Saturday, 22 November 2014

First years. Bless them. Or not.

This year, as if my time weren't crammed enough, I'm teaching Public Law to first years.  It's a new topic for me to teach, and I have to say that I'm really enjoying it.  This is the second time that I've taught a first year module, and it really is very different from teaching Equity to second and third years.

All five of my seminar groups started off the term full of enthusiasm, and with the certainty that they're going to get brilliant law degrees, and fabulous training contracts or pupillages.  Nine weeks into the term, things are starting to look a bit different.  For the majority the workload is having an effect and they're looking tired.  Some of them (particularly the UK students) have difficulty with the concept that university education is about putting in solo research effort, and that we're not going to 'tell them the answers'.  There's an assessment due in at the end of term, and some of my students are incredulous that I'm not going to tell them what to write.  University, for some of them, is not the party that they were sold.

And, I'm starting to see the ones who are going to start hating the law.   I've just spent some time emailing a student who's told me that Public Law "is torture", which is slightly ironic given that last week's seminar dealt with a case relating to the legality of using evidence gained through torture.  I am sympathetic to this poor student who's finding life difficult (although given that she hasn't been to seminars for three weeks, I'm struggling a bit), and have tried to allay her fears, a bit.  The first year is so difficult - the marks 'don't count' towards the end grade of the degree, which gives them the opportunity to try their hands at a new set of skills.  To take some risks, and to learn what it is that they need to work on.

Attendance at seminars thus far has been pretty good - about 98%, with which I'm very happy.  I'm expecting that this is going to start dropping off soon - I've already noticed some persistent absentees, and I suspect that some of them are not going to last the course.  I'm also expecting some really shocked faces and anguished emails when they get their assessments returned to them.  Last time I taught first years, which is a few years ago now, I dealt with a few students who were devastated to be awarded a 2:2 mark, because they were used to getting straight As at A level.  I think that this is going to be the same.

I have tried to point out to them, that while they only have to write this essay once, I'm going to have to read and mark 75 of the damn things.  This means that actually, I'm the one getting the raw end of this deal!

They don't believe me.

Friday, 21 November 2014

Through the dark days of the re-write, a beacon of hope shines

In all the doom and gloom of writing up, and the construction of literature review ("why did I read that four years ago?"), it's so easy to lose focus on what's really important in life.  Luckily, I've got my Auntie Chris who in her interactions with other people in Seasidetown finds, not only the bad, but sometimes the shining good.

We have in Seasidetown a number of independent shops - all of which are wonderful, and all of which remember and value their customers.  The baker is aware of my predilection for fruit scones, and the butcher is enthralled by my collection of Dr Marten boots.  Into this community of caring retailers came a greengrocer at the end of last year.  We were worried - we already had one greengrocer with whom we were happy, and we knew that this particular business was owned,by a man who'd been very successful in the London fruit and veg markets, and had bought this shop, almost as a hobby in his semi-retirement.  We shouldn't have worried - both greengrocers seem to have survived, and we've been delighted by the new shop and the way in which it's run by pretty much all of the owner's family and their partners.

The veg is good, the service is good, and we like them.  But, today they won my business for life.  Auntie Chris was in there, and overheard a conversation between the owner and a little old lady.  In the course of the conversation, she told the owner (who is in his 60s, a little brash and drives a Bentley), that she misses being able to cook up a little stew, because she is no longer able to cut and peel the veg due to the arthritis in her hands.  The next thing that Auntie Chris saw was that same owner peeling and chopping carrots, swede, parsnips and onions so that the little old lady could take it home for her stew.

And that is why I don't want to leave Seasidetown.

I still hate my thesis tho'.

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

"With a boom-a-lacka, zoom-a-lacka, wee"

Everything Stops for Tea - Jack Buchanan

I'm having a tough time at the moment.  I hate my thesis, and I regret the five years that I've spent on it so far.  It's so bad that I even regret the fact that I didn't take up the place that I was awarded on the Civil Service Fast Track scheme.  Yes.  That bad.  My usual positive attitude has deserted me, and all I want to do is to get in the car, start to drive, and keep on driving until it all goes away.

Luckily, today is also the day that I met up with three of the other invigilators for tea in one of the university's eateries.  Two of us are from School of Physical Sciences, one from the School of English, and me from the Law School.  As I type that, it reinforces why it is that everyone in the university hates the Law School - we won't even conform with the naming convention across the rest of the institution.  Typical bloody lawyers.

Anyway, it was lovely.  As so often happens in these situations the talk soon turned to our slave teaching conditions.  As post-grads (although one of us has completed her PhD and is now employed by the university in another capacity), we very much feel out on a limb when it comes to the circumstances of our precarious employment, and this is a constant across the university.  For example, we get minimal hours which are cut each year, are paid a nominal hourly rate which is supposed to cover our preparation and marking and are constantly worried about the three month vacation in the summer and what will happen if our hours get cut further still.  I'm conscious that this makes us no different from anyone else on a zero hours contract, but considering the fact that we're teaching the next generation of lawyers, scientists, and other professionals, does seem a little unfair.  We also experience difficulties with our academic schools - a lack of organisation, module convenors seem incapable of understanding marking regimes.  One of us teaches on a course where students only have to complete 50% in order to pass, but the module convenor didn't know whether that was completion of two out of four essays, or an average mark of 50%, for example.   None of us were surprised by this.  We shared horror stories of attending committee meetings, and it was generally agreed that I probably have it the worst in this - never attend a meeting with an academic lawyer.  No good will come of it.

And, the students.  Well, they seem to be constantly irritating across the board.  We all agree that they're getting progressively "needier" - I've blogged before about the queue of students for my office hours, unwilling to start working on their essays until they've asked a zillion questions of me.  For the Physical Science students apparently, it's even worse.  They won't touch any of the apparatus in the labs until they've been reassured that it's not dangerous.  Mindyou, for them the risks are slightly higher.   Earlier this term, one of the first years working in the chemistry lab managed to set their hair on fire.

At least in the Law School, the only thing I have to worry about is paper cuts.  And the fact that in Freshers' Week one of our first year law students had to be rescued from the top of a tree by the Fire Brigade, arguing all the while as he did that, because he is a law student, he knows his rights...

Thursday, 23 October 2014

"Let me have men about me that are fat...Yond' Cassius has a lean and hungry look; He thinks too much: Such men are dangerous."

Julius Caesar, 1(ii)

Fat is getting to be more than just a feminist issue, it's fast becoming a national obsession.  Today's media reports show that the National Health Services sees those of us who are obese to be a menace, and that our behaviour has to be addressed if we're not to cost the nation zillions of pounds.

Hmmm.  Fat may not be just a feminist issue any more, but it's one hell of a contested one.

As I estimate that I'm currently about 4 stone overweight, this is a subject close to my heart.  And my fat arse.  I am, actually pretty healthy.  I'm fairly active, although due to my time considerations as I move towards the death throes of the thesis I've had to make the hard decision to stop going to the gym until after I submit.  But, I still do a lot of walking, and I do try to keep moving as much as I can.  I have a good diet, although I do accept that my portion control needs work, and I could do with drinking less alcohol.    But this is a temporary state of affairs for me.  After I finish the thesis, I'm going to have more time in my life - at least until I get a full time job.  I should also suffer less immediate stresses, which will also help in that it'll reduce the amount of comfort eating that I do.

But food is an obsession - not just for me, but for everyone.  We're surrounded by the bloody stuff, and unlike other things that are bad for us, we can't go cold turkey and cut it out all together.  The television schedules are full of cookery programmes - for heaven's sake, the Great British Bake Off is a 'must see', and there are entire television channels devoted to cookery programmes.  Our celebrities (ok, maybe calling Peter Andre a celebrity is stretching it a little far, perhaps) make their money from advertising the Iceland chain of shops which seems to specialise in flogging frozen pizzas, several different types of chips, and the kind of buffet foods which you only now see at the worst kind of conferences.  KFC and other purveyors of fast 'food' are ubiquitous in every high street and every retail park.  Pizza Hut finds new ways to add more sugar, fat and calories into every thing that they serve up, and have you seen the grease at the bottom of a Dominoes pizza box?

So, why do we eat this crap?  That's easy - it's cheap, and it tastes good.

This really does seem to be a phenomenon of our current age.  Back in the 1970s at the school that I used to attend, there were very few fat children.  My middle school had a broad cross section of children from all kinds of backgrounds, including some of the roughest parts of the city in which I lived.  Why were there so few fat kids?  Well, partly because we walked everywhere and we played outside at games that didn't include some form of electronic gizmo.  The vast majority of us ate school dinners - hearty, simple, food, which usually involved some form of meat, potatoes and vegetables.  We may have hated what we ate, but it had reasonable nutritional value.  Fizzy drinks were for special occasions - I cannot remember having fizzy drinks at home, and we certainly didn't have them at school.  If we were thirsty we drank water, milk, or occasionally fruit squash.  The only takeaways in our part of the town were fish and chip shops, and a solitary Chinese.  It being the 1970s, we also enjoyed vile creations such as Angel Delight and jelly made from cubes.  I also remember the excitement of eating my first fruit yoghurt - which seemed amazingly exotic.

Supermarkets too had less choice.  I hate the hypermarkets that are situated outside Seasidetown, and I rarely visit them - they're too big, and there's too much choice.  I remember shopping with my mother on Saturday, she with a wicker basket held in the crook of her arm, as we visited the individual shops to buy the constituent parts for meals for the weekend.  She wouldn't have considered buying a ready meal - they didn't exist for one thing, save only for things that came out of cans.  I still have a bit of a thing about a Fray Bentos pie, served with lashings of tomato ketchup.

So, we were thin, and we were active.  We didn't drink fizzy drinks, and we didn't have ready meals.  But, we ate chips.  Not oven chips, mark you, but chips deep fried in a pan that lived on the top of the stove.  We ate meat - a lot of it - with a lot of fat on it.  We ate cakes, homemade sometimes, although I did nearly break a tooth once on one of my mother's home-made flapjacks, and the nearest that we ever got to ready meals were Campbells' tinned meat balls.  We didn't worry about eating five portions of fruit and veg a day - peas would be frozen, and fruit typically came out of tin, preserved in sugar syrup.  Fresh vegetables were limited to what was in season - if we wanted to eat strawberries in December, we'd have to accept that it would be mushy, and covered in sugary syrup.  Disgusting.

I think that this is one area where progress is making us go backwards.  The availability of every possible food that we could desire whenever we want it may be affecting our ability to be discerning about what we eat.

And, that's if you have the luxury of being able to choose what you can afford.  Why would any young person take the effort to learn how to cook from scratch, when you can get a beefburger  for under a quid, or at home, unwrap a packet of chicken dippers and put them in the oven?  Why would a parent on a limited income spend £1.50 on a decent loaf of wholemeal bread if you can buy a cheap, white sliced loaf for pennies?  Why would you pay to put the oven on for an hour to bake a jacket potato if you can microwave one that's been half cooked already?  Why would you fight with your children to get them to eat vegetables if you could make them happy and quiet with a KFC bargain bucket?  Why would you struggle to get your kids to drink milk if you can let them guzzle a cola drink which is cheaper than milk?  Why cook a meal at all, if you can buy chilled pre-cooked sausages and eat them on the go?

I don't know what the answer is.  Businesses are going to continue to find ways to tempt people to eat substandard ingredients by deep frying them, adding chemicals and/or sugar to make them taste good.  A sophisticated palate (by which I mean one that enjoys broccoli as much as a BigMac) is going to become increasingly rare.  Personally, I think that those councils who are restricting the number of takeaway food outlets near schools are on to something - the availability of cheap, crappy food needs to be controlled.

The last time that I spoke to my GP about my weight issues, she asked if I wanted to be referred to dietician.  I refused, on the grounds that it's quite straight forward.  I need to eat less, and move more and I don't see why the NHS should spend money on telling me the obvious.   But, it's not that straight forward for every one who's carrying a couple of extra stone, and I worry that demonising those of us who are overweight is not going to help anyone in the long run.

Friday, 17 October 2014

"My life is one demd horrid grind!" - Mr Mantalini

Nicholas Nickleby, Charles Dickens

Bloody hell this is hard.

I'm fighting with the work that I've done this far to try and get it into some kind of order so that I can get a draft submitted.  Seems quite a straight forward process, but no.  No.  It is not.

I'm back, once again, re-visiting the damn theoretical framework - until I get this sorted, there's not a lot of point in re-writing anything.  When I read the other, later, chapters it's increasingly obvious to me how much this framework is needed if this thesis is ever to be anything more than 100,000 words of description.  I'm pulling my short, grey, hair out.  Really I am.

My problem is that I'm not very good at the conceptual - I'm far more of a practical person.  I understand what it is that I need to do (I think), but every single word is a real labour.  The Supervisor's not helping much, I have to say.  I saw her earlier in the week and she gave me a lecture as to the fact that I'm intelligent, and that I'm capable of getting this done, all of which is very nice, but doesn't really help me.  She's promised to email me her written notes on my last draft, but they haven't arrived and I've emailed her several times with no reply.  I've started to construct in my head a defence to murder, and even to think about the most effective means.

In the meantime, I sit in front of my laptop surrounded by mindmaps and pages upon pages of notes.  I create pretty plans in pink and turquoise ink, and every so often I wring a single sentence out of my laptop.  I pat myself on the head and go and look at pictures of cats on the internet as a 'reward'.

When I drag myself back to my draft chapter, I discover that what I wrote not 20 minutes ago has turned into rubbish.  And, the longer that this goes on, the more I despair and the more likely I am to get back onto the internet to look for a job a long, long way away from academia.

God, I really hope that this is a phase that I'm going through.  I really hope that I'm going to get this theoretical framework sorted out, and that when I do that the end of the thesis will be in sight.  I also hope that I'm going to find a job teaching - it's what I really love to do.

But I'm tired.  So unbelievably tired.  It's been nearly five years since I started this, and it looks like it's going to be another six months or so before I get to the end of my journey.  While I've really loved the experience so far, every synapse is aching for a rest.  While my brain is slowing down my body's not far behind it, and I yearn for sleep, for the opportunity to spend the whole of a day not thinking about my thesis or feeling guilty that I'm not at my desk working.

In fact, if it weren't for the teaching and the appropriate adult stuff, I think I would have gone completely mad by now.  Plus, today I had a welcome ray of light - a friend sent me lovely brooch, for no real reason.  I don't know if she'll ever realise what a difference that has made to my day and it certainly has helped stop the downward spiral of negativity, for a while.

But, right at the moment, I hate my bloody thesis.

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

"What's that coming over the hill? Is it a monster?"

The Automatic

I'm at the SLS conference at the moment, very much enjoying a lot of the papers.  My stream (Legal History) hasn't started yet, so I've been dipping in and out of areas of law with which I don't usually engage.  So far, I've been surprised to understand (and enjoy) some Company Law, got very enthusiastic about Jurisprudence, was fascinated about the links between dystopian literature and the law, and completely wowed by a paper on the use of robot weapons.  Not to mention some dangerous dogs, which had some spooky synergy with my work.

I've come a long way.  Five years ago when I attended my first conference, I hated it.  I was convinced that I'd never understand what was going on, and that intellectually I couldn't hack it and that I wouldn't make it as an academic.  Clearly, I can hack it, and there is a possibility that I might make it as an academic.  This week I've asked questions, made comments, and the change in me is quite amazing.  On Friday, I'm giving Dr Barnardo a day out, and after that he has to return firmly to my files until I've submitted.  I intend to enjoy myself.

The theme of the conference is 'Judging in the 21st Century', and today I listened to two papers that discussed the disparity in the number of women in the judiciary.  Baroness Hale chaired a Plenary session given by Erika Rackley (and I fear that I am getting old if Professors are looking that young), and a response was given by Christopher Stephens, Chair of the Judicial Appointments Commission (JAC).  Erika Rackley's paper - excellent as it was - covered depressingly old ground; not enough women being promoted and that there remains disparity in representation, and it's difficult to disagree with any of what she said.  Christopher Stephen's response was to show how much progress has actually been made, and to apologise that it wasn't any better.  But because steps are being taken and they are trying, presumably we should feel more comfortable and trust in the system.

Well, I don't.  Not because the JAC isn't making efforts to level the playing field, but because that, I feel, is the least of our problems.  Most women of my age are aware that the playing field is not level.  Because we are the age that we are, we have seen significant changes.  Young women can now opt to do things that we couldn't have dreamed of - for example, when I left school I couldn't have joined the RAF to be a fighter pilot.  Today's young women can, if that's what they want.  In the 1980s when I had just been appointed to my first IT job, a colleague from another department demanded of me why it was that I thought it appropriate to take a "man's job" - twenty years later I ran an IT department in which I was the only woman. We don't enjoy equal pay, and there are not nearly enough women in senior management positions in the city, but we're starting to get there.  Young women don't see the obstacles in the same way as did we.  To them, they're an irritation - to us they were a seemingly insurmountable challenge, and the sweeter for that when we smashed them.

So, if things are so much better than when I was a lass, why do I remain in fear of that monster coming over the hill?  Well, because in my opinion, the  monster is becoming more insidious, and more scary.  In 2014, a woman's selfie went viral after a strange man smashed her in the face because she objected to him groping her.  The assault is an criminal offence as is the groping, under the Sexual Offences Act 2003.  I hope that he is brought to book, and that he is punished, and shamed.

In Rotherham in the region of 1,400 young people were exploited by men for sex.  In that case there's clear race dimension which I think is likely to reverberate through the CJS and Local Government for some time, but let us not lose focus that the main offences were committed by men who considered that they had a Lord's right over vulnerable girls; and this included passing them round between friendship groups as though they had ownership of them.

I still have to grit my teeth when I read in the Daily Mail that a female celebrity is "displaying their enviable assets" as though they were cattle in the market, or that a pretty young woman is "flash[ing] a hint of side boob".  It's no wonder that the number of women being arrested for drink driving is on the increase.

But, hasn't it always been thus?  Don't we have an awful lot of historic sex offences under investigation and before the court?  Well, yes we do.  And, that's progress.  But until somebody doesn't think that it's easier to invent anti-rape nail varnish than it is to educate society that RAPE IS NOT OK, then I shall continue to despair.  As I shall until all men in our society realise that they do not have any kind of droit de seigneur over any woman.

Until every woman in our society is valued, empowered, and taken seriously, we will not win the war of equality.  Chipping away at the institutions of state is a start, I suppose, but there's something in me that's screaming that I want to address the fear, and to stop the violence - whether in fact, in film, in pornography, or by implication.

And, if the only reason that Murdoch is considering winding up Page 3 is because it's old fashioned, and not because of the message that it sends to society, we've still got a bloody long way to go.

Thursday, 14 August 2014

Auspicious Days...

Today is the day when the newspapers print lots of photographs of 18 year old girls jumping for joy.  Although, kudos to the Daily Express who hasn't forgotten that some boys take A' Levels, although these particular young men have been pictured with amusing expressions on their faces, while the girls are still expected to look winsome.  That is irritating on so many levels, I don't know where to start.  So I shan't.

Listening to the radio this morning, reading the newspapers and following the universities on Twitter, I was taken back to 1983 when my A' Level examination results arrived.  I'd taken two subjects, with two different examination boards.  By a quirk of fate, my English Literature results arrived a day before the French.  I'd scored an E in English - and I was pleased with that as I was hoping to study Drama and Primary Education at College, and two Es would have allowed me to do that.  However, the next day, the French result arrived.  An O grade - I'd failed.  My mother was sympathetic, and practical - which response is somewhat amazing considering that the sole reason for my lousy examination performance was my overwhelming laziness.

My mother and I met in a cafe in Unitown that lunchtime to discuss my options.  The obvious one was to re-take my exams the following year, although she favoured consideration of my qualifying to be an electrician or motor mechanic and of leaving academic study behind for a time.  At the time I wasn't surprised by this, and I think that it was truly indicative of a parent who really knew her child - she knew damn well that I wasn't ready for university study, but respected me to make the decisions that I needed to.  Not bad for an academic librarian working for a university library, knowing that most of the people that we knew expected that I would follow in the family footsteps to get a degree and a teaching qualification.  No, she was prepared to face the inevitable questions from her peers and the sympathetic glances from those whose little darlings were packing their trunks to depart for University education and she was going to have to admit that I had failed.  I didn't appreciate it at the time, but that must have been somewhat galling for her.

Anyway, guided by her I made the decision to return to school to re-take that damn French A' Level, and to cut a long story short, after another year of dossing around, I passed it - with another E grade.  To fill in my timetable, I learnt to type - a truly useful skill which has seen me employed between jobs, enables me to type pretty much as fast as I think (sometimes faster), and certainly was incredibly useful working in the IT industry.

Teacher training college, I was also to find, wasn't right for me - I really wasn't ready for a degree at that stage in my life, and after a particularly stressful teaching practice (which I passed with distinction), I made the decision to drop the Education part of study.  The final crisis for my degree education occurred at what would have been the start of my third year of study, when I made the decision not to return for my final year.  Again, my mother didn't turn a hair (well, not that I could see), and her only questions to me regarded what I was going to do to earn my living and where I planned to live.  Again, the practicalities were of the utmost importance, and not the navel gazing in which some people lose themselves.

I was lucky - I had enough nous about me to get a job as a secretary and later to blag my first IT job, and I was to discover that my legendary laziness was a positive attribute in the career in the IT industry into which I fell.  It wasn't until some 20 years later that I decided that it was time to complete that unfinished business and return to University to get my degree.  The rest we know about.

So, I'm really pleased for those young people who have got the grades that they need to go to University, and to use that experience as part of the road to growing up.  I know that for many of them it's going to be the time of their lives, although as I've blogged before, University isn't a universally positive experience.  Some young people become aware that they've made a terrible mistake, and they have to carry that knowledge around with them as well as the stress of completing their degree studies.  I was lucky - when I realised that I was wasting both my time and public money, I had the confidence to turn my back on it.

But, on this particular day, my thoughts aren't particularly with the achievers - heaven only knows I'm going to see enough of them this academic year (five seminar groups in the autumn term, with an additional three after Christmas - I must be mad).  No.  Today, my thoughts are with those who didn't get the results that they expected or needed.  I'd love to be able to tell them that yes, they've fucked up - but that really needn't be the end of their world.  I'd like to be able to tell them to take a cool look at themselves, their abilities, and the possibilities that are there for them.  I'd like to tell them that academic study at 18 years of age isn't the only way to make a career.  And, I'd like to tell them, that if they don't feel ready to go to University, then they shouldn't feel obliged so to do.  It'll be there, waiting for them, when the time is right.

But, most of all, I just hope that they've got a parent in their corner, like my mother was for me on that particular day.

When I get my PhD (assuming that I do, of course), it will be the ultimate achievement for me.  I'm the girl who failed to get her A' levels first time round and who only achieved 60 UCAS points (if I read the tariff properly).  I never dreamed that I'd ever get this far.

But, it won't be my achievement alone.  I've only got this far because of the education and experience that I've had - and a huge part of that comes from my mother.  Not just the practical help - keeping a roof above my head and food on my table - but the long won knowledge and confidence that I am capable of meeting all kinds of challenges and overcoming most of them, while not panicking when faced with one that is beyond me.

And for that, amongst many other things, I thank her.