My very first memory of the campus was spending time as a child systematically undermining my father’s lectures. It was not, however, my intention to compromise the classes. School was out, but the academic teaching year continued, so I had no place to go. As a result, I spent many formative moments sat at the front of a lecture theatre, half listening to tales of Roman conquest. All the while I would be doodling sketches on the chalk board, producing crudely drawn annotations of the lecture material, much to the distraction of my father and attending students alike. Who knows how many educational experiences I compromised back then? The important thing though, was those occasions left their mark. Perhaps it was inevitable that I would find my way into lecturing having spent so much time as a child loitering underneath desks in lecture theatres. I can say though, with some confidence, that my approach to lectures matured somewhat over the two decades to follow.
My second clearest memory was, as a child, sitting in the staff dining room on campus, surrounded by some of the most prominent archaeological minds of their day. This was back when the staff dining room was a segregated, wood panelled hall, into which no student could enter. The ivory tower was alive and well back then. Of course I didn’t really understand the significance of the room, and my presence in it, but I was consciously aware that there were only important lecturing types around me. I felt awkwardly out of place, a feeling I largely retain when attending academic conferences while feeling that my publishing record should really prohibit my presence. Not so long ago, that staff dining room had the wood panelling ripped off, and opened up to all and sundry. One of my last memories of the Caerleon Campus, was seeing a party of Italian school children spilling crushed cartons of juice on to plastic tables, in what was the staff dining room. The ivory tower had been brought to its knees, smashed and shattered in the name of progress. You, staff dining room, I’ll probably miss most of all.
My first teaching experience came about ten years later. I could not have been much more than twenty, maybe twenty one, when I gave my first lecture. As memory recalls, it was something to do with the archaeology of the Avebury landscape, on the premise that I had excavated there for one season. I think there was a staff illness or some such, and they needed someone to fill in. Whatever the circumstances, I went overboard, using around fifty acetates – yes, back then the campus was not flush with projectors and PowerPoint, just hot light bulbs and overhead projectors. I can’t have been that crap either, because before long, I was back teaching on the campus as part of a regular gig.
Working closely with Les James, I ended up co-teaching on a heritage module. Back then, the whole thing was about Chartism, which, given I had been specialising in medieval archaeology, was not a strong subject for me. So, I quickly set about hammering the module into something I was more confident on, which turned out to be a slight obsession with the heritage and museums sector. I’m not really that sure how that happened, but it did. So much so did this new direction begin to rule my life, that I ended up doing a PhD on the campus, exploring the subject in depth for the better part of five years.
Of course, there was plenty about the experience which was far from enjoyable. I was there when the University, in some cack handed effort to achieve, well, god knows what they were trying to achieve when they closed an archaeology department of international repute. That was under the stewardship of James Lusty. He’s dead now, so we can’t ask him what he was thinking, so I guess we’ll never know.
Then of course there was the staggering ineptitude of bureaucracy which haunted the institution. Maybe that was one of the things that led to the ‘merger’, everyone was too tied up working through bureaucratic paper work to be able to officially respond to the proposed ‘merger’, that by the time the paperwork was filed, the ‘merger’ had already happened. Does that seem harsh or unlikely? Well, I can remember starting a new contract back in the mid noughties, when, thanks to ‘paperwork issues’ I worked for no less than five months before getting paid a penny. That led to a tight half a year I can tell you, though getting the lump sum of half a years’ salary in one go was quite enjoyable.
Then there was that surreal thing with the heating, where the University seemed intent on refusing to turn on the radiators until half way through winter, and then determinedly leaving the same radiators on well into the latter half of spring. We certainly tested our students resolve and ability to regulate their body temperature back in those days. Of course there was also the always well thought out scheduled building works, which seemed to always coincide with the busiest teaching time of day. One mid morning class was interrupted as a guy attempted to drill through into my lecture theatre from the adjoining room. Rarely did I get pissed off in classes, but that was one occasion where I was not exactly pleased.
Generally though, the teaching side of things in Caerleon stand out as some of the most rewarding experiences of my life. It is a very precious thing, to be able to teach, to have that responsibility for the education of others. But to be able to deliver material, which is met with a group of minds that you can see and watch grow, is a uniquely rewarding thing to behold. The pride that I took from seeing year groups graduate, from where they had been, both as individuals and as a collective in their first year as undergraduates, is something that I will never forget. Sitting in an exam board (something else to go under the ‘not enjoyable’ list) and seeing the end of year degree marks, and thinking back over how certain students had gone from averaging in the 2:2 bracket, to ending up in the 2:1 group, or even among the 1sts, was amazing. It’s not so much a case of thinking ‘I made that happen’, because it is ultimately down to the student, but I would certainly allow for a thought of ‘I helped make that happen’, and that is where I take away a real sense of pride.
And, without wanting to get too soppy about it, I was afforded the rare opportunity of being able to work with my father for the better part of a decade. When it comes to history and lecturing, there is no one I have learned more from over the years, and no one who I can offer more gratitude to, for the opportunities that have been presented to me over the last ten years. There is a good chance that without him, I would never have got that first shot at teaching a class, which led to my later lecturing in heritage studies, which directly led to my successful PhD. It all connects, and the Caerleon Campus played a big part in it.
I could go on, but the more recent memories that I would like to share, such as sharing an utterly unproductive office with the most excellent Adam Coward, or sharing a home and University experience with my wonderful fiancé Hannah, begin to bleed over into the last two years, when the institution became the University of South Wales, which I will be reflecting on next week. There are also a whole host of other things that I could mention, including occasionally playing rugby for the University team on a ridiculously sloping pitch, the ghost which prowled the stairwell on campus and meeting Robert Plant (yes, that happened), but perhaps for now, that is enough reminiscing.
Suffice to say, the University of Wales, Newport, has had a significant, profound impact on my life, and without it, it is hard to envisage how many of the very good things to have happened in my life, would have occurred. Perhaps, given the circumstances, the rose tinted spectacles are firmly on, but I will, in the main, look back on the Caerleon Campus, as part of the University of Wales, Newport, with fondness, happy memories, and a lingering regret that things did not stay the way they had been.