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COVID, What Henry Said, Robert Lowell, My Dad, and Other Diversions

Jun 8, 2021 9:33:00 AM / by Dr. Michael Woolf

"Thoughts on Education Abroad" is a monthly column written by CAPA The Global Education Network's Deputy President and Chief Academic Officer Dr. Michael Woolf.

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In this month's column, Dr. Woolf talks about the immobility that many educators have faced due to the impacts of COVID-19, communicating in the Zoom era, and observing how the profession was either deemed essential or inessential in the UK. He also shares his encounter with American poet Robert Lowell.

There are signs that most of us are limping beyond the worst of the blighted crisis that has turned 2020 into a truly rotten year. Henry, an acquaintance, who speaks entirely in cliches remarked that: “It’s water under the bridge” and “there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.” An expression of bewildered incomprehension greeted my quotation from the poet Robert Lowell: “The light at the end of the tunnel is just the light of an oncoming train.”

There was nevertheless something inspiring about his brainless optimism, so as Henry might say I’ve tried to “look on the bright side” because “every cloud has a silver lining.”

Mike Woolf June 2021 Column Photo 1No photographic representation of Henry exists but this is a close approximation.

Thus, without losing sight of the awfulness of it all, I offer, for your consideration, some possible compensations.

Life’s Not so Bad. Could be Worse.

(From: The Collected Sayings of Henry [1])

Immobility

I speak first of mobility or, more accurately, immobility. I know we miss seeing each other at meetings where we recycle ideas, give each other awards, and glasses of bad wine. But not all mobility involves such pleasurable processes.

In happier, more conventional times, my path to work involves traveling from bedraggled North London to genteel Kensington. To achieve this, it is necessary to use something known as the “tube.”

Mike Woolf June 2021 Column Photo 2Souls in torment.

To help you visualize the immensity of this ordeal, I draw upon Dante’s Inferno. Dante guides the reader through nine circles of hell and promises to deliver them to “a place eternal where you will hear hopeless desperate cries and you will see spirits scream and beg.” This describes the entire network but may be best encapsulated in the Kafkaesque Circle Line which never begins and never ends (that’s why it is called the Circle Line or Dante’s ninth), passing again and again through the ironically named Temple Station.

Mike Woolf June 2021 Column Photo 3A real Temple.

Mike Woolf June 2021 Column Photo 4
Temple Station not the same kind of thing.

Dante observes “pitiless eyes closed in sleep,” but not during the rush hour when 97.8% of travelers are unable to find a seat. Instead, more commonly, he encounters the traditional calling cry of commuting Londoners: “a sound of wailing.”

Last summer there were many days when conditions on the underground contravened European regulations on the humane transport of cattle. [2]

In the current circumstances, immobility may, in certain contexts, be a blessing of a kind.

In the Current Circumstances

This phrase brings me to my second reflection on these troublesome times. It offers a perfect pretext for not doing those things that I do not want to do: the Bartleby of education abroad. [3] For the first time in my professional life, I have a vaguely credible excuse for inertia. Pre-Covid there were no “circumstances” to justify an inability to answer an email, write a report, or to respond reasonably to questions concerning my activities. Colleagues muttered about personal proclivities, speculated on professional deviance, and asked why I hadn’t done the thing they cared about.

However, in the current circumstances, I have not been asked that particular question; indeed, I have not been asked any questions at all.

We are all aware of the limitations to what we can achieve in these days of travel by Zoom. In this respect, the environment has pleasingly aligned with my reluctance to tell anybody anything at all in case they find it offensive, reckless, bordering on senility. The current circumstances are perfect cover for inaction.

Sartorial Deviance

This brings me to another Covid consequence that has enriched my life, and those of a legion of colleagues. When one is required to attend meetings in person, it is customary for an elderly Englishman to wear a suit, tie and white shirt; a dress code that signals trustworthy embrace of convention, I radiate the appearance of reliability and the illusion of competence.

Mike Woolf June 2021 Column Photo 5On the way to the Forum Conference 2018.

In the Zoomage, many pleasures are made possible. Personal hygiene has become optional. It is possible to drink wine throughout meetings, employing the Prohibition device of teacup disguise. You may also “vent your spleen” (Henry) in passionate and personal, muted critiques of colleagues. This is most enjoyable if you are simultaneously enigmatically smiling.

However, the most significant characteristic of the Zoom era is that we are seen customarily from the waist up. We cannot see what lurks beneath. We are empowered, thus, to enjoy secret pleasures of gender role parody. It is has become possible to adorn one’s lower half with, for example, gold-lame Bermuda shorts and lime green high-heeled shoes.

Mike Woolf June 2021 Column Photo 6Mike Woolf June 2021 Column Photo 7My preferred attire.

I have colleagues of the female gender who, enjoying similar freedoms, attend meetings in a crisp white blouse and football boots.

Mike Woolf June 2021 Column Photo 8Football boots.

These variants from sartorial expectations are, under the current circumstances, invisible. There is joy in wearing costumes that, if seen, would lead to a certain erosion of gravitas. A word of caution; should you need to stand, I strongly advise that the camera function is switched off before so doing.

These are nevertheless opportunities to explore the secret self, to revel in satirical dualism as the bottom half offers a narrative in direct collision with the top. This is indeed liberating. I invite you to send in personal photographs which I will happily share for the enlightenment and pleasure of friends and colleagues. [4]

What may be seen as deviant behavior is, in fact and fiction, a precise metaphor applicable to the pedagogical principles of education abroad. We urge students to perceive what lies beneath the tourist gaze, that which exposes the hidden city. In other words, in Zoom world, we raise a critical question: “What is under the table?”

Observations and Diversions

The Dad Diversion

During lockdown, the British government designated some professions as essential while others are, consequently, inessential.

I have friends who can only read racing results but do amazing things such as putting on a new roof, rewiring a skyscraper, constructing a small house – all before lunch. They are essential.

The essential and inessential dichotomy aligned with the views of my father. He was inordinately proud when I was en route to becoming a first-generation graduate – particularly when boasting to his friends who struggled with notions like “graduate.” But he had “doubts” after he discovered that I was studying stuff like history and literature. I had scrupulously hidden this from him until well into my second year. “You’re learning waat??” was not a question. It was rather a cry of stunned disbelief as his vision of me as a doctor, lawyer, even a qualified car mechanic, evaporated. “My son reads books” lacked the impressive power of “my son the surgeon.” Where I grew up, doctors were holy; surgeons, god; international educators, unknown species.

His hopes were briefly stirred when, a few years later, I returned to university. Those too were dashed when he learned that I was doing an MA in more books (aka literature). A wine and cheese party followed the award ceremony. He politely but loudly asked my tutor, the great Malcolm Bradbury, a question that baffled Malcolm until he too passed into that great library in the sky: “Professor Bradbury, I want to thank you for what you’ve done for my boy, but what exactly is it you do?” This conversation led to a strange but enduring friendship that only ended on my father’s death.

He never lived to see my doctoral award, but my thesis was dedicated to him and my historian son is named after him.

Mike Woolf June 2021 Column Photo 10The title page of my obscure thesis.

He would have enjoyed my red-faced, cringing embarrassment when, as I shook hands with a minor royal at the degree ceremony, my mother could be heard clearly exclaiming “That’s my baby!”

Well, Dad, you are vindicated. My years of labor in obscure corners of the humanities has qualified me for work in a field that, as Covid struck, was defined as “inessential.”

The Robert Lowell Diversion

By way of a small autobiographical diversion: While scribbling that (inessential) doctorate, I was funded by a teaching and research assistant grant. As now, this bestowed upon me membership of a community of the dispossessed, pale and anxious, impoverished waifs who were a source of humor for the entire university from the Deans to the rats tormented in the biology department. As part of my duties, and an extension of the institutional humiliations heaped on my bowed head, I was, on a dark day, given the responsibility of keeping the great American poet Robert Lowell sober for the afternoon, at least until he had arrived at his poetry reading scheduled for that evening. In those days, pubs closed from 2.30 until 5.30, so how hard could it be? However, the determined and distinguished poet had discovered that there was a bar on the Humber Ferry (now replaced by a majestic bridge) which served alcohol all afternoon. He suggested that we simply remain in the bar, traveling without interruption to and fro, from Hull to Grimsby.

Mike Woolf June 2021 Column Photo 9The offending vessel.

He talked poetry, bought drinks, talked poetry, bought drinks, bought drinks …entirely oblivious of my growing hypertension. Some hours later, drained, hysterical and unsteady, I delivered the great man to the auditorium where he spoke cogently and read his poems beautifully for two extraordinary hours. What I did not know before was that he could perform even when pickled, soused, and semi-conscious. There are still people at Hull, over 40 years later, who remember me only for my nervous collapse at the end of the evening. The signed copy of his latest book, which he graciously presented to me, was soggy with sweat and tears.

I spent many years in mostly futile academic endeavor. However, I was ultimately gainfully employed in international education (OK, Dad, at a salary less than that that of a doctor, lawyer, or qualified car mechanic, let alone that of a surgeon). I learned arcane competencies, acquired the insights of others, and through stubborn longevity, reached a sort of leadership role. That, I believed, vindicated all those years I spent in the library (missing, by the way, the social revolution that gave many of my contemporaries undreamed of pleasures). [5] I consoled myself by the thought that I was part of a noble endeavor served by skills I seemed accidentally to have acquired.

The British government decided that most people have no use for those skills. I was a member of an inessential profession and should stay at home, “locked down.” Only a small adverbial alteration would turn this into “locked up.” In case, colleagues, you are feeling a little smug, I remind you that you too are, according to my Dad and Boris Johnson, “inessential.”

This reality has been largely disguised from us because we only really speak to each other, which takes me back to why we miss conferences so much: the secure equilibrium that comes from hearing things that are comfortingly familiar and saying things we have said to each other many times before.

My Son the Surgeon

These final observations take me back to my own history. In case you feel that you have already heard more than enough of that, I should point out that it is far from unique. For anthropological and scholarly purposes, I will focus on Jews, but they should be seen as representative of other marginalized groups who are, for these purposes, also Jews.

Jewish parents dream that their first child will be a doctor; the second child, a lawyer; the third (if a little simple) an accountant. With a deep sense of disappointment, they may reluctantly accept that the fourth or fifth child could end up as an international educator.

We are in a great profession in which someone like me (and you?) can earn a living, travel around the world, become a sort of inessential success without having any perceptible skills that are recognized by others.

Friends – this is truly a blessed place for those who can’t stand the sight of blood or add things up.

Conclusion: For this Relief, Much Thanks

Realizing that I was inessential was a disturbing epiphany but, on reflection, it brought some compensations. I have not been on the tube for months; I am currently wearing ballet shoes; nobody seems to care what I am doing. There is, though, an absence and an ache. I miss you all. I long to speak nonsense at the bar in the conference hotel and to recount ideas of yesteryear.

This reminds me that, after all, we are an international community of friends and colleagues. What we do is driven by a mission to enrich teaching and learning and, despite what my Dad and Boris think, this is important (OK—not essential). Despite our limitations, we will soon return to serve students, to enhance knowledge, to work together to erode the barriers that separate the self from strangers. And won’t that be fun.

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[1] Unpublished. 

[2] I read this somewhere in a newspaper so it must be true.

[3] I would prefer not to sir,” google it. 

[4] Note from the editors: We are advised by our lawyers Messrs Markby, Markby, and Markby (a firm of the very highest position in their profession) that colleagues would be ill-advised to accept Dr Woolf’s “invitation” which, in their sage judgement, might be seen as a form of procurement for illegal purposes.

[5] By way of example, both pleasure and popular culture passed me by. For many years I thought that the  popular enthusiasm for Madonna was a form of religious mania. I have heard no popular song since “Jumping Jack Flash was a Gas” and I view Jelly Roll Morton as a post-modernist.

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Thanks Mike!

CAPA_Michael Woolf Headshot

Dr. Michael Woolf is Deputy President for Strategic Development of CAPA: The Global Education Network. Mike has had much of his career in an international context. Prior to working in mainstream international education, he completed a PhD in American Studies and taught literature at the universities of Hull, Middlesex, Padova, and Venice. For four years he worked as a researcher-writer for BBC radio. He has held leadership roles in international education for many years and has written widely on international education and cultural studies. Much of his work has focused on areas of strategic development with particular focus on the status and credibility of education abroad within the wider academic community. He serves on a number of boards and was a member of the Board of Directors of The Forum on Education Abroad from 2006 to 2012. He was the recipient of the Peter A. Wollitzer Advocacy Award (2020) from the Forum on Education Abroad. 'Thoughts on Education Abroad' is a monthly column of short essays sharing his thoughts and expertise on the subject.

READ MORE FROM DR. MIKE WOOLF

Topics: London, England, International Education