28 December 2005

On new bookshelves

As my diligent readers will have noted (if there are any; this page does not appear on the site stats, so I am writing to thin air, or "semi-privately", as a regular correspondent puts it) — I am into building built-in furniture in the study. The wardrobe is complete, and I have now done half the bookshelves.

Trivial task? Yes, but only at one level. The study has been improvised for the past ten years; it evolved to meet the needs of the moment. More books? Find another stretch of wall to put up shelves (including above the door, an oft-neglected place). Insufficient electric points? Plug in a new four-way extension; and so on. Now, under pressure from my wife, I am not merely re-building the opportunistic hovel, but having to impose some rationale on it.

And that it is the rub. Just as Thoreau warns us to "beware any enterprise which requires new clothes" and C Northcote Parkinson's lesser known "law" is "During a period of exciting discovery or progress there is no time to plan the perfect headquarters. The time for that comes later, when all the important work has been done. Perfection, we know, is finality; and finality is death." (Parkinson, 1958)

So the opportunity/imperative to remodel my clunky study may represent the zenith (and hence the imminent decline) of my productivity! Why? Not because of a superstitious belief in Parkinson, but because I have had to take all my books off my shelves, and I shall have to put them back. But their order has evolved (and I use the term advisedly) over the past twelve years, since we moved to this house. Those in current use have been promoted to the shelves in front of the computer, and the spaces they have vacated on the other side of the room have periodically been reorganised to close the gaps. (This is leaving aside the new books, which graduate from a "current reading" shelf to somewhere else, as I finish them.) So the arrangement of the books reflects my interests; and I occasionally have a fun/frustrating hunt for one which has dropped back. But I can't reload my new shelves like that, if only because I can't remember it all, and the logistics of piling them up in the spare bedroom (thank goodness we had no overnight visitors over Christmas!) have violated the order. So I shall have to resort to a proto-Dewey classification, and twelve years of organic ordering have been lost.

I may well donate many of them to Oxfam; after all, if I can't remember why I have them, why keep them? But, just but, I may occasionally feel, "I know I've got something on that somewhere—now, where is it?"...

22 December 2005

On unfamiliar achievement

I have finally completed the wardrobe. Doors hung; catches installed; the whole thing. It's not perfect. There is at least 1.5mm between the closed doors, and about 4mm misalignment between them at the top and bottom, but over 1200mm and given that the walls, floor and ceiling were not straight to begin with, I'm very satisfied. It's a B+ at least, and probably an A-.

I'm not just satisfied; for the moment (fortified by a well-deserved glass of plonk), this counts as much of an achievement as my Ph.D or my National Teaching Fellowship. Over the top? Probably, but...
  • I'm familiar with the academic game. I know how to play it. I don't pretend to be in the premier league, but I'm good enough. It's a game which is slow to give feedback; you don't know how you are doing for months (in the case of peer-reviewed articles and books) or even for decades (in the rarefied atmosphere of Nobel prizes).
  • The practical game is different. I could not know (despite all the calculations) as I drilled and screwed the piano-hinges for the doors, whether they would actually close together, or overlap, or have an unacceptable gap, or be hopelessly misaligned. (Piano-hinge, being continous and not allowing for adjustment, is very unforgiving.) But as soon as I had set the last screw, I could test it and find out. It was a trivial, but nonetheless anxious moment.
Why go on about this over two blogs? Simply because my students are frequently making the same transition into unfamiliar territory. There is a teacher of carpentry and joinery on one of my current courses; he would no doubt have serious points to make about everything from the original plan of the wardrobe to its execution; by his standards my efforts may well be pathetic. On the other hand, I am grading his skills in writing academic submissions.

  • So this is simply a salutary reflection on how difficult it is to learn how to produce good work in an unfamilar area, and the need to respect those making the cross-over.
  • And; my learning in joinery has been entirely self-taught. Would I have learned any more effectively by taking a course?

19 December 2005

On Wardrobes (no lions or witches so far)

It's installing the lamp-post in the back which is the real hassle.

I'm trying to construct a fitted wardrobe. Flat-pack is for wimps; this is the real McCoy. Just authentic ready-made dimensionally-stable laminated furniture board, an arsenal of power tools and hundreds of bits and pieces from Screwfix.com (most of which will not be used, but what the hell? They are such good value!)

I have measured twice and cut once. With half-mm precision. Everything has been planned and pe-cut and drilled (in the garden, thanks to the fine weather round here). There's no room to handle 8x4 (2.4m x 1.2m) boards up in the bedroom so it had to be done that way. The assembly sequence has been worked out so as not to put too much strain on the fixings (this board is heavy stuff). This afternoon I started to put it all together.

The room ain't straight! One end of the location is 7mm higher than the other. The wall in the corner is 13mm behind the wall 4ft out (OK I mix the measurements, doesn't everyone? Which do you prefer, 37.5 mm [actually nearer 38mm] or an inch and a half?) Blow the drawing board, back to the real world!

What has this to do with teaching? A lot. Prepare all you like, the students don't conform to your predictions. "SMART" objectives are all very well, but they are "teacher" (and teachers' bosses) things. The real world is much messier.

Hope it's fine tomorrow: I shall be out in the garden trimming 7mm off an 8x4 board.

16 December 2005

On the web and distance learning

I've just had an email from someone doing a distance-learning master's course. She thanks me for expressing some ideas in language she can understand (as opposed, by implication, to her course materials). I'm flattered, but equally aware that the style of my sites is not for everyone; for some they are too flippant and lack academic gravitas; for others they are too discursive and indirect. However, the sheer blooming buzzing confusion of the web means that there is probably something out there to meet her particular need.

The problem is how to find it. We have umpteen different search possibilities at our fingertips, and with ingenious devices such as http://del.icio.us/ we can build communities to share mutual interests, but the issue of the distinctive "voice" remains.

Sites on learning and teaching have a limited range of "voice": (no examples given!)

  • There are of course the business sites plugging the latest educational panacea
  • There are the prescriptive sites which tell you how to teach in a mechanistic way
  • There are the academic sites which are more about the writers' concerns than the readers'.
  • And a distinguished few, particularly;
  • http://tip.psychology.org/
  • http://www.infed.org/ and
  • http://www.itslifejimbutnotasweknowit.org.uk/
  • and more broadly http://www.businessballs.com/
  • and doubtless others which would take for ever to cite (it's getting late and I've just realised this is an endless quest), which are more interested in their readers than themselves.

    I'm not a great believer in "learning styles", but it would be great if there were ways of tagging "voice" or "style" as well as "content" for all the distance learners out there trying to tune in to stuff to which they can relate.

    13 December 2005

    On Cobblers' Children

    The proverb is; "the cobbler's children are worst shod". (No relation to "load of cobblers", although that might also be apposite.)

    I have just been trying to read around to provide some sound academic base for my stuff on the "Content and Process" distinction, so I have been looking at material on pragmatics and discourse in communication. One would assume that academics writing in this field would be aware of the ramifications of their work, and their texts.

    So why is it all so badly written?