Saturday, 29 January 2011

Teach him to think for himself? Oh, my God, teach him rather to think like other people! (Mary Shelley)

I've taught my first four seminars this week.  I was apprehensive - I'm teaching a subject that is not directly related to my areas of expertise and so I have to ensure that I'm ahead of the undergrads in their reading and learning. 

But, you know, it wasn't so bad.  I have to be honest, it wasn't terribly like formal teaching.  Back in the mists of time, I went to Teacher Training College for a couple of years (before I discovered that I really didn't enjoy the company of small children), and was taught how to teach classes of about 30 children.  I learnt how to construct lesson plans, the basics of crowd control (not as difficult in the 1980s as it appears to be now), and how to spot children who were having difficulty with the learning task in front of them.

During my IT career, I also delivered quite a lot of training in one format or another, from classroom based courses on how to use a specific piece of software to discussion groups on the Data Protection Act.   As I moved on to become a manager, I chaired a lot of meetings.  Oh my God - an awful lot of meetings...

So, this week, I found that leading a seminar is more like chairing a meeting than running a formal lesson.  The skills are similar to a successful meeting - adherence to an agenda (in this case the seminar questions set by the module convenor), time management, and most importantly, the sharing of information between all the participants in the room, ensuring that all points of view are raised and examined. 

I was pleasantly surprised by the level of interaction with the students - most of them claimed to have done the readings set - and a lot of them made thoughtful comments.  I managed to get opinions from pretty much all the participating students, and I got a lot of positive non-verbal communication from the vast majority of them.  I was slightly disappointed by their lack of knowledge about what is going on in the law today (only five students out of all the groups were aware of the ruling in the Supreme Court regarding discrimination against homosexual couples in a guest house in Cornwall), so I dangled the tantalising prospect of better essays (and possibly marks), for those students who could demonstrate knowledge of the application of concepts rather than mere regurgitation.  We shall see if they took any notice in due course.

There were, of course, a few who were hostile - to me, to the subject matter, to the fact that they are being expected to do some individual research, and to the fact that they'd had to get out of bed for a morning seminar - but that's tough.  They will be the losers.  As I pointed out, when they're practicing as solicitors or barristers, and they're asked to pitch for some work, or to deliver a legal opinion, there won't be a handy reading list or photocopied pages from key works for them to use.  They may as well learn to stand on their own two feet now, when there's support available to them.

And, the most obvious side effect for me is that my handbag is now full of whiteboard markers.  I feel like a proper academic now...

Monday, 24 January 2011

One cannot think well, love well or sleep well, if one has not dined well. (Virginia Woolf)

Maybe it's because our University is getting really big, or maybe it's a sign of the commercialisation of higher education, but we seem to have an inordinate amount of catering outlets on campus in Unitown.  As I've mentioned elsewhere, there are seven bars on the campus (including the one in the theatre and the one in the nightclub), all of which serve food, there is a traditional dining hall in one of the colleges, the campus shop(s) sell sandwiches and other comestibles, and there are six other cafe outlets that provide the hungry student with food, including the library cafe.

It's dizzying when you think about it.  All those places to eat and drink.  You can spend more time ordering a sandwich than selecting a book in the library.  Let alone reading it.

The food tends to be very good value - plentiful of portion, fresh and reasonably priced - so for me, it makes sense to eat on campus at least once a day.  I tend to eat in the traditional dining hall, which has a good choice of main courses, and as much veg or salad as you can load on your plate.  I'm often bemused by the combinations that some of the other students load onto their plates.  Last week, I have to confess that I wasn't tempted by the plate in front of one of the chinese students, which contained deep fried battered fish, cucumber, grated cheese, roast potatoes, broccoli and coleslaw.  But then, university cuisine is an acquired taste.

Today I opted for one of the tried and tested options on the menu - purporting to be lamb tagine.  Humph.  It didn't taste like lamb tagine.  It tasted as though one of the chefs had tripped during the production of the rather gloopy stew, and had dropped an open pot of curry powder into it.  As I have (yet another) cold, and my sense of taste is somewhat impaired, I wasn't alerted to this occurrence until the inside of my mouth started to sting, and then the true horror of the situation became clear to me.  I didn't find much lamb either - I think that a more accurate description might have been pepper madras.

Perhaps I should stick to the salad bar.

Saturday, 22 January 2011

A real challenging week...

It's the first week of term, so the undergrads are back, with a vengeance.  Peace has disappeared, and suddenly all the litter's back.  This also means that my first experience of teaching is less than a week away, and I'm getting very nervous.  FHB keeps trying to calm me down, and tells me that I'm going to be alright - and I just hope that he's right.  I'm making sure that I'm as prepared as I can possibly be, but I am dreading it - I really don't want to have an adverse effect on anyone's education.

From a personal point of view, I started the week a year older than I was last week, but I didn't feel it until Tuesday.  After Box-fit with Em (which the Sports Centre have renamed 'Glove it Up', which I think sounds like a bad 1970s porn movie), we had lunch in the dining room of one of the colleges.  As I ploughed my way through my roast lamb, I felt a crack in my mouth.  A molar had disintegrated.  Visions of a diet of Complan and soup for the rest of my life flitted across my mind, and I suddenly felt very very old.  You expect muscles and joints to slow you down when you're over 40, but there's something quite final and insidious about your teeth giving up the ghost.  Not to mention the expense of the dentist.

To try and turn back the inexorable ageing process, before Christmas I had entered the draw for "Xercise Factor" - a promotion run by the Uni Sports Centre - and to my surprise, I have won a place on "Boot Camp".  I am allocated a fitness instructor as Mentor, and my progress is monitored over the next 6 weeks.  In return I have to write a weekly blog (100 words - that's hardly breaking sweat), and allow them to take photos of my progress.  So, this afternoon, I had my first fitness assessment with my mentor, Darius.  Full measurements were taken, and, as I suspected, I am a) very unfit, and b) I weigh too much.  Far too much.   But, on the plus side, my peak flow is excellent - I'm unreasonably proud of that.  I am now committed to two sessions in the gym every week, and a box-fit class. 

My aims are to run the Race for Life in June, and to climb Scafell Pike in September.  And I'm going to do it.  If I manage to lose weight along the way, then that's good as well, but it's not the focus of the programme.  To be honest, I've been increasing the exercise since September, and I do feel a hell of a lot better already.

I'm really pleased to be taking part - not only are there clear benefits for me - but because my progress is going to be monitored and reported on the Sports Centre website, I'm also doing my bit to raise the profile and visibility of mature students on campus.  And, that's a hell of a motivator for me to knuckle down and represent them well!  I just wish they weren't imitating the X-Factor. 

Suddenly my life is feeling very full.  How good is that?

Sunday, 16 January 2011

I wanna tell you a story....

I think about blogs a lot.  Why it is that people write blogs and why we read them.  Blogs can make you laugh, blogs can make you cry, and blogs can make you think.  Certainly, this week Gadget's blog made me both cry and it made me think : Hearts gone astray on the Swamp .

Obviously, the quality of Gadget's original post has a lot to do with my response to the topic, but for me some of the most important sentiments come from the comments that follow each of his posts.  In this case, they focus on the tragedies that are experienced in  everyday lives - whether we be police officers, engineers working on the railways, or individuals whose lives are touched in some way or another by misfortune.  And, the best stories are those told with simplicity and brevity - their very quality touching you.

I used to work for Thames Valley Police as Support Staff - a job that I loved.  In order to do my job properly, I had to understand, as best I could, the challenges of everyday policing, and my boss (an ex-cop) encouraged me to spend as much time as I could listening to those who actually do the job.  I had some amazing experiences, and heard some incredible stories from police officers and police staff of all ranks and with all ranges of longevity of service

It seems that every organisation has a shared experience that in some way influences every single person in that organisation from then onwards.  At the time that I was working for TVP, that shared experience was the so-called 'Hungerford Massacre' when a lone gunman tore a beautiful Berkshire town apart on a Saturday afternoon in 1987.

By the time I joined, this event was 14 years in the Force's history, and yet it was still at the front of the consciousness of a lot of officers and staff who had been around at the time.  I was amazed how many serving officers still wanted, or needed, to tell me what had happened on that day.  The events have been well documented - there are books, TV documentaries - a myriad of sources including the official reports.   I  wrote an undergraduate dissertation trying to explain how the events of that day had influenced the ways in which policing may have changed in the late 1980s and 1990s.  I could never do the subject justice.

What I remember - and will always remember - are those personal stories.  Simple, honest, and searingly moving.  Stories such as that told by the sergeant who'd been in the control room listening as the phone lines became overwhelmed by the public ringing in to call for help.  The Staff Officer who'd been in London with one of the the members of CCMT who'd got into his car and had driven at high speed down the M4 in order to get his boss back into Force area as soon as possible.  The young police officer who'd been off duty when they heard the news, and who immediately put their uniform back on and returned to their station - which happened to be at the other end of Berkshire - just to be there in case something needed to be done.  There were many others, and what they had in common was a lack of ornamentation - just the facts as they were for that particular person.


I learnt no concrete 'facts' about that day that I couldn't have got from the official sources, or from the media output.  Hearing those simple stories from the people who'd been there always brought tears to my eyes as it communicated in some way the depth of feeling of the people who were trying to deal with what was happening on their watch.  I couldn't have got that from any book or TV documentary.


So, stories are important.  It doesn't matter who we are, or who we're telling, it's the personal touch that matters.  It's the only way that we can communicate the feelings that accompany the facts.  I think that blogs help us to perpetuate this tradition, and as such are very important.

Certainly, they are to me.

Friday, 7 January 2011

"This will be our year, Took a long time to come...." (Zombies / Beautiful South)

I am firmly convinced that 2011 is going to be a lot better than 2010.  In all fairness, I find it difficult to envisage how it could be any worse than 2010, but I don't like to tempt fate too much.

I spent the New Year break with Very Good Friend (VGF) at her place near the Thames.  As we settled into the second bottle of wine, on New Year's Eve, we chatted about the past year, and indeed the past decade.  For me, most of that decade had been associated with the XBF, and I suggested to her that because of this, I couldn't help feeling that I'd wasted the entire ten years.  However, she's much wiser than I, and suggested that I should look at the decade from a different point of view - as a period of fundamental change in my life. 

As usual, she's right.  The noughties were much more than a decade to be associated with one man.  During that time I left my ex-husband, bought my first house (on my own), changed job three times - each time for a better job, and most significantly of all, decided that I would go to university.  The XBF, she suggested, was part of that process of change.  Looking at it that way, I was able to see more clearly the sum of the relationship, not just the constituent parts.  For a long time, the relationship had made me very happy, and his support had enabled me to go through this period of change, and for that I shall think fondly about him and about the time that we spent together.

Durkheim suggested (amongst other things) that the existence of crime is necessary for a society to be able to evolve.  Stay with me - this is relevant.  By this, I understand him to mean that what we label as being 'criminal behaviour' allows us to examine society's norms and standards, and to challenge and change how we judge ourselves and behaviour and to change what is considered to be normal in any society.  So, the existence of a 'bad' thing can help us to move forward to 'good' things.  If I apply this concept to the XBF and the way in which our relationship ended, then I can see that in order for me to move on - towards the next period of change in my life - I had to face the pain that he and I both felt.  So, I have a choice.  I can continue to view the last 12 months as being a series of 'ends', or I can take life by the throat again, and seize the new beginnings that they present to me.  And, if they're not presented to me, then it's beholden upon me to go and make my own beginnings. 

If nothing else, it's a working hypothesis.  One that makes me feel a lot more positive about the future.