Sunday, December 04, 2005

Open Season

The Silly Season has started! It’s that time of year when the co-ordination of social diaries seems an impossible task; multiple invitations are received and decisions must be made and compromises reached. I’ll confess to a slight thrill about being overwhelmed with choices, because there are times when I feel quite isolated living by myself and not having the best relationships with half of the members of my family. Christmas can be quite a precarious time for many people, so I’m glad to be reminded that I do have social networks which I can draw upon.

The first event that I attended in the past week was a catch-up of sorts with some of the people I worked with during the first semester of this year at one of the far flung campuses I spent some not inconsiderable travelling between. We went to My Thai, a restaurant in Auchenflower, an inner city suburb of Brisbane that we all live much closer to than the university campus we have in common. It was an illuminating evening.

I had recently heard through the grapevine that the person whose subject I had convened while she was on study leave was telling her colleagues that I didn’t want to teach there anymore because I would ‘rather drive to [a university in another city] than teach the students at [that campus]’. Well, as Dr H pointed out, I don’t drive, I catch buses and trains, so the charge was a complete fabrication down to the most minute detail. I’m not going to pretend that students who have only achieved university entry OPs of 17 (on a descending scale of 1-25) are easy to teach. There are many differences between a student with an OP of 5 and one with a score of 17, but the hardest to overcome is the lack of basic literacy in the latter student. Their lack of comprehension has been evident on those occasions I’ve asked them to read aloud. They stop at and stumble over words they should be familiar with at university level, in readings they should have read before attending class. If they’re not understanding simple words, then they’re certainly not gleaning the nuances of the advanced concepts they are being introduced to. And their writing is often a chore to decipher, expressed in sentences without active verbs and littered with malapropisms and confused homonyms. It must be a frustrating experience for them, especially when through the fact of their admission to their course the university has told them they’re capable of the level required. From a teaching perspective you’re required to do much more work on reading comprehension and writing, but really the university doesn’t provide sessional teachers with the resources to address learning difficulties that go back to primary school. In spite of expressing these frustrations about teaching—as you do—it doesn’t mean I don’t want to teach at the campus (especially if I don’t get a scholarship), which the individual in question would have known if she’d ever bothered to speak to me directly.

Clearly, there’s a whole lot more behind the misinformation the convenor is circulating. It’s not even about me. Two of the people at the dinner said that she was trying to justify buying out an under-qualified person to teach the course (not even an honours degree, apparently). They had been puzzled when she hadn’t offered to buy me out, considering that I’d tutored in the course twice and convened it when it was last held. So, this is when the grapevine started transmitting. The convenor hadn’t even given me the opportunity to refuse teaching, but felt justified in maligning my professional reputation in an environment where it would have consequences for my future employment prospects. I sent a politely worded email, not only to the convenor, but to the two people immediately her senior, who I had worked with in her absence, in which I clarified the untruth of the ‘rumour’, explained my wish to use my (fingers-crossed) scholarship effectively and devote my time to my PhD at least in the first year, said I’d learnt a lot from the students, and appreciated the support and collegiality I had been offered. I said I hoped I would be welcome to teach there in the future, contingent on the progress of my research. My email was sincere, but I wanted to call the convenor’s bluff; and it worked. The next day I received two ‘mea culpa’ emails saying she had asked another tutor to ask me about teaching; must have caught me at a bad time when I said the students at the regional university were nicer than those on the urban fringe; and was a ‘sad bear’ that I wasn’t available to take advantage of the money she’d be showered with to buy out her teaching.

The women at the dinner agreed that 7.30 on a Sunday morning was a ‘bad time’ to receive a phone call telling me that the convenor was absconding with the lap top computer in her office that I’d been using, thereby leaving me without convenient access to a computer at work in the last weeks of teaching and marking; and a sleep-hazed comment about my affinity with country folk could not be construed as a statement about not wanting to teach their students. S, who says she and the convenor are sworn mortal enemies, said she thought the convenor hadn’t asked me to teach because I’d clearly done a better job. M who rolled her eyes at the ‘sad bear’ comment agreed. I asked them how they knew. They replied that the students hadn’t been scarred for life against future learning when they’d turned up to their classes after attending mine. I told them that the head of the program had sent me an email congratulating me on the success of the semester—he said they’d never NOT had a problem with the running of the course before.

Sometimes I think I have a surfeit of these stories where people are either maligning me from afar or just plain screaming at me—you’ve heard of few of these now—to the extent that I’ve wondered what I do to attract this kind of attention. I once read in a detailed breakdown of the arrangement of the planets at the time of my birth that essentially the planets are aligned so that I attract people who want to harm me. I couldn’t bear to put store in that theory; it would mean there’s nothing I can do to stop it. Then there’s the ethos that you are treated the way you treat others, which would hold that I behave in this abominable way. I hope I make no claim to being perfect, so on some of these occasions I have tortured myself, combing over every single twitch I’ve ever made in the presence of the individual in question. I suppose some solace can be found in those situations when it’s clear I’m not the only one having difficulties with the individual, as in the case of the convenor, the writers’ festival organiser, the research advisor ... I’ve always found out that somebody else has been undermined or publicly bawled out before me. And I suppose, in finding that out, I also encounter some great like-minded people that I become friends with.

After I got home from the dinner, I was on such a high. It’s exciting to be around such funny and intelligent women, drinking wine and eating food, exchanging information and toasting everyone’s achievements.

To be continued...

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