Higher education = Big Brother?


It has occurred to me that there are disturbing parallels between my work in the Library of Doom and the world of so-called ‘reality’ television. Both provide a vital social service, but the populace at large is probably blissfully unaware of this. We keep strange people out of the workforce and off the streets for a period of time, contributing to the overall sanity of the nation.

I do not watch reality shows very often, but it is sometimes unavoidable due to friends, relatives and housemates who devour them greedily, thrilling to the exploits of the publicity-hungry folks these shows tend to attract. Increasingly, the cast list of these shows (I’m looking at you, Big Brother) largely consists of strange, unpleasant people who I’m very glad I’ll never have to meet. For anything up to three months, these people are locked away in a secure environment, meaning that their interesting social skills are only inflicted on a dozen or so people. Thankfully, it seems that the British public decides en masse that nice people should win these shows as often as possible. And also, I have to admit (grudgingly, mind you) that Big Brother has probably done wonders for tolerance, acceptance and inclusion, in that the past winners have included a gay man, a male-to-female transsexual, a working class chappie and even, of all things, a practicing Christian.

Higher education performs many roles, but at least where I work, it fulfils the same vital function as reality TV. I see disturbing numbers of people every day with bafflingly low levels of knowledge, intelligence and common sense, people who surely could not function in the workplace. For three years, or possibly more, we shield society from these people and attempt to teach them the skills they’ll need to survive. We try to show them how to think for themselves, demonstrate how to interact in polite society and force them to fend for themselves without mummy or daddy to cook, wash and clean for them. “How long can you borrow a 7-day loan for?”  “Have you got any photographs of the Great Fire of London?” And of course the brick wall people, who make you feel like you’re either talking to or bashing your head against said edifice. Don’t you feel glad that the valiant staff of higher education institutions are keeping these people away from the rest of the world and at least attempting to turn them into functional members of society?

Maybe the analogy’s not valid, but it struck me recently, so I thought I may as well share it.

Batwoman, or a bat-storm in a teacup


Last weekend, DC Comics released a press release regarding a character who is going to pop up in their series ’52’ (more on this series in a later post, I expect).  This character is a reinvention of Batwoman, a crimefighter who notched up around 50 appearances from her debut in 1956 to her last significant appearance in 1979.  So hardly a major player in the comics world, although some remember her fondly.

However, the story has been picked up by most major news outlets, with varying degrees of outrage, due to one word.  Lesbian.  Shock, horror, Batwoman is going to be Kate Kane, a wealthy lesbian from Gotham City who had a previous relationship with Renee Montoya, a female cop who’s been floating around in comics and cartoons since 1992.  ‘Batwoman reinvented as a lesbian!’ they cry.  ‘Whatever happened to the heroes of old?‘ asks the BBC website.  It’s all too bizarre for words.  Why do they care?  Comics rarely make the news.  Gay and lesbian characters, and indeed heroes, have been around for years.  Very few people have even heard of Batwoman (I suppose some might assume she’s the same character as Batgirl).  And yet, you combine the Bat-prefix and homosexuality, and suddenly it’s a story!  And yet my initial reaction was ‘so what?’

I like comics.  I like DC comics.  I may like this Batwoman, I don’t know, I haven’t read any of her appearances yet (as she won’t appear until July).  Whether she is gay or straight, black or white, wealthy or poor, young or old really doesn’t matter.  They only thing that will matter is this – is she a compelling character?  Do I care about her?  Do I want to read more about her?  I don’t know yet, but I suspect many comics fans have already made up their minds.  ‘Batwoman as a lesbian is an awful idea’ or ‘Batwoman as a lesbian is a fantastic idea’.  Comics fans can be a bit scary, refusing to read things for very bizarre reasons.  I hope they give the character a chance.  I hope the writers have come up with a decent character.  And  hope the media don’t forget what they seem to have stumbled across – comics are a diverse medium, with a range of styles and characters.  Sometimes they could even be mistaken for ‘real’ literature. 

As far as I’m concerned, a greater number of heroes who are not straight white males has to be a good thing, as long as they are characters rather than walking labels.  We shall see.

Taking pride too far?


Pride is a strange thing. I’m not talking about hubris, or the pride goeth before a fall sort of pride, but the pride you can have in other people, or rather the pride that other people can have in you. Parents seem to have a natural ability to be proud of their offspring, but my recent foray onto the stage has a attracted quite a bizarre mix of pride manifestations.

The sweetest is my sister, who told everyone ‘my brother is/was in a show!’ and was positively beaming when I saw her in the bar after Me and My Girl (my latest show, and my first principal role since I left school almost 10 years ago). A colleague, who also attended the final performance, said that it looked like she was going to burst, she was that proud. I suspect I’ll return the compliment in August when little sis gets married.

Strangest is a colleague who’s convinced that I’m somehow going to leap from amateur theatricals to international stardom (which would be awful – even if it could happen, I wouldn’t want it to, as I’d go insane). Any bit of progress I make, or thing I’m asked to be involved in, leads to a chorus of “I told you so, see big things are happening”. It’s exciting, yes, but it’s hardly as big as she makes out. She has also taken out dibs on writing my official biography, bless her.

Most inevitable is my mother, but I only discovered the extent of her pride in what I did when I visited home last weekend. She already caused me great embarrassment at church the day after the show, when she almost succeeded in derailing the service by talking to the worship leader about it. People from my church obviously don’t see my parents very often, so they have a very odd image of them! To be fair, though, I did have quite a queue of church folks congratulating me after the service. When I went home last weekend, I went along to mum and dad’s church (which was my church when I lived at home) and discovered that she had shown the programme and the reviews of the show to everyone who knows me. I can just imagine her accosting random people and forcing them to be very interested.

I’m embarrassed, but also deeply touched to see how much I mean to people around me. I am proud of what I achieved, in a dazed sort of way, but their sweet, demented, sometimes misplaced, somewhat excessive, pride is a different thing entirely. I’d best stop writing now, as if I dwell on it too much, I may start to cry.

Four songs


I’ve been trying to organise my thoughts on a topic close to my heart – the defence of musical theatre, a medium which comes in for more than its fair share of (snooty) criticism. Yes, the musical can be blooming silly and rather pointless, but it can also achieve an astonishing level of power and artistry.  CabaretWest Side StorySweeney Todd.  Incredible works of art by any standard, surely.  However, try as I might, I cannot write something without ranting or babbling incoherently.  Perhaps one day I’ll manage it, but for now, I’ll simply mention just four songs written for musicals which never cease to amaze me.

  • ‘Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye’ from Seven Lively Arts, by Cole Porter.  I’ve never been in love, but this song speaks so eloquently of loss and longing, of the highs and lows of parting and reuniting.  It is one of a very small number of songs that can make me cry.
  • ‘Night and Day’ from The Gay Divorcee, also by Cole Porter.  This is a searing song of yearning and desire with powerful lyrics.  But pay attention to the music as well, and the song reveals just how good Cole Porter was.  The staccato opening verse contrasts brilliantly with the soaring, swooping liquid melody it leads to.  It’s simply gorgeous.
  • ‘(I Wonder Why) You’re Just in Love’ from Call Me Madam by Irving Berlin.  This one just makes me smile – it’s a duet between a young man experiencing love for the first time, and an older woman who is touched by this.  His verse is very sweet and simple, while hers is more bouncy and belty (it was written for the very scary Ethel Merman, so it’s hardly a surprise).  And then they sing them together!  I have never understood counterpoint, but I love it.  It makes me very excited, whether it’s in a mass or a love song.  I really do wonder how they write them like that.
  • The ‘Quintet’ from West Side Story by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim.  This is surely the pinnacle of theatre music, with counterpoint taken to extremes.  Only ‘One Day More’ from Les Mis comes close for this sort of thing – disparate groups of people anticipating a specific time, and putting their hopes and fears into words and music.  The rival street gangs anticipate their rumble, the two lovers look forward to meeting, and Anita adds a sexual frisson.  And they all come together into something that is greater than the sum of its already-incredible parts. 

I could go on, and make the longest blog post ever, but I won’t.  I don’t wake up and launch into ‘Oh, What a Beautiful Morning’.  I don’t automatically sing ‘My Time of Day’ if I wander the city streets at night.  I don’t (thank goodness) drag out ‘The Sun Has Got His Hat On’ every time the clouds part.  But I’m glad to have a body of songs from a supposedly inferior source to draw on, to sing and to listen to.  As Abba said in ‘Thank You For the Music’ from the mini-musical The Girl With the Golden Hair, ‘without a song or a dance, what are we?’  I don’t know, and I hope I never have to find out.

Rudeness and gratitude


Anyone who works in any kind of service industry, or indeed any public-facing job, will know that people can be unutterably rude sometimes.  And anyone who knows a librarian, or who reads the very funny webcomic Unshelved will know that libraries can attract some of the rudest (and some of the most implausibly stupid) people out there.  Some recent examples…

The student/staff member (not library!) who is rapidly becoming one of my least favourite patrons.  She likes to wander into my office unannounced.  An office with a closed door.  Which has a big sign saying ‘Library Staff Only’ on it.  But this sign evidently doesn’t apply to her, as she will merrily waltz in whenever it pleases her.  It doesn’t matter if I’m talking to a colleague, or on the telephone, or doing some thrilling data entry.  She will walk straight in and loom over my desk, tutting impatiently until I speak to her.  If the door is locked (many of our office doors have a number-pad entry system for lone worker security purposes), she doesn’t knock.  She rattles the doorknob.  She tuts.  She slips notes under the door.  Mysteriously, her requests tend to slip to the bottom of the pile.  Most odd.

Or there are the people at the issue desk, who will lean over and wave their library cards at you to get your attention instead of waiting their turn.  This can happen while I’m cashing up, dealing with someone else, filling in a form or (more than likely) having a heart attack. 

I have, of course, already mentioned the charming people who tell us that they pay our wages.  Then there are the people who think it’s acceptable to refer to a colleague as a ‘stupid cow’.  Actually, dear, both she and I have two degrees, while you have none.  And you clearly don’t appreciate how stupid it is to wind library staff up.  We may be unfailingly polite to you, but we have power…

But on the other hand, you meet some wonderful people. The ones who’ll ask your opinion on anything and everything and have a fascinating conversation about it.  The ones (very, very rare) who present library staff with a box of chocolates when they graduate.  The ones who’ll take the rude people to task.  This week, someone said something so encouraging that it inspired me to write this post (although, I admit that the majority of it has been a rant).  “You are the heart of things, and you do a great job.  Without you guys, we can’t learn anything.”  He’ll go far.  He’s polite, he knows how to stroke our collective ego, and he clearly appreciates the awesome power of library staff.  And most important of all, he makes up for all the rude people and makes us realise that it really is worth doing what we do.

The trouble with students


I think I’ve worked it out.  The trouble with students these days is that they don’t really come to university to learn any more.  They come to be taught.  And there is a difference that goes beyond spelling and transitivity.  You see, I think it comes down to money.

Students today have to pay an awful lot of money to come to university, and they’re not shy about reminding you of it.  ‘I pay your wages’ is a relatively frequent cry of the man, woman or monster who isn’t satisfied with the responses to their questions.  To a certain extent, I suppose that could be true, but each student probably only pays me a penny or two per month, so I’m not all that worried.  However, they do indeed have to pay a lot of money to come here.

So they expect to be taught, not to learn.  They want to know what the answer is, not how to find out what the answer is.  They want to be told what to think, not how to think.  In the library, they want the three books on the reading list and nothing else.  No reading around the suject, which was one of the most interesting parts of study for me (and I’m only 27, can things really have changed that much?).  No forming of opinions.  No righteous anger at social injustice.  Just an endless frustration, for they all want the formula for how to get a first class degree handed to them on a plate, and most don’t understand that such a formula is impossible.  It’s about curiosity, imagination and reason.  It’s not about regurgitating facts A, B and C in the correct order.  It’s about disagreeing with your tutor and arguing your case, not blindly accepting what they say.  Or at least it should be.  Or is it just me?

 There are exceptions, of course.  The students who really want to learn, who want to expand the boundaries of their world view, who deliberately seek out authors with views that contradict their own.  And these are the students who make working in a higher education library worth while.  They are few and far between, but they bring a smile to my face like a breath of cool breeze on a muggy day.  The enthusiasm to learn is a rare and precious thing which needs to be encouraged.  If only I could work out how to do that…

To begin…


Well, a blog.  Something I swore I would never do, because it’s just too geeky.  But the time has now come to unleash my inner geek, bare whatever bits of my soul I feel like baring and write something fascinating.  Perhaps tomorrow. 

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