Wednesday, 1 August 2012

How you play the game.

Hurray for the GB Men's Gymnastics team with their Bronze medal, the GB equestrian eventing team and women's cyclist with their silver, and for the GB Women's Pairs Rowers with their Gold.

Shame on the badminton teams who did not give it their best go. And shame on the American Coach who suggested foul play because a young swimmer excelled herself, and knocked the American competitor into second place.

Shame on the Twitter user who tweeted vile messages to Tom Daley.


At high level sport, of course, the eyes of the world are upon the athletes, and you want your team to win big. Top athletes aspire to Gold medals. Gold is what everyone wants, but, not everyone can have it.

I am very, very pleased for Helen Glover and Heather Stanning (GB rowers) who earned a very well deserved Gold medal. But we should be equally proud of the achievements of those who won Silver and those who won Bronze. The media's lamenting the lack of Gold medals thus far seems to me to miss at least some of the point. To have made it into the Olympic finals at all is a stunning achievement.

I have no doubt that Tom Daley's father would be bursting with pride at the efforts and dedication of his son. (Vile Tweeter is surely alone in his thinking and his comments). Daly and Waterfield put in a tremendous performance in the synchronised diving events, and fourth place out of a world of competitors is not bad at all. And they can say they worked their hardest and did the best they could on the day, at the time. The Chinese, Indonseian and South Korean Badminton teams can't say the same.

There is, it seems, no evidence at this time to suggest that Ye Shiwen won her swimming Gold medals using unfair means. She has been drugs tested at least three times. It is unjust to detract from her achievement in the way that the American coach did - and, indeed, that various news commentators have implied ('Could she have found ways around the current testing?' 'Of course she could') without reasonable evidence. You can't cheer for Gold medal winners and then, when a young girl outdoes herself and all of the other competitors, say that, to be that good, she must be cheating. Perhaps she really is just that good?

A major part of the campaign to bring the Olympics to London was about creating a legacy. No one is quite clear what this means, but it seems, in part, to be about inspiring young people to participate in sport, and to aim high. Focus and dedication in a career - althetics or not - is a good aspiration.

We should, though, bear in mind - and make sure that others do too - that sport isn't all about the winning. Good sportsmanship is as important, whether it is being gracious in defeat, performing a more cautious routine to ensure points for the team rather than showing off, playing your best (whatever the outcome)congratulating others' achievements or just in acknowledging the effort.

It isn't whether you win or lose; it's how you play the game.

Tuesday, 31 July 2012

New and old

I got on the bus the other day and noticed a new ticket machine - its electronic display actually said 'Good Morning' on it.  In other cities where I have lived, this might be used to make up for the grumpiness of the drivers, but in Naval City, the drivers seem to be quite friendly anyway, so I'm not convinced that a new, polite, ticket system is the most useful way to spend the company funds, but this is not really the point of the story.

'That's a shiny new ticket machine', I said, whilst I waited for the driver to sort out my weekly ticket. For this, the machine prints a ticket and then the driver puts it into a little card-and-sticky-backed-plastic wallet.  The driver smiled and nodded as pulled one ticket wallet from a large group held by an elastic band.

His smile turned into a look of slight confusion as he discovered that the shape of ticket didn't quite fit the wallet, and then into concentration whilst he carefully folded the paper to make it fit and still show all of the relevant bits of information.

'Ticket is new' he said, with a slight accent (Eastern European?) and a knowing smile. 'Wallet is old'.

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Reflections, 12 months on.

I participated in a short-listing meeting yesterday for a part time post coming up at Naval City University.  This is the first time I have witnessed, let alone been part of, this kind of thing, and, despite now being in an open-ended post, I found the whole process a painful experience. It was a reminder to me (as if I needed one!) of how many applications I sent before I got shortlisted for my job twelve months ago, and how lucky I am to have it. 

So many highly qualified people (some much better qualified in terms of publications than I am) who could not be shortlisted because they didn't quite fit the detail of what the department was looking for, or because, whilst they had books /articles forthcoming, these were not yet in press whereas those shortlisted had items out already. Of course, this is quite right - the person hired has to 'fit the bill' in more ways than one, and research output matters, especially in the run up to REF.

The process has made me approach my research with renewed energy, if only to prove to myself that I deserve the job I have.  I certainly didn't get it by any favouritism or favour (I didn't know anyone who worked here before I was offered the job, so I got it on the merits of my application and interview) but I still have to pinch myself sometimes when I remember the position I was in at this time last year - I'd almost given up hope of getting a salaried academic post, having not made it onto a shortlist for a job I had been doing for much less money for 3 years.

I am grateful that, somehow, I got on to the list of candidates for inteview for this job (it was this time last year I was on my way down to the interview) and that I managed to give a presentation and interview that convinced the School to employ me. It was the first permanent job for which I had been shortlisted, and I couldn't quite believe it when I was offered the job. (I think I actually said, "Really?" to the Head of School when he phoned me.) I must continue to work hard to make sure I don't let them down.

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Beautiful Beliefs (5)

I believe that...

It is easy to take hard working people for granted, but we shouldn’t!

My colleagues and I were obliged to attend a staff development event this week in order to prepare us for the challenges of the next academic year. In its wisdom, the university has decided that 2012-13 is the year to introduce a radical overhaul of the academic structure and curriculum, despite the upheaval and uncertainty coming our way as a result of the government’s raising of tuition fees for students. For those who are not aware of this, the amount a degree costs is not changing; what is changing is the proportion of that cost borne by the student themselves instead of government funding. Many students will not appreciate this subtle difference and will insist on ‘more for their money’ since they are paying more. This staff development event was to alert us to the changes coming and to tell us about other university developments alongside changes brought about by the new curriculum.

It was not a successful day from the perspective of most academic staff. We were told things we already knew, and we were not given the opportunity to ask questions regarding what we did not or to comment on management plans. It did little to raise staff morale after what has been a very difficult transitional year. I am new to the department this year, and the strain of the new curriculum is already taking a toll. I imagine that my colleagues who have been dealing with this for much longer than I have must feel terribly ground down.

Faculty management, throughout the day, told us that in the future we must listen to the students, ask for their feedback, respond to their feedback, help them set goals for the future, and – importantly – make sure they know that we care. What was shockingly poor about this address was that it implied that we were not already doing those things; that up to this point, we have not cared about our students, their degree or their circumstances. At no point did anyone say, ‘You’ve all done a great job this year. Keep it up!’.

No one came away from the day feeling motivated, appreciated or looking forward to the future or any more prepared than they were before this compulsory event. Many of my colleagues are looking for jobs elsewhere. But they wouldn’t be if they felt that they were heard, appreciated, supported in their academic endeavours. They (we) work very hard for the students, and to keep up with research despite a struggle for institutional support. A ‘well done’ or ‘keep it up’ or ‘thank you for all your efforts’ would have gone a very long way.

This is not a post to big up my own efforts though, and ‘hard working’ doesn’t only apply to academics! I miss the friendly and brilliant admin support that we had at my previous institution, and realise that whilst I never took this support entirely for granted, I didn't fully appreciate how much the undergrad secretaries did for tutors above and beyond what happens elsewhere. Here at Naval City University, the cleaners come into our offices to empty the bins and vacuum the floor. I appreciate that I no longer have to empty my own bin (office dustbins were neither supplied nor empied at the University in the City where the Castle is also a Prison) and that at least once a week my carpet is fluff-free.

However small or large the task, acknowledging others' efforts can make a big difference. Say thank you to your mum or dad or other loved ones (thank you to the Physio for making me dinner!); to the administrator, the cleaner, the bus driver, the waiter, the nurse, teacher, cashier, librarian, etc., etc., etc.

Most people who deserve acknowledgement do not go out of their way to seek it - they just get on with their tasks.  That does not mean they shouldn’t get it.

This post is connected to Amy's Beautiful Belief's project.

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Beautiful Beliefs (4)

I believe that...

We are all in too much of a hurry.

I have thought this for some time, but I am reminded of it often at the pelican crossings near where I work. There are 11 of them covering 3 major junctions. To me, this suggests that walking into the road when the red man is showing means imminent danger of death, so I wait for the green man. Sometimes the road is clear – but it’s a very busy road and won’t stay that way for long. Others, however, arrive at the road, give a quick look to see if there is any traffic on its way, and then walk or run across, looking at me as if I'm mad for just standing there. Sometimes, the distance between them and the oncoming traffic is so small that I, safe on the pavement, am frightened of the potential accident. And I wonder to myself if what they are hurrying towards is worth that risk, to themselves or to the drivers. I suspect, for most of them, it is not. It is just that they do not want to stand at the side of the road for the 2 minutes it will take for the lights to change and the green man to appear. Why and how have we, collectively, lost the ability to just stand still and wait?

I notice this at bus stops too. No amount of looking at your watch or complaining will make the bus that is not-yet-but-might-be-late arrive any sooner. I understand the complaints when the bus is very late, or it is very cold, or someone has an important appointment to make and needs it to be on time (get an earlier bus?), but the lack of patience – the difficulties some people encounter in just waiting – puzzles me.

I like to watch the dogs playing in the park over the road. Or watch the clouds moving in the sky. Or just move my weight from one foot to the other (maybe other people waiting for the bus think I’m crazy and are in a hurry to get away?) whilst I listen to whatever soundtrack I have playing in my head that day.

Last week Amy wrote about her experience in yoga practice; about the stillness and peace of savasana. I enjoy this pose too, and all of the other yoga poses that, whilst stretching muscles I’d forgotten about, allow me to be still within my body and within my mind (the latter sometimes takes some effort), not hurrying anywhere, physically or mentally.

Stillness is under-rated. Why the hurry?

This post is related to Amy's Beautiful Beliefs writing circle.

Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Beautiful Beliefs (3)

I believe that...
beauty magazines promote low self esteem.

OK, those are not really my words; I've borrowed them from Savage Garden's song, 'Affirmation', but that doesn't meant I don't believe them to be true. 

This morning, on the radio, I heard the news that a committee of MPs has proposed compulsory body image and self-esteem lessons in schools, in order to combat the poor self esteem and body image of youngsters. I find this proposal completely bizarre, for two reasons:

1. It does not really address the reasons why young people have poor self-esteem.
2. Encouraging self-esteem and a positive body image should not be confined to one lesson a week in school. It should be something that is integrated into their everyday life, naturally.

I am very lucky. I have a pretty balanced view of my body (could tone up a bit, perhaps cut down a little on the cakes... but otherwise, pretty good). Sometimes I look in the mirror and think 'Not as slim as you used to be...', but then, does that really matter? All is in proportion, and I am far from overweight, health-wise. 

Some of this balance, I am sure, is down to a loving and supportive family throughout my childhood, adolescence, and adulthood, and to a boyfriend who freely offers compliments on my shape - and on days when I've noted to myself that my bum is bigger than it used to be, this is a good boost. 

But I believe some of this balance is due to the fact that I do not aspire to be celebrity- / model-thin, but then I don't think I've ever really aspired to be a celebrity or a model.*   For me, success is not purely related to what I look like (and I'm grateful to my family and to my school for fostering this belief). Raising the aspirations of girls and young women beyond 'being like Victoria Beckham and Cheryl Cole' is a connected, but different, problem that also needs to be addressed in our celebrity-obsessed culture.  Celebrity women are often held to be the perfect shape. Most of them, to me, are alarmingly and unhealthily thin. 

When gossip magazines catch celebrities looking human - sweating, without make-up, with zits, or otherwise not camera-ready, they draw attention to such 'flaws' and, rather than saying 'Hurrah! These women are really like us', they say something that amounts to, 'Look at Celebrity X - she needs to work harder at her appearance'. This does not promote a healthy relationship with real bodies. It's a form of bullying at a distance.

More than this, though, as adults we know that celebrity, girlie and fashion magazines have images that are heavily doctored / airbrushed. Not even the models and celebrities can live up to the unrealistic expectations that such images raise, and it is this that we really need to explain to children and adolescents (and to some adults!). 

(* I think I once wanted a very slim waist because Victorian ladies used to have them, but then I realised they were artificially created through corsets too...)

We also, I think, need to be much more careful about the way in which the media presents the 'obesity crisis' in the country. Curvy does not have to mean fat. Healthy eating and exercise - yes; diet until you are unnaturally skinny - no. 

I remember seeing an episode of Supernanny that dealt with a pre-teen who thought she had to match up to magazine images to be pretty. Not true.  But this must be a belief that so many young people have because of celebrity culture - and I don't think this is only a problem for girls. Boys are increasingly under a similar sort of pressure.

The report from MPs notes the media's unrealistic body images as a cause of the problem, but does not seem to suggest a way to tackle it beyond 'get schools to do something'. That isn't enough.

Of course, building confidence through encouraging children to like who they are and what they look like is important, but this could - and should - be done consistently at home and at school through praise, encouragement and an absolute crack-down on bullying of any kind.  Encouragement towards, and praise for, academic, sporting or other achievements, along with education on eating healthily and taking balanced exercise, could go a long way towards combating poor body image and self-esteem problems in children / adolescents. But, tackling poor body image in young people cannot be done without addressing the causes of it, and the magazine industry and celebrity culture are some of these causes. 

A legally enforceble ban on airbrushing could, I think, be more effective than compulsory school lessons in self-esteem.

This post is connected to Amy Palko's Beautiful Beliefs writing circle.

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Beautiful Beliefs (2)

I believe that...

We can be our own worst enemies.

Some time ago I wrote this post in relation to a student I was teaching in his first year. His enthusiasm and interest remained throughout his time at university, but he suffered from crippling anxiety when it came to assessments. He was given extensions to different deadlines because his anxiety about it not being good enough was so bad that it prevented him from finishing and submitting his work. He got through to the final year, and could not sit his exams or submit his dissertation. I was not supervising him, but have absolutely no doubt that it would have been an excellent piece of work. He was given the opportunity to defer these assessments. He contacted me after I’d left the University in the City where the Castle is also a Prison to ask if he could come to talk to me about one of the units as the exam came around again. I had to reply to tell him I was no longer in the city, but was sure one of the other early modernists would help him. I heard no more from him.

I have been away from this blog for a long time – half-scribbling posts that never got written – so when I came back I read over some of my older posts to remind me what I used to do, and came across that post about him. I emailed my friend, Very Efficient Undergrad Secretary, to ask how he was doing and if he had managed to submit his dissertation this year. She told me that he had decided to withdraw from university at Easter, before any of the assessments took place.

I was genuinely saddened by this news. He had so much potential as a Lit student, and I know he could have finished with a good 2.1 degree, if not a first class one. He was certainly intellectually capable of it. But his lack of self-belief meant that he left the university with no degree at all.

This sort of anxiety – that we are not good enough – is something that most of us suffer from at some point. I have talked about it before in relation to my teaching and marking and in relation to judging ourselves by others’ progress. I think the reason my PhD thesis was submitted at the last minute (literally – a friend had her car engine running to get me to student registry on time from across campus) was because I was reluctant to let it go, to send it out for examination and judgement because it might not be good enough. I am now struggling to turn that thesis into a monograph, not because it was found wanting at my VIVA (it was not), or just because I struggle to find the time (though I do) but because I am, underneath, anxious that it will not be good enough. A journal rejected a chapter of it as an article; will the peer reviewers of my book reject the whole thing?

I have a book contract with a reputable publisher, so the idea has already been deemed publishable, but I procrastinate and delay and try to hunt out any other text I could possibly look at to make sure there is nothing obviously missing from my work.

I will just have to get it done and send it off to them very soon, or I will miss the REF deadline and my new employer, who took a chance on my potential to publish and gave me a job, will not be pleased. But this anxiety I feel at letting them down, although I feel it, is not as strong as the anxiety I feel about sending my work out into the realms of academic criticism. So I delay, and the deadline gets closer and I know I will have to send off work I am not entirely happy with when I run out of time. I tell myself I work better under pressure, but really this is because I can no longer put it off.

I thought that if he had had the right kind of support and encouragement, that anxious student might have got all of his work submitted. I don’t know what sort of support he received beyond the deferral, but I am starting to think that whatever it was it wouldn’t have been enough. I think he’d rather withdraw than risk not meeting expectations (though whose expectations, I am not sure).

It’s tempting, isn’t it, to avoid putting our work ‘out there’. I could do that with this book, but it would be such a waste of my time, effort and energy to prevent myself from going forward because of this anxiety.

There can be many obstacles to overcome in the ‘world outside’. Let’s try hard not to be our own worst enemies.

This is post is connected to Amy Palko's Beautiful Beliefs writing circle.