Friday, 25 September 2009

Like shopping? Become a postgraduate!

Encountered on Ben Goldacre's Twitter page, a marvellous nursing recruitment ad. from the 1960s.

I wonder if we could use similar techniques to attract postgraduates.

Only joking.

Scary Story

According to a story in today's Guardian, Edexcel has plans to use computers to mark one of its English language exams, the Pearson Test of English Academic. Edexcel claims that using computers will not only be more efficient than employing humans, but will also help ensure consistency of marking practice, since computers don't get tired or suffer from subjective bias.

I dare say, as usual, there is more to this story than the journalists have seen fit to tell us, but it's hard not to see this as part of a worrying trend. Edexcel insist that there are no plans to use computers to mark either GCSE or A level English exams, but do we believe them? 'No plans to use' is such a handy phrase.

Monday, 8 June 2009

Someone taking Web 2.0 seriously?

Or does Arnie just care about the cash?

Thursday, 4 June 2009

Marilynne Robinson

Sharp-eyed readers may have noticed that I have recently added a list of my current reading to this blog (see left sidebar). I'm planning to post about this when marking permits, but since one of the authors listed there is Marilynne Robinson I thought I shouldn't miss the opportunity to celebrate her success in this year's Orange Prize, announced last night.

Home, her prize-winning novel, is a companion to Gilead (published 2005). I read Gilead some 18 months ago, but I have a very poor memory for fiction these days so thought I would reread it before starting on Home. (The asterisk against titles in the sidebar indicates a reread.)

The Guardian last Saturday carried an interview with Robinson, and today's paper has an interesting article by Andrew Brown on the role of Calvinism in her fiction.

Not All That It Seems

The online Guardian, via Google Reader, has just alerted me to what looks at first sight like a marvellous new resource: British Literary Manuscripts Online. The preview provided by The Guardian includes images from manuscripts by Pope, Bronte (Charlotte) and Wilde -- some of which are even readable on-screen. You can see Pope's corrections to his translation of the Odyssey, and also Wilde's redrafting of one of his more famous epigrams. I can see the latter being tremendously useful to me in the Manuscript and Print lecture I give our first-year literature students in semester 1, when I try to encourage them to see literary texts in terms of production, transmission and reception rather simply as finished, immutable and iconic.

The downside, however -- which isn't apparent until you read the small print (actually, follow the links) in the article -- is that this is a commercial resource which users will have to pay for. (The article is, in fact, closely based on a press release from the publishers, Gale.) I followed links to the 'BLMO brochure' and 'BLMO factsheet', and in neither -- admittedly, on a very quick reading -- are there any details of how much the product will cost. 'Very expensive indeed', is my guess -- probably 5 figures. Which puts it way beyond the budget for our own library, sad to say.

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Reading Past and Present

I'm still thinking through what I'm going to do with this blog now that the Web 2.0 course has finished. One thing I will unquestionably want to do is blog about teaching matters -- a subject which is never likely to run dry.

Another thing -- more for my own interest -- is that I plan to use Early Modern Gillian to help keep track of my leisure reading. I've already blogged at different times about books I've been reading such as The Rest Is Noise and For Lust of Knowing. I realise that the books I read in my spare time are likely to be of interest only to me, but I'm hoping that by blogging on this subject I will be encouraged to (1) read a more interesting range of books and (2) remember what I've read rather better than I do at the moment. My memory for books read used to be quite good; it's very poor nowadays. This may just be age, but I'm willing to try what training and keeping better records can do.

So I'm taking a twofold approach. Books I'm currently reading will be posted on the sidebar of Early Modern Gillian. When I finish a book, I will delete it from the sidebar and post it to my new account on Library Thing. I've made a start on my Library Thing account by posting every non-work book I can remember reading this year -- not even shrinking from admitting to the chicklit (some of which, I should point out, was semi-work anyway -- books I knew one of my dissertation students was planning to write on). In principle, I like the social networking aspect of Library Thing -- though I've yet to notice it having much effect in practice.

I'm a bit sceptical about how long this will last, but for the time being it amuses me.

Sunday, 10 May 2009

Sparrowgrass postscript

Yum, yum!


I discovered the pleasures of asparagus* some eight years ago, when I was on holiday in Dresden. I'd never really thought much about asparagus before, and certainly hadn't registered its coming into season as a noteworthy cultural event. But everywhere I went in Dresden, restaurants were advertising special 'Spargel' menus to take advantage of the new crop. (I even had to look up 'Spargel' in my German dictionary.)

Now I am a confirmed asparagus eater, and look forward to its arrival in the greengrocer's every year. I bought my first asparagus of the season last weekend, but ate it all before I thought to blog about it. (Half the bunch was eaten with bacon and white crusty bread for lunch; the other half formed the basis of an asparagus risotto at dinner.)

The asparagus pictured here is my second bunch of the season, purchased at Warwick market yesterday morning -- along with some Cotswold bacon and locally-baked bread. The asparagus season doesn't last long, so I'm enjoying it while I can.

*Formerly known as 'sperage' or 'sparrowgrass'. OED:
1865 ‘C. BEDE’ Rook's Gard., etc. 96, I have heard the word sparrowgrass from the lips of a real Lady -- but then she was in her seventies.

Thursday, 30 April 2009

Whither English Literature?

It's being reported this week that fewer students are sitting GCSE English literature these days. Google Reader's one-line summary of the BBC Education website claims, rather alarmingly, that 'More than one in four teenagers in England do not sit English literature, sending the subject into decline, figures suggest'. (I also infer from the report that English language skills may be a bit shaky, even at the BBC, but that's by the way.)

Three in four students still sitting English literature doesn't necessarily indicate a subject in decline to me, so I looked at the figures. Apparently numbers of students taking English literature in maintained schools fell from 481,440 in 2003 to 472,575 in 2008, while the equivalent numbers at independent schools rose from 35,458 to 38,933 during the same period. Unhelpfully, however, the BBC report doesn't attempt to relate these figures to the size of the academic cohort as a whole. In the equivalent article in The Guardian, however, the 'decline' is represented as a fall from 77% to 72% of state school pupils over five years.

It seems clear enough that numbers have fallen, but whether this really means that English lit. is 'a subject in decline' is another matter. On closer examination, the phrase 'a subject in decline' proves to be a direct quote from Michael Gove, the Conservatives' Education spokesman, who of course has a vested interest in letting it be thought that schools and education are being badly managed.

I have a vested interest too, of course, since if English literature really is in decline in schools I'll need to worry for my job. I don't see the current story as being grounds for anxiety just yet, but in the short term I'm rather more concerned about the issue highlighted at the end of the BBC report: the claim by Mary Bousted of the ATL that the school system is encouraging a drift towards 'literacy' rather than reading, as well as the tendency for students to read extracts rather than whole books. This, I think, is much more of a threat to English literature at university level, and in the view of many it is already having an effect on course design and assessment strategies within universities. I also, frankly, think it is impoverishing for students themselves not to be encouraged to read attentively, pleasurably and voraciously.

Reading is fun. It's also, even in today's image-driven world, an important life-skill: and one that you won't get good at unless you practise.

Wednesday, 1 April 2009

Web 2.0 in the World

There seems to have been a flurry of media stories about Web 2.0 over the past few days. The Guardian appears to be leading the way: first with its scoop that schools are going to scrap history lessons in favour of teaching students about Twitter and Facebook (I exaggerate, and surely so do they), and then with the claim in today's paper that the print Guardian is to be discontinued and replaced by Tweets. (Like all the best April Fools, the latter story has a certain scary plausibility -- the notion that any story can be covered in 140 characters is one I expect to see reappearing in less ironic contexts before too much longer.)

Academic researchers are on the job, of course: witness (amongst much else) this recent research from the University of Kansas. I'm not sure how much this study adds to what we know already, but this may be a taster for more adventurous things to come.

And -- as if we needed to be reminded that social networking needn't always be for the good -- here's a sobering article on the use of Bebo etc. for sectarian purposes in Northern Ireland. I had heard of this phenomenon before -- both on the blogs and IRL -- and I find it deeply depressing: a reminder of how Web 2.0 technology, which in most ways I like so much, can also be used not to challenge old ways of thinking but to reinforce them.

Monday, 30 March 2009

I'm still here

OL has asked elsewhere how often you need to blog in order to count as an active blogger. I agree with his suggestion of about once a week ... but with the emphasis very much on 'about'.

Oddly, the end of semester seems to have brought me more deadlines rather than fewer. But I'm hoping that after tomorrow the fog will begin to clear, and then I will be fully back online.

I do mean to continue blogging even now that the Web 2.0 course has ended, and will -- of course! -- blog about why and how I want to do this.

Monday, 23 March 2009

My Weekend (3)

And then of course, there was the rugby. Which I missed watching, because I was in London. But I heard the glad tidings when I was on the train home on Saturday evening, and phoned my parents to rejoice.

I don't particularly like or understand rugby, but it's about the only sport in which I feel I have a team. And this was a long-overdue achievement.

My Weekend (2): Oxford

As I've mentioned elsewhere on this blog, I used to live in Oxford, and it's always a pleasure to go back there: both for research and non-research purposes.

Yesterday, being Sunday, I was in Oxford for sheer pleasure. It was a thoroughly relaxing and enjoyable day -- marred only by delays (in both directions) with the Park and Ride buses. And I bought books in Blackwell's -- about which I will probably blog later.

I'm sorry the image (above) is rather awkward, but I had to struggle to get any picture at all (dodging between shafts of late afternoon sunlight and crowds of tourists). As we were strolling along Cornmarket on our way back to the bus, my companion suddenly spotted a small figure in a niche, high up on a wall at the end of St Michael's Street. We each found it hard to believe that we'd never noticed it before, since we've both known Oxford for many years. But it's well above eye level, and I suppose I'd just never looked up at the right moment.

The image is, of course, of St Michael himself, with sword poised to slay 'that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan' (Revelation 12: 7-9). In the Bible, it's St Michael and his angels who defeat Satan. But that would have made for rather a crowded image.

My Weekend (1): London

It's been a busy weekend by my standards. Dinner with friends on Friday evening. Then on Saturday, a trip to London to see the Van Dyck exhibition at Tate Britain.

I was on the Tube and about to change at Oxford Circus when I heard an announcement that the Victoria Line -- the only Tube connection to Pimlico, for the Tate -- was closed. After a few bemused minutes, it dawned on me that it would probably be easiest just to walk the last bit of the journey, from Embankment to Millbank.

I love walking in London, and conditions were perfect on Saturday morning. This is the first of thirty photographs I took after emerging from Embankment; and I found it quite difficult to choose just one for the blog since the whole riverscape was so photogenic and glowing with Spring. It shows the side of the Hungerford Bridge, the underside of the eastern Golden Jubilee Bridge, and a glimpse of the south bank.

The Van Dyck exhibition was fascinating. I'd seen another big exhibition of his works, at the Royal Academy in 1999 (can it really be 10 years ago!), and this one wasn't quite as much of a revelation as it otherwise might have been. The most interesting rooms, for me, were the first two, where Van Dyck's paintings of Charles I and his courtiers were hung alongside the work of his predecessors, such as Mytens and Jansson. It's no criticism of Mytens and Jansson to say one can see why Van Dyck got his job at court.

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

The man himself

Like many Irish people, I find St Patrick's day deeply embarrassing. But this is a pleasing image of the great man -- who is, apparently, venerated in the Orthodox tradition.

The shamrock is a nice touch, and the green robes are very fetching. But I wish I knew what he was reading!

(All right, so it's probably the Bible -- but one can speculate ...)

Monday, 16 March 2009

How Green is Web 2.0?

One issue I don't think we've addressed so far is the environmental implications of Web 2.0 and associated technologies.

This is a matter which exercises me quite a lot -- though I don't want to sound as if I'm trying to be greener-than-thou about it. We all have to have computers for our work: and if you've got all that expensive hardware on hand then it makes sense to get as much use out of it as possible. Similarly, I accept the argument that the virtual communication facilitated by new technology can cut down on unnecessary travelling and paper use (providing we're disciplined about such things as not printing emails).

What concerns me more is all the gadgets one can use in conjunction with Web 2.0 technologies, and their built-in obsolescence. I already have a PDA that I can't fully use any more because it's not compatible with Vista (and making it compatible is beyond my technical abilities). It took me a long time to decide to get an IPod and a digital camera: in each case I wanted one, but wasn't sure -- especially after the PDA experience -- that I would use it enough to justify the purchase. I now sometimes think I'd like an IPhone, but -- similarly -- don't feel that I can really justify depleting the planet's resources that little bit more.

This debate in my head has also been made more complicated by the fact that the IPod -- which I acquired only last autumn -- has proved to be an unexpected delight and has enriched my day to day life to a surprising extent. And I have also taken to carrying my digital camera around everywhere in case I see something good for this blog. Who said 'Enjoy blogging, but don't let it rule your life'?

But what do other people think about the green implications of what we're doing? This really does worry me.

Thursday, 12 March 2009

Web 2.0 and Me: An Update

It's been a week or two since I last blogged about the Web 2.0 tools we've been learning about, but that doesn't mean I haven't been thinking about them. So here are my latest reflections on Mindmeister, Delicious and their selected ilk.

Re. Mindmeister, nothing much has changed. I went back on the site today, and didn't like it any better this time. I feel a little less clumsy about it than I did before, which I suppose is progress, but I can't see that I'd ever want to use it for my own purposes. I would, though, be happy to recommend it to students: especially those working on a group project. I still think that an individual researcher would be just as well off with pen(s) and paper. But if you don't already have the felt tips, Mindmeister might indeed be easier!

Re. Delicious, I still feel a bit cautious -- I very much share True Stories' misgivings. I did have a brief glimmer of second thoughts, a week ago, when the advantages of Delicious suddenly bore in upon me. I was working in a public library, and it occurred to me that having all my bookmarks easily accessible from this unfamiliar location might have been useful. Then I thought again: all I really wanted to do in the library was access my email, my blog and a few other sites that I know well and whose URLs I can easily remember. To do this much does not require a Delicious account. And I still maintain that I am unlikely to do much significant research -- i.e. work which genuinely requires access to my usual bookmarks -- while not accompanied by either my office computer or my own laptop.

The possibility of using Delicious for teaching-only purposes, however, does appeal to me, now I think about it, and I will blog about this on another occasions.

About wikis and podcasts I am much more enthusiastic. I'm still not really sure how I might use a podcast in practice, but I like the idea of doing so, and will think about how it could be done. I have something of a phobia about hearing recordings of my own voice, but I guess I can just try to overcome my inhibitions. (Well, that inhibition anyway ...)

Wikis, I think, offer lots of scope for teaching purposes. I know of a colleague of mine from another university who successfully applied for funds from the English Subject Centre to help her students set up a wiki of their own (on classical references in a modern poem). The students really enjoyed doing it, and it was a marvellously effective teaching tool. I could see myself doing something a bit like that in my third-year option on women's writing. But it would only work with committed students who were willing to share their ideas with the rest of the cohort. This would not be the case with everyone.

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

Publicity and Privacy

Many of us first-time bloggers have been much exercised by the issue of how much information we should be willing to disclose about ourselves on a publicly-accessible blog. Some of the others in the Tuesday group may recall that I quickly had second thoughts about the name I had chosen for my blog, once I realized how transparent it was and how readily I could be identified as its author. When I looked into the possibility of changing the name, though, it turned out to be more complicated than I’d expected, largely because so many of you had generously linked to my blog one way or another. It looked as if, even if I changed the name on my own site, the original name would leave traces elsewhere. This made the change seem pointless.

So I’ve kept the name, in all its transparency, and have since come to the conclusion that having a readily identifiable name is not necessarily a bad thing. The fact that I know that a reasonably knowledgeable reader could work out my identity very quickly means that I have an extra incentive to be quite circumspect in what I say here. If I thought my blog was safely anonymous, I might be much more indiscreet, which might then prove to be embarrassing if my identity were decoded by the wrong person.

The rule of thumb I have developed is that I should be willing to divulge on my blog anything I would be prepared to say to a well-informed student who’d expressed an interest. One of the things I find most attractive about blogs is the opportunity they provide for you to ruminate in (semi) public, thinking over the issues and – if you’re lucky – stimulating comments from others with similar interests. I am not interested in writing a blog which is just a dull stream of facts. The introspective aspect of the form is one of its chief advantages, in my view. But this, for me, has to be an introspection within limits.

Which is why I am prepared to say on my blog (but to say no more than this) that the reason I have not blogged for over a week is that I have been having family difficulties. I have been trying not to let these difficulties get in the way of my work, and the blogging, I’m afraid, has been the first casualty. I still see it as expendable – something I do for fun. It has not yet become central either to my teaching or my research.

Note that I say ‘yet’.

Monday, 2 March 2009

Weekend in Keswick

There has been a distinct lack of pictures on this blog over the past few days. Here's one I took at the weekend, during a very brief visit to the Lake District. I was acting as driver and moral support to a friend who was speaking at the Words by the Water festival in Keswick, and I thoroughly appreciated the opportunity to put some physical distance between me and work (even, I hesitate to say on this blog, between me and the computer). I did bring a book -- John Burrow's A History of Histories -- with me, but that's connected with a possible future project rather than current work, so felt suitably relaxing. And otherwise, it was just as good as it ought to have been to get away, see different (and very beautiful) place, meet new people, hear new ideas, and eat good food.

Of course, all the work was right there waiting for me when I got back ...

My friend's talk, by the way, was a great success.

Thursday, 26 February 2009

A Dreadful Warning

Among the bookmarks I added to my Delicious account earlier today were links to Amazon and ABEbooks. Later in the afternoon I showed my Delicious bookmarks to a friend (and by 'showed' I mean I called her over to look at my computer screen), and she said 'I hope those aren't links directly into your account'.

They were.

I'm sure other people are more sensible, but I felt the need to confess my folly.


Here's where I turn into a Luddite again. But it's not primarily because I'm a Luddite that I don't think I'll be making much use of Mindmeister. More importantly, I am a text-not-image person and I don't think visually. I never make spider diagrams; I make lists, and only rarely even colour-code them. Mindmapping just doesn't suit my learning style, and I doubt this is going to change just because I can now draw the diagrams online.

In any case, I am not yet convinced of the advantages of drawing mindmaps electronically. If you want to share them with friends and colleagues, that's another matter: the benefits of sharing things online are obvious. But if you're working by yourself -- either because it's an independent project, or because you're doing some preliminary work prior to the shareable part of the task -- is Mindmeister really so much better than pen and paper?

Delicious -- second report

Another thing I did, in my dutiful way, was to look up our network and scroll through the bookmarks that we've been putting up so far. Not surprisingly, most of them are Bill's, and I promise I'll look up the clever e-learning sites before too much longer.

But here's the spooky thing. The first bookmark which I actually clicked on was the link to Podcasting for Pedagogic Purposes ( When I looked down the page, the one of the podcasts was filed under the name of someone I knew when I was a graduate student but hadn't seen or heard of for over 10 years. I clicked on the link, but this podcast is a soundfile only, and I couldn't tell for sure just from the voice whether this was the same person. So I did a bit of googling, and after a few minutes searching established to my own satisfaction that it was the same person, though now working in a wholly different field from when I knew her. I'd often wondered what had happened to her, and now, thanks to our course, I've found out.

I'm now wondering whether I should get in touch.

Delicious -- first report

Of all the new sites Bill introduced us to on Tuesday, Delicious is the one I can best see myself using. I would want to do so very cautiously, but I can see the benefit of sharing bookmarks with students in certain circumstances. The advantage of being able to access all my own bookmarks, wherever I am in the world, matters less to me, at least for the moment, since I do pretty much all my online work on one of two computers -- my own laptop and my office machine, both of which I have now fully equipped with bookmarks, favourites etc. But I can see, obviously, that being able to import from Delicious (can you do it that way round as well?) would be very useful next time I'm changing computers. And maybe by that stage I'll have fully adjusted to Web 2.0 and won't want to bother with old-fashioned favourites any more. Maybe.

Like a dutiful student, I went on to Delicious this afternoon, and started adding bookmarks. I decided against importing from the favourites on my own machine because I wanted to be very carefully selective and only add those bookmarks that I want to own up to in an academic environment. Hence lots of worthy URLs like the British Library manuscript catalogue and CERES (Cambridge English Renaissance Electronic Service). I was pleased to find that if I bookmarked EEBO (Early English Books Online), an essential resource for my research area which is only accessible via the elibrary, I could get access to it without the extra step of having to go through Shibboleth. This is all the more encouraging since one of the disincentives of using Delicious is the nuisance of having to log in. (Though perhaps I wouldn't have to log into Delicious every time if I were to download those buttons Bill mentioned.)

So, my preliminary conclusion: Delicious potentially very useful, but I will want to explore it further. One thing I haven't yet established is whether you can choose to make certain bookmarks available to one network and certain others to another. I might want, for instance, to recommend some bookmarks to my first-year students, and a different set to my special option students. (I do realise that I could distinguish the two sets of bookmarks by tagging and then ask students to sort them, but I can't help feeling that this last instruction might be enough to offset Delicious's many other advantages.) Or I might want to have a 'teaching' set of bookmarks, available to students, and another, non-overlapping set of 'research' bookmarks, available to other women's writing or manuscript specialists. Is this possible?

Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Bookshops I have known

When I was in Ireland last weekend, I took this photograph. Eason's, in case anyone doesn't know, is an Irish institution. It was founded in the early nineteenth century, and has been trading under its current name since 1886. It's a bookshop, newsagent and stationer's, not unlike W. H. Smith's in England, though the flagshop branches in Belfast and Dublin are more comparable to a good Waterstone's. The other branches vary in quality and character.

What you see in the photograph was my own local branch of Eason's when I was growing up. It's very much at the 'newsagent and stationer's' end of the spectrum, but nonetheless was the only bookshop for miles around in those days (and indeed still is). This is where I bought, or had bought for me, my Enid Blytons, my E. Nesbits, my Joan Lingards. Later, it was where I bought my first Orwells and Brian Moores.

Since those days, of course, the process of buying books has changed greatly. I tend to buy most of my books nowadays from Amazon or ABE. Many books, as we know, are also now available online; but I've blogged on Olia about the intellectual problems associated with, for instance, the texts supplied by Project Gutenberg. Quality control is still an issue with electronic texts, as it is with so much on the Web. A book that can be obtained quickly and easily online may please students who are short of cash, but may be very shaky on textual grounds. Also -- a point that carries more conviction with students -- it is likely to be unannotated, which may leave them at a loss with some of the literary and cultural references.

Did I buy a book in Eason's last Saturday? Yes, of course I did: Q and A by Vikas Swarup -- the book on which Slumdog Millionaire is based. I doubt I'll catch the film in the cinema, but it's just possible I'll have read the book before the DVD comes out.

Thursday, 19 February 2009

The Portly Earl

Aka, William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke. Known to the Bodleian Library -- location of this imposing bronze statue -- as one of its earliest benefactors. Known to early modernists and Shakespeareans as one of the dedicatees of the Shakespeare First Folio. Known to women's writing specialists as the son of Mary, Countess of Pembroke, and the lover of Lady Mary Wroth.

When I lived in Oxford, a certain gentleman of my acquaintance used to make appointments to meet his friends 'at the portly earl'. Usually this worked well, since many of his circle were hardworking postgrads who spent a lot of time in the Bodleian. But one person, knowing the gentleman's other habits, spent an increasingly puzzled hour searching the pubs of Oxford before realising his mistake.

I was in Oxford today on a short research visit. The Bodleian has recently been undergoing extensive renovations (the doors behind the statue, for instance, are new). But the Portly Earl survives it all.

Advice to a Blogger

(1) Set yourself some ground rules at the start.
(2) Review the ground rules regularly. Are you keeping them? If not, what should change: the rules or your blogging practice?
(3) Blog regularly, but don't let it dictate your life.
(4) Tell friends you're blogging and encourage them to comment. When they do, you'll get a huge lift.
(5) Add pictures if you can. That will cheer your blog up considerably.
(6) Try to be self-aware but not solipsistic.
(7) Enjoy yourself.

RSS, Feeds and Readers

I'm posting on this topic a bit earlier than I would have liked, but I'm going to be offline over the weekend and don't want to leave too much to be done on Monday.

I've now subscribed to quite a number of feeds. Some news sites, for instance: including two (Education and Northern Ireland) from the BBC. The Guardian Education and Comment is Free. The Fawcett Society. Also some (academic) journal feeds, though I'm still trying to work out how they operate. My assumption is that when a new issue is published online, I'll now know about it through Google Reader. That would be really useful, and would by itself make it worthwhile for me to have started using the Reader. I've also subscribed to Adam Smyth's, which collects and posts information about conferences, publications etc. in my area. I don't actually think this last will inform me about anything I wasn't likely to have found out about anyway, since Adam sends details about all important events to a mailing list I'm on. But now I'm on both I can compare and contrast and find out.

Is this going to be useful to me? Well, it will be a lot more useful once I've organised my subscriptions and sorted them into folders. I puzzled yesterday evening over how to do this, and (think I) got it worked out just as the time came for me to stop. I'll have to see, now, whether I can remember how it was done. At the moment, my subscriptions just look like a muddle, which is not only aesthetically unpleasing but also contributes to my sense that I'm not really in control of what I'm doing.

The other point -- also raised, I think, by Dave from the Thursday group -- is that I am not sure how many of the academic journals, societies etc. I'm interested in are actually on board with RSS. I just looked up the Society for the Study of Early Modern Women, but as far as I can see there's no feed on their site. They communicate through a listserv, which I've never signed up to and probably won't. On the other hand, searching for the Society through Google Reader led me to Everything Early Modern Women (, which I hadn't known about but which should be useful. So, swings and roundabouts.

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Blogs and Learning

This is really the nub of the issue for many of us. How can blogs be used to help learning and teaching? Last year I tried to use my discussion board on Web CT to stimulate discussion among my first-year students. Each week I would post up a question such as 'What do you think seminars are for?', 'How do you take lecture notes?' or 'What do you think makes a good essay?', and encouraged the students to post up answers. My hope was that thinking through answers to questions like these would help them to make the adjustment from school to university expectations and norms. It worked to some extent, but I was rather disappointed that the students tended to direct their answers towards me, rather than getting into debate with one another. I was still pleased enough with the experience to try again this year; but the problems with Web CT at the beginning of October were such that I just gave up and haven't tried again.

I still think that something like this could work, but I increasingly feel that the rigid and clunky structure of Web CT doesn't facilitate good discussion. (And here's one benefit of this course already for me: I hadn't realised quite how clunky Web CT was until I saw how much more straightforward and user-friendly a blog can be.) So perhaps it would be easier on a blog. But encouraging student participation would still be a challenge.

A Google Tool

I followed up a suggestion on another blog (EKF) and tried using Google calendar. I see its attractions, but I don't think I'll be using it regularly. The main reason for this is that I commute quite a distance into work, and often use this time for planning: in the morning, to preview my timetable for the day, prioritise tasks etc.; in the evening to review how things have gone and decide what I need to pack for the next day.

These simple tasks can easily be done using an old-fashioned paper diary and notebook; and it would actually be quite hard to do them electronically, since I don't have reliable access to the Net while I'm travelling. Keeping more than one diary leads inevitably to ambiguity and confusion (as I've found in the past when I tried to use a hard-copy diary alongside the calendar on my PDA). So Google calendar, I suspect, is not for me.

Conclusion: electronic tools can be marvellous and really improve your life, but you need to be sure they truly fit your needs. In some cases, the old-style technology can still be more efficient.

Medieval helpdesk

These endlessly delightful Scandinavian monks are much loved in book history circles, but I don't know how well known they are elsewhere. If you haven't seen them already, you're in for a treat:

On a serious point, this is one web resource I have used for teaching -- and used very successfully. The analogy is very well judged, and this time the humour really does work.

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

One Book Leads to Another

In a previous post, I mentioned I'd been reading Alex Ross's The Rest is Noise. The same friend who gave me the Ross for Christmas has now given me a copy of Elizabeth Wilson's Shostakovich: A Life Remembered. Perhaps this posting should have been entitled 'One Kind Deed Leads to Another'. When I told my friend how much I'd enjoyed the Ross, I remarked in passing that I wanted to follow it up by reading the Wilson, which has been on one of my unwritten reading lists since it was first published in 1994. The gift ensued. (Utterly undeliberate on my part, I hasten to stress.)

One good thing about waiting so long to read the Shostakovich book is that in the meantime (2006) a second, expanded edition has been published. And I've also bought more Shostakovich CDS. So -- even if Elizabeth Wilson, unlike Alex Ross, doesn't have a snazzy website -- I can still listen to the music and try to work out what she's talking about.

Blogging: What can go wrong?

Lots, of course. Here's one blog I find mildly irritating: I hoped it would do what it says on the tin: and it doesn't. Or at least, it doesn't as much as I would like it to. And I don't quite share the sense of humour. I'll keep the URL on my favourites, but I'm not tempted to subscribe.

Monday, 16 February 2009

Blogs I Read (2)

Slugger O'Toole, mentioned in a previous posting, is one of several Irish and Northern Irish sites I read regularly. Another is Will Crawley's blog, 'Will and Testament' ( which is ethics- and culture-based and links to a weekly programme Crawley presents on Radio Ulster. I get the podcast of the programme as well.

The other blogs I'm reading regularly at the moment (and have now added to my Google Reader) are Alex Ross's ( and a foodie site, The Alex Ross site connects with a book of the same name on twentieth-century classical music. I was given the book as a Christmas present, read it in January, but didn't discover the blog until afterwards. This is a pity, since the site includes a number of soundfiles (of out-of-copyright recordings) intended to be listened to in conjunction with Ross's descriptions in the book. I wish I'd known this in time to take advantage.

As for eattherightstuff, I discovered it by accident last week when I googled for a recipe for butternut squash risotto. I must be getting more used to this blogging business, for I even posted a comment on the site, asking the blogger, Abby, about possible substitutes for double cream in another of her recipes. And she wrote back! It's a start, at least.

By their blogs, you shall know them.

Food for the Soul (and Body)

On Saturday morning, I went on an excursion to Southam, Warwickshire. The reason for my visit was that I'd been recommended to try the Southam farmers' market. I hadn't quite anticipated this rather magnificent church, which dominates the town (or village?) scape.

I'm interested in church architecture, but I tend to do most of my explorations when I'm on holiday. So St James', Southam, was an unexpected pleasure. The main building is apparently 14th/15th-century, with some Victorian details in the interior. According to Pevsner, the style is more typical of Northamptonshire, apart from the red stone (the colour isn't very apparent in the photograph, but it's very striking in situ). Disappointingly, the doors were locked, so we couldn't get inside: so there will have to be a return visit some other time.

The farmers' market, however, supplied some very flavourful apples, onions, and even some sprouts.

What I'm reading

Academic research is very specialised, but I don't want to be too narrow in my interests. For leisure, I try to have at least one novel and one non-fiction book on the go at all times. At the moment, my novel is Olivia Manning's The Great Fortune, which is a reread -- but since I last read it over a decade ago, I am finding it pretty unfamiliar. For non-fiction, I have been reading Robert Irwin's For Lust of Knowing, which is in part a history of European scholarship on Islam and the Arab world, in part a polemic against Edward Said's Orientalism and its influence. The question of whether a discourse can be academically useful even if the historical 'facts' on which is it based are flawed is an interesting one, and I think deserves more than the rather peremptory treatment it receives from Irwin. For me, though, the more interesting part of For Lust of Knowing is its account of international scholarship on Arabic and Islam in the early modern period and eighteenth century. Most of the names mentioned here were unfamiliar to me, but the account of how Arabic scholarship inter-related with classical and biblical studies was persuasive and suggestive. I was rather sorry that, since Irwin does attend to matters Turkish, Persian and Egyptian where relevant to his subject, he didn't mention Mary Wortley Montagu's Embassy Letters, based on her brief residence in Constantinople at the start of the eighteenth century. Perhaps she'll feature in the promised sequel.

Saturday, 14 February 2009

Blogs I Read (1)

I am originally from Northern Ireland, and I like to keep in touch with what's going on back at home. I used to read a satirical website called The Portadown News (now decommissioned: see, and one time, when I didn't understand an allusion on TPN, I googled for the answer. This led me to Slugger O'Toole (, to which I have ever since been addicted. Slugger, subtitled 'Notes on Northern Ireland Politics and Culture', is one of the liveliest blogs I know of, with several new postings every day and comments sometimes running into the hundreds. I enjoy it enormously and have learnt a lot from it, but have never yet commented on any of the postings. This is probably, in part, because I don't (yet) have the interactive mentality. It is also because Slugger, like many political blogs, strikes me as a very male environment and I feel more comfortable there as a reader than as an active participant.

Friday, 13 February 2009

Research afternoon

In between blogging this afternoon, this is what I've been reading. I'm supposed to be writing a chapter on Finch, but I more or less stopped work on it last autumn when teaching preparations became too pressing. Since then, I've had to write a conference paper, a research seminar paper, a chapter for a book and four book reviews, so last summer's research had begun to seem very far away. It's been good to get back to the Big Project again after so many months.

Worries about this blog

Ali has talked on her blog about the misgivings she felt in advance about getting involved in blogging. One of my own misgivings has always been a worry about time-wasting. I started reading blogs about four years ago (I'll write about this in another post), and would hate to add up all the time I've spent on blog sites since then. On the plus side, I do think I've gained a lot of useful knowledge, and the insight into other perspectives on the world has been fascinating. But then there are the opportunity costs -- all the other things I might have been doing instead. I just heard a few minutes ago about someone who's been learning Arabic in her lunch hour. Could I have learnt (even basic) Arabic in all the time I've spent on other people's blogs?

Right now, like most academics, I'm worrying about now getting time for research. Spending time writing my blog is almost inevitably going to take up valuable research time (since admin. and teaching deadlines are usually much harder to ignore). So ... I guess you can see where this is going: be prepared for some research-related blogging on this site! Two birds, one stone. (Or the humane equivalent, whatever it is.)

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

It's time to blog!

I still can't believe I'm doing this! I am probably the least technologically-minded person using the Web today, and I very much have the Web 1.0 mentality. This could be the start of a new world for me -- just watch me go!