Don's Diary: Zen and the art of AHRB Maintenance

May 28, 2004

Back from the vac. Glad I avoided all those terrible conferences with awful Cellophane food and plastic lectures. Grumpy thoughts soon pass as I park in my favourite spot: thank goodness that dreadful camper van has moved. Can't see the attraction of driving around in a mobile bunkbed advertising your low pay and poor taste.

Get into class on time: King Lear in a science lecture theatre.

How on earth is one supposed to talk about Shakespeare in a room inspired by someone who thinks in rows of desks? "Passable effort," says the student feedback, along with the usual grumbles about too much reading and not enough information about the exam.

Rest of the day taken up with the delights of the new Arts and Humanities Research Board postgraduate forms. Endless questions about how we will train students. General agreement is that the AHRB has forgotten what the A and the H stand for.

Still grumpy. Turn up for 10am class, but two groups have merged so it is now at 11.10am. More AHRBing. How did they ever design such an elaborate form?

11.10am class are simply wonderful on 'Tis Pity She's a Whore and marriage. I was thinking of taking it off the course - not now. How do students know so much about incest, the gene pool and the monstrous? Last class of the year for them, even though we've just come back from Easter.

Why is Easter moving back towards Christmas?

Must complete those forms: what do they mean "how prepared is the candidate for research?" Not much point in doing it if they are already prepared.

Year one poetry. They're beginning to suspect that I can't really scan every poem in the Norton anthology and that my jokes are poor substitutes for deep analysis. The Red Wheelbarrow quietens them down, especially with a few words from Julia Kristeva about the semiotic. Only poetry makes the science theatre bearable. More feedback: some of it good, some critical.

Open Day. More parents than students. Perhaps we should run a check: "Excuse me, sir, madam, is that a student with you or have you just come for the free carrier bag?" Nice audience; sensible questions, seem interested in the course.

Back to the forms: rank the candidates, say if they will be successful, describe support for them. All well-meaning, I suppose, but are there any jobs after the PhD? Why not teaching fellowships instead of all this form-filling? Heaven help us when the AHRB becomes the AHRC, perhaps to be followed by the rest of the alphabet: the Arts and Humanities Research Zens, the guardians of ever-more mysterious forms.

Two classes on Sir Gawain . First goes well, second less so.

Confirms the general consensus that the only thing one ever repeats are mistakes: or should that be a singular verb to agree with "thing"? Now, there's a question for the exam: never mind writing an essay on "To be or not to be", let's have "To is or to are".

Why does everybody need a reference within 20 minutes? And why can't I just scribble on the back of their posh, human resources department headed paper (littered with comma splices and inane phrases) that I think my students are great? "Yes, employ."

Do I detect a slight spring in my step? Warum ? Off to a conference tomorrow, Cellophane food and plastic lectures - yummy.

Martin Coyle holds a chair in English literature at Cardiff University.

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