Sunday, January 24, 2021

Doing the Romans


Apparently school in lockdown has arbitrary rules just like school in real life. I have it on good authority that one such rule is that you don't do online learning in bed. But rules are there to be broken and when there's nowhere else it's obviously the most sensible option. And, after all that's been written about the benefits of family learning we could probably be making a lot more out of a difficult situation. We could. That's if we weren't doing the Romans. Again. Parents and professionals in primary education will be familiar with that word 'doing' and what it really means. Doing is about kindling curiosity but it can also mean rehearsing a rather random collection of half-truths on a subject, and then doing it to death. At its best doing is inspirational, at worst dull. Take the Romans - well no wait, let's start a little further back - why take the Romans in the first place? Because they were brutal oppressors who robbed the English of their sovereignty? Or because they were Europeans operating a frictionless border? Or maybe it's something about their culture, their language - Latin that 'special' language of theirs we learnt in school. Ostensibly it helped us to be better at English. Laid bare it was an historical remnant of the mutually supporting edifices of church and school - lauda finem! No, I strongly suspect that we do the Romans because we've always done the Romans. We've done their fancy legionary helmets, done their flowing togas and if we're lucky we've done their mosaics in art and their numerals in maths. So how come teachers and children have no time for the Romans? How come they say that the Romans are boring? Yes, partly it's because they've been done to death, but it's also because of the enormous vacuum of relevance (vacuum, from the Latin vacuus meaning empty). It's the yawning gap that separates contemporary childhood from those imagined Romans (yawn, from Old English yonen). I have to come clean now. I love history, and I also happen to love those long straight roads, I love the monumental failure of Hadrian's Wall, doomed like so many other geopolitical follies around the world - the Great Wall, the Berlin Wall and all the rest. It's just that when you line up all the things you could do with primary children in lockdown, and all the history you could do in pandemic, the Romans aren't the first to spring to mind. I'm sure they had the odd virus to contend with (virus, from the Latin for slimy liquid) but it's not in the popular stories - it's not one of their greatest hits. Why not just leave them to luxuriate in their mosaic-tiled villas, lounging around in their flouncy togas, sipping from their flagons of wine, maybe having the occasional orgy if they can rouse themselves? Come on now, I'm sure they'd prefer that to being done again.

Thursday, January 21, 2021

Doing it differently

I really enjoyed the Doing Data Differently project because it was a move out of my comfort zone and into the realms of educational data - an area that I'd previously been extremely wary of. Cathy has written a great blogpost about the project, there are several journal publications out there and some examples of the postcards and discussions can be seen here. But just like all of the projects and initiatives that I've been involved in, there's so much more to that work that can't easily be told. I notice the same phenomenon with many doctoral students I work with - it's often as if the pulse that animates the work has grown faint, or it's essence has somehow evaporated. The skill in getting a successful outcome is rather like an alchemical process of bringing something meaningful into existence even as it threatens to disappear. Educational projects are nearly always greater than the sum of their parts. And like good teaching you can never be entirely sure about what has really happened. Of course you can have plans and objectives, you can predict some outcomes, and even measure them, but then there's always the particular atmosphere and the sense of being there. Those restless modulations and mutations of affect resist clear verbal description. The complexity and heterogeneity of entangled experience baffles us, and the unanticipated, unpredictable and sometimes unknowable effects slip through our fingers. When we try to include these in our writing what was always messy, as John Law observes, seems to become even messier - and quite a number of us have fallen into that particular trap! Despite these pitfalls I think it's still worth the effort of producing accounts that acknowledge the missing elements, of trying to capture the things that get lost, and of saying the unsayable - or at least gesturing towards it. After all it's very often those very things that should be returned to, and not necessarily the detail that gets written up (although that might be important in other ways, too).