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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Through exploring the psychopathology of Capgras syndrome, in which a patient mistakes a loved one for an imposter, The Echo Maker offers a sustained meditation on the ways in which we project our own problems onto other people. As a reflection on the mysteries of consciousness, the novel offers some interesting if not especially new insights into the fuzzy boundaries between scientific and literary interpretations of the mind. Read more


Postgraduate Diary: A PhD Week, Tuesday

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Today starts badly. As I open Thunderbird, the email program downloads headers for several messages that require my responses today, and then stubbornly refuses to open them. Regardless, I type an email - containing an abstract for a seminar group in a month's time, on the topic of "What Darwin Means to Me" - hit send, and watch as the blue bar moves, jerks, then stops. Unsent, unsaved, I try to retype my piece as best I can remember, then save it in notepad for later; clearly there's a problem with the University's email system - but how strange it is that whereas on most days email is a distraction, on the day when I actually need to use it the system is broken.

Luckily, the library seems to be up and running; given that over the past few days I have been bombarded with emails reminding me to take books back (the postgraduate loan "quarter" is coming to an end), I realise it would be a good time to return those tens of books I got out hopefully months ago, and have never read. The most depressing thing when checking my loan record is how many of those books have been renewed too many times, and thus must go back today - this means I have had some out for nearly a year, without opening them.

Bag packed, I go back to my note taking and reading, then head into town for a meeting with other English Postgraduates at our weekly discussion group. We start off discussing the agreed topic, biography, but somehow we move from discussing why Jade's story is a reworking of the Biblical redemption narrative, or is grounded on a fairy-tale prototype, to bemoaning the dropping of Shelley and Keats from G.C.S.E. English. At least, the Romantics in the group bemoan the fact. As I commented in my post on the English National Curriculum, and on my criticism of Andrew Motion for believing all school leavers should have read Ulysses, I think it is naive to expect modern students to study the Leavisite canon on its own. Certainly, there should be some Shakespeare, some traditional poetry, but we cannot be sure that teachers, straitjacketed by the demands of league tables and curricula, are going to have time to explore and explain these works; thus their presence needs to be tempered by other, more immediately accessible forms: modern poetry (even rap, as I suggested yesterday, to some sneers), contemporary novels, science fiction. The discussion got a little personal (along the lines of you're so middle class what would you know), but out of it I did take one point that I had not thought of before, having never experienced it in my excellent education: how demeaning it is for teachers not to try to teach, for example, Shakespeare, because they believe that their inner-city pupils are more interested in drugs and sex than the romantic story of a couple falling in love against the wishes of their parents; to not teach Shakespeare because it is "beyond them" is to reinforce low expectations, and is a prophetic fallacy to be avoided for sure, though it is one of the risks of my middle-way approach.

After lunch, I go back to my poster, spending an hour trying to work out how to print to the A1 plotter printer in I.T. services. I think I have it cracked, and hit the "Print" button (not a minor decision, given that I have been working on the poster for months and printing it will cost £6.00). As the clock ticks towards five, and I get ready to go home, the email system comes back online. I spend another 45 minutes writing to a student worrying about an essay. One of the frustrations of teaching as a postgraduate is that I don't have an office (not that I do enough teaching to justify one). Instead of suggesting that a student come and chat to me, perhaps show a draft, I have to try to guess what their problems are, say what I think would be most helpful for me to say, and put at the bottom a "if you have any more problems please don't hesitate to get in touch" disclaimer. The email's sent into the void; I keep fingers crossed that it will arrive at the desk of the student and let them work through their problems with their essay.

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