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!