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I spent Sunday morning moderating an Honours paper for another university, which was entertaining, because it was a course on comics. Apparently any other institution in this country is more liberal than my Cherished Institution on the subject of what constitutes Literature Worthy Of Study. The bastards. Nice little course, except for the trifling problem that about 80% of the chosen texts were Alan Moore, Grant Morrison or Warren Ellis, thus establishing comics as something exclusively written by white men. No women. No black authors. And an extremely dodgy tendency to examine works by Moore as "feminist" writing, which is an assumption rife with sufficient flaws actually to leave me speechless. The course somewhat foolishly illustrated its feminist theory section with Saga of the Swamp Thing #40, which is all full of equations between menstruation and werewolves and female anger, written in an essentially facile manner that purports to critique but really doesn't examine the terms of its own assumptions about biological essentialism and female abjection, and thus ends up perpetrating them. Bleah. I was sharply reminded how much and how profoundly I actually dislike Alan Moore.

On the upside, I slightly pinch-hitted the moderation, their originally assigned moderator did a disappear at the last minute, and I turned it around in three days, which led yesterday to the unexpected arrival of flowers and chocolate from the grateful course convenor. I feel appreciated. And have been consuming Lindt all day while cheerfully ignoring any ironic resonances with chocolate as a culturally accepted remedy for menstrual suffering.

It's all a bit entwined, in fact, because a routine gynae check-up yesterday has revealed that, yet again, my uterine lining is doing weirdnesses and needs to be examined and possibly restrained, so I'm in hospital yet again next week for a minor op. My uninterrupted streak of One Minor Op Per Year continues apace. Probably I shouldn't spark these things by reading Alan Moore versions of female biology. At least the bumps on my fingers aren't regenerating. Yet, she says darkly. I may yet mutate into actual Swamp Thing.

vision thing

Sunday, 21 October 2018 09:27 am
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Migraine auras are extremely weird. I had a random attack yesterday, which started out as strange patches in the middle of my vision, causing me to clean off my glasses umpteen times in increasing frustration before realising what was happening. The true aura came a bit later, in the form I always get, and have done since I was at school, I remember lying in the nurse's office watching the flickering with slightly stoned fascination. It's always a reverse C shape in the right hand side of my vision, occupying about the middle third of its vertical pitch, and composed of tiny interlocking needles in black and white, in weird diagonal patterns which flicker continuously.

I've had a tendency over last few years to have fits of aura without necessarily progressing to full-blown migraine, although that can also happen - I don't know if yesterday's was a true migraine or only an aura attack, because I hit it with Trepiline as soon as the true aura appeared, and it vanished within an hour, along with the incipient headache. Score, except that Trepiline in the middle of the day knocks me out, so I fell onto the bed at 12 and only woke up at 5.30, much to Jyn's delight. She likes to sleep on my bed during the day, and appreciates company. And then I slept for nearly eight hours last night, so double score.

It may have been stress triggered, now that I think about it, because I bunked the faculty curriculum symposium on Friday afternoon, which always causes me acute guilt because Lawful Good, but in retrospect I think my complete inability to contemplate the thought of a crowded lecture theatre full of politics was probably pre-migraine weirdness. It's nice to have a label for it.
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oh gods, there's a coup in Zimbabwe. The military, miffed at the recent Mugabe purge of ex-military politicians who might prevent that poisonous psychopath Grace from taking power, has intervened in force and is currently holding the national broadcaster and releasing far-from-reassuring statements that Mugabe and his family are all well, we promise, they're fine! There are armoured vehicles all over Harare and reports of explosions, and Mugabe himself hasn't made any sort of statement, and I am astonishing myself with the viciousness of my hope that it's because somebody put a bullet between his eyes in the first five minutes of the coup.

I haven't lived in Zim for decades, and I don't even have much family left there any more, and you'd think it would all be a bit distant and abstract by now. But when my colleague came into my office to tell me this morning and I looked at the first few reports, it became apparent that on some subliminal level I am still Zimbabwean, and that some portion of my psyche is still bruised and traumatised by everything that despotic hell-toad did to my country, because I burst into tears. I don't usually do that in front of people, I reserve it for home or the car. It was odd. But, oh gods and little fishes, I hope he's out. I hope he's out on a stretcher under a sheet. I hope Grace is out with him. It's far beyond time.

I suppose the uncontrolled crying might also be because I am already somewhat on edge because of the protest threats on campus, and had a truly appalling night - my damned leg muscles kept cramping, waking me up in agony three times. (It doesn't help that the cats sleep heavily on my feet and contort them into weird cramp-inducing positions, although I suppose I do have my revenge in that the cramps rocket me into the bolt-upright position with a convulsive plunge which usually ejects two protesting felines summarily in something of a graceful arc). Exams started today and the Great Exam Tent Experiment seems to have opened fairly smoothly, with complete lock-down of the Exam Tent in the midst of an iron ring of police, security, campus protection, access control, dogs and an ambulance, and at time of writing a complete absence of protesters. I think that they are Biding Their Time, like a rake in the grass.

My subject line is, of course, Buffy. More accurately, the drunken pretentious Pol student in "Beer Bad". In tangentially related news, my flame lily is flowering again, at least the half of it that wasn't summarily eaten to the ground by snails as soon as it sprouted. I shall attempt to see this as a Good Omen for coups and protests and other such exuberances.
freckles_and_doubt: (Default)
Well, that was odd. I've just had the Protester Ringleader in my office again, to make the course drop we discussed a few weeks back. It was a weirdly cordial interchange, where he apologised for disrupting my lecture and assured me it was just politics, nothing personal. And that he does not in any way endorse the bus-burning and throwing-things-at-Vice-Chancellors activities of the 2016 protesters, and doesn't agree with the violence, and won't resort to it himself. And was strangely accepting of my argument that, well, I didn't know that when he was threatening my students with a fire extinguisher, did I, and yes, he understands why contextually that would be problematical and result in tension and migraines on my part.

We even laughed about it, and agreed that fuck Jacob Zuma anyway, it's all his fault. And had a fairly open and respectful discussion on Ringleader's actual grievances, which are apparently about his reading of the enforcement of faculty rules (in this case, DP for a particular course) as being unfair to poor/black students. And we agreed to disagree on the rules interpretation issue, because from where I sit we do our damndest to enforce rules even-handedly, even if it doesn't feel like it to him.

Weirdly cordial. And my neck is all in knots and I can feel the headache building, and I'm shaking very slightly. This campus is inducing PTSD.

On the upside, Jo (ty) has finally succeeded in ejecting her overdue offspring, who is a beautiful girl-child rejoicing in the name of Theodora. Huzzah for additions to the small thundering herds in my immediate social vicinity, at least in the abstract. I love the name. It's always been one of my favourites, it's both unusual and strangely dignified. Mad congrats to all three.

happy times

Tuesday, 31 October 2017 11:19 am
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So, the SA government, bless its cotton socks, has announced, perfectly predictably after much backing and filling, that free tertiary education is not viable, and radical student movements are seething. We lost two days from last week with protesting crowds prowling the campus with sticks, and lectures have been suspended yesterday and today. The Management of our Cherished Institution has decreed that lectures resume tomorrow, with increased security presence and an interdict on illegal protests, and the campus staff, bruised and slightly numb, can only brace themselves in expectation. In our court: the new SRC, just elected, rejoices in a majority of Democratic Alliance-identifying student leaders, hell bent on keeping campus open. Against us: interdicts and opening have infallibly in the past provided just the venue protesters need to rampage with maximum effect. I am not, shall we say, sanguine. I think it's highly likely we'll be delivering another truncated semester, and we'll be bloody lucky if we manage, in the teeth of the odds, to run undisrupted exams.

In all of this the faculty office is having an outbreak of management fuckwittery, coupled with serious bad timing: the faculty manager has taken two weeks off in what seems to be something of a snit, after trying unavailingly to banish the whole admin office to middle campus, and the deputy has two kids in hospital after a car accident and is likewise absent. There is something of a blitz mentality among my colleagues: keep your heads down, keep calm, carry on. Hope it doesn't explode.

I am playing a shitload of Fallout 4 again, because cynical apocalyptic black humour seems a viable response under the circumstances, and I significantly lack the emotional energy for anything other than a retreat into videogaming. In particular, I am deeply enamoured of the soundtrack, which gives you, via an in-game radio station, a truly lovely succession of songs from the 40s and 50s. These are beautifully and somewhat evilly chosen to fit into the post-nuclear-war black humour of the game, and mine the hell out of the 40s genre of novelty songs, hence "Uranium Rock" and "Atom Bomb Baby" and "Craw Out Through The Fallout". They also use sad love songs ("End of the World", "I don't want to set the world on fire", "Into each life some rain must fall") capable of reinterpretation in light of wandering the raider-ridden gun-toting post-apocalyptic landscape (and I have to say, the way in which a lot of these songs mix up love/sex/death/explosion metaphors is ... deeply disturbing, "Butcher Pete" and "Rocket 69" oh my god). And they sprinkle the playlist with syrupy feel-good croonings such as my subject line (also "Accentuate the positive" and "Dear hearts and gentle people") which you are obliged to read severely in the inverted position, wincing. I have downloaded two soundtracks and a bunch of individual songs from ITunes and am playing them on rotation in the car, chortling. It's helping.

break point

Tuesday, 24 October 2017 09:25 pm
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oh god, student protesters disrupted lectures this afternoon for the second time in two days, and it was a really large crowd of protesters, this time, causing me to close the security gate on our offices in the slightly irrational fear of over-enthusiastic mobs piling catastrophically through the glass doors. I wonder how they've drummed up support? there seemed to be very little appetite for protest among students, and previous disruptions have been all of five or six of them. That'll teach me to incautiously send reassuring emails to students saying that I think there are very few protesters and closures are unlikely. Just what the Cosmic Wossnames need as an excuse to sock us in the nose again.

The dear little protesters spent half an hour or so singing the usual harmonious protest songs up and down the avenue, and my heart is sinking very heavily into my boots. I can't go through this again. I haven't actually recovered from the last round yet - this week I've been dragging myself around the show in a state of complete exhaustion, triggered, I think, by rising student demands as the end of term approaches, and the need to start planning the next iteration of the endless cycle of orientation and reg. Do not want. Do not have resources. Can't even. Nope.

The usual linkery-distraction refers. Merriam-Webster, as in the dictionary, has a time travel function, allowing you to look up the words that made it into the dictionary for the first time in the year of your birth. I am nominating this as a new, excitingly hyper-linguistic alternative to all the usual astrological birth-sign crap. I was born in the year of peer review, the delete key, ecocatastrophe, untenured, homophobia, mood disorders and the event horizon. In retrospect, this explains a lot about a lot of my life arcs. Also the year of autosave, futuristics and the straight arrow, so perhaps there's hope.
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I have just had my second English lecture shut down by student protesters, right in the middle of a particularly pithy bit about postcolonial readings of Frankenstein. We were deconstructing a white British nineteenth-century novel in terms of its representation of marginalised racial identities, what the hell more do the protesters want? I did a quick poll of the class, revealing an overwhelming majority in favour of continuing the lecture, so I tried, possibly foolishly, to continue lecturing over the slogan-chanting and light-flicking. This endured for another few minutes, but narked the little buggers enough that one of them hauled out a fire extinguisher and threatened the front rows, at which point I decided discretion was the better part of valour and shut down the lecture.

I am seething. The ringleader was the little shit whose curriculum woes I spent half an hour patiently deconstructing last week. I'm buggered if I'm doing that again, I think I'm within my rights to refuse further advice sessions on the grounds of the threatened violence. I am surprisingly shaken by the whole thing, actually. Tea is helping. As is the revelation via the class poll that the protesters' popular support has eroded to the point of almost non-existence. That mandate, I do not think you have it in the way you think you have.

My subject line is, of course, Douglas Adams: the only thing going through the mind of a plummeting bowl of petunias is, of course, "Not again...". If this is heralding a new round of shut-downs... aargh, is all I can say. Aaaargh.

a suffusion of yellow

Wednesday, 11 January 2017 08:43 am
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For some bizarre reason my morning Earl Grey tastes faintly of coffee. This seems both unlikely and a little unfair. I don't think there is actually any coffee in the house.

Today is my last day of leave, which I propose to spend doing entirely self-indulgent things which probably include comfort-replaying something hack-and-slashy. It's been a lovely three weeks of leave, which have been characterised by a nice balance of achievement and goofing off.
  • I examined a PhD thesis, for the first time ever, which was pretty terrifying going in but actually doable, and I think I've done a reasonably fair and conscientious job despite large tracts of it being in an unfamiliar critical field.
  • I should have written a paper, but three days in I examined my conscience and state of energy, thought "Hell no" and withdrew from the collection, which made me feel guilty for about three seconds, and then enormously relieved; the editor was nice about it and the world did not end. (I also have to say that if there's a silver lining to the student protest cloud, it makes a magnificent excuse for not being able to do stuff).
  • I finished Portal, Portal 2 and Firewatch, all three of which were highly enjoyable.
  • I've managed over the holiday period to get back into exercising, which means I've been walking for about 40 mins daily, and am feeling much better for it.
  • And, notwithstanding water restrictions, I have madly grown a batch of gem squash plants and a mango seedling from seed, by virtue of randomly planting the remnants of various meals, watering them at erratic intervals, standing back and let the currently rather fierce African sun and my predilection for compost do their stuff.

By way of some faint point to this slightly vague and wandering post, have some random linkery.

  • This is an obituary for Leia Organa, rather nicely done.
  • This is an Ursula Vernon YA portal fantasy, evincing her characteristic combination of whimsy and down-to-earthness, and featuring a particularly virulent toxic mother figure. I loved it.
  • This, on the other hand, is an entirely adult, very dark, very freaky, very good Ursula Vernon horror story, finishing which made me go "Holy fuck!" out loud. There's feminist fairy-tale rewrites, and then there's ... this.


My subject line is a random Dirk Gently quote for no reason other than a vague association with multiplicity, and the fact that Tumblr has a current sideline in gifs from the new Dirk Gently tv series. It sounds completely off the wall, has anyone seen it?
freckles_and_doubt: (South Park Self)
So, this is 2017. *looks around vaguely* ... you'd think they'd update the decor. We had the usual lovely New Year's dinner chez jo&stv, with distributed cooking and a metric buttload of champagne, of which I drank very little as apparently I can't drink more than two glasses of anything these days without feeling sick the next day. I made duck. Because duck. I should record for posterity that I made something almost, but not quite, completely unlike the Asian marinade found here - I left out the coffee, added lime juice, and used honey instead of sugar, and the proportions were all different because my invariable principle is not to measure anything and to keep on flinging in bits until it tastes right. But the flavour combination is amazing.

I am still on leave, calloo callay, although it's a slightly hands-on sort of leave. With one hand I am examining a thesis which is forcing me to read more creolisation theory than my non-postcolonial-fondling soul is strictly happy with, sigh, although on the upside it's on Nalo Hopkinson, who is a groovy sf writer. With the other hand I am wrangling orientation leaders, curriculum advisors and random queries from my boss, as I'm apparently constitutionally incapable of going on leave without reading email, and am forced to ritually curse the terminal conscientiousness of my Lawful Good. With my proverbial third hand I am attempting to mend, alter and generally refurbish my wardrobe, and with a fourth hand I am playing Portal, which I had unaccountably neglected to play before despite being absurdly familiar with it via pop cultural osmosis. Dashed through the first one in short order, am nearly finished Portal 2 with enough puzzle-solving panache to have minimal resort to walk-throughs. Both games are elegant, intelligent, darkly funny creations, deservedly classics. I love the goo bits, so creative.

In between all of the above I am lovingly prodding my container garden, which is performing GREEN! with some verve despite water restrictions and the need to amble around with a watering can rather than sloshing about with a hose.

garden1.jpg

My subject line is a quote from Portal, early GLaDOS, before she gets passive aggressive. She gets quite spectacularly passive aggressive. So far 2017 is off to a reasonable start, but I darkly suspect it's also going to get passive aggressive, and possibly actively homicidal.
freckles_and_doubt: (South Park Self)
I was right about the "too quiet" thing, an attempt to be on campus on Wednesday inevitably ended up with protesters setting off fire alarms, and we all scurried home quickly before they could attempt to pointedly escort us out of the buildings, which has been the technique thus far. The Dean finally decreed that everyone should remain off campus for the rest of the week. We are at a deeply unpleasant pivot point where the university leadership is insisting that lectures must start on Monday come what may, which means increased security, which means confrontation and escalation and violence, and more damage and trauma all round.

The whole thing still hinges on the demand for amnesty by protesters who were interdicted or expelled or prosecuted for criminal damage. The students remain immovable about this as a condition of allowing the university to continue; the VC insists that there can be no compromise. (Apparently he's under pressure from a particularly punitive faction in Council). I have changed my mind about this, in contemplation of the inevitabilities playing out, and in wincing, braced anticipation of things going horribly downhill on Monday. At this stage, amnesty is going to be the least damaging of a range of dreadful options. The best suggestion I've heard thus far, after a surprisingly civilised and productive faculty meeting this morning, is that the university issues amnesties while requiring an address to criminal activities, and some resolution in terms of justice/reparation, as part of an independently-run TRC.

And if nothing else, it might work to repair trust to some small extent: we cannot function with a student body with a large number of perfectly legitimate grievances feeling utterly unheard by an implacable admin. It's horrible to realise how much damage has already been done - not just to our credibility and donor funding and academic project, but to the institutional psyche. Students are angry and afraid and anxious about all the confrontation on top of the already high levels of inherent angst in being a black student on a campus whose culture is opaque and elitist and alienating. Staff are devastated and betrayed by the assaults on their competence which student dissatisfactions inevitably represent, and are increasingly angry about all these demands that we "consult" with our students while management goes ahead and makes unilateral decisions regardless of the outcome of consultations.

I am not designed for this. I have a pathological need to see all sides of an argument, and far too much empathy with all of them. I am tending to keep fairly quiet in the faculty context in a desperate attempt at self-defense, while I silently build walls to stop myself from disintegrating. Because that's what it feels like. A lot of my Useful Stuff Learned In Therapy suggests that giving people what they want is one of the ways I validate my own existence. No-one can get what they want in all this. I can't help, despite the fact that my job requires I integrally help both students and the faculty. I therefore may not actually exist.
freckles_and_doubt: (South Park Self)
This is currently my favourite random image in the stream which flows incessantly and sometimes repetitively over Tumblr:



Damn, it has anxiety. In particular, it has anxiety if it's a student whose exams have just been summarily relocated by two weeks. You would not believe the degree of chaos incurred for the workings of plane tickets, travel arrangements generally, accommodation, planned holidays, planned vac work, parental travel plans for graduation, and interesting new religious conflicts. (Diwali). The conceptual high-water-anxiety-mark on the walls of my office is higher than it's ever been. I have spent the bulk of the last two weeks soothing students, often through the medium of cut-and-paste, because there's a limit to my ability to be originally soothing twenty times in a row.

However, the protests seem to be (touch wood) over: the students, bless them, have pretty much swept the board with achieving their goals (0% fee increase for next year; university commitment to insourcing; lifting of interdicts and dropping of charges against protesters; a ban on police on campus). How the hell we're going to finance all of the above is another story entirely, the government is going to be a broken reed in this department, I can tell you right now. But I'm back in my office, at least, and none of my plants died, and the level of office-renovatory chaos is at least no greater than it was before the involuntary two-week freeze, and we have dates for rescheduled exams so I can start allaying anxieties in a slightly more concrete fashion.

These student protests were, I think, necessary, and certainly powerful, and in the long run have a chance to materially improve the lot of our most disadvantaged and financially precarious students. There's a cost, though. And while a middle-class student is likely to be able to absorb a R4000 airline ticket reschedule, or pay for accommodation for an extra two weeks or to write a supp, our poorest students won't be able to. If we have to fling sacrifices into the maw of the political volcano god, it seems particularly cruel to have selected for these ones.

(My subject line is still "Teach your children well", incidentally. Because it's still relevant).
freckles_and_doubt: (South Park Self)
Today has been characterised by a trickle of emails from students panicking (fairly understandably, I must say) about whether or not exams will run, and what happens if they're delayed. (The VC has just postponed all next week's ones, which will cause interesting degrees of chaos). Campus is still closed and will be tomorrow while protesters lobby Parliament and dodge police brutality, and I predict I'll spend a lot of time for the rest of the week sending soothing responses along the lines of "we know, we're sorry, we're trying to formulate a strategy which won't torpedo your academics." The theme is still anxiety about their studies, just in the microcosm rather than the political macrocosm.

A week at home has, if considered entirely separately from the very real and desperate circumstances of the protests, been lovely. My cats are graciously pleased that I have arranged for once to give them the sustained companionship that is their due, and are signifying their approval by trying to lie all over my papers and wrists and the keyboard while I'm trying to work. While looking deceptively innocent and adorable, viz:

Photo0213

That curled-paw pose is absolutely my favourite one ever. The black speck on his nose is a tiny bald spot which is a legacy of one of his recent fights.

Work itself has also been pleasantly mitigated by the fact that I can wander around the back courtyard during tea-breaks and water, prod, prune and otherwise appreciate all that burgeoning spring life. Because my back courtyard has a statement to make right now, which is "Green!" Or possibly "GREEN!!" Namely:

Photo0220 Photo0215

The small maddened forest to the left of the first picture is three tomato plants, which have confounded my expectations by reaching skyward with jungloid fervour despite the fact that plants put in exactly the same place at exactly the same time last year on exactly the same regimen of soil and water went small and stunted and sickly, and died after producing about one and a half actual tomatoes each. One of the reasons I love gardening is because it has its own wayward vegetable mind and, charm you never so wisely, will thumb its nose and go its own way.

I also, in a spirit of enquiry, planted another batch of Jo's mad rocket seeds, which I swear she has irradiated or subjected to naked full moon dances at midnight. Or else they're actually triffids. Because I planted these on Monday evening, and this was what they looked like this morning:

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I went out there a few minutes ago, and I swear they're visibly bigger. The offical, nursery-packaged chive seeds I planted at the same time have yet to materialise.

My subject line is Crosby, Stills and Nash, more specifically "Teach your children well", which I learned to play at guitar club at school, and the attempt to reproduce which this morning led me to realise that I haven't tried to play my guitar in over a year, and its bottom E string has snapped. Phooey. But I'm officially nominating the song as the week's anthem, because dear lord, so much of what these poor kids are facing is simple inheritance.

trigger warning

Wednesday, 21 October 2015 11:57 am
freckles_and_doubt: (South Park Self)
It's possibly a little too apposite that my car music should have just cycled into Diamond Dogs, as I've been at home for three days owning to a closed campus - the students are protesting. They barricaded the campus on Monday, and did again with added flame on Tuesday, after by all accounts an uncomfortable night at the admin building in which attempted discussions with university management eventually broke down just before midnight with a bunch of arrests. I managed to leave the house before yesterday morning's emails warning us that campus was closed for a second day, so trundled up to a bizarre, deserted, post-apocalyptic landscape in which the few students wandering around looked confused and slightly hunted, and there was a very slight haze of burning tyre smoke over everything. Today we're also off campus, which is closed for students nationally to yell at the government, to which I say yay. The government needs yelling at.

I have found my own reactions to be strangely complicated. On the one hand this seems fairly standard - students will demonstrate, bless them, and we've had a good couple of decades of relative ideological apathy, so it's rather reassuring to see that the current generation is capable of this sort of generalised moral passion. I do wish the protesters wouldn't break things, but I know how mobs work, particularly when passions are high and when there's a whole entrenched history of disadvantage vs privilege embodied in the buildings of our campus. And their thesis - that fees are too high - is absolutely valid. Our fees are too damned high - in my job I see a continual succession of these poor kids in the direst financial straits, struggling to make it work under the double whammy of high fees and under-preparation by Matric. Our fees should bloody well be protested. And while it's a lot more complicated than the students would like to believe (if we cut fees as demanded we'd go under, as far as I can tell, and the institution, far from screwing the working poor with a jaunty laugh, does put a buttload of money into financial aid), with any luck the nationwide nature of the protests will be enough to force the government to at least divert some of their corruption earmarks into our severely under-subsidised tertiary education.

What I wasn't prepared for, however, was the trigger effect of all this. I started university in South Africa in 1988, still under the apartheid government. While I was possibly the world's most unpoliticised and oblivious undergrad, and experienced only the trailing tail-end of the student protests, there were still marches on campus in my first couple of years, and protesters tangling with the police water-cannon on Adderley Street (the purple shall govern! Ye gods, I was only hazily aware of the whole Purple Rain protest at the time, and a quick google reveals that I had remembered the details perfectly accurately. It clearly made an impression.) The police cars all over campus yesterday and Monday, and the burning barricades, and the footage with flash-bangs and loud-hailers outside the admin block on Tuesday night, even the raised fists and shouting, catapulted me nastily and viscerally back into that far more tense and horrible time. Let's just say that students vs. government has some unpleasant historical precedents in this country, shall we?

So protesters are hard-coded as "legitimate" to me in a way which actually transcends the validity of their current point of protest. It engenders a cold, sinking feeling to have our current government by implication put into the same frame of reference as the bad old apartheid one. (I had an identically emotional response to the police casspirs in District 9). And if nothing else, my Cherished Institution has handled the whole thing with conspicuous tone-deafness, to haul in the police so early on in the process, to descend immediately into "this is illegal" in a way which instantly overwrote "let us discuss the valid point you have here", and to re-create with such fidelity the traditional battle lines of police and stun guns and armoured vehicles as the threatening backdrop to student protest. It's perfectly obvious to the most untrained eye that that was never going to go down well.

In all sorts of weird ways South African apartheid was never my battle, but in all sorts of weird ways it is, not just because I was there for its fall and live here now - because these are my students, and the effects of apartheid are still playing out in their lives, and one upshot of my job is that I feel protective and worried about them, and very invested in their happiness and success. Some of them have crossed lines they shouldn't have in these protests, and are going to face potentially life-ruining consequences. We have had lectures disrupted, and exams might still be affected, and I know that I'm going to be dealing with emotional and physical fallout from these protests as students wander through my office attempting to unravel the ramifications for their studies. And I can only hope that it's all worth it, that it works, that our thrice-damned government will remember its roots enough to respond appropriately.

And because that's all too damned serious, I shall end with entirely another sense of emotional trigger that is equally about history and investment and struggle and moral polarities: the new Star Wars trailer made me cry.
freckles_and_doubt: (South Park Self)
I cling to my research pursuits by the skin of my teeth these days, cramming it into odd corners and for the large part watching with helpless regret as mental and physical fatigue torpedo what little footholds I can carve out. One of the upshots is that these days I go into the university library about twice a year, if that - not because I'm not researching at all, I am, but by and large research these days is done virtually rather than with hard-copy books, and such hard-copy books as are essential to my research interests are somewhat fringe and I tend to simply buy copies for myself. (Memo to self: Kindle. Because exploding bookshelves.) However, I am overdue by two months for 2000 words on the importance of Vladimir Propp to fairy tale criticism (because why pick a reasonably-sized topic, a sense of proportion is for the weak) and my copy of Morphology of the Folktale has vanished completely enough that I'm beginning to wonder if I hallucinated actually owning it, so on Friday I Braved The Library.

I should not, as a literature academic, be alienated by an academic library. Being alienated by a library is an alienating experience on a whole level above the library itself being alienating. They radically redesigned the space a couple of years ago, and moved things around, and ever since then I walk in and am immediately lost. It's a very beautifully appointed and glitzy space, and has added several zeroes onto the number of student study seats, but I realised today what the root of the change is: it's now a student-focused space, not an academic-focused space. I get lost because all the signposting is about where and how students can study, and which areas are for undergrads, and how you may use your cellphone. There are no guides at all to where you might find the actual books. The previous library layout gave clear, unequivocal maps by Dewey number, and the lack of those leaves me free-floating and slightly panicky, because on walking in, you can't actually see any books at all other than the few shelves of reference volumes in the front. I was rescued by a kindly library colleague (it's useful knowing all these people from university committees), and she commented that the head librarian is contemplating getting rid of large numbers of the books, based on what people are actually reading.

I don't want to sound like a Jurassic reactionary about this - this is the way things are going, information is increasingly virtual, and the shift to a focus on the student experience is an important and necessary address to the exclusionary elitism of academia's more traditional forms. And if I was a more consistent Academic, in the sense of using these facilities for more than about 5% of my job description, I would have got the alienation over in a few weeks and simply adapted to the new status quo, rather than spreading it out torturously over several years. But I mourn the old library, and the physicality of the experience when your wanderings among the shelves were done in the consciousness of the accreted weight of all those books. I used to read for fun in undergrad, mostly as a substitute for an actual social life: I remember randomly picking up fiction just because the name seemed significant, William Morris and Evelyn Waugh and Virginia Woolf and John Fowles and the weirder corners of Tolkien. I'm not sure I could still do that in the new space, or if the books would be there for me to stumble upon. It's all too goal-oriented now.

And I really, really mourn my lost sense of mastery of the space. I struggle with academic identity at the best of times; to be at sea in the quintessential academic space, to be unable to locate the texts which are central to my research identity, was actively eroding to a particular facet of my sense of self. It wasn't pleasant.

I have my dark suspicions as to whether or not the new library even generates L-space. I don't think .303 bookworms exist virtually, or if they do, we're all completely screwed. It's worrying, is all. My worry is indexed by the fact that my subject line is Doctor Who, more specifically "The Silence in the Library." Because of course it is.

subtly hairy

Tuesday, 15 September 2015 01:51 pm
freckles_and_doubt: (South Park Self)
My lovely hairdresser would tear his own hair out regularly at the things I do to mine (have it cut approximately annually, refuse to blow-dry it, hack my own fringe short), except he's usefully and artfully bald (and highly polished) already. Occasionally I wander into the salon having neglected it for longer than usual and he runs his fingers through it despairingly and announces "That's not a haircut. That's just hair." There is, actually, a huge advantage to the "just hair" stage of coiffure. There are those odd days, usually produced by insomnia, during which I trundle somnambulistically into work and, somewhere around mid-morning, glance at myself in the mirror and have a moment's blank inability to remember if I actually brushed my hair before leaving the house. Fortunately, with "just hair", it's quite difficult to tell if that's the case or not, and I figure that if I can't tell the difference, probably no-one else can either. I clearly did want to be an eccentric and absent-minded professor when I grew up.

Presumably being an absent-minded professor would to some extent insulate me from the kind of phone call I've just had to endure, from a parent equally distressed and infuriated by her attempts to re-insert her son into the institution following academic exclusion. I understand her distress, this sort of thing is equally hard on kids and parents. But during the course of the conversation she did the following:
  • Chewed me out because no-one else is answering their phone;
  • Claimed that the online guidelines to readmission, carefully written by myself, didn't cover the information she needs (they really do);
  • Accused me of gross insensitivity two sentences after commending the sensitivity of my language;
  • Accused the institution of elitism because we require some evidence of improved circumstances before we re-admit excluded students;
  • Accused the institution of elitism because we enforce the government-set restrictions on maximum number of years of study permitted without graduation;
  • Did all of the above in tones of sweet, icy, implacable restraint which did their damnedest to present what was actually a self-indulgent vent at a hapless and largely uninvolved target as an exercise in dulcet and righteous reason.


I am extremely proud of the fact that I didn't lose my temper for an instant, remaining determinedly courteous and rational while she escalated the ice-salvos. Years of therapy are definitely worth something. But calls such as these leave me shaking and with my stomach in knots for hours, and are undoubtedly highly implicated in the increasing acreage of grey which characterises my not-a-hairstyle. I bring it on myself, of course, by being conscientious about answering my phone, in sharp contradistinction to many other corners of this institution. Fortunately the spanky new VOIP phone system has caller ID, and her name is emblazoned on my brain in letters of acidic ice. I see her name again, I'm going to let it ring. This resolution will be materially assisted by the fact that I'm going to be out of the office for a couple of days having the cobwebs surgically removed from various neglected reproductive portions of my anatomy. She may phone in vain with my blessing.

My subject line is the Very Secret Diary of Aragorn Son of Arathorn, who is the patron saint of bloggers. I seem to be blogging again. Go me!
freckles_and_doubt: (South Park Self)
Completely bizarre faculty board meeting yesterday, in which a senior professor attempted to railroad an item through the agenda proposing that the faculty remove all meat products from all its official functions, on the grounds of cruelty to animals. I cannot get my head around how he could possibly think that an article of personal/moral belief was at all appropriate to the faculty's official academic forum. As far as I'm concerned, it's the approximate equivalent of standing up in a faculty meeting and insisting that everyone embrace Jesus because it's the right thing to do. I am more than somewhat miffed that (a) he should force me to become a captive audience to his personal crusade, and (b) that he should demand consideration of something that affects the personal freedom of everyone in the faculty via a forum in which I have no vote. Dirty pool. And egregious grandstanding, to boot: he can have had no hope whatsoever that his horrible little proposal would have been accepted by faculty. He was making a point, possibly against the current dean with whom he butts heads regularly, but he was so out of line as to be in the next army entirely. (Kudos to our dean, though, for standing his ground with remarkable good humour in the face of rampant idiocy).

I admit, I spent most of the half-hour argument (the entirely faculty, who tend to the vociferously opinionated, leaped on board with vigour) alternately cringing in my seat and suppressing a desperate desire to stand up and suggest that the proposer was occupying exactly the same conceptual position as that horrible little court official in America who's just been jailed for refusing to issue marriage licences on the grounds of gay marriage being Wrong. But unfortunately I have to work with the man, and he's already obstructive enough.

At any rate, there was enough tension in the room that it put the whammy seriously on my tension-sensitive frondy antennae, and I spent a horrible insomniac night with my stomach in knots, unable to get to sleep until something around the order of 2.30am. Then Hobbit, bless his little white socks, chose 5.30am to start a half-hour of thumping and mad dashes through the house, which I'd somnambulistically attributed to sheer joie de vivre until the sudden, terminal, agonised squeaking made me realise he was actually dispatching, somewhat lingeringly, a large rat. (He left the corpse on the floor next to my bed, neatly laid out at an exact right angle in precisely the spot where my bare feet touch the floor as I stagger into the upright position. I am equally touched and horrified by the tribute). I was just drifting back to sleep after that when Pandora, as is her occasional wont, decided that 6.30am was the perfect time for the exercise in purring, kneading and climbing on top of me repeatedly which she is occasionally prone to. Sleep, apparently, is for the weak.

As I was leaving for work the feline tribe had cornered a second rat under the passage curtain, and were sitting around said curtain in attitudes of homicidal alertness. I was running too damned late (see 3.5 hours of sleep, above) to institute a search-and-rescue mission, and besides, I don't get too protective of rats. Two in one night suggests a plague ship may have docked nearby. If the cats wish to leap protectively into the breach, who am I to judge? Particularly given my slightly up-in-arms state of bristle at the mere concept of denying them the right to their carnivore natures. Because the Cosmic Wossnames have their own weird sense of humour, and arrange events in amusing thematic juxtapositions just because they can.

I am going to opera tonight - Merry Widow, Africanised production, should be fun and interesting and good for my sleep-deprived soul. My subject line is not Lehar. My subject line is, of course, Flanders and Swann.
freckles_and_doubt: (South Park Self)
I think I'm getting better at this, possibly because therapy. The student can tell me about her depression and anxiety as a result of her mother committing suicide at the end of last year, and I can be sympathetic and practical and hold off dissolving into tears about it until the poor child has actually left my office. The other student earlier this morning was about her brain-damaged mother and death of two brothers, and I also managed to not actually cry even though she was. Empathy makes me, in general, pretty good at this job, but it's a bugger.

There was a Teaching & Learning conference on campus yesterday, around which I wandered for most of the day, attending sessions which looked randomly interesting. It was all a bit surreal as I had approximately 3 hours of sleep on Sunday night, owing to (a) the inexplicable and unprovoked insomnia which prevented me from actually being able to get to sleep until 2am, and (b) the cat incursions at 5am which woke me rudely up from an already slightly fitful slumber. (Wake up to characteristic "thump thump thump ... THUMP" which means the drug hedgehog is being tossed around and killed inventively, with acrobatics. Listen for several minutes, thinking, damn, Hobbit, must you truly discover your inner kitten in the middle of the bloody night? Gradually realise that, in fact, Hobbit is sprawled along my shin, and has been since I woke up, which means the bloody neighbourhood tom has broken into the house in order to play with Hobbit's toys, which is frankly just rude. Particularly since he clearly ran off with it when I erupted out of bed to chase him away, I found the wretched thing in the back courtyard this morning and was impressed, despite myself, by the fact that he somehow managed to elevate himself through the bathroom window with the toy in his mouth without dropping it. I shall have to lock up the toys as well as the food when I go to bed).

At any rate, being sozzled on sleep deprivation is not a bad way to enjoy a conference of this nature, the subject doesn't call for dense theory so I could follow the good presentations and it was pleasingly easy to switch off for the bad ones. (I took my Ipad along, and whiled away the bad presentations reading porn. Fanfic is dashed useful as it looks like bland text on the page if anyone sneaks up behind you and looks over your shoulder.) I think the lack of mental energy was also good for subduing the angst levels, which tend to elevate somewhat in the presence of all these amazing, engaged, reflective teachers who are paid to do it properly and have time to theorise it instead of having to tack small remnants onto the back end of the admin job. Sigh.

My car music system has finished up the Belle & Sebastian and is merrily engaged with Crowded House, who have the inevitable side effect of making me sing along to about two-thirds of the tracks. Also, to regress mentally to my Masters years, when I shared the digs with Michelle and Dylan and the former addicted me to Crowdies. Still a slut for catchy. Also, music is absolutely and inescapably about memory and association. As stv would say, context!
freckles_and_doubt: (South Park Self)
parades end landscape

So, Parade's End! In utter defiance of my usual desperate fidelity to nothing but the fluffiest of genre tv, I am suddenly and inexplicably hooked on quality BBC renditions of period Modernist novels, with extra side helpings of war, tragedy and emotional distress. I dunno. Apparently I actually have the mental energy, which is probably not unrelated to my recent post on being (weird, go figure) un-depressed and even happy. Which, I am happy to say, is still the case.

My sudden interest in Parade's End is not just fangirling, although the link is Benedict Cumberbatch and I ended up watching it via the fan process - my Tumblr feed is still all about Sherlock, and if fan activity does anything, it introduces you not just to the investment of articulate fans in the central text, but in all the other texts they love, too. There's apparently only so much exposure to beautiful English countryside and Edwardian costume in lovingly-captured Tumblr gifs I can take before I have to damned well see the series.

And wow, is it beautiful. The production has a sort of glow about it, it's exquisitely conceived and shot, with an almost heightened reality to the period detail. That gives, I think, a slight sense of detachment from all of the mental cruelty and horrors of war with which the story is concerned - they are tragic and horrifying without actually being visceral, which is possibly also why I'm managing to enjoy it. But the visual spectacle is really only a context for the characters, from whom one doesn't detach at all. Wow, I invest in these people. All so interestingly flawed, groping unavailingly towards abstract ideals, so utterly shaped and entrapped by their social contexts, structures, expectations, morals. Their own desires so suppressed. Vivid, real, sad people, caught in a terrible sort of inevitability - not just war, although that flings it all into relief, but the shape of their everyday lives. The series is amazing, but now I really want to read the book.

And, let me tell you, it's deeply weird to find myself suddenly impelled to read the book, because my loathing for the Modernists is a pure and burning thing, and Ford Madox Ford is a maddened Modernist with all the bells and whistles. They've always struck me as arrogant sods with this whole thing of My Consciousness, Let Me Show You It. Generally, as a self-respecting genre theorist I have no damned interest at all in someone's naked consciousness, unfiltered by respectable genre functions or narrative conventions. A lot of this distaste is irrational and probably exists because I was badly savaged, in my impressionable undergrad, by a rampaging James Joyce - I never even tried Ulysses, Portrait of the Artist did for me all on its own in first-year English. At the time my high levels of nascent feminism and innate girly swot caused me independently to make valiant but unavailing attempts to read Virginia Woolf on the grounds that the Girl version of Modernism may be more palatable than the Boy, but oh lord. (Except Orlando. I love Orlando, it's a romp, albeit an angry romp, and it appeals to those bits of me that are into androgyny and shifted gender boundaries, which I am coming to the conclusion are rather a lot more of me than I'd realised).

But a sneaking sympathy has clearly crept up on me, because the Modernist framing of Ford's writing obviously influences the way the series is made, and I utterly adore the way the series is made. Apart from its deeply internal positioning and fascination with psychology, it's all allusion and implication, fragmented narrative, half-told stories, time-jumps, unexplained free associations - it makes you work, it doesn't explain, you have to construct it as you watch. I'm currently re-watching because I feel that I missed so much the first time round, and it's an immeasurably rich pleasure on a second viewing, when you can feel the operation of each instant in the arc of the whole. This is intelligent television based on an intelligent book, and thus, by gum, I'll prove myself intelligent by surviving Ford Madox Ford, or perish in the attempt.

I should also possibly record for posterity that, apart from an uncharacteristic inclination to give Modernism a second chance, watching Parade's End’s upper class Edwardianism, in which people perfectly unironically say things like “Ripping!” and “old boy”, has had the weird and possibly inevitable side-effect of mutating my already slightly indefinably pseudo-British accent inexorably towards ever more cut-glass Full English enunciation. (Like a Full English breakfast, only less hardening to the arteries). Especially, for some reason, when giving curriculum advice. I can't work out if the bell-like clarity is desirable or pretentious as hell, but given that my next Cunning Plan is to break out the BBC Bleak House I haven't got around to watching yet, the linguistic shenanigans are almost certainly going to amplify rather than receding. But it's my favourite Dickens, and Gillian Anderson doing Lady Deadlock is an act of inspired and genius casting such as the world has never seen, and apparently I now have the mental fortitude, so my immediate environment can just deal with the Britishness. So there.
freckles_and_doubt: (South Park Self)
Ah, the start of term. When lovesome students return in their droves from their dubious personal lives, bringing with them the collected germs of the earth's twelve quarters. Germs! exotic and teeming and ready to leap onto the unsuspecting and hapless forms of those of us luckless staff who are breathed on routinely by students and do not, in fact, possess any immunities to these exciting foreign strains. Half the faculty office is down with 'flu or whatever, including me, who was forced by a particular sod of a virus to lay extremely low all weekend, cancelling at short notice a theatre booking and two dinner dates. My hapless form is, alas, particularly hapless and is beset by various chronic complaints who lay low, like a rake in the grass, waiting to whump me upside the head with fatigue and/or glandular wossnames the second my guard is down. I have spent the last three and a half days pale, spaced, dizzy, nauseous and vaguely resenting the complete bastard who crept in sometime on Friday night and stuffed my throat and the bits under my chin with red-hot prickly burrs. Because, ow. I am back at work today, still pale and ick and very grumpy, but functional for most practical purposes, if they're slow practical purposes and not too demanding. The first student who gives me shit, I'm going to burst into tears and go home.

My state of mind has also been materially improved by the lovely email from the editor of the book to which I contributed 6000 reluctant and angst-filled words on African fairy-tale film. Despite the damned thing arriving in her inbox two months late and permeated with simulation, imposter syndrome and self-doubt, she has responded enthusiastically and with words like "excellent" and "wonderful" and "fascinating", which is particularly good for my lurgified self-esteem. She has also supplied a meticulous edit of the whole thing, with particular attention to eradicating the bits of my deathless prose most given to circumlocution and hesitation, and has materially improved the whole by about three thousand percent. Seriously, this part-time academia thing is very eroding to the linguistic wossnames: reading her edits, I cringe at my own tendency to over-elaboration and waffle. It's worst in the first couple of pages; after that, I settle into something that's mostly more sure and streamlined. I need to write more, clearly. And I need to write more clearly. Memo to self, kick the three and a half papers currently orbiting my brain in conceptual form OUT, and get them onto paper, and then beat them until they're acceptable and send them out into the world. I need the validation, and the practice.

It was a lovely feeling, though, lugging nine tomes on African film and oral literature back up to the library this morning and joyously dumping them. I felt, for once, like a Legit African Critic with the correct street cred, but it was lovely to get the hell rid of the pile.

My subject line is today's XKCD, which I loved, and which I have joyously bastardised. XKCD's apparently on a roll at the moment.

this means war

Wednesday, 30 July 2014 09:23 am
freckles_and_doubt: (South Park Self)
One of the more entertaining side effects of my liminal academic existence and strange research interests is that I'm becoming the go-to person for The Media when they approach my Cherished Institution for commentary on the more outré corners of culture: Lewis Carroll, or fairy tale, or Terry Pratchett, or vampires, or, apparently, fan fiction. Yesterday I found myself giving, at extremely short notice, a ten-minute interview with Cape Talk Radio, because two of the show's staff suggested to the host that he talk about fanfic, and he said "What's fanfic?" and proceeded to find out. I rather enjoy being given an opportunity to babble enthusiastically about my interests, and he asked good questions, and this morning there are three emails in my inbox from previous students going "gosh, fanfic, loved your lectures, nice to hear you babbling". (Not in so many words. Students are generally more polite, possibly because they're afraid I'll bite if they're not.) Also, apparently there's a podcast.. (I'm a bit sorry I didn't get into the gender stuff. Fanfic as a female response to the male domination of media narratives is my current personal hobby-horse).

But it's also amusing to note the attempts by said media forces to box and label my weird place in this faculty, leading to me being variously and erroneously identified over the last few years, despite my best efforts, as "the Head of the English Department", "the Dean of Literature", and, yesterday, "Lecturer of Fan Fiction", which sounds like far more of an official position than it actually is. While I lecture volubly and enthusiastically on fan fiction, this faculty would scream, shudder and faint in coils at the mere thought of a precious official position devoted to fanfic. But it's a nice illusion, for ten minutes.

Of course, this also means I was nicely primed for today's XKCD, which is enough on the nail that my colleague in the office next door has just wandered in, slightly worried, to find out the source of the mad cackles of laughter proceeding from my location.



This is such a beautifully layered joke, not just because it relies partially on our knowledge of the personal proclivities of black-hat guy in the strip. "Headcanon", for the uninitiated, is a fanfic term used to describe the personal, internal micro-narratives you have which round out a media character in some way not actually defined by the text, or not necessarily defined in a particular fanfic you might write - it's almost an unspoken assumption, and as a result of being unexamined, is often deeply personally felt. (In my Avengers headcanon they're totally all living in Stark Tower, and having sitcom interactions around movie nights and who's cooking and why Hawkeye is perched on things again. I tend to have a momentary snarl at each new Marvel movie because it doesn't actually embody that. Maybe Age of Ultron will, the preliminary stills are promising.)

The thing about fanfic communities, of course, is that they're intense and passionate, because they're built around intense and passionate feelings about texts. This means that they are prone to outbreaks of conflict which too often degenerate into mud-slinging and hissy-fit and demagoguery, known colloquially and collectively as "fandom wank". I am currently a little stunned by the divisions in Sherlock fandom around what is known as The Johnlock Conspiracy, which is the fervent belief that Moffat and Gattis always intended Sherlock as gay, John as bi, and a romantic relationship between them as the endgame of the series. The personal headcanon of "it's romantic/sexual" versus the personal headcanon of "it's not and the bastard showrunners are all about the queer-baiting" is, indeed, about heavy artillery and the need to obliterate the opposition, because the opposition's mere difference is intensely threatening to the inside of your own head. I shall be extremely surprised if this strip is not all over my Tumblr feed this morning, because, yup. That's exactly it.

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