Friday, May 01, 2020

Good Omens

It's the 30th anniversary of the publication of Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. For many of my friends, this is a very important and beloved book. I actually only finally read it this year, though I did listen to the radio version from a few years back - I somehow never quite caught the Pratchett bug in the way many others did. It feels more like Pratchett than Gaiman, particularly with the footnotes, but I think Gaiman had yet to find his own voice as a novelist (his first solo novel, Neverwhere, is heavily influenced by his friend Douglas Adams).

It's a perfectly fine and enjoyable novel. But it didn't quite grab me the way it's evidently grabbed others. I feel that perhaps it has suffered, for me, from the weight of expectations built up from what everyone else had said about it.

I read the novel because the tv series hit the BBC this year. That also came with a lot of baggage in terms of what people who saw it on Amazon last year thought of it - everybody loved it, as the perfect version of the novel that they also loved. Well, I'm pleased to say that I also love the series.  It's mostly a faithful adaptation, but Gaiman, who wrote the screenplay and oversaw the whole project, has at least been prepared to make changes where he felt it was necessary.

Most significantly, the balance of the story has shifted. The novel is fairly well split between the three converging stories of Adam Young and his friends, the demon Crowley and the Angel Aziraphale, and Anathema Device and Newton Pulsifer. Twenty-nine years later, Gaiman has evidently decided that it's actually the Crowley and Aziraphale show. Everyone else still gets their stories, but Crowley and Aziraphale get more. Only they get new scenes, giving their back story, and a new ending to the story.

It helps that both roles are perfectly cast. The radio series did okay, with Mark Heap as Aziraphale and Peter Serafinowicz, but TV gets Michael Sheen and David Tennant. Tennant in particular is on fire, often literally so, and Sheen plays off against him perfectly. There are some good turns in the rest of the cast - an almost unrecognisable Michael McKean as Witchfinder Sergeant Shadwell, and a non-annoying performance by Jack Whitehall. And making Frances McDormand's voice of God the narrator is a touch of genius. I could do without Benedict Cumberbatch's voice of an unconvincing CGI Satan, but that's the only slight misstep, and I can forgive that for everything else (including the constant Doctor Who jokes). Very much recommended. And you should also seek out the new 'Lockdown' mini-episode.  

Good Omens was 2020 Books #3 and 2020 Movies #3.

Thursday, March 12, 2020

On suddenly switching to online teaching

Edited on 17/03/20, with a new update at the end

The coronavirus is wreaking havoc across all of our existence at the moment. Events are being cancelled, travel banned, people told to stay at home. Many US universities have already shut down, and it is widely rumoured that UK universities will close down after Easter, leaving students to be taught through online/distance/remote/digital learning.

On Twitter, I wrote a thread with my own thoughts for people preparing to convert at short notice over to online/distance/remote/digital learning, based on eighteen years at the Open University, delivering, and occasionally writing materials, and sometimes being a student, as well as having taken several MOOCs. I thought I'd write it up here, in slightly expanded form.

First of all, it won't work anywhere like as well as it could or should. Doing this properly take a lot of work, and needs time. If there was any slack in the university system, then there might be some scope for people to pull together, go an extra mile and do it a bit better. But there's no slack, no space to absorb the extra workload to do this.* Instead, most academic staff are under intolerable workloads, and getting anywhere close to best practice may well prove impossible. That's not the fault of anyone other than university managers. What universities need right now is more people, and it's too late to take them on.

Secondly, anyone thinking this is a great opportunity to see how digital learning can work is an idiot - the circumstances are not remotely normal. I personally do not believe that online/remote/distance/digital learning will or should replace the traditional face-to-face university, but should be used to support it. Properly-supported distance learning certainly has its place in reaching students who otherwise would have no access to higher education. MOOCs, however, whilst again having their place, cannot replace university teaching, as most of them are simply a more structured way of reading a book - online Teach Yourselfs, in effect.

But let's talk about best practice. You may not be able to achieve it, but it might help if you know what (I think) best practice looks like. Obviously, as in all pedagogy, Your Mileage May Vary, but I hope these suggestions will be of some use.

Your course/module should have a Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) - it's been a while since I've taught a module that didn't. You're probably going to be making more use of that than before, for more than just putting up your classroom slides (and if you're not doing that already, why not?). But one small benefit will be that all this material will be there for future teaching.

One of the reasons the OU was, and still is, so successful at distance learning is the quality of their materials, both written and audio-visual. As I say, a lot of work goes into those, but you can at least prepare more written work to distribute to students in advance. (This may actually turn out to be a valuable exercise in actually thinking about what you are trying to get across.) And I hope that there will be sharing of materials across from people teaching similar modules, which may ease the burden.
If you are going to do a lecture via an online medium, I suggest not trying to broadcast it live - rather produce it at your own time and convenience, which will allow students to work with it at their own convenience. (This has the advantage of cutting out unwanted contributions from family or pets - not that those can't sometimes be icebreakers.) You can do this as a written text, or a video, or an audio recording. Audio has the advantage over video that students can listen while doing something that doesn't otherwise engage higher functions, such as housework, or just soaking in the bath. If doing video, find ways if you can of including plenty of visual imagery - I realise not everyone has the skills for this, someone talking about something from behind a desk with nothing to see but their face soon becomes deathly dull. Break your lecture up into smaller units - about 10-15 minutes is the limit before boredom sets in. (This also has advantages if you have to start again - there's nothing like having to redo 55 minutes of recording.)

If you want students to read anything in advance, make sure that they can access it, and if necessary, precirculate and put stuff on the VLE (though unis are getting stricter about doing this with copyright material). Ask some questions about the material that you want the students to consider, and have some answers ready.

Another thought (and this is new material, not on Twitter!) is that you could organise some online audio sessions with some people who are teaching a similar course to you, and have 45 minutes or so talking about a particular issue. This is the sort of thing you'd rarely get to do normally.

You will need to have some live online seminars. In the two years I used online conferencing sessions for the OU I always found these a bit of nightmare - they were frustrating for me, and I suspect for my students. I tended to turn mine into Q&A sessions, as that was the only thing that seemed to work. It's possible others actually manage to make them work better, though one of my former students says not in their experience, and Q&A sessions are the only thing that's effective through that medium. 

Above all, in an online session, TURN YOUR WEBCAM OFF AND GET YOUR STUDENTS TO DO THE SAME. I repeat, DO NOT ATTEMPT VIDEO-CONFERENCING. There are two reasons: (a) No-one looks good over a webcam, and more importantly (b) video uses huge amounts of bandwidth, and potentially will crash whatever app you're using. Videoconferencing is fine if you have industrial-level facilities, but over someone's home broadband, it tends to break up at more than three or four participants. And make sure mics are turned off when not speaking, as the background noise can be terribly distracting.

For actual discussions of topics, you may find asynchronous online forums are better. Online forums are something universities get terribly keen on, and sometimes they can work - but sometimes they can be utterly toxic, so beware. The toxicity tends to be much lower in smaller groups, where there's less chance for some arrogant individual to throw their weight around. But even when non-toxic, it's not always easy for everyone to get involved, and it's harder to notice when someone is being quiet. 

Be prepared to deal with a lot more student emails than you would normally get, and I would say, be prepared to do 1-2-1 sessions through Skype. You probably do need office hours, when students know you'll be available on a first-come-first served basis. But you may not be able to deal with them all in that period, so be flexible about dealing with students outside office hours. In the OU we used to give out phone numbers, though occasionally that got abused. There's probably no need for that now.

Anyway, I hope this has been useful.

There's another good thread from Jess Perriam of the OU here:

Helen King, who knows of which she speaks, has a thread here:, and a blogpost on how OU course materials are prepared here:

Thanks to Becca Sarna-Alexander and Juliette Harrisson, from whom I stole a couple of points here. 

ETA I forgot to talk about assignments! These should be one of the easiest aspects - most universities already have online electronic marking, so this should be business as usual, though you may have to give more feedback.

* This, incidentally, is also why railways in the UK cope so badly with anything out of the ordinary - no spare trains, no spare drivers, no spare routes.

17/03/20 Update:

Here are some new thoughts I've had, and some new links I've found. First of all, I point you to Alison Yang's 'Online Teaching @ KIS' chart, which I'm now using to illustrate the post. It's very, very good advice.

I think the three things I'd really emphasise are:

(1) Do not attempt videoconferencing. The extra data video uses will slow everything down very badly.

(2) My inclination, particularly if you're inexperienced in online teaching, is to do as much as possible in asynchronous format. Asynchronous is much easier for everyone. If things get a bit chaotic with asynchronous materials, it's fairly easy to bring things back on track. It's a lot harder for everyone with synchronous sessions; even in the best of times it can descend into chaos, and it’s not easy to pull it back when this happens. Plus I'm already seeing reports that the servers for synchronous tools are breaking down under the extra traffic.

(3) Do not attempt anything in a synchronous session other than Q & A on pre-circulated materials - despite what proponents tell you, my experience, and that of colleagues and students, is that any attempt at a seminar-style discussion will fail. Asynchronous online forums are much better than live conferencing for discussions. And don't do a full hour's synchronous session - and certainly not the two hours the OU used to advise. No-one's concentration can cope.

(4) Break everything up into smaller chunks - 10-15 minutes seems to work best. Students are much more likely to engage with smaller chunks.

For those considering using ordinary chat platforms, the problem with them is that you end up with the issue that everyone has where you’re typing and the person you're speaking to is typing, only multiplied. You can end up with a multiplicity of threads, and it can get very confusing. For synchronous sessions, I actually prefer some form of audio conferencing tool where students can indicate that they want to ask a question, and you can then address them one at a time.

I didn't talk much about specific tools and platforms. This is because I'm not sure that specific tools matter that much. Go with whatever your local IT dept can advise on and support. I used Blackboard conferencing for the OU, did online supervisions through Skype, and my current institution has Teams in the Office package. I wouldn't say that Blackboard necessarily 'worked'. It was pretty clunky, and the OU was moving away from it when I left. In any case, I think methodological approach is more important than choice of platforms, which tend to be much of a muchness.

Remember that it's all online teaching, and you are under no obligation to do big online sessions because you think that's closest to your normal method of working.

Virtual whiteboards are good, if you have them.

It is all very time-consuming. Don't try to replicate the full classroom effect. (a) You can't, & (b) even if you could, you can't in the time available. Rather, approach it from the direction of what you can achieve in the time you've got. It's going to be awful, whatever you do - you just don't have enough time to prepare properly. Don't beat yourself up about that.

Students, you'll have fewer resources with which to write your assignments, but your markers will understand the conditions under which you're preparing the work, and make allowances accordingly.

New links: -
- from a Classics perspective, but valuable for other disciplines. Includes lots of links, and will be updated.

An excellent thread on helping students prepare:

This is a good idea for keeping student morale up:

This is a brilliant idea:
(And I'll add, if any one wants to have a multi-teacher online chat for their students about a subject on which I have expertise (classical reception, ancient history, film, science fiction, comics, The Beatles, WWII military aircraft), I'm available. DM me.)

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Two dramatic productions

Remember when I used to write theatre reviews here? Unfortunately I'm not going to be able to get down to see the UCL Frogs or KCL's Dionysus in the Underworld, but I did see a couple of things in January.

I felt a bit of an interloper at Fragments of Divine Ecstasy - almost everyone else in the audience was a student. I really only went along because my friend and colleague Lottie Parkyn was interviewing another friend, David Bullen, at the end of the event (you can see some snippets from the interview on the King's Greek Play Twitter account). But I was very glad I went.

I've had variable experiences with student productions - some have been quite poor. But when they get it right, they can be really on fire. Through a series of vignettes, some adapted from ancient or modern sources, some written by the cast, the production examined aspects of Dionysus. They succeeded in presenting the god in all his forms - intoxicated, ambiguous, sexy, dangerous. A good evening, and I hope those involved go on to do more in this vein.

The other thing I saw was George Eugeniou's production of Oedipus the King at Theatro Technis in Camden. I've seen quite a few productions of Greek drama there, and this was one of the best. Small in scale, it punches well above its weight in emotional terms. The audience are involved from the start as part of the Chorus - when the Chorus is addressed, people turn to the audience. Leigh Hughes' Oedipus conveys all the unnecessary arrogance of the character, and the production is clearly not sympathetic towards him. He is ably supported by the rest of the cast. At the end, the production remembers, as not every one does, that the fall of Oedipus means the lifting of the curse from Thebes.

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

2020 books #1-2

A couple of books reread in preparation for teaching Roman Britain.

Peter Salway, Roman Britain: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2nd edn, 2015

Does what it says on the tin - basically condenses Salway's History of Roman down to just over a hundred pages. There are aspects of Salway's approach that don't appeal - he's quite positivist in the way he approaches the evidence, and post-colonial readings of Britain as a province are clearly not for him. But I don't know of any other work that can give students an overview in an afternoon.

Richard Hobbs and Ralph Jackson, Roman Britain: Life at the edge of empire, London: British Museum Press, 2010

A nice introduction to the province. This is particularly good at using objects from the British Museum's collection to illustrate various points about the ways people lived.

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

2020 Movies #2: Boadicea

Boadicea. UK; dir. Sinclair Hill; scr. Anthony Asquith and Sinclair Hill; starring Phyllis Neilson-Terry, Lillian Hall-Davis and Clifford McLaglen; British Instructional Films; 1927

This is, at the moment, the earliest screen depiction of Roman Britain of which I am aware. It very much presents itself as 'authentic' - an opening caption proclaims that '[M]any incidents in this story were reconstructed in the neighbourhood where they actually occurred.' But this is misleading. Many incidents presented in this short movie have been invented for dramatic purposes, and sometimes flatly contradict the sources - so, for instance, Colchester is depicted with walls and gates, which Tacitus explicitly says it did not have.

It's still interesting (though clearly done on a shoestring budget). Phyllis Neilson-Terry, niece of the famous Ellen Terry, plays a more matronly Boadicea than some later portrayals. As is often the case with Boadicea/Boudicca narratives, the Druids are closely associated with the Queen. And clearly the viewer is meant to sympathise with the defeated Queen of the Iceni, even at the time when the identification of the British empire with the Roman was a major cultural theme. But because this is an 'educational' movie, the rapes of Boadicea's daughters are very much underplayed, to the point where no rape actually takes place - instead a daughter is roughly manhandled, causing Boadicea to strike the Roman. The Queen's flogging then follows.

Monday, February 10, 2020

2020 Movies #1: 1917

1917. UK; dir. Sam Mendes; scr. Sam Mendes & Krysty Wilson-Cairns; starring George Mackay and Dean-Charles Chapman; DreamWorks Pictures/Reliance Entertainment; 2019

Unsurprisingly, 1917 has been compared with all the great First World War movies of the past - All Quiet on the Western Front, La Grande Illusion, etc. But the movie it reminded me of most is the Coen Brothers' O Brother Where Art Thou? It has the same sense of a picaresque, episodic journey through the landscape, with encounters that can border on the surreal and transitions that can sometimes seem dreamlike.

There's a lot in 1917 that's very good indeed. There are two strong performances at its heart from Mackay and Chapman, even if individual episodes are sometimes over-burdened with celebrity cameos - look, it's Andrew Scott! And there's Mark Strong! Can Benedict Cumberbatch be far behind? (Spoiler: he doesn't turn up until quite near the end.)

The screenplay is clever, and doesn't play out the way you anticipate. People you expect to die live, and people you expect to live, at least until much later in the movie, die. Most unexpected, perhaps, is the treatment of the British officers. They are all incredibly reasonable - not a General Melchett or even a Captain Darling among them. Of course, it's good that there's a corrective to the typical Blackadder presentation (Richard Holmes' The Western Front is useful on this topic), but the lack of any venal glory-hunters at all makes 1917 feel a bit like Saving Private Ryan; this is a movie that pays lip-service to the idea that military commanders don't necessarily know what they're doing, but doesn't really tell that story.

It is, of course, a bravura technical achievement. The various long-shots are put together seamlessly to give the impression that this is one take, and it thoroughly deserves the Oscar for Cinematography (and it's a travesty that it wasn't even nominated for Best Editing). I am not in the least surprised that it won the Golden Globe and BAFTA for Best Picture, as it is the sort of technically impressive movie that seems to be saying something profound that appeals to those who vote in such awards.

But there's the nub of it. What actually is 1917 saying? What's it about? One might say that it's about comradeship, about taking on a task that you don't really believe in because it's important to someone else. Or it might be about the horrors of war. The trouble for the latter is that the dreamlike nature of parts of the movie distance the viewer from full engagement. Yes, there are dead bodies of men who have been buried by shellfire, or French civilians who have ended up in the river. But these scenes don't feel as affecting as they should. And the transitions from one episode to another, whilst clearly delineated, are sometimes done in such a way as to override logic (Mark Strong's company, for instance, appear out of nowhere, and disappear back into nowhere). A cynic might suggest that the prime motivating factor in making this movie was that Mendes enjoyed shooting the opening sequence of Spectre (the Mendes Bond movie that isn't mentioned in the publicity), and wanted to see if he could do that at full movie length.

In the end, beneath the extremely impressive surface gloss, 1917 feels a little bit hollow.

Wednesday, November 06, 2019

Britannia, Season 1, Episode 2

Series created by Jez Butterworth, Tom Butterworth and James Richardson; directed by Sue Tully; screenplay by Tom Butterworth (Sky/Vertigo Films/Neal Street Productions).

Episode 2 of Britannia fills out more about the motivations of the characters. We discover why King Pellenor hates his daughter (her great-grandfather on her mother's side was a Roman). We see more of Zoë Wanamaker's Queen Antedia, who gets a nice joint scenery-chewing moment with David Morrissey's Aulus Plautius. We see more of her tribe, the Regni, and find that they make liberal use of woad and have lots of women warriors, so that's those two obligatory elements ticked off. We also find that she hates the Cantii because Pellenor's daughter castrated her son on their wedding night (which she demonstrates by having her son drop trou in front of Aulus. 

Morrissey as Aulus continues to chew the scenery wherever it is to be found. In this episode he orders crucifixions of prisoners, to show what a nasty man he is (but he doesn't have them nailed into position, so he can't be all that bad), and then traumatises a small child. Ian McDiarmid as Pellenor is starting to chew the scenery a bit himself, though internal political and family machinations at Crugdunon remain not terribly interesting.

Meanwhile, NotArya and NotTheHound have an Expository Walk. He then manages to get rid of her, and she ends up being chased by wolves. (Well, actually, she is chased by huskies,which is exactly the same except when they catch you they lick you to death.)

But some strange things are happening. In this episode Vespasian gets killed. I had assumed that this was the Vespasian, who was, after all, there in historical reality, but survived and nearly forty years later became emperor. So either this isn't the historical figure, but just someone of the same name (which seems odd, as it's a strange name to pick - Antonius, Brutus, I can see, but Vespasian?), or the Butterworths are going full Quentin Tarantino Inglorious Basterds alternate history on us, in which case, all bets are very definitely off. 

And right at the end of the episode, Aulus visits the DruidCave (it's not actually a cave, but it might as well be), and takes a trip (in many senses) to the Underworld. This show may be rather more intriguing and less predictable than I thought.

Link to all reviews of Britannia.