Sunday, 15 January 2017

Tell us about a time you made a terrible mistake at work.

I'm about to tell a story which I've told many times since the incident occurred. Consequently there's bound to be some slickness to the telling - sadly, since the essence of the story is the opposite of slickness: a heaving cornucopia of raw incompetence bringing forth a trainwreck of uncontrolled self-exposure in close to, but not quite, the worst imaginable manner.

I took about ten months off work after Lenny's birth, returning on the first day of teaching. At the time I was delivering my Jane Austen subject partly in block mode, starting the semester with a full day workshop for the entire group of students. So I'd got all the materials for this workshop ready at home in the last week or so of my mat leave, and prepared all the media and slideshows on my own laptop, which I brought in and used on the day, plugged into the AV desk in the teaching room. 
It was going fine. I was standing with my back to the screen, a little distance from the lectern, using a remote to click through slides while I talked about Jane Austen's context and milieu. There are lots of excellently interesting and revealing images available from that world in that period and I had some great ones in this slideshow. All the same, at some point I became aware that the hundred or so people sitting in front of me were watching the screen with unusually avid attention. I remember thinking that perhaps I'd made the point extra well that even though we don't have any satisfactory and verifiable portraits of Jane Austen herself, the many portraits of her siblings are so similar to each other that it's not too hard to visualise what her features must have been like. And then the students gasped and I knew for certain they weren't looking at my slideshow. They were looking at something else.  

I turned around, hearing them gasp again and louder than before, still somehow believing what I'd see on the screen would be something like this:


or this:

or even this.




You already know where this is going, don't you? Yes, of course you've most certainly thought of what I hadn't anticipated, or remembered: when a Macbook is plugged into an AV system that requires a change of display settings, if the display of the MB goes to sleep, it won't play the machine's usual sleep/screensaver. Instead, on its own initiative, it will proceed directly to the photo library, and play a slideshow of images plucked from your personal photograph collection. So what I saw they'd been watching with such rapt attention, for only they know how long, was a slideshow, complete with Ken Burns transitions, of the pictures taken by one of the theatre nurses at Leonard's birth. 


Yep.  

At this point in the story (and I've only told it verbally before now) if the listeners are women they ask, apprehensively, how the baby was delivered. 

Well, this was where it was up to when I saw it and stopped the thing:

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That's a Caesarian birth going on right there. You can see three or four of my internal organs if you look closely (and I have), some cut open and others merely pushed to the side, and a strange whitish rim that's wrapped in plastic which I think is a sort of brace holding open the cut-apart skin and fat and muscle. So the women listeners are always very relieved to hear that my students didn't see a set of photos of a vaginal delivery. And even though the c-section was really tough to recover from, I am myself super super glad that this is what the students got an eyeful of and not the other items. I very much doubt I could tell this story if it had been otherwise.

So people then ask, What did you do? Well what I did was, I said something like Oh dear! and woke up the slideshow, and continued with the workshop. Actually, then and there, it was the easiest thing in the world for me to brush it off. At this juncture in my life, my daily reality was defined by public bewilderment, failure and indignity. The wheels had fallen spectacularly off just about six weeks earlier and it felt quite unexceptionable to have my persona of academic competence, gravitas, and authority irreparably destroyed just two hours after returning to work. 

In the event, a discernible loss of confidence aside, I think the consequences for me from this episode were amazingly mild. Actually there were no direct repercussions from authority. I know students discussed it widely, faculty-wide at least, but I don't believe anyone complained. And for the remainder of that year and the next two, girl students would sometimes ask me questions about having babies. 'You know those pictures we saw', they'd begin. Yes, I knew the ones. Then they'd come out with whatever it was they'd been stewing on. I always felt grateful when this happened. It allowed me to believe I'd done some good in a strange way, some role-modelling even. Doing scholarship with a tradition of women's writing that revolves around self-disclosure helped me to be cool about it, continue to go to work etc, although a not small part of me knew there's a big difference between highly wrought and calculated self-revelation for artistic and political purposes, and the sloppy out-of-control thing I'd accomplished. And yet, still.   



It's quite interesting to me to reflect on how my feelings about this event have changed with each retelling of the anecdote. The first time I told somebody about it who wasn't already used to hearing the intimate details of my fuckups, I was acting completely on impulse, driven by a wish to provide moral support to an fellow academic whom I had only just met and who was experiencing a professional cataclysm. I wanted to show him that he hadn't humiliated himself too dreadfully in the grand scheme of things, and I do think he cheered up a little bit. He certainly pulled himself together enough to get on with his part of the project we were working on. Just the same, I felt very afraid as I told the story - where was I going with this? - especially when I got to the point in it where people always wonder (aloud or to themselves) just what parts of my body were visible in the photos the students saw. To his great credit, in spite of my own unease and lack of control over the narrative, this first listener produced a response that demonstrated that he didn't think any less of me for what he'd just heard. This hasn't always been the case: a person who heard this story quite recently, and who I would have thought would be well able to take it in his stride, has since referred back to it in ways that show he just isn't as unflappable / imaginative / chilled a person as I had thought. Not that I was hurt by a lack of sympathy from that quarter, it's more that it's just saddening when people who seem OK turn out instead to be smallminded. Telling someone a true and alarming story about yourself, when you are no longer agitated by the memory, is an interesting thing to do: it can be both a gift of trust and intimacy to that person, and a test of their capacity to cope with your mess. Writing the story and putting it out into the world to be received by anyone at all, well, I think that's an extension and enlargement of the same principle (so the exercise then becomes a generalised test of one's capacity to make gifts and an open invitation to receive them.) Excepting, of course, the people who sit on job interview panels. I applied for lots of jobs in 2015/16, and whenever I was asked to describe some sort of cock-up I'd committed, I never described this one (although I always thought about it.) Next time I'm looking for a new job I'll just make this blog temporarily private, that appears to have worked in the past.

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