Skills not considered at appraisal

On Saturday two friends — one of whom teaches at the University of Wolverhampton, and one of whom did an MA in Ceramics there — got married.  My partner and I were asked to ‘do the flowers’.  So we got up at 5am and went to Birmingham Wholesale Markets to get them.  I had a slight fantasy that this might be reminiscent of visiting Bangkok’s amazing markets, which I did last summer … not quite, but it was still an experience. If you are in the Birmingham region, and are in need of a lot of flowers, it’s the place to go.   Our reward for getting up at practically before dawn on a Saturday was to decide that we’d have a cooked breakfast at one of the ‘caffs’ within the Wholesale Markets complex.

  Now, this was an experience.  “Shall we have a full cooked breakfast?” we wondered, looking at the menu. One of the other guys already in there sniggered.  “You want a small breakfast,” the woman behind the counter announced.  OK then.  The breakfast itself was preceded by steaming mugs of strong tea and two doorstep slabs of hot buttered toast.  I went into raptures at the formica-topped tables, convinced that we had a kitchen table in exactly the same design when I was growing up in the 1970s.  Then the main breakfast arrived on an enormous oval plate.  Not being sure of the caff’s modus operandi we wondered whether they had put both of our breakfasts onto the one plate.  No.  The other was still to come.  So … a small breakfast consisted of 4 sausages, 3 slices of bacon, 3 fried eggs, all gently laid atop a sea of baked beans, tomatoes and mushrooms.  There seemed to be some kind of mystery surrounding what a ‘regular’ sized breakfast actually was as no one would quite tell us.  “You don’t want to know,” said the woman who served us when I asked.

We staggered out half and hour later, three stone heavier, but buoyed up for the day’s main task ahead of Extreme Flower Arranging.  We were decorating a village hall.  Partner was responsible for two enormous displays on either side of the ‘stage’ area and I set about creating lots of small displays in IKEA glasses for tables. 

Small flowersAll in all we were quite pleased with our first attempt and the flowers seemed to go down well.  Another particular pleasure of the day was that all the guests were given a small earthenware pot to drink out of, made by Al (the groom), which we were allowed to take home with us.

I’ve previously been ‘official’ poet-in-residence for the day at a friend’s wedding, and as there was a spot for ‘turns’ at one point during the evening I read an appropriate seeming poem:


What are you wedding for?
Have you been wedding long?
Make sure you wed in a clearly visible place.
I spend far too much of my life wedding for buses.
Could you go and wed on that table in the corner.
I’ve been on an NHS wedding list for over a year now.
If we wed here we’ll get a parking ticket.
I always get nervous when I’m in the wedding room before having my teeth seen to.
I’ve had enough, I’m not going to wed any longer!

Has it been worth the wed?

Published in Raw Edge (Autumn, 2002)

Online Discussion in English Studies: A Good Practice Guide

Finally, finally Online Discussion in English Studies: A Good Practice Guide to Design, Moderation and Assessment (English Subject Centre Report No. 21) is out!  It’s been a long time in the making but this Guide to using discussion forums in English Studies (and beyond) has been a collaborative venture between many colleagues, both at the University of Wolverhampton and beyond.  Its genesis is in e-learning-related projects carried out by myself, Ben Colbert and Frank Wilson at Wolverhampton, with Hilary Weeks as our research assistant between approximately 2004-06.  Out of these came an English Subject Centre project, which included a day conference, several seminars to colleagues and finally this Guide.  Wolverhampton colleagues Candi Miller and Jackie Pieterick came on board relatively late in the day to add a chapter on using discussion forums in Creative Writing, and Christina Lee (Nottingham), Matt Green (Nottingham), Stacy Gillis (Newcastle), Heather Beck (Manchester Metropolitan), and Michael Symmons Roberts (Manchester Metropolitan) all added case studies from their various different teaching contexts.  Brett Lucas, the English Subject Centre’s Learning Technologist, has been a terrific support from start to finish as well, and has put a lot of work into getting the Guide looking as good as it does.

I’m personally very proud of this work, by which I mean both my contributions to it, but also the Guide as a whole.  I’ve had reason to be reminded recently of the ways in which pedagogically-focussed work can be regarded as ‘in tension’ with subject-based research, and the genuine difficulties there can be for academics who wish to do both.  Someone somewhere sometime will try and force you to choose between them.  When I started my career as an academic I was as dismissive as some no doubt still are of pedagogical research versus the clearly ‘more important’ subject-based research.  This changed for me when I undertook a Post-Graduate Certificate in Higher Education at Wolverhampton — the kind of teaching qualification that new lecturers now have to do.  I tried the resist the cynicism I saw in some of my colleagues who were undertaking the PGCHE and genuinely welcomed the opportunity it gave me to reflect on my teaching in a focussed way, underpinned by reading and research. In the Technology-Supported Learning module I went from being the student at the back of the class with her arms folded — all body language saying “this is nothing to do with me” — to someone enthusiastic about what using discussion forums in my Victorian classes might mean.  Everything I have done with e-learning since came from this.  At no point did I stop thinking about myself as an English Lecturer (or researcher), and I remain very firmly committed to my subject as the focus for the pedagogical thinking I do, but the Good Practice Guide has broader appeal beyond the discipline of English too. There’s no doubt to me that my bits of the Guide are what I would call ‘subject-based research’ too, but whether future REF panels will agree remains to be seen.