Personal Writing

Personal Writing

It is a truism, despite the contrary example of Gerard Manley Hopkins, whose poems were at first virtually unknown except to Robert Bridges, that a writer is driven by an acute sense of audience. Certainly, this audience-orientation is unchallenged orthodoxy in my own field of program evaluation, although to be honest I have more than occasionally faced the half-true accusation of writing only for myself. Jumping ship from academia into the world of the novel, I am acutely aware of the difference in genre expectations. On the other hand, I think that many of us who have not consistently pursued a literary career have shown in other forms of writing qualities that might not unreasonably be associated with the novelist manqué.

I offer three pieces of personal writing as a way of exploring this proposition.

My first example is autobiographical. I was extensively interviewed by David Williams for his Twenty-Nine Evaluation Lives, which was published in New Directions for Evaluation No. 157 Spring 2018. The volume addressed the question: what kind of person ends up as an evaluator? I imagine his initial expectation was that it attracts spectators rather than actors, accountant types rather than entrepreneurs. LOL. I thought it might be revealing to exhume the transcripts and offer a couple of narrative fragments.

  1. Bula Vinaka

At the University of South Pacific, I was scheduled to give a public lecture on (my choice) the hidden curriculum of Fiji schooling. Since I was intending to refer to Antonio Gramsci’s prison notebooks and his ideas on hegemony theory, I thought it would be amusing to give the lecture wearing Fiji prison uniform.

I head off to the prison without prior arrangement, passing the redundant hangman’s house on the way, and bang on the solid door of the jail, which was eventually opened by a huge sulu-wearing Fijian. ‘I am a professor from the university. Could I please borrow a prison uniform?’ The request was accepted without hesitation, strange though it must have appeared, and the officer mused that the best place to find one would probably be the laundry. In we go. ‘The professor is here for his prison uniform’, explained my host. The keeper of the prison laundry was equally obliging, but was in the act of handing over somebody’s (?) uniform when he was struck with second thoughts. It was all a matter of appropriate levels of authority: he would need to talk to his supervisor first. The supervisor is the first to formulate a question: ‘Why would anyone willingly wear a prison uniform?’ He found the answer that it was to wear at a public lecture puzzling, clearly downgrading his view of the university. In any event, authorizing one was beyond his pay grade.

My upward mobility continued and within the hour I was talking to the amiable prison governor himself, but he too has his doubts. ‘If you wear it on the streets of Suva’, he opined, ‘you would risk arrest. I am not sure I can allow this’. I found this hard to believe. Suva prison was notoriously porous. Architecturally, It resembled a child’s toy fort with three walls and a climbable cliff to the rear. Prisoners were ‘on the loose’ on a daily basis, many carrying cane knives, although invariably hitching back harmlessly to their villages to see their girlfriends before seamlessly re-enlisting next day. Still, the governor was mindful of his duty and the matter was not one to be dealt with on the basis of a single institution. The request clearly fell within the province of the Home Office.

The Home Office contact declared his urgent need to talk to the Minister first, but said if I turned up at the Government building next day they would ‘see what they could do’. The final act was a tribute to legendary Fijian generosity. The Home Office not only acceded to the request but had employed a local tailor to have a shining new prison uniform especially made for me. It was wrapped carefully in tissue paper and handed over ceremonially, accompanied by the imbibing of kava, the local narcotic that graced every social occasion at government level.


  1. Lapsed or backsliding?

It is my first day as Professor of Education at the University of Ulster, Northern Ireland and they have sent a university car to Belfast airport to pick me up. The university driver is a typical Ulsterman, friendly, watchful and direct. ‘Excuse me for asking, Professor’, he ventures, ‘but are you a protestant or a catholic?’

‘Neither’, I reply, unhappy with the binary choice, my Jeddi self-identification best treated as a private matter.

‘Yes, yes, we know about that’, he continues dismissively, ‘but are you a lapsed Catholic or a backsliding Protestant?’

Linquistic accuracy is important in Ulster. Clearly there are no backsliding Catholics or lapsed Protestants.

That evening I am given a welcoming reception by the Faculty, which was sweet of them. Loads of people and all ‘good crack’ as they say in those parts. Recognizing my Welsh lilt, the conversation turns to regional accents. I hear somebody saying a tad anxiously, ‘I can’t quite pick up your accent.’ This is ridiculous, I think to myself, even I can identify the Irish accent, North or South.

But there follows the request, ‘Say a few more words.’ And on and on goes the drawl.

‘I think I’ve got it’ exclaims the speaker’s new acquaintance, ‘Top end of the Shankill Road’.


  1. My doppelganger twin brother

Until our late teens we were virtually indistinguishable to the extent that I cannot identify myself in a family photograph. At school we even shared the same name, the ubiquitous ‘Twin’. Then Hugh went into railway management and I became a teacher. He, at least in outward appearance, was the conventional twin and I his faintly disheveled brother.

Despite covert sibling rivalry, the only occasion on which we actually quarreled was when he was running a training exercise for middle management at a smart hotel in Crewe. ‘Oh mister porter…’ I was passing through Crewe on my long commute from Coleraine to Norwich and decided to drop in and observe him in his working environment. It was perhaps insensitive of me to turn up in jeans and trainers (railway managers are prone to go in for power dressing) but that mild offence was not the cause of the fall out, which concerned my behavior rather than my attire.

When I arrived at the hotel a smart-looking chap who could be mistaken for a wedding guest approached me and spotting my torn and ragged pullover says, ‘Good God, why are you dressed like that, Hugh?’ I respond by following the familiar script. ‘I’m not Hugh, I am his twin brother, David.’ But he persists. ‘Come off it, Hugh! We are old mates. You sound like Hugh, you talk like Hugh, and you look like Hugh, so as far as I am concerned you are Hugh.’

Naturally, I play my trump card.

‘You are mistaken. Let me show you my drivers’ license. It says David Jenkins.’

But to no avail.

‘You must have gone to a load of trouble to forge that, Hugh, and to hire that tramp’s outfit. Is this part of some offbeat management training exercise?’

It was at that point, questionable in retrospect, that I felt it was best to admit it and agree that I was Hugh.

‘Could you consider joining the session I am chairing this morning on the Midland Region incentive schemes?’ asked my new best friend.

‘It would be a pleasure’, I replied, and it certainly was.

It seemed that Hugh was held in high regard. or at least was treated with exaggerated respect within the norms of a hierarchical organization. My presence was described as an ‘honour’, a welcome example of the graciousness of the higher ranks towards those a little further down the greasy pole. The session seemed to me worthy, with folks well-informed and articulate, but it lacked excitement and panache. A university philosophy seminar it wasn’t.

About twenty minutes before the scheduledend of the session I am given the floor. ‘Would it be possible for Hugh — is it OK for us to call you Hugh? — to answer some questions on behalf of senior management?

‘Yes, of course’, I heard myself saying.

The first question was a bit of a poser. ‘What does senior management think of the Birmingham B27 incentive scheme?’ The Birmingham what??

‘Seriously deficient’, I said.

‘In what way?’ they demanded. Management had not revealed its unease before.

‘Come on, surely you guys could have worked this out for yourselves’ I responded, ‘Any incentive scheme is premised on a theory of motivation. What do you suppose is the theory of motivation behind the B27 scheme?

About three minutes later, I think I understand the incentive scheme but still think it’s rubbish. Things continue in the same vein.

To cut a long story short, I bullshit my way through the entire twenty minutes on zero background knowledge, mindful of the line in King Lear that a dog is obeyed in office. I stupidly supposed at the time that Hugh on learning about it would say, ‘Good on you David, that was a class act to pull off’, but in the event he was utterly furious with me for invading his work space and making his colleagues look absolute idiots.

It was made worse by the final scene in the drama. My new best friend was leading me back to the bar and commenting on how useful my comments had been, showing, as they had done, senior management in a more forthcoming style than usual. When we reached the bar, I spotted brother Hugh sitting on a stool.

‘O by the way’, I said, ‘I don’t believe you have met my twin brother David’.

‘Pleased to meet you, David,’ he relied, embarrassingly slow to negotiate the necessary paradigm shift, before collapsing in all too visible embarrassment.


Acceptance Speech, Anaheim CA 2011

I must begin by thanking my sponsors and the American Evaluation Association Awards Committee for recognising my evaluation report A TALE Unfolded for their 2011 Outstanding Evaluation Award. I hope nobody minds my using the occasion as a Welshman and an outsider to comment unfavourably on the USA’s Office of Management and Budget’s unhelpful promotion of a single style of evaluation that it terms “gold standard”.

I enjoyed the measured response sent by the AEA Evaluation Policy Task Force to the OMB. It took issue, sensibly, with the OMB declaration that randomised controlled trials, echoing clinical trials in medicine, should be considered the “gold standard” when evaluating effectiveness, all else being relative dross. I would like to offer my two pennyworths to the debate by recommending something I am choosing to call “lead standard evaluation”.

Today I want to play a little with the term “gold standard”, seeking my analogy from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. Suitors for Portia’s hand must choose between three caskets, gold, silver and lead. Perhaps a little fancifully, I invite our gathering of evaluators to consider a parallel choice.

Resolute Gold Standard evaluators will be tempted to advocate randomised controlled experiments without regard to whether the method is appropriate. But methodological purity is no defence against the debased educational values of our times in America, particularly with respect to a brutal and instrumental audit culture, a general punitive disrespect for the professionalism of teachers, particularly in difficult schools, and unsustainable myths about mandatory continuous improvement.

A Silver Standard evaluation is suggestive of evaluators willing to trade in their independence. The word “silver”, thirty pieces or otherwise, is rich in connotations to do with its power to corrupt or co-opt. Those accepting “the King’s shilling”, even if duped by the press gangs, were thereby committed to servitude in the army or navy. Evaluators should be sponsored not bought and dragooned into service. There may be some hope, however. The Latin word for silver is argentum, the root of the verb “to argue”; even a co-opted evaluator can become a critical reader, arguing with the program under review.

At first blush we might share the Prince of Morocco’s distaste for “dismal lead” but I intend pushing my parable in a particular direction. Lead, as in the lead pencil, is the basic tool both of the artist and the writer, a means of discovering meaning by inscribing. The Lead Standard evaluator sees evaluation as a craft requiring imagination both in representation and analysis. Such an evaluator/artist will reject means/ends rationality for faithfulness to the idioms of the activity, basically one of open-ended exploration. As in The Merchant of Venice, those heading into the field carrying only their own trained sensibility and a trusty pencil need to “give and hazard all they have”.

Let’s translate Shakespeare’s courtship parable into a modern context, and here I address the young male evaluators in our audience. You are out on a blind date in an up-market restaurant and really want to make a positive first impression. But you know that somewhere before the end of the soup course she is going to ask you, “So what do you do for a living?”

If you smirk and say “I’m a gold standard evaluator”, she’ll thing you’re a banker in disguise, the cause of our current economic woes. If you add “Actually, I’m a measurement man” she’ll think you are an unreconstructed male chauvinist pig only interested in her vital statistics. You would do just as well turning up wearing an electronic tag.

You could rustle up a confidential smile and say, “Evaluators are advocates, paid handsomely to tell important clients in education what they want to hear”. But she won’t be impressed; she’ll think that you are in advertising or even worse a political spin-doctor.

Despair not, young evaluators. You have a third option. You run your fingers through your hair, letting a loose strand fall over one eye. Looking at her shyly through the other you say, “Well, actually, I am an artist; a writer”.

Trust me, you are in with a chance.

David Jenkins 2011


Prize Day in the Boot 2017

The Calstock Chess Club holds its annual Christmas party in the Boot Inn, its home playing venue. Below is an abridged version my after dinner speech in 2017



A warm welcome to Calstock Chess Club food bank. These specs are ones I use to intimidate the opposition, as they suggest mastery both of calculation and clear vision, chess being both a science and an art. We welcome Alistair to his first Christmas meal at the Boot, but what other club would have someone his age as its youth wing?

The Boot, under our gracious hosts Kim and Sean, is an excellent welcoming venue for chess and delicious food and indeed for the last two years won the coveted prize for being the most chess friendly pub in the county. We may be in danger of losing this accolade, however, following a match here on St Patrick’s Day involving the influential Rev Robin Kneebone. The bar was carpeted in green turf and the noise deafening. Totally pissed punters dressed up as leprechauns and their red-haired ladies calling themselves Molly — after Molly Bloom, the promiscuous Penelope from James Joyce’s Ulysses — belted out revolutionary songs from the IRA hymn book. We await our licence renewal with trepidation, particularly as Robin was pitched up against our own formidable but noise oblivious David Twine.

Actually we are extremely lucky to have two of our members here. On a Thursday a couple of weeks back Richard, Alan and Andy were having a break between games and Andy thought he would order something special. What is the oldest bottle of wine available? Kim retreats to the vaults and returns with a dusty old bottle, but when after some difficulty they de-cork it out pops a Genie. “You have the traditional three wishes”, announces the Genie, “but as there are three of you I will bend the rules and give you one each. Richard is missing India, where he is the object of post-colonial respect and gets chauffeured around in a bicycle rickshaw. Besides it is so spiritual and chess there is more a question of ying and yang. His wish is to go back. Woosh!

The Genie then turns to Alan, who confesses mournfully to the call of the sea. What about the pacific Island of Vanuatu, home of French provincial cooking, a national language no more than a patois called Bislama, high diving over land with vines attached to ones ankles and the most famous cargo cult in the world, the John Frum Society? Not to mention maidens in grass skirts and coconut bras. His wish is to go back. Another woosh and he too vanishes.

Now it is it Andy’s turn. “Chess club is not the same without those two guys. I want them back”.

Some of you may be wondering why Doctor Susan Gaunt has been seconded to work with Calstock Chess Club. This is because chess as a mental health hazard. The prime example of a deranged chess mind was Alexander Pitchuskin, the so-called ‘chessboard killer’ who thought that sixty-four victims would be a suitable tribute to the game. Another madman was Claude Bloodgood, who fiddled his ELO rating while in prison for murdering his mother and wrote an indifferent book on the Tactical Grob. The truth is that even at less spectacular levels many chess players are simply off their trolleys. Large numbers succumb to delusional paranoia, feelings of persecution and detachment from the real world. Best advice to WAGS playing second fiddle to correspondence chess fanatics? Glue their pieces to the board.

Going back to calibration v vision and whether chess is an art or a science, we actually have both camps in the club. Phil is a professional busker, if that is not an oxymoron, while Richard is a serious poet, despite his output being playful. Our calculator is Alistair, currently risking a doctorate on the proposition that you can exhume the underlying models of education by asking the kids. But do children have sufficient grasp of the models of enquiry that can exhume secure truths from our shifting world? An anecdote from Merthyr Tydfil would suggest otherwise.

My cousin Blodwyn Jenkins is a fine teacher of five year olds. She believes that even very young children should be given the opportunity to ask questions requiring investigation and she set up small ‘research groups’ of youngsters for that purpose. One little chap comes up with an interesting conundrum. How old is our teacher? After a puzzled silence a fellow tot suggests a promising research method. The exchange continued:

“I know! We could look inside her knickers.”

“But how will that help us?”

“ Well in mine it says ‘ages 5 to 6’”

Good luck on the doctorate, Alistair.

Finally I am hanging judge and jury for the Calstock Chess Club annual worst excuse for losing prize. Three are awarded and those honoured will receive suitable Black and Green speciality chocolate bars.

In third place Andy’s fine example of a plausible excuse. Playing in the 500 League Andy won his first game and thought it appropriate to celebrate. “Just a half, but I’ll like to try something different.” Sean recommended Crème de Menthe. Unsurprisingly he lost the second game. “My mind went a complete blank”.

In second place put your hands together for Richard. Allocated the white pieces, Richard made one of his moves by picking up and relocating a black rook, presumably under the influence not of Crème de Menthe but ying and yang. “I got tired of playing the white pieces and thought I’d take a little walk on the dark side”.

In first place lets give it up for Steve, a fine winner. “I had two utterly brilliant moves but played them in the wrong order”. It is a sequence we should strenuously try to avoid. It is acceptable these days to have child then marry, but what about jumping out of a plane and only then trying to put on a parachute? Or what about getting death and burial in the wrong order? This is chess dyslexia and invariably leads to a loss. As the old joke puts it, Dyslexia rules KO.

Thank you very much. You have been a patient audience.