Incomplete erasure

Mid winter is a time for extra layering, of clothes, of food ingredients, of wood preserver on the garden shed.

Layers sometimes accumulate, sometimes replace, sometimes interweave. In any case, each is the foundation for the next, hidden, wholly or in part, but never completely erased.

Anyone who has tried to rub out and re-draw a shaky pencil line knows this well. From the moment pencil touches paper, the hand is subtly drawn into a web of the faintest of traces, real or imagined; one experiences an effect midway between being channelled along the groove in a vinyl disc and weightlessness. Using an eraser just heightens the effect, impressing the memory of the undesired line on your mind’s eye rather than on the page. The paper shares its memory with yours.

Even if visible, layers may require to be brought to the surface, highlighted. In sheet music, though all equally visible to the eye, individual voices, however assiduously notated, may need to be accentuated acoustically. Likewise, in text, graphemes, though evident in black and white, require further contextual clues to reveal their layered shades of meaning.

Paradoxically, it is easier to overlook layers staring us in the face. By contrast, well-hidden underlying layers may remain insidiously present. The new is only fresh when it contrasts with the old, that which it gleefully brushes aside, yet ends up being defined by. TV programme schedules are a good example, especially at Christmas and New Year. No amount of layered re-confectioning can counteract the mental benumbment of endlessly re-hashed festive ‘favourites’.

Much of our world is a palimpsest: land- and cityscapes, archaeological sites, paintings, manuscripts and inscriptions, all bear traces of their earlier forms, readable to the discerning eye. As architect/planner Giancarlo De Carlo demonstrated in his sensitive modernisation of the town of Urbino,

‘reading’ and design are but two sides of the same coin, involving the identification of layers in the palimpsest before overwriting can take place. (Jones 2004)

In many areas of activity, including higher education and the use of digital technology in particular, we behave as if the layered encrustations of the past have dissolved, clearing the way for each successive innovation to blossom on virgin ground. Overnight, traditional behaviours become poison ivy, deplorable anachronisms. Yet, in reality innovations are firmly rooted in traditional soil. Synchronised cloud storage appeals to the deep desire for tidiness without effort, Google docs convince us we are collaborating, Twitter that we possess the aphoristic wit and wisdom of Oscar Wilde.

This post was in part prompted by a sentiment of indignation, that which one may feel when being instructed on a new IT system. “We will train you on a need-to-know basis,” you hear. In other words, we will erase what you knew and replace it with an impoverished notional subset of the same process in a new guise. We won’t waste your time (and ours) giving you information you don’t need. Training materials will be localised, i.e. cobbled-together from poorly written, generic third-party Powerpoint slides sporting your institution’s ‘branding’.

In sum, your vision is blinkered by those seeking to divest you of the power of informed action. You are expected to make do with a myopic, single-layered view rather than a synoptic, multi-layered one. Even the most nebulous grasp of the permeating power of layered understanding and experience should tell us that such an approach is preposterous in an HE context. No-one but me decides what I need to know.

To end on a semi-humorous note, layers of the digital kind, such as feature in a well-known image editing package from Adobe Systems Inc., can have unexpected advantages.

A year ago I drew a satirical cartoon for our annual Learning and Teaching Conference. It was well received, so I was asked to do another one for the 2018 conference, on the topic of transformation (see below). Satire must have bite but I knew that the darker side of the image might be challenging for some. So I built the whole thing up on separate digital layers, layers of meaning one might say. When, as predicted, the organisers asked for a brighter, more optimistic version, I was prepared! Click, click and hey presto, no sinister lepidopterist or bleak city skyline. Thanks, Richard. Um, we’re not sure about the crows…. No problem. Click, no crows.

No crows but no principles compromised either: the image will be used integrally as a discussion prompt in the run-up to and during the conference. Only the banner and programme header will be all cheer, no chill. The erasures are only surface deep. In a sense, the darker layers will be just as telling for their absence, like the feeling of unease one has when aware that something is missing…

Cartoon for BLTC18

© Richard Francis 2017-18


Jones, Peter Blundell 2004. Giancarlo De Carlo: layered places. The Free Library (November, 1), De Carlo: layered places.-a0126076005 (accessed January 03 2018)

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