Thursday, 31 March 2011

A Visit to Bolton Sixth Form College

Bolton Sixth Form College is so big you can’t see it. Neither sat nav nor the iPhone recognise its post code it is so new. But there it is, nestled next to Bolton College and the University of Bolton. It’s an impressive building with a rather grand but light and airy entrance, all purple sofas and sealed grey concrete. There is a purposeful busyness about the place.
The library, however, is a bit of a shock. It seems to consist of a couple of bookshelves on a narrow corridor.
There is one sensible option we could take for all students: provide them with an ebook-reader, loaded up with all the essential books they need for their courses. However, that still does not mean we can do away with libraries: what about those who want to read extra books? As I said yesterday, with cuts to Arts Council Grants and library cut backs, we might as well be burning books and doing away with ideas.
Thank goodness then, that over twenty students volunteered for my Creative Writing Sessions yesterday. I showed them all a review of Alex Smith’s Calling For Angels. Alex was just 14 when she wrote Calling for Angels and 17 when it was published. I suggested to the students that they would be capable of writing like that.
We worked on creating characters and then putting them in a scene. They did this beautifully and, as always with this exercise, ten minutes in, silence descended.
The time went so quickly. But yes, every single one showed they had the potential to do what Alex had done, though of course we don’t yet know whether they would have the self-discipline.
I had a really good time. The students worked hard and both they and the staff were really friendly. I hope I get invited back some day.

Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Why Universities Must Retain Arts and Humanities

A science teacher I had at grammar school once said quite scathingly to those of us studying Arts and Humanities subjects that “Scientists can read and appreciate literature. Few writers and historians understand science.”
I think he was wrong, anyway. I and many other Arts and Humanities people have read and understood Stephen Hawkins’ A Brief History in Time and many of us watch and understand Professor Brian Cox and similar people as they tell us of the wonders of the universe. As a writer of science fiction I have to understand science.
But even if my former teacher were right, and “Arts” people were too stupid and / or lazy to understand science, he missed a fundamental point: there would be no books for the scientists to read if there were no writers to write them. Incidentally, all of the creative arts are part art, part science and part craft.
Science came from the Arts in the first place. It was because of the rigour of enquiry developed though humanities subjects that asked questions and expected logically formed answers that scientific investigation arose. Need I quote Plato, Socrates or Aristotle?
Historians and sociologist also play an important part. They observe human behaviour and draw lessons for living from what they see. We have to understand what really led to the Holocaust, for example, and recognise warning signs and take preventative measures to stop history repeating itself. Yes, we must apply academic rigour so that we do not repeat mistakes or reinvent the wheel. Or are we repeating history? Library cuts, Arts Council funding cuts and the reduction in funding to humanities subjects is reminiscent of books being burnt in the 1940s. Possibly it’s actually worse because it’s more subtle. It has the same outcome: fewer books and ideas available.
What of the creative arts though? It’s clear there is a need for them. But in the academy? Yes, certainly. Process, product and application are in need of as much studious scrutiny as any discovered particle, scientific methodology and application through engineering.
It is all very well knowing that it all started with a big bang. What that means in human terms is down to the philosophers and the creative practitioners who paint the world for us. Humans need explanations and interpretations as well as facts.
Anyway, a university with little or no humanities provision cannot by rights be called a universe-ity. It should be renamed a Science or Technology College. A universe-ity must present the bigger picture.

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Diary of a Lecturer on Strike

Up and at my desk at normal time for a day when I work from home. Looked at Twitter and my personal emails. I resisted the urge to open work emails – even though that has my task list on there. I did add a couple of items to the news I send out to students. Have also spotted a book event I’d like to attend at Waterstone’s on Friday this week. That is sort of part of my work.
I spent a couple of hours in the morning working on my novel. That is definitely university work. They have me there because I’m a novelist. Still, as it’s the sort of work that I do on a weekend and even when I’m away on holiday, I can hardly be accused of strike-breaking.
Because I was working at home I cooked lunch for my husband and myself. This means two things:
- We had a very nice lunch
- I freed up time later to do more work - question is, could it be more university work?
I spent just over an hour on editing the stories for the Bridge House’s next charity book. Hopefully, I’ll be able to put the book together soon. That isn’t direct work related to my job but it’s the kind of work my employers expect me to do.
I also worked on my new imprint Chapeltown. This is part of my retirement plan and a back-up in case redundancy looms. I’ll just do a little now, and get some help. Once I no longer have a job at the university, I’ll up what I do for that.
I’m in the office now, the day after the strike. I couldn’t resist looking at yesterday’s emails. And yes, there are items there I need to action.
The trouble is, I consider my work a vocation, not a job. It’s hard to avoid “work”. And / but they’re messing around with what I’d thought of as my savings aka the pension scheme.

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Can a Lecturer in Creative Writing Actually Go on Strike?

We are called to take strike action shortly because of the way our pensions are being snatched from us. I actually voted for action short of strike BUT I also believe that if you are in a union you go with the majority even if it’s against what you wish. If it pricks your conscience too much, you just have to leave the union. I don’t feel that strongly.
But actually, how do I go on strike? Easy enough not to teach the four hours of classes I have on the designated day, and it’s probably sensible to keep away from campus on that day. I won’t look at my emails and ought to delete any that arrive that day. But what if that included the all important one telling me I have a place on the briefing session about applying for senior lectureship? Or a plea for help from one of my exchange students? Chances are, anyway, colleagues will refrain from emailing that day … because they’ll be on strike. This actually means that the work will just be done another time. The lack of class will also mean more emails from students.
How should I spend my time on that day? I could get on with some of my writing. But hang on a minute; that is part of my job.
“Maybe I should just watch DVDs all day,” I said to my husband.
“As long as you don’t start getting too critical,” he replied.
He has a point. It is impossible to shut off the inner critic.
Even a walk in the country would be unsuitable: I always regard such activities as thinking time.
There is a problem when you have a vocation rather than a job. You live for your work; you do not work to live. Exercise, fine meals and quality time with friends and family are even part of this because they keep you in shape for the main plot. But maybe going on strike contributes also: it might keep the system and morale in shape so that dedicated teachers can continue to deliver quality learning to their students. Except: how can we actually strike?

Thursday, 10 March 2011

Master Classes at Arthur Terry School

I’ve just spent a couple of rewarding days at Arthur Terry School, Sutton Coldfield. I worked on some of my Creative Language Learning routines with able students – those taking GCSE German on Monday and those taking GCSE French on Wednesday. Some students were in both groups, and fortunately the activities turned out a little differently in the two languages.
The students were willing and able, and worked well, even though at their age, 15-16, it must be quite difficult being in the same classroom all day with the same teacher. The students were a credit to their school and their teachers.
The workshops I deliver in Creative Language Learning emphasize seeing the bigger picture and that students must be responsible for their own learning. I encouraged them to acquire some language learning habits, so that they would be working on their languages without even noticing. All of this works much better if students know why they are learning a language.
What was the most successful activity? In German, possibly reducing the problem of there being 16 different ways of saying “the” to a ten-minute understanding of the likes of subjects, objects and indirect objects. There is an irony here: this school was admired by my PGCE tutor back in 1974/75. We students preferred to teach using grammar – that was the way we learnt. Our tutor had other ideas. The actual truth is that all methods of teaching languages that have been adopted are useful but alone not capable of delivering. The teacher’s job is to find the most suitable mix for the particular students in front of them.
In French, the student made the most progress in distinguishing between the tenses.
What was the most fun? In German, it was writing haikus and acrostics. These activities involve working proactively with dictionaries. In French, it was the cloning exercise. This involves adapting texts that the student read to make their own texts.
I was delighted that one student told me he thought the first years should be introduced to some of these ideas. My feelings exactly.
I must remember to send evaluation forms, though, to confirm this and to give me ideas for other workshops.

Friday, 4 March 2011

A Day at Spennymoor School

A Day at Spennymoor School
I have just spent a delightful day with students at Spennymoor School. This involved two master classes in French with Y9 and Y10 students, some work on story with Y8s, work on haikus, acrostics and writing with the senses with Y7, and my character magic workshop with some able students form Y7 and Y8.
The day kept me on my toes. The students were a delight to work with. The very able ones did some very pleasing work but I was also pleased to see some of the lower ability children having a go. Some were brave enough to read out their work themselves and others allowed me to read out the stories and extracts they produced.
The staff were very warm and friendly and I was well looked after.
It was a very pleasant drive there and back, but my goodness, now I’m tired. It was a six a.m. start and five hours in a row is quite hard work- even though the students were so charming

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Christopher Booker’s Story Theory

Booker’s life work has been writing his book, The Seven Basic Plots. The first part starts off pinpointing what he believes these seven plots are:
Overcoming the Monster
Journey and Return
The Quest
Rags to Riches
Within these plots is a similar story arc – not that different from the ones already indicated by Joseph Campbell, Robert McKee, Vladimir Propp and Christopher Vogler. As one might expect, the “resolution” of tragedy is destruction. The basic pattern is adjusted for each type of story – for example, “Overcoming the Monster” has:
The call
Initial success
Final Ordeal
Miraculous escape
“Voyage and return” has
Dream stage
Frustrations stage
Nightmare stage
Thrilling escape and return
As you can see, similar to McKee’s arc but slightly adjusted to suit the particular type of story.
Booker’s sub-title is “Why We Tell Stories”. He gives a reasonable account of what creates a need for story in human beings. That is an interesting theme that I personally would like to explore further.