Major on a 1992 election leaflet and said ‘Kirsty, this is a very bad man’.

He said ‘You don’t get taught by buildings’.

The latter piece of advice was delivered during the fascinating and rather interminable process of visiting local secondary schools in preparation for moving up to ‘big school’. In my day, and in the place in which I had my day, competition for secondary school places was rather less cut-throat than it appears to be now, in the places where I have fetched up. My parents didn’t need to move house, temporarily attend church, or embark upon a sustained campaign of civic bribery in order to allow me to choose between several state schools, none of which boasted ‘gang-related violence’ among their GCSE subjects. Having discounted the local selective grammar school with the insouciance of an eleven-year-old in possession of Political Views, I was dithering between two comprehensives. They faced each other across a road and I imagine my life would be fairly similar (well, with the rather huge exception of not meeting the excellent people I met there) had I gone to the other one.

I went to the school that hadn’t recently been rebuilt, because you don’t get taught by buildings.

Looking back, I could pinpoint that as the moment I started to conceive a great affection for down-at-heel educational buildings. I say I could. I could just as well describe the hours I spent as a kid hanging around the FE college where my parents both worked, which was crammed with ugly blocks of classrooms, workshops and labs, and which was tremendous fun to investigate. I remember the greyish, sunbleached block my dad taught in, how it smelled of wood dust, how irregularly-shaped bits of MDF lay around in the corridors. I remember the art rooms, the way that paint was just scuffed into the floor tiles because, well, they were the art rooms. What else do you do with dripped paint in an art room?

The different FE college that I attended was, perhaps, the most formative of all these experiences. Exeter College has, since I went to it, added several new, shiny buildings to its various sites. The big rectangular block I was mostly taught in still stands, though. You can see it from the train. Architecturally, it’s basically a multistory car park to put students in. It was in there that I was introduced to mitosis, the Munich Putsch, and Marxism (well, as it pertained to Media Studies, at least). Each of its (nine? ten?) floors had its own distinct character, like the Film Studies floor that was all Black Paper On The Walls And Stills From Tarkovsky Films, and the sunlit heights of the Physics labs. In the third floor ladies’ toilets we followed a tantalising graffiti exchange – a girl thought she might be gay, another encouraged her to explore her feelings, they wrote kindly to each other and then more flirtatiously, they arranged to meet… and whatever happened they didn’t pen us an update, of course.

exeter college nice

Exeter College is more keen, online, to show you pictures like this. For some reason.

exeter college old

But here it is! Hiding behind some other buildings. MEMORIES.

Maybe it’s through all this that I came to associate education with a certain scruffiness, a certain lino-and-blue-gloss-paint, dust-and-sugar-paper aesthetic. See, ancient hallowed halls of learning or finely-crafted glass and steel have their charms, I know. It is good to have architectural beauty in one’s intellectual life. But there’s something to be said, I think, for the charms of the upper floors of Exeter College’s big old block, on a cold day, when the wind whistles through the cracks in the windowframes. Or the subterranean offices in Oxford’s English faculty. Or the yellow brick corridors in King’s College London. In a lot of important ways, you don’t get taught by buildings, but that isn’t the whole story.

Last year, due to the vagaries of university scheduling, I ended up teaching in an old science classroom, over to the other side of my university’s (admittedly small) campus from the Arts building. The block it was in had probably been built in the 70s or early 80s, after which (from the look of things) not much tender loving care had been taken of it. Paint peeled. The linoleum floors were scuffed and cracked. The classroom was a too-long expanse of cupboards, made of glass and cheap dark-stained wood and filled with dust. We rarely encountered anyone else in the block except for builders, who were apparently using the ground floor to store bits of scaffolding. The students hated it. More than one complained about it in their end-of-year feedback forms. I thought it was great.

Instead of a projector, the room had a TV on a wheeled trolley. That’s like catnip to those of us who love crap educational buildings. I was strongly tempted to show the students Look Around You.

look around you meals

If you don’t know about Look Around You you should youtube that

look around you germs

I mean, look

I have recently moved to Oxford, which is exciting. I studied here as an undergraduate, and it was largely a pretty nice experience. Anyway, I was pootling around the centre the other day, getting my bearings again. I’d expected the place to have changed more than it has – I guess I’ve become used to the shifting economy of east London, where you find a good place and then they hike the rent and it closes, and everything else is a damn popup – and it was nice to walk around, although Oxford out of term time always feels a bit weird. It’s very pretty, of course, and that prettiness is replicated all over the place – on stands of postcards, on the sides of buses. In the public loos by the Covered Market there was a picture of the Radcliffe Camera with the inevitable quote from Matthew Arnold’s ‘Thyrsis’ superimposed on it:

 

And that sweet city with her dreaming spires,

She needs not June for beauty’s heightening

 

raddest of cams

The raddest of cams

Leaving aside the following objections – a) in the picture the Rad Cam was in bright sunshine, and b) it is not topped with a spire so much as a sort of nipple – these two lines are, for me, kind of a problem I’ve sometimes felt in Oxford. I’m not sure I entirely trust a place that still looks romantic on a wet Thursday in October. It’s like the way that some people distrust people with charisma, only this isn’t because I think it’s a façade or in some way dishonest. The problem is that Oxford really is that beautiful, even in the rain. It really is that clever and that impressive, and its history is the history of prestige and intellect and not, to be frank, letting in people like me. I was intimidated as an undergrad by all that dreaming old Cotswold stone, and what it meant – bastion of culture, hive of minds, effortless buoy of the middle England tourist industry. A decade on, I still find it a bit easier to look at the Engineering faculty than at any of Magdalen. I’m conditioned to look for the scruffy and the ridiculous. I think I got through my undergraduate matriculation at least in part on the hilarious ugliness of the heads on the wall outside the Sheldonian. Have you ever looked at them? That is some terrible carving, right there.

sheldonian

Oh look how lovely

800px-Sheldonian_Theatre_statues

WAIT WHO ARE THOSE GOOFY BASTARDS (Roman emperors, apparently)

The heads in the picture above are not even the goofiest ones. They’re just the goofiest ones I could find a fair-use photo of.

I am working in the English Faculty, in the St Cross Building and – as mentioned above – I rather like it. It’s a nice level of mid-century modernist wood-and-yellow-lino, and I find its lack of spires and quads quite comforting. And it’s 50 this year! I occasionally find myself thinking about those 1960s architects, and what it meant to build something like that, here: what was it supposed to be? A juxtaposition, or a slap in the face? The 1960s are somewhat later than my usual area of expertise, and I’m pretty much entirely ignorant about architecture, but in my next-century hindsight it feels like the latter: a fairly understandable postwar desire to fling the past as far away as possible. It’s kind of ironic, perhaps, how much buildings like this one – and its much, much crappier cousins – have become part of my own history, bound up in the same sort of nostalgia that sometimes leads me to hungoverly eat tins of ravioli. It sort of makes me, in the Oxford I walked through today – the one that was pretty much entirely one big walking tour – an anachronism, still clinging for comfort to a sort of educational architecture that nobody wants to put on a tote bag. The Rad Cam’s a brand, and a good one too, whereas the St Cross building needs an anniversary for even those who care about its makers to recognise it.

And then I think: you’re thinking about it wrong.

The St Cross Building was a form of showing off, just as the Rad Cam was. It was designed by important architects and built out of good materials, and it shouted ‘We’re new, we’re modern, we’re important’ from the top of its flat rooftops. The big tower in Exeter College may not have such an illustrious pedigree, but it’s showing off, too: why build something that tall if you’re not showing off? There was plenty of room, when it was built, to build something lower and wider. You can’t pull apart function and display, not really. These places were all built to do something and to say something, too.

So, perhaps I shouldn’t be intimidated by Christ Church. Or at least, no more intimidated than I am by the English Faculty Library. Or perhaps I should just run up and down Tom Tower, shouting ‘This university let me in once and it’s done it again! Whahaha!’ At any rate, I should recognise my intimidated feelings for what they are: artefacts of the privileged space and point in time that I inhabit, when I can stare a perfectly pleasant gift horse in the mouth and say ‘But I’m scared of its teeth‘.

******

P.S.

Some years ago the local news ran a survey to find ‘the most hated building in the South West’. Most of the answers given were the usual sort of thing – car parks, shopping centres. ‘Apart,’ the newsreader said to her colleague, ‘from the one person who nominated Poundbury!’

The newsreaders laughed. They showed quaint footage of the old-fashioned-looking houses and shops of Poundbury, Prince Charles’s ‘experimental new town’ in Dorset, built to feel like a country village.

We looked at my father. He had a defiant expression on his face.

My father fucking hates Poundbury.