Conspicuous work: do we compound the workload issue ourselves?

Scene: Due to him locking his keys inside it, George’s car has been sat in the parking lot at his workplace for a number of days now. He has been working his regular hours, but commuting via other means. He has just returned from a meeting with his boss Mr, Wilhelm, who, in turn, reports to the owner George Steinbrenner. He has come to Jerry’s apartment with good news about a possible promotion…
George: Assistant to the general manager! Do you know what that means? He could be asking my advice on trades. Trades, Jerry! I’m a heart beat away!
Jerry: That’s a hell of an organisation they are running up there. I can’t understand why they haven’t won a pennant in 15 years.
George: And it is all because of that car. See, Steinbrenner is like the first guy in at the crack of dawn. He sees my car, he figures I’m the first guy in. Then the last person to leave is Wilhelm. He sees my car, he figures I’m burning the midnight oil! Between the two of them, they think I’m working an 18-hour day!
Jerry: Locking your keys in the car is the best career move you ever made.
Seinfeld – ‘The Caddy’

Over 100 years ago, at the turn of the 20th century, sociologist and economist Thorstein Veblen coined the term ‘conspicuous consumption’ to describe the way that the upper classes purchased luxury goods as a means of publicly displaying their wealth. In his book, Theory of the Leisure Class, he criticised such showing off: not only did he think it wasted resources, but he also noted that the lower classes then sought to emulate the upper classes with similar unnecessary conspicuous consumption.

It’s a plausible theory: that to confer status, people might act a certain way only to be seen doing so. As such, it has some common ground with the modern phenomenon of virtue signalling.

Seeing quite a few people posting pictures of displays on Twitter during this first week of the holidays, I wondered (out loud, on Twitter) if ‘conspicuous work’ had ever been forwarded as a concept.

A quick search showed a study from the Netherlands from this year which took that very term as it’s title. ‘Conspicuous Work’ looked at male workers over a period of 17 years and drew the following conclusions:

  • The workers imitated their peers working hours – the longer their peers worked, the longer they did
  • The workers derived status from matching their peers working hours
  • This ‘peer working time’ negatively affected their happiness

They further summarised that “These findings are consistent with a ‘conspicuous work’ model, in which individuals derive status from working time.”

It seems that conspicuous work really is a viable notion. Jonathan Simons (of Policy Exchange) shared this anecdote:

I wonder if posting pictures of displays we’ve just made or of the marking we’re doing during the holidays fits with the conspicuous work model? Is a picture of a display actually a teacher’s version of the jacket on the back of the chair, or the car left late in the car park? Well, the honest answer is that I’m not sure that it is as conscious as those examples.

But whether there is intention in this conspicuous work or not, the important issue is whether or not this creates a culture in which peers see this conspicuous work and then imitate it. Do we, like the Dutch workers, derive status – consciously or not – from matching (or even superseding) our peers working hours? Or is it that we see others working and we feel we need to match it in order to maintain parity?

Of course, I’m not standing in judgement over people sharing pictures of displays in the holidays. Posting photos on social media is a very useful way to share ideas. And we are so busy that this downtime is often the only time we get to festoon our shabby staple-flecked walls with colourful new compositions. I’m certain that I too have shared work – although obviously not as beautiful – during the holidays. Heck, even this blog post is about work, so I’m hardly setting an example here.

But I wonder if what we are doing here is creating a normative message about being a teacher? By tweeting pictures of work we are completing during the holidays, we are saying this is okay; this is what we do; this is acceptable behaviour; moreover, this is… expected behaviour? I’ve written before about how the messages we send out create behavioural norms and how this can be either damaging or useful when talking to pupils. Are we creating a message about how working in your holidays is normative behaviour for teachers? And if so, are we compounding the workload issue ourselves?

I’d be interested in responses to this. Social media is brilliant for sharing ideas and, as we spend our working hours actually teaching, most of the sharing has to happen outside of those hours. So I find it hard to argue against such sharing. I wonder if there is an answer to this or is it simply a paradox we have to put up with?

Are these the best English subject textbooks you’ve ever seen?

Textbooks have been in the news this past academic year. We’ve been told by Nick Gibb to shed our “anti-textbook ethos”, whilst U.S. education advisor Richard Culatta has said that British schools should scrap textbooks because they “are outdated, they are in a format that it’s not adaptable, and for students learning in other languages, they can’t press the word and get a definition.”

I’m more inclined to side with Gibb than Culatta on this one. It’s not my intention in this post to reason why, so I’ll point you in the direction of Tim Oates’ paper ‘Why textbooks count’, as well as David James‘ excellent response to Richard Culatta.

Saving those arguments for another blog, this post is merely an attempt to share with you one of a set of excellent English language and literature textbooks that I have come across this year (all done with a deferential nod to Bodil Isaksen, whose excellent blog on Singaporean Maths textbooks I aim to imitate here).

I have been looking for good English textbooks for a while and earlier this year I came across this set published by Mcdougall Littel (click ‘High School/Language Arts’ > ‘International’ if the link takes you to the homepage):

booksThere are 13 books according to the website linked above, and they concentrate on either English language or literature. They are incredibly comprehensive books. The ‘Language Network‘ book (targeted at Grade 10 pupils in the U.S.) in the left of the picture is 704 pages long and covers the following areas over 32 chapters:

boookNot only that, it also includes 100 pages of exercises, model writing, etc.1111

The content of the language books is excellent, however it isn’t these that I wish to write about today. Rather it is the mammoth literature textbooks that I want to share.

The Language of Literature: British Literature‘ is an incredible piece of work. It is 1,470 pages long for a start! But I think that the quality matches the quantity. However, rather than listening to me eulogise, I’m going to show you its contents, and let you tell me what you think. Here’s the cover:Screen Shot 2015-07-26 at 16.28.53

The book is a chronological presentation of British literature from 495AD to the present day, giving between 250-300 pages to each of the seven periods it covers:Screen Shot 2015-07-26 at 16.07.14

Each period covers various authors and gives a range of texts (poems, short stories or extracts from novels) from each. Here are the contents of the first two units, on The Anglo-Saxon and Medieval Periods and The English Renaissance:Screen Shot 2015-07-26 at 16.07.21Screen Shot 2015-07-26 at 16.07.25Screen Shot 2015-07-26 at 16.07.28There are also other features in the book, including language features on vocabulary building and sentence construction:Screen Shot 2015-07-26 at 16.08.16

Every unit begins with a timeline of the period, as well as a few pages on the historical background, which includes how language developed as well as the literary history:Screen Shot 2015-07-26 at 16.11.02Screen Shot 2015-07-26 at 16.11.05Screen Shot 2015-07-26 at 16.11.08

With each text, there is a bit of background as well as suggestions to focus pupils’ reading. There’s support with notes on the language throughout and, post-reading, there are questions for comprehension and critical thinking, and a variety of tasks for extension, vocabulary, exploration and writing responses:Screen Shot 2015-07-26 at 16.12.10 Screen Shot 2015-07-26 at 16.12.36 Screen Shot 2015-07-26 at 16.12.45 Screen Shot 2015-07-26 at 16.13.00

Some of the sections are incredibly in depth. The 9-page author study on William Shakespeare brings is followed by a focus on Macbeth which is over 100 pages in length, and is mostly made up of scenes from the play with supporting materials:Screen Shot 2015-07-26 at 16.14.05

The final 100-or-so pages focuses on support for English language, with sections on reading, writing, communication, grammar, as well as a glossary of literary terms and a vocabulary builder (presumably the use of Spanish here is due large number of Spanish speakers in some U.S. states):Screen Shot 2015-07-26 at 16.07.57Screen Shot 2015-07-26 at 16.24.48Screen Shot 2015-07-26 at 16.25.55Screen Shot 2015-07-26 at 16.26.42Screen Shot 2015-07-26 at 16.27.01Screen Shot 2015-07-26 at 16.27.51Screen Shot 2015-07-26 at 16.28.13As you can see, at nearly 1500 pages this book is incredibly comprehensive. It covers the history of British literature largely through texts, and the editors have selected those texts judiciously. The fact that the book is so heavy on content – poems, short stories and extracts from longer pieces – is a real winner for me.

At some point, I’ll blog about some of the other titles in the range – which are all equally as comprehensive – but I’d be interested as to what other English teachers make of this book.

They can be picked up from auction sites or Amazon Marketplace for fairly reasonable prices. Most of these I got for less than £10 plus P+P – some I managed to get for just a few quid including postage. I wouldn’t advise spending too much over the odds for them – be wary of shipping costs from the States.

If anyone has used these or manages to get hold of one, I’d be interested to know what you think? Or even your impressions based on the tiny peak I have shared here?

Edit: a quick Google search can turn up PDF versions of some of these books. Here’s the one literature one I’ve just discussed.

The Final Comedown: Nothing prepares me for the end of term

I’ve looted and I’ve begged
On the tubes of the Bec and Broadway
I’ve been run over by cars
And to prove it here’s the scars
On my wrists
I’ve been cut
I’ve been stitched
I’ve been buggered, bewitched and abandoned

But nothing in Heaven or Earth
Prepared me for this
The Final Comedown

It’s a victory worth sharing
We should celebrate I think
With the bloodiest of Marys
But I’m too ****ed to drink.

Okay, so Carter U.S.M. were hardly poets, but I’ve found a bit of solace in these words lolloping around my brain today.

But why do I need solace? Yesterday was the end of term and today is the first day of the holidays. As the longest period of respite stretches itself out lazily in front of me, surely this is the feast day for teachers; a carnival of recreation; edu-Saturnalia?

So why am I not frolicking in Bacchanalian debauchery right now? Why am I not gambolling on a sawdust-covered table, spilling wine from my brass goblet?

Because I’m in a funk. I’m in the funk I’m always in at this point of the year. I’m not sure if it is something that affects everyone. But if it does, then there is so much excited build-up to the end of term that nobody really talks about it. It doesn’t matter how hard the year has been, or how ready I am for the break, nothing in Heaven or Earth prepares me for this: The Final Comedown.

Don’t get me wrong. I need a break. I couldn’t cope without it. This has been a particularly tough year and so the summer holiday is more needed than ever. It’s just that the sudden loss of purpose is like the moment when Wile E. Coyote runs out of ground and goes plummeting into the canyon: it’s a shock. And it’s one that leaves me with a numb and hollow feeling for a couple of days.

Is it the suddenness of it? Is it the fact that teaching over-occupies me for most of the year and thus nothing can really ever replace it or fill the void of its purpose? The summer break isn’t so much a blank canvas, rather it’s a palimpsest of term time. It takes a short while to scrape off what is already on the page before you can fill it with something new.

And it is just a short while too. I know from experience that the comedown passes after a day or two. And at that point, I couldn’t be happier to be on a break. But in these early days, it’s like being in limbo.

This funk can be harder if you have the added sorrow of saying goodbye to colleagues who are dear to you and who are off to pastures new. This year I have said goodbye to friends who I have grown very fond of and who are crossing the globe in search of new horizons. We’ve all experienced this kind of loss and know that it creates an even greater vacuum to try and fill.

But I’m really not complaining about having five and a half weeks off school. It is absolutely necessary and will mean that I can teach with renewed vigour in September. And it honestly does feel like an achievement to get to the end of another academic year. It really is a victory worth sharing. We certainly should celebrate, I think, with the bloodiest of Marys. But – right now, just for a couple of days – I’m too ****ed to drink.