Freedom is not freedom from connection. Serial killing is freedom from connection. Certain large investment firms have established freedom from connection. But we as people never do, and we’re not supposed to, and we shouldn’t want to.

An excerpt from Joss Whedon’s commencement address at his alma mater, Wesleyan University.

Marking and feedback

In spite of the spirit-crushing loads, most of us keep on trying to say something hopeful. […] Instead of filling the pages with innumerable abbreviations in red pencil (“gr.,” “pn.,” “par.,” etc.), most of which most students ignore unless they are required to submit revisions, I usually manage to type discursive comments, trying to make them intelligible as direct talk to the student’s specific problems.  I ask myself “What is the problem that this student can most profitably concentrate on now?”  […]  The student receives what amounts to a letter from me about the project, and ideally he or she does not get the impression that writing the next paper is a hopeless task.  It is true that my “letter” does not take less time than “grading” used to take me when I felt responsible for marking every comma splice and dangler; it usually takes more.  But the time does not feel like something robbed from my life. Wayne C Booth. The Vocation of a Teacher: Rhetorical Occasions 1967-1988. University of Chicago Press, 1988, p. 238.

Marking season has arrived.  After the collective sigh of relief that met the end of the teaching semester, staff at the University of Hull and across the academic world are now assaulting one another with stacks of essays, exams and so forth (‘You’re giving me that pile?!  You should see the size of the one I’ve got for you!’).  I thought I’d take a brief break from marking and feedback to write a blog about marking and feedback.  It is a topic dear to my heart, and I have written about it briefly before (and will probably repeat myself to some extent here).  I love tinkering with and trying to refine the mechanisms for my written feedback.  I’ve come to believe that an effective feedback sheet needs to possess the following qualities:

1 It probably can’t be purely generic, but needs rather to be module- and task-specific.  I fear I’ve become slightly notorious in my departmental office for using my own feedback forms (which has necessitated extra care to ensure that everyone who needs a copy gets a copy, as the generic forms automatically produce a carbon underlay).

2 Following on from the previous point, the feedback sheet should include reference to the specific assessment criteria for the task in question, and these criteria need to be circulated in advance.  For a long time I resisted writing anything other than totally freeform comments, as I wanted my feedback to address the student individually and authentically, and I felt that measuring their work against excessively prescriptive and pre-established criteria might get in the way of this, and prevent me recognising and responding to excellent things that the student might have done outside these categories.
I suppose it’s inevitable that one becomes slightly less romantic as one’s teaching career progresses.  I now think that these pre-published criteria are important and usually very helpful to students.  They know in advance how they will be assessed (which is not the same as knowing what they ought to write), and this can alleviate anxiety and in most cases I think it leads to better writing.  In any case, one needn’t jettison the overall summary comment; it can still be added at the end.
This year I have for the most part combined a general comment with a grid of assessment criteria and levels of attainment – ie. a tickbox.  In my latest round of feedback sheets though, I’ve broken down the grid.  I now have a page of assessment criteria, still with a tick-grid to indicate level of attainment, but I’ve also left space for a comment relating to each criterion.  I’ve found that this has really focused my marking method, and I hope my students will find it useful too.

3 The sheet should be set up so that a ‘private’ conversation between the examiners (internal and external) can occur if necessary.  In the interests of consistency across a cohort, it’s sometimes useful to include a brief comment for the benefit of other examiners along the lines of ‘I think this essay deserves this precise grade because it’s slightly sharper than this other essay in the pile, which does similar things.’  (Of course, essays are marked on their own merits in line with assessment criteria and not to a curve, but when it comes down to the fine details of a mark here or a mark there, it’s useful to have some submissions that act as points of reference.)  Clearly, it’s inappropriate for another student to see such a comment (some – most? – examiners are also of the opinion that students should not be privy to disagreements between markers, and should not see comments or suggested grades that are in sharp contrast with one another), so two slightly different copies of the sheet need to be produced: a file copy, and a student copy.

Here (for those able to download/view .doc files) is one of my latest template sheets.  I’ll probably do more tinkering next year.

Feedback welcome!

Quantity and quality

I’ve been away from home for most of the working week at the excellent ‘Television for Women’ conference at the University of Warwick, so blog-wise I only have time for an ‘aside’ (a category of post that I’m glad WordPress provide among their options, making me feel less guilty about brevity). [Retrospective edit: the formatting of ‘Asides’ in the WordPress theme that I’ve chosen is sufficiently ugly to have led me to abandon using them (I love the rest of the theme) and to convert my existing ones to ‘Standard’ format.]

In what looks set to become a regular feature, I thought I’d point to a couple of things I found of particular interest in this week’s THE.  We’ll start with the dry one…

Here is the second paragraph of one of the cover stories:

A report by the Higher Education Policy Institute and consumer group Which? found that on average students works for 900 hours a year, far fewer than the 1,200 hours the QAA assumes are necessary for a degree, and calls on the watchdog and the government to investigate the issue.

This is interesting, and has several implications.  The first one that struck me was that in light of this finding, the percentages of contact time advertised in the Key Information Set (or ‘KIS’) for each UK undergraduate programme ought to be revised upwards.  That percentage is calculated by dividing the number of scheduled/timetabled hours a student has on each year of her/his programme by that aforementioned ‘number of hours the QAA assumes are necessary for a degree’.  So if the latter shrinks, the percentages go up, giving an almost certainly more accurate indication to parents, potential students and other interested (and perhaps sceptical)parties of the percentage of her or his study time the average student spends in guided activities.

The other piece that caught my eye was an opinion column, titled ‘Black-mirror narcissus’, pitched to the reader (of the print edition) like this: ‘This is the age of the anti-social network, but the humanities classroom offers reflection of a healthier sort, argues Robert Zaretsky.’  I don’t agree with everything Zaretsky says.  He rehearses Nicholas Carr’s arguments about ‘what the internet is doing to our brains’ somewhat uncritically, for example.  However, I share Zaretsky’s scepticism about the pedagogical model represented by ‘Moocs’ (‘massive open online courses’), and he articulates well the value, and the values, of the ‘humanities classroom’, and the need for both ‘dissemination’ (ie. lecture-based) and ‘dialogic’ (ie. seminar-based) forms of teaching.  Here is one of several eloquent passages:

humanities professors do what Shakespeare’s fool does: not only does he question the values and ambitions of the powerful, but, as with Lear, he also leads us to understand and empathise with the king’s flaws.  Yet he does so not in a circus tent, much less a king’s palace, but in the theatre – a place set apart from the noise and business of everyday life, a place where the audience forgets itself, all the while attending to the meaning of other lives.

One last thing: I’m very happy that the Whedonverse has met the Twitterverse.  Joss Whedon is finally tweeting as himself with his own profile, @JossActual.  I eagerly await a Slayage article about this exciting development, but for now I’ll just enjoy reading the tweets.

I am a fictionalizing philosopher, not a novelist; my novel and story-writing ability is employed as a means to formulate my perception.  The core of my writing is not art but truth.

Philip K. Dick, quoted by a student in a piece of work of his that I read earlier this week.  Quote also available here.

The REF and other ways to spend one’s time

I spent most of today at the inaugural Annual PhD Supervisors’ Conference at the University of Hull.  For me the highlight was the keynote by Adam Wright, a Research and Policy Officer for the National Union of Students.  The title of his talk was ‘Current and Future Issues for PGR students in the academic environment’, and one topic he touched upon was the effect the REF might be having in certain parts of the sector on the quality (and, simply, the amount) of supervision postgraduate research students receive.

It chimed with something else I was already planning to mention on here: a slightly gimmicky feature in this week’s THE in which a married academic couple debate (supposedly in their bedroom) the merits of the REF.  The whole piece is worth reading, but here’s one of my favourite bits (written by Andrew Oswald, professor of economics at Warwick):

[T]he academic’s life cycle should allow for different outputs at different stages.  Do we really want all professors in the latter part of their careers to focus on producing top publications instead of being a wise intellectual guide for the next generation?  Instead, we want some of our senior researchers to advise government, and lead our faculties and our universities.  They are needed as guardians of the academy.

Public Service Broadcasting: Inform, Educate, Entertain

‘[N]obody would believe there are 56 million people in Britain we see and hear so few of them [on television].’ Raymond Williams in one of his television columns for The Listener (written some time between 1968 and 1972), quoted in Charlotte Brunsdon, ‘Problems with Quality.’ Screen 31.1 (1990).

My Public Service Broadcasting learning curve has been a steep one.  I half-heard one of their songs on Radio 6 Music a couple of weeks ago, and was sufficiently intrigued to go in search of more information online.

When I discovered that not only was this band called Public Service Broadcasting, but that their new album (due out the following week) was called Inform, Educate, Entertain, my already substantial enthusiasm only increased.  That trio of verbs, for those who do not already know this, were offered by John Reith (1889-1971), the first general manager and then the first director general of the BBC, as a pithy summary of the aims of public service broadcasting.

The band’s website, publicservicebroadcasting.net, did a good job of enticing me further.  Gliding through its clean design, I was particularly interested in the ‘About’ tab, which told me that:

Public Service Broadcasting is the corduroy-clad brainchild of London-based J. Willgoose, Esq. who, along with his drumming companion, Wrigglesworth, will be touring the length and breadth of the UK in 2013 on a quest to Inform – Educate and, most importantly – Entertain.

Through their uniquely spell-binding live AV Transmissions audiences will witness the band weave samples from old public information films, archive footage and propaganda material around live drums, guitar, banjo and electronics as they teach the lessons of the past through the music of the future – beaming our past back at us through vintage TV sets and state of the art modern video projection devices.

I was interested less in the stuff about their live set-up (I don’t get out much), more in what I might expect from their album.  I was prepared to overlook the hipster-posturing of ‘corduroy-clad’ because the second paragraph was so promising.  Feeling flush with my first wage of the new tax year on its way to my bank account, I ordered the album.

It arrived towards the end of the week just gone, and, as I sometimes do with new albums, I’ve had it on repeat play since then to try to acquaint myself with it rapidly.  I’m sorry to say that the text does not quite deliver on the promise of the paratexts.

In retrospect, I should have paid slightly more attention to the information about what kinds of archival material the band favour – ie. ‘old public information films’ and ‘propaganda material’.  It is hard, when using such material, to avoid camp.  Not that the band seem to want to avoid camp.  Example 1: in the song ‘The Now Generation’, a male voice, adopting an outmoded pitching style, confidently asserts: ‘Out of the past and into your future comes this news, and the news is pleats!’  Example 2: in ‘Signal 30’, against squealing tyres and an insistent, overdriven guitar, we hear a series of lurid and/or laughable exclamations. Voice 1: ‘No drinking and driving.’ Voice 2: ‘Not even beer?’ Voice 3: ‘Not even water!’ [Tyres squeal.]  Barbara Klinger, in her book Melodrama and Meaning, described camp as a ‘hit-and-run sensibility’, and that is what we are often offered on this album: a focus upon the titillating quaintness of the fragment at the expense of the context of the whole.  Listening to the album, I was also reminded of Charlotte Brunsdon’s description of how television uses its own past in what she terms ‘“list television” compilations’:

the skill of editing archive compilation programmes like To DIY For lies in the precise intuition of how much old footage is funny, and when to cut before it becomes boring. The editing structure of these programmes depends on extremely short bursts of ‘old television’, contained and embraced by contemporary commentary, so that the viewer is never far from the enlightened and modern present. ‘Taste and time on television.’ Screen 45.2 (2004).

My sense is that, in the case of Inform, Educate, Entertain, the electronic music performs a function similar in type (albeit lesser in degree) to the ‘contemporary commentary’ Brunsdon refers to.  The comment about ‘short bursts’ is certainly germane too.

It should be noted, however, that neither television nor broadcasting are primary sources for the album, despite the title of the album and the name of the band that produced it.  Instead, films are the main named sources of samples.  The sleeve notes name four films: The First of the Few (1942), What a Life! (1948), Night Mail (1936) and The Conquest of Everest (1953).  (Looking back to the EP which preceded this album, The War Room, it is a similar story.)  The other samples, we are told, come ‘from various public domain sources, with the majority coming from the fantastic Prelinger archives’.

The sampled voices that we hear are predominantly male, and predominantly these voices speak in the clipped, received pronunciation style associated with both the BBC of the past and many of the recorded voices of the World War 2 era in general.  The most notable exception to this is probably ‘Signal 30’, where we hear voices with more of the demotic language and cadences of American culture.  Regional and other minority voices are largely absent.  This is a particular shame in light of the quotation that graces the top of the second page of the album’s sleeve notes:

I’m not going to play you records by eminent people; you’ll remember those.  But I’ve chosen a few, from the many hundreds we are making.  They deal with peak moments of intense personal experience.  And I think, together, they say something about the spirit of our own time.  Something that will still be worth saying a hundred years hence.

These words, the sleeve notes tell us, belong to ‘Marie Slocombe, founder of the BBC archive, speaking in 1942’, and we actually get to hear them spoken on one of the album’s tracks.  What a shame, then, that the album fails to deliver on this implicit promise, and does not allow us to hear any such ‘peak moments’.  (Alexis Petridis makes some interesting and useful observations about the sources the albums uses and the way it uses them in his Guardian review.)

The songs’ musical construction for the most part matches the staccato use of samples.  Most songs comprise a cycle of riffs, which are assembled sufficiently artfully, with the help of some very good driving bass which knows exactly when to ease off the throttle, that momentum and interest are consistently maintained, but which seem to me – admittedly, after only a day’s intensive listening – to lack any real complexity.  (As an aside, I think it is worth noting that the Independent’s reference to Public Service Broadcasting’s use of ‘the music of the present’ – a quote used on the band’s website – has been implicitly challenged by another of its writers.  Simon Price gets it spot on, I think, when he highlights the band’s debt to ‘electro-rock grooves reminiscent of the 1990s school (Underworld and Chemical Brothers, in particular).’  Faithless also came to my mind whilst listening.)

So, what ‘lessons of the past’ do Public Service Broadcasting teach us?  I’m afraid I felt like I walked away from my lesson somewhat empty-handed, despite the ostensibly good, sincere and deeply-felt intentions of J Willgoose Esq. (who dedicates The War Room to a relative who was killed in his 20s during World War 2).  I learned that there’s some funny campy stuff in the archives, and setting those posh voices against electronic instruments sounds pretty cool.  The paratextual material promised more, but the type of archival material chosen and the way in which it is treated make for a superficial engagement with history.  Popular music can engage with history more meaningfully than this, and it frequently does.  (Anyone who doubts this need look no further than the output of the Drive-By Truckers, in particular their album Southern Rock Opera.)

I’d like to end on a slightly more positive note, though.  One thread that runs through the album is a sense of striving in the voices we hear, of people consciously looking towards the frontier of the future with the spirit of pioneers.  This put me in mind of ‘The Omega Glory’ a wonderful chapter from Michael Chabon’s wonderful collection of essays, Manhood for Amateurs, in which the author ponders the loss of ‘our ability or our will to envision anything beyond the next hundred years or so’.  I’ve just skimmed the chapter again, and if I had to pick one paragraph to stand in for the whole to make the particular point I’d want to make here, it’s this one:

If you ask my older son about the Future, he essentially thinks the world is going to end, and that’s it.  Most likely global warming, he says – floods, storms, desertification – but the possibility of viral pandemic, meteor impact, or some kind of nuclear exchange is not alien to his view of the days to come.  Maybe not tomorrow or a year from now.  The kid is more than capable of generating a full head of optimistic steam about next week, next vacation, his next birthday.  It’s only the world a hundred years on that leaves his hopes a blank.  My son seems to take the end of everything, of all human endeavour and creation, for granted.  He sees himself as living on the last page, if not in the last paragraph, of a long, strange and bewildering book.  If you had told me when I was his age that a kid of the future would feel that way – and what’s more, that he would see a certain justice in our eventual extinction, would think the world was better off without human beings – it would have been even worse than hearing that his world would offer no hydroponic megafarms, no human colonies on Mars, no personal jet packs for everyone.  That truly would have broken my heart.

Criticism is the systematic reading (that is, evaluation) of texts. Like all other activities, it takes place in the present. Like all other critical activities, it presupposes a principled attitude to the politics which constitute the present. The business of the film critic is to arrive at an understanding, on the basis of that attitude – which ought to be as alert and as conscious as possible – of what is of value in the past and present of the cinema, and to ensure that this value is recognized for what it is, and has the influence it ought to have, now.

Andrew Britton. Britton on Film: The Complete Film Criticism of Andrew Britton. ed. Barry Keith Grant. Wayne State University Press, 2009.

Pearl Lowe’s Vintage Craft

As a result of teaching my undergraduate module ‘Television, Radio and the Everyday’ for several years, I have developed an intellectual interest in things domestic.  One academic area that addresses domestic ‘stuff’ and in which I have dipped my toe is the fascinating field of material culture (its most famous writer is probably the highly readable Daniel Miller; working in a slightly different area but also worthy of mentioning is Ben Highmore).  Television studies, closer to my home turf, also has sophisticated tools for dealing with the domestic and the everyday.  I find cookery and property programmes especially fascinating, and I tried to express some of this fascination in an article that I wrote entitled ‘Can You See Yourself Living Here? Structures of desire in recent British lifestyle television’.  In that article and in my teaching, I find it illuminating to sometimes place television programmes alongside cookery or fashion books (often books published as programme ‘tie-ins’).  So when my wife, in her capacity as a talented and blogging seamstress, was sent a review copy of Pearl Lowe’s Vintage Craft: Craft products & styling advice for the modern vintage home, we were presented with an ideal opportunity to write a co-authored piece.

The rising popularity of sewing and other domestic crafts, as indicated by television programmes such as Kirstie’s Vintage Home and The Great British Sewing Bee (Rachel Moseley has written a nice review of the latter here), is contributing to a fascinating sub-genre of the lifestyle television which received a spurt of brilliant academic attention at the start of the century (mainly thanks to the work of the Midlands Television Research Group).  Perhaps this new cycle of programmes will prompt a second wave.  (Also brought to my awareness through my reading around matters domestic, I eagerly await the wonderful Nicki Humble’s research project Home Making: The Domestic Arts in Literature and Culture 1750-2010.)

When I write about popular culture, I try to avoid what John Hartley (I think) termed a ‘they’ stance, and try to adopt a ‘we’ stance.  That is, I try not to stand ‘outside’ the thing I am looking at and point a finger of condemnation, but try (also, at least) to approach it on its own terms.  I often think of Robert Warshow’s passing critique, towards the end of his magisterial article on the Western hero, of ‘the criticism of popular culture, where the educated observer is usually under the illusion that he has nothing at stake.’  I try to be constantly vigilant against becoming that kind of observer.  The point of view I try to adopt, in fact, is a large part of the meaning of the title of my blog (which is also part of the title of my PhD thesis): ‘Between sympathy and detachment’.

Sometimes such a stance is hard to maintain.  Treating popular culture seriously and sympathetically does not mean always exonerating it or celebrating it, and should not simply mean holding it to a lower standard, or excusing in the name of populism things that ought to be criticised.  The review below is quite a critical one (and in my contributions to it I found myself revisiting some of the same critical territory I explored in the article mentioned above).  I would want to point out, however, that the main things being criticised are the intentions (and pretensions) of the producer, not the imagined misguided pleasures of an imagined audience, who will often stand in as the intellectual’s bad other in the type of criticism that Warshow alludes to.

Enough caveats and disclaimers, I think!  Onto the piece itself, which is published simultaneously here and on the blog threadcarefully.wordpress.com.

Pearl Lowe’s Vintage Craft: Craft projects and styling advice for the modern vintage home

Ex-singer-turned- designer Pearl Lowe’s new book Pearl Lowe’s Vintage Craft: Craft projects and styling advice for the modern vintage home, due out 9th May 2013, is a book aimed at vintage-loving crafty people who want to create a ‘unique’ and ‘vintage’ look for their home.  The book contains an abundance of projects divided into five main categories: ‘Heavenly Kitchen & Picture Perfect Dining’, ‘Dream Living Space’, ‘Bedroom Delights’, ‘Bathrooms & Small and Special Places’ and ‘Opulent Office’.  The book comes at a time when vintage style is all the rage, Kirstie’s Vintage Home being a good example of its popularity.

As the book’s title suggests, the book is about finding old items (‘vintage’) and modifying or combining them (‘craft’).  The word ‘vintage’, always a slippery one, is especially so here – a catch-all approbatory term for old stuff.  As in Kirstie’s Vintage Home, the word is overused, sometimes to the point of nonsensical concepts such as ‘vintage designer’ (Lowe, born in 1970 – does this mean she herself is vintage?!) and ‘vintage event’ (Allsopp, referring to a vintage-style, or perhaps ‘vintage-inspired’ wedding).  The introduction immediately stretches things yet further: the book is explained to be about the practice of creating a ‘vintage style’ – ie. the appearance of stylish oldness rather than its reality.  The ‘Vintage Christmas’ projects perfectly demonstrate this: lace and satin stockings, vintage wallpaper paper chains, vintage bauble place settings, lace Christmas crackers, lace bunting and lace-covered wooden heart and star baubles.  This is extreme vintage fetishism.  There is nothing ‘vintage’ about a modern Christmas with these items, nor does it hark back to a Christmas in the past where all of these items would be present.  One project in the book, for an ‘Antique ghost mirror’, reassures the reader: ‘you don’t have to wait years or spend lots of money on an antique to get the look.’  The tools required include heavy-duty chemical resistant rubber gloves, a paint stripper, and hydrochloric acid, and the method amounts to damaging a piece of furniture to make it look old (‘distressing’, of course, is nothing new, but the fact that this process involves dangerous chemicals and is at the expense of the item’s practical purpose serves to highlight its silliness).  The tensions between finding and making and between authenticity and appearance are perfectly captured in the blurb on the back of the book, with its perplexing but accurate promise: ‘Vintage designer Pearl Lowe shows you how to create the authentic vintage look in your own home with her expert advice and simple projects’ (italics added).

Lowe is determinedly eclectic in her aesthetic, embracing a range of different identities (‘I think I’ve always been a bit of a gypsy at heart’;  ‘Growing up I was a classic Goth’), and taking a similarly pick-and-mix approach to historical styles (though she favours Art Deco above all others).

The appeal of old things is interesting (and in some ways, a positive counter-current to a much more widespread social fascination with and worship for all things new).  Objects, like people, acquire experience, and often scars, the longer they stay in the world. There is, to quote Susan Sontag’s wonderful words, something enchanting about ‘used things, warm with generations of human touch.’ Unlike people, though, objects can’t tell you much about their lifetimes, and change less across the course of them.  A chair really has only one practical purpose, whether it was made yesterday or fifty years ago.  So on one level, Pearl Lowe’s statement that ‘anything I buy has to have character and history’ is understandable, but on another level it is phony.  It is unlikely that Lowe knows of or cares about the precise details of the history of the artefacts she acquires.  Rather, they are simply redolent with ‘pastness’; they are mute icons upon which one can project personal fantasies (of ‘hippiness’, ‘gothness’, ‘vintageness’, or whatever).  Objects, histories and identities are reduced to style, pure and simple – the question of whether it looks good.  Note, for example, how ‘the hippy gypsy look’ starts out as a tasteful way of decorating a caravan, but quickly moves away from even this minimal relationship to an appropriate place and becomes something that can ‘easily be recreated anywhere in a house’.  Sontag (again), writing about camp, suggested that it offered one solution to ‘the problem of how to be a dandy in the age of mass culture’.  Mass culture gives us all the same stuff to use in our lives, but one way in which we can distinguish ourselves is by taking an interest in older versions of the same stuff.  What Pearl Lowe adds to this is the eye of the designer.   To ‘Look at this old stuff’ is added ‘Look at the way I’ve put it all together.’

So much for the promises and fantasies the book offers in its words.  What about its images?  With very few exceptions, what we are offered is, to borrow Martin Lefebvre’s evocative phrase, ‘space freed from eventhood’.  Nothing is happening, and – with the partial exception of the ‘Entertaining Vintage Style’ section, where the tables of cupcakes (not vintage cupcakes, one hopes) are presumably awaiting guests – it does not look as though anything is about to happen.  Children appear only on a single spread in the book, and there only in their own rooms or the garden.  This sacrificing of functionality, or just plain living, to display, comes through in the impracticality of some of the design suggestions.  In the ‘Opulent Office’ section of the book, Lowe states ‘just because the room is dominated by technology and other modern necessities for work, that doesn’t mean it can’t have a vintage look too.’  The attempt to reconcile ‘technology’ and ‘a vintage look’ in the ‘Office in a wardrobe’ project results in the only piece of communications technology on display in the images being a (‘vintage’) telephone.

One striking thing about the photography in the book is the dullness of it all.  Most pictures seem dark and gloomy, with bold wallpapers, deep coloured lace and floral decorations dominating the spaces pictured.   Lowe has a penchant for mood lighting: tealights, chandeliers, standard lamps, and seems to prefer natural daylight to be filtered through lace panel curtains, which overall gives the impression of dimness, mustiness and dustiness – it’s a world away from the Ikea catalogue aesthetic where everything is clean, bright, organised and easy to keep clean.

Still, the book is all about how things look; as Lowe puts it, ‘aspirational living’.  I would venture that very few of the projects are actually useful or necessary – the focus is overwhelmingly upon making things look pretty: ‘Tailor’s dummies covered in pretty floral fabrics also look gorgeous standing in a dressing room and, if you like, you can even use them for their practical purpose’ (italics added).  Art Deco, Lowe’s preferred style, is ‘an indulgent style that is all about elegance and drama and less about practicality’ – and this love of indulgence, drama, elegance, glamour, grace and femininity – underlies every project in the book.

In her feature on cushions and quilts, Lowe says ‘Some old quilts can be a little marked or smelly […].  If you buy a slightly damaged vintage quilt, display it with its best face out’.  The photography may seem appealing, but it is worth wondering what it would smell like with all these old, mouldering, moth-eaten quilts draped on every available surface: ‘Quilts have traditionally been used as bedspreads, but why stop there?  They look beautiful draped over the ends of beds or over chairs or linen chests […] on the wall, hung up as they are or in frames, or thrown over a banister rail’.  This is one of the main four ideas behind the 60+ craft projects contained within the book: STICK A QUILT ON IT.  The other three are:

  • PAINT IT – ‘painting glass Kilner jars is a quick and simple way to add a touch of vintage to your everyday kitchen items. You can also decorate jam jars, milk bottles or any glass containers you care to lay your paintbrush on’
  • WALLPAPER IT – ‘With its wonderful range of patterns, colours and styles – vintage or new – I never throw away offcuts of wallpaper; they always come in handy.  It’s easy to attach wallpaper to just about any surface with craft glue or wallpaper paste, and it’s a simple and stylish way to transform your furniture.  Whoever said wallpaper was just for walls?’
  • STICK LACE ON IT – ‘That’s the beauty of this fabric [lace]; you can use it anywhere you like; as tablecloths or runners, on furniture, on coffee tables, or draped over curtain poles or bedheads – wherever you think it looks good.  It doesn’t have to be obvious, either, just a fragment here and there adds femininity and grace to a room.’

So what of the projects themselves?  Practical use aside, are they easy to make?  How detailed are the instructions given?  The book contains all sorts of projects requiring a wide range of skills in needlework, re-upholstery, painting, decoupage, flower arranging, candle-making, screen printing… Each project includes written instructions, but no diagrams.  At the back of the book there are a mere five pages devoted to ‘Craft basics’ – two pages covering what a basic craft kit and an essential sewing kit ought to include,  two pages on basic hand sewing stitches (overstitching, running stitch, slip stitch, blanket stitch, back stitch and cross stitch), and half a page on preparing and painting wood.  Having read these five pages I certainly do not feel adequately prepared to tackle a reupholstery project, however, I get the feeling that one doesn’t actually need to be skilled or experienced in any of these areas to give it a go: Lowe appeals to a gung-ho, confident crafter who is willing to give anything a try.  As regards quilt-making – a difficult, time-consuming activity even for an experienced sewer – Lowe reassures the reader ‘If you aren’t the neatest sewer, don’t worry – wobbly stitching adds to the character of the quilt’.  In fact it seems any imperfection in a finished project just serves to tell a story, authenticate the project, make it ‘bespoke’, ‘personal’ and ‘unique’.

All the above could be summarised as ‘This is a book about design, written by a designer.’  It is unfair to criticise a book for being something it does not attempt or claim to be.  And of course, a desire to have a nice-looking house is not something to be scorned in itself, nor is indulgence always a bad thing.  ‘I believe we are all entitled to a bit of glamour in our lives’, Lowe opines in her introduction, and she is right.  But we can still ask whether the particular brand of style we are being offered is a positive one.  There is too much that is pretentious, impractical, false, excessive and, at bottom, illogical in Vintage Craft for it to be worth recommending.

Module feedback

This is the first entry of my relaunched and relocated ‘Between Sympathy and Detachment’ blog (the old one is here).  I intend the content to be wide-ranging, but one central concern will be higher education, and within that, teaching and everything that goes with it.  In last week’s THE, it was reported that a survey of over 20,000 academics found that research activity was believed to be the most important factor in career advancement.  This is just one of the most recent examples of teaching suffering second-class status in the realms of higher education (interesting given the name of the ‘sector’).  However, that’s the subject for a different blog post.  My more modest ambition here is to write a little bit about some activities I did with one of my classes recently to receive fuller and ‘thicker’, and more immediate and dialogic, module feedback than is permitted by the compulsory generic ticksheets.  I am currently undertaking a Postgraduate Certificate in Higher Education, a process that has helped me to become a more reflective – and, I hope, an at least somewhat better – teacher.  The process described below emerged, in a roundabout way, from my experiences on the PGCHE.

Attempting to do scholarly work is in my experience a deeper schooling in humility than can be found anywhere else except in trying to teach well and trying to be a good spouse and parent. Wayne C Booth. The Vocation of a Teacher: Rhetorical Occasions 1967-1988. University of Chicago Press, 1988, p. 73.

Most academics – and junior academics especially – possess a keen awareness of the number of ways in and fronts on which they are ‘accountable’.  To undergraduates, however, module tutors can often appear as one of the many powerful figures to be encountered during the course of university life.  At least once on each module, however (usually towards the end), the tables are turned.  Module evaluation questionnaires are circulated.  They are filled in anonymously and returned to the departmental secretary for processing.  The module tutor later receives a digest of the feedback, including any written comments.  This feedback must be responded to if problems are apparent, and the aggregated ‘scores’ are published in the next year’s module outline.

There are problems with MEQs.  Quality and effectiveness cannot be reduced to popularity, for example (although it would be surprising if there were no overlap).  However, I think that they are, on balance, a good thing, and they are in any case here to stay.  It is humbling to receive feedback (both good and bad) about how the module that one has designed and delivered has been experienced by those who have studied it.  The main problem with MEQs, though, to my mind, is their predominantly quantitative nature.  A low score will not necessarily reveal what went wrong, or a high score what was good.  Students can, of course, write free-form comments, and I encourage them to do so, but the invitation is not universally taken up.

In light of this, and because, out of my usual mixture of passion and anxiety, I always want my modules to be as good as they possibly can be, I decided to devote the seminars on one of my modules this week to the process of module evaluation.  The module in question is ‘Analysing Television Drama: Narrative and Style’, which takes as its case study the television work of Joss Whedon (appropriately, the preceding lecture was about the themes of power and authority in the Whedonverse).  I was delighted by how fully my students participated in the process – a process which, as I pointed out, will benefit future students more than themselves.  Here’s what I did.

1 I circulated pieces of paper (A4 chopped in half – to save paper and to give an indication of how much I wanted them to write!) and asked everyone to summarise the key things they had learned on the module.
I thought this would be a good way to begin the process of looking back on the module.  I also thought it would be interesting to see which things had come through loudest and clearest on the module.  The results were very heartening.  I think the most frequent comment had to do with close analysis of style, which is good because that’s what I understand to be at the heart of the module too.  Within a pleasing consensus about the heart of the module, it was also good to see that different students had, of course, picked up particularly on different things.  Quite a few students, for example, expressed a liking for a session where I outline how suspense works in narrative fiction.  I always worry that this material is a little dry, but the feedback has also helped me to see that often students like to be given a workable tool that allows them to do things.  I resist the idea that stylistic analysis can be reduced to a checklist, but some of its components are amenable to rigorous analytical subdivision, and this can provide its own pleasures.

2 I projected the page of the module outline detailing learning outcomes and assessment tasks on the screen and went through them.
This was not done in the spirit of ‘coaching’, but rather to try to explain what I thought the logic of the module was.  This is also something I did right at the beginning of the module, so it wasn’t a ‘hey presto’ gesture, but something more like bookending.  The thing I emphasised at the beginning of the module and in this seminar was the principal of constructive alignment – probably the idea I’ve encountered on the PGCHE that has been most transformative of my teaching.

Constructive alignment is a model expounded at length in Biggs and Tang’s book Teaching for Quality Learning at University: What the Student Does.  It boils down to this very simple but very powerful idea.  A module’s learning outcomes should be ‘aligned with’ its assessment methods and its learning activities.  Just to disspell a potential objection, this does not equate to drilling students, or teaching them ‘to the test’.  It means that, having decided what it is that you want students to learn on a module (outcomes), you try to come up with the best possible ways of assessing that learning and the best possible learning activities for bringing that learning about.

On this particular module, the learning outcomes are as follows:

On successful completion of this module you will be able to:
1. produce concise written summaries (similar to a ‘treatment’) of the narratives of individual episodes;
2. describe and explain at the micro level how a television programme’s formal features (dialogue, performance, staging, framing, lighting and so on) control the flow of narrative information and generate other forms of meaning and significance;
3. describe and evaluate the formal patterning of an individual episode, paying particular attention to its handling of space, time and narrative;
4. evaluate the way in which a television programme, either within an individual episode or across a range of episodes, represents an instance of a particular genre and/or is designed to convey particular themes and concerns.

There is one assessment for each learning outcome.  To test the first outcome the students had to write a synopsis immediately after watching a Whedonverse episode (this assessment activity turned out to be more popular, or perhaps I should say less unpopular, than I had predicted).  The remaining three are assessed by essays of gradually increasing length.  This also has the virtue of allowing students to receive feedback across the course of the module, rather than ‘flying blind’ into one or two heavily-weighted components.

With respect to learning activities, in the lectures I would lay some basic groundwork, and then seminars would tend to be devoted to sequence analysis based around short clips from the episodes we’d watched.  This activity was most strongly aligned to learning outcome 2, although I hope it can be seen that it also lends itself to alignment with 3 and 4 (with respect to 1: I gave the students a dry run on the synopsis episode to try to iron out any misunderstandings, then that was done and dusted, to use an appropriate metaphor, quite early in the module).  One of my anxieties was that seminar after seminar based around sequence analysis would feel a bit samey and not align ideally with thematic analysis.  My students, thankfully, did not see this as a major concern, but more on this below.

(My commitment to sequence analysis stems largely from my undergraduate training in the Department of Film and Television Studies at the University of Warwick.  Since crossing over to the teaching ‘side’ of the seminar room, I’ve been very influenced by Klevan’s comments in his wonderful chapter ‘Notes on teaching film style’, contained in the equally wonderful Style and Meaning anthology, edited by John Gibbs and Douglas Pye.  I make this reading available to my students.  I particularly like Klevan’s words about why it’s valuable to have the sequence present, on the screen, in the classroom: ‘Looming and pressing in this way, the spirit of the film [or in my case the television programme] is more likely to pervade our dialogue about it, and we are more likely to find words appropriate to an assessment of it.  While in its presence we feel obliged to do it justice; if the film is absent, we will too easily betray it.’)

The reason that I like Biggs and Tang’s model is because, as the subtitle of their book suggests, they emphasise what the student does.  I used to worry about the quality of ‘performance’ I was giving in the lecture and seminar room, but now (although I still think I talk too much) I realise it’s not about what I know (although it’s important, of course, that I know stuff), but rather about cultivating the right habits and skills in as many students as possible.

Learning outcomes are king in the audit world of higher education.  I think they are less so for the student, and I am happy about that.  Nevertheless, I do think ‘showing one’s working’ to students generally yields positive results.  I remember being surprised when my wife, a primary school teacher, told me that she used the word ‘plenary’ with her pupils.  Even at that early stage, learners can be encouraged to reflect on the process of learning.  I myself remember being flush with enthusiasm for Bloom’s taxonomy after learning about it in a PGCHE class, and then using it myself in a workshop the very next day as a way of explaining grading and progression.

With the module’s learning outcomes and assessments re-emphasised as a framework for discussion, I proceeded to the next task.

3 I circulated a handout with a weekly breakdown of the module’s sessions and asked students to annotate with an upward arrow the sessions they had found particularly enjoyable or effective, and with a downward arrow the less enjoyable or effective session, giving reasons for their choices if possible.  I also asked them to indicate whether they would like to see more or less Buffy, Angel, Firefly and Dollhouse.
I cribbed this particular type of survey from one of my undergraduate module tutors.  In part, it told me which Whedonverse episodes were most well-received (‘Once More With Feeling’ was one of them – no surprise there!), but what I was really on the lookout for was whether there were any patterns relating to learning activities, because I taught the different sessions in somewhat different ways.  In short, I was on the lookout for whether students responded well, or badly, to those sessions where I’d tried to include a big chunk of information, or to those where I’d let things stay looser and more speculative (usually to foster authentic seminar discussion, rather than ‘nailing things to the ground’ as one of my friends once said in a phrase that has always stuck with me).  It would appear that variety is in fact the winning principal, as there was no correlation between popularity or unpopularity and any one type of delivery.  Connoisseurs of the Whedonverse may be interested to hear that Dollhouse was the programme that most people wanted to see more of, probably because I only showed one episode and did so late in the module.  (That said, I only showed one episode of Angel, and there was precious little appetite for more of that.)  Most people thought there were appropriate amounts of Buffy and Firefly, the programmes most thoroughly represented on the module as it stands.  So I’ll be working in more Dollhouse next year.  (To the few calls for less Buffy I reacted with mock-admonition.  Or at least, I pretended it was mock.)

4 A whole-group activity (without me).  I gave the group a sheet of A3 paper divided into three columns.  The left hand column said ‘I’d like to see less of this/I wouldn’t want this’.  The middle one: ‘I think there was the right amount of this.’  The right hand one: ‘I’d like to see (more of) this.’  I gave them cut out strips of paper describing various aspects of the learning environment (actual and potential) and asked them to stick them in the appropriate place on the sheet.  (They were also given blank strips of paper in case they wanted to add their own, which they did.)  Then I left the room for ten minutes.
When I told my wife about this she said ‘That’s such a primary school activity!’, and perhaps she’s right, but to my mind that’s a good thing, and one of the things that the students said they’d like to see more of makes me think they would think so too.

I did all of these activities twice, once through in each of my two seminars for this module, and for this task, the answers that each group came up with were close to identical.  Here are things both groups said they would like to see less of or wouldn’t want to see:

  • Individual supervisions in the place of seminars. (This arose from my thought that the timetable might benefit from being varied, but I didn’t get the enthusiasm for this suggestion that I expected.)
  • Pre-prepared presentations (individual or group, assessed or unassessed). (This didn’t surprise me.  In my experience students dislike presentations.  I am in fact introducing assessed presentations in my ‘Television, Radio and the Everyday’ module next year because I think they are valuable.  I’ve been reading some research on using wikis to encourage collaborative learning that I may try to put into practice.  This will probably be the subject of a future blog post.)
  • A larger single seminar group. (I’m glad that the small group sessions are appreciated.)

These are the things both groups said were present to an appropriate degree:

  • Sequence analysis in seminars.
  • Set reading.
  • The module tutor talking. (I always feel like I talk too much.)
  • Activities requiring us to write things. (A word of explanation: in seminars I’ve found a good way of getting students involved and getting them to commit to a position without having to go around the room and get everyone to speak is to kick off a seminar by handing out strips of paper and starting a sentence and getting everyone to finish it [eg. ‘Evaluating television is difficult because…].  I then sometimes project the writings on the screen and scrutinise them further.)
  • Assessment planning as a seminar activity. (That is, discussing potential approaches to essays.)

Both groups said they would like to see more:

  • Group discussion.
  • Students talking.
  • Students asking questions of the tutor and one another.
  • Activities designed to enact understanding (mime, gesture, etc).

On the first three: I try very hard to facilitate these things in my seminars.  When I asked the students how these things might be achieved, I think there was general acknowledgement that these things require the input of all group members.  Nevertheless, it is still my job to try to facilitate these things as much as possible.  One student came up with the excellent suggestion of setting time aside at the end of lectures for group discussion, which would start students’ thinking processes before the seminars, as well as saving a bit of time at the start of the seminar, as the discussion would have already begun.  I may well try to enact this suggestion next year.

On the last: in some seminars I introduced activities beyond talking/reading/watching as ways of getting students to think about themes and/or style.  Quite a lot of the time I encourage students to think about the meanings of actors gestures or vocal inflections by trying to replicate them, thus ‘internalising’ or ‘performing’ meaning (both the metaphors, though opposite, are correct).  When we studied the marvellous Buffy episode ‘Hush’, in which all the residents of Sunnydale lose their voices, I wrote a series of statements, instructions, and so on, on pieces of paper, and asked students to mime them to the rest of the class to see if the meanings could be conveyed.  This was partly inspired by Patrick Shade’s wonderful article on the episode, and was designed to encourage reflection on the extraordinary possibilities, as well as the limits, of language as a medium of communication.  (This idea clearly feeds into my project of encouraging students to be as sensitive as possible with their use of language on the page in their acts of critical writing.)  Once the initial feelings of shyness or silliness die down, these activities can foster deep and engaged learning, and are, I think, an entirely appropriate part of the university learning experience.

— — —

Following this group activity, I teased out some further feedback in a whole group chat, mainly focusing on the assessments (were they appropriate in number, nature and spacing?) and the timetable (would a different set-up work?).  General contentment was expressed in both these areas.  I’m glad with respect to assessment, as I too think it works well as it stands.  I think I still might try to tinker with the structure of sessions a bit though.  Creativity and the demands of central timetabling, though, are hard to marry (and this is not in any way a swipe: central timetabling is surely simultaneously one of the most thankless and heroic tasks of university administration; the complexity and number of variables are mind-boggling).

After that, all that remained was for the students to fill out the actual questionnaires!  I’ll expect the results in a few weeks.  In the meantime though, I have plenty of fascinating information to process and feed into my planning for next year.

Indeed, the process has already started.  Next year will be my fourth time teaching this module.  At last count twelve students had signed up for it (the fewest so far: last year I taught forty-six students on the module).  I hope their experience is a good one.  To conclude, here are the sessions I’m planning to offer:

Subject/Screenings

1 Exposition and pilots / ‘Echo’ (unaired Dollhouse pilot), ‘Ghost’ (Dollhouse 1:1)
2 Genre / ‘Bushwhacked’ (Firefly 1:3), ‘Welcome to the Hellmouth’ (Buffy 1:1)
3 Staging and Style / ‘Once More With Feeling’ (Buffy 6:7)
4 Point of view / ‘Enemies’ (Buffy 3:17), ‘Pangs’ (Buffy 4:8)
5 Closure / [Episode redacted as the screening will form part of the synopsis assessment]
6 Suspense and temporal ordering / ‘Ariel’ (Firefly 9), ‘Out of Gas’ (Firefly 8)
7 Authorship, influence, intertextuality / ‘Band Candy’ (Buffy 3:6), ‘Briar Rose’ (Dollhouse 1:11)
8 Multimedia storytelling / Dr Horrible’s Sing Along Blog, excerpts from Buffy season 8 and its ‘motion comic’, a comparison of the beginnings of ‘Lies My Parents Told Me’ (Buffy 7:17) and its novelisation by Nancy Holder, and perhaps of ‘Serenity’ (unaired Firefly pilot), Serenity (the movie resurrection) and their novelisation by Keith R. A. DeCandido.
9 Community and Communication / ‘Earshot’ (Buffy 3:18), ‘Hush’ (Buffy 4:10)
10 On being human / ‘A New Man’ (Buffy 4:12), ‘The Body’ (Buffy 5:16)
11 Power and authority / ‘The I in Team’ (Buffy 4:13), Firefly episode to be decided (suggestions welcome)
12 Performance and identity / ‘Who Are You’ (Buffy 4:16), Dollhouse episode to be decided (suggestions welcome)