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,, 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.