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

Wednesday, 2 September 2020

Toils Obscure

I learned a couple of days ago that a man I owe a lot too died in March. He was 85 so for someone of that generation had a reasonable if not exceptional innings. His name is Brian Richie, he was my English teacher in what would now be called years 9-13.

I want to say something about him, call it a tribute if you like, but I have a small difficulty. I only ever met him once as an adult and my perspective is consequently mostly that of the schoolboy. About the man himself I know little. But I know what he was like in the classroom and I know what influence he had on me.

Brian was of that generation of secondary school teachers that had no degree, in fact he was taking an OU degree in English while he was teaching us. In class he sometimes told us things about his past, something that few of the other teachers did, and that in itself made him stand out. He'd done his National Service in Cyprus and left us in no doubt about the unheroic task of standing on guard duty on a pitch black night desperately hoping a terrorist woudn't creep up behind you and cut your throat.

Sometime after National Service he became an Anglican priest, and a secondary school teacher. Later, I gather, he went back to the Church. When he died he was the Rev Brian Ritchie and had been Rector of Hatton with Haseley between 1988 and  1997. About the Church side of his life I know nothing at all.

What first struck you about Brian when you met him in the classroom was his appearance. He must have been 1 meter 95 tall, elegantly clothed, usually in a grey suit and beard. He had remarkably long legs and did a very passable impression of John Cleese doing the funny walk.. Even though he was a housemaster as well as an English teacher he always affected an air of anti-authoritarian irreverence. He could be severe when he had to be (and could shout very loudly) but I always felt that this was just an act that an essentially kindly man  put on to keep control of some often quite out of control pupils.

So what was special about his teaching? First a step back. My first two years of English lessons at secondary school were...pedestrian. There was nothing wrong with the teacher but her teaching didn't inspire a love of literature in me. It probably wasn't her fault. She had the tough job of getting 11 and 12 year olds to read A High Wind in Jamaica (A brilliant book, but better read when you are older), A Kid for Two Farthings the Silver Sword and The Pearl. I never managed to read any of them and couldn't really see why I should. Nobody ever bothered to explain why we were doing whatever we were doing.

Brian's approach to teaching English was completely different. He decided, possibly inspired by his OU course, that what we needed and what it would be fun to do (no national curriculum in those days) was to cover as much of the development of English literature as you could squeeze into a year. But first he  gave us some tools to help us learn to learn. He was a great one for bringing a TV and VCR into the classroom and he showed us a few episodes of Tony Buzan's Use Your Head, mind mapping, speed reading, mnemonics etc. I don't know what the reputation of that sort of thing is now but to me, at the time, it was revelatory to realise that you could consciously improve how you learned. 

That year we watched  Jonathan Miller's King Lear (1975 BBC Play of the Month), listened to excerpts from Hair "What a piece of work is a man...", watched Hardy's The Withered Hand and a Hammer Horror Movie to study the conventions of the Gothic Novel, watched Monty Python as an introduction to the Theatre of the Absurd. Brian distributed his own paperback books among us. I was given Tom Jones, and the Power and the Glory. We had a few weeks to read as much as we could (I think I managed about a third of Tom Jones) and then we had to write a report on what we had read. Somehow we also managed to fit in reading some D H Lawrence short stories  the Lawrence novel that we were supposed to be studying- Son's and Lovers and Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men

For the first time I realised that people didn't just spin novels out of their heads. They were part of a literary tradition and that tradition had conventions which they either adhered to or consciously broke away from. It struck me that writers write what they do and in the way that they do for  reasons and that it was fun to try and figure out their reasons, what kind of effect they were aiming for, how they achieved their effect (or didn't) and so forth. It also started me off thinking about the merits of different styles of literature, standards of taste and how literary judgements are made.

Brian taught me for O level (Macbeth, A Kestrel for a Knave, Northanger Abbey, War & 1930s poets) and A level (The Rainbow, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead and the Unseen Crit paper). As we got older he revealed a bit more about himself. He extolled the virtues of Soft Machine, Cream, Pink Floyd and Tangerine Dream whilst disparaging the commercialism of Bowie. I still have some purple cyclostyled sheets he handed out. They are copies of Clive James's Observer column which he used to teach Lit Crit. In everything he did he opened up new worlds, revealed new vistas,showed us  things that were 'til then unseen and unimagined.

I let him down in O level English Lit by only achieving a B. Though I knew Macbeth and the poetry off by heart I had (unaccountably) only read half of Northanger Abbey which made answering questions about it a tad tricky. Learning my lesson I made sure that I knew all the A level texts thoroughly and did him proud.

After leaving school I only met Brian once. It was at some sort school reunion cultural event. He was gently charming and surprised me by bringing up something I had written for him years earlier. I was astounded that he would remember. We said we would keep in touch, but as is often the case, good intentions were not sufficient and I made no effort. 

And yet his influence is indelible. The Man's the gowd for a' that!

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.