7 Questions to Help Students Use and Understand Secondary Sources

May 2009: Academic Writing & ESL Resources Display

(Photo credit: tclibrary)

The university-level study of English is paradoxically both an individual and collaborative effort, with students developing their own analytical skills while simultaneously learning to think in collaborative ways with tutors and fellow students.  What this paradox demonstrates, of course, is that communicating with those around you plays a significant role in the development of ideas, including communicating with the critical body of material surrounding the topic (even if the line of communication is, in this case, distinctly one-way).

Academic writing, even at the most introductory level, is not created in a vacuum. Indeed, any piece of writing that students produce will be be a conglomeration of voices—some contemporary, some more distant—and their success in that writing will be dependent upon how well they harness this mass.

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Alan Hollinghurst and Some Archeological Digging

It’s not very often that my research requires me to get involved with something as interesting as archeology, but in tying up some last pieces for my new book The Vitality of Influence: Alan Hollinghurst and a History of Image (Palgrave Macmillan, early 2014) I have found myself tracking down archeological digs in some surprising places.

Skinner's Lane, the City of London

At the centre of Hollinghurst’s 1988 début The Swimming-Pool Library is the grand home of Lord Charles Nantwich, which is somewhat awkwardly hanging on in the City of London as the last reminder of a very different time.  One of the most fascinating features of Charles’s house is that it is covering the remains of a Roman bath, which serves as one of the points of reference for the novel’s paradoxical title.

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“How Do You Consume Your Media?” It’s Time to Get Serious

Bookseller

This week I reminded my students that if they are serious about getting a good job in writing or communications then they need to get serious about their media consumption.  That means: a daily newspaper with an international focus, a weekly news magazine, and two to three high-quality monthly magazines.  ‘But that doesn’t require you to read everything cover-to-cover’, I assured 22 horrified faces.  Rather, a good media consumption strategy gives you the framework to dip in and out of the most important events in the world, and allows you to feel connected to ideas bigger than yourself.  During interviews for the jobs that students with an English Studies degree will go into–marketing, journalism, PR, publishing, teaching, to name merely a few–the question of ‘how do you consume your  media?’ is becoming an increasingly common starting point.  And the response needs to be a bit more developed than ‘oh, I read Heat every Tuesday.’

It is advice that I give to students every year, but with the recent announcement that later this summer Google will be dropping Google Reader–their pleasingly functional and well-connected RSS reading platform–I began to think once again about how I consume my media.  I will be the first to admit that my methods of media consumption have been, until recently, what might be called… shady.  I’m of the generation of Napster and torrents, after all.  I’m part of the first generation of people who had computers in their bedrooms as children, paving the way for a bit of illegal downloading beginning with the era of Sugar Ray and Savage Garden and moving onward.  When a good friend of mine introduced me to the world of illegal .epub files for my Kindle, I was hooked.  But putting aside all the economic and moral arguments against illegal file sharing–and I do have a profound respect for musicians and writers, and believe they are owed fair compensation for their work–I have my own personal reasons for recently taking my media consumption more seriously.  And by that, I mean, exchanging cold, hard (digital) cash for the pleasure of consuming.

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Making the Most Out of Experiential Learning: 5 Things That Work for Me

Experiential Learning

Over the past several years I have experimented with experiential learning in my teaching: how it’s presented, how it’s managed, and how it’s evaluated.  This semester I have rolled out a full-scale experiential learning component for my module on the Twentieth-Century British Novel–and this has only come after a great deal of trial and error.  For this part of the module assessment, students are required to write an essay reflecting on one of the several experiential learning activities taking place over the course of the semester.  In this essay they must first identify how they understood one specific aspect of a text we studied before the experiential learning activity, and then how their understanding of that aspect changed or was modified after the activity.  This type of critical analysis demands a great deal of self-reflexivity from students, but I have been extremely pleased with how the work has gone so far.  In previous years, students haven’t so easily taken to the challenges of self-reflexive thinking, but there have been five key lessons that I have learned along the way:

1) Explicitly introduce the goals of experiential learning

It is often students–rather than faculty boards or senior colleagues–who are most resistant to innovation in learning and teaching. Students generally begin university with a clear preconception of what learning will entail (e.g. read book, listen to lecture, discuss in seminar, write essay), and breaking from this anticipated course of learning can quickly create confusion or concern.  This confusion is an issue that I address head-on.  When introducing experiential learning assignments or activities, I very explicitly explain the goals and objectives.  ‘We are working on recognizing that the literature we study doesn’t exist in a vacuum–it is still being molded and changed by our perceptions of the world around us.  As we begin to recognize how our daily lives impact upon our understanding of literature, we not only become stronger readers of literature, but stronger readers of everything that surrounds us.’    This big-picture overview really does help students to understand how experiential learning fits into their programme as a whole, and what they might hope to get out of it.

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When Will Kindles Be Ready for the University Classroom?

English: Amazon Kindle DX Graphite displaying ...

Amazon Kindle DX Graphite displaying Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I have said before that my research is still largely paper-based and that I use my Kindle exclusively for pleasure reading.  This isn’t entirely true: I do use a combo of Mendeley and Evernote on my iPad for journal articles.  However, the fact remains that my primary texts are just about always of the paper and cloth variety.    As a new academic year rolls around, I can’t help but wonder how much longer that will be the case, and how long it will be before I am teaching to a classroom full of Kindle-holders.  When will an instruction such as “turn to page 34″ consist of more button-tapping than page-turning?

A great number of the novels that I regularly teach are now out of copyright–including James Joyce, who has been out of copyright for a full 9 months –and are available widely and freely in a number of eReader formats.  Having an entire semester’s reading list on one device would undoubtedly have a great many benefits: an unanticipated seminar tangent could be taken even further if all the students were able to quickly turn to the book that we were discussing; annotations and marginalia could be shared between all the members of the class, creating a real community of learning.  And it seems, leaving my love of paper and print culture aside, that a classroom full of Kindles linked to Twitter could, perhaps, create a positive impact on my learning and teaching.

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A Discovery of Academics

English: The courtyard of the Bodelian Library...

The courtyard of the Bodelian Library, looking out the north gate from the south gate. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve finally made peace with my Cloud, and come to terms with the fact that while I will continue to read books for pleasure on my Kindle, most of my actual research will be distinctly paper-based for the immediate future.  (I’m just waiting for the next great piece of kit to make that change.) But, oh, have I been reading a great book on my Kindle lately.  It might be about early modern history and written by Deborah Harkness, a well-regarded scholar in the field, but it is certainly not academic.  Here’s the run down:

An American academic is spending a year at the Bodleian working on her latest research on the history of alchemical science.   There she meets Matthew, a handsome, 30-something professor who has more publications to his name and more interdisciplinary interests than could ever be possible for a person his age. It’s a charming love story set amid the city of a thousand spires, but the salient fact here is that she is a witch and he is a vampire.

Everyone around me seems to reading Harkness’s A Discovery of Witches at the moment, and for good cause.  It is well-paced, inventive, a bit escapist, and quite stylish. What strikes me most, though, is its portrayal of academics and their circles.  Professorial phenoms, the book playfully suggests, are simply millenia old vampires who have had years to perfect their research and to develop their experience. Matthew’s poise, his polish, and his ability to turn out a slew of books in one semester seems supernatural precisely because it is. (And it’s a fun way to think of academics in the real world–just imagine how many thousands of years Harold Bloom has been around.)

More delightful, though, is the book’s portrayal of Diana, the American witch, and her understanding of academic insight.  As a child she shunned magic, not only because of the tragic death of her parents, but also because she wanted to be certain that her achievements really were her own.  And it’s a resolution, she is certain, which she has largely stuck to, particularly in her professional academic life.  When she happens to get stuck in her research or can’t see the next route her work will take, she simply imagines a large white table filled with the puzzle pieces of all that she needs to fit together–the dates, the events, the speculations, and the controversies of history.  And, in a snap, the puzzle comes together in her mind.  But it is only part way through the novel when Matthew finally explains to her that this visualization is magic, and, in fact, she had used magic all along.

Maybe there is something peculiar and even a bit supernatural about academics, from the young publishing wizards who defy their years, to the profoundly intuitive thinkers who can make sense of even the most illogical of analytical puzzles.   A Discovery of Witches is giving many readers an insight into the mania and joys of an academic life, and its an insight that perhaps many academics could learn from as well.

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