Category Archives: reading

After Nature

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I belong to a book group and we read a fairly wide range of books: mainly fiction, but not exclusively. I wrote an earlier post on Moran’s “Like a Woman” which was a book group read. Recently we read “After Nature” by W.G. Sebald. It’s a prose poem about three men: The painter, Matthaeus Grünewald, the botanist Georg Wilhelm Steller, and Sebald himself. It was translated from the German by Michael Hamburger (translation approved by Sebald apparently who lived in the UK until his death) It is something I would never have thought about reading, but I really liked it. It made me laugh, and made me think, and made me research the characters and events to which it referred. It also seemed a timely read given my current fixation with nature and with seasonal changes. (see several previous posts).
“At the moment on Ascension Day
of the year forty-four when I was born
the procession for the blessings of the fields
was just passing our house to the sounds
of the fire-brigade band, on its way out
to the flowering May meadow. Mother
at first took this as a happy sign, unaware
that the cold planet Saturn ruled this hour’s
constellation and that above the mountains
already the storm was hanging… ” (p.86)

The book isn’t very long if you are tempted.

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Ramblings about reading and writing and learning

Interesting article about writing and speech: http://blog.oup.com/2013/02/academic-speech-patterns-linguistics/

I am always a fan of reading work aloud to rewrite it, which the author advocates. However, I’ve also marked a number of pieces of work in my life written by students using their spoken understanding of language, and their accents, and pronunciation can lead to some real confusion (‘being’ written as ‘been’ for example, because that’s how it is said in parts of the North East of England). So while I I am a strong advocate of making sense of writing through speech, and writing in far more straightforward ways than many academics seem to favour, I also believe that people also write better if they read. Many of the students who wrote ‘been’ were not readers. They would not normally read novels, or even read a newspaper regularly. They read, with some difficulty the academic texts they were directed towards. They often commented on how these texts and articles were difficult to understand, and in fact when writing an academic critique would sometimes comment on something being ‘badly written’ because they didn’t understand the conceptual thinking the author was expressing.

I would often find myself discussing with these students the challenge of writing about concepts and complex theoretical ideas in simple ways. I would also suggest that reading academic writing was like doing aerobics of the brain – if you practice and practice it gets easier and you get better at it, and your academic reading muscles become much more flexible. However, sometimes I probably agreed with the students assessment – some academic writers were not communicating their ideas very well.

I also admit to a real concern that these same students would learn how to write from these academic articles and from the feedback I and my colleagues provided on their written work. If that is all the input they have on what good writing is, what do they learn?

This seems to me to be an argument for getting students reading non-academic material – in the US some universities have ‘common reading programmes’ for all first year students, often with a book (usually fiction) agreed for all new students before they arrive. These are often novels which provoke discussion and thinking and students are provided with opportunities to discuss the book as a group. Admittedly USA degree programmes are more likely to be 4 years (in England, and much of Europe programmes are usually 3 year), which gives time for the first year to be about orientation and broader education. Whereas a 3 year programme means hitting the discipline ground running, making it hard to get agreement across an institution that taking the time for general reading would have value. But we also face ongoing frustrations from academics who teach about the writing abilities of the students. We can’t expect school (Pre-18) education to do everything, but should we expect them to get students’ reading and writing ready for HE? I’m not sure they do expect this in the USA, and if they do there is still room for ongoing engagement with reading, given their common reading programme. I wonder if we should learn something from this?

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Another go at spine poetry: ‘Star Gazing’

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Spine poetry – ‘The Waiting Time’

Ok, I’m extremely late to the party on this, but I really like the idea of spine poetry, and in a house full of books it ought to be easy. I ran around the house with a rather mad child-like enthusiasm searching for the right lines and regaling my partner with my amazing creativity (I did say child-like!!). Anyway, here is one I created earlier …

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‘How to be a woman’?

Just finished Caitlin Moran’s book How to be a Woman – I’d had it on my kindle for ages, and finally suggested it to the book group I belong to as a way to actually get round to reading it. I’m really glad I did, it was great. She’s very funny and writes extremely well, so it was also an easy read. Maybe I particularly liked it because I kept agreeing with her!

One of the other women in the book group was less convinced, but then I think she is more committed to some of the things Moran criticises. What I liked about the critical stuff though, was that Moran criticises things, and explains why, rather than criticising people who do the things. To be fair to my friend, who read the book and liked it less, her view was that it was too much someone’s opinion – she wanted more of a story I think. For me, the story is there in the midst, but it’s definitely light touch. Another book group member liked the book, but wanted Moran to engage with feminist theory a bit more, she felt that given Moran writes so well she would be good at making theory live for readers. I admit it would be really interesting to read Moran on feminist theory, but that would be quite a different book – maybe she should try that next?

Overall, I guess Moran’s book wasn’t groundbreaking for any of us in the group, but we are all older than Moran, and all of us are pretty clear about the women we are. However, I found it really uplifting to read, even though some of it is sad and some observations do make you feel frustrated about what our culture expects from women. I found myself reading bits out loud to my partner and making him laugh too. I also kept finding myself both amusedly enjoying and bewailing the sights around me, which echoed Moran’s observations – g string knicker lines, wobbling high heels, hen night antics, men’s easy freedom with clothes and actions, and I finished up having an interesting conversation about depilation with a group of women friends, and I hadn’t done that since the 1980s! In recognising these things around me, I did feel I had more sympathy with the women I observed. I think Moran likes people, and she made me, as a reader, appreciate some things more, while still making me very glad to be a feminist! She also really made me finally understand the attraction of Lady Gaga.

I’m not sure what you would think if you are a younger woman and read the book, or if you are a man? On Moran’s website http://www.caitlinmoran.co.uk/index.php lots of younger women and a few men seem to have really liked the book and found it resonated. If you’ve read it, what did you think?

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‘unhistoric acts’

Recently, I read a Guardian article, which identified the 10 best closing lines from novels, http://www.guardian.co.uk/culture/2012/jul/29/10-best-last-novel-lines All were interesting choices, but it was also pertinent to be reminded of the ending of George Eliot’s Middlemarch:
“But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”
I love this: Eliot reminds us so beautifully about the richness of ordinary lives. We don’t have to be famous or remarkable, lots of unknown people, living an ordinary good life are making the world a better place.

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Thinking organisations

Can a whole organisation be a thinking environment (Klein,2009)? And how might we achieve this?

I’m not going to answer these two questions by the way; at least not today! Instead I’m going to think about the questions a bit more. That might be frustrating, but if the idea is to encourage thinking, then that’s where I’m going to start. (but if anyone out there has already done the thinking and has some answers, please share!)

In a recent conversation with a friend who had also attended the thinking environment workshop with me (see previous posts on thinking environments, 1 and 2), he talked about the need to create thinking time within the whole system or organisation. It seems that higher education, at least in the UK at the moment, is full of small actions and behaviours which are not coming from deep thinking, but which have significant impact. Our thinking is all over the place. How can a system based on the notion of deep thinking and deep learning, (maybe it is a separate discussion to unpack whether ‘higher’ learning is intrinsically deeper learning) be so focused on surface thinking and actions?

In another conversation, with a different friend, who also works in HE, we bewailed the frustrating and unconsidered institutional mind. It’s like a HE institution actually has a mind of its own, it’s not the people in it who are deciding on actions but the being that is the institution. And these institution beings are not using deep thinking – if you set them an exam they would be regurgitating random remembered facts as evidence (‘Karl Marx was born in 1818, he wrote the Communist Manifesto’ – in answer to ‘discuss Marx’s theory of dialectical materialism?’). So what impedes thinking? According to Klein: fear.

So what can we do? Klein suggests that several things reduce fear and enable thinking, including: attention (through attentive listening), appreciation, incisive questions, allowing feelings to be expressed, creating ease, and consequentially time to think. But how do we do this for an institution? Where do we start? Answers on a postcard, or better still in the comments box below …

(This blog is partially in response to Klein, N. 2009: More Time to Think and partially in response to interesting conversations with colleagues and friends)

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