Wednesday, 6 May 2015

University of Exeter Students' Guild Teaching Awards 2015

Photo: Exeter Student's Guild 

This year I was shortlisted for 'Best Postgraduate Teacher' at the University of Exeter Student's Guild Teaching Awards. These Awards were the first of this kind to be established in the UK (2009) and remains the largest in the country. Over 1 million words in praise of teaching at the University of Exeter have been collected to date! The Guild says the awards: 
"are designed to reward and recognise the hard work of our staff to improve the student experience at the University of Exeter."
It was a shock but an obvious delight to be shortlisted for an award and I was even more pleased when on the night I found out I ranked second overall and as top in the College of Humanities.

Monica and I celebrating. Photo: Exeter Student's Guild
 The winner of the Best Postgraduate Teacher, Monica Ronchi was from the Institute of Arabic and Islamic Studies and from meeting her on the night it is clear she is a passionate and enthusiastic educator (as well as a fun colleague and decent human being!). It is likely that we would not have met should the event have not brought us as PGR teachers into the same venue and given us a  few glasses of wine. 

Wine is important, but getting academics together to celebrate is equally vital. Too often gatherings are based around thematic intellectual ideas, funding allocations, interviews, departmental meetings and not around personal achievements and passion. These Teaching Awards brought together a group of people who share an interest outside of books, in the world, with real people and their lives. It was great! 

However nice the accolade of being shortlisted is, it was the ethos behind this event that made me feel proud of the teaching that I have undertaken this term. It is perhaps the only event I have encountered in five years at Exeter involving academic staff at the university that looks at teaching as its focus, not an add-on, a must-do, a grin-at-bear-it task in academia. It got me thinking about my own research around 'value', as it was an event driven by the optional and qualitative impressions of the students themselves. There was no clear criteria or targets to hit, many of the people nominated expressed their surprise at being there at all. 

GTAs or Postgraduate Teachers can sometimes get a bad rap, but as a result of the awards this year academic within the College sent round emails thanking each and every PhD student who contributes to the teaching within the college. This is a step in the right direction. The more positivity around teaching the better. Teaching in Higher Education shouldn't be seen as a chore, but an opportunity. The Teaching Awards offers the chance of valuation on a different scale, and one which I am happy to subscribe fully to. Impact can be measured in lots of ways, but the impact of teaching practises on people in the classroom is certainly one which deserves recognition and further thought.

Check out the full list of Winners and Runners Up here

Students and colleague Chloe Preedy (Penryn Campus) alongside myself and Richard representing the English Department across two campuses at the awards. Photo: Exeter Student's Guild
Photo: Exeter Student's Guild

Monday, 4 May 2015

PhD Comic - Procrastination

by Zoe Bulaitis (PhD Candidate)

PhD Comic. 

I have recently been drawing again, and comics have attracted my attention. I like the potential to tell stories in time, and capture mixed emotions in multiple frames. 

Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Don Delillo: White Noise

I was attracted to read White Noise because of the central protagonist Jack Gladney's academic profession. I am writing my next chapter on academic fiction and representations of humanities scholarship in media and therefore found "Hitler Studies" a most entertaining addition to my repertoire of English Professors (Morris Zapp included), Medieval Historians (Jim Dixon, of course) and Rembrant specialists (Howard Belsey, perfectly so). 

The novel however, achieves more than the status of most "campus novels" - it is a far wider net of critique that Delillo casts. The university is not the subject or central focus of the novel at all (frustratingly for my personal interest) but is a chilling and hilarious satire of american culture. Paranoia and consumption are the orders of the day in this book, and the university is seen as a place of escape and security away from the madness of modern life. 

Jack Gladney: ''Everything seemed to be in season, sprayed, burnished, bright. . . the jangle and skid of carts, the loudspeaker and the coffee-making machines, the cries of children. And over it all . . . a dull and unlocatable roar, as of some form of swarming life just outside the range of human apprehension.''

The New York Times are right in their assertion that Gladney's voice is

"one of the most ironic, intelligent, grimly funny voices yet to comment on life in present-day America"

In a "campus novel" reading list that has consisted mainly of two types of narrator, it is refreshing to spend time in Gladney's world. He is not an observer of an insular departmental scandal, he is a participant in a national disaster. He is not a young, disillusioned young man - he does not doubt his professional choices and suffers from relatable mid-life crises. Gladney is an everyman. But he is clever. It is rare to find a representation of a scholar in the humanities who is not at a remove from life. Perhaps it is the context of Delillo's story, of a society of alienation that allows Gladney to appeal to the reader. Perhaps scholars aren't so unlike everyone else after all. 

Monday, 27 April 2015

The Secret History by Donna Tartt - an investigation into a novel about studying the humanities (and murder!)

Recently I read Tartt's "The Secret History and was impressed by the handling of a bunch of pretentious teenagers studying Julian Morrow's exclusive (and doubtless uppity) Greek Classics class. The Guardian well summarises the reasons that you should read this book right now, and so I will spend little time repeating the qualities of excellence that this novel clearly possesses. Read about them here instead. 

I came across these beautiful dreamcasts on Tumblr that capture the spirit of the novel

The book is most often read as a thriller, a suspense novel or perhaps as a modern bildungsroman, but I was interested in reading The Secret History as a campus novel that is not written by a teacher, but instead by a student. Unlike most student-led stories about universities, which document relationships, alcoholic beverages and social struggles (all of which are also in this book), The Secret History has students who are really interested in knowledge and teaching. This is surprisingly rare in books about universities, and the discussions about tragedy, love and beauty bring Classical ideas to life.

There are some great passing comments about the nature of the humanities and studying them - here are a few of my favourites:

“Hampden, in providing a well-rounded course of study in the Humanities, seeks not only to give students a rigorous background in the chosen field but insight into all the disciplines of Western art, civilization, and thought."

" doing so, we hope to provide the individual not only with facts, but with the raw materials of wisdom."

"I believe that having a great diversity of teachers is harmful and confusing for a young mind, in the same way I believe that it is better to know one book intimately that a hundred superficially,” he said. “I know the modern world tends not to agree with me, but after all, Plato had only one teacher, and Alexander.”

The humanities professor: Julian is raised to the level of a God. Like Alexander, he is ideal. He is the archetypal teacher, placed on a pedestal of perfection throughout. However, he is a strange human being outside of the classroom. He ultimately abandons his students. 

"Upon meeting Julian Morrow, one has the impression that he is a man of extraordinary sympathy and warmth. But what you call his ‘Asiatic serenity’ is, I think, a mask for great coldness. The face one shows him he invariably reflects back at one, creating the illusion of warmth and depth when in fact he is brittle and shallow as a mirror."


Friday, 17 April 2015

How to Give up / Quit Facebook - how to live in social oblivion and still be happy.

Today I have made a decision that I am no longer going to consider myself as an active participant or user of Facebook. Ironically, perhaps, I feel the need to share this on the internet but hope that the thinking I have done around this may be of some value to others. 

I spend a great deal of my day, as an academic, at my desk, online. I have for the past five years considered browsing Facebook as a part of this process. It has been a habit. It's a destination for procrastination. It has made me feel connected, and it has been an escape from the sometimes isolating nature of a PhD. However, I have come to realise over the past few months that, for me, it is a bad habit, a boring source of procrastination, and a useless way of staying in touch with my dearest friends across the world. Instead of feeling connected to people, I believe that Facebook has made me feel increasingly lonely.

The thing is, I am not lonely. I am content with my life outside of the internet.  But this continual network of abstracted friends has a strange effect on my brain. The continual baggage of a thousand other people's lives is a strain on me. It's my fault: I am an overthinker. I imagine you can tell... Perhaps for some people the use of Social Media is fun, but I worry, I compare, I am frustrated, I judge myself. This is not a healthy or happy thing to do. 

But, giving up a habit is hard. Especially when nearly everyone you know is also involved in the habit you want to lose. As an academic-  I began this process with a research question - how does one go about giving up a  ubiquitous social media site?  There are a few options.

How to Quit

1) Cold Turkey - deactivate / just stop
2) Limit your time on Facebook - start at a few times a day, then once, then less and less time (I am down to five minutes a day on my computer, but browse like a brainless idiot on my phone for hours)
3) Limit the ways you access Facebook - i.e no more emails and no more phone notifications (This I have done - to little effect)

Like most people trying to quit a habit, I have several recurrent excuses to stop quitting entirely. These (in the order they frequently occur to me) are as follows:

How to Talk yourself out of Quitting

1) I might miss out on invitations to parties
2) I will lose friendships that I don't want to lose
3) I will miss out on important things / salacious gossip
4) It's weird not to have Facebook,  I don't want to be weird
5) I don't know what else to do when I am bored

These are valid concerns but one's that I am assured by my non-Facebook friends that I will get over / survive. Some of my closest friends do not use Facebook and so that gives me hope that there is life beyond the like...

I've decided to make an opposite list, of the excuses / benefits for quitting instead. This is something that I haven't done before, as I have always seen Facebook as the default option. So here goes:

Reasons I am going to stop using Facebook:

1) It is a royal waste of time

50% of Facebook's users log on everyday. On average people spend 20 minutes of day on Facebook. If I am honest about it, I nearly always spend more time than that, due to my mobile devices. 

2) It does not make me happy

Check out this research by Italian scholars Fabio Sabatini and Francesco Sarracino for detailed research about 'Online networks and subjective well being' click here for academic article

3) I feel a pressure to share information about my successes, but it paints a half-picture of my life

It is all very well putting on a public performance, as culture insists, but how far are we taking tese ideas with social media? See Aaron Balick's blog here for his interesting analysis of 'false self' in the tradition of D. W Winnicott and Jung's 'persona'. Getting good feelings from ‘likes’ is a weird kind of Pavlovian model of valuation.

4) Who cares about anyone else’s parties?

If I wasn't invited or couldn't be there - why do I need to see the pictures? 

5) I do not need to use social media to connect with my friends

I have email, I have a phone, texting, Skype, I even have paper! I have air and space and time. I have coffee bars, I have pubs. Communication will still occur. I currently keep in touch with friends in the US just fine despite not being on Facebook. Facebook makes 'staying in touch' seem easier, but how connected are you when you are simply liking a status? You cannot carry everyone with you always. It is exhausting. The people who matter will continue to be my friend regardless of continual updates.

6) I am drawn into conversations that I am not a part of, nor do I want to be

Facebook algorithms are complicated, but draw on the idea that the flashy and shoutier the message, the more attention it will get. See Elan Morgan (here) on the 'Like' algorithm. I find myself reading posts of people I don't like because they are ranty, have a comment war, or are irritating. That is just bizarre. 

7) I spend time thinking about people I would not even talk to in real life

There are people I 'stalk' who I never really knew. You know, leftovers from a part-time job, school, a crazy gig. Why is this a good use of time? What kind of compulsion is that? If you translate the process to real life, its plain creepy. 

8) It interrupts my creativity and academic thinking and creates a web of endless distraction

When you see something online it leaves a trace, it lingers, you do not read and move on. Some days I feel my mind full of useless things. I am distracted from real-life, from the people that I love. This idea is seen mostly in parenting columns and books. The distracted generation is here - screen-led and absent. There have been some powerful comebacks to this problem - Gary Turk's video: see 'Look Up' video here is one among many. Time Magazine offers a chilling read in 'Wired for Distraction: Kids and Social Media' of a continuous distractedness. 

9) I cannot communicate effectively on Facebook

I wouldn't dream of sharing pain, worries or drama on Facebook. There are jokes that don't come off right online. Nothing is private. You can't see if someone is really happy or just pretending to be fine. Facebook is not who I am. See Forbes on Communication: here

10) I want to be happy in myself, and this does not come from comparison to others

This is a problem offline as well as online, but is accentuated by Facebook. But seeing friends on beautiful beaches whilst you are struggling to write and are bored and stressed is not conducive to happy feelings. People only share their best selves online, and therefore it is easy to create unrealistic images of other people's lives. We all feel sad and frustrated sometimes, but social media offers no place for such behaviour. I want to be happy, and don't need an unrealistic standard to match up to. 

I would love to hear about other people's views and opinions - comment below or via the 'get in touch' button! 


Thursday, 5 March 2015

Jeffrey Williams: The Rise of the Academic Novel - A graphic guide / map

This post features a diagram I made using 'Inspiration 9' to describe the ways in which Jeffrey Williams divides and subdivides the Campus Novel and the Academic Novel.

I read ' The Rise of the Academic Novel' in American Literary History, Volume 24, Number 3, Fall 2012, pp. 561-589.

I like William's thorough approach and it is going to be really helpful for my next chapter of my thesis, but I am a visual person and wanted to understand the many sub-categories and distinctions as best I can. I hope this is helpful for anyone else trying to get a grasp on the history of the campus novel, or rather the academic novel as this diagram heavily features.

Click and Open to Enlarge!

Text List, for future editing:

Novels about Universities
I.     Campus Novels about Student Life
Like a bildungsroman
A.   Adventures
In the early part of the century, there was a
vogue of campus novels, usually portraying students’ adventures,
lessons (in and out of class), and sports
1.   Owen Wister
a.   Philosophy 4 (1903)
b.   The Virginian (1902)
2.   F. Scott Fitzgerald
a.   This Side of Paradise (1920)
3.   Percy Mark
a.   The Plastic Age (1924)
4.   Thomas Wolfe
a.   Look Homeward, Angel (1929
B.   Mysteries
1.   Max Beerbohm
a.   Zuleika Dobson (1911)
2.   Donna Tartt
a.   The Secret History (1992)
II.   Academic novels about Academics Lives
A.   (British and) Insular
1.   Dorothy Sayers
a.   Gaudy Night (1935)
2.   C P Snow
a.   The Masters (1951)
3.   Trollope
a.   Barchester Towers (1857)
4.   Tom Sharpe
a.   Porterhouse Blue (1974)
B.   (1985) DeLillo's WHITE NOISE
1.   Sex
a.   John Updike
(1)   Couples (1968)
(2)   Too Far To Go (1979)
b.   Lurie
(1)   The War between the Tates (1974)
2.   Melodramas about Culture Wars
a.   Mamet
(1)   Oleanna (1992)
b.   Roth
(1)   The Human Stain (2000)
c.    L'heureux
(1)   Handmaid of Desire (1996)
d.   Prose
(1)   Blue Angel (2000)
e.   Bernays
(1)   Professor Romeo (1989)
3.   Work-Life / Mid Life Crises
a.   Women
(1)   Lorrie Moore
(a)   Anagrams (1986)
(2)   Chang
(a)   All is Forgotten (2010)
(3)   Susanna Moore
(a)   In the Cut (1995)
b.   Men
(1)   Aster
(a)   Book of Illusions (2003)
(2)   Beattie
(a)   Another You (1995)
(3)   Russo
(a)   The Straight Man (1997)
(4)   Johnson
(a)   Name of the Word (2000)
(5)   O'Brien
(a)   Tomcat in Love (1998)
(6)   Chabon
(a)   Wonder Boys (1995)
(7)   Stone
(a)   Bay of Souls (2003)
4.   Technology/ Sci Fi
a.   Richards
(1)   Galatea 2.2 (1995)
b.   Lethem
(1)   As she climbed across the table( 1997)
c.    Everett
(1)   Glyph (1999)
d.   Gibson
(1)   Neuromancer (1984)
e.   Stephenson
(1)   The Big U (1984)
(2)   Anathem (2008)
5.   Wider Portraits of Society / Panoramic Books
a.   Smiley
(1)   Moo (1995)
b.   Smith
(1)   On Beauty (2005)
c.    Franzen
(1)   The Corrections (2001)
6.   Deprofessionalization
a.   James Hynes
(1)   Publish and Perish (1997)
(2)   The Lecturer's Tale (2001)
(3)   Kings of Infinite Space (2004)
(4)   Next (2010)
b.   Lipsyte
(1)   The Ask (2010)
c.    McNally
(1)   After the Workshop (2010)
d.   Moore
(1)   In the Cut (1995)