Taking Precautions

I have been reading the biography of Barbara Wootton by Ann Oakley. Baroness Wootton was a remarkable woman  (or, as the title of the book says, A Critical Woman), with an astonishing number of firsts to her name. Born in 1897, her field of activity was social policy, and at the start of her career she was particularly involved with education –  within universities, but more importantly for those without traditional qualifications at Morley College and the Workers’ Extension Association (WEA). She was the product of a Cambridge academic family (classicists) and went to Girton College where she started off reading Classics herself, which she hated. Having failed to get a 1st at the end of Part I, by virtue of developing acute tonsillitis and so failing to take the exams, she finally was allowed (by her mother it would seem) to take Part II in Economics. She excelled in this, and left Girton with its main prize, the Theresa Montefiore Prize (an honour both Sandy Toskvig and I share with her).

After a brief spell in London she returned to Girton to become Director of Studies in Economics. She was so highly regarded she was invited to give lectures to all the undergraduates, and so became the first woman to lecture to men in Cambridge.  Unlike any of the male lecturers she couldn’t wear a gown to lecture because, as a woman, she hadn’t been admitted to her degree  (no women were until 1948) and so was not eligible to flaunt this garment; indeed the lectures had to be advertised in the Reporter  (the University’s official organ) under someone else’s name, since officially she couldn’t be recognized! Her thoughts on what to wear, or perhaps how to wear it, show just how nervous she was when she started lecturing. She wore a green suit she had made herself, but in her own autobiography she owns

The skirt had an elastic band round the waist and I was so worried it might break, that I made two skirts and wore one on top of the other.

Many of us get nervous lecturing, particularly when doing it for the first time. For Baroness Wootton, like myself, there was clearly no training for the job provided. When I lectured for the first time, all the help I got was being given the notes from the lecturer who had left and whose course  I was taking over (I was still a University Research Fellow at the time).  The notes were very familiar; they seemed unchanged from the ones I had myself taken,  in longhand (and which I still possess), during my  own  undergraduate days. Having worked out (I wasn’t told) where the lectures were to be given, all I had to do was nerve myself to turn up.  I used to get up very early and essentially speak these lectures out loud, word for word, to check I knew what I was trying to say before I gave them that first year. Nevertheless, before the very first one I can distinctly remember thinking “how am I going to walk out in front of the 200 or so students and speak”. It was a terrifying prospect, but one I felt able to share with no one. I don’t recall worrying about my state of dress, other things featured far more largely in my mind, but it hasn’t stopped those students with a vicious streak commenting on my attire as they return their end of course questionnaires then –  or at any  time since.

Since that first, terrifying year, inevitably I have got more relaxed about my lectures, not always with justification.  One really should, like Baroness Wootton, make sure one has a metaphorical belt and braces. Some years further on from my first experience I still lectured sans computer but with hand-written notes which I transcribed onto overheads as I lectured (a style I would probably still favour if students could tolerate it).  I had 3 identical green files of notes covering the course and one year I managed to pick up the wrong file as I cycled off to work. I arrived in a full lecture theatre, opened it, only to find this was a file of material I had already  covered. Now what to do? Familiar though I was with the material (it was indeed a course on Materials and I really did feel very familiar with it), I still felt if I tried to extemporise without my notes to remind me exactly what I was trying to cover, things could go very badly wrong. So, I confessed and cancelled the lecture.

As with seminars that bomb, the dynamics of a lecture course can vary massively from year to year, even when teaching exactly the same material. That particular year –  it was a final year option course, so the students were very much self-selected for interest –  I had the students eating out of my hand (one of the rare occasions I could say that that has been the case). They were good-humoured about my idiocy, and cheerfully turned up for an extra lecture at the end of term. One of them even was kind enough to say on those dreaded questionnaires that it really hadn’t mattered at all.

So, turning to this year, my precautions failed me again, and I sailed very close to the wind although I also survived the experience (as did the students). Teaching a course for the third time, this time to 400+ 1st years, I was nevertheless making some not insusbstantial changes to alter the balance between different sections. After all, as one respondent said last year, how could anyone make geometric optics interesting? ( I suspect one could, but that’s another story; clearly I hadn’t). So, I had a modified set of powerpoint slides to use. Did I back them up? Did I hell!  I kept thinking,  I really must make a copy onto a  USB stick  (the notes lived on my laptop), but somehow I never quite got around to it. You can see what’s coming. Disaster struck my laptop in the form of A Worm, early on a Thursday morning. Or at least, at that point, I didn’t know what had struck I merely knew I had a dead computer. But it was a Thursday, a full 24 hours before the next lecture. Not a problem,  I thought, my wonderful  computer officer will sort me out. But, as I soon discovered, he was having a day off. Panic. L uckily we have a central IT section too in my large department and a temporary solution was found by a kind soul there to get my laptop back on its feet sufficiently that the Friday lecture could pass off without more than its usual glitches.

The moral of the story is: put two skirts on, or at least back up all your work. Work on my laptop was only backed up if I remembered to transfer the file I was working on to my  office computer. Incredibly stupid. Furthermore, due to the way I work it didn’t even have updated virus protection. Sheer idiocy. I hope I have learnt my lesson. One cannot take too many precautions about things like this. Every student who is writing their thesis, just as much as every lecturer who is teaching, should have multiple back–ups and not rely on ‘it won’t happen to me’. Not many department buildings burn down incinerating all one’s data, though it happened to Biochemistry when I was a student.  Not many people have all their results destroyed by protestors, mistakenly thinking that the work had involved animal testing, but precisely that has happened in the past to two people I knew –  and several years apart. Not many skirt elastics fail (and I assume Barbara Wootton’s didn’t or she might have mentioned it ). But computers most certainly go wrong with monotonous regularity and it would have been totally unforgiveable if my lack of foresight had meant I had to turn up to say to 400 1st years, I’m sorry , I can’t give you this lecture because the worm eat my computer. I shudder to think what the student questionnaires would have said in that case.

Afternote: Mac users need not point out that this wouldn’t have happened to me if I didn’t use a PC. I am aware!


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2 Responses to Taking Precautions

  1. Caroline Edmonds says:

    I sympathise re backing up and now use dropbox. It backs up to each machine I use and means that wherever I am I can access all of my files. No more emailing files to myself or losing a memory stick

  2. Dave Paisley says:

    As a relatively unbiased user of both macs and PCs, I can say that macs are not inherently immune to cyber attacks – due to the much lower market share once enjoyed by Apple, fewer hackers have bothered to try. As macs have risen in popularity that’s starting to change:


    So your advice stands without qualification 🙂