Monday, 30 July 2012

Why I have had to change my mind about the Olympics. Again.

Over the last few years I have made no secret of my frustration about the Olympics.  As soon as the monstrous Westfield shopping centre opened in Stratford, I suddenly realised it was never about regenerating an impoverished area of East London.  Clearly, it was more about creating a cash buffet for big business which would 'regenerate' by simply forcing out of the area those who could not either compete with McDonalds, or afford M&S groceries.  The various sponsorship scandals (Chip-gate, Visa-gate, Crisp-gate, etc.) only served to harden my prejudice, while the targeting of local businesses by the IOC for daring to decorate cakes with Olympic rings made the whole thing frankly unpleasant.

Come the start of the games, I tuned in with a certain sense of foreboding.  That foreboding was not a fear that I would hate it though - but a fear that in spite of myself I would in contrast like it.  Because although I have always felt somewhat underwhelmed in the run-up to any Olympic games, I have always finally been sucked into an obsessive following of the event regardless.  In Beijing, my objections to the human rights record of the hosts was ruthlessly, and shamefully, lost amidst the excitement of every obscure sport or story about a Congolese gymnast arriving at the games after a childhood decimated by war and desperation.

In London, could even McDonalds and Visa protect my cynicism from dissipating in the warm air of Olympic excitement?

No.  My fears were justified.  From the opening ceremony I loved it.

It wasn't just the buzz of the whole thing, but the constant surprise at the liberality and political exuberance of its grand opening.  Celebrating the NHS, youth culture and a heritage built on industry and migration this was a ceremony which made Daily Mail readers, American Republicans and Conservatives wince - and there can be no higher praise.

What was David Cameron thinking during the NHS tribute, do you think? Did he feel guilt at what he has done to it, or excitement at the thought he could now get a higher price for it?  Or what did Mitt Romney think, as he attempts to maintain the American myth that a nationalised health-care system is the thin end of a communist wedge?  The Daily Mail responded with the obligatory story about an NHS patient who received poor care - failing to see the irony in the contexts of a ceremony in which the vast majority of nations receive no health care at all.

Since then, I have been rooted to the spot in front of a television, astounded at the strength and determination of cyclists.  I have let out gasps of astonishment at archers whose accuracy seemed impossible.  I have been gloriously bamboozled by the speed of fencers and table tennis players, and awed by the sculptured figures and grace of swimmers.  I have been stunned into silence by the superhuman feats of gymnasts and on the point of tears witnessing the joys and disappointments of competitors, for whom the Olympic games is not simply another event but an almost spiritual goal.

I suppose all this was somehow inevitable.  I loathe the corporate giants who have stomped all over these games, and have left with their pockets full and their seats empty.  I loathe the tones of imperial snobbery and nationalism which creeps into the tones of commentators.  Ultimately though, there are few things more inspiring than seeing people achieve such seemingly impossible things.

Dammit. The Olympics have made me a hypocrite, yet again.

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Writing Made Simple: Word processing that helps you focus

Computers are a distraction. Or at least, they can be. I have already been blogging about some of the ways in which you can make them less distracting - even helpful to maintaining focus. I have just found another one, and this one has reminded more than ever of what it used to be like to sit down with little more than a blank piece of paper and a pen.

When I first started using a computer, the problem I found was that it was just too interesting. Rather than working, I would always be tempted to explore Hypercard just a little more, to experiment with small scripts, or switch to the rather nice little chess game which came with the machine.

Today computers come with a positive library of distractions which make my old Mac Classic seem about as interesting as Channel 4s round-the-clock broadcast of the Short v. Kasparov chess championship, and I have been sucked into their world of multimedia and gadgetry which is often quite beautiful but has made me forget the problems I had with computers in the first place.

For instance, when I first started to use Microsoft Word, the main problem I had with it was the clutter. It had options for a million design changes, including flashing lights that would dance pointlessly around the text. Why did I need it? All this junk meant was that the program took longer to load and to save, and crashed more frequently! For me, Word compared unfavourably with the lean and mean Macwrite Pro, a word processing program which gave you the power to write stuff - and do pretty much bugger all else.

With each successful generation of computers though, I have become more and more obsessed with sucking all the juice I can from new software features. My course resources and lecture notes, which started out as basic text with the occasional daring venture into bullet-points, became colourful and visual documents full of pictures, illustrations and complex table formatting. Photos were finely tuned with Photoshop, and with the advent of the internet my lecture notes graduated to the online VLE where they became peppered with embedded videos and flash animations.

Finally I noticed something. It followed a conversation with a colleague, during which we simultaneously came to the realisation that we both found it difficult to start preparing our teaching until we had fixed on the visual style we wanted to use for it. I was spending more time on formatting than I was on the writing. Indeed the design was often taking priority over the content.

Now, I do need to explain before I go any further that I am not suggesting this is an entirely bad thing. Whether we like it or not, we now live in a multimedia educational culture, where differentiation has demonstrated to us how attention to visual and interactive elements in pedagogy makes for accessible and more effective learning. Indeed, I would argue that more attention needs to be given to effective design in educational resources. It does become a problem though, when you start a terms teaching without enough material because you have spent the summer trying to work out which video codecs are supported by Moodle.

Design is important. Interactivity and multimedia are important. But somewhere along the line I forgot that writing is the central activity in both processing and explaining ideas, and that it needs undivided attention.

Which is where I get to the point. Recently I have discovered the joys of small, free programs which are designed to provide a clean and clutter-free environment for writing. The fill your computer screen with a blank page. Your computer world becomes nothing more than you, your page, and the words with which you fill it. There is no visible menu, offering a pick’n’mix of options. There are no toolbars. There is definitely not an animated paperclip in the corner suggesting every five minutes that you might be trying to write a letter.

Some do, admittedly, allow you the luxury of things like italics, bold and underlining - but on the whole this is word processing Macwrite Pro style, and the result is like taking off a heavy backpack you had almost forgotten you were carrying. They enable the writing to be the focus, and it really is surprising just how much more productive you can be when you are focused on a single task.

I have tried out several of these programs, and because they are all trying to do something ultimately very simple, they all appear to be pretty much as good as each other.

Darkroom is perhaps the most basic of all, without even the benefit of text formatting (i.e. no italics or bold here). It is free. It is easy. It is Windows only.

Q10 offers a few more features, and these are nice although I didn’t really like the statistical word counts which appear at the bottom of the screen. Again, Q10 is Windows only, although it is available in a portable version which can run from a memory stick - and that can be very useful.

WriteMonkey is lovely. Easy and straightforward, there are a surprising number of customisations possible through a hidden menu - but the interface is as simple as it gets. Being only available for Windows is the only problem here.

Creawriter is rather nifty. Like Q10 it offers some nice features and customisations, but this time it is only available on Macintosh systems.

Focus Writer is the one I have settled on. It boasts straightforward customisations, and there are pre-made themes which can be imported. Best of all, it is multi-platform, which means I can use it both at work (on a Windows machine) and at home (on a Linux machine).

There are other programs which will set you back a modest amount of cash. Some of these provide more advanced features like auto-formatting, although all still within a working environment designed to be clutter-free. The free versions are so good though, I am not sure why you would need to part with any hard-earned readies. After all, if you wanted more advanced formatting options, then use a program designed for formatting. These programs are all about the writing.

Friday, 20 July 2012

The Romance of Cinema: Remembering the Barking Odeon

I don’t know why, but yesterday I became suddenly nostalgic about cinema, and in particular about the first cinema I can remember - the old Odeon in Barking.

I have always loved going to the cinema. I love the foyer; rich with the buzz of anticipation and the smell of popcorn. I love the auditoriums; dimly lit and exuding such tantalising promise of adventures. I love the drama of screen curtains swishing back (sometimes, if you are lucky, the projection starts just a little too soon and you get that lovely effect of the image rippling on the curtain as it draws back). I even love the adverts and trailers, which build the excitement and make the appearance of the BBFC certificate like waking up on Christmas morning.

Yesterday I realised perhaps for the first time, that I owe this love to my first cinema-going experiences as a child, and to the glorious Barking Odeon, which sat so majestically opposite Barking station.

The Barking Odeon was originally called the Rio Cinema when it opened in 1935 - a name which contrasted absurdly with this dingy suburb of East London, as did its architectural opulence.

Originally it hosted variety shows and live performances, and although it became a more exclusively cinematic venue with its takeover by Odeon in 1943, many of its features reflected its theatrical origins. There was an upper balcony featuring a fully licensed bar (which I was too young to frequent, so I do not remember this very distinctly), exuberantly ornate window decorations, and an elegant curving iron fence which separated the audience from the pit which had once been the home of an orchestra, and later in its life an organ.

Just in front of this gate was where the usher would stand with the characteristic tray of over-priced ice creams during the interval - or at least, priced out of the range of a small boy whose budget was blown just getting through the door.

The foyer had a theatrical flavour to it as well. There was an old-fashioned ticket booth, with a curving class window behind which an attendant could look down at you while working some hidden machinery beneath the desk. This hidden activity would result in a satisfyingly mechanical clunk, and the emergence of a cardboard ticket from a slit in the metal worktop above (I always had the feeling that those tickets were thick enough to contain secret messages or something, so would peel the cardboard apart just a little bit to see if there was a Wonka-like gleam of gold).

Some of the ornate décor of the foyer was rather obscured by some rather tacky modern additions behind which popcorn and ice cream could be sold. Being a rather close foyer, the smell of popcorn was overwhelming. Walking in the door was like walking into air made of sugar. You could taste the popcorn by just breathing in and out, and it seemed to me that when the film was over you carried that smell home in the threads of your clothing - like cigarette smoke.

This was fine though, because hours after a cinema trip all I would want to do is sit there and re-live every moment, and the pervasive popcorn smell added vibrancy to my daydreams. I can remember lying awake in bed with my eyes closed, while against the projection screen of my eyelids a pair of imaginary curtains would swish open and the film would be replayed in my mind as fully as my memory would allow (although unlike the real thing I was usually asleep after ten minutes).

These are the memories which stir up little pools of cognitive dust in the attic of my mind every time I go to the cinema now. The smell of popcorn is not quite so intense, but it is just enough. The ornate décor has been replaced by impersonal boxes of austere regularity, but the dim lighting, spotlights and amusing full-size cut-outs of characters from up-coming releases mean that there is still a sense of theatricality. My own adult mind has had layers of politicised cynicism applied to it, which makes me more critical of the films I see - but in some way every time I walk into the cinema I become again the small boy imbibing tooth decay vicariously through the popcorn-fuelled air of Barking Odeon.

Barking Odeon was boxified into a multiplex in 1990, then closed eight years later. In 2001 it became a block of flats with a Nando’s underneath it. That’s progress, I suppose.

UPDATE: Louis Barfe kindly scanned some more photos of this lovely old place - you can see them here.  Cheers Louis!

Monday, 16 July 2012

Close Reading: A step-by-step guide

Perhaps because of the contradictions I have already mentioned in an earlier blog, it is a little difficult to find any clear advice for students on how to do close reading.  There are plenty of textbooks which introduce students to generic forms, and to the kinds of interpretive questions they can use with texts - but few which explain the steps which a student might take to ask the most basic questions of the texts form.

There are some excellent blogs and websites (see here for a good example - and Dr. Allan Johnson has some terrific stuff which you can access here), but for what its worth, here is my suggestion of the steps which you might take in close reading and analysis.  This is really just a few thoughts, and I would greatly appreciate any comments or additions you might suggest - in particular about stages 1-4, which are lacking in detail.

1)    First ImpressionsRead the text, underlining or highlighting any words and phrases that strike you - anything that seems strange, surprising or important, or anything you don’t really understand.  In particular, be ready to notice anything that makes things difficult. If you are reading a poem, then you might find a point where the metre or the rhythm seems difficult.  If you are reading a play, you might find a moment where a character says something which seems slightly out of context, or a little unclear.  If you are reading a novel, you might notice the narrator digressing or disrupting the description of events - or a change in the way in which character's dialogue is presented.  Make a note of such things.  Don’t try to make sense of them at this point.  Just make a note of them, and learn how to be observant of the significant details in the text.  Any word you are unsure of, or which looks strange in the context given, look it up in a dictionary.
2)    Get the basics: Go through the text and map out its most basic features.  Who is speaking? Where is it located? When is it set? What kind of language is being used? The find some more specific details: What allusions, comparisons or references to other people/texts/times/events are made? What is the form of the text: how do the words rhyme? What language is used? How does it sound? What tone of voice is created?  Remember that as you read, whenever an impression occurs to you stop and make a note of it on the text itself. The text has created that impression somehow – although you might not know how right now.  Make a note now and you can try and work out how the text prompted that response later.
3)    Look for patterns: When you have a list of particulars you’ve noticed about the text and have looked up all words you’re not sure of, you need then try to organise these into a pattern. Put your highlighted pieces together (I often use post-it notes scattered on my desk) and see if you can trace connections between any of them.  This is going to be messy, but that’s fine – nothing distinct is likely to emerge at this stage and you are predominantly trying to focus your thinking.  An interesting method which could be applied here is drawn from the practices of discourse analysis, and involve using colour-coding schemes to highlight all those aspects of the text which seem to relate to each other.  This can be a useful way to determine patterns.
4)    Reading for meaning: Now go back to the text and read it again, keeping in mind what you have already picked out.  Now – and only now – start to ask yourself what you think the poem means or is about.  You are now interpreting the text based on a ‘close reading’ of its parts.  If you have already picked out a tone, or a mood which the text has established, now is the time to ask yourself why that tone has been set?  If there are difficult questions or issues raised, again ask yourself why? 
5)    Get to the Point:  The answers to the questions you will be asking in stage 4, will lead to you having a point of view about; a) what you think the text is doing, and b) why you think the text is doing it.  This point of view will, hopefully, be entirely your own - and if you have been scrupulous in your attention to the text it will almost certainly be valid.  Much is said about there being 'no right answers' in literary studies.  This is true, but while all answers are possible, not all answers are valid.  A valid argument is based on whether its the evidence of the text into account.  If the evidence for your point is in the text, then it is valid to argue it.  Nobody will say that your point is wrong.  But they might say it is poorly argued. So...
6)    Frame an Argument:  Your essay is where you argue your point of view.  This means that what you are trying to do is to persuade your reader that your point of view is the one they should have as well.  It is about persuasion.  To begin with then, you need to frame your point of view into a clear and succinct statement of argument - the kind of statement which might appear at the beginning of an essay introduction.  For example; "In this essay, I will be demonstrating that..."  Once you have this clear statement of argument, you can use this as a point of focus.  In other words, as you build your argument you can check that everything is clearly related to it.  If you have anything which is tangential, or not directly related to it, then it should be added to (what should be) an increasing pile of discarded material.  Like pruning a rose bush, getting rid of such material will make the end product much better.
7)   Read other critics:  Now that you know what you are arguing, you can begin to look at what other critics have argued.  Waiting until this point to look in detail at other critics is beneficial because it means that you can search much more accurately for relevant material.  If you are analysing a Shakespeare sonnet for example, then starting your literature review by typing 'Shakespeare' into your library catalogue is going to generate far too broad results.  However, if your argument is defined as 'Shakespeare destabilises metaphor and simile in order challenge reader's perceptions' then you can type 'Shakespeare; metaphor; destabilisation' and get much more focused (and more relevant) search results.  There are four main functions of using other critical opinions in your essay:
i)  To verify the validity of your argument: It is possible that after reading a few critics, you will discover that your particular point of view is one which was effectively debunked a century ago.  Unless you feel that you have the evidence to revive the argument, you are likely to discover at this point that your point of view was mistaken.  If so, then go back to the beginning of the process secure in the knowledge that you are doing the right thing in the right way.  It is both wrong, and ridiculously hard work to try and force a bad argument when the evidence is starting to stack up against it.  If reading other critics suggests that your argument is bad, then it would save time to look for another one now.
ii)  To support your argument: You should read secondary critical texts with a view to picking out anything relevant to your own argument.  If you can find anything which supports your points, then cite them in your essay.  The best way to win any argument, and to be persuasive, is to rack up the evidence in your favour.  If the text itself is your star witness, other critics can provide the weight of evidence to convince the judge (your reader).
 iii)  To correct your argument:  Where possible, you can always use secondary texts to correct or re-align your argument.  For example, you might discover that you have misinterpreted a word, or incorrectly analysed the metre of one particular line.  Secondary sources can keep your analysis accurate.
iv)   To extend your argument:  You may discover by reading secondary sources that there are essential points which you had not considered, and which you need to add into your argument.  They may even take your argument into new (more interesting) directions as they help you to understand different perspectives and dimensions of the text.

8)    Structure your Argument: Start to map out the various things you need to say in order to make your argument.  Map them out in a way which implies a logical progression - in other words, think about how each point relates to the one which comes both before it, and after it.  Remember that you are not obliged to follow the order of the text itself.  In other words, don't assume that you have to make this point first because it refers to line 1, and that point next because it refers to line 2.  What you are looking to demonstrate is an understanding of the broad scope of the text - so let the text fit your argument (not the other way around).  Outline the recurring themes which you have identified, the analysis of the text which you have already undertaken, and even at this stage remember your reader. Try to predict any questions, objections or problems they might have, and make sure you have planned to address them.  Think about any particular terms or ideas for which you will need to provide definitions (i.e. 'renaissance', 'petrarchan', etc.) and plan to include them. Remember, as well, that the best way to win an argument is to provide evidence - so check that each point you make is supported by evidence from either the text or your secondary sources.  Make sure there is a clear reason for everything you include

The only thing left is to start writing your essay.  Hopefully by this stage you will have enough clear analysis, structure and evidence to fill twice the word-count available, so be prepared to make some difficult economies.  It might be worth remembering some of the following more general advice:

  • Focus and clarity are more important than scope.  In other words, don't pack too many ideas into your writing.  Painful as it may be, cut out what you can to ensure you give each point enough time to be fully developed.
  • Avoid generalisations (particularly generic ones).  Don't refer to 'some critics' - refer to specific critics.  Don't refer to 'other texts' - refer to specific texts.  Don't refer to 'elsewhere in the text' - refer to specific passages.  In addition, it is worth avoiding terms which are broad or debatable.  For example, it would not take much reading of critical texts to demonstrate that the term 'Romanticism' is a complex and vague one - so do not refer to Wordsworth as a Romantic poet unless you have clearly (and in detail) determined the sense in which you are using the term.
  • Do not describe the text, or re-tell the story.  This is really important, because I get tired of having to make this comment in feedback.  Remember that your reader already knows what happens in the text.  You do not need to explain to me that Cordelia is Lear's daughter, or that Pamela is the story of a girl who served a nice lady but who ended up with her son who was not very nice.  Don't tell your reader what happens in the text.  Tell them what it means.
  • No matter how small your text, remember to cite secondary sources and include a bibliography.  There is only one conclusion which your reader will draw if you do not include a bibliography - 'this person has not read anything'.  You don't want them to draw that conclusion.
  • When analysing a poem, use line numbers if you want to reduce your word count by reducing the number of direct quotations.  For example, instead of saying 'he refers to eternity when he writes "When in eternal lines to time thou growest"', you could say 'he refers to eternity in line 12'.  Even better, use quotes from the text itself in small doses - do not feel obliged to quote full lines or paragraphs.  For example, 'he refers to "eternal lines" and to an "eternal Summer" (lines 12 and 9)'.
  • Remember that it is the early stages of close reading (stages 1-4 above) that determine how convincing your essay is going to be.  It is these stages which are most important - so remember to give an appropriate amount of time to them.  There are no short-cuts to simply going through the processes with meticulous and time-consuming care.  When reading an essay, it is very easy for a marker to quickly deduce just how much time you have spend reading and analysing before you start writing.

The Value of Close Reading as a Research Method

For a long time, close reading seems to have had a somewhat contradictory role in English education.  It is still something which is explicitly referred to by the QAA subject benchmark statements for English (the generic descriptors which define what an English degree should broadly contain), which means that it is something which students are expressely expected to be able to demonstrate in their writing.  Students will be told they need to do it, and downgraded if they don't - but at the same time there has been something of a reticence to explain close reading as anything more than an archaic remnant of New Critical practices which were effectively killed off by structuralism and the more political modes of critical practice which emerged toward the end of the twentieth century.

The value of close reading

Perhaps part of this reticence is born of the fact that it is sometimes difficult to explain the relevance of close reading in an age of transferrable skills and lifelong learning.  Students may ask 'how is the ability to highlight metrical irregularities in a sestina by W. H. Auden going to be useful in my career?'  The answer to this is not easy - but I do believe there is a level of textual discipline and observational accuracy which close reading develops, and which is something most certainly needed in industry today.

I have worked in one large organisation where text - in the form of organisational policy as well as correspondence - was read with a minute attention to detail.  This led to very infrequent misinterpretations, and an ability to rely on decisions which were made.  In addition, there was an almost systematic recognition of the value of sub-text: Managers were adept at recognising not just what was said in correspondence, but the tone in which it was said.  This enabled them to address problems which were often not even acknowledged, and discern the correct tone to use when corresponding with others - leading to greater organisational harmony.

I have worked in another organisation where this attention to textual detail was not common - and in that orgnisation decisions tended to be erratic, management was personality-driven, and decisions were often made in contradiction to organisational policy.  The subsequent lack of consistency in decision-making meant that there was often the impression that decisions made were 'personal' ones, and the lack of tact or empathy in which those decisions were disseminated bred resentment and organisational dischord.

In other words, the disciplines of close reading and attention to the structure and tone of texts can arguably make a huge difference in organisations - and perhaps English courses have not done a particularly good job of either explaining this well enough, or demonstrating it clearly enough.

Close reading as a research method

This is particularly unfortunate when methods of discourse analysis in the social sciences (many of which bear striking similarities with the practices of close reading) seem to have an inherent employability value because they are counted as a 'research method'.

Research Methods has become something of a default standard in many academic disciplines.  It is pretty much a default core component of many degree courses - but it is something which is often conscpicuously absent from humanities subjects.  I have known many social scientists who have (mostly in good humour) referred to the fact that the absence of such systematic methodologies is what makes humanities subjects vague and irrelevant.  Sometimes it is difficult to argue against such accusations, because the diminishing focus on the discipline of close reading over the last few decades has laid the study of English wide open to them.  It has been replaced by a broader proces of applying social theory to textual interpretation - and while this is certainly a fruitful and important function still, it is hard not to think that something significant has been lost when this approach is focused on to the exclusion of the more empirically-orientated practices of close reading.

I teach on a Combined Studies degree, in which English is combined with subjects like Psychology and Sociology.  There is a core Research Methods module on the programme, but often the result of this is that I end up having to dissuade final year English students of the notion that their dissertations have to use one of a specific range of quantitative or qualitative methodologies.  This is largely because specialists in research methods cannot really see that there is any specific, systematic process involved in English studies, and so they fill the percieved gap with those processes which they are familiar with.

Now, such methodologies or processes as those used in the social sciences can (and should) certainly be used to great effect in English studies - but in the same way surely the methods which are used in English studies could add new dimensions to the study of other subjects?  With the exception of a rather splendid collection edited by Gabriele Griffin, there does not appear to have been any serious attempts to define the practices of English studies as research methods as processes applicable to different kinds of analysis.

Perhaps there should be more - and perhaps close reading (in addition to such things as archival research) is one such methodology which can be described?

Friday, 13 July 2012

Graffiti in the Department of Philosophy at Athens University

A friend of mine has just been to visit the Department of Philosophy at the National and Kapodestrian Athens University.  She sent back these amazing photos:

I’ll tell you why you should vote for me

I’m a better person than you. Harsh, I know, but true. Just look at my suit, my cufflinks, hair, my Bertie Wooster aristocratic air, m...