we are here (even when we’re not)

Last month I spoke at GENOVATE’s international conference on diversity within research and universities. I am not thrilled about the term “diversity” and find a lot of the discourse around it really problematic, but I do think it’s important to talk about the phenomenon it describes. It’s what happens when reading lists are full of dead white men and the images on the slides never show people like you. It’s what happens when you’re never taught by someone who looks a little like you, when your mentors don’t experience the things that you do and cannot advise you on dealing with it, when you look at the entity that is the university and cannot see yourself reflected back. From my own experiences and from what others have discussed with me, there’s a lurch as you realise that you’re less welcome in this space that you thought you were, or that your fears are confirmed and that this place isn’t meant for people like you.

I drew on Nathaniel Adam Tobias C—‘s “Diversity is a dirty word” to trouble and reject easy ideas about diversity. C— argues that there are four key strands to challenge in diversity: the “what”, the “how”, the “who” and the “where”.

  • The “what” is the Syllabus: the choice of topics, resources, examples or case studies
  • The “how” is the Process: the teaching methods and learning activities
  • The “who” are the Participants: the students, the tutors, and the epistemic authorities on the programme
  • The “where” is the Environment: the rooms and buildings, the signs and statues, and the local area, taking into consideration the accessibility of these spaces, both physically and socially

After my talk, someone asked me a question focusing on the “who”: what if you’re teaching, but your students don’t seem to be “diverse” (meaning, I would argue, that they do not appear to deviate from the straight, white, cis, able-bodied student that we might imagine. The word “appear” is important). I said then that I would teach as if such diverse students were in the room: after all, we cannot assume that they’re not. Here is why.

Students are not obliged to out themselves

Not all identities or experiences are immediately visible. I might be able to guess at some of my students’ LGBTQ, disabled, ethnic or religious identities if my students make them visible. Sometimes, these things are made visible to me by and through university systems; namely, information about disability that affects how a student learns and is assessed. Sometimes, my students have revealed things to me: their mental health issues, a physical disability that is not apparent to an onlooker, their gender identity, their sexual assault. I have then tried to be extra careful about how I talk about these things, extra aware of how the class discussion moves and where it goes.

However, I have certainly taught students who didn’t feel the need to tell me. Given that the NUS has identified that 37% of female students have experienced unwanted sexual advances and the gender makeup of the courses I teach, I am confident that I’m teaching a few women who have had such experiences. They shouldn’t have to explicitly tell me so. Their presence in the room, and my sensitivity to these unspoken experiences should not be contingent in knowing that such students are here.

It sounds obvious, but students should never have to out themselves to be taught in a non-hurtful way. I have heard enough horror stories about lecturers making crass jokes about mental health, disability, sexual assault, gender and sexuality that have had to be confronted by a student saying “look, I’m ____ and that’s really inappropriate” – an especially fraught interaction. I’ve had to challenge a colleague who would always joke before IELTS tests: “fill in the box for male or female – it’s the easiest question you’ll face today!”; for some people (including me), that’s not an easy question.

However, the onus shouldn’t be on students to reveal something that they may consider personal and private in order to challenge us. The onus should be on us to make sure that we aren’t excluding some of our students.

Students are not isolated

Students have families, friends, colleagues, communities. I cannot know whether one of my students’ parents uses a wheelchair, whether one of my students’ brother is gay and their parents have been unsupportive, whether one of my students’ housemates recently came out as transgender, whether one of my students’ step-family is Black, whether one of my students’ friends has autism.

Our students do not shed their relationships at the lecture hall’s door. We never, ever teach people as isolated individuals, plucked out of their community. Our students bring with them their loyalty and their friendships, their sometimes desperate concern and their love with them. I think it’s important to recognise that. For example, teaching that is aware of LGBTQ issues and acknowledges heteronormativity in teaching materials can signal to the student with a queer or trans sibling that this space is an expansive, welcoming one. I would rather create spaces that create room than spaces that exclude.

Students have emerging identities

Inclusive teaching means that there’s space for students to change. I wasn’t even a baby gay when I went to university; I was tentatively working out what “bisexual” meant and whether I was one but I was a very uncertain young queer. Turns out that Catholic schools really don’t give you a lot of help if you aren’t totally heteronormative! I ended up discovering things like non-binary identities and queerness and gender performance and gender fluidity from linguistics. I can point to the exact book in which I first found it, and it was a sort of star to steer by.

I try to remember that sometimes, I’m teaching my students’ future selves. Perhaps my class is filled with the opposite of ghosts, shifting glimmers of lives that could be lived. I’m lucky enough to teach in areas that often explicitly involve identity, and I often wonder what seeds I nourish and what lives my students might be leading in ten or twenty or forty years time.

Some of my students may not be queer or trans or disabled now – but who knows what will happen in the future? I would not want to be the lecturer who contributes to these students’ anticipation of hostility. Instead, I imagine spaces without fear; spaces in which students with diverse backgrounds and experiences are not continuously preparing to flinch; spaces that speak to the uncertain and scared and oppressed.

Ultimately, I am interested in creating and expanding spaces. I don’t shy away from tough issues – my research has examined police brutality, nuclear weapons and violent transphobia – and I expect my students to be able to engage with difficult issues too. I just don’t see the point of shutting out students with diverse backgrounds and experiences, and instead aim to create spaces where these students can fully contribute.

Stylistics and grief

[content note: death, especially of loved ones. Descriptions of guts, blood and assorted viscera)

Last term I was teaching a literary linguistics module. Literary linguistics, or Stylistics, basically uses concepts and frameworks drawn from linguistics – so stuff about everything from phonology (sounds) to grammar to lexicology to pragmatics – to make sense of (usually, but not always) literary texts. I went to the Dark Side of linguistics pretty early in my undergraduate career because I adored nerding out over language being used to do stuff and create relationships and manipulate people and summon ideas into being. However, I’ve been an avid reader since I was a small child – I once fell down an entire flight of stairs in an ill-fated attempt to combine reading and walking, and was more cross at losing my place than worried about the potential for injury – and it’s rare that I don’t have at least one book on the go. Stylistics is appealing because it’s very text and evidence based, and ultimately I was on the Dark Side of empiricism before I even got to university.

Teaching Stylistics was also a superb opportunity to immerse myself in something new. Both my PhD supervisor and partner work with corpus approaches to literary texts so I’ve come across a lot of it by osmosis even if I don’t research it myself. It was also a joy to learn alongside my very engaged and interested students. One session introduced students to cloze procedure texts which are basically a way of testing people’s mental associations of words – their internal sense of what words go with which. We might consider these their lexical primings or their internal sense of collocations, and for that reason I like contrasting this approach with corpus linguistics.

One of the poems we used was an extract of W H Auden’s ‘In Memory of W. B. Yeats’ with the following gaps:

He ________ in the dead of winter:
The brooks were frozen, the ________ almost deserted.
And snow _________ the public statues;
The _______ sank in the mouth of the dying day.
What _______ we have agree
The day of his death was a dark cold day.

Far from his illness
The _______ ran on through evergreen forests,
The peasant river was untempted by the ________quays;
By mourning tongues
The _______ of the poet was kept from his poems.

But for him it was his last afternoon as himself,
An afternoon of nurses and ________;
The provinces of his mind revolted,
The ______ of his mind were empty,
Silence invaded the _______,
The current of his feeling failed; he _______ his admirers.

Now he is _______ among a hundred cities
And wholly given over to unfamiliar affections,
To find his happiness in another kind of _______
And be punished under a foreign code of ________.
The words of a dead man
Are modified in the _____ of the living

This was a multiple choice cloze procedure text so they had four word options for each slot, they spent some time choosing which word they thought fit best into the gaps, then I showed them the whole poem and we discussed it.

Their choices included things like “An afternoon of nurses and doctors“, “a foreign code of conduct” and “The words of a dead man/ Are modified in the souls of the living”. They were quite surprised when I showed them the actual poem and the weird, unexpected things it does with words.

The Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) suggests that nurses and should occur with words like doctors, physicians, midwives, patients, orderlies, pharmacists and therapists – people working in medicine or who we may expect to see in a hospital or GP surgery. There are also a few occurrences of other professions, such as teachers and engineers. My students clearly had an internal sense of this collocation and their choice reflected their expectations. However, the poem doesn’t give us what we expect. “An afternoon of nurses and rumours” juxtaposes the concrete noun “nurses” with the abstract noun “rumours”. Reading it is a bit of a jolt, a bit of wrongness.

Again, the “guts of the living” doesn’t give us what we’d expect. The poem is contemplating the afterlife of the poet and where his words live on. We would probably expect this gap to say something about existence beyond the body; perhaps, as my students predicted, “The words of a dead man/ Are modified in the souls of the living”. We expect the missing word to reflect the language of something metaphysical and elevated. Instead, the poem gives us this very earthy noun guts, derived from the Anglo-Saxon guttas.

Gut can be used both metaphorically and literally. Its metaphorical uses describe emotions, particularly bravery and intuition: “they had the guts to put up a sign”, “We just followed our guts” or “he had the nerve and guts and discipline”. When it’s used literally, it’s used to describe a really immediate physicality of intestines and viscera: “The fly and the smell of guts and urine made me want to puke”, “Its guts had been pulled out and strewn across the dirt, no longer wet and glistening”, “these bacteria thrive (or don’t) in our guts” (again, all examples are taken from the Corpus of Contemporary American English). The rest of the poem doesn’t really talk about the actual process of death but instead slightly dodges it; it’s in this line that we are confronted with bodies and physicality and vulnerability.

I think there’s a tension in this poem between our expectations of what to think and feel and say in the event of death, and the sense of bewilderment and confusion and being wrong-footed. We know what we ought to be able to expect: nurses and doctors, codes of conduct, souls. We may try to find solace in that ritual. And yet we feel loss and lost: the rules and knowledge we could predict are no longer there. Someone dear to us is no longer there. The words we expect to come do not come, and something strange and unfamiliar and disconcerting are in their place.

haunting texts

Winchester cathedral graffiti from 1632

Graffiti from 1632 carved into a pillar of Winchester cathedral

Last semester I was teaching a History of English module. With little in the way of previous teaching materials, I had considerable scope to develop my own – and woah, did I have fun with that.

I grew up in a medieval city, its Anglo-Saxon quarters still somewhat in evidence and traces of its inhabitants and their trades and their prejudices echoed still in the street names. The city itself is a palimpsest, post-war layered on Victorian layered on Georgian layered on Tudor layered on medieval layered on Anglo-Saxon and, crouching in alcoves, the city’s old Roman walls. It’s impossible to live there and not let that somehow soak into your bones, just a quiet awareness that your life is one breath against the city’s dreaming stones.

And yet, all of this history is just part of your life. When you grow up playing on castle ruins (destroyed in the English Civil War and never rebuilt) and running around a medieval great hall and there are Roman coins on a table in your primary school because they were dug up in someone’s dad’s field, and you spend your teenage years perched on tombs and ruining tourists’ photos by sprawling messily on the market cross, it’s impossible to be too reverent about the history that surrounds you. As a child, I was enchanted by illuminated manuscripts – and also by the graffiti carved into the cathedral stones. History is real people, real lives – not just stuff to distantly admire.

I hope that this came across in my teaching as I offered them historical context along with linguistics, information about Anglo-Saxon farming methods taught alongside the case system. I wanted them to understand where these texts came from – the fact that manuscripts were heavily used, the physicality of operating a heavy printing press.

Freshly printed Caxton

Freshly printed Caxton

Happily, the university has a massive school of art and one of their specialities is various forms of printing, so off we went to operate a letterpress. Our guide to the process, Naomi Midgley, showed us around the typecase, how to set up a composing stick and had prepared a forme of a text for us to print. Because I couldn’t resist trolling my students a little bit, I chose a extract of Caxton. Then we got to place the forme in the press, ink it, carefully place a sheet of paper over it, place the tympan and frisket over it, roll the coffin into place, pull the bar towards us to lower the platen then push it to raise it, then roll the coffin back out, lift the tympan and frisket and finally lift the sheet of paper to view the new print. It was an important insight into the physical nature of producing a print and what can go wrong as our inexpert hands applied too much ink, not enough ink, applied too much pressre from the platen, not enough pressure, nudged the paper as we lifted it off and smudged the wet ink. It was one thing to read about the process of producing a printed text; quite another to actually do the labour myself. If I could, I would love to apprentice myself to a printer, to learn how to reach into the the typecase without having to look, to assemble formes, to allow the process of operating a press mark my body with ink and callouses and changed musculature.

As a corpus linguist, one of the things I struggle with is the way that materiality is both present and absent in the texts I use. I use large collections of machine-readable texts, stored on my computer or a server and manipulated using a computer program. I don’t go into archives, rarely physically come into contact with my texts. However, they are scanned using Optical Character Recognition and through this, the early twentieth century newspaper texts I use with constantly remind me of their physicality.

Newspaper text (left) and the OCRed version (right)

Newspaper text (left) and the OCRed version (right)

In these texts, flecks of dirt or ink, smudges, imperfections in the paper and so on are interpreted as salient by the OCR program: spots of dirt or ink become full stops or commas or dashes or part of a colon or semi-colon, flecks of ink mean that o acquires a tail and becomes a p or q or b or d, smudges turn a c into an o or an e and so on. In corpus linguistics the text is both isolated from the way it was physically produced, yet the method of production haunts the text, is a ghost (or perhaps a poltergeist) in my analysis. I often had to return to images of the newspaper text to interpret my concordance lines or manually correct texts for detailed analysis.

I don’t have an easy answer or, indeed, a conclusion. Perhaps all I can do is suggest what I had to do so many times when the smudges and blobs became too much: return to the text with human senses.

why I won’t tweet my students’ exam howlers

Another summer marking season, another article in Times Higher Education soliciting student “exam howlers”. This is predictable and wearying and I can’t help but feel that we keep having this exact same conversation about why it’s bad to publicly mock and shame our students. Kirsty Rolfe wrote about talking teaching and making mistakes and I wrote about being someone’s worst student a couple of years ago, but apparently it bears repeating.

There was one respect alone in which Philip was recognized as a man of distinction, though only within the confines of his own Department. He was a superlative examiner of undergraduates: scrupulous, painstaking, stern yet just. No one could award a delicate mark like B+/B+?+ with such confident aim, or justify it with such cogency and conviction.

David Lodge, Changing Places: a tale of two campuses

Like Philip, I try to mark carefully and, being a perfectionist, probably spend far too much time thinking about whether a piece of work should be awarded a 62 or a 64 (let alone a 68 or a 70). Marking can be a joyless task but there’s only one paper that I’ve genuinely been annoyed at marking – one in which the student, in some kind of act of teenage bravado-slash-poor judgement, declared that he wrote the whole thing while hungover and didn’t care. After a week of solid marking, I have to confess that I, in turn, found it difficult to care about this student’s work. But that was a very rare case.

Most of the “exam howlers” seem to be inexpert attempts to apply frameworks and terminology, and while frustrating to see, it’s not something I think should be publicly mocked. I don’t think I have it in me to fault someone for trying – I try to only get irritated when someone truly doesn’t try. And it’s not like the people marking student work have never dropped a stinker themselves. I’ve really liked the #myownexamhowlers hashtag on twitter (storify here).

I don’t remember any specific exam howlers I made – I think I’ve blanked out the entire experience of exams with some degree of success – but a tutor did note that an essay took “a curiously scattergun approach”. I consistently left sweary, abusive messages (e.g. [LOOK UP THE FUCKING DEFINITION YOU FUCKING IDIOT]) to myself in draft chapters I sent to my supervisor (pro tip: use unusual punctuation marks around these to make it easier to use ctrl+f to locate and delete them later). Finally, when I was printing my ~350 page thesis, I dropped the entire thing, hurriedly tried to shove the papers in the right order, failed miserably, and duly presented one of my examiners with a thesis containing a wodge of pages in the wrong order. A true case of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory!

Talking about our own exam (and otherwise) howlers opens up a far more interesting conversation. I don’t want to be an unassailable figure of perfection for my students, doing something they can never hope to aspire to. Instead I want to say that I, too, find some things difficult, have fumbled around trying to use the right terminology, have clumsily applied a framework or model, have missed something glaringly obvious. These days I have the luxury of sending my work to knowledgeable colleagues and friends, and my work will be peer-reviewed before publication. Students, especially those working under closed book exam conditions, don’t have that option.

So let’s think a bit more kindly of our students. How many of us working under those conditions, grappling with complex, unfamiliar terminology and ideas that we’d perhaps encountered for the first time only weeks ago, panicky and underslept and stressed, would turn out polished, publishable work? We’ve had years – decades – to hone our academic thinking and writing. They haven’t. If we can’t be kinder, let us at least be more discreet in our unkindness.

Getting the most out of CorpusMOOC

The second run of Corpus Linguistics: Method, Analysis, Interpretation started a fortnight ago. It’s an eight week massive open online course. The course description says it offers “a practical introduction to the methodology of corpus linguistics for researchers in social sciences and humanities”, but in reality, people on the course come from a huge range of backgrounds – undergraduate students, retired people, teachers, researchers, translators and those who simply are interested in language and want to learn more about it.

I was a course mentor last time, so put together some tips to help you get the most out of the course.

Work at your own pace
The course is developed so there’s something for everyone. There are core readings and exercises each week suitable for beginners; there are also supplementary materials for those who already have some experience with corpus linguistics. I particularly like the “in conversation” videos with leading figures in corpus linguistics – it can be really helpful to see how people actually use corpus linguistics in their research, especially in the first weeks of the course. The course is carefully designed to build on previous weeks and to allow you to progress at your own rate. Lecture videos and transcripts are both downloadable so can be listened to or read at any time – there seems to be an unofficial competition to see who can listen to the lectures in the most unusual place!

There’s a lot of material and it can be daunting, but don’t be put off. You may want to do the core exercises for the first month or so, then return to the optional material from earlier weeks as you gain confidence and experience.

While the course lasts for eight weeks, the course mentors will be around for an additional two weeks to advise and answer questions so there’s no need to worry if you do get a bit behind.

Refer back to previous material
If there’s a section you find particularly helpful, download the video, slides or transcript (or all three!) so you can refer back to it later. It’s always annoying to go “oooh, I found a nice explanation for that” and then never find it again. Which leads to…

Take notes
It’s useful to keep your own notes for the course, whether they are handwritten in a notebook, in a document on your computer or online in a blog. There are pro and cons to each – I personally like handwriting notes as I find it sticks better, but typing notes is often more convenient and it’s (usually!) harder to lose your notes. As budding corpus linguists, keeping your notes in machine readable format also means you are creating something that can be analysed with corpus tools later on.

The Course Reader collects blog posts and tweets from registered users. You can make an account if you want to be able to post your own material to the Course Reader, or just visit the site to see what others have written. The #CorpusMOOC twitter hashtag is often a source of lively debate.

Ask for help
There are a dedicated team of mentors available to answer your questions. We’re all either studying for, or have recently finished, postgraduate degrees in linguistics and use corpus linguistics in our research. We want to make sure that you have a good experience and take something away from the course, so do ask us questions! We’ll be reading and commenting on posts, focusing on that week’s but also looking at previous and upcoming weeks when we have the chance.

Your fellow learners are also a valuable resource and can help you. There are students from a wide range of backgrounds, some of which prove very useful on the MOOC! If you have a problem, it’s worth scrolling down the comment section to see if anyone has had a similar issue and resolved it or got a response. In addition, the course contributors are often present in the weeks that their research is discussed to answer questions and offer insights into their work.

The FutureLearn interface
Each topic has a discussion section where you can leave comments – these work like a classroom and are the spaces the course mentors and contributors monitor. They’re often very active and it can be hard to keep track of current comments and replies to your comments. There’s a handy way to do this…

corpusMOOC-screenshot1
First, find the yellow and pink box at the top-left of your screen – I’ve circled it in the screenshot above.

corpusMOOC-screenshot2
This opens a grey sidebar with options to view Activity (the most recent posts), Replies (replies to your posts), To do (the main screen) and a way to check your progress. You need to have clicked “Mark as complete” on the sections you’ve completed otherwise it won’t know what you’ve done.

Finally, have fun! It’s a free course taught by some great academics, it showcases cutting edge research and offers a solid foundation (and more) in corpus linguistics. Whether this course is something that will help your future research or is something you’re doing for fun and to keep your mind sharp, I hope you get something out of it. Ultimately we all signed up because we’re interested in language, we’re curious and we want to learn new things – if this MOOC can fuel that, I think that’s a great outcome.

Content, choice and consent

This is a post about trigger or content warnings. The specific content I will be discussing is sexual assault, but there will be brief mentions of police violence, forced feeding, transphobia and death (cancer and suicide). I am lucky in that I don’t experience PTSD; I’m therefore writing with that perspective (and privilege). However, there have been times in my life when I’ve benefited from content warnings and there are still things I treat with caution. I prefer the phrase “content warning” because triggers vary so widely and encompass so many things – as well as words, they can include objects, scents and music and people with similar experiences may have different triggers. “Content warning” avoids some of those issues.

This post is prompted by an event, Transpose: Tate Edition. Transpose is a semi-regular LGBTQ event organised by CN Lester showcasing writers, artists, musicians, photographers and performers from within the LGBTQ – but especially the trans – community. Because it gives lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and queer artists and performers a space, Transpose often explores difficult things: our bodies, our families and relationships, the violence meted out to gender non-conforming bodies. I should mention here that I’ve performed at the London Pride and Halloween Editions

You can read DIVA’s review of Sunday’s performance, All About Trans’ review of the evening, an extract of CN’s longer meditation on gender, bodily experience and art and Fox’s notes on his performance.

Self-Portrait 1927 by Christian Schad. Image from Tate Modern

Self-Portrait 1927 by Christian Schad. Image from Tate Modern

The piece that prompted these thoughts was Juliet Jacques’ exploration of the painting on the right, the trans woman who modelled for it and the emotional, physical and sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of the artist. Jacques skilfully wove a tale constructed of institutional records, historical events and diary entries to give an astonishingly detailed insight into Heike’s world: her affiliation with Magnus Hirschfeld’s Institut für Sexualwissenschaft, the experimental surgery being explored, the world of cabarets and the loose community of bohemians that flourished in Weimar Berlin between the wars. Jacques’ piece was vivid and harrowing – the artist’s treatment of her was brutal in a way that resonated with the experiences of many trans women, and a number of people had to leave the room. I didn’t leave but I was tense – braced for the worst, braced for the way that so many trans women’s stories end. I was transfixed, at once acutely uncomfortable and compelled. Part of the reason I stayed was because I felt it was important to hear and bear witness to this forgotten woman’s life; that the least I could do to honour her was to listen.

At the end Jacques described the destruction of Hirschfeld’s Institut für Sexualwissenschaft: its libraries were burned and the women and staff attached to it had disappeared – either in hiding, trying to escape the country or dead. The bohemians of Berlin were scattered. Heike was never heard of after the attack on the Institut on 6 May 1933. Jacques paused, allowing us to think about that. Then she announced that Heike’s story – Heike’s life – had been a work of fiction.

It was an astonishing double-punch. As a writer and an academic I was incredibly impressed with Jacques’ work and how she wove the real and the fictional together. A huge amount of careful, detailed research had gone into the creation of this piece encompassing history, politics and art history. It explored bodies as they’re perceived by their owner and by others, the rare opportunity for us to see ourselves as others see us, the different subjectivities and untruths and exaggerations offered by words and paint, the hurt of discovering that someone sees you very differently to the way you try to make yourself be seen. As a writer I recognised that Jacques’ skill in telling an undeniably powerful story. I would very much like to read it again.

But as a friend I knew some people in the audience had traumatic experiences of sexual assault. As an activist I think about the spaces I am in and which I help create, and how they embody and facilitate ways of being and interacting. One of the things that is vitally important to me is consent, and I see content warnings as being part of that.

Like Mary Hamilton, who discusses the problems of trigger warnings spreading from closed to public communities, much of my early experience of content warnings was in closed livejournal communities. As Hamilton notes, “[t]rigger warnings on the web were born in communities trying to balance the need to speak with the need not to hear”. Through various textual conventions like ROT-13, clever use of CSS and cut tags that hide a portion of text and have to be clicked on to view the hidden text, there were means to balance the complex needs of different users. The default behaviour was to hide potentially distressing material. Viewing such material had to be a decision, and members of that community were given a choice in whether they unscrambled the text, whether they highlighted the CSS formatted text, whether they clicked to view the full entry.

However, Hamilton is responding to other pieces discussing content warnings in more public arenas. Crucially, these arenas encompass not only online written and visual communication, but spoken and offline print communication. The New Republic’s “Trigger Happy The “trigger warning” has spread from blogs to college classes. Can it be stopped?” and the Guardian’s “We’ve gone too far with ‘trigger warnings'” argue against content warnings for similar reasons. A valuable alternative perspective is offered by this post by Tressie McMillan Cottom; see footnote [1].

The New Republic and Guardian articles both argue that content warnings

[…] are presented as a gesture of empathy, but the irony is they lead only to more solipsism, an over-preoccupation with one’s own feelings—much to the detriment of society as a whole. Structuring public life around the most fragile personal sensitivities will only restrict all of our horizons. Engaging with ideas involves risk, and slapping warnings on them only undermines the principle of intellectual exploration. We cannot anticipate every potential trigger—the world, like the Internet, is too large and unwieldy. But even if we could, why would we want to? Bending the world to accommodate our personal frailties does not help us overcome them.

These articles, to me, miss the point on several levels.

Firstly, they overcomplicate content warnings to the point of creating a straw man. Content warnings have been around a long time – consider the ratings (and justification for them) on films or the phrase “this report contains scenes some viewers may find upsetting” on the news. When thinking about content warnings, I realised that my teacher had given the class a content warning in secondary school. I was 14, and we were just starting our GCSE studies. The English Literature course focused heavily on war poetry. Before we started reading, analysing and discussing the poems, our teacher told us about the content of the material we were about to deeply engage with and asked us what our experiences of war had been: had we been involved in any way? had our families? did we have relatives who had been the armed forces, or were currently in them? We had the opportunity to discuss these things and flag these up for our teacher so she knew something about us, our experiences and what we were bringing to these poems.

Contrast this with another experience: I was 19, and in my first year of my English degree. It was a close reading tutorial; we’d get an unseen poem, spend an hour discussing it then write a formative essay on it. The poem we were analysing that hour was a response to Tennyson’s “Crossing The Bar” I don’t remember much about the poem; it was about someone being told of someone’s death, and struggling to come up with a eulogy before the clear, tolling words of “Sunset and evening star, / And one clear call for me!” came to him. I sat, silent and miserable, and the tutor rebuked me for not being my usual responsive self. My friend – also 19, a schoolfriend – had died of cancer the previous day; I’d been told the previous evening. To frame it in terms of the educational institution as the New Republic and Guardian articles want to do: was this good pedagogy? I could have brought a unique perspective to my analysis – the rawness of grief, the awareness of one’s teenaged mortality. Instead I sat there silent, barely able to engage with the poem.

Secondly, they argue that anyone needing a content warning is a special, selfish snowflake demanding the world be shaped to accommodate them. I suspect that of all people, those who have experienced trauma know that the world is not shaped to accommodate them. There’s a more interesting issue of how educational institutions should teach and engage with deeply problematic texts, and the duty of care we have towards our students and how this should be manifested, but I think that’s an issue for another post.

Thirdly, they conflate empathy with consent. Content warnings enable someone to make an informed decision about whether they want to participate in an event and if so, how best to prepare themselves. Sometimes this may mean saving reading material for another day when your mental health is less fragile. Sometimes it means engaging with material in a different context – reading a book in a busy cafe rather than alone and in the quiet of your bedroom in the dark hours. Sometimes it means scheduling activities differently to make sure you don’t get trapped in your own head – for me, this might mean spending the afternoon reading concordance lines about distressing things and seeing friends in the evening. If I know in advance, I can make a choice about how I structure my time. By not giving a content warning, you remove that choice.

I am reminded here of China Miéville’s[2] concept of choice-theft in Perdido Street Station. In it, sexual assault and rape are conceptualised as “choice-theft in the second degree” (with murder being that as the first degree). As a character explains,

“To take the choice of another… to forget their concrete reality, to abstract them, to forget you are a node in a matrix, that actions have consequences. We must not take the choice of another being. What is community but a means to..for all we individuals to have…our choices.

[…]

But all choice-thefts steal from the future as well as the present”.

[…]

What he saw most clearly, immediately, were all the vistas, the avenue of choice that [Spoiler] had stolen. Fleetingly, [Spoiler] glimpsed the denied possibilities.
The choice not to have sex, not to be hurt. The choice not to risk pregnancy. And then…what if she had become pregnant? The choice not to abort? The choice not to have a child?
The choice to look at [Spoiler] with respect?

I sometimes research really horrible stuff – they include police assault, forcible feeding and violent transphobia. I’ve spent a considerable amount of time going through thousands of concordance lines of transphobia, suicide and misgendering. Yes, reading it was upsetting and reminded me of the street abuse I’ve received, the risks I take by existing. But I believe, passionately, that it is vital to talk about these things – to haul them out and shine a ruthless light on them. I believe it’s important to understand how these things happen, to dissect them and understand their anatomy. How else can we challenge them? But when I talk about these things – when I present on them, when they emerge in my creative work – I give content warnings. My decision on when and where and how I engage with these things are not anyone else’s; I do not have the right to force someone along with me.

Instead, I seek my audience’s consent to come with me. I ask that they trust me enough to put themselves in my hands, that I will lead them through my academic or creative work without inflicting further hurts. I ask for their trust that I will talk about difficult things, but to do so in a way that offers them something: a vocabulary, a reconceptualisation, a challenge. I make it clear that they can leave the room and I won’t be offended or upset.

I refuse to enact further violations of consent.

I ask for their trust.

I offer them a choice.

__________________________________

[1] Tressie McMillan Cottom argues that “no one is arguing for trigger warnings in the routine spaces where symbolic and structural violence are acted on students at the margins. No one, to my knowledge, is affixing trigger warnings to department meetings that WASP-y normative expectations may require you to code switch yourself into oblivion to participate as a full member of the group. Instead, trigger warnings are being encouraged for sites of resistance, not mechanisms of oppression”. I’ve tried to reflect this tension between content warnings and sites of resistance in my argument.

[2] I’m unhappy about referencing Miéville for reasons outlined in this post [CW: non-explicit discussion of emotional abuse]. I’ve chosen to acknowledge this and to also warn for the content in a way consistent with the argument I make in this post. If any writers have explored a similar concept, I’d be very interested in reading their work.

Student mental health part 2

Following on from my last post about student mental health, here’s a post from the other side of teaching about making space for “quiet students”. There are some really interesting ideas there and it’s made me reflect on my own teaching practice.

When I was an undergraduate, one of the people I was taught by seemed to have an air of desperation and mute appeal whenever we scrutinised the floor rather than meet his eyes. I found it unbearable; it would make the seminars drag on (dull – I wanted to get to the interesting stuff!) and honestly, I felt kind of sorry for him. So I talked a lot (which I disliked, and disliked myself for not shutting up) but furthermore, I felt I was being forced into the position of the talkative student who risked looking daft just so that the tutor at least had something to build on. I wasn’t a quiet student, but I resented not being given the chance to be one.

When I started teaching, I was determined not to reproduce that dynamic but at the same time, didn’t want to pick on people. I think there’s room for silence as a pedagogical tool but it wasn’t something that I wanted to use on a regular basis. In addition, I knew what access requirements my students had requested; some of these requirements concerned seminar room dynamics.

Instead I got my students to talk in pairs, trios or small groups while I visited each group in turn, listening to what they had to say, encouraging them and making sure they would have something to offer. I then brought the whole seminar group together and elicited something out of each group. I don’t know how obvious it was to my students but everyone got the chance to speak in the seminar and usually did so.

Obviously this tactic wouldn’t work everywhere and in every type of seminar which is why I liked Sarah’s post so much. I also think that strategies for helping quiet students create a better environment for everyone – everyone gets a chance to participate, no one feels vaguely resentful like I did as an undergraduate, and these strategies help make a seminar a supportive environment where students can try out ideas.

Something I didn’t discuss was mental health as specific to PhD students; this isn’t due to me not caring but, rather, it being a bit too personal. Jessica has recently been writing about this – there’s more in the series, but I particularly liked PhD blues: mental health and the PhD student and Having “the chat” with your supervisor: what I talk about when I talk about depression.

I also like this post about the experience of doing a PhD while disabled or chronically ill and the sheer stubbornness it takes: disabled PhD students of the world unite, unite and take over

And yet our inability to show up has no significant bearing on our ability to contribute beautiful original things to the world. We have the experience of working successfully according to our own strategies: we must do, for how else could we be here, now? We have strategies to get around these walls in our world. We need only your support, your belief, and your acknowledgement that the stories here speak to a state of affairs whose days should be numbered.

In other words: we know how to do this. All we need is the right support, the right conditions. In this respect we are no different from any other PhD student, or any student, or any individual embarking on a project of any kind.

Every single PhD student has worked hard to be where they are. Every single disabled PhD student has had to do this work within a context where things may be harder than they are for your average bear. They are not the only ones. Nonetheless, their experiences represent a distinct category of experiences among many. As with so many things it is only by bringing these experiences before the eyes of the world that we can hope that things will ever improve.

Student mental health

I recently read a Time To Change blog post on starting university with a mental health problem and it made me wonder what advice I’d give to a student in that position.

I was an LGBT welfare officer at Nottingham and I considered it part of my role to know as much as possible about structures for student welfare and advice – everything from housing issues to sexual health – all of which stood me in good stead when I began teaching. If a student came to me with a problem, chances were that I’d know where to find information to help them – or at least know where to start looking.

Student mental health is one of the things I care a lot about and it both frustrates and terrifies me that information about student mental health can be so difficult to find on university websites. So with that in mind, here are three things that I’d especially like students to know.

Identify formal sources of support

You’ll probably be assigned a personal tutor who’ll be your first point of contact if you have any problems or issues. If you don’t click with them you can usually swap to someone with whom you’ll get on better. Some departments may have mentorship schemes where you can ask to be matched with a postgraduate researcher and have regular meetings with them.

In my experience, there is support for mental health issues in universities but these aren’t necessarily well signposted. For example, in my university, people who can help with mental health issues include department disability liaison officers (DLOs), the counselling service, the disability advisor based in the student union, the postgraduate disability advisor, the Disabled Students Network, a mental wealth group, HealthyU and a mental health advisor in Occupational Health. Because it’s a university, no one talks to each other and it seems to come as a genuine surprise to some of these that others exist.

I know, it sucks that you have to negotiate this and learn more about the arcane systems of a university than any of your peers, but on the other hand you will gain an unparalleled education in “organisational structures” and will be able to negotiate the shit out of any workplace or organisation you may end up dealing with in the future. Sorry, that’s not really much consolation.

I’d recommend talking to different people, groups and services and working out which of them are useful to you and which are not. If you don’t find a service useful or find that it actively upsets you, then don’t feel compelled to stay with it. Some people find peer support useful; others find counselling useful; others just want to check in with the DLO every so often. Whatever works for you.

Work out what you need to do to be formally recognised as disabled

Unfortunately, this is one of the things that differs between universities. You’ll probably have to contact your university’s disability office or student services to find out about this – in my experience, different departments range from incredibly clued up, helpful and supportive (like my current one) to them going “errr, you what now?” if you try asking (some others I could mention).

In the University of Nottingham, you generally start by disclosing a disability or Specific Learning Difficulty/dyslexia or a long-term medical condition. You’ll probably meet someone to discuss what reasonable adjustments you require to support your studies. Reasonable adjustments include things like getting work to you (for example, providing handouts and slides in advance of the lecture/seminar or in a different format), recording lectures, arrangements about group work, scheduling seminars, and arrangements for assessments and exams. You’ll then end up with a Disability Referral Form, which briefly outlines the nature of the condition and what sort of support you need – these then go to your department and, in turn, your tutors.

It’s a good idea to get one of these even if your mental health is well managed – the last thing you want in the middle of a crisis is someone turning around and saying “sorry, we can’t give you an extension because you’re not on record as having a disability”. Even if you don’t end up requesting different arrangements, they’re useful because they let your department know you exist – and if you ever do need additional support, it’s like a fasttrack ticket to help.

You won’t be alone in having a referral form either; both undergraduates and postgraduates have them, including postgraduates who teach. Your seminar tutor or lecturer could be among them.

Talk to us

Having taught students with mental health issues, nothing worries me like one of them seemingly disappearing off the face of the earth. I’d much rather they let me know they were alright but too anxious to attend seminars, or they’d switched medication and it was making them sleep through their alarms, or they were too depressed to leave their room. These things happen, and if the student lets the department and me know about it, we can do something about it – like move the student to an afternoon seminar group, meet them individually to help them catch up on work, reassure them about coming to a seminar or direct them to better sources of support.

It’s also better to do this sooner rather than later – let us know when there’s a problem developing rather than when you’ve got loads of work to catch up on and are feeling a horrible mixture of guilt and anxiety for missing so much work, making it impossible to approach your tutor. There are things we can do to help.

Ultimately, we want our students to get as much as possible out of university and develop intellectually, creatively and personally. Mental health problems mean that it might not be easy or straightforward, but it’s still possible to do very well – indeed excel – at degree level.

Thanks to Heather and Alex Brett for their much appreciated comments on this post

My worst student

Today I’ve been grumpily following the Same-Sex Marriage Bill debate, contemplating my thesis corrections and pouring acetic acid into my sore ear so I have to admit, I’m not in the best of moods. And then I saw that the Times Higher Education decided to encourage academics to share their stories of their worst students on twitter. Aside from the obvious problems about professionalism and ethics, I don’t like the sneering.

You see, I was someone’s worst student.

Not in university – I’d mostly sorted myself out by then – but in sixth-form. I was doing an A-level in something I’d previously been good at and for which I was in the top set at GCSE, but at A-level my grades plummeted from As to Es. I couldn’t understand the material – I tried so hard and it constantly defeated me. I tried reading around the subject; I tried talking myself through it; I tried just knuckling down and memorising it. It slipped away from me, no matter what I tried or how hard I tried. It’s a horrible feeling to be so utterly powerless – to feel like your intellect has abandoned you, that whatever you try you’re going to fail, that you are stupid and worthless and wasting everyone’s time. It felt like being dropped into a world where the rules were opaque and all-powerful and I was constantly one crucial step behind. Every lesson was an ordeal, something to just survive for the next two hours and, eventually, to resent.

Naturally, the teacher and I loathed each other. He’d taught me when I was actually good at this stuff and in retrospect, probably couldn’t understand why I was suddenly so appallingly bad at it. If I was in his position and a student had suddenly gone from being one of the best in the class to the very worst, I would have sought help for this student. He didn’t. Instead he alternately ignored me – it was a very results-focused school and I was clearly not going contribute to his clutch of As – and bullied me. Because I was 17 and a bit of a twat, I made it quietly clear that I resented him every bit as he resented me. One day I snapped and told him that I wished I could drop this subject (I was very polite in my twattishness!). The next day, my Head of Year pulled me into her office and berated me for hurting his feelings.

I threw up every morning before school from the sheer anxiety of once more stepping into that classroom and once more, being utterly, helplessly adrift.

I have never, ever forgotten that feeling of being so totally lost. Not when I found a subject I loved, not when I got a First for my BA, not when I graduated from my masters, not when my examiners shook my hand after my viva, and especially not when teaching.

I’ve taught students who were uninterested, resentful and hungover – it’s one of the problems of teaching a compulsory Language module when most of the students would rather be doing Literature. I’ve occasionally got frustrated when marking. I know I don’t have much experience, but I hope I never get worn down by it. I hope I create an atmosphere in my seminars where students can make mistakes, test ideas that might not work or admit that they don’t understand something. I hope I can be sensitive to the students who struggle, and I hope I know when I’m out of my depth. I hope I never belittle or sneer at students – not when they frustrate me, not when they apparently don’t try, not when they appear to be hopelessly bad at something. I hope I am respectful and compassionate to the ones who resent me. I hope I am patient when it matters.

As an academic, we tend to be working in an area we love and that we’re good at. We’ve probably never been crushingly bad at something we now teach. Given the kind of grades we’re expected to get to enter a degree programme, then a Masters, then a PhD, we may never have been crushingly bad at any academic subject. I, with my E in that A-level, somehow sneaked in. I’m not proud of that grade, but the harsh lessons I learnt in that classroom have shaped my teaching forever.

Other posts:
Caroline Magennis: On Teaching
Kirsty Rolfe: Talking teaching on Twitter (and talking nicely to students)

Postgraduate labour

Partly for my own reference, but also because it might be of interest to others.

postgraduateworker.wordpress.com

My first paid work was when I was 15/16. It was in a boarding kennels and cattery, and mainly involved picking up a lot of animal shit. I was paid approximately £2.50 an hour; however, I was in no position to bargain as there were kids from the village who would do it all for free because it was working with cute fluffy animals. Perhaps they thought it was the Blue Cross rather than a business. I was of the opinion that as it was a profit-making business, I was not going to allow my badly paid labour to contribute to their profits and I wasn’t going to pressured into working for even less – or no – pay.

I’m reminded of these early lessons in workplace economics when it comes to postgraduate labour. As early career researchers, we are preparing to enter a fiercely competitive struggle for a limited number of jobs. Having teaching experience is incredibly important; there’s the fear that others will have done more than you, have more teaching experience than you. There are usually more postgraduates hoping for teaching work than there are places for postgraduate tutors; if you turn it down because of poor pay or lack of support then no one will miss you – there are tens of others who won’t complain and, indeed, will work for even less. We often work in the same department as that will examine us. We may work on a module our supervisor convenes. We may benefit from a scholarship that has (unspecified amounts of) teaching attached to it. If we’re offered teaching work, there’s pressure to take it.

Working for low pay means that many postgraduates simply can’t afford to teach, thus affecting their long-term job prospects. We may be used, unwillingly or unwittingly, to avoid employing full-time staff. Postgraduate teaching work is situated within different, competing pressures and interests. It can be a really complex situation, and all too often there aren’t formal structures for support and representation. Students have the Students’ Union; non-postgraduate staff have their unions. We seem to be positioned awkwardly inbetween the two.

For the most part, I’ve found my experience as a postgraduate tutor rewarding and I hope it will stand me in good stead. However, I’m also aware of my sometimes precarious position, even though my department does a lot of things right. Other postgraduate tutors have it much worse; I’ve been horrified by some of the things my friends in other universities have reported.

It’s important that the complexities of our workplace conditions are scrutinised. I’m not sure if the Postgraduate Workers’ Association’s list of things postgraduate workers should be entitled to are achievable (holiday pay? sick pay? I don’t know whether to laugh or weep) but I hope this is a step towards doing that.