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.

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.

Today I am a National Teaching Fellow

Rosie Miles lecturing

Action lecturing!

I’ve known for weeks, but only today, 28th July 2011, do the Higher Education Academy National Teaching Fellowships get formally announced.  I am very proud to have got one.  In one sense I sound a bit of a cliché saying that  — it’s what everyone says — but it means a good deal to me that I have been given this award.  The process of applying was one I quite enjoyed, even though it undoubtedly put me under some time pressures during the spring term in order to do so.  You effectively have to create a convincing and coherent narrative about yourself as a university teacher/lecturer.  For once — thankfully — there is no real template or proforma.  You create your own account.

By far the most meaningful part of the whole process for me was what happened when I had to solicit ‘evidence’ from colleagues and students to support my application.  The cynics amongst my readers could say that this basically means getting people to say nice things about you.  It does, but there is, of course, no guarantee they will.  I approached a number of students — mostly ex-students.  The relationship can feel a bit more complicated if you are still marking someone’s work – of course they are going to say nice things!   But the genuine enthusiasm and warmth of my students’ responses, and their absolute willingness to write supporting statements for me, was one of the highlights of my year, if not actually my entire academic career.  I recognised myself in what they said, but also saw myself through their eyes.  I printed out all their comments and will always keep them.

In addition some of my own colleagues at Wolverhampton and from English departments elsewhere also gave me supporting statements, and I am very grateful to them and also to Jane Gawthrope, Jonathan Gibson and Brett Lucas from the English Subject Centre for doing so.

I am not, as yet, entirely sure what being a National Teaching Fellow means or involves. This is probably not an existential question I am going to lose sleep over, and we get ‘briefed’ come October.  It means I can use the title, but much more significantly it says something about teaching mattering to me, and about something of my identity as an academic — in part — being a teacher.  Of that I’m proud.

Keeping it très réel en Paris…

Ms E-Mentor is currently not being very virtual, or particularly online. I’ve been doing a few of my VLE ‘demo’ visits to UK English departments, and most recently enjoyed meeting colleagues at the University of Chester. Professor Deborah Wynne, who invited me, told me she was once an undergraduate at Wolverhampton, which was nice to discover.

But Ms E-Mentor has undoubtedly been busy. Very busy. Last Friday I was part of le jury des thèses à la Sorbonne, en Paris, for a PhD candidate who had written on William Morris and the book arts and his influence into the early twentieth century on presses such as the Eragny Press of Lucien Pissarro and the Cranach Press in Germany. This involved my having to resussitate my very rusty A-Level French and I had a fortnight of quite intensive French revision.

The bonus, of course, was that I had 48 hrs à Paris. I was staying in the cinquième arrondissement, près de la Rue Mouffetard, which is fabulous: it’s a long, narrow, medieval street full of wonderful shops. I had simply forgotten how well les français ‘do food’.

Fromagerie, Rue Mouffetard

Les poissons, charcuterie, fromagerie, les légumes et les fruits — tous sont merveilleux! As I wandered along this street, several times during my stay as it took me from my hotel to the Sorbonne, I thought that some things will never ever be replaceable by the virtual.

I was so trigger happy after the viva that I decided to be a complete tourist and go all the way up La Tour Eiffel.  Par nuit. Me and a few hundred loved-up teengaers.  There’s no doubting that La Tour Eiffel is a nineteenth-century wonder of engineering and ingenuity, and as I stood underneath it I figured that it was going to have to make an entry into my introductory lecture on the Victorians to the First Years this week.

La Tour Eiffel


On the Saturday morning I also made a bit of a pilgrimage to La Tombe d’Oscar Wilde, crée par Jacob Epstein in 1912.  La Cimetière Père-Lachaise is well worth a visit.  It’s the Highgate Cemetery of Paris, where the great and the good wish to be buried, although — having never visited Highgate — I imagine it’s a bit less gloomy.  Really, it’s a kind of nineteenth and twentieth century sculptural feast of ways of remembering the dead.

I had seen a photo of Wilde’s tomb, and partly because I am just such a big fan of Wilde, and have been teaching him for several years, I knew that one day I wanted to visit.  And it’s still quite a tourist attraction.  There’s an official sign that says “Please respect the tomb of Oscar Wilde” … and then there’s the graffitti!  It’s quite simply fabulous, and it’s hard not to think that Oscar would have loved the fact that people write quotes by him on the tomb (“either this wallpaper goes or I do”) AND that it is covered in lipstick kisses.  His name had been outlined all the way round in bright red lipstick.  My French PhD student told me that one of the kisses was hers.

To my shame I did not bring green carnations, or even lilies.  I was slightly put off by the extortionate price of flowers in the flower shops en les environs de la cimetière.  But the excessive, wasteful gesture of buying expensive, over-priced flowers and leaving them to die in a day or two at Wilde’s tomb is surely what I should have done.  I’ll have to go back.

A few ‘blocks’ further on I found Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas’s grave.  No one else  interested in that at all except me on a Saturday morning, and it’s not a sculpturally showy grave, but I was quietly pleased they were buried together.

And now, back home, I’ve spent yesterday and this morning working up my ‘Introduction to the Victorian Period’ lecture.  Paris is going to get a mention…