Author Archives: Richard Francis

About Richard Francis

Richard is Principal Learning Technologist at Oxford Brookes University and a National Teaching Fellow.

TEL the Truth

The only TEL glossary you’ll ever need

Agile development – One of the three fundamental principles of TEL: incessant, inescapable and inexplicable changes in software, designed to keep users in a permanent state of confusion, thereby distracting them from their original purpose, which no-one can any longer recall. (See also ‘Business as usual’ and ‘SMART targets’).

AIAvoidance of Interaction. Algorithmic systems of this kind are sometimes affectionately referred to as “intelligent”, demonstrating that their users have a sense of humour.

Android – A term of belittlement, implying that the subject is slightly less than human. Generally qualified by a denigratory food-related metaphor (e.g. cupcake, marshmallow, petit four).

ARAdamant Refusal to believe real-world evidence. A popular idealist epistemology consisting of the projecting of hypothetical constructs onto real-world phenomena. AR proponents argue that the approach demonstrates the subjectivity of perception and ultimately truth. Opponents of AR advocate WYSIWYG realism (What You See Is What You Get), any other approach being dismissed as ‘pie in the sky’, which is the typical response of professional IT services to academic innovation generally (see also ‘ITS’ below).

ARS – Colloquial. Abbrev. of Latin aphorism ‘Ars longa, vita brevis’, meaning “life is too short to get these stupid clickers to work”.

Blog (weblog) – The state of being unable to commence a piece of online writing.

Business as usual – One of the three fundamental principles of TEL: more work for the same money and hours but with fewer people. (See also ‘Agile Development’ and ‘SMART targets’).

BYOD – The IT equivalent of ‘pick your own strawberries’. Very popular with IT Service Desk staff.

Chat – (Pronounced ‘sha’ à la française). Unruly, individualistic, feline animal, typically found in university classrooms. Notoriously resistant to herding and prone to loud, sumultaneous caterwauling when subjected to change.

CIOCorporate Interference Officer. Important managerial position that exists to ensure that large sums of money are diverted from learning and teaching into inscrutably termed ‘business critical’ systems which no-one must ever fully understand.

Cloud computing – A popular managerial strategy for transferring responsibility for lost data, server downtime and security breaches to a third party.

COO – The sound emitted by a senior manager when unboxing a new digital gadget.

DDoSDistributed Denial of Sanity. Temporary outbreak of mass hysteria, similar to Christmas. Precipitates a period of deep insecurity and intense soul-searching for a few and of mandatory idleness and celebration for many. Hence ddosser: someone who creates a lot of work for other people without contributing anything useful themselves. Also the acronym of the now defunct precursor to the Windows PC operating system (DeadDOS).

Dropbox – Acknowledged and incurable medical condition characterised by an excess of digital material gathering in file storage areas. Temporary palliative treatment includes appendage of peripheral devices and migration to the cloud.

e-Book, e-Learning, e-Portfolio e-Tc. – Archaic forms no longer in widespread use. The main purpose of the e- prefix was to attract attention to and funding for experimentation with computers by causing confusion over spelling (e-learning, elearning, e-Learning, Elearning, eLearning etc.). There have been other, largely unsuccessful, attempts to emulate the effectiveness of this technique, including my-, i- and you-. It is now recognised that the choice of label makes no significant difference to the student experience.

Flipped classroom – Paradoxically popular blended learning technique requiring approx. three times the work of traditional lecturing. Step 1: The teacher records their lecture on their office PC and uploads it to the VLE. This must be done in very short chunks because (i) their PC has insufficient capacity to store more than 2 minutes of video at a time and (ii) the audio has to be recorded separately in a sound-proofed room so as not to disturb colleagues. Step 2: the students ignore the pre-recorded lecture. Step 3: the teacher, having established that students have completed step 2, re-records the lecture in the lecture theatre*. Typical student feedback: “My teacher has flipped.”

GPSGenerally Poor Signposting. With the advent of vehicles and smart devices able to locate themselves via satellite, it has become unnecessary for humans to know where they are at any point during a journey. Signposting is thus also unnecessary.

GUIGaudy Use of Icons. The stock-in-trade of the professional web designer.

Haptic – Haptic feedback is the largely nostalgic, tactile sensation of writing comments with a pen on a printed student assignment. Highly prized among older-generation teachers, haptic feedback sensations are largely unfamiliar to present-day students who submit their work electronically and seldom handle it again directly. However, developers are confident that soon students will once again be able to enjoy a simulated haptic feedback experience through the wearing of special haptic gloves in Virtual Reality.

HCIHuman Computer Imprecation. An individual’s idiolect of verbal exclamations emitted when grappling with PC errors, slow-downs, crashes, unsolicited upgrades, privacy statements etc.. Predicated upon steadfast refusal to acknowledge one’s own errors.

HTML5 – A non-flashy, belt-and-braces, DIY approach to web page design, as in “Having Tried My Luck 5 times, I at last succeeded in aligning the bullet points”. Known for its intuitiveness, 5 is the minimum number of attempts required for any operation.

ICTInformation and Communication Technologies. Primitive euphemism no longer in use. Superceded in corporate management parlance by MIS (management Mis-Information Systems).

ITS – Professional IT Services; often referred to as ‘the pits’. (See also ‘AR’ above).

LALosing the Argument. The inevitable outcome of any attempt to dissuade disciples of this creed from the belief that learning outcomes can be predicted from quantitative data analysis and that human intuition should be expunged from the decision-making process.

Lecture Capture – The elusive art of the entrapment of lecturers caught in flagrante attempting to perpetrate authentic learning events. Strategies include inaudible sound, illegible text, over-exposure, camera shake, extremes of volume change and long periods of wall-staring with noises off. Echo 360 is the apt trade name of one commonly used lecture capture system.

LMSLowering My Sights. Cheap and cheerful alternative to the fully immersive, multi-media VLE (see below) for time-pressured academics. Also known as lecture note dump.

Maintenance Mode – The moment of silence during a software upgrade during which users fondly recall the features they have grown to love before the new version breaks them.

Media-sharing websites – Emancipatory websites such as Flickr® and YouTube that enable digital amateurs to flaunt their limitations with pride.

MP3 – A handy digital audio format with which one can enjoy music of inferior audio quality, without liner notes or artwork and without paying royalties to the musicians.

MUDMassive User Disillusionment.  The phenomenon associated with the adoption of new software for which many claims have been made without appropriate documentation or communication.  Typical user feedback would include statements such as “The benefits of the new platform are as clear as mud”.

OLAFOnLine Assessment Freeze. A common and fortunately temporary state of paralysis brought on by an excess of online marking.

Open source software – Software for which anyone can write plugins which no-one maintains.

Podcast – (verb). What you do to your mobile device when it repeatedly malfunctions or when you accidentally invert the open pocket in which you have been carrying it. (See also ‘Screencast’).

Portal – A small window through which a sea of information and services can be glimpsed but not accessed.

Project creep – Important member of any project team whose role it is to ensure that a project report contains only those outcomes desired by the sponsors rather than any wider, more useful conclusions.

QR CodeQuite Relevant Code.  A kind of barcode used by advertisers to persuade customers to purchase a product or service. The technique consists of providing apparently insufficient information on the physical product itself, thus prompting the customer to point their mobile phone at the barcode to obtain essentially the same, quite relevant but useless information dressed up as an exclusive app.

RSS feedReally Sophisticated Seed feeder. Perfect for back-garden bird watchers, this clever mechanism for aggregating a variety of food sources in one convenient dispenser, will have your avian friends hooked: they’ll keep coming back for more.

SaaS – On that rare occasion when cloud computing doesn’t quite meet your needs, a Simple alternative analogue Solution may be the option for you. Frustrated that you cannot quite achieve the subtlety of shading you are seeking in your digital drawing? Try a pencil.

Screencast – (verb). The act of filming yourself podcasting your device. (See ‘Podcast’).

Smartphone – A sophisticated mobile device with advanced computing abilities such as internet and web-browsing, Wi-Fi and broadband access, portable media players, video calling, cameras, a touch-sensitive screen, GPS navigation and the ability to run vitally unimportant software known as apps. Seldom used to make telephone calls, except when driving.

SMART targets – One of the three fundamental principles of TEL: the aspiration to set development targets that are Seldom Marred by Analysis, Reason or Theory. (See also ‘Agile Development’ and ‘Business as usual’.)

Social media – The collective name for a family of viruses that are transmitted harmlessly among populations through the exchange of comic images of cats, plagiarised epithets known as memes, leering photographic self-portraits and stylised graphic representations of simple sentiments, known as emoticons or emojis. Reported side effects include: instant dissemination of fake news, the fomenting of radicalised opinion, the obfuscation of fact and mistrust of science, the claiming of freedoms without responsibilities and the undermining of democratic processes.

TEFTechnology Enhanced Fitness. The name given to the voluntary exercise regime which Universities and Colleges are required to put themselves through by the government’s Office for Students. Failure to achieve the required level is indicated by the award of a silver or bronze medal.

Thin client – The more astute half of a typical business partnership; seeks to do as little work as possible, always claiming to have insufficient resources. The other, less astute partner, known as the thick client, ends up doing the “heavy lifting” without realising it, often having to continue working offline in order to complete a task in time.

Upgrade – The primary weapon for enforcement of the Agile Development principle.

USBUniversal Sense of Blankness. The mental state induced by futile attempts to locate a mislaid peripheral storage device containing Powerpoint slides prior to an important lecture. Also aptly termed ‘memory stick’.

VLEVirtual Light Entertainment. It is the responsibility of every lecturer to create an engaging, inclusive, personalised, multi-modal, potentially transformative experience for every student, with all required information just a click away: fully transcribed lecture recordings, bite-sized chunks of easily digested information for flipped classroom interaction, model essay answers, non-threatening quizzes etc. Instead they provide a VLE. The VLE is in decline following numerous reported cases of fatal scrolling injuries resulting from its misuse.

VR – The desire to escape from the real world by donning an uncomfortable and ungainly pair of outsized goggles with zero visibility. Known side effects include nausea, bruising and breakage of family heirlooms.

Wi-Fi – The sign ‘Wi-Fi free’ denotes an area or location in which visitors are allowed to concentrate on a single activity such as eating, drinking or socialising for more than two minutes, without becoming distracted by a computer or other mobile digital device.

Wiki – One third of Julius Caesar’s famous pronouncement wini, widi, wiki (pron. weeni, weedi, weeki). Used by team leaders to denounce the inadequacy of other team members’ contributions to collaborative online groupwork.

The course that Jack wrote

This is the course that Jack wrote.

This is the student who studied and studied
But still failed the course that Jack wrote.

This is the frown on the face of the student
Who studied and studied
But still failed the course that Jack wrote.

This is the grade that caused the frown
On the face of the student
Who studied and studied
But still failed the course that Jack wrote.

This is the app that messed up the grade
That caused the frown
On the face of the student
Who studied and studied
But still failed the course that Jack wrote.

This is the bug that crashed the app
That messed up the grade
That caused the frown
On the face of the student
Who studied and studied
But still failed the course that Jack wrote.

This is the coder who worked very hard
To kill the bug
That crashed the app
That messed up the grade
That caused the frown
On the face of the student
Who studied and studied
But still failed the course that Jack wrote.

This is the budget with no line for the coder
Who worked very hard
To kill the bug
That crashed the app
That messed up the grade
That caused the frown
On the face of the student
Who studied and studied
But still failed the course that Jack wrote.

This is the big black hole in the budget
With no line for the coder
Who worked very hard
To kìll the bug
That crashed the app
That messed up the grade
That caused the frown
On the face of the student
Who studied and studied
But stìll failed the course that Jack wrote.

These are the students who went somewhere else
And made the hole in the budget
With no line for the coder
Who worked very hard
To kill the bug
That crashed the app
That messed up the grade
That caused the frown
On the face of the student
Who studied and studied
But still failed the course that Jack wrote.

These are the bosses who recruited the students
Who went somewhere else
And made the hole in the budget
With no line for the coder
Who worked very hard
To kill the bug
That crashed the app
That messed up the grade
That caused the frown
On the face of the student
Who studied and studied
But still failed the course that Jack wrote.

So ended Jack’s course, dropped by the bosses
Who recruited the students
Who went somewhere else
And made the hole in the budget
With no line for the coder
Who worked very hard
To kill the bug
That crashed the app
That messed up the grade
That caused the frown
On the face of the student
Who studied and studied
But still failed the course that Jack wrote.

Miliarium Aureum

As the saying goes, all roads lead to Rome; no matter which route you take, the destination will be the same. So it can seem, that our trajectory is inexorable, unstoppable. Of late I see the world around me slipping into this frame of mind and it makes me by turns shiver with fear and shake with anger.

For one thing, the expression is not one of hopeless resignation but of recognition of an extraordinary achievement – 80,000 km of hard-surfaced highways built 2,000 years ago and many still in use. At the famed destination, the Golden Milestone (or at least of gilded bronze), a powerful symbol of conquest and engineering prowess. How striking moovel lab‘s algorithmically generated visualisation of the phrase from 2015 and how elegantly it invokes sentiments of unity, cohesion, connection.

All roads lead to Rome.

All roads indeed do lead to Rome. http://roadstorome.moovellab.com/countries

Furthermore, there is no inevitability to decline, no unopposability to implosion. We know deep down that there are alternative ways forward, can imagine much better futures. Yet seemingly we lack the courage or conviction to pursue them.

Nowhere is this more evident than in higher education. Narcissistically engrossed in the contemplation of an awful caricature of itself, it dallies with earnest self-mutilation. Like the quack healers of political economy, our leaders convince us that the end justifies the means: that for any gain we must first endure pain. But whose gain and whose pain? The latter certainly yours and mine, the former, very probably not. And what, exactly, is our destination? You tell us, comes the reply; your views are important; we cannot achieve a common vision of the future without your help. We must all pull together.

Assuming for one headily optimistic moment that we can agree on a destination, does it matter how we get there? Do all roads lead to the same hazily identified endpoint no matter what? No, of course they do not. As much as our destination matters, it matters equally how we reach it. Can we meander off into the back streets of neoliberal oblivion confidently believing that Rome is just a few blocks away? Sure. Rome isn’t going anywhere. But nor will we be, except in ever-decreasing one-way circles.

Destinations are, in any case, largely elusive personal constructs, the imagined stuff of legend. As Robert Louis Stevenson famously remarked, more than to arrive, our ideal is to stay travelling towards them in an agreeable state of hope. Thus, if our aim for higher education, is the common good, our path towards it must at every step pursue the common good, not the generation of personal debt: it must be a road we can confidently recommend to others. If we hold that knowledge is a hard-fought gain, fruit of sometimes painful self-criticism and challenging social interdependence, we should travel in good company and be ready for the bumps. If we value our and our neighbours’ heritages and can conceive alternative forms of integrity, then the journey should be an epic one, a grand tour, taking in creative detours, speculative dead-ends and unscheduled stops to admire the view.

Of course hope and delusion are close cousins; some destinations turn out to be mirages. For example, the roads of market-driven economics and data-driven AI metrics promise El Dorado but take us nowhere: they conduct us ever deeper into solitude and mistrust. There are no AI short cuts to reason, no fuel-saving digital highways to our recruitment targets.

But take heart, the Romans had it worked out long ago. Keep sight of your miliarium aureum and all your roads will lead to it.

 

Hall of Mirrors

Dr Mark Averidge mused before his reflection as he tested for residual stubble.

“What a chore, the procrastination, the prevarication, the scribbling in the margin, the fussy little comments boxes in MS Word.

Marking online, now that’s a different story: there are speech bubbles, boxes and rubrics to be filled in, sliders you can drag around, cool tools for crossing things out or highlighting them in different colours, even a built-in audio recorder to make you sound all caring and professional.

It’s more fun. OK, it may not save time but time flies when you’re having fun, doesn’t it. And the fun you’re having comes across to the students as enthusiasm for their work – it’s contagious.

Oh and we work better as a team, we normalise, we have a common stock of ready-made phrases, less room for misunderstanding.

In any case, students expect it. It’s how their teachers did things at school. And all our competitors are doing it. Online marking is just better. No argument.”

Mark leant forward assertively and his reflection corresponded.

Oumph!

Ow! That hurt.

His nose had collided with the glass; he rubbed it vigorously. “Watch yourself,” admonished Mark.

He didn’t need to say that. He’s the one getting over excited. Beyond the glass he could see Mark mechanically brushing his teeth. His eyes followed Mark out of the bathroom, his movements a little stiff and reflexive. The image of the room gradually misted over before him.


Mark checked his hair in the rear-view mirror.

“That’s it, I’m going to insist the whole team does it. Mandatory online feedback. The students will love us for it.”

From behind the mirror, he watched Mark manoeuvre himself out of the car and march away with confident, even step. There he goes again, thinking technology is the silver bullet. The thought rose into the bright sky and hovered knowingly.


As Mark strode blithely into the Exam Committee meeting, his mind devoid of doubt, a tiny scintilla flashed across his eyes. With it went the faintest of murmurs “scio me nescire”.


This post is affectionately dedicated to all my colleagues currently immersed in marking. It was inspired by Jean Baudrillard and Charlie Chaplin (and of course Socrates).

In his philosophical treatise Simulacra and Simulation (1981), Baudrillard gave us a poetically limpid vision of the illusion that is contemporary reality. His theory of simulacra can well be applied to the current state of education, a world in which the connection between the symbolic and the real has dissolved into hyperreality, “produced from a radiating synthesis of combinatory models in a hyperspace without atmosphere.”

Half a century earlier, Charlie Chaplin portrayed with ineffable genius a similar notion in the Mirror Maze scene from The Circus (1928).

Fata Morgana

Thine eyes deceive: A cold-weather mirage on a hot summer day. Anchorage Daily news. Dec. 7, 2012

This post is dedicated to my two sons, currently in their teens.

Beside the anxieties of cramming for exams and generalised collective growing pains, one question continually assails me: how can the voracious, wondering curiosity of young minds survive in a world devastated by globalised capital?

Traditional strategies fall short. Thinking things through clearly, rationally, responsibly is now woefully inadequate, counter-productive even. There is no shared vision of the future to act as yardstick, no alternative pathways for comparison.

Time out for travel is expensive, and where is one to go in an all-pervading, mono-cultural world of radicalised interiority, bereft too of biodiversity?

And where lies profundity? Like refracted images in water, depth of thought has become illusory, treacherous; aphorism has replaced analysis, entrepreneurs essayists.

Not to speak of community, extended families, embodied, temporal/spatial networks of people, squeezed aside by monetised asset sharing, the lonely gig economy.

No, wait. This is not the spirit. There is still marvel in the banal (‘le banal merveilleux’). Physics and metaphysics can still play peaceably together and we should join in the performance. As Virginia Woolf observed of the ever-changing, cloud-filled sky from the solitude of her sickbed,

“One should not let this gigantic cinema play perpetually to an empty house.”

In the monochrome hopelessness of our times, we must be alert to the prodigious in the here and now, to the poetry of the mundane. As André Breton asserted in the preface to his Surrealist poem ‘Fata Morgana’,

“elle (poetic analogy) tend à faire entrevoire et valoir la vraie vie “absente”.”

Science and logic describe the world but only our imaginations make it intelligible.

On August 14, 1643, in the Strait of Messina, Jesuit priest Domenico Giardina wondered at “a city all floating in the air, measureless and splendid, adorned with magnificent buildings, all of which was found on a base of luminous crystal, never beheld before.” He knew it was an optical illusion, a ‘fata morgana’ or superior image, and that there was no cause to impute divine intervention. He even gave his own chemical analysis of the phenomenon, which he described as a mobile specchio – a moving polyhedric mirror. Nevertheless, it was nature working her miracles and, as such, to be wondered at.

It was then and remains a wonderful world. There’s plenty of time for disillusionment later in life. Let it wait.

So I wander and wander along,
And forever before me gleams
The shining city of song,
In the beautiful land of dreams.

But when I would enter the gate
Of that golden atmosphere,
It is gone, and I wonder and wait
For the vision to reappear.

from Fata Morgana (1873) by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Algorithmic Prudery

This month we were plunged into the deep freeze. Consequently, the stream of thought iced over for a while. What ideas one could muster came in short mental blurts – like tweets. In defiant contrast, however, our avian friends, the master twitterers, following seasonal instincts even deeper than the cold, have latterly become noisily frisky, pursuing each other from branch to branch and chirping brightly. Watching them at breakfast time is enough to de-frost the brain.

It seemed appropriate, therefore, to dedicate this post to them, in the style of a satirical twitter storm, with the seditious letter ‘n’ judiciously redacted, naturally, so as to offend no sensibilities. The theme, prudery, would of course leave the birds (and the bees) completely cold. Humans, on the other hand, get over-heated about it.

Twitter storm

 

Fourteen next month

Robin Hood holding smartphone

1895 promotional illustration for a theatrical production of “Robin Hood”.

To celebrate the upcoming anniversary of everyone’s favourite social media site, I’d like to invite you to join me in a little sing song. Here, to the evergreen theme tune of the “Robin Hood” TV show is

The Sugerberg Song

Sugerberg, Sugerberg, sitting in his dorm,
Sugerberg, Sugerberg, the sophomore hub is born.
Steals from his friends to boost his IPO.
Way to go, way to go, way to go.

He came to Palo Alto, with Fakebook on PC,
Now the accidental billionaire.
His algorithms hook us with the news we like to read,
Though the stories have their roots we know not where.

Sugerberg, Sugerberg, advertisers’ friend,
Sugerberg, Sugerberg, the users never end.
At work or at home, all we need is our phone,
Never alone, never alone, never alone.

The elections prick his conscience: What monster have we spawned?
He vows that he must combat fake news.
To save our democracy we must be well informed.
Let the users decide what news is true.

Sugerberg, Sugerberg, the gas-lighting must stop.
Sugerberg, Sugerberg, thinks he’s a philanthrop.
But it’s the trolls, the hackers and the bots,
Who call the shots, call the shots, call the shots.

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

Reference

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

La Tendresse

(with thanks to André Bourvil)

I have no stomach this month for commentary on the digital world. Coded, pre-fabricated, self-serving and self-fulfilling.

Fortunately, there is much else in life. A gentle lilt d’autrefois caresses my ears. It is La Tendresse sung by André Bourvil. Take a moment if you will, to listen to its words, to which I humbly append some of my own below.

I am driving to work on a Tuesday having spent Monday at home with a stomach bug. I’m still a bit delicate, tender; normally mild odours remain pungent, gentle movements jolt, subdued light glares. And the disgruntled murmuring from my midriff continues.

I am at a pedestrian crossing near the station. On the kerb side a schoolboy draws up on his bicycle. There is a squeal of brakes and another bicycle judders to a halt behind him. The boy’s father, a man in his forties with less bike control than his son, topples over his handlebars onto the kerb, upending both himself and his mount. The boy emits a concerned cry, “Daddy!”. Shaken and red-faced, the father rights himself and remounts, smiling timidly in a general direction. As the lights change to green, the boy gently guides his father into a side street to regain composure.

Half a mile later, as I turn into St. Giles, I notice an elderly couple outside the Taylor Institution. They are motionless, wrapped in amorous embrace, lips touching. Enfolded in each other’s arms, they are oblivious to the world. My car tracing the broad arc of the turning gives me a sweeping, cinematic view of them, emphasising their stillness and calm.

I continue on my way. Traffic builds up and progress slows to a snail’s pace. My windows open, I am party to snippets of conversation, small gestures and interactions. Two ladies, I guess in their fifties, glance in my direction. One turns to look closer. Her face lights up in an impish gleam and she gives me a vigorous thumbs-up, apparently delighted by the vehicle I am driving. “Fascinating!” she declares.

As I approach the car park, the tenderness I still feel is now of a different nature, prompted by the expressions of human emotion and dignity that I have witnessed. The best antidote to daily digital drudgery.

 

Transportation (or lucidity by degrees)

One day last week a five-kilometre car journey to work took an hour and forty minutes. I could comfortably have covered the distance on foot in less time. Normally I would take simultaneous advantage of two more sophisticated forms of transport: the bus and a good book. I suspect the era of privately owned motor vehicles must soon come to an end.

If queuing in traffic for a hundred minutes was folly, so was the task I had set myself once at work. I had resolved, with two colleagues to run an extra-curricular workshop, during which students foolhardy enough to attend would build a musical instrument from rubbish and then play it, not only in physical but in virtual reality. A crazy idea undeniably but not the senseless folly of the earlier commute; this was folly of underlying good sense. There was method in the madness.

Our small but intrepid audience reported having a very enjoyable time. As we had hoped, they remarked on having felt transported, in three ways: out of their daily routine, beyond their existing capabilities, into an unexplored virtual realm. Could we please tell them when the next workshop was to be?

This then was pre-meditated folly, of good intent. Though a successful outcome was by no means guaranteed, we worked purposefully and conscientiously towards it – we thought our actions through. Rays of light penetrated the quotidian gloom.

Robert Schumann Op.6 Davidsbündlertänze No.XVII

I return home, daylight dimming – a transport of delight. The penultimate of Schumann’s Op. 6 dances is playing. Though the light of day is gone, that of the music is bright and limpid; no burdensome reason dulls it. Time stands still.

I’m in my study now, pencil in hand, drawing the goddess Hygeia. I have come to her face. A plan of action forms in my head but I pause. If I think through every step, as I did the workshop, the outcome will surely disappoint me. I must let my hand be my guide. I shut out all thinking and my head is lucid with movement, form and colour. Gesture and thought become one.

Some time later, I don’t know exactly how long, I am looking at Hygeia. Her eyes are dark pools of intense concentration with a trace of ruefulness. Her hair is plaited, some loose strands playing around her cheek. The corner of her mouth suggests a smile. I feel weightless.

The clock in the hallway chimes the hour and the lead-weight of gravity re-descends. I re-enter the sullen world and see that dawn is less than four hours away.

Moments like these are rare – I treasure them for the lucidity and calm they bring. Only later do my thoughts catch up. Much of my time otherwise is spent in the opaque folly of misguided logic by which all our lives are habitually driven, thoughts running ahead in agitated clamour, vying for attention but unable to be fulfilled.

I have sometimes to step away, release the creative from its rational stranglehold and, through the act of making, let gesture formulate thought, not vice versa.