Graduation! Graduation! Graduation!

University of Wolverhampton graduating studentsThe other thing that happened this week was graduation ceremonies.  For reasons better left unexplored I managed to end up attending completely the wrong ceremony (i.e. not the one containing English graduates), so I found myself in with all the lawyers.  Having no individual connection to any of the students at all left me free just to sit back and enjoy the proceedings in general, and in particular the honorary doctorate for Constance Briscoe, one of the UK’s very few black judges.  The brief mention of Briscoe’s difficult childhood makes her ascent to the higher echelons of a notoriously elitist profession certainly notable.  Briscoe has also courted controversy, writing two memoirs — Ugly and Beyond Ugly.  They have been regarded by some as very much feeding the frenzy for ‘misery memoirs’, but had I been one of the legal students graduating last Wednesday, I would have found her presence at my graduation ceremony inspiring.

Wolverhampton-born Kevin Rowland, front-man of Dexy’s Midnight Runners, was due to be the honorary award at the ceremony I managed to miss.  Unfortunately he was apparently ill and therefore wasn’t there.  I had high hopes of a headline such as “Spontaneous 80s Dungaree Disco Breaks Out at Local Graduation” in the Express and Star…  This may now have to wait until next year.  Previous honorary degrees I recall include actress and author Meera Syal, and there is also very funny two-part clip of Frank Skinner receiving his award on Youtube.

To be honest I can’t remember any of my lecturers being at my various degree ceremonies.  Some of them possibly were there for my BA English at Birmingham, but I certainly don’t recall anyone being at my MA or PhD ceremonies.  It is, to perpetuate a cliché, a day for the students and their supporters, but in my experience at Wolverhampton it is also true that academic staff do take pride and pleasure in seeing students they have worked with and seen develop over three years getting their degrees. So I’m sorry I missed the ceremony I was meant to be at, but I still enjoyed the general ambience of happiness and celebration that was around all week.  It is — and always will be — an achievement to gain a degree.

Teaching with Facebook??

I attended a session at Wolverhampton this last week on ‘Teaching with Facebook’ run by Jon Bernardes, the Technology-Supported Learning Coordinator in my School, and Emma Purnell, Blended Learning Advisor.  Jon had attempted to run one of his Sociology modules last term using Facebook (not our VLE) as the online platform where students would engage in discussion.  Whilst this was an interesting session, and I was curious as to how, precisely, FB could be used as a platform to teach in, I kept hearing them say that they were trying to replicate the kind of conditions that are automatically set up in a VLE in Facebook.  In a VLE a ‘safe’, ‘closed’ space is set up for any given module cohort.  Both tutor and students on a module know that this is a space for their module community.  The closed nature of the online space is important if significant work is going to be undertaken in the online space (particularly if it is going to be assessed, perhaps).  Neither tutor or students want other people ‘wandering in’ to a class cohort from outside.  To replicate this a certain number of manoeuvres had had to be made in FB — including starting an entirely new FB group, asking all students to set up an entirely new email account and then getting them to use that email address to create a new FB persona, which was to be used solely for this group.  What the tutors were trying to avoid was precisely having anyone and everyone’s FB friends joining in and also seeing the personal/social stuff of the involved students that will be running on their usual FB pages.

Whilst it appeared that the students had responded quite well, and arguments were also made about students already being familiar with FB as a technology whereas they had to ‘learn’ how to manoeuvre around the VLE (not, in my experience, something students find difficult if given clear instructions) I’m not persuaded for my own purposes to give this a go.  My colleague Aidan Byrne also raised the rightful concern that people are increasingly having with FB as to the way it is creaming off information about you, based on all sorts of things you might say about yourself, and using them for advertising purposes (i.e adverts will target you on FB based on the information you put on it).  Do we want our students to be working in such a space?  We are all so bombarded with consumer information so much of the time (and increasingly so online) that it’s actually a breath of fresh air to be able to go into a VLE discussion space and know it is solely a place for focussed learning free from market demands.

I’m not entirely anti-FB — I have a FB account myself — but there are all sorts of reasons why I think trying to teach with it is a bit of a minefield.  Here’s just one recent article in the New York Times raising concerns about just what info FB is taking about you (based on image recognition).  A university education (to me) should be about critiquing and exposing such covert use of personal information within our culture, not just buying into it without being fully aware of what we are doing.

We Love Gladstone’s Library (Part Three)

I’m here again.  In fact I’m soon going home, having been here all week.  Since I was last here, a few weeks ago, several things have happened.  The first is the installation in the chapel of textile artist Wendy Rudd’s Windsails.  These are very lovely and totally transform the space.  I think they will be there until sometime in October.

The second, slightly more traumatic happening, is the loss of Sweet Memories of Hawarden from the High Street.  Over the summer I’ve been getting by on weekly fixes of spearmint pips, blackcurrant bonbons and chewing nuts from this wonderfully old-fashioned little sweetshop, which is a veritable treasure trove of tempting things that are bad for your teeth and waistline.  But I ventured out this week in search of 100g of something to rustle in a small white paper bag, and it had gone.  Not far, it must be admitted (to an outlet in the local Garden Centre complex), but lost to the High Street.Sweet Memories of Hawarden  I had to make do with a bag of toffees from the Post Office, but it wasn’t the same.

Thirdly, the Scrabble Cushions (distinct objects of desire) that make up the name of the ‘Food for Thought’ daytime café are starting to be interfered with.  Earlier this week they turned into ‘Doff Rough Tooth’.  I spent an hour when I should have been giving yet more attention to Elizabeth Barrett Browning working out quite a few more anagrams.  Currently displayed is ‘God Of Hoof Truth’.

Last time I was here I actually ordered and had delivered a new digital camera (not having one of my own) precisely because I wanted to be able to take some photos both of Gladstone’s Library, and of the stunning Edward Burne-Jones stained glass in St. Deiniol’s Church next door.  The Nativity window, apparently EBJ’s last work before he died, is wonderful.  The church needs to have some good-quality photos taken of the windows, I think, as they would make terrific cards that visitors would want to buy.  I’m rather pleased with my photos here:

Detail of EBJ Nativity WindowEBJ Nativity WindowThree Kings EBJ Nativity Window


We Love Gladstone’s Library (Part Two)

I have been back at St. Deiniol’s all week.  I’ve been tired.  On Sunday morning a very nice woman I was sitting with at breakfast suggested I perhaps needed “some nourishment” and as Sunday was gorgeous weather I thus headed off further into Wales to find a point on my road atlas where the A road intersected with Offa’s Dyke Path.  I first got waylaid by Ruthin Craft Centre (lovely shop full of beautifully crafted things) and eventually found the path onto the Clwydian Hills.  It was just what I needed and the views were stunning.

Back in the Library, Elizabeth Barrett Browning and I have been making slow progress.  Today I ditched my Netbook completely and took to writing longhand.  I haven’t done that for years … and I actually wrote lots.  There’s some kind of moral/lesson in there to someone who is writing a blog on e-learning.  I do frequently find myself knowing that just because the technology exists, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the job is going to get done any more effectively/quicker.  Having said that, I’ve also bought myself a nifty digital camera and this evening I’ve been trying out a few photos.

Sophia and slate benches

Sophia and slate benches

To the right is a modern statue of Sophia (wisdom) set amidst four beautiful slate stone benches.  This is the view out the back of Gladstone’s Library complex.  For my tastes the statue is too representational in a way that doesn’t quite work in the twenty-first century and the benches, with their rough hewn edges and carved words in English and Welsh at either end – Love, Truth, Justice and Peace - somehow work much better.  Having said that I’m quite glad Sophia is there, emerging from the Tree of Knowledge as she is and looking towards the Library, although why she needs to be semi naked to do this is a little bit beyond me…

At any given time there will be an interesting range of people here at the Library.  Due to its history as a theological training college it is a popular stopping/resting point for clergy, and people seem to travel from far afield to be here. Every week I’ve been staying there has been at least one person from the USA.  I’ve met a few academics, various retired people looking for a bit of space to work on writing projects, and generally a pleasant and interesting variety of folk.

It’s the kind of place that is just somehow … conducive.  Conducive to what depends on why you are here.  Watching over it all is a statue of William Gladstone himself (apparently intended for Dublin, but by the time the statue was finished the political situation meant it was no longer welcome).  Probably the largest collection in the world of Gladstone-related images and memorabilia adorn the public ground floor corridors, and of course Gladstone’s own collection of books is dispersed amongst twentieth- and twenty-first-century additions, sometimes containing his annotations.