26 November 2008

Movies: Quantum of solace

Ah, the teaching semester is over, and that means I get to go to the movies. Not that I don't during the semester, but I get to go a lot more when I'm not teaching. I love the movies. And I've been a big Bond fan since way back.

When I was travelling overseas in the 80s (yes, showing my age, I know), A view to a kill was newly released, and I used to listen to the soundtrack on my Walkman (big clunky thing that it was!). And then when I was on my Contiki tour, possibly the most fun two months of my life, for a few short days we had Papillon, one of the Bond girls from A view to a kill, on tour with us. (She was the girlfriend of the Contiki photographer who came on board for a few days to shoot some photos of the more photogenic of us.) Of course, I wasn't one of the cool kids, so she didn't hang out with me, but she seemed nice enough. My cassette of the soundtrack was later stolen when my car was broken into when I was back home in Melbourne. 

I was always more of a Connery girl than a Moore girl, but liked both. Watched some but not all of the Brosnan films, though I thought he was a very good Bond. (I think I missed the later ones because I was busy dating The Gadget Man, who is not at all a movie goer.) But Craig -- I just love Daniel Craig's interpretation -- it's so much more human, so much more emotional than any of the others. And, strange as it is, I love that they've retained Judy Dench to play M, even though it means she's gotten older as he's gotten younger. A paradox, but an enjoyable one nonetheless.

I do have to say the name Quantum of solace is an intriguing one -- because what does it actually mean? Did I miss something -- because I saw the film, and I'm still not sure. Well, I suppose I do get it -- it's just that it's such a mouthful.

Sir Talkalot and I discussed the opening sequence -- he saw the film initially with friends who all complained that the audience was too close to the action, that it was hard to follow what was going on. He loved that. And so did I. I felt like I was right there in the middle of it. And yes, unlike Life of Pi, it does begin in media res. No doubt about that. Things are happening!

It is very much a modern way of showing a car chase though. I think of the earlier, seemingly fast-moving car chase scenes in other movies, and they seem slow in comparison. But it's that modern day snatch of images that is often blamed for the shortening attention spans of our kids (and why modern day readers tend to like shorter chapters and have vast impatience with any guff).

My one regret is that I hadn't sat down to rewatch Casino Royale, because there were a lot of references back to that film, and while I remembered most of the thrust of it, I may have forgotten some of the finer details. It's the first time I remember two Bond films being so closely linked, but that's something else I rather like too!

23 November 2008

Living a writing life

This year, I increased my time-fraction at work from 0.4 to 0.6 (two days a week to three). Now, the number of days a week I work is a bit laughable really -- it's teaching, and that means lots of marking and in our cases workshopping at home.  Some people are able to do some of their prep/marking at work, but we have to do admin work like answering phones and student enquiries and various other things, so we almost never get this luxury.

As well, I've taught a new subject, which is always a heap more work -- lots of extra unpaid work for sure, but work that is rewarding, nonetheless, as we research our subjects, looking for great writing exercises, better understanding, in-depth explanations or whatever. So, while it's a bind, it's also very rewarding.

Also, in second semester I've taught an online subject, which means my time-fraction has effectively been 0.8. I feel like my whole life has become teaching.

On the one hand it's been great. The Gadget Man was out of work for much of last year, and we ate up all our savings and then some, so it's been nice to have a bit more income and try to catch up on debts and stuff. The worst part about it has been the effect on my writing, which has really fallen away, especially as the semester progressed. 

There is one thing writers do, and that's write. Well, there are a lot of other things too, but writing is the main one. And there is no better time than the present -- we will, none of us, ever have more time than right now. It is a truth among writers, universally acknowledged. (See, all that Austen is rubbing off!) 

And yet . . . 

And yet sometimes the things we do, the choices we make, affect more than just the amount of time we have for writing. The amount of headspace is also affected.

Teaching is not the ideal job for writers. A lot of our creative energy goes into our students, into their work. We're left scrabbling with what's left over. (Neither, as my friend E will attest, is writing (nonfic) the best job for fiction writers. Again, all that creative energy is poured out into the daily grind. Not the most conducive for going home after work and settling again in front of a computer.)

The year before I started teaching, I was writing about 30,000 words/month. My best month was about 50,000. In one of my early years in teaching, I wrote a short story in January and another in December and nothing in between. Signing a writing contract with my students has helped keep me more honest than that, but this year has been particularly hard. And has left me with a decision. Do I keep with the higher time-fraction or drop back?

There are no correct answers to this question. Commitment is something I often talk about with my students. How much you commit is all a matter of what's right for you. The best writers are often selfish with their time -- and perhaps you don't want to be. 

It's the same in any field of art -- I remember watching an interview with Bill Cosby and his talking about his selfishness in his early years of acting and how he regretted the time he lost with his family, but his acknowledgment that he wouldn't have been where he was without that.

No-one has the right to decide our priorities for us. It's something each of us must do for ourselves -- weighing up what we want out of life and how much we're prepared to pay for it, in terms of what it will cost not just in terms of dedication and hard work, but also in sacrifices.

After long discussions with my family, I've decided to cut back on my hours. The person I am when I'm not writing is an angry, frustrated person: one I don't like very much. I'd much rather be less well off financially and more whole spiritually, because that's what writing does for me.

19 November 2008

Reading: Life of Pi

I'm currently reading Yann Martel's Life of Pi, which is interesting, coming off Jane Austen and thinking about literary novels and how they differ from mainstream and genre novels, and about things like beginning in media res and using conflict etc, things this book doesn't do. 

I'm at page 60 and so far the story hasn't started. I mean I've read the blurb on the backcover -- which tells me I'm expecting my main character to be in a boat sometime soon, but so far he's not. So far we've had his ruminations on zoos and on religions and various other things such as his name (a very humorous chapter), and I'm learning a lot about the main character, but nothing is happening. Nothing. I'm not seeing his interactions with other characters. There's little dialogue -- and mostly what it is is remembered dialogue presented through his ruminations. (And my one complaint is that I would expect a zookeeper's son to know that a platypus is not the only egg-laying mammal -- let us not also forget the echidna! But of course Aussies are likely to be more in touch with our monotremes than most other people.)

I suppose that's the thing about literary novels. If the writing is good enough, a book can hold your interest even if it flouts the cardinal rules about conflict. The bottom line, or perhaps the first rule of writing fiction, is to be interesting. So is this book interesting? Yes, to a point. (And, after all, it's a Booker Prize winner.) But if something doesn't happen soon, I may be putting it down and picking up something else. Other literary novels are able to combine story with beautiful writing -- take books like fellow Booker Prize winners Possession (AS Byatt) and The bone people (Kerri Hulme) -- in both of these I've been caught up in the story well before page 60.

Some of the reviews of Pi talk about the wonderful storytelling -- great! I'm looking forward to experiencing it. If I last that far... And truth be known, I probably will. There are very few books I'll abandon. And often I'll do this in the first few pages, in a rage at purple prose, or because the beginning absolutely positively hasn't hooked me and doesn't show any promise of hooking me. So, 60 pages in is a good sign, I guess! 

17 November 2008

Online teaching

This year, I've taught my first online course, which has been quite a different experience to teaching a face-to-face class. I've been prepared for this by first studying as an online student and doing courses on e-learning and course design etc. I think it's important to begin as a student, so you have a good feel of the types of problems (not just technical) your own students might encounter.

A few years ago, my friend Sherryl and I signed up to do a Diploma of VET (Vocational and Education and Training) online with a number of colleagues from our university. We were the only two who managed to complete all the units. Many never made it online. This astonished me. These were fellow teachers, committed to upgrading their quals. There's a very important lesson about motivation in that for any would-be online facilitator.

Sherryl and I worked on the course design of this course together, and we structured it to reflect as well as we could those things that work well for us in the classroom. This meant there are plenty of writing exercises, analysis, discussions.

I had also been involved in the development of another subject, but my input had been mainly "teching" -- taking the writing and getting it ready for the web. That subject was more self-directed where students could plug away at their own pace -- complete the whole course in a week (a very intensive week) if they wanted. Ours was much more interactive, requiring students to log on each week (at their own time), and interact both with the teacher and with each others. I suppose each way of doing it would have its own fans and detractors, but I must say I think the second method is far more rewarding -- both for the teacher and the students.

The plus-side of online teaching is that there's very little prep (though I did have to read or reread all the set stories for discussion), that I don't have to travel in to the university to teach my class, that I can do it in my own time. I do have to log in most days of the week, so students feel I'm around and available. And it's fun! And you have students from all over the place -- so this year I had one in outback Queensland and one in Hong Kong as well as the local students. Also, you get to know the students in a different way -- as with all things online, people will often reveal more about themselves than they will in the real world, which can be a rewarding and interesting thing.

The minus-side is that I have to log in most days of the week, and that the workshopping seems so much more onerous to do online. I'd much rather be able to scribble on a typed manuscript than use Track Changes (Word's editing feature) and Insert Comments. There's also the inadvertent misunderstandings that happen when one person writes a comment, perhaps in fun, and someone else misinterprets the tone of the message. That's when the facilitator sometimes has to facilitate, and not let things fester. This didn't happen very often, fortunately. For me, the other downside is that I felt much less like attending to my other online "duties", such as emails and blogs.

I'm not sure I'd like to do all my teaching online -- I value my real-life interactions too much -- but it's a great way of adding some variety to your teaching. It's a different experience but a rewarding one. And, although I still thing the face-to-face classroom is better (with its instant feedback), this is a close approximation and offers some things the face-to-face classroom can't -- for example, feedback on in-class writing exercises is written rather than verbal and hence more permanent.

14 November 2008

Teaching and learning

A few years ago, I taught for one semester in another course, in an area that was new to me, so it was always a scramble to stay ahead of the class. I took the gig to fill in for someone who was going on long service leave, and she very helpfully sat me down ahead of time and went through how she taught the class. I tried to mimic what she did, and it was a struggle. I was hating the class, and they were hating me. About a third of the way through the semester, I realised this really wasn't working for any of us and sat down to think about why. 

I love teaching in Professional Writing and Editing, so I wondered at first whether it was the fact that I wasn't as familiar with nor as passionate about the subject matter. No, I decided, it wasn't that. I was definitely interested in the subject matter, and was working alongside another teacher, who was driving the course, and she was most helpful and prepared stuff for me, which I then went away and researched so I knew what we were talking about. 

Okay, if it wasn't the subject matter, perhaps it was the students. They were definitely different from the PWE students, being much rowdier, more multicultural, less literate and -- hmm, dare I say "serious"? But they were a vibrant lot -- I didn't really think that was it either. (And, in fact, later I learnt it definitely wasn't that.)

Then it hit me. I was trying to be this other teacher who was on long service leave. I was teaching the course her way, not approaching it the way I approached "my" classes. Sounds silly but that was a momentous discovery to make and a real turning point. That week I threw out my class plans and started again from scratch, and the next week, the students didn't know what had hit them. The first thing I abandoned was the thing they (and I) hated most, so they were very receptive to the change.

Within weeks I was loving the course and loving them, and they were obviously enjoying it a lot more. I found they were a lot more serious about their studies than I had thought -- once they started getting more out of it, they settled in and knuckled down. Or perhaps it was just that I had won their respect. I don't know. I do know the course evaluations were very positive -- something I don't think they would have been if I'd continued on the way I had been going.

It's so much easier, though, teaching something you love. And so it is for me with my writing and editing subjects, and though I sometimes get burned out from workshopping, and find I'll do almost anything to avoid doing it outside work, I love the fact that teaching enriches my own writing, through my research, through my interactions with students and hearing them discuss other people's work. Sometimes I think that to teach writing is to be truly blessed. (But, of course, that's not how I feel right in the middle of those big assessment weeks when my eyes are bugging out,  and I'd do anything to get to my own writing . . .)

08 November 2008

What we call ourselves

Terminology is a funny thing, isn't it? I often wonder how many jobs I have really had compared to how many names the jobs I've had have had. That sounds confusing, right? Wait: it gets worse.

When I first finished my science degree I was working as a medical technologist. That was what I'd put on my tax forms. A few years later, I was still doing the same job but was then classified a hospital scientist, and a few years further on I was a medical laboratory scientist, which is how I still think of the profession, and the title I prefer. A technologist is different to a technician, by the way, because a technologist does diagnoses and is more highly qualified. But many people (including those in ancillary fields) didn't recognise this difference, and I suspect that's why the qualification first changed its name. It's all about snobbery! I do, however, think "medical laboratory scientist" is a good descriptor: we were working in the medical field (usually attached to a hospital, but I did work in one private practice that wasn't) in a lab as a scientist. Perfect.

I'm no longer working in the field, so it could be that I'd have a completely different name now. (And, you know, when we graduated the whole class graduated as having a Bachelor of Applied Science in Medical Technology except for one student who'd already hopped onto the Medical Scientist label. That was rather odd.) 

In that time I worked as a microbiologist and a haematologist, but as a scientist, rather than a doctor. For the uninitiated, it's all very confusing. So the haematologist you have a consultation with in a big public hospital is going to be a doctor, not a scientist. The scientist-haematologist is the one who'll do your blood work up, who'll look at your blood film and tell the doctor what's wrong. Both are called haematologists.

Now I'm a teacher, I don't find the terminology is any better: I can be labelled a teacher, a tutor, a lecturer (though I tend to think of this as more a Higher Ed than TAFE thing) and, now we're teaching online units, a facilitator. I probably like the term "facilitator" the least, as to me it seems to have little to do with "teaching" per se. I think it pays more homage to collaborative learning, though, which is a technique we do use a lot in the classroom through workshopping, and I have to say I'm a great believer in collaborative learning. But we still do "teach" -- it's what the students want, what they recognise us as. We facilitate as well, but we do more than this.

Even in writing there is the difference between a "writer" and an "author". (Or authoress, as my mother seems determined to say. I point out that this term is now considered sexist, and she tells me that I'm out of my mind. I could talk about the linguistic distinctions, and how the suffix is dependent on the male word to determine its meaning, but her eyes would glaze over. Such things excite me, though. It's the editor in me!) 

We had great discussions about the difference between a "writer" and an "author" in my online course. I see the two as completely interchangeable. But for others an author was more serious, or was published, or had a book or number of books published. To me, the distinction is once again a snobbish thing. A writer writes. Does an author auth? If you've written an unpublished and unpublishable short story, aren't you still the author? 

Me: I'll go for "writer". I think I'll always prefer the plainer, more simple descriptor.