Project For Awesome: Room to Read

If you follow me elsewhere you might have already seen me promoting my video for the Project for Awesome. For those who don’t know, the P4A is a youtube charity event where people make videos promoting their favourite charities and others vote for their favourites and the most popular charities get a share of the money raised.

My video is promoting Room to Read, who do a variety of literacy and education projects in Africa and Asia. They publish children’s books in local languages, provide emotional and material support for girls completing secondary school, assist in improving literacy instruction and provide better school buildings and school libraries.

If this sounds important to you, you can go here to vote for it. And, of course, you should watch some other P4A videos and donate either to the Project for Awesome (which you can do through the same website as the video) or directly to Room to Read.

Now seems like as good a time as any to provide an update on where else I can be found on the internet as it’s easy to miss this and I’ve had a few new subscribers. I also post slightly different content on each, though I post everywhere when I have a new post.

On Facebook I mostly post about new posts, with the occasional link to cool stuff that I find.

Twitter is probably a better place to follow me for interesting articles and so on. To be honest I’m not very good at Twitter, I don’t really know how it works, but I do retweet cool stuff that I find.

Tumblr is about the only place where I won’t worry about annoying you by posting too much. I try to only reblog things that people who follow the blog will enjoy, so I will avoid flooding you with Doctor Who.

I also have a Goodreads account which is my main way of keeping track of what I read, so that’s good if you want to know what I’m currently reading, and you can bug me if I haven’t posted a review of a book I’ve finished recently. Feel free to request reviews of other books in my Read list, at the very least I’ll provide something short.

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Frankenstein – Mary Shelley

frankensteinMary Shelley’s always great for making you feel inadequate – she wrote a novel between the ages of 18 and 21 which is still being read nearly two hundred years later. Of course, she did have the advantage of being married to Percy Bysshe Shelley and hanging around his friends, who included Lord Byron (also, she didn’t have twitter to distract her). 

Frankenstein is a brilliantly written and cleverly constructed gothic novel, with just the right mix of adventure with musings on friendship, ambition, and what it means to be human. Continue reading

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How (Not?) to Study for an English Exam

Every year, I try a new way of studying for English exams, and every year, they go about the same. Yesterday’s post was about the one I sat last week, but my other English exams, in high school and in university, have all gone the same way. Other essay exams also don’t go brilliantly, but English, for some reason, is especially challenging. Why?

English is messy. Everything links up to everything else. This applies at every level, from words or phrases in individual stanzas in individual poems, to separate texts or even groups of texts. So, it’s easy to go off on a tangent, or end up going around in circles trying to explain something. Sometimes it seems like, in order to explain A, you need to explain B, and in order to explain B, your reader needs to understand A. Wrangling thoughts about literature into something linear can seem impossible.

Furthermore, usually the most rewarding way of thinking about a literary work is not the way that the work presents itself to you; obviously, books don’t come structured in terms of theme, character, symbolism, etc. This is, of course, a very good thing, but it is one of the main reasons why English can be so difficult to study. This is why I  think I find English more difficult than, say, philosophy. In philosophy, we have step-by-step arguments; that’s what’s presented to us, and that’s the format in which we’re expected to understand and respond to it.

Okay, so let’s look at how I studied for this exam. The standard advice, what any teacher will tell you to do to prepare for English exams (or other essay exams), is to write practice essays based on past exam questions. This seems sensible, and it was the main way I studied in high school. It didn’t go too badly, and it can be very helpful if you have access to someone who can read every essay you write and give you extensive feedback on it (when they go from making your essay bleed red ink to just telling you that it’s fine, you’re probably pretty well-prepared). Unfortunately, how much feedback it’s possible to get from university tutors can vary.

There are other problems with this approach, too. First, it’s exhausting. Yes, you’ll have to write three-ish essays in the exam itself, but don’t underestimate how much the self-control required to make yourself write timed essays over and over again drains you. I found that, even though each essay only took an hour to write, I could only bring myself to do one or two a day. In addition, this approach limits the amount of content it’s possible to cover. You can get through much more content in an hour of making summaries or talking aloud about a topic than you can in writing an essay about a narrow, specific topic. You’re also only really preparing for those specific questions, and while some of them might come up (like the Richard III one did for me), often they won’t, and you’ll probably be in trouble.

Some would like to say, of course, that English isn’t about “content”, that you shouldn’t try to memorise anything, that you need to focus on Understanding and Critical Thinking and Nuance and so on. That’s great – until exam leave starts. At that stage, assuming you’ve gone to classes and done the reading and made notes and asked questions and thought about all of it a bit, chances are you do understand it. When exams are looming, your main task is to take all that stuff that you mostly understand and make sure that you’re going to be able to reproduce it in the exam room. I should be clear, you can’t do this if you don’t understand it. But understanding is only half the battle. On these grounds, here’s how I studied for English this semester:

  1. I haven’t really got the hang of taking notes in English lectures, as the messiness of the subject tends to make it hard to pick out what’s really relevant and get it all down. So, my first task was to flesh out those notes, which I did by reading the relevant chapters of a couple of books, listening to a couple of lectures from iTunes U (look up Emma Smith from Oxford, she is amazing), and reading the introductions to my copies of the texts.
  2. I went through the past exams to see what topics were generally asked about. In the case of Richard III, all the questions seemed to be either about Richard’s character and why we like him, or about the role of history in the play.
  3. I took all of my notes from lectures and readings and divided them into those topics. Thankfully, they fit pretty well, so I could be fairly sure I wasn’t going to come across something outside of those topics that I needed to write about. I reordered these notes into logical categories so they formed a fairly comprehensive summary of everything I felt I needed to know.
  4. I wrote these summaries out over and over again.

This is a very brute force method, and it definitely wouldn’t work for everybody – at this point, I’m not at all sure it works for me, and I know some people who have had great success with the practice-essay route. There are certainly problems with it:

  • I didn’t write the summaries out nearly enough times;  it takes a lot for these things to get stuck in your head, and that means making the summaries early and spending time writing them out (or, as I tried a few time, talking out loud from them).
  • I didn’t try reproducing them from memory. This would have been helpful for two reasons: first, it would have made the content stick much, much better. Second, it would have given me a way to know what I did and didn’t know, allowing me to focus on what I didn’t know so well.

I feel like these are the reasons that this exam didn’t go so well (clarification: results aren’t actually out yet, and I think I’ll still get a good mark for the course as a whole. Here, I’m reflecting on the experience I had in the exam, rather than the grade I’ll recieve), but as I’ve said, these are the results I’ve had with every English exam. My strategy is still evolving and I suspect I’ll work it out when I have very few English exams left, as they thankfully become rarer at the higher levels.

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English Exams Are Hell

When I walked into my English exam last Saturday, I felt pretty confident. I don’t take the no-sleep-for-three-weeks approach to exams, so I was well-rested. I’d spent a few days before focusing solely on that exam, as it was my last, and I’d worked hard (some would say too hard) all year. I knew the two texts I was focusing on well (I chose Richard III, because it’s awesome, and The Miller’s Tale, because there was a compulsory question on it and so I could study two texts in depth rather than three texts with less depth if I did it for one of the main essays as well), I had quotes, and I had everything I wanted to know in a neat linear summary which matched up with how my mind works. I was going into this exam knowing that I probably wasn’t about to produce a work of genius, that my grade for the course as a whole would probably remain where it was from coursework alone, or perhaps be dragged down a little; that’s how English exams have always worked for me.

Reading Time
The ten minutes’ reading-only time starts, and I open the paper. Translation passage: two choices, both of which I can do. Excellent. Will do the first one, don’t translate it in your head now, leave it until you’re allowed to write. First Chaucer question: again, two options. The first: I know I saw this as a past question, but I didn’t have any notes on that idea from lectures, so I wasn’t prepared for it. The second one then. Hrm. Not something I especially prepared for, but that’s why I didn’t focus my preparation on writing exam essays; I can fit what I did prepare into this without two much trouble. Maybe just jot down a plan – wait, no, reading-only time, put the pen down. Don’t look up, the invigilator’s probably preparing to shoot you. On to the essay section.

Well, the first Miller’s Tale question would be great if I’d revised the General Prologue too, but I didn’t. The second one’s slightly better, though neither are great. That one’s going to be tricky. Dream Richard III question, though; exact replica from a past exam, and one of the standard topics: Richard’s appeal to the audience despite obviously being evil. That’s the questions picked; you now have six minutes to work yourself into a panic over those Miller’s Tale ones before you can start writing.

Writing Time
You may begin writing. Quick, write down thesis statements for each one, quick plan, go! Wait, that one doesn’t entirely make sense. Leave it, think about it while you do the others. Now the translation section. This is good, I can do this. Wait, what does wight mean again? This was something that came up a bit, it’s something important, maybe something to do with knowledge? And thefore every gentil wight I preye. Don’t know, doesn’t matter, won’t be worth much, just get this bit out of the way. “Every gentleman” will do. Right, translation done. That and outlines/thesis statements in eight minutes. Maybe this English exam will actually work out?

One hour in
First Chaucer question was okay, a bit of a mess but I don’t think that one’s supposed to be in essay format anyway, the test we did earlier in the same format wasn’t. One hour to go, though, and all I have for the two essays are introductions and the vaguest possible plans in mind-map form; transfiguring those into essay outlines is difficult. I know I covered more than this in my Richard III revision, what has my stupid brain done with it? The Miller’s Tale one’s looking slightly better, but I seem incapable of turning my thoughts into words. Also, my hand feels like there’s a large needle sticking into it; possibly scribbling out ten pages of revision notes on the morning of the exam was a bad move. What the Hell am I going to do? I haven’t screwed up the timing in an essay exam like this since year eleven, I thought I’d cracked that bit at least. Okay, stop, breathe. I’m not completely doomed, I know I’m going to produce something by the end of this. I could walk out now and still pass the course, but I’m not having a C, I’m not in that much trouble yet.

Twenty minutes to go
On the upside, the Miller’s Tale essay is done. On the downside, I have twenty minutes to write what amounted to about 2,000 words of notes on Richard III. But, okay, the fact that I can’t remember most of that is now less of a problem. Pick out three points from this mess of a mind map. Good. Write those paragraphs. Okay, this is working. A digital clock would be nice; is the one on the screen showing thirty seconds to go, or a minute and a half? Okay, now it’s a minute. Guess this one’s not going to have a conclusion. Squeeze in one last reference to some outside reading, let them know: I prepared for this and I’m interested and I get this stuff, honest: I’m just not good at English exams.

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Know Your Place: Characterisation by Type in the General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales

prioresslargeI mentioned in my semester two wrap-up post on Tuesday that I really admired the characterisation in the General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales. This is a lightly edited essay I wrote earlier in the semester on this topic.

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Birthday Book Haul

Some weird mistake was made and I’ve been allowed to turn nineteen today. Naturally, I’ve received a few books. Today’s a busy day, but I’m determined to keep up daily posting, so here’s a quick run-through of the books I’ve been given, which you should hear more about later on.

The Western Canon – Harold Bloom
Bloom-Western Canon

I’ve barely started The Anatomy of Influence, but now I have another Bloom book on my list. In this one, Bloom argues for the importance of the canon, and as I agree with this basic idea, I’m interested to see if I find as much to disagree with in this one as I am in The Anatomy of Influence – though admittedly, I don’t disagree with his purported main idea in that book either, and The Western Canon is surely as much or more likely to deify authors as Bloom likes to do. Continue reading

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Of Kindles and Scribbles

I was originally opposed to ebooks because I loved the feel (and smell) of real books. But, as I approached the end of high school and began preparing to do an English degree, I thought that having an eReader would mean I wouldn’t have to carry so many books around all. So, a year ago, I got a Kindle for my birthday.

I loaded it up with everything on Project Gutenberg that I’d heard of, and bought what books for my first university English class were available. It got a lot of use over that first semester, but I came across some problems with it which meant that I think, overall, eReaders in their current form just aren’t suitable for that purpose. Even though the editions I had mostly had page numbers that were supposed to match with the physical editions my classmates had, finding the passages we were reading in lectures and tutorials proved pretty much impossible.

One of the things which convinced me to get a Kindle (alongside the space saving and Project Gutenberg) was that I thought it might make annotating books easier. Unfortunately, the annotation system on the Kindle is a mere add-on that is very poorly conceived. The system offers no easy way of searching notes. The annotations you make can be found if you’re on that page of the book (and flicking through isn’t possible), or completely removed from all context in a text file or on the Amazon website. As such, Kindle annotations offer no advantage whatsoever over annotating physical books.

But wait! I hear you saying. You mean you write on your books!? Blasphemy! How can you say you love books when you destroy them?

I’ve actually seen this sort of reaction on other blogs, where someone’s been showing something cool that they or someone else has made out of a book and people are telling them that clearly they don’t really like books at all, or they wouldn’t be able to do something like that to them.

Yes, I write in my books. Sometimes, I use pen. My blog posts often start in the margins of whatever I’m reading. For instance, here’s the beginning idea of my post on Harold Bloom’s The Anatomy of Influence as it was first conceived at around 1am:DSCF3085

I think there’s probably a lot of overlap between people who don’t like ebooks and people who are scandalised by people writing in books or using them to make art. Both involve an emphasis on the book as an object, rather than on the content inside.

For me, what matters most about a book is the text (including visual elements of that text, of course) that it contains. The text is what carries ideas, and those ideas are what makes literature so valuable. Whether you discover those ideas on a screen or in a giant leather-bound volume is irrelevant. Obviously there is pleasure to be gained from books that are beautiful in themselves, and I have found myself migrating back to physical books this semester, once I stopped using the Kindle for my school texts. The main reason why I’m increasingly preferring to buy physical books rather than read them on my Kindle or get them from the library is so that I can annotate them, which is particularly important for the books that I blog about.

It may seem a bit conceited, but I generally feel that I’m adding to rather than depreciating the value of a book when I write in it. Sure, I look back at the annotations I made a year ago and they seem horrendously stupid, but what they lack in insight into the text they make up for in insight into my past self, which is valuable as long as the book remains mine. And when I buy books second-hand I’ll always get the most scribbled on copy I can find, because it’s fun to see what others thought about what I’m reading (even if most of it’s inane), and because I find annotated books to be more beautiful as objects than their pristine counterparts. So, yes, I guess I do value books as objects as well as the texts they contain. But I’m keeping my Kindle, because it lets me buy books for less than a dollar when I’m on the train.

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