Reading dissertations

It has been my pleasure, over the last few years, to read university dissertations before they are submitted. I may not know a great deal about the subject matter but I can comment on structure, flow, grammar and general readability. My enjoyment lies in learning something new that I probably never would have explored of my own choosing. One of the first I read was a Chinese student’s essay for her MA. Her English was fractured and ungrammatical but the topic was riveting: the censoring of the Internet in China. The student worked in PR and her activities were restricted because of heavy Internet censorship. She used all manner of means to get round it. I never heard from her again when she returned home and often wonder what became of her. Another one for a Textiles student focussed on ‘subversive stitching’. Apparently women over the ages have used embroidery and other sewing arts to air their views about life and their condition. I think Tracy Emin used the same to create a quilt featuring abortion. I saw it on display at the V&A alongside quilts with prison slogans produced by prisoners from Wandsworth prison. The nimbleness of the needlepoint was at odds with the harshness of the messages.

More recently I’ve been reading about the sexualisation of children across the media. Not just the blatantly provocative images of Brooke Shields and Miley Cyrus, amongst others. But also the potential ‘exploitation’ of cuteness by Anne Geddes with her greetings card images of babies in plant pots and the like. I’ve bought such cards myself without thinking much about it. I wonder what the babies, when grown, will think.

Finally, one of the most interesting essays read recently focussed on the portrayal of the working class through the decades and generated much debate about the meaning of ‘working class’ and its interpretation today. ‘Working class’ was never used in the same pejorative sense as say ‘chavs’. The photographs of people shown in the street show a people who were proud of their class. One of the social documentary photographers, Roger Mayne, tried to capture the vitality of people in the street. The children are playing; women in turbans are shown chatting on doorsteps; there are no vehicles. Streets were safer. People spent more time outside. The title of the essay is ‘Shooting the poor’. It’s hard to explain to younger people that the working class did not regard themselves as ‘poor’. Perhaps because the people we knew were all in the same boat. In fact we felt fortunate because of our education, healthcare and homes. Life was difficult for most people but it was visibly improving in those post war years. And those of us who benefitted from a higher education were able to fulfill our parents’ aspirations for a better future. As I read the dissertations I hope that students today get chances.

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