Posted in Learning, Writing

Writing challenge (Day Six)

Um

Well um

No, I’m sorry, I can’t do this. I can’t think of anything to say.

She sits down in a fog of embarrassment and dismay and silence.

Or the inverse.

Yeah well like my name is like Kimkourtneykhloe and I’m like 14 well almost like I will be next month and I’m sick excited because me mum, mum said that she’ll take me to like Devonport for the day and I’ve never been there before and I hear it’s a exciting place and I just can’t wait because I might get to buy like a new like clothes yeah. What else? Yeah well like I live with mum and six brothers and four sisters and seven dogs and five chickens and yesterday I got a new like kitten she’s called Kendallkylie because mum reckons that name’s really like cool and she said that if she had another kid it would be called that but we told her that she can’t have another kid because like me dad’s not here he’s having a stretch mum calls it and it only seems to happen when he’s around – or Uncle Max – but he’s in prison too, so that won’t happen which is good because there’s not enough room in the bed for us all anymore so yeah that’s it.

Three seconds start to finish.

People hear our voice when we have something to say. Or when we think we have something to say. For some of us, if we have nothing to say we say nothing. Our voice won’t be heard. I think mothers are responsible. If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything. I don’t know if you’re like me in this regard, but over the years I’ve tended to substitute many words for ‘nice’: Intelligent. Funny. Inspirational. Witty. Imaginative. Clever. Interesting. Astute. Insightful.

I’m silent a lot!

I was unhappy with yesterday’s post.

I asked Tim what he thought. (I ask him that every day and he says the same thing: Yeah, it’s good with the rising inflection that gives me a little bit of encouragement but not too much.) Yesterday he said, I liked the picture of the kids jumping off the bridge.

I like an honest man, I honestly do, but yesterday I secretly wished he’d listened to my mother. A. Thousand. More. Times!!

I was unhappy with yesterday’s post because I felt that I had nothing to say. I had nothing intelligent, funny, inspirational, witty, imaginative, clever, interesting, astute, insightful to say ….

I had no point to make, no advice to give, no wisdom to share. My words came haltingly, it took three times as long to write as my posts generally do, and in the end I clicked the ‘publish’ button quite reluctantly. I felt like a student who knows the deadline is NOW but needs one more day to figure out their argument, to push the fog away so that their point becomes clear. And then a strange thing happens. It’s not one more day you need, because within an hour of the submit/publish button being clicked, it all becomes clear in your head.

It’s too late. It’s submitted and you know your reader/marker will be saying to him/herself I can see what you’re trying to say, but it would be better if you just said it. 

Finding your voice is hard if you have nothing to say: if you don’t understand the topic, if you don’t have a view on it, if you are unclear about the point you want to argue, if you don’t have an angle. Writing a blog post, or writing an assignment will feel like torture, each sentence wrung out a word at a time. Ideas will scurry to the darkest corners of your mind and hide under boxes labelled one hit wonders of the 80s, or tram stops from South Yarra to the city, or high school teachers I’d like to see today so that I can say see, I did make something of myself.

We tell students to plan their assignments. I tell students to plan their assignments. But I can’t write like that. I can’t plan. I do however, need an angle. My voice will be weak, will desert me, if I don’t have a hook: that first idea, the approach I’m going to take. My first sentence is the most important one for me. It shapes my whole post; when I was an undergraduate the first sentence shaped each assignment. Until I had my first sentence I couldn’t write.

My first sentence sets the scene, gives me ideas that grow as I write. Once I have the first sentence (the initial idea, the angle, the perspective) then I can write. From then I write by writing not by planning. I understand through writing – I write to understand.

When I know I have something to say – something intelligent, funny, inspirational, witty, imaginative, clever, interesting, astute, insightful – then my voice will emerge.

How does it work for you?

*****

Tomorrow is day seven of the writing challenge. The final day. Free choice says Tim. Yikes! That’s a challenge.

But I’m up for a challenge.

Do you have one for me?

Posted in Learning, Writing

Writing challenge (Day Five)

Since when has there been seven days in a week? I ask rather indignantly.

Tim just looks at me in that way he does: head on one side, hands by his side, eyes saying can you hear yourself?

Apparently, according to Tim, there are seven days in a week, not five. I thought today was the last day, the final day of my writing challenge … but no. As a week is seven days in length, your writing challenge will continue for another two days.  But I cannot guarantee that there won’t be another challenge when this one is done.

The man has a warped sense of reality.

That’s my conclusion.

I’ve drawn other conclusions over the years: he is a gifted teacher; a beard suits him; his photography should be shared; he’s the right husband for me.

Conclusions are what we do when we wrap things up: people, arguments, criminal cases, university assignments. We look at the evidence and come to a conclusion. 

I have jumped from a few things over the years including:

Cudgen Creek Bridge, Kingscliff NSW
Natural Arch (or Natural Bridge), Qld

and my conclusion is that you should keep your arms firmly by your sides as you hit the water!

My other conclusion is that, unlike the water under the bridges, conclusions are not things to be jumped to.

I also had a learning the last time I jumped through the hole at Natural Arch/Bridge: the older you are, the longer the drop feels. I was in my 30s the last time I jumped and it’s going to remain the last jump. They don’t let you jump anymore though – there’s a fence there to stop people doing it. Dad and I didn’t see the fence as we climbed through it all those years ago. Mum was cross, but then mums often are.

We need conclusions in our writing and in our teaching. When students are tasked with writing an essay, they must write a conclusion. When we teach a lesson/tutorial we need a conclusion. When we give a lecture we must conclude.

Psychologist Robert Sternberg concludes that if a teacher only teaches in one way, then they conclude that the kids who can’t learn well that way don’t have the ability, when, in fact, it may be that the way the teacher is teaching is not a particularly good match to the way those kids learn.

I wonder how many teachers would agree with that conclusion? It means that the teacher cannot blame the student for not learning, but must reflect on their own teaching practices to see if they need to make any changes. I wonder if it’s the same for those of us who teach in universities?

Interesting.

In Life of Pi Yann Martel makes the point that it is important to conclude things properly. Only then can you let go. Otherwise you are left with words you should have said but never did, and your heart is heavy with remorse.

That kind of conclusion is not quite the same as writing a conclusion to a journal article, or a chapter, or an essay. But it is still important to not leave things unsaid, or there might be remorse when the assignment/chapter is returned: if only I’d taken a bit more time. Sometimes the best thing to do is to put your writing away for a few days and then come back to it with a fresh mind and fresh eyes.

Tim wrote the conclusion to our chapter yesterday. I’m going to put it away for a few days so that I approach it with fresh eyes and a fresh mind (can you hear Tim saying but you didn’t write it?). Still, my eyes need to be fresh.

Actually, that’s not the real reason.

The sun is shining. My conclusion: it’s a great day for a bushwalk!

******

Tomorrow, finding your voice. Where did it go?

Posted in Writing

Writing Challenge (Day Four)

Tim starts reading and says you’re a dag. And smiles.

He finishes reading and says you’re so clever. And I smile.

Daggily clever? Cleverly daggy? Daggy and clever?

Voice.

When I ask students to write a reflection or a statement of philosophy about teaching, I want to hear their voice.  I dealt with a student this week who had found someone else’s philosophy statement on a blog and pasted it into her assignment. It wasn’t her voice. It was an easy pick-up. It happens way too often. I’m happily reading along and suddenly it is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife pops into the middle of the sentence. My ears prick up. Hang on, I say inside my head, that’s not Student A, that’s Jane Austen.

I keep reading and lo and behold it seems increasingly likely that I really will undertake the expedition that has been preoccupying my imagination now for some days and I recognise the very distinct voice of Stevens. It seems strange that his voice would appear in the midst of a student assignment on the fundamentals of communication in the classroom. I pause, I puzzle, I shake my head to clear it, only to read on and discover that I remain transfixed by Stevens’ voice.

Stevens’ voice comes about through long sentences and parenthetical comments: An expedition, I should say, which I will undertake alone, in the comfort of Mr Farraday’s Ford; an expedition which, as I foresee it, will take me through much of the finest countryside of England to the West Country, and may keep me away from Darlington Hall for as much as five or six days. It’s a voice that takes me instantly into the complexity of the character and slows me down. I move to the couch to be more comfortable because this is one of my favourite books, but I read on only to discover that many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice. I am transported into the magically real world Gabriel Garcia Marquez paints in One hundred years of solitude.

I am confused. Student A (let’s call her Anna and in that way flesh her out a little) is writing about communication in the classroom, but her voice is lost in the other voices that keep intruding on her paper. I would go so far as to say that Anna has not found or established her own voice yet. She has let herself be distracted by other readings, others’ thoughts, others’ voices. She has not done her own thinking (which, let’s face it, is difficult); rather she has relied on my mother is, like, a totally confirmed A-list [expletive riddled passage deleted] *** hole cretin [expletive riddled passage deleted] ***head of the highest order. Fact. In fact, I, of this moment, officially declare my entire doubt of the fact that she is in fact my actual real mother.

My head is spinning, I flick backwards and forwards through Anna’s paper wondering where that voice came from. There’s no acknowledgement of her source, but it really doesn’t sound like Anna.  I do a Google search and find that it is the voice of Dora from Dawn French’s A tiny bit marvellous. Possibly not the best source Anna could find for her paper, but I suppose that all happy families are alike but an unhappy family is unhappy after its own fashion.

Tolstoy? Wow. 

Voice. Use your own. I know, believe me I know, it can be hard to develop your own, but your audience wants to hear First the colours. Then the humans. 

No, Marcus Zusack, now is not the time to intrude. I’m trying to establish my voice. A distinct voice. A voice that emerges from the snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks … excuse me, Donna Tartt, please don’t do that. I’m trying to write in my own voice. A voice that is uniquely mine, a voice that is worth being heard, that emerges from this is Albion Gidley Singer at the pen, a man with a weakness for a good fact.

Kate Grenville, seriously, this is so not the time. I cannot finish on someone else’s words. I have to finish with my own because the war had ended as wars sometimes do, unexpectedly.

****

Tomorrow, the conclusion.

Posted in Writing

Writing challenge (Day Three)

It was 10:38pm. At night. A cold night with the wind howling and the rain splashing the windows. Somewhat violently, if my memory serves me correctly.

The phone rang.

This is unexpected.

It rang again.

Hello?

[ ….]

Seriously? Do people really still do that? 

After I hung up I stood there for a moment, shaking my head.  Apparently, they do.

This is 2012 and kids still ring strangers and ask is Mr Wall in? Perhaps Mrs Wall is there?  No?  No walls? 

Structure.

Houses have it; phone calls have it; thankfully, the chair I’m sitting on has one. We can’t avoid structure. Even abstract concepts like love have a structure. It might not have the same structure each time or be the same structure for everyone, but there’s a structure.

The glance; the flit of the eyes; the smile … 

The conversation; the I can’t stop thinking about him/her; the humming around the house (and on the bus and at the shop); the weight loss; the hunger; the disappointment; the grief; the anger …

The presentation; the I must speak with that (very cute) young man; the constantly being impressed with his thinking, but he’s so young; the happy realisation that within the young man’s exterior there beats the heart of an old man; the living happily ever after.

Structure. Everything has structure.

Even writing. Particularly writing. More particularly, academic writing. Let’s take a book chapter as an example.

Editors provide an outline of what is to be included. Much like the task description of a university assignment. Editors also provide a style guide, just like the ones provided to university students. While there isn’t a marking guide, editors send the completed (draft) chapter to reviewers (markers) who review (mark) the chapter and write comments (feedback) all over it. Who pick it to pieces. Who write quite unhelpful, often contradictory, feedback: the literature review does not capture the writing of (insert name of reviewer 1 here); the literature review is extensive. The lack of a theoretical framework is a weakness of the chapter; the theoretical framework is clearly articulated.

The draft chapter is returned (generally within a year of submission), the authors cry a little at the hurtful feedback provided by reviewer 1, and then re-work the chapter.

Sharon, interjects Tim, you’re supposed to be writing about structure. Oh yes.

Hmmm …

Some structures are not good.

Many people view a dictatorship as a poor structure for a civil society.

Some building structures aren’t well thought-through … I’ve seen many student assignments that have all the pieces, but they’re simply in the wrong place.

When a structure works well, the chapter/assignment/blog post is a delight to read. It works. It makes sense. You can feel confident that when you walk out the door you’ll step onto a floor at roughly the same level, rather than plummet to an untidy injury.

It’s a door Jim, but not as we know it

This post was supposed to be about writing to a structure and why I find that so challenging.

The truth is, and this might come as a surprise to some of you, I don’t think in a structured way. When I first sat down to write this post the computer was having conniptions, and so while it sorted itself out I started writing by hand. I had an idea that I didn’t want floating away to the dark recesses of my mind, and so to capture it I wrote it down. My first sentence was: Structure is a fundamental aspect of academic writing.

Dull.

I drew a line under that and wrote another first sentence: Structure is important … and that’s as far as I got because I bored myself to sleep.

Then I wrote: Imagine if the chair you’re sitting in had no stru …

Snooze.

But that brought to mind the story of the walls … the late night phone call. By the way, they hadn’t enough nous to hide their number, so did they get a shock the next night!!

I create as I go (well, create is a strong word), but I refine and edit and delete and include and structure as I go. And that’s fine for this kind of writing (where I’m perhaps amusing or entertaining or just being a bit silly) but that’s not okay for writing chapters – or university assignments for that matter.

Why not? 

Good question, Jill/Amanda/Wendy/Glynis/Mandy/Alison/every student I’ve ever taught!

So there you have it. A seemingly unstructured post on the importance of structure.

*****

Tomorrow’s challenge is my voice as an academic.

Posted in Writing

Writing challenge (Day Two)

I’ve given birth a number of times now. I wouldn’t say I’m an expert (is it the kind of thing you can become an expert in?) but five births is a solid effort. It’s not the most glamorous thing a woman can do on a sunny Sunday afternoon, but where would we be without it, eh?

I won’t say any more than that because I can see Tim is getting distinctly uncomfortable, thinking that I might go into graphic detail, and I don’t want to shock him, especially when he hasn’t yet had his breakfast.

But it’s like writing. Childbirth that is, not Tim feeling uncomfortable. Writing, to me, is like childbirth. It’s painful and messy, and thankfully at some point the pain stops and the thing flops out and lies there waiting for someone to pick it up and love it. And clean it up. Let’s face it, a newborn baby needs a wash before presenting it to the world.

You wouldn’t push and strain and suck on ice cubes and then go ‘ta-da’ as soon as the baby appears. You want it looking pink and soft and clean and smelling good before others see the beauty that you see the moment it’s born.

It’s the same with writing. Your first thoughts, your first words on the page, your first attempts aren’t what you present to the world. They’re messy, a bit gloopy in places, and urgh … what’s that in your hair? Your first words need air breathed into them – either with a short sharp smack (a bit old-school, but effective nevertheless) or perhaps with a machine to suck out the icky bits; they have a life of their own, but you need to get that life started in this new outside-of-your-head environment.

And so you edit. You re-arrange (metaphors can only go so far, and I’ve pushed mine far enough, so I’ll just focus on writing now 🙂 ), you re-word, you shape and think and move sentences from the beginning of the paragraph to the middle, and then put them into completely different paragraphs. You read and re-read your own work and realise that you don’t have to say things the long way round; sometimes the shorter sentence is the most clear.

You find your own voice – yes, even in a university assignment – and you grow in confidence across the years as you develop that voice. You find your voice through editing; through looking at your work on the page because it’s almost impossible to edit while the words are in your head (imagine trying to wash your baby while she’s in utero).

I prefer to edit. I like the creativity of that process. I can’t shape and re-arrange when the words are in my head (or Tim’s head for that matter, imagine that!) but I can when they’re on the page.

So, editing is a joyous process, a creative process that allows me to play with words and ideas.

Through editing I find my voice.

How/when do you find yours?

***

Tomorrow’s challenge is ways of thinking about writing to a structure (aka playing the game). That’s going to require some serious thinking!!

Posted in Writing

Writing challenge (Day One)

Tim* has set me a challenge. A challenge to write a blog post every day this week. Here’s why (it’s a long-ish story, so please bear with me).

In 2006 (I warned you) Tim and I wrote a conference paper called Contextualising student engagement: Orientation and beyond in teacher education. A few people read it. One of those people was an academic in New Zealand who was part of a team putting together an annotated bibliography about student engagement. That was in 2009. The team concluded that it had some merit.

We move now to early 2012. The intervening years saw us write a little bit, but not much. I wrote a book chapter on radio as a means of inquiry for a book called Technology and teaching and we wrote a few conference papers. My favourite was one called Discomforting the research spirit: Uncomfortable narratives of being and becoming a researcher. Between 2006 and 2012 we were busy with other aspects of our jobs and writing wasn’t something that we were terribly keen on. At least I wasn’t. Still aren’t. I don’t like writing. There, I’ve said it.

Except that’s not strictly true. What I don’t like writing is journal articles that ask for a theoretical framework and need to be written in a very particular way. There is a formula for writing journal articles and that takes the creativity out of writing. It’s that kind of writing I don’t like.

So, cut to this blog. Why the challenge? There’s one piece of information I haven’t yet told you. Earlier this year I received an email from an academic in England who is putting together a Handbook on Student Engagement. She either saw our conference paper or the annotated bibliography and invited us to write a chapter for the book.

We said yes, thank you very much, we’d love to.

And then promptly forgot about it. Well, not forgot so much as put it to the backs of our minds. The deadline was months away; there was plenty of time.

That was months ago. The deadline is now. Well, this month now. In 17 days. We have to have the chapter written by September 28 – and not because I head off then, but that’s because that’s the deadline.

The place I’m heading off to

So, we have to write. Tim and I are writing together. And that’s where the challenge comes in. I don’t like writing. When I know I have to follow a particular structure I get a knot in my stomach and a clench in my jaw … and I cannot write. I can think, I can read, I can talk my ideas out. But I don’t like putting words on a page in a particular order so that they make some kind of sense.

I like editing. I like having some words to play with. I like to see the thinking on the page and then shape it. Tim had one suggestion for the chapter we’re writing. He’ll write one section and I’ll write another. This is how the conversation went.

Tim to me: You write section 3 and I’ll write section 2.

Me to Tim: When you say ‘write’ what do you mean?

Tim to me: Putting words on a page (add a little head movement in there and you’re getting close to how he said it). I’ve done some reading, I’ve done some thinking, I’ve done some planning, and now it’s time to write.

Me to Tim: I have ideas. Why can’t I tell you what my ideas are, then I can go away while you write?

Tim: Because that’s not writing.

Me: Well, what is writing?

What is writing? Is it physically putting words on a page? Isn’t it enough that I have the ideas? Do I have to put them into some kind of order as well? 

Tim: I challenge you to write a blog post every day this week. Further, I challenge you to write about something  in each blog post. The first day [which was yesterday, so I’m already a day behind, but that’s another story] you are to write about what is writing and the second day you’re to write about editing vs the blank page.

So here I am … on day one (well, sort of), still wondering what writing is.

In the meantime, Tim has written section 2 and I’ve given him ideas for section 3. That’s writing. Isn’t it?

****
I’ve spent 47 minutes writing this blog post, including time re-reading the chapter I wrote on using radio as a means of inquiry (I had to make sure it was okay enough to link to!). I can write blog posts. I like writing blog posts … but journal articles and book chapters? They’re something else altogether.

Is this writing?

Tim* = Tim Moss, my husband

Posted in Travel

Planning

This year I’ve been involved in the Tasmanian Leaders Program (or TLP) which is a year-long program of workshops, seminars and retreats for 24 aspiring leaders across Tasmania.  The other 23 participants come from not-for-profit organisations, local government, PR firms, and engineering and mining companies.  I’m the only educator.  And that’s one of the excellent things about being involved.  I get to talk to other people who are in vastly different workplaces to me, doing vastly different kinds of work. Each month we get together for two days of intensive workshops (called Linking Sessions).  Three times across the course of the year we get together for 3-day residentials which are even more intense. In groups of six we have to organise one day of a monthly Linking Session.  Planning is essential.  We have 16 invited speakers coming to our Linking Session (on Sustainability) – we have to devise the day, decide who we want to speak, put the program together, organise the venue and catering and reading materials.  It requires a lot of planning.

As part of my role as Director of Student Engagement, in the Faculty of Education at UTAS I have put together a monthly Education Conversation, which started two years ago as the staff in Education at the Cradle Coast campus sharing their research and teaching interests with each other, but has grown to become much bigger. At the last Conversation, in August, we had a panel of four invited speakers, and an audience of just over 50.  It takes a lot of planning.

This year I have run nine Orientations sessions, and the same number of Engagement Days, in Tasmania and in Melbourne and Adelaide.  They take a lot of planning.  (Luckily I have Melissa Reyenga to help me with it!)

This year I am also the facilitator of the Teacher Education Teaching and Research Group in the Faculty of Education.  We meet for an hour each month by video conference on three different campuses.  We’ve also had a planning day.  These meetings, and the planning day, take a lot of planning.

In addition, I was successful earlier this year, in a funding application and so am also the facilitator of the Student Engagement Community of Practice.  We have staff from each of the three campuses coming together on a monthly basis for three hours, as well as staff from another Faculty.  These monthly three-hour conversations take a lot of planning.

As if that isn’t enough, I am also unit coordinator for a core first year unit in the B.Ed (Primary), B.Ed (Early Childhood), B.Ed (Specialisations), and M.Teach (Primary) & M.Teach (Secondary) courses.  That means I am coordinating a unit which has ten tutors and approximately 768 students.  It is taught on all three Tasmanian campuses, as well as fully online to students studying in Tasmania, in all states on the mainland, and in many parts of the world.  It takes a lot of planning.

In second semester I am the unit coordinator of an elective unit in the B.Ed (Primary).  The unit is also open to other students across the University.  It is a fully online unit, and again the 112 students are spread far and wide.  I have two tutors teaching the unit, one of whom is in Victoria, and the other is in Launceston.  I, of course, am in Burnie.  More planning.

In one of the first residentials this year for TLP we did a Myers Briggs Type Indicator.  It’s a way of assisting people better understand their preferences for particular things, like taking in information, and structuring that information in particular ways. (I’m not endorsing anything here, just letting you know that we did it).

When my result came in, it didn’t surprise me to find that I prefer to draw energy from my own internal world of ideas, emotions and impressions, rather from people and activities: according to MBTI I am an introvert rather than an extravert.  It also didn’t really surprise me to find that I have a preference for living a spontaneous and flexible life, rather than a planned and organised life. According to MBTI I am ‘perceiving‘ rather than ‘judging’.

Which means that my preference is to not plan.  One of the questions I’ve most disliked in my life is: “what do you plan to do with your life? Where do you see yourself in 5/10 years?”. It’s not a question I can answer with anything more than a shrug and a “don’t know”. I could never (still can’t) make any sense of a diagram like this:

My ‘career’ such as it is, was in no ways planned. It just happened. Yes, I made decisions at various points along the way, but I didn’t have (don’t have) a 5 or 10 year plan.

Imagine my surprise then that a) I have to do so much planning in my professional life and b) I’ve decided to take two weeks off and go to Franceand Italy (and then through Austria into Germany) and I have it all planned out.

The trip is planned to within an inch of its life.  I know where I’m staying, I’ve booked each train trip, I’ve even booked tours (well, one tour, but I’m about to book another one). I am fighting against myself with all this planning, but I’m rationalising it by reminding myself that I have two weeks to do all that I want to do and to be able to do it all and not have to worry about working out where and when to catch a train I’ll have it booked.  That way I can enjoy myself by having less anxiety.

The rationalisation is working for me so far … but I want to go to Europe again next year for longer than two weeks – and with Tim rather than by myself as I’m doing this time – and I’m determined to wander and be spontaneous.

Except Tim’s a planner, so how will he cope?

That gives me something to ponder while I search for photography tours of Venice!