Insert Shape (After Matisse) #4 (2021)

A fourth collection of abstract compositions with their provenance in the cookie-cutter toolsets of Powerpoint, inspired by Matisse’s use of scissors and paper and produced as part of my response to The Kick-About No.38. Again, I found myself rather enamoured by the vintage-vibes coming off some of these examples, that sense of something ‘modern’ being dreamed up by a mid-20th Century imagination. I look at these and wish I had the reserves to explore them as large-scale prints on expensive papers, or as textiles, or as floor-plans for rather wondrous ‘futuristic’ architecture.

Insert Shape (After Matisse) #2 (2021)

More images produced as part of my response to The Kick-About No.38, which took the cut-outs of Henri Matisse as its prompt, and more images resulting from an improbably happy marriage between Powerpoint and Photoshop. In contrast to the these previous images, I enlisted one of Powerpoints ‘ready-mades’ – an off-the-peg icon of some seaweed with some passing resemblance to some of Matisse’s own plant forms. Different visual chemistry this time around, with the layerings resulting in mosaical effects, putting me in mind of Gaudi.

Insert Shape (After Matisse) #1 (2021)

Henri Matisse turned to scissors and coloured paper for expediency to produce his celebrate cut-outs, which surely derive their energy from that directness. In thinking about my approach to The Kick-About No.38, I wanted to identify an equivalency for Matisse’s scissors – a ubiquitous tool – and the speediness of producing shapes, for then combining in different ways. So it was I began my image-making with Powerpoint – oh yes, the infamous ‘presentation-maker’, notorious as software for producing will-sapping slides to be shown in under-ventilated rooms.

One of the application’s off-the-peg tools is ‘Insert Shapes’ – which allows you to draw simple shapes with a quick drag of your mouse, and then colour and outline them as you see fit. I used Powerpoint to produce collections of basic shapes – circles, rectangles and squares (and later, some of Powerpoint’s cookie-cutter plant form icons) – and then brought these ‘cut-outs’ into Photoshop, where I set about layering them one on top of the other with as much immediacy as I could muster.

I started simply at first, with just circles and squares and some dotted outlines, and very quickly lots of nice things happened, with the layering producing some effortlessly nostalgic effects. My mouth began to water a bit, wishing I could occupy a few more timelines, wherein I was a textile artist, or designer of vast tiled murals in brand spanking-new tube stations, or Great Exhibition-style posters celebrating the ‘shock of the new’.

It perhaps won’t surprise you to hear I got rather carried away, so there’s a few more examples of my fantasia on a theme of Matisse-meets-Powerpoint to share over the coming days.

Tears For Fears: On The Bereavement Of Teachers

There’s a reason why the sympathy cards we buy don’t include, above their sombre, understated images of flowers, statements like; ‘Your Feelings Are Wrong! This Isn’t A Loss, It’s An Opportunity!’ or ‘Buck up! You Need To Regard This Moment As A Challenge!’ or ‘Shame On You, Whinger! Your Feelings Of Grief Constitute A Failure Of Resilience!’

Of course, we wouldn’t accept those sentiments from a sympathy card. We’d know them to be unforgivably insensitive, inaccurate, and crashingly stupid. I wonder why we accept these retractions of empathy elsewhere?

Grief is the response to the loss of something to which a bond or affection has been formed. We establish these bonds whenever we take an idea deep into our care. Grief is a consequence of making values-based commitments. Grief is a consequence of deciding to belong. Grief is the price we pay for identifying strongly with someone or something. Grief is a measure of quality time invested, of the number of f**ks given.

Back when I was working as a course leader for a successful undergraduate degree programme, I grieved surprisingly often. These were the micro-bereavements; the introduction of yet another new credit framework satisfying some arcane efficiency-or-other, with its immediate effect of killing dead all the amenities of my existing units and the nuanced teaching and learning cultures they’d come to support; or whenever senior managers pressurised my staff to ‘revisit’ their assessments to ensure they aligned more readily with the institutional bell curve, a measurement surely as doltish as any wayward algorithm; likewise, senior management’s relentless emphasis on the narrowest possible definition of student satisfaction and its – shhhhh! – magical effects on grade inflation.

All the many moments like these – unremarkable, ubiquitous, bureaucratic, impersonal – would nonetheless elicit real sadness from me, not the boo-hoo variety, but a much more insidious grief, triggered by the casual depreciation of my heartfelt values as an educator.

I recall weightier bereavements too: sitting through the grand unveiling of the university’s ‘Business Plan’, which disestablished my job role, and that of every other experienced course leader in the organisation. I sat quietly in my seat, holding an imaginary bingo card, experiencing a strange mixture of jubilation and disappointment each time the Vice Chancellor used the word ‘opportunity’ to reconfigure the bereavements coming our way. I was reminded of the scene in Star Wars, when Alec Guinness’s Obi-Wan Kenobi waves his hand in the face of a busy-body imperial stormtrooper, intoning, ‘These are not the droids you’re looking for’. The Vice-Chancellor partook in a similar sleight of hand, as with one flash of a desultory PowerPoint slide, he seemed to say, ‘No one is being made redundant today! You’re just being invited to participate in a process of change, adaptation and personal growth.’

In my role as co-director of an online learning design agency specialising in supporting other educators to deliver exceptional online learning, I find myself conflicted. These past strange months, I’ve talked with, Zoomed with, and mentored a large number of teachers, who are meeting the changes wrought by Covid with varying levels of enthusiasm and confidence. In some ways, I find myself in the role of the ‘smiling face’ of change management, as I work with tutors to help them feel more at home in the online teaching space – even going as far as suggesting how some of the characteristics of online learning might enhance their teaching more generally, which I believe. A large part of the successes of my tenure as course leader stemmed from my early embrace of online communities in support of learning and student engagement, and from ‘flipping the classroom’ through making available a rich curricula of quality online video resources.

So my conflict stems, not from insincerity, but from a failure of hypocrisy. I recall very well how often I wanted to slap the smiling face of my own ‘change-managers’ for their breath-taking insensitivity; for the glib way they’d dispense with my feelings of loss by characterising them as recalcitrance, as bloodymindedness, or as pitiable ingenuousness in the face of the irresistible sweep of neoliberalism.

My conflict stems from all those recent conversations with teachers of different kinds in their various institutions, like the late-night email I received from the passionate, highly experienced teacher in textiles, who simply couldn’t stomach the thought of her imminent Google Classroom training, in all its pale comparison with her actual classroom. It wasn’t stubbornness. It wasn’t sloth, and it wasn’t technophobia. It was all much simpler than that. She was being expected to muster enthusiasm for taking on a new pet after her own beloved dog had just been flattened by a car.

More recently, I talked with a senior lecturer, who admitted to feeling physically nauseous at the thought of another day in front of his laptop; another day, on his own, in his room, on his laptop, his face pushed up against the faces of his students, yet devoid also of contact with them, and likewise his colleagues, and with all the smaller, less tangible things once combining to produce the culture of his course and its successes. Green around the gills and exhausted, he sees all of this from his strange remove, as all the things that once felt certain struggle to remain so, his own identity included.

This is the special hopelessness of the bereaved, the secret they keep for fear of appearing weak or uncooperative. Despite the acuity of their loss, despite their discombobulation, they still get up, get dressed, feed themselves, feed the cat – and teach on Microsoft Teams to a classroom of learners with their cameras off.

I’m seeing bereavement everywhere. Sure, individuals are grieving the way things ‘used to be’, but not, I think, because they’re Luddites, or dinosaurs deserving of a jolly big meteor, but rather because their identities are in crisis. They are not who they used to be, and yet the speed of change in the sector insists they bury these feelings in order to satisfy everyone else. Worse, there is as much shame around as you want: shame, because you don’t know how to use Zoom or Teams or Classroom or whatever; shame, because a part of you cannot be bothered to grow, or learn, or adapt, while your heart still smarts; shame, because you suspect your students are unhappy (which they likely are, because, yes, they’re grieving too); and shame, because you just want things to go back the way they were, while other bright and shiny people proselytise about the future; and where there’s shame, there’s resentment, and where there is resentment, there is anger, and so it goes.

Now, before I meet other educators in my role at Ding, I make myself remember sitting quietly in my chair at the presentation of the university’s Business Plan, being cheerled into ‘seizing opportunities’ at the very same moment my incumbent identity was being effaced. I remember to empathise, which is to listen, and extend condolences by showing patience. So I never think, ‘Oh no! Here is another late-adopter’. I don’t think, ‘Why are some academics so bloody difficult?’ I’m thinking, here is just another someone estranged from who they once where and what they once knew how to do, and I’m minded to read frustration, reluctance, resistance and ‘shut-downness’ for what it likely is; bereavement working its way out.

There’s a reason the sympathy cards we buy don’t say ‘Your Feelings Are Wrong! This Isn’t A Loss, It’s An Opportunity!’

There’s a reason change takes time.

Originally published as an article on Linkedin

Santa Hat Friday & Other Dark Rites

Not unlike the little match girl in the well-known festive fairy story, I find myself looking into the dark shuttered interiors of our Tier 3 pubs, wishing for happier times. I feel for all the publicans right now, and worry about all the little dark spots that have opened up in people’s lives where a pint and packet of crisps once shone. 

As a former licensee myself, I have never been confused about the real value of a pub or bar to its community. I was probably happiest when I was running a bar; knowing the exact moment to dim the lights or dial up the volume to bring about some deepening of the social interactions taking place before me; knowing how something as simple as remembering someone’s name and their preferred drink in their preferred glass could both settle and ennoble them.  I recall fondly all the small ways in which proximity and a lovely bit of buzz would see friendship groups diversify, and move towards unexpected and unpredictable intimacies. I remember what it was like to produce the conditions for the making of companions from strangers.

When I look into the pub windows, discarded face masks blowing about my feet like leaves, I ache for my barkeep self, who was younger certainly, who worried less, who could drink eight espressos and still sleep like a log.

I think too of my other former job role, as course leader for an undergraduate arts degree. Despairing at all those empty chairs and tables, I repopulate them with rose-tinted memories of evenings spent in UK pubs and European bars in the company of my students, alumni, and staff.  In these vignettes, we are imbibing gaudy glasses of Aperol Spritz in the lobby of a down-at-heel Roman hotel and sipping mojitos in some gorgeous dive in the labyrinthine heart of La Rambla. In other memories, we are sitting around the sticky, dark wood tables of a Kent boozer, sporting Poundland hats in the shape of Christmas puddings…

Back then, ‘Santa Hat Friday’ was an annual festive rite, seeing staff, students, and alumni convene in our local for an end-of-term wind-down.  While not mandatory, the wearing of seasonally inspired hats was encouraged (in truth, very little encouragement was required). After the very last hand-in, after the long hard slog of the autumn term, we would amble down to the Highstreet, making for a colourful, if untidy, ribbon of revellers.

But it would be a mistake to presume there was anything instinctive about this community of ours looking to spend a night out in a pub as some natural extension of an existing culture or innate behaviour.  This course tradition had to be enacted. Many of my students suffered with acute social anxiety.  A higher-than-average proportion of their number were neuro-diverse in variously wonderful ways.  They likewise came in every shade of the LGBTQ+ rainbow.  My students were black, and they were brown, multi-faith and studying with us from overseas.  There were students who’d never once frequented a public house, students who didn’t drink, and growing numbers of undergraduates who saw ‘the pub’ as a rather strange, pointless, and provincial space, lacking both the insulation and connectivity of their preferred social media platforms. 

For these reasons, ‘Santa Hat Friday’ presented a challenge.  More cautious members of academic staff on other courses, and some of those among the ranks of student welfare, raised their eyebrows at the propriety of this extracurricular activity.  Was it appropriate to organise course-based events in which some students might feel less able to participate?  Was I engineering a scenario wherein some members of my course community might feel isolated, othered, or coerced?  Indeed, was it even seemly for course staff to accompany their young wards to the pub, and worse still, while wearing a jaunty pair of flashing reindeer antlers?

I used to roll my eyes at all the hand-wringing. For an event like this to achieve such contrary ambitions, the community leader organising it would need to have the EQ of a mince pie. I approached this extra-curricular activity as I approached every other course-related opportunity for the empowerment of a disparate group of young people, who, for all the reasons described above, might experience social disadvantage were they to continue worrying about engaging with noisier, less pastoral, less well-regulated spaces. I felt it important to actually produce the conditions under which my less naturally confident students would actively struggle, in the knowledge they were safe to struggle because the rest of us were there too; in the knowledge that ‘struggle’ is a half-way house en route to something valuable, lasting and new.

Every Santa Hat Friday was a short bonus module in fostering employability – and no, I am not talking about the awful hollowed-out sense of the word that narrows the value of learning to only its most immediate relevance to some industry or other. I’m talking instead about a young person’s cognisance of, and confidence in, following (and resisting), the unwritten rules of the communal workplace and beyond.  I’m talking about their literacy in the unspoken languages of the graduate marketplace.  I am talking about growing their power.

So when I find myself standing outside these shuttered pubs, reminiscing about Santa Hat Friday and other ghosts of Christmas past, I’m not feeling sorry for myself, though I’m not above admitting how much I miss large elements of my former life, principally that colourful, untidy ribbon of students, alumni and staff I had the very real privilege of working alongside for ten years or so. Neither am I pining for my days as a licensee, when the cuffs of every white shirt I owned were liver-spotted with Guinness, and I smelled powerfully of cigarette smoke from dawn ‘til dusk.  What I’m really thinking about is the impact of COVID on the student experience – not as it pertains to the National Student Survey, or ‘value for money’, or their rights as consumers (yawn) – but as it relates to their opportunities to learn invaluable skills from the rough and tumble of more disorderly communal spaces. 

And while I’m in this nostalgic mood, I might kid myself my former students learned everything of real and lasting importance from the content of my lectures… but I know very well, if surveyed, they’d more likely talk about their field trip to Berlin, to Prague, to Barcelona, to Rome. They would recall squeezing into dimly lit hostels, exhausted after early starts and awful flights, negotiating the complex unwritten rules of allocating bunk beds. They’d pick nights out in crap clubs, where they spoke, for the first time, to a classmate they’d otherwise always avoided, or judged, or envied, or fancied.  They might point at some group photograph taken on the worn stone steps of some ancient feat of architecture, in which young people from a multiplicity of backgrounds all look as deliriously sleep-deprived as each other.  Some of them might even have a fond thing to say about those Santa Hat Fridays, about what it feels like to be part of a community of practice, to feel it binding so reassuringly about you.

In my new role working alongside Dr Tony Reeves at Ding, I’m talking with amazing tutors who have adapted to the new normal of online learning with imagination and dexterity.  I have nothing but admiration for the different ways in which tutors have safeguarded their student communities during this hugely challenging time.  But as I stand reflected in these gloomy pub windows, thinking how ridiculous I must have looked in my Christmas Pudding hat, I worry more and more about all the little dark spots opening up in the student experience, and I’m keen to understand what more we could be doing to light them back up.