What you missed in class today

I wrote this for the Times Higher a few weeks ago:

A student who emails me after missing a class will sometimes say: “Did I miss anything?” Or, more pointedly: “Did I miss anything important?” Or, more casually: “Did I miss much?” It’s hard to know how to answer these questions, with their unmissable suggestion that there is lots of missable stuff that happens in my classes. How, I wonder, should I respond?

I suppose, as an English lecturer, I could run them through the main points of the discussion we had about the set text for that week. But if the class were reducible to some “too long; didn’t read” résumé, then why ever come at all? Why bother to meet once a week, for a few hours, in grey-painted rooms with tiered seating, or tables and chairs arranged in a hollow square?

In humanities subjects it can be hard to quantify what you’ve missed by not being in class. You don’t get to use expensive lab equipment, or practise on patients, or do field work, or come away with pages of indispensable notes about contract law. Instead you get to draw on what seem to be everyday aptitudes: thinking, reading, looking, listening, speaking, writing. It’s easy to persuade yourself that this can be done at your own convenience.

One answer to this is that the humanities hone and refine these vital human skills which we can all do, but could always do better. That class you missed, I want to say, was teaching you how to listen and how to talk. You may think you can do those things already. But to properly converse, to thread words together in a way that responds sensitively and tactfully to the presence of others, is a rare skill, as hard to master as playing a musical instrument. And just as a musician must practise scales, so a human must practise conversing. Nor can this be done alongside some other activity, such as scrolling down your phone – any more than you’d expect a concert pianist to be daydreaming at the keyboard.

That class was teaching you how to be wholly present in a room. It was a tiny corrective to the endless noise of modern life, and that state of distracted overstimulation we can all too easily reach when our mobile devices are constantly pinging with alerts and updates. It was a brief holiday from that touchless other world, online, which eats up our lives and regurgitates them as a waking dream. It was a small island of shared attention, where the minds of relative strangers meet once a week, sharing the same air and the same egalitarian ideal that together we will understand something better.

That class – I want to say, warming to my theme and risking pretentiousness now – was a piece of immersive, extempore, collaborative, site-specific art. If you missed it, there is no catch-up service. And just like going to a gig rather than watching a band on YouTube, it carried the risk of investing your time in something unpredictable and incalculable. You might even have been a bit bored. There are worse fates. Boredom, wrote Walter Benjamin, is “the dream bird that hatches the egg of experience”. Boredom is the occasional price we pay for being in a state of suspended possibility, on the other side of which we might find more creative ways of being human.

That class was teaching you that there is a correlation between hours spent doing stuff and stuff getting done. The word student derives from the Latin studium, meaning “eagerness, painstaking application”. A good student takes pains. German has a nice word for such persistence: sitzfleisch. It means “sitting flesh”: putting your arse on the chair. To have sitzfleisch means being able to stay in the same place for long enough to be truly productive, even if you are not always certain what the end product might be. Someone with sitzfleisch knows that, if they keep putting their arse on the chair, something useful will happen, and if they don’t, nothing will.

Above all, that class you missed was a collective avowal of some basic tenets of the humanities. First, that humans are social beings, who respond most intensely to other humans, not avatars or algorithms. Second, that we are meaning-making animals, and those meanings are so rich and layered that we must unravel them carefully together. And third, that to be fully human is to be a mind and a body, and communication works best when we use them both. In these days of lecture capture, virtual learning environments and email back-and-forth, that class spoke up for the endangered art of just being in the room.

I’m too big a wuss to say any of this, of course. I know that there may be things going on in that student’s life that make such pained attentiveness, even turning up at all, hard. And when they ask “Did I miss anything?” they only betray an anxiety that they have mislaid some vital piece of information, the absence of which might cause them to fail. Maybe they don’t need another nag from some old grump stuck in twentieth-century analogue mode. Sorry you couldn’t make it, I type. I attach the seminar handout and lecture slides, throw in a few pointers. “See you next week!” I write breezily, and click send.

Job advert

We invite applications

from inspiring and dynamic scholars

for this exciting and prestigious position.

 

As well as holding a PhD

you will have a world-leading profile

for your creative and cutting-edge work.

 

You will also have

an exceptional track-record of teaching,

demonstrable leadership skills

and a proven ability to secure funding

and generate additional income streams.

 

You will also bring with you

highly-developed external networks

and experience of stakeholder management.

 

In addition you will have one or more

of the following superpowers:

levitation, shapeshifting, teleporting,

walking through walls.

 

You will be faster than a speeding bullet,

more powerful than a locomotive,

and be able to change the course of mighty rivers

and bend steel with your bare hands.

 

The capacity to leap tall buildings

in a single bound

may be an advantage.

 

Possessing powers and abilities

far beyond those of mortal men

is desirable

but not essential.

 

This four-month post

is non-renewable

and we are an equal-opportunities employer.

That is a thing now

Herbal Tea for Dogs is a thing now.

Leaving Class Halfway Through to Vape is a thing now.

Melting Gold at Room Temperature is a thing now.

Getting Lobsters High is a thing now.

Vegan Avocado Beer is becoming a thing now.

 

Adding Vegemite to Your Smoothie is now a thing.

Sliced Ketchup is a thing that people want to eat, apparently.

Flamingo Pixel Hair is a thing now and the look is going viral.

Lingerie For Men is a thing now because of course it is.

 

Holiday-Flavoured Dental Floss is now a thing.

Did you know that Bespoke Polo Shirts are now a thing?

Glitter Beer is a thing now.

Hey, so Cockroach Milk is a thing now. Let’s talk about that?

Avocado Art is a thing now. Prepare to be obsessed.

Is Green Hair a thing now? Yes.

Heard about Insect Ice-Cream? It’s a thing.

 

Sunburn Art is a thing now: Deliberate sunburn tattoos are being shared on social media.

Do you Disinfect your Toothbrush? Yes, it’s a thing.

New Year’s Resolutions For Your Pets? It’s a thing!

Zombie Skittles? It’s a thing.

Attention Bubble Tea Lovers: Cough Syrup Bubble Tea is apparently a thing.

And you need to know that Facial Recognition for Salmon is a thing now. It’s also getting tested on cows.

This is 2019 and that is a thing now.

Invitation to submit

Dear revered scholar and researcher:

Academic Excellence Centre

is cordially pleased to invite you

to submit your scholarly works

in any of its coming international conferences

held in different seats of the world.

 

Esteemed Doctor Professor

We get to know your published work

and the topic is pretty interesting.

 

So we intend to invite you

to submit other precious papers of related fields.

The journal makes many venerated experts in various areas

closer to the cutting-edge researches around the world.

 

There are following simple steps.

All the papers that meet the general criteria

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If paper is accepted, author need to deposit fees.

 

We sincerely and urgently request you

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International Journal of Journals

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Please respond with your acceptance for the same.

Please let us know your feasible time.

We wait for your positive mail

And have a nice and healthy day ahead.

 

New Year’s Resolutions for 1984

Some New Year’s Resolutions for the inauspicious year of 1984, published in The Times on 31 December 1983:

‘My resolve for 1984 is to suffer wtih saintly equanimity the great irritations of our time: the cult of the ugly, the jargon of the fashionable and the assaults of bureaucracy.’ — William Trevor, writer

‘I hope that Roland Rat’s contribution to English literature and drama is recognised for what it really is.’ — Greg Dyke, editor-in-chief of TV-am

‘I hope that 1984 will not prove the sombre year it promises to be – that the people of inhumanity, aggression and barbarism, of confrontation and conflict, of totalitarian desires and a will to instability, will not dominate, and some sense of an end-of-the-century promise will begin to emerge … May we have imagination instead of politics, aspiration instead of history. A pretty vain hope, I think.’ – Malcolm Bradbury, novelist

‘My first good resolution is to accept the process of forgetting things as inevitable and even healthy. After all, in the end we forget everything.’ — William Golding, novelist

‘If the whole world could just be nice to each other for a year I’d be happy.’ — Floella Benjamin, presenter of Playschool

‘Resolutions: zero. Hopes: zero.’ — Samuel Beckett, playwright

Seashaken Houses

Perch RockI wrote this review of two books about lighthouses — Tom Nancollas’s Seashaken Houses and R.G. Grant’s Sentinels of the Sea — for the TLS.

As lighthouses fade into obsolescence, literature about lighthouses flourishes. In a crowded field, both these books succeed in adding something valuable and different. Despite its subtitle, Seashaken Houses is more of a personal journey and meditative essay than a conventional history. Tom Nancollas has visited seven rock lighthouses in Britain and Ireland, from the relative tameness of Perch Rock on New Brighton beach to the godforsakenness of Fastnet, Ireland’s most southerly point, where he spends a week with engineers on a maintenance visit.

His accounts of these journeys, and his dealings along the way with boat skippers and owners of decommissioned lighthouses, are the best thing in the book. One chapter, in which Nancollas sails out to Bell Rock, eleven miles off Arbroath, shows vividly how a mere photograph could never capture the monumentalism of a rock lighthouse. As the boat gets closer, he writes, the tower “grows out of the horizon in stages, like a shoot in soil … details coalesce as the lighthouse produces larger versions of itself”. Throughout the book, Nancollas manages to convey a rock lighthouse’s utter unlikeliness – the way that it seems, on its mostly submerged reef, to rise up so unfeasibly out of the water, a heroic human conquering of gravity, wave power and the elements.

A building conservationist by training, Nancollas is expert on the construction and weathering of these unique buildings. But mainly he is interested in their symbolism, how their “noble simplicity of purpose” masks myriad ambiguities. Lighthouses, he writes, “stand between land and sea, strength and fragility, the defined and the undefined, the mythical and the real”. And their existence is inherently paradoxical, for “there can be few other buildings designed expressly to repel, to emphatically not be seen at close quarters”.

Nancollas has a good ear for quotation (the book’s inspired title comes from a Dylan Thomas poem) and is a watchful and meticulous writer himself. His description of the “requisite perfection” of a lighthouse is just right; on a rock far out to sea, economy of line and exquisite engineering are a matter of pure necessity. The book is filled with such well-fitting phrases. Nancollas describes his attempt to reimagine the lives of the light keepers as “stepping into the curvature of their lives” – for even their beds were curved to fit the rounded walls. He has some nicely eerie depictions of abandoned lighthouses, their windows fogged with saline residue and their floors flaked with peeled paint.

The parts of the book dealing with the history of lighthouses are less compelling, and seem tonally cut off from the first-person segments. Stories about John Smeaton’s success in taming the Eddystone Rock in the 1750s, and Augustin Fresnel’s refinement of lighthouse lenses, feel like well-trodden ground.

These stories also get retold in Sentinels of the Sea, along with other familiar ones about the Lighthouse Stevensons and the Longstone lighthouse heroine, Grace Darling. Not that R.G. Grant’s text, a compact global history of lighthouses from the Pharos of Alexandria onwards, isn’t interesting. We learn how impoverished coastal communities opposed the building of lighthouses, for they viewed the plundering of wrecked ships as “God’s bounty to the poor”. And there is much absorbing detail about the engineering virtuosity that balanced towers on tiny rocks, and about the lonesome vigils of the light keepers.

But Sentinels of the Sea is worth possessing mainly because it is, like the buildings it commemorates, a beautiful object. The book’s 408 illustrations, many in colour, wed beautifully with its words. It has been produced in association with the National Archives at Kew and they have done a great job of sourcing images everywhere from coast guard’s records to maritime museum archives. On every other page there is some arresting picture – of light keepers’ implements, of architects’ floor plans, cross-sections and elevations, or of rock lights lashed by waves. “Miscellany” is right: this is a book to dip into and return to.

Both these books have a valedictory air – in recognition that, in the age of radar and satellite navigation, working lighthouses may not be long for this world. But then, as Grant points out, the lighthouse has been in long decline since the 1920s, when radios and radio beacons arrived, reducing the central importance of foghorns and beams of light. Ever since, lighthouses may have benefited from a wave of technical innovations begun in other fields – telephones, radios, electric motors, radar, GPS – but they have long since ceased to drive such innovation themselves. Britain’s last occupied lighthouse was automated at the end of the last millennium. The valedictories are overdue.

The lighthouse lovers who will be drawn to these books will not mind that the melancholy is a little oversold. For the bare facts don’t register the endless suggestiveness of these buildings as metaphors for human isolation and connection. As Nancollas puts it, rock lights in particular “emit an unprejudiced message of fellowship” and “generosity of spirit”. Even if we know in our heads that they will soon be little more than concrete follies, they feel in our hearts like our common humanity made solid. Their beacons turn and blink eternally because we accept that strangers lost at sea are also worthy of our care and concern, even if we just flash our lights at them in the dark.

Photo of Perch Rock Lighthouse, New Brighton, copyright Graham Robson and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons.

Sagasti’s sentences

There are some great sentences in Luis Sagasti’s Fireflies (Charco Press), a lyrical, fragmentary essay on human life and history:

The world is a ball of wool. A skein of yarn you can’t find the end of.

Conspiracy theories. An explanation that arises from intellectual laziness: the idea that a shadowy group has chosen to weave the plots of all of our lives.

The darkest dark and the whitest light are equally blinding.

Computer software automatically corrects mistyped words. The words have locks. Cyberspace is smooth and uniform. There are no cracks in the surface: we only find what we are looking for.

One night Wittgenstein enters enemy territory and lights a cigarette (probably the last one he smoked in his life). It is well known that you can take three puffs before a soldier blows your brains out: by the third drag the enemy has taken aim, and is ready to fire at the glowing point in the dark.

Everything tends to be slower in the cold, until it reaches the most crystalline stillness, which is why people walk faster. The breath that freezes as soon as it leaves his mouth, the raw material with which the tongue forms words, or whatever remains of language, remnants surrounded by noise.

It’s a well-known line: there are no atheists in foxholes. God, like fireflies, only shines in the darkness, wrote Schopenhauer. In the trenches, the only light is that of enemy fire. Up there in space, where the darkness is total, travelling at over 16,500 miles per hour in a tiny craft that will reach a temperature of 1,000 degrees Celsius when it re-enters the atmosphere, with no computer to control the descent, Yuri Gagarin declares, without ceremony, in a firm voice despite being curled up in a near-foetal position, I see no God up here. That’s what you call having balls.

No animal gazes at the sky. That’s why the sky, according to the shamans, is always full of animals.

Old December’s Bareness

plane treesI wrote this for the Times Higher last week.

In his essay, “The passing wisdom of birds”, the nature writer Barry Lopez advocates that every university establish the post of in-house naturalist, to be held in rotation by a student in his or her final year. The university naturalist would record the flora and nonhuman fauna of the campus and advise about how best to look after them. He or she would be like a university archivist, but of the outdoors.

Although I’m not a student, I should like to apply for this position. As a university naturalist I am, in CV-speak, a dynamic self-starter with a strong skill set. I’m also good at looking out of windows and spotting the seasonal shifts: like the arrival of winter on campus, with the first frost on the path and the squirrels hoarding beechmast and berries.

I teach in a building that backs on to a garden full of London plane trees. Outside one of my classrooms, there is a tree so close that you can reach out the window and almost touch its branches. The London plane is the perfect urban tree for our urban university: its knobbly bark and leathery leaves hoover up polluted air. It also sends out an early signal of autumn, shedding leaves even before Michaelmas. Yet the sheltering wall of our building – and, presumably, global warming – has, for this particular tree, held back the full force of the fall. Even now, in December, a few shrivelled, yellowish leaves cling on.

I ask my first-year students to guess how many leaves that tree had when they started their course in September. Puzzled as to why their literature class has turned into nature study, they humour me and guess a thousand. Times that by at least a hundred, I say. Look. It’s been shedding leaves since induction week, and still has some left.

We are meant to be discussing Shakespeare’s sonnets. Shakespeare never set eyes on a London plane, which is a late 17th-century hybrid. But he knew his trees, and lived in a world where they were vital – for making ships, houses, furniture, books. And while teaching the sonnets this year, something obvious has dawned on me. Shakespeare doesn’t really think in seasons, which are a human construct anyway. He thinks in micro-seasons, subtly blurring into each other.

“That time of year thou may’st in me behold,” Sonnet 73 begins, “When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang”. I used to think that second line was just lazily fixing up the metre, but now I love its self-cancelling order and the way it catches a precise stage of late autumn moving into early winter. Leaves in the sonnets have many states, depending on the micro-season. They are “lusty”, “fair”, “vacant”, “barren”, or “look pale, dreading the winter’s near”. And then they are gone, replaced by “old December’s bareness everywhere”.

This year, I have noticed the micro-seasons myself, perhaps because I have suddenly felt part of what the Scottish poet Kathleen Jamie calls “that rough tribe of the mortal”. And it’s not just other people who seem fragile and vulnerable. Nature feels vulnerable too, and every moment of autumn has felt like an exquisite death, a bereavement.

I’ve noted it all as the light in this afternoon seminar has slowly dimmed: the first swallows gathering on the telephone wires before their journey south; the first heavy dewfall; the first air from the Arctic; the first buzz of the gardeners’ leaf blowers in November. Meanwhile, the demands of term-time have felt more than ever like a perpetual juggernaut that acknowledges neither the seasons nor the particularity of individual lives.

Trees, our longest-living organisms, fool us into thinking that things are permanent. Alone among plants, they raise a wooden scaffolding above the ground – building, in annual increments, a frame on which to hang their leaves, while their heartwood grows hard in death and serves as a backbone. In winter, when so many other things are absent or dead, their leafless skeletons stand proud and, seemingly, immortal.

But people aren’t as sturdy as trees. As Shakespeare reminds us in the sonnets, they are more like leaves, waiting on winter. Each human life burns itself out, is “consum’d with that which it was nourished by”.

For the students – I hope – autumn is what it used to be for me: a new start, a second spring, what the French call la rentrée . Long may they feel cocooned in this illusion of continuity, that there will always be another semester, that life will go on as before.

You have to be ready to notice things – in literature as in life. When you do, they are right there in front of you, hidden in plain sight. And now life just seems too short and precious not to notice every falling leaf.

The managerial catechism

catechism

Where are we going?

Forward.

What must we do to governance?

We must reshape it.

Where should we put service users?

We should put them at the core of everything we do.

What is the universal quality of our stakeholders?

They are key.

Are there are any stakeholders who are not key?

No, there are not.

What must we do with data?

We must drill down into it.

What must our procedures be?

Robust and transparent.

What must we do with our portfolio?

It must be continually enhanced.

What is not an option in terms of our portfolio?

Quality status is not an option in terms of our portfolio.

What must we focus on?

Our core business moving forward.

What should our direction of travel be?

We should be driving forward to a place where we are proactively positioned.

What do we need?

We need a strong story to tell.

What can we not do with change?

We can’t ignore it, so we must drive it.

What must we do for the rest of our time on this earth?

We must relentlessly pursue excellence, in the sure and certain hope of our resurrection.

Amen.

Humblebrag

humblebrag

Wow. I didn’t get shortlisted for any awards. So moved.

Chuffed to learn that my paper got rejected. Yay!

Thrilled to receive this iffy review.

Sat on the sofa all day eating crisps. Flexed biceps emoji.

News! I haven’t been promoted.

Great to hear that my book got pulped. Go me.

Super-excited to say that my line manager gave me a warning.

Look who I bumped into in the first-class lounge! Security, who evicted me.

Shameless self-promotion klaxon: I’m still breathing.

Now it’s official I’m delighted to share this: even my dog thinks I’m a loser.

Just emptied the dishwasher. Hashtag: winning at life.