Monday, 27 April 2015

Of Muggles and Pure Bloods (my take on extreme attitudes to being a fan)

I've been thinking a fair bit about being a fan. And other people's attitudes to someone being a fan. I've divided this piece up into 'Muggles' and 'Pure Bloods' using a neat Harry Potter metaphor. Muggles for the un-Hogwarts educated are non-magic folk, here they are the non fan types, or 'normal' people as they might have it. 'Pure Bloods' are those who believe only certain magic stock are 'valid' witches and wizards, here used as shorthand for the type of fan who believes they are the only model of fan. (This is actually part 1 now as I have things to say that don't fit my metaphor)

There were two incidences where I started thinking about this recently. The first, that leads into my discussion of Muggles, was last week. It was mentioned, in passing that some friends and I were going to Harry Potter Studios. I was laughed at. Outright laughed at like it was an oh-so-silly thing to do, or a thing I'd clearly been talked into. Nope. I want to go. Sorry Muggle that you don't understand.

And I get that someone might not understand a particular fascination/fannish thing (more on that later) But to outright laugh at the notion someone would be a fan to that degree is, firstly insulting, but also so alien to me. My theory has always been no, that on some level nobody is 100% Muggle, because we're all a fan of something. Whether it's Harry Potter, Comic books, a band/singer, sport, trains, bird (the feathered kind) or collecting stamps, all of these have fannish elements. Whether it's following a sports team

In my eyes it's the same thing as travelling far for a sporting event or to visit a historic site. You do it because you're interested in the thing. Case in point a friend of mine loves F1 and went to Belgium to watch some Grand Prix, and while they were there got to go behind the scenes, watch practice races etc. Now I know nothing about F1 other than "cars drive fast in circles" but I was fascinated to hear about the experience. And even if I wasn't I'd never laugh at someone for it. And incidentally that friend has never laughed at my fannish pursuits. In the same way I may gently mock the Sports students I work with for their shorts and flip flops attire, or thinking that World War 3 has happened, but I'd never mock them for being passionate about their team. And when I told some of them I was going to Comicon at the weekend, in Cosplay no less, I wasn't mocked either.

So clearly there's something to my degrees of Muggle-ness theory. There are those who apparently can't fathom a fannish action that doesn't align directly with their own. These are the Dursley family of the world, those to whom anything 'different' is a threat, is weird and wrong. And that's sad. That's really sad. To not look at something someone is getting enjoyment out of and to at best not understand, at worst taunt them about it. That's a sad Muggle if ever I saw one. Many Wizards in Harry Potter world on the other hand are FASCINATED  on the whole with Muggles and want to know everything about them. Generally that's how a fan mind works too I've found, the 'hey I don't share this exact obsession but I'm now kinda curious how you guys do it.' Like Wizards love Quiddich but also wanting to learn about football.

Now on the other end of the spectrum are the 'Pure Bloods' those who think they are the authority on just how fans should be, how they should behave and what they should be a fan of. I thought of this end of the spectrum over Easter weekend when I had a lovely dinner with a friend before going to the McBusted concert I've written about. During the dinner we fangirled about our respective loves, mainly theatre based. Spanning musicals we loved, performers and our respective experiences at Stage Doors across the years. Then we went to see McBusted. And it was so nice, so very nice to be a fan in the way I always have without feeling like someone somewhere was telling me I was doing it wrong. Firstly, we were theatre fan-girling a type of being a fan that operates in a whole other world. Then, shock horror we were going to a pop band. Again something that many a Pureblood would look down on.

There are two elements to the 'Pureblood' approach to being a fan I've found, those who tell you what you can be a fan of, those who tell you how to do it. And in the worst case both. There's a lot of nerd-hierarchy. There's a lot of what is or isn't "allowed" to be fannish about out there and there's a lot of "this is how you be a fan"

Firstly the what is or isn't "worthy" of being a fan of annoys me as much as the Muggle 'why are you a fan' as a rule, Sci-Fi fans tend to rule the fannish roost. Sci-fi and 'Cult' TV. Translation if you like anything deemed as 'mainstream' then it's not 'proper' being a fan to a Pureblood. Cast in point I have loved Greys Anatomy since day 1. But by and large because it's seen as a 'mainstream' show there's a lot of snobbery around being a fan. I want to fangirl the living daylights of it, from spoilers to fanvideos to cast gossip. But that's just all too 'normal'. Then there's the 'obscure but a bit too obscure' for Purebloods, or as I'm currently calling it 'why M*A*S*H fans online are awesome because nobody knows they're there yet. Purebloods will ridicule the popular as being not cool enough, not worthy of being a fan simply because it's mainstream. Or if it doesn't fit into their specific demographic of 'not well known' then it's simply not good enough to warrant being a fan of.

I disagree with this 'Pureblood' attitude. Just because something is popular doesn't mean I can't be a fan, that I can't do the fannish things associated with more niche things. It also doesn't mean I'm not able to like those more obscure things. But a pureblood attitude in fans seems to think just that-one can't transcend fandoms. One can't be a Trekkie but also like romcoms, one can't love X Files but also Gossip Girl. More so there is an attiude that 'Fandom' (a word I personally loathe for it's false pretense of community) is basically reserved for film and TV.

These attitudes are as bad as the Muggle attitude. They mock those that don't fit their definitions, or follow the  'In' things to be a fan of and the 'out' things. Often grouped with 'the thing is popular now so I'm too cool to be a fan of it' or 'certain demographics of 'normal' people have now begun to like it so I'm too cool to like it' (see, Sherlock, Doctor Who and probably some Marvel films too).

Another 'Pure blood' tendency is to tell someone how to fan. That they must Ship a ship (fan speak for wanting characters to be together romantically/sexually) or that they must want to produce/engage with fanfiction or fan art or they aren't a 'proper' fan. Or that they must or must not go to certain events, in order to be a 'proper' fan. In darker turns to this there are fanbases who even go as far as throwing accusations at people who don't believe in particular fan theories about a show/film as 'homophobic' or 'racist' or any other kind of nasty accusation. There is a sense on this extreme that it's one way or nothing at all. Much like those Wizards that believe in only a certain kind of 'stock' there are fans that also believe in a certain kind of fan.

So what's a fan (Wizard) to do? at one end there's the Muggles telling you any kind of being a fan is outright weird. At the other there's the Purebloods saying you can and should be a fan but only of certain things and in certain ways.

Well I say make like the best Wizards (fans) and just do your thing anyway. Be a fan of what you want to do, do the fan things you want to do, when you want to do them. It's frankly what Dumbledore would do.

Now due to my tenuous metaphor I couldn't fit a lot of thoughts on being a fan in here, so I'm going to follow this up with what I think Academic fandom has done to my attitudes to being a fan, as well as my own changing fannishness over the years....

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Supporting Support workers and supporting students.

For a long time I've been meaning to write about the importance of support for students with disabilities. Both because it's what I've done as my 'day job' while PhD-ing for the last 4 years, and because it's an issue that affected me throughout my time in University.

Today I'm prompted to write about it because as Support Workers we were told that our pay was being cut. As note-takers we were now being paid 2/3 of what we previously earned, for the same amount of work. Given that we're paid very little, on an hourly basis, term time only, this is a massive blow. Not only is it an insult to us professionally, but also to the students we support-saying they aren't worth the proper support.

This is where I defend how important and skilled support workers are. It makes me so very angry that people view this as 'not a proper job' the only reason it isn't viewed as such is that the University system and the Government refuse to acknowledge it as such. This incidentally goes right across the sector with other positions supporting people with disabilities in their day to day lives being woefully under paid for often difficult and demanding jobs.

In our role we take notes in lectures on courses we know nothing about often (see above) so we have to be intelligent enough to make judgement about note taking, what to include what not to, and to be able to (broadly speaking) understand what we are writing be it sports, sciences, management, dentistry, you name it, we take notes on it. Often bouncing from lecture to lecture. We are responsible for getting notes to a student that replicate the experience of that lecture for them, compensating for whatever disability/impairment they have. So not only are we note-taking but we are note taking with specific compensations in mind-is my student's issue a hearing one, a sight one, comprehension and how does this affect how I record the notes, how I format them. Often we are working with 4-5 different students. Some of whom we know well, others we may not ever meet. Still we provide high level note taking to allow the student the same advantages as others.

On top of this we also work with students personally, on a one to one basis. Anyone who knows me will know I lovingly make fun of my current role-I do this not in the light of supporting a student with disabilities but because it has the ridiculous association of me finding myself in sports lectures. I know nothing about sport, a source of much mirth for me and the student. Also any job in which balls fly at my head (insert 'Clueless' joke here) or learning about how the football team is run for one so spectacularly un-sporty as I is inherently funny. And this humour actually works in my favour in working with the student. It doesn't mean I don't take the job itself seriously.

I work with my main student 3-4 days a week. I work with that student more closely than any academic member of staff or any other member of the Student Services team will. I know their needs as they change, and often these needs will change and can be challenging. Students I've worked with over the years have had a myriad of challenging and competing conditions, as Support Workers we learn to read the condition as well as the student-sometimes better to work out the Support they need over a day, week or term. We make sure they can (physically) get to lectures and seminars and workshops, but we also make sure they are able to in many other ways. We find ourselves sometimes the only constant friend/companion a student has because their condition isolates them from their peers. So yes, it may look like I'm just hanging out in the canteen having a laugh with a student, but that is just as important as helping them find their way around the library, it's allowing them to experience University as well as access it.

And then there's the darker side of this, the side that means I am part of the process that safeguards a student. That knows the signs that their condition is worsening, or that they're having a bad day. That can intervene and support when that happens, or even in worst case scenarios call for extra help, make sure they get home safely. We're the ones who look out for other issues, mental health issues, home issues things that could really endanger the student or others.

I say all this to show what we do is important, and challenging. To do this job you need intelligence of multiple kinds. You need a certain level of "academic" (in the broader sense) capability to note-take, to work with academic staff. What you also need is an emotional intelligence, infinite patience and a whole heap of common sense.

So firstly I say to those who have sat by and personally judged me for not having a "proper" job for 4 years: if you think this job is easy, a polite but firm f**k you.

Mostly though I write this to the government, and the University, who think that it's ok to cut our pay. We currently earn a little over minimum wage. My average pay is around £8.00 per hour (it varies according to what 'task' you are doing note-taking or personal assisting even though those tasks bleed into one another) When you consider we only get paid in term time, say we worked an average 'full time week' then across the full year we'd probably be on £3.50 an hour equivalent? Even if we were on a salaried position at this wage we'd be lucky to get £15k a year. For a job that requires a degree, requires 100% independent working, high level of responsibility for vulnerable adults and a large amount of at-home working.

Our pay is now being cut so that we now get half the pay for writing up notes from lectures (a tricky and time consuming task as outlined above) so that effectively we are now being paid 3/4 of the already low wages we earn, for the same amount of work. Because I'm willing to be that all of us will still do the work, still complete it to the same standard because we wouldn't let the students suffer.

All of this is indicative of a growing trend from our Government and Universities. That people don't really matter. Although students are increasingly seen as 'customers' or 'consumers' they aren't viewed as important enough that when they present a 'challenge' (read cost) to the insitution that they matter. They do matter to a great many people who work there, just not to those who hold the purse strings. Time after time our Government has gone after the most vulnerable in society in the name of 'austerity' and the cuts to the Disabled Students Allowance are no different.

I'm angry, not only at the devaluing of a job that is important and worth far more than is thought of it and paid for it. But I'm equally angry about the continued devaluing of the people who use the service I work for. In disadvantaging skilled, experienced Support Workers you disadvantage students. I sat in a room today with very experienced people who have done this job, and done it well for many years. We work well with students and they are happy and do well academically as a result (not to blow my own horn but my student is currently one of the top in their year group) I would be willing to be my now drastically reduced salary that 80% of us won't be there next year.

This job, along with teaching, has been the job I have been most passionate about, however the devaluing of support role and student support in general leaves me saddened and disheartened. As a student who would have used similar services had they been available to me, it also makes me worry for the future of our students.

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

McBusted nerdy connections

Firstly McBusted's current tour is brilliant. That's kind of a given about this post. Secondly I realised just how many different fan interests collided with seeing them on tour so I thought I'd write about it...

At my estimation the following fannish interests intersected with my McBusted fan,

Pop music
Sci Fi
80s films
Vintage video games
Musical theatre
Strictly/Ballroom dancing in general
My crush on Emma Willis....

Some of these are obvious...others not so much.

So pop music. Firstly a little rant about pop music: if you don't like it bite me. That's the short version. There's a lot of snobbery about pop music. I've no problem if it's a matter of 'I don't like that music' (I gave free rein for my metal-fan friend to mock me the next day) but doing it out of a sense of superiority just bugs me. Live and let's my ipod.

Anyway I bloody love some pop music. And I loved McFly/Busted. Firstly they were boy bands but different. I like different, and weird. Take That, Blue, Westlife are all well and good (and I love them all) but as a teenager the little weirdos that were the Busted boys and later the McFly boys were wonderful for this teenage weirdo. Part of this was the innate nerdiness of them. A boyband that talked about loving Doctor Who...what wasn't to love.

All of this formed a part of the tour too, with the MEAT (Most Excellent Adventure Tour) taking its theme from vintage video games and 80s films. So far so nerdy. Everything was planned and themed with geek precision from giant video game controllers to wedding dresses to projections of three breasted women (yes? and?) The pre-show had a montage of 80s film trailers, graphics projected on screen looked like 80s and 90s video games. Oh and they moved from stage to stage by Delorean. And exited like Mario. You know just your standard gig really.

So another check in my interests box was the pure theatre of it. I've seen theatre shows less theatrical, I've certainly seen them with less thought behind them, and certainly less well thought out design. Yes pop concerts have a hell of a lot more money behind them. But as any theatre person knows money does not maketh a good show, it helps sure but it can't salvage something with no thought behind it. The best theatre is that which thinks of the details alongside the bigger picture and that's what the McBusted show did.

So that's why I loved the show. That's also why I love the band, I love a band that puts so much work into a show in that way. Many bands will just come on and play, and that works, generally that's what I'm looking for when I see a band. And I don't want to say it was all show, not at all. McBusted are excellent musicians. Their sound is brilliant, as my friend said it sounded like a CD. They are just so "together" that the sound is one point Tom had to stop playing when his guitar strap broke and the others seamlessly covered. Musically they are brilliantly talented and clearly impeccably rehearsed...while keeping a sense of fun.

So all of that, the theatre, the nerdiness came together in the show, but also how generally my love of a band has expanded or intersected with other things I love.

So 80s films, vintage video games and general sci-fi nerdiness are kind of a given. As is the element of theatre in pop concerts. The rest of that list not so obvious.

I'm a big fan of Youtubers. Something I realised this weekend when I noticed I had more Youtuber updates to catch up on than actual TV. And although I didn't get into Youtubers via McBusted an association has been a big factor. This is also where musical theatre intersects with this story...Tom Fletcher's  sister Carrie Hope Fletcher is the current Eponine in Les well as a prominent is Tom. Somewhat by accident (following Carrie on twitter after seeing her Eponine) led me further into the world of Youtubers. I also love that Tom and his wife Giovanna Fletcher also vlog....and so came a world of fannishness that I never thought I'd be in.

This leads onto books, Giovanna has written several books. Books I might not have normally read (fearing the judgement for reading 'chick lit') but "knowing" and liking her from her Youtube led me to read them...and they're really good. Carrie has a book out soon and I know I'll be reading that. Tom's Dinosaur book I haven't quite gotten to...but it's a book about pooping Dinosaurs...what's not to love?

So fro McBusted we have; musical theatre links, youtuber fannishness, books I'd never have read. If the adjacent interests (sci-fi, films etc) led me to McBusted in a way, my being a fan of them led me to love other things (youtube a world of which I had limited knowledge before) or expanding my knowledge/love of things I already loved (theatre, books) because through Carrie being in Les Mis I've rekindled my love of that show, learned more about other musical theatre performers I may have missed etc. And books....well who can ever read enough books.

It just shows that you never know what direction being a fan of something can take you. Also before I sat down and thought about it I'd have just said offhand "Oh yes I'm a fan of McBusted they're a really cool band" but actually there are intersections with other areas of life. The last-but-one on that list is an example of one side of that-Harry Judd was on Strictly a few years back (and WON!) something I'm a massive fan of, so that meeting of worlds was great. But beyond that I love all these little intersections of life that come from a seemingly arbitrary connection.

All that from a band that sings about a time machine. Not bad.

Oh and the last one on the list? surely that doesn't need much explanation...

Thursday, 2 April 2015

Play nice kids...

So first the good. Today I went to a careers workshop as part of the University's 'Skills Week' I'll be honest and say my expectations weren't high. I usually find such generic sessions (it was open across teh whole University so anyone from Dentists to Sports people could come) are generally, well too generic. Secondly I appreciate my skills set and background and aims aren't always that straightforward. Being caught in a rock-hard-place between the arts and academia. But it couldn't hurt to try. And actually it was very helpful. Some genuine good generic advice on CV and application writing, some questions answered. Also as the person running it was an arts person they understood my position and I can now make an appointment with her as a careers adviser knowing she understands the background I come from, and the kinds of roles I'll be applying for (academic or not). Above all else, she and another person in the session were really supportive and understanding of the challenges faced in many industries (the other person being in an NHS related field, shares the impending doom of further cuts and uncertainty related to the election)

All in all a really (unexpectedly) productive morning. One I should have felt really happy about. However I spent a good chunk of it fighting back tears from a barrage of tweets from an academic essentially telling me it was my own fault I didn't have a job, and I had no right to complain.

Let's backtrack. I sent a sarcastic tweet about a workshop for permanently unemployed PhD students, added a self-deprecating remark about being beyond help myself. I'm pretty certain 99% of my twitter followers took it in the manner it was intended. This person felt the need to send a barage of tweets (20 over about 10 minutes) coming to the conclusion that the reason I hadn't got a job was because I just hadn't worked hard enough.

I was told it was 'very surprising' that I didn't know about x y or z (which all turned out to be N.American job resources which are currently of no use to me for various reasons not contained in a flippant tweet) I was reeled off list after list of why this person had it harder than I did, and how dare I complain (in fact I was just trying to end the "conversation") I tried to be polite and explain that this person and I were in different stages of our careers, and different places in terms of priorities/approach (as an appeasing end to the conversation) I got further tweets saying they were in a better place (note better, not different) because they'd "put themselves" there....all this from one flippant tweet!

Now on one hand this upsets me. Is this how everyone sees me? as not working hard enough, as not being good enough. Not being willing to sacrifice everything for academia.

The funny thing is, if they read my twitter feed regularly they'd know that I've got at least one foot out the door of academia, both in terms of being fed up but also in terms of just wanting to use my skills elsewhere.

But that is one of my fears. That all the academics I know are whispering the same things behind my back. That I'm just not trying hard enough. That I'd make it happen if I wanted it.

But then I look. I realize currently there are 2 jobs in the whole of the UK in academia that I'm defiantly qualified to apply for. I look at the hours I spend searching and applying, doing all that I know how. Some of the tweets implied I wanted someone to do it for me. I don't. That I expected to be told things. I don't. But we all need a nudge in the right direction. And I call liar that "nobody ever" told this person anything about how/where to look for and apply for jobs. None of us would manage it if it was between us and google.

But what got me most about this "exchange" (my 4 tweets to 20) was how unsupportive it was. I would never tell a fellow academic half of those things. I wouldn't even think it. We all know how hard a world it is. We all know it's cutthroat. In the humanities we also know we're doing battle against far bigger things, far bigger, richer subjects. There may be back-biting and bitching abound in academia but I don't know anyone who would criticize an acquaintance in their job hunt.

Never mind academia I'd never do that to anyone. Unemployment and job hunting puts everyone at their worst. Last night a friend reminded me of this exchange

"People put you down enough you start to believe it"
"For what it's worth I think you are a very smart special woman"
"But the bad stuff is easier to believe"

That for me sums up how I feel right now. How anyone feels if they job hunt for any length of time. You end up with a big pile of the bad stuff. Because it's easier to believe in all the things you are doing that aren't good enough to get the job. It doesn't matter how often you get good interview feedback, or told you were almost the choice. People tell you that you aren't good enough often enough, you believe it.

For me personally, this comes off four years of being told you aren't good enough. I'm at the "rock bottom, fify feet of crap, then me" stage of self esteem here. What makes it better is the support I get daily from friends and acquaintances. From academics saying in solidarity "Man it's shitty out there, you're doing all you can" to other friends just continuing to believe in me. Shortly before all this today, a twitter acquaintance told me they believed these things happen for a reason, and the right path will show itself. I believe that too. As much as I get down, I believe I haven't found the right job, right circumstances yet. And that's what keeps me going.

For those in the privileged position of a secure job, I just ask one thing; don't blame those looking for a job. Unless they actually stole all the company's money I'm pretty sure they didn't deserve to lose whatever job they had before. I'm pretty certain also that there's a job everyone can do, and can be good at whether it's a bin man or a professor. And that there's worth in any job. So don't put them down, don't blame them for not finding that job. Support them, encourage them. Help them to believe the good stuff.

And above all else, if you are that person, particularly academics right now I'm looking at you...don't be a dick about it (to quote the marvelous Adam Hills) If you blame someone for not having a job, not knowing their circumstances you're being a dick. If you mock someone for not knowing about something that could help them get a job, you're being a dick-just help them. If you sit and quote all the bad things that stood in your way as ten times worse than there's, you're not only ripping of Monty Python's Yorkshireman sketch, but you're also being a dick.

And to all my fellow jobseekers, I say it's crap out there. It's hard and it makes you believe the worst about yourselves. I say hang in there, it feels endless, but you are doing all you can. And you are going to be the perfect person for something.

Friday, 27 March 2015

Goodbye Hytner thanks for the plays!

So it came to my attention that today is the last day of Nick Hytner's time at the National Theatre. I've not seen nearly as much as I'd like there while he's been there, hampered by not being closer. However I thought I'd share some highlights. I've stuck to those plays I've seen live rather than via NT live or for research purposes in their archives. (while we're at it thank NT for that, you've saved my academic bacon with your religious recording of things....)

So the good....

War Horse
I didn't see it in the NT, but I think no summary of Hytner's tenancy can go without mentioning this one. I fought really hard to keep a discussion of this in my thesis in fact. War Horse is without doubt one of the most innovative works the NT has seen in years. No the story itself isn't ground breaking, but I'm also all for honest, but young person friendly historical tales. But the use of puppets in this way, was simply unheard of. Years later it's still astounding, still beautiful. Ah Joey.

London Road Verbatim Theatre, in musical form, about the Ipswich Prostitute murders? sign me up. I saw this twice. I thought it was better in the Cottesloe. But I love it. I think it's brilliant and innovative and pushes boundaries, and everything theatre should be. It also has songs about hanging baskets. I can't wait to see the film version this summer, especially  as it has added Olivia Coleman. Also the people I was with hated it. Not so fun at the time but for personal reasons in reterospect wonderful. It's also the production at which I was recognised across the Olivier circle for being "that girl who looks a bit like Connie Fisher" Anyway I digress....

This House  Political play? political play that felt like a bit of a thriller, a bit of a black comedy? Excellent. I've nothing much else to add other than it was a well written play and an excellent production. Brilliant stuff.

The Amen Corner  I'm a sucker for a gospel choir what can I say? but I do love that this play incorporates music in an unusual way, making it that rarer beast the 'play with music' rather than 'musical'. It's also a fascinating and harrowing play that was performed brilliantly. Something of a risk but a good one.

Othello  To my shame the only Shakespeare of Hytner's run I've seen, but directed by him also. A great production that did modernizing well. Kinnear and Lester's double act was impeccable. Othello is one of three Shakespeare's I know upside down and back to front and have strong feelings on so to get this I thought spot on for me made it a great production. Also seeing Kinnear do battle with an exploding pipe on stage, quip about being a plummer and do two scenes looking like he'd wet himself was a bonus.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime another innovative and imagination capturing production. And a brave one at that. I saw it in the Cottesloe and although I'm seeing the tour next month I don't think it could be as perfect as it was for that setting. Of all the spaces that one has my affection for what can be done there and this was a perfect example. I don't love the story as much as some but the staging and direction for me won me over. Even if an errant train did cause me to nearly jump out of my seat.

Finally, none of the others are ranked but this one is number 1. Caroline or Change.  The love I have for this production is immeasurable. It was the first Tony Kushner play (musical) I saw live. And look what that led to. Sometimes you fall in love with an actor on stage, sometimes a director, sometimes a writer. Sometimes all three at once. The performances in this were truly exceptional. I have nothing else to say except it was a remarkable production of a remarkable musical. For this alone I will love Hytner forever.

And the not so hot....

Actually in the NT I've had very few bad evenings. The Magistrate did little to set my world on fire, but I went for John Lithgow and seeing the "other side" of the NT Live Broadcasts and that's what I got. Along with a stunning set it must be said. Until I looked over my programme I'd forgotten 13 by Mike Bartlett, but I remember it being a decent enough play, just not one to sear into my memory.

Honourable mention for "what the everloving **** was that?" award must go to "The Veil" by Connor McPherson. In my defense I was very very tired when I saw it. But all I remember is a scary old lady, a scary child and a puff of smoke. If there was something drastic I'm missing someone please enlighten me....

Finally, the only truly bad thing I've seen to come out of Hytner's time, although again I didn't see the original: One Man Two Guvnors. Not only is it the worst of the NT I've seen it is the only, I repeat only time I've genuinely wanted to leave at the interval (in fairness to it the second half is the better half) I know I'm in the minority but it's like theatrical fingernails on a blackboard to me.

Sunday, 22 March 2015

Sitting on the stupid table

I didn't get diagnosed with dyslexia until I was 21 and in my final year of Undergraduate study. It took a vigilant personal tutor who took my 'I'm losing marks on simple things' moan seriously. That conversation I'm 100% sure meant the difference in my grade for Undergrad. Although it would have made a massive difference to know in say my first year of Undergrad, hell even perhaps Sixth Form, I'm actually glad I didn't know when I was younger. When I was in Primary school learning to spell and add up (poorly) the dyslexic kids were the 'thick' kids. They were the kids nobody expected anything of. This was the late 80s, when such things were even less well understood than they are now. I still read voraciously, and I worked hard. So although my maths wasn't quite as good as my English, although my spelling was bad and my handwriting worse, I was still one of the "Top Table" kids in Primary school. So actually that label would have held me back.

Now, some 20 years later, that label is supposed to be a tool. A tool to support myself, and to gain support where needed. However in the last years doing my PhD I feel I've been firmly put at the 'thick kids' table.

All through my life dyslexia hasn't bothered me that much. It's actually the dyspraxia side which has been worse. In general the challenges of dyslexia-reading speed, grammar poor spelling and an inability to do mental arithmetic generally are easily compensation. They generally, unless going in for a Spelling Bee or Maths competition don't carry the same level of humiliation as falling flat on your arse, walking into a clearly there, clearly avoidable large object, or going left when everyone goes right.

Honestly though I never felt either of these things were having a great impact on my life, until I did my PhD. Obviously doing a level of study like that would amplify these aspects, but naively I thought I'd be supported, and most of all understood. Instead I feel like being dyslexic makes me unworthy of obtaining the degree. More than that though I've been called a liar, made to feel I was somehow faking it or doing it on purpose. Why would anyone do that?

I've blogged about some of this before. Some of you reading this know this came to a head this week when after looking at my corrections I was told that I wouldn't pass without further proof reading with the implication being I that I should be able to "prove" it was "professionally" proofread.

I'm putting a disclaimer in here, that the person I've dealt with, our director of research has been supportive and understanding of the various issues at play that I'm about to go into. It's here, it's bold, there is no accusation or issue there. 

At first I said ok fine. I mean faced with the statement "do this or you fail" what else am I going to do? but it's more complex than that.

I spent two years being hammered every time I submitted work that it 'clearly wasn't' proof read. Over and over I apologised, I said that of course I'd make it right to submit but that I couldn't keep to the writing deadlines and have it perfectly proof read but that I'd make it right for submission (bear in mind these were only draft copies) A year ago, in one such meeting I broke down. I couldn't take the constant bombardment anymore. I cried and said that I was sorry but to imagine if the only thing people ever picked up on and criticized was the one thing you couldn't "fix". Following that meeting one of my supervisors said I was "mentally unstable" and following a similar blog post (here) declared they wanted "nothing to do with me or my PhD" All over proof reading and something a disability is preventing me from doing.

It was agreed that I'd get a professional proof reader before submitting. I had no problem in theory with that, a lot of people dyslexic or not do so. I did have issue with the implication I wasn't going to be supported in submitting without it, but what could I do? I complied, thinking that it was sorted. I had my mock viva and nobody mentioned proof reading, so I thought at last I'd sorted it, paying for it had worked.

In my viva proper it was brought up. The chair asked if he could mention my dyslexia, not as an excuse but as explanation. I agreed. I then agreed to carefully check things before submitting my corrections.

Score check: proof reading by professionals done once, various fellow PhD friends have also looked over the work, as has my Mother, as have I.

Following the viva I asked some very generous friends to look over it. All of whom were teachers or PhD students (indeed both!) they proof read it, I proof read it, my Mum proof read it.

Score check: professional, various academic friends (x2) Me (x who knows) Mum (x about 4?)

Then the corrections themselves (which had been included in the above) were proof read, and checked for content by my supervisor, who it's fair to say is fairly particular about grammar and presentation.

And still I'm told it "hasn't been proof read" ....if anyone out there can explain this to me I'd really like you to because I'm banging my head against a wall. Above all else, if my supervisor's proof reading isn't good enough (fussiest woman on earth, honestly) Above all else it feels like being called a liar.

What it also feels like is discrimination. I've said it. But it's how I feel. I feel I'm being unfairly scrutinized because long ago some people got it into their heads I wasn't capable and are looking for it. Given my knowledge of other people's PhD's in the School I don't think anyone else has been subjected to this level of scrutiny. I also wonder if the students (of which there are many) who have English as second language, and who therefore have similar issues in fact to a dyslexic student in terms of writing, have the same level of scrutiny, or have been threatened with failure on the basis of such things.

What kicks me in the teeth is that I almost feel like I am being penalised or taxed financially for my disability. Being told the only way through is through proving a professional finanical transaction has taken place.

What I also feel is the lack of support for disabled students in this position. I feel this most keenly because it's how I currently earn my (frankly abysmal) wage. At Undergraduate, even Masters level there is such support for students with disabilities. I spend my days making sure students have physical access, as well as access academically to their course. Obviously I can't be specific here but as a department this means note taking for students in lectures, scribing and reading in examinations as well as the whole array of things other staff members do, and that we do that isn't on any list. We help students across a whole spectrum of disabilities from yes, dyslexia, to hearing and sight impairments, mental health issues, autistic spectrum disorders, a whole host of physical disabilities (including the odd rugby injury) I spend my days taking notes in lectures or reading in exams so that students can be on a level playing field. I don't just take notes for students who can't hear or see, but for those whose study would be impaired if they had to compensate themselves for their note taking or whatever other support I'm giving. I'm not giving my students a 'leg up' by helping them I'm evening the playing field.

 You wouldn't ask a disabled student to play basketball without a wheelchair would you? it's the same thing. You wouldn't ask a blind runner to compete without a guide? (can you tell I've been working in sports for a year?!) What it feels like to me is being that blind runner, being put in a field with all the able bodied runners and being blamed when I fall over and trip everyone up, and being told it's my own fault I've come last, I'm probably lying about being blind anyway.

So where do I stand now? well in theory I have to pay for another proof read (negotiated luckily to just the corrections) but given what I've said above I worry that I'm going to do that, pay out again only to be told it's still not enough. I've been told the content is there that what I've written is PhD standard but I won't pass without a proof read. Strongly advised it should be a professional proofreader. Putting aside that I've done that already, several times now. I wonder am I being told 'You'd be a PhD now if you weren't dyslexic' am I being told that my disability isn't real? that I'm lying about it? I don't even know anymore.

I've had some low points in my PhD. I've had supervisors walk out, I've had supervisors scream at me. I've been told nothing I'm doing is right. I've done all this while working all the hours and being flat broke. But I always felt it was worth it. I don't anymore. I feel now that I am on the 'stupid table' that I was put in a box the moment I outed myself as dyslexic and nothing I ever did was going to change that.

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

The Five Steaks and an Eggplant conundrum

 This is an awkward one. It's the thing that nobody wants to talk about: money.

As I moved through my 20s into my 30s I began re-watching a lot of 'Friends' again. And it struck me how relevant to that stage of life a lot of that show was. I could write a whole series of posts on that. The one that sticks in my mind at present is 'The one with five steaks and an eggplant' where not only Monica is fired for a innocent mistake on her part (I've been there) but for this exchange:

Ross: I guess I never think of money as an issue
Rachel: That's because you have it.

That exchange there sums up my entire academic experience. From my trying to explain why I had to hurry up and finish, to why further archival research or conferences weren't on the cards. And now to explaining why barring some kind of divine intervention that an academic career is over for me. Money. It makes the world go around, and if you have it you don't notice. It is also the biggest gatekeeper to academic success.

The final straw came when I was called in to talk about my PhD corrections. Having spent the last hour in work physically shaking from head to foot convinced I was going to be told I'd failed, I was told that the examiners required the corrections to be proofread. I'm not going to get into the debates about dyslexia and being penalized (I've written about it here...) or that International students with English as a second language seem to get a free ride on this front but those of us with a disability that effect us in the same way don't. What I am going to talk about is the monetary issue.

Let me first say that the director of research is on my side in this. He was doing the best to find a solution that was not going to cost me a lot of money. I also got the impression that he was less than impressed at the situation and that this was the best compromise without at fight. I'm angry at the situation but inclined to agree with him and take the 'anything for a quiet life' approach at this stage.

What I am angry about is that once again my ability to be an academic rests on my ability to pay for it. I've already paid for proof reading once, and now my ability to actually pass rests on paying for (hopefully slightly less) proof reading again. Because the implication in this situation wasn't so much on doing of the proof reading but the proving I'd gotten someone "Professional" and by implication made payment for it to be done.

I've talked before about financing a PhD as a self funded student. Added to that is the implication in academic circles that it makes me "lesser" somehow. In the same way that I see Independent scholars regarded as "lesser" when in fact those of us somehow supporting ourselves financially whether as students or later as scholars should actually be respected for juggling both finance and a life/job that is outside the academic and still producing our thesis/work. However that isn't the case, we're viewed as the 'not quite good enough' be it for a scholarship or a job. In the financial climate and job market we exist in can anyone be that narrow minded to think it's only those who aren't 'good enough' in that position? it's simply those who aren't lucky enough.

And that luck is something I don't have the luxury of banking on. I've been told, and seen others told time and time again that the key to academic success is just 'waiting it out' that you have to 'just keep going' attending conferences and publishing until magically...maybe...if you're get a part time fixed term job. Maybe. And you know what I think to that? I think what planet are these people living on?

In what reality can people just sit around and wait for a job? doing all the unpaid work associated with that job, paying out for expensive conferences and library access and academic books that are frankly ridiculously prohibitively expensive even to those in full time jobs.

The only way to sustain this lifestyle, and it is a lifestyle choice, is to have a partner or parents who can support you. Or to do it alongside an unrelated full time job. I have the utmost respect for those who do the latter. And I also respect those who fall into the former category but are mindful of the privileged position they are in. I resent nobody their success if they work hard and happen to have a helping hand. What I do resent is those who have no concept of the helping hand they've been given in life and fail to see that others don't have that luxury.

So I'm going to spell it out: not everyone has that. And it's hear that academia also becomes a class issue. I'm not saying there aren't working class people in academia. In Britain we're lucky to have a student loans system and a means assessed system that does allow people from all backgrounds to access HE. And if people are lucky and get funding, or like me, support themselves by working in between studying then it is possible to do. Then there are those who are lucky and get  a job on finishing (something that was easier even just a few short years ago) but it's still a minority. And it makes it hard to explain to academic colleagues just what it is like to come from a background without the financial safety net.

In addition to the financial constraints there's also the other implications of being working class in academia. I've never felt "common" or "stupid" because of my background until I did my PhD. I mean we're all occasionally made to feel stupid in academia, that's part of the deal I think. But I genuinely really feel 'common' and often like some Dickensian urchin. Of course people like me don't read Dickens. It's hard to quantify exactly but a gradual niggling feeling over the years that somehow I had missed out on some fundamental education, because my background wasn't sophisticated enough. Because my parents didn't have higher education (hell my parents barely had secondary education, they're old you see when you could leave very early) then there were a lot of things they weren't aware of. We didn't go to the theatre, or watch high brow programmes on TV or read high brow books. I never felt lesser because of it. My Mum reads voraciously, and instilled that in me. However it's become clear neither of us read the 'right' books. I didn't have the 'right' kind of foundations for academia, my tastes aren't the right ones and I feel I'll always be playing catch up in that respect. However, if anyone wants a PhD in trams trains or planes, I spent a childhood attending museums related to those, so perhaps that was a missed opportunity.

I can defend my knowledge background, attitude and tastes. I'm not ashamed of where I come from. Nor am I ashamed of having different cultural experiences. My background gives me a killer work ethic, and a no nonsense attitude that doesn't suffer fools. All that I could bring to academia and quite frankly academia could do with. What I can't bring is the power to wait it out because I don't have the money.

An academic salary (starting at £32, 000 for those who don't know) is a fortune to me. It's money I never dreamed of. It's money a lot of my friends (nurses who earn a frankly paltry wage that is disgusting in comparison, people in the arts, school teachers) would also dream of. Ironically you have to have the money to earn the money. Hell we live in a Capitalist society, it is what it is.

What is different here to in business or other public sectors, is the guilt, dear Lord the guilt. This idea that I should be waiting it out, that it's the right thing to do, that I HAVE to pay out to conference, to publish to keep networking. And I ask on what? I also say there are more important things.

I work hard for the money I earn (ok to quote Friends again, I work for it) and to me, there are more important things. For the cost of a conference I could save up and take my Mum away with me somewhere for the weekend. That academic book? that could keep my poor old doggy in the tablets she needs for a month. We aren't on the breadline, but there are priorities. And 'staying in the game' or actually 'playing the game' isn't one of them right now.

I'm not writing this for pity or sympathy. I'm writing it to draw attention to the 'that's because you have it' attitude. I'm writing it because of the guilt, the idea that we 'should do' or that we 'must do' in academia. And I'm also writing it for the assumption that everyone is able to do. And I'm writing it to be that common-as-muck working class voice that nobody ever hears.