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.

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