Tuesday, 28 April 2015

The unbearable lightness of being unburdened

The worst experience I've had until recently was being suddenly and unhappily fired, thanks to a company resizing. It was abrupt and painful, but helped by the shared experience of the other people simultaneously being laid off. 

It turns out that's a blessing in comparison to the alternative, which is what I'm experiencing at the moment: the very slow winding-down of my work. It even feels good. Imagine: I am happy that before very long I'll be unneeded.

Teaching is a weird thing.

It hasn't helped that there's nothing else to take up the slack: my last essays were handed in today. All that's left is 9.75 hours of exams. I should be revising for them, and I will be - as much as one can for unseen translations - but they, too, will be done within a fortnight. On Friday 15 May, I'll be having a pint with my breakfast to celebrate the end of my (far, far too long) academic journey.

And I don't know what to do with myself.

Seriously. I should be doing things. But jobs that go from now until September are thin on the ground. So: to the blank sheet once more.

A friend of mine suggested a few ideas: cat pictures, the fleeting and fragile nature of love; the glories of the Bobbin.

(By the way, I ate a burger the size of my head today. It is the only thing I ate. It was entirely worth it.)

But cat pictures on the internet is kind of...passé. I don't know much about love. And the Bobbin? Well, it's glorious. It combines student dive with zombie apocalypse chic. I can't recommend it enough.

So what, then?

This will be THE ONLY ONE.
So I'm going to have a stab at something a bit more creative. We're going for Welcome to Nightvale as a vibe. Here we go:

Welcome to a small town in the rolling countryside of England. Where things chitter and bark and murble in the night; where the grass on the village green sways gently in the unmoving air; where the sound of children's laughter hangs like a noose in the breeze. 

Welcome to Morkton.

This is the first audio edition of the Parish Newsletter, read by me, your host. It's an exciting prospect and brings us bang up to date with the 21st century, and it's been made possible by the kindness of several unnameable donors. I'd like to say their names, but they've been written in the letters of a civilisation that perished in fire and death, and when I look at them I find blood pooling in my eyes. So...thank you, unnameable donors!

The next item in the Parish Council newsletter regards the fact that the King's Arms will be holding its weekly pub quiz on Tuesday. There will be a multiple choice round, a picture quiz, and a quick-fire round. The theme is "forbidden knowledge" and- goodness! Even the Council will be in attendance to congratulate the team with the most forbidden knowledge. What an honour! Since I don't know anything I'm not supposed to know, I'm not going to enter, but I wish you all the best of luck.

What else is there? Hmm. Quite a good crossword this week, it's fiendish! If you know any of the answers, you mustn't tell me, because that's cheating. And cheaters never prosper, because it is difficult to prosper when soldiers with no insignias crash through your window and take you wherever soldiers with no insignias take people. It's either to church or the building in the square that's only black because it absorbs all light. One of the two.

Ah, it says here that the Girl Guides are organising a bake sale on Monday. They'll be over by the allotments, selling carrot cake, red velvet cake, Danish buns and our local delicacy, finger fudge! I am definitely going to head over, I haven't had finger fudge since my mother used to make it. Back before she - 

Huh. That was weird. For a moment there I felt like I almost got hold of some forbidden knowledge, but - it's gone. Like Police Constable Lucy always says: "Remember something you think might be important? It's not. Forget it and go back to your life of ease and comfort, untroubled by thoughts of important things." Words to live by from our representative of justice in this little village.

I'm going to wind it up there, I think. It might have something in it, and I'd certainly like to produce something in homage to the genii over at Welcome to Nightvale, but it needs more development. 

And winding it up is probably what I'll do with this blog, too. It's been a great record of my life at university, when I've updated it, but I'm moving forward - in theory.  I'm going to try to close this particular chapter and move on. There will (probably) be graduation photos and a last, rose-tinted look back over what I've achieved (and definitively failed to achieve). But this is the beginning of the end. I hope you enjoyed reading it half as much as I enjoyed writing it. (If I'm optimistic, you like it even more than that).

Thanks as always for reading and I daresay I'll be back to write even more before too long. 

You're the best. 

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

A chasm of difference

It's voting time, and if you're reading this you care (at least a little) about what I think. I've tried to order my thoughts as best I can, but it may degenerate into a bit of a shouty thing later on. Apologies up-front for that. Here goes.

Full disclosure: I'm pretty Lefty now, much to the chagrin of at least one person. It's a thing now. I might explain why later, but that fact may help you in deciphering what follows. To the analysis!


This is a bit of a difficult one. Voting is the very least you can do in terms of political engagement, but at the same time it's a pathetically low bar, and one that blocks most people from getting what they want. The British Public, that conservative, traditional beast, decided not to go for the Alternative Vote that was proposed four years ago.

Excuse me while I go and rock in the corner as I realise that was four years ago.

Me, four years ago. You're welcome.
So it seems, at least for the foreseeable future, we're stuck with a really poor system. There's no other way of putting this: if you have three people running, then all you need is 34% of the vote to represent the entire constituency. Sound sensible? No. It sounds absurd.

It IS absurd.

So: voting is a suck, and likely to be more meaningless the more candidates you've got running for you. The only way you can guarantee representatives who represent more than half of the people in a constituency is two-horse races. With that being said, not voting is more of a suck because:

All the bastards will vote

This is an unfortunate truth, but a valid one. The right has its fringe splinter groups, who are (refreshingly?) upfront about how much they hate people of colour, people of non-Christian religions, and people who speak any language but English. But as much they believe in their neo-fascist causes, sooner or later they return to the matronly bosom of the Conservative Party

Brr. Sorry for that visual.

But over here on the left, we're screwed for options. The Labour party is a laughable shadow of its former self; a fun-house mirror reflection. Consider: someone in the (theoretically) left-leaning party thought this would be a vote winner.

Sunday, 19 April 2015

Where we're going, we don't need money!

It's essay season, which means it's procrastination season and I, like a hunter shamed by Ricky Gervais, find myself embarrassed by the ease with which I have killed my productivity.

Boy, there's a lot of awkward metaphors in that opening sentence.

So what's the title about? It's a consequence of the jarring effect brought on by reading David Harvey's companion to Capital (also watchable/listenable online, for free!) and suddenly having to question the whole system around you. You ever wonder about how much money you make for someone else? A lot. The answer is: a lot.

Luckily for everyone, I'm avoiding diving into the quagmire of Marxist thought (into which I have merely dipped a toe, I suspect) and instead will riff very briefly on things that are happening.

But first, a joke!
No, not really. The real joke is capitalism.

I am looking at teaching. Anyone who's followed this blog me for the frankly interminable amount of time I've been writing will well know that I am, and have been for some time, enamoured of teaching. I enjoy it more than I have ever enjoyed anything. To that end, I've been trying to find teaching experience in local schools - to no avail. Free teaching assistant, and nobody wants me. Frustrating in the extreme.

Still, I'm going to keep plugging away. I have nothing to lose but my time.

In other job news (that I think I've blogged about before) I've got an interview at the end of this month for a job involving exciting digital things with Her Majesty's Government. On the upside - shiny digital things! Innovating processes to help democratise policy and governance in the hope of one day removing centralised government forever!

If I don't get a laptop that does this on day one, I'm quitting

On the other, the distinct possibility that at some point in my career I'm going to have to do some things that I might not (personally) agree with; the knowledge that my work will be directed by people elected on the basis of questionable votes (especially under the FPTP system); and the ever-present terror that my creations will rise up and destroy their creator.

This picture combines literally all of my favourite things.

That last one's probably not so realistic. Probably.

Of course, being a teacher would also have those exact same downfalls, so it's looking like either way I'm not going to have a life full of marshmallows and rainbows. 

Pictured: not my life

Also pictured: reason #376237267 GCHQ are monitoring my internet searches and shaking their heads.
I suppose this is really where I need to consider where it is I'll be better, and that's going to involve a complicated heart-to-heart with myself. And I hate those conversations.

Thursday, 2 April 2015

Last Council (part 2)

The motions themselves were, for the most part, a hangover from AGM and, like a hangover, they looked quite different in the light of day. The easy ones were easy, the hard ones were slugfests. The drive to get the Officers off their high horses and to see that they were the ones perpetuating the clique that we all get frustrated with was always doomed to failure, so well done to all those who tried last night and indeed have tried since time immemorial. That motion passed; candidates and Officers will no longer be allowed to publicly endorse other candidates. You run like you die; completely alone.

Success! Coupled with the crushing realisation of mortality.

The motion to set up an accountability fell hard, thanks in part (I suspect) to the new Chair, Nikita Otto, who made a fantastically impassioned speech about the responsibilities of Councillors. She is a firebrand, and I suspect she's going to have a very exciting year. She was also entirely correct; councillors do have a significant responsibility and duty to hold the Officers to account - but also to do it in a polite way. There was little of that during this motion; not least because Jenny Waters seized upon the opportunity to attack the proposer. Wajahat is a Trustee of the Association, and has allegedly not appeared at a single one of the Trustee meetings over the course of the year.

That's an absolutely appalling record, but it didn't affect the meat of his argument, or of his motion. It's not appropriate or polite, and it sets an unpleasant mood when speakers are worried something from previous interactions with the Officer will be brought up as a counter-argument. There's something deeply unpleasant about that notion.

By contrast, the motion to ban arms dealers and military groups from campus was beset by problems and misunderstandings. In part, this was due to the quite broad language necessary to ban armed forces and arms dealers (ie war profiteers) from campus. It would have resulted (intentionally or unintentionally) in also banning the UOTC from Freshers Week.

There are difficult questions around this, and it was a tough one to moderate. On the one hand it's clear that as an organisation we're against violence; however, we're also an organisation of students, and some of those students quite enjoy being in the UOTC. It builds leadership, gives opportunities to get muddy and run around the woods, and apparently pays quite well. That payment of course comes from the Army whose job, regretfully, sometimes involves killing people. The role of the Armed Forces is of course multi-faceted, is of course sometimes peace-keeping and supporting new and fragile democracies.

But its job is also sometimes to travel to distant lands and kill people.

Also, green suits everyone.

And some of the young people from those distant lands may not wholly appreciate being approached, or even encountering, people wearing the same uniform as the guys who killed their compatriots.

In the end the motion passed halfway; we won't take money from arms dealers and military groups; however, we also won't ban them from campus. For me, this seems an acceptable halfway house, although it leaves the possibility open for us to give armed forces and arms dealers a stall for free.

The possibility is there. I can't really see it being a problem though; if the Association ever elects someone on that side of the fence I'll eat my own shoes. It was also really pleasant to see so many members of the UOTC turn up to speak and oppose the motion, although it was unpleasant to learn that they'd not been informed of this at all. We ought to do a better job of reaching out and inviting representatives of groups who'll be affected by policies like this.

To be honest, that's why I think it was an oversight - had the motion passed in its entirety, somebody would have had the supremely unpleasant task of telling the UOTC they weren't welcome to recruit at Freshers' Week, at which point the brown stuff would have hit the fan in a big way. 

The Executive would look out of touch and seem to be aggressively trying to exclude a student group, and that would have lead to even lower engagement with the Association - possibly even leading to a PR disaster as the outraged students got in touch with press organisations across Aberdeen and Scotland.

All this at a time when the new team would be trying to find their feet. 

That's why I think it was unintentional. Because the contrary would indicate that the proposer was doing their best to sabotage their successor and the Association. And I don't believe that's the case.

The rest of the time was taken up with interesting discussions around a variety of points, and a report on the democratic review. There has been progress, and it looks very interesting - a cross-section of different schools to form a ratifying body, while another body will analyse proposed ideas to ensure they're appropriate to students. It looks exciting.

Also slipped into AOCB, just ahead of the university's own announcement, was the revelation that our new building is going to be postponed indefinitely, due to the university's cashflow problems. Apparently they need to lay off 150 members of staff. They cannot lay off the guy earning £335,000 though, because he's very important.

150 members of staff is horrific, and with any luck we'll be involved in the fight to keep those staff members on. "We have to be a better university, which we hope to achieve by laying off staff" is the kind of nonsense we shouldn't accept from anyone - not least an institution of learning.

Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Final Council and reflections (part 1)

Admit it. You're humming it now.
This is a long one.

This year I've had the thankless job of being the Chair of Student Council. Not entirely fair; I got a few thank-yous after last night's democratic marathon. However, for the most part this has been a frustrating insight into how incredibly bloody difficult it is to get students to do anything. There are 97 member of Council; last night, I saw just over 40 of them. We're all busy, but more than half of the students elected to this quite important policy-passing body couldn't bring themselves to turn up. Even though we had the shiny conference centre, with its microphones and soft lighting.

With that being said, I'm really not surprised. I did my best to run the meeting, and I'll admit I bungled the amendment that should have been attached to one of the motions. I appreciate that the people present felt we could move past it. It was a horrible error and one I'm really sorry I made.

What I didn't appreciate was the back-seat chairing from members of exec, either hurrying me, questioning my decisions, or straight up telling me to my face I don't have the right to do things I know I do.

Marc McCorkell, for example, stated baldly and plainly that the Chair of the meeting doesn't have the right to decide how the vote should be taken.


Let's put aside the (extremely valid) arguments around the matter of anonymous voting and ask what the point of having a Chair is. If it's to parrot Executive, then there would be a provision in the Constitution for Executive to chair Council. There isn't. What there is is a clause stating frankly the contrary:

Awks again.
At this point we come to - for me - the very summation of the pointlessness of a) having a Chair and b) giving the power to interpret the Constitution to the Student President.

You see, Emily prefers that we do things her way. That's not what Council's there for, it's there as a body to oversee the work Officers do and to recommend policies that the student body would like to see enacted. It's not there to just do what the Student President would like it to do.

At AGM, Emily felt she had the right to yell accusations of racism at a room full of students because a vote she was hoping for wasn't going to go the way she wanted it to. I understand that. I agree with the sentiment, a room of white folk arguing that they don't agree with quotas (unless they're for medics) is a load of bullshit. 

That's not the point here though; the point here is that she sees bureaucracy as a barrier to things going her way. So she interpreted the constitution - which reads like this, as a reminder:

To mean

And there's no recourse. That's not an interpretation; if the last four years of literature study have taught me anything then it's that. You can't interpret a text to mean literally the opposite of what it says. But the Student President can. It's laughable. It's pathetic. I hope this doesn't happen next year. I hope if it does councillors can pull together enough voices to laugh the Student President out. It's just a giant abuse of power, and it's made all the more frustrating because (realistically) there's nothing to be done about it.

Speaking of things you can do nothing about: you need 350 signatures for a referendum and 1300 votes, half of which must be unanimously in one direction or the other (ie 651+), to make such a referendum valid. This is the only way to remove a sitting Officer. Guess in how many of the races for next year's team we got 1300 people to vote.

Answer: none.

That's right. You've got to get more people to vote in a referendum to remove an Officer than you do to get them elected. Should it be this hard? 

Rob would probably say yes. Rob has survived multiple motions of disapproval laid against him this year, not least because publicly voting against an Officer you'll have to work with tomorrow is incredibly intimidating. His response to every one of these has been to laugh when he inevitable survives the vote: I imagine he would say it's because you have to let personal attacks slide off. Personally, if someone is sufficiently pissed off with the way you're acting that they want to interrupt a meeting to make it known, you might want to reflect on why. Especially if it happens twice in one meeting.

But at this point of the year, secure in jobs after they leave here, I get the feeling they've had enough of the bureaucracy of the whole thing, and in that we agree completely. It's unwieldy, it's slow, and it takes far too long. I'm excited about the democratic review and the proposed changes; the move to a more online system is an exciting one and one I hope we can bring to bear soon. As a Chair or as a tutor, I seem to be most excited about things that will lead inevitably to me becoming surplus to requirements.

There's a lot more to be said about how Council went, not least among which was the alleged torpedoing of the UOTC. I'll write about it at some point this week but for now, thank you for reading. Here's Carmen by Stromae, covered on piano, to ease you back into the real world.

Friday, 13 March 2015

Post-elections blog

Today is the day that Terry Pratchett stopped breathing forever. Whether he died is still up for debate, mostly by him, because this was a man who knew the value of echoes. Lives don't stop when the liver stops breathing, he says. They stop when the last clock they wound stops ticking; when the last ripples of their lives stop affecting the flow of reality.

I'm paraphrasing, because if I look up his actual prose in this state I'm liable to burst into tears.

These three days have been intense. The two weeks before them, however, were just as intense. I am so proud, so incredibly, inarticulately proud, of the team and of Laura. She was incredible. She was resilient. She ran around in a superhero costume we made out of half-baked ideas and a lycra onesie. She was the living embodiment of an idea that 53% of the voters believed in.

Although quite frankly how could you not.
That poster, by the way, as well as all of the remarkable poster and website work, are the products of Gabi Lipan. Let me talk a little about Gabi.

If you can imagine a nuclear weapon driving a Porsche, then you're about halfway to Gabi. He oozes style. He redefines class. He is also probably going to explode from overwork before very long, because he was everywhere and doing everything. And remember that as a frame of reference, I'm using myself. I want you to think about that. I'm saying he works too hard. He will be the next Saatchi, if he can manage to ease up on the accelerator. If you run an ad agency, sign him now before he realises how incredibly bloody good he is.

It is admittedly very late at night and I have, admittedly, had a few shots. It is with this forewarning that I say this: I'm really proud of this campaign. I had a few good ideas, for which extremely kind people in the campaign have said I ran it the thing. No. Laura ran it, and she did an exceptional job of it. But I'm proud of the ideas I had, I'm proud of the advice I could offer, and I'm incredibly proud of every member of the team who put up with my joyless carping and endless rules about what and what not to do.

This year's team is a women-heavy,  LGBT-focussed team. There is still huge amounts to do. Coming after the debacle of the AGM, there is still a clear and cavernous gap between AUSA and its BME members. That has to change.

There is still a total lack of engagement - no more than 1100 votes for any position. That's terrible, but there's got to be a reason. Voting can't be made easier, so it's got to be because people don't want to vote. Why? I've had fruitful conversations already with new members of the team, and I hope they'll go and research and badger people until they explain what the issue is.

And then I expect they'll solve it.

Friday, 20 February 2015


Giving up is one of the hardest things in the world to do. Human beings have a tendency to view sunk costs as retrievable, which they're not. If you've put five years into a relationship, you can't get them back - but people let it cloud their judgement anyway. If you've gambled a lot of money on an investment, you feel the need to find more money, in the hope you'll get it back.

I've invested five years, on and off, on the Students' Association here at Aberdeen University. I've seen a whole host of brilliant people come through, argued passionately for policies that made students' better, and for the past year I've been working hard on employability matters.

I've sunk a lot in, and at the start of this year I wanted to run for a Sabbatical role, to keep doing what I'm doing, to keep improving the student experience. I got my nominations in order, my team, my campaign prep - and then I sat down for two days and I thought about what I want to do.

And it's not this. I don't want to be elected. If I were to continue to work for students, I'd do it as a member of staff driving policy and supporting officers - but I don't think an election is going to give me that chance. I think that position is going to require someone who will be present, all the time, always focussed on the role and the responsibilities of that role.

I don't think Rob's done that this year. He's been absolutely brilliant fighting on education, but his work with me on employability has been non-existent. That's how he works, and to be honest I'm almost thankful to him for that, because it gave me the opportunity to take responsibility for projects that I might not have otherwise taken on. But I can't match that passion, and what's needed is someone who will continue to fight in the same vein as he has. That wouldn't be me.

This year I've learnt so much about employability, about placements, about how to generate interest for students to become more employable. More people than ever are attending university, and that's amazing, but it means graduates need to be able to show skills that they didn't have to before. This skilling up will become more and more important, and I'm confident that at the very least next year's VP Employability will work hard on that.

But all of this experience means nothing unless you can convince people that you're the right person for the job, and I'm not sure I can. I believe in my ideas; I'm confident they'll work.

But I don't think I'm the right person to make them happen.

I'm going to try to find a job out there in the world for a little while, and maybe one day I'll come back to student unions and bring the ideas of others to fruition - and maybe I won't.

But in the last year I've met someone who's made me a better person, who makes me feel invincible, whom I love. And although I've wanted to be in charge since I arrived - does anyone remember that awful, awful second year campaign? - I've realised there's something far more important. I'm not going to risk this chance at happiness for the sake of the Students' Association and its members.

So those are my reasons. I'm not looking to be elected: I want to teach, not to fight.

Besides, I want to find a cheap, one-bedroom flat in London to share with my partner and my cat. That's quite enough challenge for the moment.