Summertime, and the living is rather more hectic than you might think…

I have just popped back to my blog now that summertime is upon us. You might expect me to be basking in the sunshine and taking a break:

 meerkat sleeping for blog

Actually, my life is probably a bit more like this:

 Meerkats, Fota Wildlife Park.

Over the summer I will be writing a new book and getting all of my teaching material up to date. I will also be entering an exciting new phase of teaching, as I work on a major new project, called the GRASS project. This project will allow me to keep producing screencasts for our students and to work with colleagues and students in exploring screencast technology, learning what it can do for lecturers and students in the coming years.

It is an exciting time, and I will be happily kept busy not just with screencasts, but also with the Professional Track Degree which I will be piloting this year along with a new suite of academic placement modules.

Summer is such a productive time for us lecturers. It gives us the chance to catch up with ourselves and our interests and it lets us work on major new projects. Autumn is going to be great fun, and hard work…and the clock is ticking already…very soon, my students will be back and I will again look like this:

meerkat with kittens for blog

 I’ll be back in the Autumn with more updates on the life of a lecturer, season two!

Ripples

This is the first of our ‘Life of a Lecturer’ blog posts to appear on our department Facebook page, and it got me thinking about ripples. Before you get carried away with a delicious fantasy, I don’t mean this sort of ripple:

Ripple

Lovely as that would be to a woman trying to avoid the chocolate bars lurking in her desk drawer, I mean this sort of ripple:

Ripple on water

 

Actually, now that I come to think of it I suppose I don’t really mean either of these, but rather the ripples we leave in people’s lives by our love of literature.

This blog was started with the idea that it would give school and college students some idea of what life is like at university; we also hoped that our own students might like to take a look behind the scenes. It has ended up being a bit of a meandering journey through a part of my life, and the life of my department, with plenty of stops along with way to admire both literature and our reaction to it.

At the outset, I had not realised that friends and family members might stumble across it. I had not even considered that alumni of the university would see it and get back in touch – a delightful bonus. So the blog has rippled out further than I might have expected, but I still feel some control over it. I decide what to write in it, and I was posting to it for many months before deciding to link it to Facebook.

I at least have the illusion of control, but our students can have no idea of the ripples they create. I was talking to a group of students last week about the way in which we respond to literature; I was hoping to get them thinking about how literature is sometimes valued as an artifact more than for the experience of reading. I was reminded of a lovely student who I taught some years ago. Over the course of her time with us she became so excited about literature, and the idea of owning books, that she wrote an essay on Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland as an artifact, including her memories of the book as an object of beauty on her parents’ bookcase.

 

Alice old edition

 

Some months after she graduated the student told me that she had spent a significant part of her first month’s salary on old edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and that she was determined to buy a first edition of one of her favourite books as soon as she could. She could have had no idea that, so many years later, her passion for literature would still be rippling through the department. Telling my students all about her opened up a lengthy discussion on literature and literary artifacts. I found my students confessing to the books they yearn to buy, as well as the ones they have read and reread to a state of tattered decay but which they cannot throw away.

I can’t identify the exact learning point we achieved in the session, but I do know that the ripples of my ex-student’s love affair with books were felt all around that room and, for that short time together, we all reminded ourselves of just how passionate is our love of literature.

Drink tea and read books

My daughter sent me this image earlier today:

 

Annie drink tea

She sent it to me because it mentions two of my favourite things in life, tea and books, but it got me thinking about two aspects of our lives as literature enthusiasts. The first is the way we read books. I read them on my kindle when I am settling down to sleep each night, but I use hard copy versions when I am going to teach from them. When I want to make a handout for a class I will often find a text online and then cut and paste it into hard copy: I am sure that students prefer nicely presented, neat bits of text on a handout. When I cannot recall where a few scraps of text come from I will google them and experience the satisfaction of elusive words springing up in their correct context – what a lovely feeling that is.

The second thought I had was about just how entwined my life is with the books I encounter. This is not always entirely a good thing, when I give myself an hour to prepare some material for a seminar and then I find myself so engrossed in the text that two hours have drifted by, with me stuck in a fictive world, the time ticking by and my deadlines crumbling all around me.

My days are punctuated by books – the ones in my office which remind me that I am at home here, the ones I see my students reading all around me (and who can resist taking a peek to see what someone else is reading?), the books I have read to my children that still make me smile when I glimpse their covers and the books I have yet to read: the long ‘wish list’ on Amazon that will keep me happy for years to come. Books are how I learn more about my world and, as importantly, how I learn more about who I am and what I hope to become.

It doesn’t matter whether I am lost in them, dashing though them, pulling them apart to teach them or snuggling up with them and a huge cup of tea – they always make me happy.

 Book-pile

But on the other hand, what’s not to love?

Looking back at my last post has made me think of a seminar I ran last week, in which I came to realise that it is quite difficult not to love, or at least highly appreciate, most pieces of literature, as long as they are of a quality to demand your appreciation. To say that I ‘ran’ the seminar is a very loose definition of what happened. In fact, a student who was going to give a presentation ended up running an entire hour-long seminar. She excited everyone’s imagination with her observations and made us all think anew about what we are seeing. It all began with Romeo and Juliet

 Romeo and Juliet

I have had quite a tortuous relationship with this play and I don’t think it is ever going to be in my top-ten all-time favourite list of Shakespeare plays. I read it as a teenager, I studied it at school, I ignored it as much as possible at university and yet still it catches me out. Like A Midsummer Night’s Dream, it is a favourite for outdoor performances and so I get caught up with watching it because I enjoy outdoor performances, and then my children studied it at school and I wanted to make the point that plays should be seen and not just read, so off we went to watch it yet again…you can see how this has happened to me.

MSDN

It is not that I do not appreciate the play, it is just that I had read, studied and seen it so often that I sort of fell out of love with even the pieces of it which had originally appealed to me. Then, as if fate were determined to catch me out yet again, I found myself teaching it. This was not an entire accident. I convene the module on which it is being taught, so I could have chosen another text, but the module is called ‘Shakespeare on Film’ and I knew that Baz Luhrmann had done a brilliant version, and my students would benefit from seeing it, so there I was again with Romeo and Juliet, although this time it was Romeo + Juliet.

Thank goodness – I just love, love, love that film. I even cried at the end the first time I saw it. How could that happen? I knew the ending for goodness sake! I should have been annoyed that Lurhmann had taken a few liberties with the script so as to play up the drama, but instead there I was, popcorn in hand, willing a happy ending. How daft!

So I loved the film, but still I thought I might be in danger of getting too used to it. So great was my concern that I was tempted to take it off the module list of texts this year, worried that I might not teach it well if I had lost my enthusiasm (and aware that there are some great filmic versions of Shakespeare out there – this is not a module which will ever run short of texts).

romeo-juliet-1

Then came along the brilliant performance by my ‘Shakespeare on Film’ student. I had already seen two excellent presentations in our previous seminar, so my enthusiasm for talking about the film had been rising, and I was delighted when she showed us the clip she was going to analyse. It is the masked ball scene, where Romeo and Juliet see each other through the fish tank and fall in love at first sight. What was so invigorating about the presentation was not just that the student covered all of the aspects of both the text and the film-making process that one would expect, it was that she took us to realms of speculation that we do not always get the chance to explore.

Juliet is dressed as an angel, but could Mercutio, in his white cross-dressing outfit, also be seen as a sort of false angel as he descends the steps, dancing and flapping the ‘wings’ of his outfit? What might that say about the potential rivalry between Juliet and Mercutio for Romeo’s love? Tybalt is dressed as a devil, so could we link this back to the idea of angels and devils battling for the soul of a good man, with Juliet showing the path for god and Tybalt, the path towards evil? Or is Juliet another false angel, luring him to his death?

You can see how things developed, with interpretations being postulated, discussed, refuted and endorsed, and with our presenter plucking relevant quotations from the text as if she had lived and breathed it for several days.

By the end of the seminar there were some delightful results: we all (including me) knew more about Shakespeare, film and Luhrmann’s Shakespeare on film than we did when we walked into the room; we had learnt that film directors can simultaneously expand and restrict your interpretation of a text; we had also decided that few of us would object to being wooed by Leonardo DiCaprio in the years before The Wolf of Wall Street.

Leonardo DiCaprio

What was most surprising – and most delightful – for me, is that I have a renewed appreciation of Romeo and Juliet. Despite all of these years, I have not become too accustomed to the play after all. The gifts our students give us.

 

You don’t have to love every piece of literature

Today I have been writing a lecture on Shakespeare’s The Tempest. I should confess that this is not one of my all-time favourite play texts. It would come about eighth in my list of all-time favourite Shakespeare texts (yes, academics do have all-time favourite lists of all sorts of things: plays, novels, poems – which is a really tricky one – and even authors, although I am quite fickle about that category).  Working on the lecture I have reminded myself of a piece of advice I often give to students: you don’t have to love something to write about it, or present on it, or discuss it.

 tick list

It is often the case that students will choose an all-time favourite piece of literature for an assessed essay, for example, and then are confused to find that they don’t have very much to say about it. It is as if the elusive quality which draws you to the work is difficult to capture, as if your love of the piece gets in the way of your critical faculty. When they do manage to analyse it, they can end up disappointed: in analysing it effectively, they have somehow wrecked it. Grasping the mechanics of its composition can mean the essence of its beauty sliding away. Luckily this is only temporary and I can always assure these students (who are sometimes very upset by this) that, in a year or so, they will return to the piece with a new pleasure, made even greater by their more profound understanding.

broken heart

Working through The Tempest I think I know what our second year students will want. I will offer them some background to the play to help contextualise it, then I will walk them through the plot and the characters (this lecture is in the last week of term, so there is a chance that some may have read it over Christmas and will have forgotten some of it by now). Once we are squarely in the midst of the play together I will take them across a series of stepping stones. Each stepping stone will be an interesting point in the play, either thematically, critically or linguistically.

stepping-stones

This last is, in my view, the most important aspect of the play for them to grasp. Of course the characters and their motivation are important, and the themes will help to link this work to other literature they have experienced, and knowing some context will settle them in the work, but the language, for me, is the crux of the experience.

Just one of Caliban’s speeches is enough to prove the point:

Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again: and then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open and show riches
Ready to drop upon me that, when I waked,
I cried to dream again.

 I may never place The Tempest higher than eighth in my all-time favourites list, but a speech like this? It’s right up there.

 

Amsterdam and the life of the intellect

Many of my students are in Amsterdam this weekend. I know this because several have told me excitedly about their plans, but I might have suspected anyway, given the increasingly frantic emails I received last week. Queries which were sent to me one day in a calm and measured way became desperate pleas for help by the next day. Plans had to be finalised to the last detail at a moment’s notice; advice must be proffered instantly; deadlines had to be met early. As Sherlock is claimed to have said (although I think it is a quote from Shakespeare’s King Henry IV Part I) the game was afoot.

sherlock-holmes

So now they are all happily wandering around Amsterdam, enjoying themselves very much I hope. They are, I expect, savouring the moment, relieved that there is no work for them this weekend and indulging in every possible way to relax. What they do not realise, I expect, is that they are actually working quite hard. If they do not destroy too many of their brain cells over the weekend as they have fun, they will, quite unconsciously, be giving their brains the chance to assimilate the information I put in there last week. They will be making connections, developing ideas and maturing their intellects. This is what happens when we give ourselves the chance – it is why factoring breaks into a revision timetable is so important.

making-connections

I fully expect them to be brimming with excellent ideas next week, and making connections they could not see last week. Mind you, I have a nine o’clock seminar with some of them on Monday morning, and they won’t have slept much since last week. Maybe I’ll  give them a coffee break before we get started…

 

The persistence of my ignorance

Did you know that there was a gold rush in New Zealand in the nineteenth century? I had no idea – absolutely none at all. In fact, I did not even know that there was gold in New Zealand!

For those of you who have read it, you will probably already have guessed that I am reading The Luminaries, the 800-page Man Booker Prize winning novel, written by 28-year-old Eleanor Catton. Now, I do appreciate that, in the grand scheme of things, it means nothing at all that an English Literature lecturer in Reading in the twenty-first century knows nothing about the exploitation of gold mines in New Zealand in 1866, but it matters to me.

The Luminaries cover

You see when I was at school we were taught that New Zealand had a climate very similar in places to the UK’s climate and so had some similar farming techniques (mainly sheep farming, I recall) and that, like England at the time, coal mining was an important feature in the economic landscape. Despite seeing The Lord of the Rings movies so many years later, I still thought of New Zealand as a sort of big Great Britain, just spread out a bit more. Ridiculous, I know, but that was the sort of geography I was taught (I have very little idea where anything actually is, but I am a real whizz at bronze-age settlements and the names of capital cities).

Hobbiton

So, learning that there was (and presumably still is) gold in the strata beneath New Zealand should be a great leap forward for me, if only I could make it, but I have spent the first half of the book (my kindle assures me that I am 49% through) thinking that I am reading about an American gold town. Every time I notice a New Zealand reference I am surprised, and then hugely irritated with myself because it had slipped my mind, yet again.

Illustration by Clifford Harper/Agraphia.co.uk

I am learning two things from this experience. The first is the persistent power of literature. By the end of the book my view of New Zealand will have changed for ever. This will happen to you too, time and time again. The world and all its people, with all of their vices, virtues and vagaries, will settle in your mind and then you will read a piece of literature and up in the air it will all go, yet again, and settle into a new pattern. You are going to experience this for the rest of your life.

The second thing I am learning is that ignorance is also terribly persistent. It can take a surprisingly long time for your mind to assimilate new information fully and then to add this to your world view. It may have happened to you from time to time, when it takes you seemingly forever to learn a new fact or to master a new skill. Then, suddenly, one day it is just there. So if whatever you were doing before you broke off to read this post is driving you mad because it is so difficult, there’s no need to worry: there is gold in New Zealand, there are hobbits in the movies and there is capacity in your brain to be amazing.

 

I love my kindle

It’s true – I adore my kindle, and this adoration has come as a complete, and not altogether welcome, surprise. I resisted the temptation…for years, I resisted. I love books, and the thought of an e-reading device was completely alien to my idea of reading.

Then a friend bought me a kindle (I suspect because I had been moaning about them for years and she wanted to see what would happen). At first I couldn’t understand how it could be a ‘proper book’ when I couldn’t see the cover properly (my kindle is too old to show nice covers in colour). When I first read it I felt claustrophobic because there were no page numbers. How on earth could I work out where I was? What did 16% of the way through a book mean? I dreaded losing my place, couldn’t look back easily to check on names of characters or what they had done and couldn’t get any proper sense of how much book was left.

pink-kindle-cover

Two things happened which began to change my mind. The first was awful – I lost my place by pressing the wrong button. I tried to go to ‘last page read’ but it wouldn’t work. In a rising panic I worked out that I could recall an unusual word I had just read and so I could use the ‘find’ function to get back to my page. It wasn’t a perfect way to do it, but it did allay some of my fears.

The second was delightful – I ran out of book. Some of you bookworms will know this feeling. You are engrossed in a good read and as you come to the end of it and you need the next book lined up ready to get you over the loss of the one that is about to finish. This is usually no problem, except that it happened to me when I was staying in a hotel in Barrow-in-Furness, at midnight. Ping! I turned on the 3G and bought a book. A moment later I was happily reassured that all was well – I had the next book to read. Of course the flood of relief this caused was soporific and I fell fast asleep, so the whole exercise was a bit pointless, but it was good nevertheless.

sleeping

Since then, whenever I can, I have read books on my kindle. So now, several years a kindle lover, I have to admit that I am committed to my kindle and I have to wonder why. I love the Barbie pink cover – it makes me smile when I notice it peeping out from under a cushion. I love the ability to change font size, which eliminates the risk of reading glasses falling off my nose as I fall asleep and being crushed under my ear (yes, this really did happen). I love the cloud on which my books sit (despite the fact that I was too scared to put any books on there for months in case they were somehow lost or Amazon stole them back).

I miss things too, though. The feel of a book in my hand, the pristine look of the unread pages in a new book, the worn feel of a much loved book passed down from a parent, the intoxicating smell of a book. How I miss that smell. I have to confess now to a guilty secret. A couple of years ago I moved house and packed up all of my books (hundreds and hundreds of them) and they are still all there, in boxes, waiting for me to decide what to do with them. Sometimes, when I miss them too much, I open up a random box. I breathe in the unmistakable book smell and glance through them. Happy memories restored, I shut them away again.

book love

So there are reasons to love my books and reasons to love my kindle, but what clinches the deal for me whenever I look at my old books, is the number of bookmarks resting in pages where I fully intended to look up an interesting or unusual word, and never quite got around to it. With the kindle the cursor lets me do this instantly: not only to look up new words, but also to check on the precise meaning and derivation of a more familiar word. It even warns me about confusables, so that never again will I use the word ‘quarrel’ when really I meant ‘squabble’ (that is one of last night’s look-ups).

I never knew how many words I didn’t quite know how to use, or I didn’t know at all, and my kindle opens up a whole new set of words each time I read (which does rather ruin the flow of reading but never mind). I am left with the feeling that many students experience when they are trying to craft their essays, carefully using the best word for the job, or when they are scanning the lines of a play or poem to glean some meaning…there are just so many words!

pile of words

 

Donne was right…of course

O how feeble is man’s power,
That if good fortune fall,
Cannot add another hour,
Nor a lost hour recall!
But come bad chance,
And we join to’it our strength,
And we teach it art and length,
Itself o’er us to’advance.

This stanza is from one of my favourite poems by John Donne, who is my top, all-time favourite poet (well, perhaps joint first with Shakespeare and Marlowe). Indeed, the verse comes from one of the very few poems I have ever learned off by heart.

I was reminded of it today by some third year students I saw earlier. They are still keen to be involved in a project on which I am working, and still considering all of their options. Should they spend time working with me on activities which would look good on their CVs once they leave us? Will they have enough time to do it well? Most important, would they be able to produce something of which they could be proud? And therein lies the rub. Last year those same students would have had a very different point of view – university life stretched ahead of them, apparently without limit. Now they are aware that they are going to leave us in a few months, which they have already started counting in weeks.

Calendar

 

Those of us lucky enough to work here have the luxury of enjoying the challenges of the term as they arise, feeling that Spring, let alone Summer, is still a long way off. For finalists, the time is whizzing by perilously fast, not just in terms of their workload (how on earth am I going to read all of this and learn it and reflect upon it in time for the exams?) but also emotionally (how am I ever going to be able to face leaving uni and starting a whole new life this Summer?). Not all of our students feel this way, but an awful lot of them do.

Dick Whittington

That’s where Donne comes in. The speaker in this poem insists that we extend the length of our angst by worrying about it, by looking forward to it with trepidation, by pondering on how much we will miss something when it is gone. Human nature, he would argue, dictates that we enjoy our pleasures only fleetingly and endure our pains to the fullest extent possible. What he fails to mention, and it might be worth our finalists remembering at this point in their university careers, is that in retrospect we can recall our lives in delicious detail. You ‘cannot add another hour,/Nor a lost hour recall’, as he so rightly says, but you will recollect it later and take pleasure in your achievements.

Looking back, I think I have always enjoyed this poem because, as one would expect from Donne, the speaker is expending a fearsome amount of intellectual energy, just taking leave of his loved one. It sort of makes me wonder what he will be up to once he leaves her. But perhaps you would read it as an utterly sincere expression of love and the dread of absence. That’s the beauty of studying literature, of course: it can take each of us to different places…might be worth you googling and taking a look at the whole poem? Perhaps just a little peek?

 Clip art Graphic of a Honey Bee Cartoon Character

Damp toes and the pleasure of the familiar

I had an odd start to the new term. I should say, first off, that I love the start of term. I never sleep well the night before, always anxious in a rather unfocused way about what I may have forgotten to do in the run up to the teaching term (you may know how that feels) but I do always enjoy the feeling of a new term. In fact, I prefer the new term to the New Year; that always carries with it so much pressure to improve and turn over new leaves all over the place.

The beginning of this term would have been the same as always except for a couple of things: I went to Iceland for the weekend, and I came home to find that a river near me had burst its banks and so my house was under a couple of inches of water. Indeed, as I write this I can look out of the window at my daughter rowing down the middle of the road to meet the postman. Both Iceland and the flooding had an impact upon my start of term. I had never been to Iceland before and was woefully ignorant about the country. I went on a walk between two continental plates which push apart at a rate of 2cm a year. I saw the huge volcanoes looming up either side of me and wondered how on earth I could not know about where these continental plates joined, and pushed apart.

volcano

I also went to see the Northern Lights, taken on a coach to a mountain top and told to look at the sky. And look. And keep looking. And look just one more time. I felt a little more knowledgeable this time, knowing that the Northern Lights are not a guaranteed lightshow on a nightly basis, and was sorry for my family, most of whom had expected to see huge swathes lights and, as I teased them, serried ranks of angels singing in the sky. We did see the Northern Lights, but it was little more than a curving cloud in the sky, a bit like a cloud rainbow. I was sure that I saw a green glow at the base of it, but others were far less certain. Still, I reckon I did see that glow and I was partially vindicated when we looked through a camera lens and saw it so much more distinctly.

northern lights

I learned two things as I stood on that mountain. First, I was reminded that knowledge is sometimes a matter of faith in the early stages, believing from your existing knowledge that certain things can be found, and then going out to find them (most researchers know this feeling). I also realised that ‘knowledge’ is not easy, that we learn things only as well as we can, and ‘know’ things only as deeply as we are able at any time. We do not always have the intellectual equivalent of a camera lens when we are trying to see our way ahead clearly. You will find this in your own life of study. Whatever you are learning now will become more complex and satisfying for you, one day, when you are ready.

wellies

When I started out for work on the first day of term I found making morning tea in my wellies a bit odd, but other than that it was not too bad. I got a lift into work (too much of a wimp to drive through the floods) and then I changed from wellies into posher boots in the car, a bit damp and dishevelled. Then I came into the building and it hit me: the familiarity of the English corridor, the smell of coffee from the café, the posters on the walls. Then a couple of colleagues wished me ‘Happy New Term’ and we smiled. In my office nothing had changed and everything felt so reassuringly normal. Damp toes I might have had, and new experiences I might have enjoyed, but sometimes, nothing beats the familiar.