Student Support: A Tale of Two Libraries

(Three, really, but they were in two countries.)

There’s been a lot of conversation on social media recently about whether the increasing administration costs of UK higher education are correlated to student support, and, if so, whether such support is necessary. I am firmly of the belief that pastoral care is vital (and not necessarily as novel a part of the higher education process as some suppose—Oxbridge has had high levels of para-academic support for centuries, official and un, simply shaped differently to reflect the changing times and demographics of its attendees), but without disparaging the many committed, talented people serving as university support staff, I am not necessarily convinced that UK students are seeing the benefits of supposedly abundant user-focused infrastructure.

I have attended three UK post-graduate institutions: two University of London, and two Russell Group and one 1994 Group: I say this just to observe that you could expect comparatively high levels of infrastructure and funding, and commensurate attention to student needs, at these institutions. I have had incredibly frustrating experiences with all three. At one point this situation was so bad that a university apologized and returned me a year’s worth of tuition. Really. I will at some point write in depth about the events (and about the frankly immoral way Goldsmiths chose to treat its ESL Cultural Studies graduate students), but I wanted to draw your attention, in this support debate, to an administrative interaction which serves as something of a synecdoche for the larger dynamic.

I asked, at two libraries I was associated with, after a given resource, and got what I felt to be disappointing and unhelpful responses. A friend at a similarly ranked (again, only interesting regarding access to resources) American university kindly agreed to ask her library the same question. She received an amazingly useful response.

I want to talk for a moment about the details and affective resonances of these interactions.

UK Russell Group University

Query:

Hello,

I’m a PhD student, and I’ve got a few questions about this resource:

http://nlx.com/collections/43

I can’t really tell exactly WHAT this is. I’m hoping it’s not a concordance or a data set for digital humanities research, but rather an ebook or online version of what are otherwise 12 very expensive volumes.

Does THE UNIVERSITY have institutional permission to use this? If so, do you know whether it *is* an ebook? If we don’t, but it is what I need, how might I go about getting permission?

Thanks so much,

Response:

Dear Ms Horakova

Thank you for your email. We do not subscribe to this resource online, so we do not have access to this material electronically.

However, please note that we do have print copies of this material, which can be seen on the catalogue here:   THE UNIVERSITY CATALOGUE

We hope that this is useful. However, if you have any further enquiries, please do not hesitate to contact us.

With compliments

Analysis:

I could probably have been less ‘professional’ and more entreating in my request. The fact is at this point I go into any interaction with university infrastructure cringing and growling like a dog that expects to get hit again.

My short email contained three questions.

  1.     Does THE UNIVERSITY have institutional permission to use this?
  2.     If so, do you know whether it *is* an ebook?
  3.     If we don’t, but it is what I need (i.e. 2), how might I go about getting permission?

Question 3 contains an implied offer to do the work myself. In order to get any further, however, I need help. I am not a trained information scientist with access to and familiarity with research databases; he is. He only answered Question 1. I am a distance-learning student, a fact which I have spent over a year trying to appropriately register on my records at this university with no success. The records he speaks of are, unfortunately, in another country within the UK/about 7 hours away by two expensive trains. Given that there are 12 volumes, this is not a quick research trip. Even if I lived next door, I might well require digital copies for the specific research I am engaged in, due to disability issues, etc. etc. 

Given that he did not address questions 2 or 3, even with ‘I don’t know’, seeming not to see them, I can proceed no further in chasing up the resource myself.

His tone is very cold. Overall, this letter leaves me feeling like I am a time-wasting idiot rather than a colleague and ‘client’ researcher attempting to do her work, accessing his expertise in his right capacity.

UNIVERSITY CONSORTIUM LIBRARY:

Query:

Hello,

I’m a [university with access privileges] PhD student, and I’ve got a few questions about this resource:

http://nlx.com/collections/43

I can’t really tell exactly WHAT this is. I’m hoping it’s not a concordance or a data set for digital humanities research, but rather an ebook or online version of what are otherwise 12 very expensive volumes.

Does the University CONSORTIUM network have institutional permission to use this? If so, do you know whether it *is* an ebook? If we don’t, but it is what I need, how might I go about getting permission?

Thanks so much,

Response:

Hello Erin,

THE CONSORTIUM LIBRARY does not subscribe to Past Masters, so we are unable to help you access this resource.

Kind regards,

Analysis:

Only question 1 is addressed. This response is so lacking it makes the first letter’s provision of a catalogue record look abundantly generous. There is literally no way I can proceed with this information. Again, I feel unsupported, alone and like I am not even a basically respected part of this person’s workplace and academic community.

I am very aware that we are all pressed for time in this business, underpaid, etc. But I do feel this response is cool and rude as well as unprofessional. Seriously, how hard is it for people with humanities graduate degrees to read a short email, take in the number of questions, and address some answer to the questions in the email?

***

US IVY:

Query:

Hello!

I have found the following online resource, which UNIVERSITY seems to have institutional access to: http://nlx.com/collections/43

I would like to download Dickens’ complete letters for my work, but am not sure how to do this. I have researched marc files a little but have not found a way to make these files work for me as readable text. Can you tell if the intention of this resource is to make these files available to read, or are they ONLY machine readable? Any help in this matter would be greatly appreciated.

Thanks very much!

Response:

Hi XXXXX,

I’m afraid we don’t have online access to the Clarendon Press set of Dickens’s letters through Past Masters, though I’ll contact the sales rep and find out how much that would cost.  In the meantime, the three volumes of Dickens’s letters published in the 1880s (seeUNIVERSITY LIBRARY CATALOGUE) have been digitized and are freely available from Project Gutenberg, which — as I’ve been told by David Mimno and others who do DH projects at UNIVERSITY– provides relatively clean text.  (I’m not sure how DH-friendly the Past Masters text would be, or even if the vendor would make it available for text mining.)  The pages below provide several downloading options for the text of each volume:

Volume I. 1833-1856:  http://onlinebooks.library.upenn.edu/webbin/gutbook/lookup?num=25852

Volume II. 1857-1870:  http://onlinebooks.library.upenn.edu/webbin/gutbook/lookup?num=25853

Volume III. Additional Letters, 1837-1870: http://onlinebooks.library.upenn.edu/webbin/gutbook/lookup?num=25854

These volumes are also available in various editions from HathiTrust (https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Search/Home?lookfor=%22Letters%20of%20Charles%20Dickens%22&searchtype=title&ft=ft&setft=true ) , both in pdf and in plain text formats, but the text format does not appear to be downloadable.  The texts available at the Internet Archive might not be the cleanest OCR, but might also suffice depending on your needs.

I’ll let you know about the Past Masters database.  My funds are just about tapped out as we approach the end of the fiscal year (June 30), but if there’s any way I can afford the Clarendon letters when my funds are replenished I’ll certainly try to do so.  Having full-text access to the letters would be a nice complement to the texts of the fiction, etc. available in Literature Online.

Hope your summer is off to a good start.

All best,

Later unprompted follow-up:

Letter 1:

Hello,

XXXX University Library now has access to The Letters of Charles Dickens: 1820-1870 via the Intelex Past Masters database record UNIVERSITY CATALOGUE

Please let me know if you have any questions.  

Kind Regards,

Letter 2:

Hi XXXX,

Just to clarify, from the catalog record at UNIVERSITY CATALOGUE, click on the “Intelex site” link in the Availability box, then click on the “Dickens: Letters (I-XII)” link when you see the alphabetical author list.  We should have a separate record for the Dickens letters in the catalog at some point, but setting it up this way initially was the fastest option.

Thanks for letting me know about this.  I’m glad we could get access.

All best,

Analysis:

Now, I will grant that my friend summarized our discussion (via a designated online form, such as the libraries I was dealing with did not offer) in a peppier way than I did, and that this might have elicited a better response. I expect her happier attitude, however, is in part a result of better overall dealings with her university’s support staff. She’s not cagey because she doesn’t feel a need to be.

I find it amazing how much better the multiple people emailing her back treated her and her question. Not only was her query addressed in full, these responders went above and beyond, entering into her research question, helping her access alternative resources, offering reasons for his decisions, following up, obtaining the resource, and providing her with information about its use. Wow! You can really see that she is being treated like a valued colleague whose work and needs are valid!

Overall:

Now I’m not saying all UK admin staff need to meet this absolutely gold standard. These responses contain more pep than the UK makes in a year, and it’s hard to find the time to deal with student-staff questions in this in-depth manner, I’m sure. But a little civility couldn’t hurt, guys.

I grind my teeth through a thousand fakey UK ‘thank you for your email’s, which are of course immediately followed by terse response that makes me feel unvalued as a colleague and even as a person, and totally fail to provide me with the resources I need to do my work. My interactions with university bureaucracy make me feel unsatisfied as a paying ‘consumer’ of the education product, much less as the colleague these supposed colleagues are not treating me as. If these emails were a meal I’d bought, I’d send them back, and I have never done that to a waitress in my life.

Being a grad student is isolating and difficult, and if 60% percent of a graduate cohort experience mental health issues, is it any wonder? I know my own have been severely exacerbated by my demeaning, unhelpful and unfriendly interactions with this system. It’s not this email I’m upset about, it’s the whole tower built of them, and the greater aggressions they can amount to (recall the year’s refunded tuition).

I think in part UK academia has a vast existential horror of being ‘American-like’ in its working, which they somehow conflate with ‘mechanistic’ understandings of efficiency, probably because they can’t institutionally praxis Benjamin for shit and because they displace their unprocessed imperial guilt onto America so hard it’s not true. This Americaphobia perhaps contributes to the UK’s failure to broadly implement university writing centres (not a little workshop from time to time, not a writer in residence, a motherfucking brick and mortar but digitally-capable writing centre), for example, which I consider essential to actually creating an inclusive environment for students from different backgrounds who may well not enter university with the homogenous communications skillset you can expect of whatever Eton whelped out, unable to think much but capable of saying nothing very prettily, and in Latin if required.

For all the chat about the necessity of UK university support structures and cultures—well, where are those, then? Can we expect some soon?

 

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The Fifth Element (review)

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The Fifth Element (1997) is well-made. I don’t think you can deny that, and this sense of craft is one of my favourite things about it. Sure it has a somewhat hand-wavy space opera plot, featuring a giant ball of evil: why not? (Really I don’t think Fifth Element hangs together worse than Ghostbusters, which fanboys acclaim as a classic without qualification.) It’s not the story that does it for me so much as how it’s told. Element does tons of great, casual characterisation work. Its representation game is fairly strong. The script employs dozens of easy, unsmug, rhythmic lays-and-pick-ups, which are just satisfying to watch. A contest is advertised on television, and later someone wins it. There’s a garbage strike and a resultant big pile of refuse, which is discussed and then used in an escape. The protagonist’s bed wraps up in plastic after each use: someone inevitably gets trapped in there.

The film feels like it came from a team that was very aware of other media, and drawing from an eclectic multi-national and multi-media range of sources. The theme and aesthetic invoke Star Gate‘s (1994) cosmic Egyptology. The police uniforms and the particular intersection of sprawling public disorder and over-powerful (if itself disorderly) state authority pull from Judge Dredd comics. Blade Runner is also in the room. Bits of the cityscape (I’m thinking of a particular bridge we see in the back of the frame during the taxi sequence) and vehicle design are derived from the epic Franco-Belgian Les Cites Obscures comics. The design of the Floston Paradise cruise ship reflects not only this, but also the rash of Titanic films coming out around 1997. Æon Flux infuses its costuming, as does June Hudson’s iconic work for British sci-fi television and the not-unconnected project(s) of Alexander McQueen.

Fifth Element‘s determination to include labour in its plot and visuals also feels akin to what British scifi television was doing in the 80s and 90s in Blakes 7Red Dwarf and Doctor Who. The garbage strike, the taxi minutiae, the smoked-up spaceship parasite disposal team, and even Ruby Rob’s professional hustle make labour manifest in this world in a way that’s rare in contemporary filmic SF. But it’s a film as dedicated to the epic as the quotidian: the huge space-ships are pure Star Destroyer, and some of the costuming is from Star Wars‘ visual universe as well (the Star Wars prequels, which we must remember employed many excellent designers even if the overall project was a mess from conception to completion, return the favour by visually quoting Fifth Element‘s Brooklyn, among other elements, for their Coruscant). I really welcome both the space opera scope and the commitment to working-class detail. Too many SF films lack ambition in either category, preferring to occupy a vague and unsatisfying Everyman middle-ground: SF of the bourgeoisie.

Foes & Families: Love & Friendship, Lady Susan, and How Jane Austen’s Victorian Family Built a Squeaky-Clean Celebrity Brand

To talk about the 2016 film Love & Friendship we have to tell the story of Lady Susan, the Jane Austen novella it’s based off of. At the time of Austen’s death, this early work was both unpublished and untitled. Thus changing the name for the film seems fair enough, though exchanging Lady Susan for Love & Friendship, already the posthumously-assigned title of an entirely different piece of Austen’s juvenilia is really confusing. The marketing team probably did it to get that familiar ‘Noun & Noun’ Austen Title Formula on the posters. According to Jane’s Fame, Claire Harman’s excellent survey of the history of Austen reception, this was already a noted, copied characteristic of her work in 1821, only four years after her death.

The exact period of Lady Susan’s composition remains a matter of some debate. William Baker’s Critical Companion to Jane Austen: A Literary Reference to Her Life and Work proposes drafting dates ranging from between 1795 to 1805, as well as providing an incredibly useful synopsis of major critical readings of the novella. What we can know definitively is that Lady Susan was first published in 1871, when it acquired its current title, by Jane’s nephew, James Edward Austen-Leigh, “as an appendix to the second edition of his A Memoir of Jane Austen”. (p. 124)

Read full review here.

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Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, 2016 (film review)

I stared at the Facebook message in horror. Had a uni friend truly linked me to the trailer for the (inevitable) film of the book Pride and Prejudice and Zombies on the assumption that I would be pumped about this? Had she, in her sweet innocence, failed to notice that I am a hideous snob put on this earth to roll my eyes at the ‘classic novel and SFnal creature’ book trend? WAS MY BRAND INVISIBLE? Pride and Prejudice and Zombies was the last film on earth I would ever be willing to watch.

But as Austen teaches us, no plan survives contact with one’s sisters. Meghan was born ten years after me because god thought that up until then I’d had it too easy. Twenty years later she sat sulking through our low-key Halloween celebrations, and I felt guilty for dragging her prematurely into my fogeyish idea of a hot night (I had a roast dinner and a full-length black mourning veil to lunge out at trick-or-treating children in—what more could be wanting?). She suggested we watch Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, and apparently I am slightly more prone to guilt even than to pretentiousness, because I agreed to let that happen in my home.

Read full review here.

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Brighton Fringe 2017

The Brighton Fringe is smaller than the Edinburgh Fringe, and judging by what I’ve seen of them, Brighton’s offerings don’t have quite the production values some (though decidedly not all) Edinburgh shows manage. But if Scotland leaves the UK and becomes an EU member in its own right, the English people who flock north to perform and spectate in August like confused and misdirected migrating birds may have to learn to love Brighton. God only knows what the theatrical work visa situation will look like for small companies then.

This may seem small potatoes compared to the prospect of such an upheaval, but the Edinburgh Fringe is a huge economic event (£4 million in ticket sales in 2016, not counting the 600+ Free Fringe shows which rely on donations [source] or the £142 million the Fringe generated for Edinburgh in 2010 [source]). It’s also a major part of the UK’s theatre lifecycle, the whole shape of which may change if the EdFringe becomes even more expensive and inconvenient to participate in than it already is.  While the EdFringe is great for Scotland’s economy, at present it’s often a loss-leading operation for performers: a risky, sometimes disastrous venture that, if they’re lucky, enables them to establish reputations and set up gigs for the rest of the year off the back of it.

Read full review here.

 

Moondial

T.I.M.E. Stories (game review)

Eurogames, or German-style board games that emphasise strategy, are growing increasingly popular. Gaming cafés, or extensive game libraries that charge cover for several hours’ play and offer food as a convenience/sideline, now crop up regularly in urban centres. London is scheduled to get its third (The Ludoquist, in Croydon, joining Hackney’s Draughts and Richmond’s The Library Pot) later this autumn. As the Anglophone market expands, so too does the range of offerings. The board gaming community, which shares a big ol’ Venn diagram overlap with the SFF community, loves a recent release, and right now T.I.M.E. Stories is one of the hottest games going. It was nominated for a 2016 Spiel des Jahres (the Oscar of gaming, essentially) in the connoisseur/expert category. It combines the core replayability of a Eurogame with a series of stories in which you and between one and three friends are sent traveling through time to stop a disaster. You could re-experience these missions, but as T.I.M.E. Stories is a “puzzle” game; to an extent each story is single-use, somewhat like a pulp mystery novel. It may take you several “runs,” either consecutive or on different days, to complete a given story-mission. If you stop mid-run or mid-mission, T.I.M.E. Stories’ elegantly designed box, which has a place for everything, will allow you to “record” your stopping-point and all relevant details via a series of labeled recesses. T.I.M.E. Stories is also a legacy game, which means that your accomplishments follow you from session to session (to a degree).

Read full review here.

 

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Golem

This was written October 13th, 2014, two months and four days after the shooting of Michael Brown in a part of my home state I spent considerable time in while growing up. I was frustrated and deeply upset by the event, but unable to participate in the political responses because by then I’d already been living abroad for some years. I was further frustrated by what I saw of the media coverage: the blithe continuation of a longstanding local effort to distort the impacts of racist police brutality, coupled with a national effort to downplay and misrepresent the community’s response.

My initial note on the piece reads “a flash fiction story I don’t think I will clean up and send anywhere bc possibly too appropriative”, but I later changed my mind because I didn’t think the BLM movement was being sufficiently seen and understood, and I wanted to generate awareness and empathy. I also hoped to donate any proceeds from a sale to activists back home, because I had very little money to give at the time. BLM’s momentum grew, and I stopped submitting the piece accordingly, once again convinced it wasn’t appropriate to try and occupy public platform space with a story that wasn’t mine to tell. My politics have evolved in the last three years, and if this story, which I don’t expect I would write in the same way now, strikes the wrong note, then I am sorry for that. I offer it here now, in this semi-private setting, largely because it did come from a moment of honest rage and hope, and because I can’t disclaim those emotions or their product.

***

She came to the spot where he’d fallen where they let him lie for three hours without help and she pushed her way through the crowd that had gathered, touched the blood-splatter on the asphalt. She did not doubt for a moment that it would work. Missouri is still warm in October strangely warm and the asphalt has warmth the suggestion of give and she pushed her hand down into it, to the knuckles, to the wrist, to the elbow. People were clay to start with and they can be clay again. Dust to dust to dust again.

She began to pull her hand out and she saw the way the asphalt gaped, yonic around her arm, her palm, she thought of having given birth to him. What she got hold of was a handful of clay, still stretching, connected, to the ground. She kept pulling there might as well have been nobody there. She pulled up and up, slow-spooling. There might have been some noises some screams she didn’t hear them. The head bulged up and the great wedge of his powerful, young man’s shoulders and his arms his torso his pelvis his long legs his great clomping feet that were always too loud and would be loud again now. He would make a noise and there would be too much of him in the world. Good. Good.

She was not a tall woman and she asked help me up and two old women she knew from church, bird small and ox strong, gave her a lift, they knew what she was up to, they knew what a miracle looked like, and she whispered her son’s name into his clay ear, and they did scream for sure now she did hear them and she didn’t know whether it was what she’d done what god had done or the fact that this was a boy they could not kill, they were so afraid that there was something they could not kill and they did not know what else to do with anything. She stood back as he walked out of the drawn-back knot of people and she flinched as they shot and shot at him and he just stood there and lived, and he did not wreak a vengeance greater than change and this:

he lived, and he lived. Until he died old. He just slapped more clay onto himself when he got taller, when he got fat in middle age, when it was time for him to get wrinkles. He and another clay boy got together and his daddy got over it in time. Consign him to the ground not fresh and wet with life but dry, age-cracked, with the stillness that comes of the draining of the water, like the river bank in June, ready. Let us all be taken ready.

His mamma died before him and that was what she wanted that was right.