What’s going down in Bram’s Bites (1)

It’s the Fin de Siècle.  I’m now into a new and unwanted regime whereby I only get to teach this module every other year, and therefore this module’s assessment pattern has had to dovetail with that of its sister module which focusses on the high Victorian period. Practically what this means is that the module is now running with more online sessions than when I previously blogged about it, and thus Ms E-Mentor has been making some new ones up.

For anyone new to this blog a brief outline of how I integrate online sessions with face-to-face teaching is as follows: across a teaching term of 12 classes there are 7 online sessions, assessed to the tune of 40% of the overall marks on the course (the other 60% is a research essay).  From the outset of the course the students are clear where the online sessions dovetail with the classes as listed on the module guide.  Online sessions continue and develop themes and issues that we have started exploring in the face-to-face classroom.  This is a third year undergraduate course, and by this stage English students at Wolverhampton are familiar with using VLE discussion forums.  They will have done so at least once, in the first year, but quite possibly more than once, in the second year as well.

I refer to the online sessions on this module under the acronym of FOE (the Fin de Siècle Online Experience).  Our first FOE Session A is thus in Week 2, when we discuss Oscar Wilde and decadence.  I’ve blogged about what we do in this session before so I don’t intend to repeat the description in full.  What I noted this time round was that it took the students quite a while to get posting, to the extent that I sent round a couple of emails — on the Monday after the Friday class, and again on the Wednesday — encouraging them to take part.  As the online sessions last a week (i.e. students have a week to post in the discussion forum, starting from the day of our class) several left it pretty late in the day to start joining in.  Why was this?  I don’t entirely know, although I was also able to see behind the scenes of the VLE that quite a few students were returning to the forum several times before they actually posted anything.  So perhaps there was an element of ‘first session’ syndrome, with students wary or unsure of being the first to post without seeing what their classmates were doing.

Celebrating Peter Preston, a committed adult educator.

The week before last I attended a memorial celebration for Peter Preston, who died on 18 October 2011 after a brave battle with cancer.  I mostly knew Peter from connections with the William Morris Society, where he was Chair and Vice-Chair, and he was a convivial, jovial, kind-hearted and fun-loving man.  Attending the very-well-attended memorial gathering for him, at Trent Bridge Cricket Ground, Nottingham, gave everyone present the chance to find out about his many enthusiasms and commitments.  As well as being a long-standing supporter of Morris he was also highly knowledgeable about D. H. Lawrence, and he became Director of the D. H. Lawrence Research Centre.

Peter Preston
Peter Preston in 2010

What I was most struck by during the afternoon was two things.  First, Peter was a voracious reader.  He simply loved books, and particularly the Victorians.  Poems by Thomas Hardy and Christina Rossetti were read, as well as extracts from Dickens’ Great Expectations, and Morris’s A Dream of John Ball.  I’ve never attended a service of remembrance before where literary texts had been chosen with such care and read to such effect.  Second, Peter’s love of books was also related to the other defining aspect of his career — his many years as an adult educator in differing contexts.  He started out as a WEA Tutor Organiser for Berks, Bucks & Oxford, and then became Warden of Lincoln Adult Education Centre.  Moving to Nottingham he became S/L in Literature in the University of Nottingham’s Adult/Continuing Education Department, and in due course would end up as Head of School/Director of Continuing Education.  Peter’s commitment to educating adults shone through the various accounts given of him, and I found myself reflecting that he represented an era and a kind of Lecturer/teacher who increasingly no longer exists, as many universities (including both Nottingham and Birmingham as two where I have studied) have shut down the thriving continuing education programmes they once ran.

Maybe these Continuing Education departments/programmes didn’t make enough money — after all, there are outlay costs of staffing, admin and rooming involved to host such a programme.  But I also rather suspect that their decline mirrored an era in which the pursuit of Research ratings became the most important goal for many an institution.  If that’s the over-riding priority, a commitment to programmes that offer a quality educational experience for the general public will not be high at all.

The Worker’s Educational Association still exists, of course, as does the Working Men’s College founded by F. D. Maurice in 1854, and I hope they continue to thrive.  Peter’s commitment to adult education and lifelong learning, both outside and within the university system, was clearly an inspiration to many, and that was reflected in the number of former students who attended his memorial celebration.  He will be much missed.