The Inevitable Fall After the Rise

Cheer up you miserable old sod
Cheer up you miserable old sod

Should have known this was coming, after last week’s wonderful feedback (and I even had some more over the weekend), this week has rather pissed on my chips a little.  So I’m finishing off the term feeling exhausted, worn out and totally depressed with the world.

And I’ve still got a long hard slog over the coming week before a couple of days off over Easter.  I’ll talk more about my woes below – those of you who enjoy a good moan will at least get a little schadenfreude out of this; so it’s not a total loss I guess.  See, I’m starting to get more cheerful already…

Blog Revamp

Yeah, I’ve been threatening this for a while – and I’m now in the process of revamping the look and feel of the blog.  As I’m using the free version of WordPress I can only really make changes to the live site, so my regular reader (I think I’ve got one of them…possibly) might be a bit surprised that the site will keep changing over the next few weeks as I tweak the colour palette etc to get it just the right shade of vermilion.  I jest…possibly.

UKSG Conference

Lots of preparation for this, this week.  Didn’t think a 15-20 minute talk would need this much work.  I’m basing my talk around a couple of previous ones, but at the same time tweaking the narrative so it tries and segues in with my co-presenter Bryony’s (aka librarygirlknitone.  Been enjoying a smashing correspondence with Bryony, which reminds me how much I enjoy collaborative work!  While our talks our separate we’re trying to give it a bit of a ethnographic theme.  As of this writing I think I’ve got the talk down, although I keep taking more and more words off the slides to make them appear less texty (my default mode, what a shocker eh) and more pictorial.  Might see if I can’t work in some more of the ideas I got from this week’s lecturing buzz lunch as well.  Although perhaps not the drum loops.  Will be spending most of Sunday travelling up to Glasgow for the conference, so am glad that next weekend is Easter and I get a few days off, I suspect I’m going to need them.

As of Friday afternoon though it’s all sorted out, I just now need to sort out my clothes and pack for the trip.  How many hats it too many though?  Also having seen the weather forecast I hope I don’t have to swim across the centre of Glasgow next week.

Buzz Lunch

Freud's theory of psychodyamics vividly brought to life in my seminar
Freud’s theory of psychodyamics vividly brought to life in my seminar

Went along to a lunchtime seminar hosted by the NTU academic staff development people on The Lecture as Performance.  Sounded interesting for raiding for ideas to improve my own teaching practice (hey, the feedback was great but I could always be better and I know it!) and also for my communications workshop for FIL later this year.  Free hot lunch too, which was great – although catering did forget the first rule of serving food: hot food: hot plates, cold food: cold plates.  So as I ate my rapidly cooling mushroom and butter bean pie (tasty) I listened to talks from a former actor turned mathematician, an avant-garde urban historian with a penchant for drum loops, a man deconstucting the speeches of Barack Obama, and a chap showing off tricks using simple PowerPoint and free apps.  Well worth the attendance I thought as it sparked some ideas in my head for future workshops and lecturing practice.  Also nice to feel (if only ever so briefly) part of the lecturing family of NTU, rather than the outside PhD student who they just chuck teaching at and forget about (can feel a bit like that at times).  Was particularly interested in the use of a phone-driven voting app for lectures- so much more effective than having to hand out those little handsets.  Wonder if it works on all systems or if you need install rights?  I shall have to have an explore of this over the next week or so, as anything that drives more student interaction in sessions can only be a good thing.

I did particularly like the little factoid about people remembering more about the questions you asked than the facts you tell them in a lecture.  Makes them engage on a more cognitive level, which perhaps explains why seminars have such a good reputation for allowing students to get to grips with aspects of their courses better.  I think I shall be looking closely at my next conference and lecture slides and trying to embrace that idea a little.  Or shall I?

Teaching – Face to Face to Facebook

International communications this week looking at Radio Free Europe and its role in the 1956 Hungarian revolt.  Slightly confused for a minute as I didn’t think I was teaching history!  But mostly this was about discussing the moral and ethical issues around the application of soft power like radio in terms of destabilising or countering effective hegemonic control of a state.  First session of this was pretty informal as I only had three students – and they had a lot of questions about the exams, so get a little sidetracked.  All the same it seemed a positive teaching engagement so I’m not going to stress about it.

Also been dealing with a whole host of questions over the last week or so from students worried about or wanting advice on their essay.  Hopefully I’ve steered them all in the right direction without giving them too much overt assistance.  Tricky line to straddle, especially doing it all online (lacking an effective on site presence is a bit of an issue being a seminar tutor, and not one that’s going to be resolved sadly).  Feedback from the students seems positive here, so am hopeful that this means I’ve averted their concerns and I’ll have a stack of top flight essays to mark next week.  Although slightly terrified at the idea of marking about 84 scripts in a short period of time.

Teaching – Media Communications

A bit of a confusion behind the scenes next week, wonder if the students were even aware of it?  Had the plan for a seminar on the power of images in hand, despite the lecture showing up as being about propaganda in the timetable.  Decided there must be a cross over…but no turns up there’d been a slight hiccup in the planning – as this was supposed to be a week for a tutorial on their PR campaigns rather than a seminar.  But as we had the material for the seminar it was decided to go ahead with that anyway.  Turned out the lecture was on the role of images in the media (including a potted history of art and image) – which was fascinating.  Great lecturer I’d not come across before with a wonderful relaxed and deeply informative style.  Just a little embarrassed that only 12 students out of almost 200 turned up for it.  I know we’re near the end of term but…wow.  I had 7 to my seminar (out of 26) so actually my %age attendance rates are a lot higher.  Not quite sure the students quite got what this week’s seminar was about mind you, but I could be wrong.  Possible they’ve done aspects of this in other modules so this might have all been pitched at too low a level for them.  Ah well.  Shame really as it’s the last time I teach this group – just seminars and assessed presentation sessions for the rest of the year now.  Going to miss them, as they’re by far my liveliest mix of students – which makes interacting and teaching them a whole lot easier.

Thesis

Supervisors seem to be on silent running since my email last week.  After a week I sent them off a gentle reminder, to hear on Friday that they’re snowed under and will get back to me after Easter.  Fair enough, but does leave me slightly in limbo.  Guess I’ll just have to finish off all my marking and conference funding applications and get bookings in place for the Vienna conference in the meantime.  And then move onto sorting out my next phase of interviews.  And catch up on my reading.  Actually, when I think about it, I suspect I’ll manage to fill all the time very, very easily.

Future Employment

I'm more Captain Slow than Clarkson, truth be told
I’m more Captain Slow than Clarkson, truth be told

Never thought I’d end up in the same position as Jeremy Clarkson this week, only you know, without the violence.  Went in to discuss my potential lecturing next year as ideally I was looking to expand my role a bit, even up to a day or two part time.  I’m acutely aware that when my studentship ends this summer I am going to be very, very broke and I can’t rely on Mrs Llama to pay for everything  – we’ve had three years of being not very well off, and this will exacerbate matters.  Turns out though dept aren’t permitted to keep me on now I’m this far through the PhD as they need me to complete on time so that that their PGR stats don’t take a hit.  (I’ll try not go off on a rant about marketised HE subsumed by aspects of neoTaylorist measure here…).  I could totally see their point from one direction, as I too would like to be able to finish this PhD before the end of time itself and move on to the next stage of my career.  But I’ve got to be honest, I wasn’t expecting this when I went in to the meeting – so I did my best not to sound like a deflating balloon throughout the rest of the discussions.

I will say they were really nice about it, and I could tell they were annoyed by the situation as well, so I’ve ever sympathy for the akward situation they’re in as well.  Especially as I can well understand it’s a position a lot of PhDs find themselves in .  On the positive side of things, and I’ve got to remember that there are a lot of positives about this whole experience, at least they told me I was an excellent teacher, which was great to hear.  Even if it isn’t going to keep the wolf from the door come September.  Did make it clear at least that I can work, as the university can’t stop me finding other employment, and will write me a stunning reference.  They just can’t provide it.

So what does this mean for me?  Well on the down side it pretty much destroys any plans I’ve got for holidays or LARPing type adventures unless I can find somewhere else to employ me in the meanwhile.  Suspect I’m a bit old for bar work.  So feeling a bit of a total failure right now, as my self-confidence has taken a right old nasty knock from all this.  Not really a rational thing, and I know I’ll cheer up in a day or too, but I might have to mooch around over the weekend doing positive things like updating my CV and scanning jobs pages.  Frankly, glad I’ve got the UKSG conference to go to next week as I need the distraction.  Debating hanging a “For Hire” sign around my neck at it or maybe just taking a batch of short CVs to hand to some people.  Not sure if I’m enough of a tart to do that, but I guess I might have to be – Mrs Llama has expensive tastes I need to cater for!

And of course I’ve still got 4 more weeks of teaching to come after Easter to look forward to, so I shall have to just enjoy every moment of what has been a great experience and opportunity for the past couple of years.  Not that many PhDs here get teaching experience, and that I have is something for which I’ll continue to be grateful.  I just know I’m really going to miss the weekly contact with…you know…people.  Working as a humanities PhD from home was ever isolating, and this was a brilliant distraction from that.  And at least now I have no excuses for not knuckling down and finishing the thesis.  If I can just get my supervisors to let me push on to the next bit!

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Into 2015

Well I managed to work another couple of days before the Christmas break but nothing too eventful occurred.  Then a nice break, only slight marred by coming down with a fluey cold that lasted pretty much the entire time (still got the remains of it).  Smashing, not quite the relaxing break I’d hoped for.  Still new year here we are and on with some more work.

  • A Long Expected Reading
    • A variety of reading this week, somewhat interrupted by my unexpected Tuesday outing.  All the same read a book on hegemony (Bocock, R., 1986. Hegemony) and another rather splendid one on the impact of digital disruption (Weller, M. 2011. The Digital Scholar) on academia.  Both were quite useful, with the latter being a lot more readable and digestible; which after all the Marxism and Foucault of late was a blessed relief!  Weller’s book also had one of my favourite phrases I’ve read of late – the creepy tree house syndrome – a phrase the author uses to describe the unwanted/undesirable invasion of academia into students’ social media spaces.  Conjurers up a beautifully disturbing (and accurate) image in my mind, and I’m in total agreement with it.
    • I also dipped my toe into the waters of a book entitled Structure and Agency in the Neoliberal University (Canaan & Shumar, 2008))- but as this isn’t 100% important to my theory chapter, I’ve pushed it to one side until I finish this chapter off.
  • The Two Seminars
    • Media Communications: Tutorial
      • Bit of a damp squib this week as it’s a 1-2-1 tutorial slot to help the students on their first bit of coursework, and despite advertising this fairly heavily no one showed up.  Spent the time reading a book and looking up hopefully for customers every few minutes.  Answered a few online queries for my students on their profile article but that was about it.  I do hope that means they’re all going great guns on it…but I could be mistaken.  Next week’s seminar is given over to tutorial time too, so here’s hoping a few of them need help!
    • Face to Face to Facebook: Public sphere
      • Pretty poor turnout post Christmas still (6/24) which is a bit depressing.  We’re on the history of the press/contribution of the free press to liberal democracy.  In a week when the events in France around Charlie Hebdo have highlighted the importance and value of free speech in an democratic world, I’d have hoped more students would have come along to discuss it.  Did get a bit of discussion going around the issues of the public sphere, Habermas and censorship…but could I get the students to work as a group?  Hopefully as we move into broadcast media for the next few weeks there’ll be a resurgence in attendance.  Honestly, I remain shocked by the poor level of attendance at seminars; as a UG myself we missed them at our peril, as they usually made far more sense than the lectures (and that’s always been my aim – to contextualise and demystify the lectures each week).  Either I have some brilliant students who will ace their coursework without me…or old faily will be coming out again when the time comes to grade their work.
  • The Breaking of the Data
    • After my tutorial slot I met up with Sharon, one of the research librarians at NTU, to talk about research data management.  This was fun, and I confess we did have a bit of gossip about other professional matters too.  However, I was mostly there to be a tame academic to talk about what kind of data I collect, how I curate/protect it, ethical issues around depositing it in any way (of which there are quite a few) and mechanical issues.  Was a mite longer than I expected to be chatting, but all the same one of the most positive experiences of the week.
  • The Road to Glyndwr
    • I can now exclusively reveal I’ve been appointed as an external examiner on a couple of degree courses.  Many months since I was first approached, but all the paperwork’s finally gone through!  I am deeply honoured and chuffed at the same time (while lightly apprehensive of what I’ve let myself in for!).  Looking forward to being involved though all the same.
  • An Unexpected Journey
    • Sadly not to Hobbiton, but rather the Leicester Royal Infirmary (LRI) with Mrs Llama.  She’d managed to bang her head (twice) on our chicken run over Christmas, and despite visiting our local surgery for advice was still feeling rather concussed and worried that she’d damaged herself more than first realised (as is often the case with cranial injuries).  So after another visit to the doctors she was sent to A&E in Leicester during what can only be described as the day of near collapse of the whole accident & emergency system across the UK.  The care she got from the doctors and nurses was first rate, sadly the waiting times and conditions were pretty awful.  While she waited, I made myself scarce and plonked myself in the Percy Gee (Leicester University’s student union) to work for the day; discovering along the way that their signage is awful and their toilets hidden away from any casual visitor*.  A long, cold but relatively productive day was had while I killed the 5hrs the Wife was in hospital.  Didn’t see anyone I knew, despite mentioning I was there a few times on social media.  Mrs Llama for the record is okay it seems, but still only recovering slowly.  We’ve bought her a new hard hat for the garden to avoid any recurrence of her injury.
  • An Unexpected Cancellation
    • I was rather looking forward to hearing my Director of Studies speak at a research seminar on Wednesday about the Crisis of Labour in Capitalism and the Commons (right up my street!), but it was cancelled on the day.  Boo, my dept doesn’t do enough of these sort of things, as I’d love to hear from all the staff about their research on a regular basis, so this was a real shame.  Hopefully they’ll reschedule it soon!

*Honestly…I never found them despite searching across 4 floors!  Ended up visiting a neighbouring building instead to relieve myself.

Demotivational Exercises

Here we go…again

  • Motivation: Really struggling at the moment with getting motivated.  As I’ve been working on the same damned thing for months on end, without any end in sight, it’s getting harder and harder each day to motivate myself to keep working.  I am still cracking the whip, but it’s not a great deal of fun doing the PhD right now.  I know I get these cycles from time to time, and it’d be nice if and when I move onto the next bit of fieldwork; but right now it feels I’m inching forward painfully slowly.  And time is just ticking away.  Glad I don’t have to finish this in three years, because there’s no way I can see that I can (unless, you know, I give up sleeping and weekends).  Really, really missing seeing other human PhD students at any point…but as that’s not going to change any time soon, guess I just have to suck it in and knuckle down to more work.  Speaking of which…
  • Supervisory meeting: Main event of the week really. Had this on Thursday – which in itself is a bit of a shock as the previous one was only a week ago.  Normally months go by between these as part of the “long lonely process of being a humanities PhD”.  Perhaps slightly less traumatic than the previous week as I already knew by this point that my long developing (I’d like to say festering) theory chapter had already largely been pulled to bits previously, and this was just the finessing.  Or further deconstruction.  Hence I came out of the meeting not feeling quite so beaten down by the experience.  Mildly terrified by the amount of rewriting I’ve got ahead of me, and annoyed that everything else is going on the back burner. Again. But on the other hand my supervisors had a useful suggestion to write a very brief statement of “theory wot I is using and why” over the next few days so we can see if we have plugged all the holes.  At least there was acknowledgement from the pair of them that this is a tough area for me (as a non-humanities UG), which was nice.  Doesn’t cut down the whale of a workload I’ve got between me and Christmas.  So back to the books and rewriting I go.  After all, writing is re-writing.
  • Media communications: Let’s lighten the mood and talk about this week’s media seminar.  The topic was the feature article, which by a coincidence is also the subject of one of the students two pieces of assessed work.  Also I am sure totally coincidentally I came closest to having a full class of students – almost too full as some of them were…a bit too chatty for their own good, which made the session more of a struggle to get the class to engage with.  As usual I think we really had about 2hrs worth of material to work through in an hour – very difficult to know if I should cut material that the lectuerer of the week has set in order to get a better class experience or not?  I do normally trim a few bits, as its rare to run under time, but this week I can easily see we could have worked through half the material in more detail and it might have been more use.  It’ll be interesting to see the pieces the students develop (they have to write a profile piece on someone – not a friend or relative – which includes an interview with them), especially the scope.  Was also amused in our brainstorming exercise that one group suggested writing a profile on me – sadly had to tell them I’m terribly dull (not to mention it probably wouldn’t be ethical since I’m marking the work).  Next session…the interview practice!
  • Face to Face: The other teaching session was…if anything…even harder to get through.  Second week of Freud, which as I remember last year was slightly akin to pulling teeth.  Students were expected to have read two brief papers beforehand…most hadn’t, but at least some of them had brought hard copies.  So the attempts at fermenting discussion mostly turned into an hour’s directed reading and brief interaction.  Not the most powerful of teaching sessions, and I’ve a sneaking memory that the following seminar might also be a paper reading exercise.  Could be wrong as some of the lecturers have altered the seminar contents this year, but it’s going to be a struggle to get the students engaged with something like that on the last teaching day of term.  Of course that makes the assumption that any students turn up!  Followed the session with the best part of an hour giving some 1-2-1 tuition to one student who feels they’re struggling a bit.  Hopefully I may have helped with some suggestions for actions to take, and perhaps calmed their fears…but who knows.  Fun fact – I’ve expected to be available to give any students some 1-2-1 time in my classes, but I don’t get paid for it.  Exploitation much?  *sigh*  Still, I’d rather help them out and not get paid, than not help them at all.
  • Reading: Most of the rest of the week was spent a little prepping for seminars but mostly reading various papers that I’ve had pending for a while.  Just general OA things, which its difficult to keep abreast of in between trying to learn more about humanities theory stuff.  But needs to be done.
  • Summer School: Heard I’d been rejected from this mid-week.  Bugger, really pissed off about it to be truthful; much as I rather suspected I wouldn’t get in.  Ah well, no summer trip to Germany for me.  Guess it’ll give me more time to work on my research, but it’s a shame I won’t be able to present the paper I wrote for it.  Wish I knew of some more things like this in the humanities that were worth attending or presenting at; as I feel I’ve a real gap in my knowledge as to how other scholars are working.  Considering this is about the second thing in over 2 years my supervisors have pointed me towards, I’m not going to hold my breath for them to spot another one!  Interested to hear one of my fellow PhDs got in; though interesting that my supervisor helped write the application (He did have the good grace to apologise for not thinking to offer to help me, hmn).
  • Interim Monitoring: Wrote my interim monitoring form, planned out the next 6 months and almost got everything signed off by my supervisors (who are largely horrified by the bureaucracy I have to wade through – though to my mind it could be a lot more heavy handed!).  Fingers crossed I can get the last form signed off next week and hand it in.