Holding sway in Giza

A friend has sent me pictures of a holiday in Egypt

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High on her decorated saddle
She parades across the desert.
Her camel bears her royal levity.

She picks up a pyramid
With two fingers
And bestows a kiss
On the Father of Dread.

The giant tombs concealed,
The buried sphinx uncovered;
Time and decay are spelled.

The sphinx is inscrutable.
She stands on the stones
And animates the desert
With the spirit of her presence.

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Virtual Reality

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Virtual reality is making a comeback, said Mandy Rose, Senior Research Fellow at the Bristol Digital Cultures Research Centre, introducing New Media artist Oscar Raby to a packed audience on 24 October at the Pervasive Media Studio. Heralded in the 1980s by Timothy Leary and others as a new form of experiential connectivity, VR’s early manifestations failed to meet expectations and it was sidelined by the rapid development of the World Wide Web. However, technical developments and the enthusiasm of a new generation of media artists have made for a resurgence of immersion in a technologically mediated reality. Oscar Raby’s Assent is (in the words of Rose) “one of only a handful of projects that currently sits at the intersection of documentary, interactivity and virtual reality”.

After the military took control of Chile in the coup of September 1973, a “Caravan of Death” travelled the country by helicopter, conducting executions of military detainees. According to Oscar Raby, this was a mechanism to instil terror into the community. It was also a way of demonstrating the force of the central authorities to military staff outside the capital, and, by making them complicit in the actions of the junta, to ensure their loyalty. Oscar explains that his autobiographical immersive documentary “puts the user in the footsteps of my father, who in 1973 was a 22-year-old army officer stationed in the north of Chile, on the day when the Caravan of Death came to his regiment. By putting the audience on the scene alongside my father using virtual reality technology, Assent provides the audience an opportunity to engage personally with the events and emotions of that day, through his eyes, and mine”.

After attending an introductory talk by Oscar, I had the opportunity to experience Assent. The Oculus Rift viewing equipment was a black box resembling a pair of covered, chunky binoculars that covered my eyes and was held to my head by an elastic strap, augmented by a pair of stereo headphones. It was not very large but was initially slightly uncomfortable. Throughout, I retained my sense of being grounded, sitting in a chair in the Pervasive Media Studio; if I moved my eyes downwards, I could see a chink of daylight. Nonetheless, the virtual reality experience was unique and extraordinary.

After a brief introductory warning text about the experience to come, I found myself in Oscar’s studio. I could look all around, at the walls, floor and ceiling, and everything was there. There appeared to be an overhead projector on the floor; several paintings displayed on the walls; chairs and tables; and lights hanging from the ceiling. As my friend Terryl Bacon, who also viewed the presentation, pointed out, this immersion experience was very unlike participation in a computer game: it was contemplative. Suddenly, Oscar appeared, standing in the room. He was flat and immobile, like a cardboard cut-out; this was the appearance of all the characters that appeared in the presentation. He spoke to me as his father: he said that he thought I might have found the equipment hard to manage, and was glad I was there. You can hear this part of the presentation in the first part of the trailer.

Speaking as to his father, the virtual Oscar told me that he was going to take me back to that day in 1973 when I witnessed the execution of a group of prisoners captured by the military regime in Chile. The scene changed to a well-realised three-dimensional representation of a field with low hills in the background. Oscar’s recorded voice told me to look intently at two figures in the distance. This action took me rapidly towards the figures, one of whom was Oscar. He continued the story suggesting that this time I could take more time than I was able to do on that fateful day in 1973. I wanted to take time, and enjoyed looking carefully at the features of trees that moved three-dimensionally through space as I turned towards them. But I was disturbed by the fact that I couldn’t see my feet. I looked down. I felt as if I was in the scene but I wasn’t there. VR-2But there was little time to reflect on this, as soon we were carried forward through the leaves and branches of three-dimensional woodland to the scene of execution, represented by a number of figures, two of whom resembled Oscar and his father. A rifle cracked intermittently and the figures became grossly distorted. I am not sure whether the presentation suffered a glitch at this point or whether I failed to pause the programme by looking intently at the figures; Terryl tells me that she was able to look at them for a while and to see sky through their mouths and eye-sockets. The presentation finished and the real-life Oscar removed my headphones and viewing equipment.

I sat, moved by the horror of the execution and by the extraordinary three-dimensional experience in which I had been immersed. I didn’t know what to say, and there were people waiting to engage with the experience; so I told Oscar that I would write to him. This blog is my response.

A disturbing and provocative aspect of this virtual reality experience was the conflict between participation and passivity. At the beginning, when I appeared to be inside Oscar’s studio and could look wherever I wanted, I felt master of the situation. But, as the story unfolded, I became aware that the scope of my participation was extremely limited. As Oscar said in his introductory presentation, the viewer is on a track. Indeed, I could not change the events at all, beyond spending a longer time looking at the landscape than Oscar’s father would have done on that traumatic day. As I say, I may have failed to manage the last part effectively, but I did not see the death squad; I saw only the distorted bodies of a few soldiers and civilians. The last part of the presentation resembled the shocking climax of a movie that I could only watch. The effect was similar to the last part of the trailer.

On reflection, I think that reasons for the experience of the last part of the programme may have to do with the artist’s difficulty in rendering the execution, even though he has been in conversation with his father about it for over twenty years. Although the viewer is put in the position of Oscar’s father, the actual moment of execution is elided from this immersive virtual reality. The artist’s agony over his father’s participation may be suggested by the presentation’s title, Assent.

The question that arises for me is: can a VR presentation do more than add a further dimension of immersion to the viewing experience? Can the viewer’s contemplation change the experience, or bring a new perception to it? Or is even the experience of immersive reality inevitably confined by the artist’s conceptualisation?

The Human Universe

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I’ve recently had discussions of Brian Cox’s The Human Universe with various friends including Guy Saunders (https://drguysaunders.wordpress.com/).  They influenced but are not responsible for the opinions expressed below! 

Brian Cox’s new science series on BBC 2, The Human Universe, focuses literally on the human brain. The first programme attempts to answer the question: who are we? As the camera closes on a model of the brain, Cox offers one possible answer: that we are “something that arises from electrical activity inside this impossibly complex blob of matter”.

The Human Universe, like Cox’s previous science programmes for television, induces the viewer to share the professor’s sense of wonder. In this case, we wonder at the capacity of the human brain, which, we are told, contains perhaps as many neurons as there are galaxies in the universe. 200,000 years ago the brain had reached much the size it is today, and a child transported from that early human world to be educated in school today would be able to learn alongside contemporary children.

Cox’s shorthand description of the ascent of man is “from ape-man to spaceman”, and he represents the triumph of human mental functioning by the return of three astronauts from the international space station to the Kazakhstan desert. Cox opines, with his attractive combination of knowledge and wonder: “In just 200,000 years, we humans have transformed ourselves beyond all recognition. We’ve built great civilisations … accumulated knowledge and technology … until finally ape-man became spaceman.”

Cox uses the ancient Jordanian city of Petra to illustrate an ill-defined moment in human evolution when man decided to build a civilisation. He emphasises the importance of language and writing for the transmission and storage of accumulated knowledge. But our first glimpse of the rock cut buildings of Petra highlights what is missing in this paean to neuroscience. We are looking at evidence of a culture. Super-capacious human brains working together produce a culture, but they are then produced by it. Without comment, Cox gives an account of the difference between the high road in Petra used by men of power and the hidden tracks used by common people. Looking in wonder at a skull that formerly contained 80 billion neurons tells us nothing of interest about the way in which civilisation has developed specific cultural forms. The development of culture is more than the accumulation of knowledge and technology.

The technological advances that have brought us from ape-man to spaceman have been produced not only by big brains but also by social and cultural life. Such life certainly develops as a result of communal brain activity, but its genesis and power cannot be explained by however many billion neurons. The human universe is the universe of culture.

My Ofsted breaking point: why I left school teaching to pursue academia

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This is the original longer version of my Guardian blog published on 28 August 2014

By 1997, I had completed eleven years as Head of the English Department in a large rural comprehensive school.   Overall, I felt pleased by what had been achieved, but I wanted a break from the myriad daily tasks of dealing with colleagues, students and parents, all the while trying to teach my own subject on a virtually full timetable. I also wanted to do something more academically rewarding – such as researching and teaching in a university.

Over the years I had worked in this school, political interference in the curriculum had become an increasing irritant. For many years, we had followed the AQA A level Literature course, which required students to submit eight essays and an extended project on the texts they had read. The students enjoyed the opportunity to research in their own time and to write creatively as well as analytically. It was a pleasure to work with them and to see their writing develop. The unwarranted decision in 1993 to reduce A level coursework to a token 20% was a blow for thousands of teachers and students across the country.   Equally disturbing was the development of a culture of targets that positioned teachers merely as operatives in the examination industry and students as figures in league tables. Our students and staff always exceeded our targets, but I often wondered what I would have done if we had consistently missed them.

The breaking point for me was an Ofsted inspection. This had a very different feeling from the HMI visits to which I had become accustomed in my earlier career. HMIs had an air of critical friends who earned teachers’ respect.   They would spend an entire period in one classroom, sometimes take part in the lesson, and speak to the teacher at the end. The Ofsted inspectors seemed less able to relate to the teachers and pupils or, indeed, to each other. They had been supplied by agencies working for Ofsted and had not previously worked as a team. They took over the careers suite for a week, temporarily disabling a functioning part of the school. Each morning at 8.00 they assembled, darkly and formally clad, for their briefing by the lead inspector. I had determined to be proactive and to collect examples of students’ work for the inspectors’ scrutiny. On the first morning of the inspection, I approached the careers suite carrying a large red plastic box of exercise books. Through the window I could see fourteen or fifteen people, mostly middle-aged men, sitting around a rectangular arrangement of desks. Several of them had their elbows on the table, fingers together, mirroring the lead inspector’s posture. I felt like a schoolboy outside the staff room, and did not enter. I later found an opportunity to speak to the lead inspector and to give him the sample of student writing.   At the end of the week, the English inspector, whose experience was largely in international schools abroad, recommended we try to improve students’ vocabulary – an extraordinarily bland recommendation that was disconnected from any coherent subject pedagogy and showed no recognition of the efforts we made to increase students’ cultural understanding (and thus their vocabulary) by a richly contextual study of literary and media texts.   The English department got a good report from the inspectors, but they were formal and distant and I didn’t trust the basis of their assessments.

So it was time to go. My year eleven set – fourteen boys and two girls – told me that I would miss them, which was true.   (They had turned to the inspector as I strained to impress and told her: “He’s not usually like this, you know.”)   I enrolled as a PhD student at a regional university to undertake a longitudinal study of student literacy. For several years I returned regularly to the school to interview some of my former students about their media use in relation to their everyday lives. After nine years’ work, I gained my doctorate.

The research took nine years because I became very involved in university teaching. I liked the teaching and I needed the money. Initially, teaching small classes (rarely more than 15 students) at undergraduate level was very satisfying. In some ways, though, working in higher education was an opposite experience to school teaching. Whereas school required too many daily contacts and decisions, university required me to do no more than prepare and teach my classes. My colleagues worked and researched at home whenever possible, and there was little of the constant talk about students and education generally that characterises the school staffroom.

One discussion I had fairly frequently, however, was with university colleagues who felt that students coming up from school should have a better grasp of academic writing. I argued that the referenced academic essay is a specific genre that has to be learned in use, and offered to run a weekly essay-writing workshop. Initially intended for Humanities students, over thirteen years this became increasingly popular and was attended by students from across the university.   This workshop was the most satisfying aspect of my university teaching: it filled a clear need and was appreciated by the students, and allowed me to work creatively and develop my relationship with them.   It also gave me an academic specialism that has resulted in publication and other academic activity.

The least satisfying aspect of my university work was experience of the low status accorded to hourly-paid staff (who do a significant amount of the teaching in many UK universities).   I never knew until late in September whether I would be required to teach during the following academic year, and my part-time colleagues and I suffered from not being recognised as full members of staff in various ways, such as our invisibility on the university website. After gaining election to the executive of the local branch of UCU (the lecturers’ union), I tried to ensure that the university offered permanent appointments (as is required by employment law) to lecturers who had worked on temporary contracts for four years or more. The union branch also gained agreement that all lecturers should have access to a desk, phone and computer, and should be represented on the website.

Although I found the transition difficult and initially wished I hadn’t left school teaching, I found my way through academia and created a niche for myself in a way I could not have predicted.   In a sense, I didn’t leave teaching – I just changed the context and gave myself scope to develop my academic and professional interests. Any such move must, I think, be taken for positive as well as for negative reasons. It is always best to take the road that offers opportunity.

Teaching people who hate poetry

I follow Anthony Wilson’s poetry blog, which arrives in the inbox of my consciousness early in the morning. I’ve reblogged his post about Teaching People who Hate Poetry because it made me laugh before I had got out of bed and reminded me of the pleasure of teaching ‘difficult’ students and the warmth and humour that can arise from their authentic responses.

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I am taking a break from writing brand new blog posts over the summer.

Instead of posting new work I am giving readers the chance to read material from the archives of my blog.

In no particular order, here are twenty of my favourite posts from the last four years.

Without doubt the most common remark made to me by teachers and trainee teachers when I conduct poetry workshops and seminars with them is that the over-reliance on analysing poems at school is the single most important factor in putting them off poems. I nod and listen and shake my head. Then I ask: ‘All poems?’ ‘All poems,’ they say.

Then I read them this, by the late Shel Silverstein.

Not Me

 

The Slithergadee has crawled out of the sea.

He may catch all the others, but he

won’t catch me.

No you won’t catch me, old slithergadee,

you…

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It’s hard to know the reason

This is an experiment, using a poetic form created by Terrance Hayes.  As Hayes does in his poem The Golden Shovel,  I have taken every word from Gwendolyn Brooks’ The Pool Players and used them in the same order to end each line of my poem.  In an act of dubious modesty, I have illustrated my own poem with a silver rather than a golden shovel.

It is hard to know the reason why we

prefer the imagined person to the real.

The highest praise we can give is to say, “She’s cool”:

So we keep the illusion that she whom we admire will

be always at ease, bound to ideologies neither of left

nor of right, jiving her way through school

in a way we seek to emulate, yet we

know that if we were to lurk

around her waste bins, waiting late

into the night, we would find that we

too strike

at the heart of living: none of us can go any way but straight,

along the path that life has laid for us: we

speak or cry or sing,

spread virtue or sin,

turn any way we

want, bear ourselves cautiously or skate on thin

ice, drink milk or gin – we

find that life is all that jazz,

that moon still rhymes with June,

and whatever we try we

will die

later or soon.