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Caveat Emptor

The opinions expressed on this page are mine alone. Any similarities to the views of my employer are completely coincidental.

Monday, 16 March 2020

Making an online lecture

I'm very lucky to be on sabbatical leave and living until September (hopefully) in a country that has taken a different approach to the UK to dealing with the Corona virus epidemic. That means that I've not been forced suddenly into teaching online, for which I'm very grateful. A couple of years ago though I did decide to create some online video content for one of my courses and I'll share here what I learned about what to do and what not to do.

I should start by saying that my ambitions were very limited. I wanted to produce something that was serviceable, but I had (and have) neither the skill nor the patience to uphold glossy production values. 

A little context. The original stimulus was a larger than average cohort of MSc students taking a compulsory Research Design course timetabled to take 3 hours. The format of the course was normally a 1 hour - one to many lecture - followed by two seminar sections of 12-15 students. However with 40 students each seminar section would have had 20 students which was a bit too large so I was faced with a dilemma. I didn't want to add an extra hour to my teaching load so I decided to do away with the live lecture & replace it with a video lecture  thus freeing up an hour for an extra seminar.

I started off with a few fancy but either impractical or unrealizable (by me) ideas about what I wanted to produce. The first thing I dropped was the idea of  doing a talking head to camera lecture. After a short trial I found that my webcam and the lighting in my office were not good enough to produce decent results. Particularly trying was finding a decent background to film myself against. Stripy curtains, which was basically all I could use without radically rearranging my office furniture, do not do a lot for a foregrounded talking head. Eventually I went for something much simpler - basically my power-point slides with a recorded commentary saved as a video and uploaded to my YouTube channel. 

My first efforts were made using the mic from a Microsoft headset. The sound quality was passable (just) but not brilliant. Later I  bought a decent desktop microphone and I have to say it made a big difference to the sound quality (compare the last 4 recordings with all the rest). After doing what everyone does -  read the Amazon reviews - I bought a Blue Yeti USB mic and I've been very satisfied with it.

Mastering the recording features of Powerpoint is pretty straightforward. An hour or two of trial and error is sufficient to learn all you need to know to do a basic job. What took me more time was figuring out the best workflow process to produce 50 minutes of content.

It's easiest to say what didn't work (for me). My naive first thought was that I would just "talk through" my slides much as I would do if I were giving a live lecture. Very quickly I discovered that what I  achieved by doing this was...awful. Ums, errs, verbal ticks, extended pauses while  I composed my thoughts, not to mention weird lip smacking noises and loud booms when I scratched my nose made the whole thing sound even more horribly amateurish than it actually was. 

I don't know whether this will work for everyone but what worked for me was to ditch the ideal of sparkling spontaneity and write a script. Of course this makes the whole thing a bit more theatrical (reading it out in a monotone is not going to improve things much) but it helped me to impose a bit more structure & discipline on the production process.

I normally give extempore lectures  so my first challenge was to write everything out in a style that wouldn't sound wooden when spoken to the mic. Having already produced the slides helped a lot as they functioned as a kind of story board. Early on I decided to chop up each lecture into 10-15 sections for uploading. That also helped with the structuring of the material and the delivery. Once I had my script I then did a few tests to get an impression of timing and the right pace of delivery. My normal pace of delivery is quite slow. I can get away with that when doing a live performance, but in a recording a slow pace very quickly becomes  boring. I listened carefully to the pace at which talk is delivered on Radio 4 and concluded it was at least twice as quick as I normally talk. 

Even after producing the script I still screwed up. I wasted a bit of time experimenting with  an autocue program that scrolled through the text at the bottom of the screen. This really didn't work for me and I found that I needed to see what was coming next in order to make transitions between slides relatively seamless.

In the end I went for a low tech solution: a printed script, double spaced, in 20 point Garamond with slide transitions noted in bold red. Each slide corresponded to a 2-3 minute gobbet of audio. I tended to record in short sections and rehearse each section before recording in order to iron out anything that seemed awkward in the transition from writing to the spoken word.

The rest is just perspiration rather than inspiration. I frequently rerecorded sections I had fluffed and made all the usual beginners mistakes - recording level too loud, recording level too low, recording when there is bound to be a lot of ambient noise etc.

It's a time consuming job to get even passable results. After I had written the script - which could easily take me 8-12 hours (and I already had the slides prepared) it would take 3 hours to record 50 minutes of material plus the time to turn the Powerpoints into a videos & upload them to YouTube. 

Once done though I actually thought it was worthwhile. Wasting time on 1 to many live lectures is silly. Putting that part of teaching online makes a lot of sense (as long as the material remains in the control of the producer). In the second iteration of my course with video lectures, and a reduced cohort size, I used the time that I formerly had devoted to delivering the lecture to answering student questions about the lecture material.  That means more face-to-face time focusing on the content that students actually want to talk about and more time for them to think about what they want to ask.

Tuesday, 9 October 2018

Resistance through Writing

Stuart Hall did not feature on any of my undergraduate reading lists when I studied sociology in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The whole cultural studies thing might  have been going on elsewhere but it didn't touch the LSE. The nearest I got to it was taking a course with Alan Swingewood on the sociology of literature. Hoggart I'd already read. Williams I couldn't really make out, but the words seemed to make English sentences. Lukacs, Goldmann, Barthes and Benjamin, I had no idea what they were on about and secretly felt that it was unlikely to very important and that I'd get by without it. I imagine I wrote a very unimpressive exam. 

So Hall for me was a road not taken and I never really felt the need to tread it. From time to time an acquaintance would tell me how great his and the work of the Birmingham CCCS was. Occasionally I'd glance through some of the latter, but  failed to get anything out of it. It just wasn't concerned with the same sort of things that I was. I was aware that for some Hall was a cult figure, but he apparently arrived too late on the scene for me to join the cult. One place I did catch up with him was in Redemption Song a 1990s BBC documentary series about the Caribbean. It was worth watching and I certainly learned a few things from it, but I don't recall it being revelatory.

Which brings me to a chance encounter in a bookshop. I rarely enter such places these days unless it is to buy books for my daughter or sheet music, but on one of the last days of the Summer vacation, which I largely spent building two decks in two two different locations, I crossed the threshold of Waterstones in Twickenham. I had a few minutes to kill and I didn't expect to buy anything. More or less the first thing I saw was Familiar Stranger, Stuart Hall's autobiography. This is actually a slight misnomer as Hall didn't actually write an autobiography, but he gave hours of taped interviews to his friend  Bill Schwarz who put it together in autobiographical form. I looked at it, thought what the hell, and bought it. To be honest I was expecting to hate it, but at least I'd be able to say that I had actually read something that Hall had written, more or less.

So the punch line is: I was surprised. Of course about a quarter of it was written in the impenetrable and obfuscating language of cultural theory - first time I've read an "interpellation" in quite a few years. I have no idea what that bit was about. But the rest gives us a portrait of an intelligent, sensitive man  trying to make sense of a life lived simultaneously in several cultures, both in Jamaica and in London, dealing with the lived contradictions of a dying colonialism - the Halls were a rather well to do light skinned family - living in a society where skin tone was as important as class in delineating the status order. The story of his engagement with anti-nuclear politics after his emigration to Britain, student life in Oxford and the foundation of the New Left  Review are equally fascinating as are his encounters with the British class system in the marriage market. 

I don't think I learned that much about sociology, but I did get some sense of a man who led an interesting life and insight into why he became, for some, such a charismatic figure. I don't think I'll be reaching for Policing the Crisis though just yet.

Wednesday, 25 April 2018

Tha Amazing Family Moshinsky

I was recently in Edinburgh giving a paper at a conference on the history of sociology in the UK. One of the characters who cropped up in my talk was a woman called Pearl Moshinsky. If she hadn't died in 1941 she could have become a major figure in British sociology rather than just a footnote, for in the inter-war years she wrote a series of quite remarkable empirical papers,  co-authored with John Linton Gray on social class, ability and education and  with J. B. S. Haldane on genetics. It was really another 25 years before anything of similar quality was produced by British sociologists yet who now has heard of her?

Pearl Moshinsky was born on the 2nd of July 1909 in Whitechapel to Joseph and Rebecca Moshinsky. Joseph's 1910 naturalization papers say that he was born at Boruslov (probably Bohuslav which had a large Jewish population) in the province of Kiev in October 1880. The 1911 Census gives Rebecca's place of birth as Russia and tells us that by that time they had been married for six years and had four children, one of whom was dead.  I can find neither in the 1901 Census so I assume they arrived in Britain during the first decade of the 20th century.

In 1910 Joseph's occupation is given as 'tobacconist' and his address as 4 Leman Street which is adjacent to Aldgate East Station. This was in fact the shop. In 1911 the family is living in 3 rooms at  34 Vallance Road, Whitechapel. Later they appear in the electoral register at Fredrick Street and throughout the 20s and 30s at 4 Leman Street (Joseph also appears in rating records as renting number 2 Leman Street).

Pearl attended Malmesbury Road Board School in Bow and then in October 1915 was admitted to Cable Street School. I know nothing more about her education except that she was admitted to the London School of Economics in 1928 and graduated BSc (Econ) in 1931. Shortly thereafter she seems to have started working in Lancelot Hogben's Department of Social Biology and wrote a PhD awarded in 1937 for a thesis on 'The relation between the distribution of intelligence and the social environment'. She published three papers before the award of her doctorate, the first in 1934 in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of Edinburgh which seems to have initially been communicated by Hogben and two in 1935, both in the Sociological Review. One of the latter was the subject of an extended report in the Manchester Guardian. I wonder how many pieces published in today's sociology journals would get that?

In December 1933 Pearl married Samuel Goldman, son of an East End tailor and like her a graduate of the LSE. Goldman was a brilliant economics student who went  on to have a career in banking  and  the civil service, eventually becoming second permanent secretary at the Treasury. They had two children: a daughter Janet, born in 1937 died shortly after birth. Their son Antony John born in 1940 went on after Marlborough and Peterhouse to have himself a distinguished civil service career ending up as Director General of Civil Aviation.

In July 1940 Pearl and her infant son sailed on the Duchess of Richmond from Liverpool to Montreal. At the end of the month they both crossed into the US at St Alban's,Vermont and made their way to New York where Pearl seems to have taken up a position as an instructor in  sociology and anthropology at Brooklyn College. One wonders what the motivation for this move was. Perhaps it was a career opportunity or perhaps it was simply  to get the child to safety.  The sojourn in America didn't last long and in December 1941 Pearl's death was registered in Islington.

You might say that given her background Pearl did well for herself. An East End immigrant upbringing wasn't an obvious route to academic success. But what is astonishing is not just how successful Pearl was but how successful a number of her siblings were. Her elder brother Israel became a physician after studying at Guy's Hospital. Sometime in the 1930s he changed his name to Ivan Rayle Marre. A younger brother Issac also became a doctor and changed his name to Leonard Marre. But perhaps the most successful of all was another younger brother Aaron Samuel. He won a scholarship to Trinity Hall and was awarded  a 1st class degree in part II of  the Classics Tripos. In July 1940 he changed his name to Alan Samuel Marre and Sir Alan Samuel Marre ended his civil service career as second permanent secretary at the Department of Health and Social Security. 

Joseph, the  tobacconist died in March 1956. By that time he had long left the East End behind and moved to a house in Oman Avenue, Willesden. The Probate Register tells us that his estate was worth almost £16,000. A tidy sum for a man who began life in a backwater of the Russian empire.