Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Blogging is good for you. And for me, too!

Blog posts can be a valuable source of 'soft' or 'fuzzy' information. They allow you to partake in a huge number of conversations, sharing cultural information that is otherwise very hard to transmit.

At the weekend I suddenly had a 'flashback' about something that happened some 30 years ago: I remembered a series of children's sci-fi books that I got out of the public library, and which I was then fascinated by. They were brand-new, so the librarian didn't let me borrow the full series, and I seem to remember that I tried to chase those books over the coming weeks/months, but cannot remember whether I actually got them or not, as they were then obviously borrowed by other people and my scholarship was by that age not advanced enough that I made a note of either the author or the titles of those books. All I remembered was the covers, pastel coloured hard-backs.

The stories were about some kids aboard a space ship, with no adults (cannot remember why, I think they were off at work somewhere), going through space and having adventures. I read them in German, and it must have been around 1980 or so.

This elusive memory came back to me for some reason, and I thought that it was a pity that this kind of information is not enough to find those books. But then I thought again, and tried a web search with "seventies" (as I guessed they were English originals, and it would have taken some time for them to be translated), "children books kids spaceship no adults". And I got a result.

The first hit was a blog from just around the corner, Warwick Uni, where the writer asks a similar question. The comments on this post contain a few leads, and as it turns out, there was indeed a story of children trapped on a space ship, "Space Hostages" by Nicholas Fisk. Close but no cigar: this is a single book, not a series, and I was not too sure about the description of the story line. But then I looked up the author and found a reference to a series of books, called "Starstormers". Wikipedia says:

Published between 1980 and 1983 by Hodder, "'Starstormers'" consisted of five books; "'Starstormers'", "'Sunburst'", "'Catfang'", "'Evil Eye'" and "'Volcano'". Fed up of being left in a boarding school on earth while their parents colonize a new planet, a group of children decide to build their own spaceship out of scrap in order to join their parents, but in order to get there they will first have to deal with the mysterious Octopus Emperor.

This seems a bit late, date-wise, but perhaps I only saw the first few, and maybe they got translated quickly. The story seems spot-on, even though I don't remember anything more specific.

Our local library has some of the books, but not the first one, so I bought that on ebay. I will see if this brings back memories, or whether it was a cul-de-sac. In the worst case I'll get my kids to read them, perhaps they are interested in science fiction. Would be an improvement over Harry Potter...

But the real lesson of this episode is that any blog post, no matter how trivial, carries some useful snippet of information. It is like somebody having a chat with their mates, reminiscing about some memories, and you are there, listening, and taking part. It also shows how powerful a simple keyword search is. I would not really have expected to find out this information so easily with just a few words.

This is of course a trivial example, but I would assume that it can apply to professional blogging as well. I often chat to colleagues and friends about teaching or research, and we come up with interesting ideas. If they are put on a blog, they can be shared with the world. And most of them would not be suitably earth-shaking to make it into a journal article (and who's got time for writing everything up?) So the humble blog has a valuable role for disseminating knowledge with a much lower barrier of entry.

What's your excuse for not blogging?

Friday, 12 March 2010

Analytical Thinking

Yesterday I had a brief conversation with some of my first year students, who were asking me about the second year module choices. On the language side there are two choices: DAVE ("Development and Variation of English") and FREDA ("Frameworks of English Discourse Analysis"). I teach FREDA. This year we had about 90 students in DAVE, and 44 in FREDA.

The first years then said they had heard DAVE was easier. Where from, I asked. Some second year students they answered. It took me a while to work out at least two fatal flaws with this, and one unintended positive side-effect.


  1. How on Earth is a second year student able to compare those two modules? I can't, and I'm teaching one. The only way to compare them is to attend both modules, and this is not possible, as they are mutually exclusive choices. It's a bit like claiming that this life on Earth is better or worse than the afterlife. Either you only know one of them, or you're dead.

  2. The next thought is a bit scarier: how can you believe/trust someone who claims something you know to be invalid/impossible? I don't want to push the religious analogies too far at this point, but I guess second year students must have quite a reputation amongst the first years when they can tell them this kind of stuff and get away with it. The first thing you learn at university, however, should be to never trust anybody just because they're older/have more authority/have published a book.

  3. "Easier". How do you apply this term to a module? Is it easier to get good marks? Is the subject material easier to understand? I don't know, but I would probably call a module easier if it didn't involve much work and you'd still get a good mark. But is that what you want from a module at uni? And I doubt that DAVE involves less work than FREDA, and I would also guess that the distribution of marks will not be so different either.


And now the positive side-effect: if students think DAVE is easier because it involves less work, then students who don't like the idea of work will obviously choose DAVE. Therefore, students who choose FREDA should be eager, keen, and willing to work hard for their money (that is the money they paid to come here). This is mostly the case, but I suspect there are also some other students in FREDA. However, those at least will know not to trust the second years and are able to think for themselves. Not all bad, then!

PS: The imbalance of student numbers (which I suspect is mostly due to such rumours and ignorance of what the module is about) is one of the reasons for producing this film about FREDA.

Friday, 5 March 2010

Marketing can be fun

In the second year students have the choice between two language modules, called DAVE and FREDA. Most students choose DAVE, even though they don't seem to have a lot of knowledge about what the modules are about. As I teach FREDA, I decided to do something about it: together with our web master Billy Fallows I did a promotional video:

video

This was a spontaneous idea after Billy mentioned to me that he was filming a colleague for some MA info-material. I went away and scripted it, and we then decided to go ahead.

Doing it was fairly easy: I asked for some student volunteers, and got some, then we filmed a few shots, put a mini-slideshow together in Keynote, recorded the audio, and put it together in iMovie. The result is obviously better than the above video, which is much reduced to be suitable for the web.

Now I wonder whether this will have any impact on the recruitment figures for next year...

UPDATE: A higher resolution version of this video is now available on YouTube.

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Catching up...

The last few weeks have been very busy. Nothing like a bout of marking to mess up your basic schedule! Now that marking is out of the way, normality is slowly returning. Still, there are things to do, and blogging tends not to be the one with the highest priority.

In my Frameworks module, the podcasting was the thing to suffer most from marking. A colleague told me that one of her AST students was sad about it, and I feel somewhat bad myself. I will try and get another podcast put together this week. In the meantime I set the students a task that involved them making their own podcasts, and slowly the results are coming in. Some are really good! They will be made available on the course blog, finally a way to get some activity going there. With any luck, students will not only post their podcasts, but also listen to each others and comment on them.

Language Foundation is slowly ticking along, and finally we're getting to the point where students feel it making 'click' during the grammatical analyses. They are hard work, but by constantly practicing them I believe students will better understand how they work, and feel more self-confident. Only the exam will tell, of course!

Then, almost out of the door is a research project proposal. Only a few things to sort out, and then the big question will be if there is enough money still around within the AHRC to fund it. This leads me back to my main gripe with the current model of research funding: the effort that has gone into this project proposal could have been spent on doing quite a lot of the actual work. Add to that the time spent by university admin people checking the figures, and by the AHRC administrators, and the academic reviewers, etc, and you will find that you probably have spent more money altogether on that proposal then it would cost to just do it. And that is assuming it will get funding, otherwise all that money would simply be wasted.

I can see that this doesn't work with your average science project, even if not all of them cost as much as the Large Hadron Collider, but many smaller humanities projects should just be funded directly. Cut the red tape, avoid the frustration of having your proposals rejected, and put some trust in your academics!

Enough ranting for today, still some things to do before today's list is empty.