Saturday, 21 June 2008

reeling rather

God, I love Meg Rosoff. What a thoroughly queer and splendid book.

Also, I wish I was Meg Rosoff. Her first book was about war and anorexia, probably my two favourite subjects for fiction (and so rarely combined!), with a stalwart anorexic female war heroine in the lead - and won the Guardian award;* her second book was about fate and responsibility and won the Carnegie medal; and this one is a subtle and strange revisiting of some of the major early children's lit topoi and genres (school story, castaways). And queer as anything, like I said.

(A couple of reservations about the fate of the Gollum character.)

*I am always slightly surprised that I haven't won the Guardian award for children's fiction, but J points out to me that I have not in fact written a children's novel. Which seems a bit of a technicality to me, but I suppose they have to stick to the letter of the law.

Weekend O Books

Exam boards are finished, tutee meetings are over, I have finished the undergraduate teaching year, and celebrated with a small and pleasing party last night (bruschetta, prosecco, faculty gossip), and this weekend is the Weekend O Books. In term time I can usually only read very bad fiction, because I don't seem to be able to afford the headspace to risk being taken over by a book, and because I only get very limited fiction-reading time (early morning and late at night), so I tend to read mindlessly, the way lots of people watch TV (in fact I think in termtime books and telly occupy exactly the reverse of their normative places - I watch very little TV, I'm very selective about what I watch, and I watch it attentively.* Perhaps it's a fan thing.)

Anyway. Here I lie on the sofa, with a pile of books beside me as follows:
Les Mots Pour Le Dire, Marie Cardinal
When Dad Killed Mom, Julius Lester (enthusiastic rec from J)
Bindi Babes, Narinder Dhami (another enthusiastic rec from J)
Suburban Freakshow, Julia Lawrinson (rec from Judith Ridge's blog; I usually either love or hate Julia Lawrinson's books so who knows what I'll think of this)
After Summer, Nick Earls (saw it in the Amnesty bookshop for 20p and J told me to get it)
Where Have All The Boys Gone?, Jenny Colgan (chicklit, 20p, actually bought as termtime reading, may skip)
Bulldozer Rising, Anna Livia (lesbian-feminist sci-fi novel about a structurally ageist society, 20p)
Peter Pan in Scarlet, Geraldine McCaughrean (J put this on my to-read pile months ago, but amid so many dire warnings of its extreme boringness that I haven't read it yet)
Written For Children, John Rowe Townsend (technically work)
No One Belongs Here More Than You, Miranda July (because I loved You And Me And Everyone We Know so much)
In the Name of God, Paula Jolin (Muslim-fundamentalist YA novel, wonder what it will be like, bought it in Stanford last November alongside a Christian-fundamentalist YA novel which wasn't much cop)
The Summer of Love, Debbie Dreschler (YA graphic novel, I keep starting it but not getting very far because I'm finding the art difficult to read).

But! The very top book on the pile, which I have already started and of which I am currently on page 24, is Meg Rosoff's What I Was. It's her third novel, and I absolutely loved the first two but sort of thought there were problems in each, so I am delighted to record that as of this moment, this may be the perfect book.

::sighs happily and returns to Weekend O Books::

*except for the constant knitting, obviously.

Tuesday, 10 June 2008

Meme: I Can't Believe It's Not A Passion Quilt!

I don't know what the title of this post means. I tried googling 'passion quilt' and mostly I got iterations of this meme, so I am none the wiser. Anyway, Aren tagged me for this, and I'm finally getting round to it:

The rules are as follows: Post a picture or make/take/create your own that captures what you are most passionate for students to learn about. Give your picture a short title. Title your post “Meme: I can’t believe it’s not a passion quilt!”. Link back to this blog entry. Include links to 5 (or more) educators.

The thing about this image is that it points towards the intersection of traditional academic conventions with political and ethical responsibility, and gives me hope that I can actually teach the kinds of thinking I want to teach through, not only alongside (or even despite), traditional academic activity (literary reading, critical analysis, essay-writing).

The main thing about it, I think, is that it shows a way in which the kinds of skills that I teach give students the ability to question and critique authority. 'Britain is being swamped by immigrants'. CITATION NEEDED: what are the figures? But not only 'what are the figures' - if I thought that objective truth was the only location of resistance to power, I would be a scientist (or at least a social scientist!), so for me other questions need to be put, too: how are you defining 'immigrants'? Why are you using this term 'swamped'? CITATION NEEDED. The idea that all statements are discursive, are made in the context of a network of definitions and rules and statistics which legitimate them (or don't legitimate them), and that following up the 'citations' allows you to read and to resist this network of knowledge-and-power.

In terms of academic techniques, too: I teach a lot of first-year students, who are in the process of figuring out how to write an undergraduate-level essay, and one of the things that's hardest for them on a technical level is distinguishing their own voice, their own argument, from those of their sources. If you read someone else's work and agree with it, does it become your work? (No. Well, okay, sort of. But it's only manners to acknowledge, rather than appropriate, work that cost someone else many more hours/years to write than it took you to read.) If you read someone else's work and disagree with it, how can you articulate that disagreement convincingly (when they are, say, Judith Butler, and you are an eighteen-year-old who hasn't read any Freud yet)? And this is somewhere where the conventions of academic writing are actually immensely helpful: proper citation and 'evaluation' of sources (as the marking criteria put it) allow you to make your argument more convincingly, but more importantly, they require you to be aware of the ongoing, dialogic, provisional, situated nature of academic work: understanding that the same term has very different meanings and implications in different fields or traditions, and being able to explain how you want to use that term, means understanding that thinking is both collaborative and antagonistic, and learning both how to honour the people who have enabled you to (let's say) see something new in Jane Eyre and how to argue against the people whose readings are (let's say) are effacing important dimensions of Jane Eyre.

I'm aware this is somewhat utopian.

And I notice that the meme asks me to 'link to' five or more educators, not to 'tag' them, so I'm going to do just that, because some of these people don't know me!

Anxious Black Woman, a blog I recently discovered through the Amanda Marcotte/Seal Press controversy (no, I'm not going to link to it!) and am going to read more assiduously;

John Lyons, a theologian who works down the road from me and is one of the people I know with an enviable ability to combine theoretical thinkiness with lightness of touch;

Lauren Berlant, an awesome queer theorist whose blog often, embarrassingly, falls into my tl;dr bin, but one of my ongoing ambitions is to combine blogging with thinking more effectively, so...;

Lori Askeland; this blog is about her activities as a local councillor in Akron, Ohio, rather than her educative/academic stuff, but it (and she) is wonderful nonetheless;

WOCPhD; another blog I should read in more detail, which includes excellent reading lists!

Thursday, 5 June 2008

Changing gear

I mentioned I'd finished marking, didn't I? Why, yes, I think I did.

So now it's time to start trying to change the gear of my brane, from the slightly mechanical, judgey, slightly impatient mode that marking demands if I'm to get through it with any remnant of robustness, to the more flexible, humble and patient mode that research requires. (From Sir Humphrey Appleby to Bernard, if you will.)

Luckily, I have two excellent research events coming up back-to-back here at Bristol: this afternoon, this workshop on the aesthetics of film, including two papers on sound and one on Fred and Ginger, and tomorrow-and-Saturday, the Performativity and Emptiness conference, which is the culmination of a two-year research programme that I've been (less deeply than I would have liked) involved in throughout. Everyone I've met through this project has been fiercely interesting and strange-minded, so I'm looking forward to the next couple of days a lot. And hopefully the kinds of attention that will be required will reorient my head into a state where I can get on with the writing I need to do this summer.

In the meantime, though, I'm supposed to be spending this morning tidying up bits and bobs, and it's amazing how hard it is to attend to anything work-related. It's like the Spinning Rainbow Wheel of Death is hovering above my head.

Wednesday, 4 June 2008

A Great Day In A Woman's Life

I've finished* my marking!

I have been tagged for a meme by the always-crunchy Aren, and I know exactly what my image is going to be, but I want to sit with my ideas about that post for a while longer, so in the meantime, I'm going to post the three passages that have been keeping me going throughout marking season (here assembled under the heading 'Three Ways To Get A 2:2'):

1. Diana Wynne Jones, from A Tale of Time City:
"Haven't you done any translating either?"
"I've done some," Vivian admitted.
"Let's hear it then." Dr Wilander leaned back and lit his pipe with a tap of one huge finger on its bowl, as if he expected to be listening for the next hour or so.
Vivian looked miserably at her few lines of crossed out and rewritten green writing. "One large black smith threw four coffins about," she read.
"Oh, did he?" Dr Wilander said placidly. "To show off his strength, I suppose. Carry on."
"So that they turned into four very old women," Vivian read. "One went rusty for smoothing clothes. Two went white in moderately cheap jewellery. Three of them turned yellow and got expensive and another four were dense and low in the tables--"
"So now there were ten coffins," Dr Wilander said. "Or maybe ten strange elderly ladies. Some of these were doing the laundry while the rest pranced about in cheap necklaces. I suppose the yellow ones caught jaundice at the sight, while the stupid ones crawled under the furniture in order not to look. Is there any more of this lively narrative?"
"A bit," said Vivian. "Four more were full of electricity, but they were insulated with policemen, so that the town could learn philosophy for at least a year."
"Four more old women and an unspecified number of police," Dr Wilander remarked. "The blacksmith makes at least fifteen. I hope he paid the police for wrapping themselves round the electrical old ladies. It sounds painful. Or are you implying that the police were electrocuted, thus supplying the townsfolk with a valuable moral lesson?"
"I don't know," Vivian said hopelessly.
"But just what," asked Dr Wilander, "do you think your multitudes of old women were really doing?"
"I've no idea," Vivian confessed.
"People don't usually write nonsense," Dr Wilander remarked, still placidly puffing at his pipe.**

2. Douglas Adams, from The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy (Fit the Second):
VOGON CAPTAIN: So Earthlings I present you with a simple choice. Think carefully for you hold your very lives in your hands. Now choose: either die in the vacuum of space, or… tell me how good you thought my poem was.

FORD: I liked it


ARTHUR: Oh yes, I thought that some of the metaphysical imagery was particularly effective.


ARTHUR: Oh…. and um, interesting rhythmic devices, too, which seemed to counterpoint the, er…

FORD: Counterpoint the surrealism of the underlying metaphor of the, um…

ARTHUR: Humanity of the er -

FORD: Vogonity.


FORD: Vogonity.

ARTHUR: Oh. Oh! Vogonity. Sorry. Of the poet’s compassionate soul which contrived through the medium of the verse structure to sublimate this, transcend that and come to terms with the fundamental dichotomies of the other. And one is left with a profound and vivid insight into… err…

FORD: Into whatever it was that the poem was about.

3. Diana Wynne Jones again, from Witch Week:
Simon was very cunning. He was clever. He was thoroughly suspicious of the whole thing. They were trying to catch him out somehow. The safest and cleverest thing was not to commit anything to writing. He was sure of that. On the other hand, it would not do to let everyone know how clever he had gone. It would look peculiar. He ought to write just one thing. So, after more than half an hour of deep thought, he wrote:


It took him five minutes. Then he sat back, confident that he had fooled everyone.

*Well, I have two more dissertations to second-mark, and two moderation meetings to go to, and a resubmitted essay to chase up, but last night I finished the last actual pile of stuff and drank two glasses of champagne to celebrate, so that counts.

**Dr Wilander later gives the correct translation for the passage:

The great Faber John made four containers or caskets and hid each of them in one of the Four Ages of the World. The casket made of iron, he concealed in the Age of Iron. The second, which was of silver, he hid in the Silver Age, and the third, which was pure gold, in the Age of Gold. The fourth container was of lead and hidden in the same manner. He filled these four caskets with the greater part of his power and appointed to each one a special guardian. In this way he ensured that Time City would endure throughout a whole Platonic Year.