Published by Jeremy Fagan on 5th July 2019

The Dog Ate my Homework

The wallaby that didn’t eat David’s homework.

We all know the feeling; I had promised our excellent MODEM Matters editor, Jeremy Fagan, a ‘From the Chair’ piece by the end of June. I had a book I wanted to talk about, something which I think is really exciting in terms of what it says about church life and how it could grow and develop in the future. Trouble was, I had seen the book referred to, I had bought it, skimmed it, got an idea of its general message, knew why I was excited about it and what I wanted to pass on, but I had not actually read it. In my academic career this was often as good as it got. You read things in order to fillet them and use snippets from them to support your argument. I still have on my shelf a book entitled ‘How to talk about books you haven’t read’, by Pierre Bayard (London: Granta, 2008). I have to admit that I have, in fact, read it – it’s very good – and I sometimes wonder if Bayard is ever disappointed to find that people have read his book and not merely quoted it. Since ceasing my full time academic career I have tried to make sure I actually read the things I am quoting, and I have been pleasantly surprised by all the interesting and well thought ideas that are to be found between the bits that get quoted.

I thought I had time to read the book, glean the parts that were going to seed my piece from the chair, and write them. I came back from a week’s holiday with enough time to do it. I work with Worcester Diocese on a programme on ‘Time wisdom’, and I fancied myself to be a competent estimator and planner who had enough time. And then my computer monitor insisted that it was receiving no signal. For me, this is the end of civilisation as I know it. I talk and think through fingers on a keyboard which produce characters on a screen which I read and then argue with – but now those characters were no longer appearing on a screen. Some readers of MODEM Matters no doubt know how to set about such a problem in a calm and systematic manner. I don’t have enough knowledge or confidence to manage that. Do I need quickly to buy a new computer, as I thought I might a few months ago when everything slowed right down before a new release of Windows? Is it the lead? Or the video card? Do they still even have things called video cards in them? How would you know if it were the video card, and if I try to replace it, will I (a) ever be able to get the computer back together again, (b) have bought the right video card to replace it with (c) correctly identify which bit of kit needs removing from the box (d) ever manage to reattach correctly the various bits of internal wiring which I have either had to remove to get the faulty bit out or have knocked out through sheer clumsiness? Is there still a repair shop anywhere around where they could help me? And, remembering how long it used to take technicians at work to find and fix such problems, would that be much more expensive than buying a new one?

I gambled £20 on it being a problem with the lead – expensive, but I was desperate and could not wait for an online purchase. This turned out to have been a good guess, and I am now back in action. The time I had spent rehearsing the excuses I was going to give Jeremy for my failure to deliver in time turned out to have been wasted; I should have been rehearsing excuses for the quality instead.

George Kelly (1905-1967) argued that we should think of people – all people – as scientists, each one trying to understand more of their world and how it worked by running little experiments and thus gradually building up their personal constructs to help them understand and operate more effectively. If we can form good theories about our working world we may be able to control what is going on better, and improve our outcomes. And how many church authorities would be delighted to hear that? But in order to convince ourselves that we are doing well we might have to find some fairly strange excuses for when the evidence suggests that we actually have very little idea of what is going on, excuses which range from the dog eating your homework to your essay getting lost in the post, via your partner demanding your attention or the pressure of meetings, through to your having to clear up the messes left by the previous minister.  Perhaps there is also another side to our working lives where we want continually to be exploring, doing something new, trying out that rather interesting looking fruit on the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and not getting bored by the feeling that we are in control of our thinking and our outcomes. I’m glad my computer is working again, but the fact that it occasionally shows signs of hating me lends a frisson to everything I do. I quite enjoy rehearsing the excuses, even if my conscience will not usually let me use them. Next time I will send Jeremy an account of the book that I was reading. Unless the email gets lost.

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