Wednesday, 28 January 2015

The Home Straight?

Oh.  If only.

I seem to have been working on this thesis for years.  And, indeed that is the case.  I've racked up five years of postgraduate study, and have an extension for another six months.  So, I have to hand in my thesis by the end of June.  Why the delay?  Oh.  A multitude of reasons.  There have been some personal issues (flat torn to pieces in search of dry rot, and family issues), but there has also been the issue of The Supervisor.

I've blogged about her before, and while I have an great amount of respect for her, she and I have parted ways as far as the thesis is concerned.  This is a drastic step to take at this stage in the proceeding, but one that I felt that I had to take if I were a) to complete, and b) retain some semblance of sanity.  Suffice to say, my PhD experience has been coloured by this relationship, and in December I was seriously considering completing my teaching contract and leaving this university, and university life in general.  Happily for me, our director of post-graduate studies got wind of this, and has intervened.  From feeling in the depths of despair, I have emerged into the new term with a shiny new supervisor and a lot more emotional and physical energy.  I have a supervisor who answers my emails - I cannot explain how revolutionary that feels!

There are some worries associated with this move - as I haven't had much (if any) feedback over the past five years, the 80,000 words that I have in draft are now worrying me.  Just how much re-writing am I going to have to do, and is the work that I have done of a sufficient standard for a PhD at all?  You see, I don't think that the old Supervisor had read much of what I'd written.  The final straw came for me in our penultimate meeting when she suggested that mine was a thesis about the criminal law.  It isn't - I can't explain how excruciatingly terrifying that moment was.  She then followed this up (in the same meeting) by suggesting that a decision that had been taken four years ago (with her agreement) was a mistake on my part, and that by extension what I've done since was somehow inferior and not worthy of continuation.  The last two meetings that I had with her were dispiriting.  I would leave her office in despair, convinced that there was no way that I'd be able to complete, and frankly I regretted my decision to stay at this University and waste five years of my live, and tens of thousands of pounds.

The New Supervisor is a completely different kettle of fish.  I know that he respects my work, my research skills, and while he may not agree with some of my conclusions, I know that he's going to help me to sort out a defendable thesis.  He is also an historian, has experience of archival work such as mine, and while he doesn't have a lot of time for theory per se, knows what will be needed.  He told me at the end of last term that my research is 'fine', and that what I write is publishable.  It was the only light in a very dark period of my academic life.

So, the next five months are going to be incredibly hard.  I have to teach on two modules in the law school, and prepare for two lots of seminars.  I will have 120 essays to mark at Easter, and I am to teach on the extra support programme that we provide for students who are at risk of failure.  And, I have a thesis to finish - and possibly to re-purpose and re-focus.  There may be a need for more substantive research - it's not clear at the moment.

So, Monday to Wednesday will find me teaching and preparing for the next week.  Thursday to Sunday is thesis work.  Housework is going to have to go by the wayside, and as for sleep - forget it!

All I have to do is to sneak around the law school, and hope beyond hope that I'm not going to come face to face with the old supervisor...

Thursday, 11 December 2014

Thank Goodness For UKIP

Well, I think it's fair to say, that the above is not necessarily what you'd expect from an Oldgirlatuni.  And, if truth be told, I loathe UKIP with a passion.

But, paradoxically, I'm quite pleased that they exist.  At the moment.  I'm teaching constitutional law, and it's not necessarily the easiest subject to teach 19 year olds who feel that they have no connection with government.  Neither is it easy when two thirds of your students come from overseas, and don't really understand the UK system.  But Nigel and his band of bigots are making life much easier for me at the moment.

This week we've been discussing the relationship between the UK and EU law, and because of the recent by-elections, and the upcoming general election, UKIP feature highly in our discussions.  Not only for their own policies (such as they are), but also for the effect that their apparent success is having on the other parties.  One of my students, who comes from Singapore, looked at me with wide eyes and asked "how could anyone vote for UKIP?"  There was one of those silences that hung in the air - obviously, I can't give them any political opinion, and I am scrupulous that I don't tell them my own opinions, so I let that silence grow.  Finally, it was broken by one of the UK students who said "bugger that - what's the real alternative?"  That, I felt was a good question, and one that I certainly can't answer.

So, UKIP are making my teaching easier.  But another thing that I like about UKIP is the fact that, due to their comedy value, they've spawned a completely new 'world' on twitter.  It started, as you may be aware with UKIP Trumpton, a parody account which attracted the ire of a UKIP MEP who tried to assert that the letters 'UKIP' were subject to copyright.  He was swiftly disabused.  But, what subsequently happened was quite wonderful.  Within a very short period of time, the Trumpton universe expanded.  All the political parties are now represented, along with a radio station, a club of swingers, a Trumpton version of Wetherspoons, and two football teams.  A quasi community grew up.  One evening this week I watched, on twitter, a football match played by Trumpton United FC, complete with football songs, and scores.  It was surreal.  All the political parties are now being derided in the Twittersphere (Trumptonsphere?). but it is quite notable that the only one that's complaining about it is UKIP itself.

How can you parody a political party that has ex-members who referred to 'bongo bongo land', and who criticised women as being 'sluts' if we don't clean behind the fridge.  Whose leader criticises women for 'ostentatious breast feeding', and who blames traffic holdups on 'immigrants'?  Who, it is reported by someone who has left the party, are habitual racists? Who want to turn back the clock on maternity pay, and ask why it's unreasonable for a company to discriminate against a woman who might get pregnant?   It's a bit like shooting fish in a barrel

How can you make jokes about this?  I am more nervous about the politics of the UK than I have ever been during my adult life, and I took to the streets and marched against Cruise missiles and Thatcher's policies.  There is a shift to the right that is really worrying.  As UKIP's ability to attract those on the right grows, there is a race to the bottom by all the other parties as they try to emulate this apparent success with disenchanted voters.  UKIP use the rhetoric of pride in one's country, but their politics borne of ignorance and playing on stereotypes erode any pride that I might have.

UKIP are dangerous.  Not because I fear that they might be elected (although, that is possible), but rather because of the adverse effect that they are having on every other party.

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.