Jane and James

Jane Berney in conversation with

Jane’s cousin James lives 98 kilometres from Wellington, where Jacinda is steering New Zealand out of CoVid’s way. A train manager, his work is deemed ‘essential’ during lockdown. At the beginning of this year he bought his first house, and is as proud as a first-time father.

Leave the Light on: Reflection from a 26 weeks writer

I began framing my response to the prompts so thoughtfully offered to the 26 Weeks writers, but kept returning to an experience that I believe more fully captures and reflects this time; those 26 weeks for this writer.  I hope that this is acceptable.

In February this year I returned to university to teach a post graduate paper (‘Brand Stories’) to 22 students. It was structured as a two hour class each week bookended by several hours of ‘self directed learning’.

We’d had a couple of classes as students met, some for the first time, began grappling with concepts and discussing theories, musing over assignments. There were whispers about the international virus that was breaking all the rules. Then our prime minister gave us three days to shut down the campus, recalibrate and work (“teach”) from home.

I use technology in moderation but my teaching style is of the foraging kind. While following set themes, I collect and share fresh findings each week. Directives from above were for transition to online delivery platforms. Synchronous and asynchronous learning. Squeezing weeks of teaching into days. Pressure cooking two months of teaching into a different shape without unsettling the students. Nobody knew anybody on the planet who’d done this before (so the textbooks went out the window). We had no point of reference. No guides. Google was in overdrive.

As we stocked up on gloves and coffee at home, I attempted to reshape the paper without diffusing the learning outcomes. The first thing I wanted to do was make it clear that students could connect with me when they needed to.  I rewrote my classes using powerpoint and a few other whistles and bells. Lots of candle wax. And when my Invisible Cat Jack (so named due to his ability to disappear when a human enters the room) lounged next to my keyboard, I took his picture on my phone. And so the precedent was set. Jack was to ‘star’ in every teaching session that I ran over 8 weeks. At the opening and the closing of the presentation. Within a week,students were enquiring about his health. Emails would often include a feline felicitation. A month into this new ‘normal’, in an online teaching session (think ‘Zoom’) we were discussing narrative arc when Jack selected my lap as his landing pad, and appeared live and arching on the students’ screens. The student in discussion broke sentence briefly to say ‘Hi Jack’ before returning to her treatise.

This is not about cute animals and stressed students. It is, I think, about humanity and grounding through this abnormal, ridiculous, remorseless situation. Every week for the series of Lockdowns that New Zealand faced I ‘left the light on’ so that the students felt that there was always someone there for them. While many of them remained in confined spaces (with little natural light) I could at least look out to my fields and the green and knowing eyes of the Invisible Cat.

Last week I was informed that the paper had achieved a very high rating in Student Satisfaction, despite the restrictions of CoVid. I told my colleagues that the glory belonged to Jack, and that he would be quite satisfied with a rabbit. Again.

Jane Berney

Jack the Invisible Cat taking a break between classes.

Sonnet (of a kind) to my conversation partner for 26 (or is that 52?) weeks

Thank you for our talks through this time of times.

For the stories you shared from down the line. 

Your headlight smile 

Incorrigible style.  

Brake checks at dawn. Lights up. Lights down.  

Your projects at home: scratching nuggets from dry earth 

Concocting an altar of faltering candles.  

Placed carefully in laboratory beakers, filled with a chemical blue.  

Your plans: grand plans for your little kitchen 

A paella recipe you plan to master. Based on packet risotto. Not too much fish.  

Good to come home to after a long day on the rail. 

You might just get a dog to live in that kennel large enough to hide a dinosaur 

Or you might just get the sign 

That warns that something quite fierce lives beyond your gates.

Leave a Reply