Archive for August, 2012

TT: Eternally Banished?

August 30, 2012

Looking for the Wednesday Wandering?  Page back for a look at what it’s like to give a reading. You can also learn how I felt about this year’s Bubonicon.  Then join me and Alan as we attempt to discover the secret connection between the Eleven-Plus exam and rock ‘n roll.

They Failed the Eleven-Plus

JANE: So what happens to people who don’t do so well on their exams? Are they forever banned from further education?

ALAN: Well, as always, the answer is yes and no.

Things are a lot easier now than they were when I was going through the system. Back in my day, all British children took an exam when they were eleven years old which effectively branded them for life. It was called the eleven-plus and if you passed it, you went to grammar school, studied academic subjects, took your O- and A-level exams, went on to university and generally did well for yourself. If you failed the eleven-plus, you went to secondary modern school, took mainly non-academic subjects, left as soon as you could and either spent your life doing unskilled jobs or, if you were sufficiently motivated, did an apprenticeship and became an engineer or something.

JANE:  That sounds horrible.  Spending the rest of your life marked as a success or a failure based on one exam taken when you eleven seems very cruel.  I definitely would have been a “failure.”  I was far from my academic best at age eleven.

ALAN: Yes – the eleven-plus exam was quite controversial. Eventually it was abandoned and the distinction between the different kinds of secondary schools disappeared. They became known as comprehensive schools. They were still streamed academically, but at least it was easier to move between the streams.

But even in the days of the eleven-plus, all was not necessarily lost. One of my lecturers at university was an eleven-plus failure. After he left school he studied part time at night school and eventually got his A-levels and went on to get a degree. However, he was very bitter about it, and it can’t have been easy for him.

JANE: Night school?  That term sounds as if you mean more than simply school held in the evening.

ALAN: Actually, that’s exactly what I mean. The classes really are held at night, after the working day ends. This is so that people who do have a job will still have the opportunity for study. The classes are funded by the students themselves, though there is generally some funding provided by local councils, and employers will often pay for their employees to gain further qualifications.

People who are serving an apprenticeship are particularly likely to study this way – they work for “the man” during the day,  learning practical skills, and they study in the evening (funded by “the man”) to get more formal qualifications.

JANE: So what is the level of study?  High school?  Grammar School?  I guess what I’m asking is do these adults find themselves going back to where they “failed” at age eleven?

ALAN: It depends on exactly where their earlier education ended. The courses of study lead, initially at least, to O- and A- levels just as they would have in the school system (remember these are national exams). So it’s a way of giving people a second bite at that particular cherry.

JANE: Does anyone bite cherries?  I suspect that would be a good way to break a tooth…

No, I get your point.  What happens after they’ve taken the exams?

ALAN: After taking O- and A- levels, the student can continue studying for various certification programs (again these are nationally recognized qualifications) which sit somewhat uneasily between A-levels and degrees. The institutions that offer these certifications are known as polytechnics. In the 1970s, as demand for degrees rose, many polytechnics turned themselves into universities and started offering degree courses.

JANE: Here we have something called a GED (I think that’s the right set of initials) that is basically a certificate saying you have passed high school even if you didn’t go to an officially recognized school.  But your Night School seems different from this.

ALAN: I think there’s some overlap. Your description sounds basically similar. However, the courses of study I’ve been talking about can (and often do) lead to more elaborate qualifications.

My father was an apprentice engineer and he went to night school and got an HNC (Higher National Certificate) in applied mathematics. However, he failed the exams for the next course he took, and never went any further with his studies after that.

He always blamed failing the exams on the war. He claimed that the sound of exploding bombs was too distracting. And given that he spent his twenty-first birthday on duty as an Air Raid Warden watching Nazi aeroplanes bomb seven kinds of brick dust out of his home city, there’s probably a certain amount of truth in that excuse.

JANE: My students had a lot of excuses, none of them quite as good as bombs dropping around them.

Apprenticeships have a long tradition, even in this country.  It sounds as if the process has modernized there.

ALAN: Yes – apprenticeships have a history stretching back many hundreds of years. For as far back as we can trace it, my family have all been engineers.  My father was very keen for me to do the traditional thing and serve an apprenticeship, as both he and his father and his father before him had done. But, much to my dad’s disgust, I went to university instead and I can’t say I regret it.

JANE: Why not?  Is what and how you learn so different?

ALAN:  No, it isn’t that different. But my degree was my passport out of the working class. It opened doors that would have remained forever closed to me if I’d followed my father’s wishes.

JANE: So, why did your father reject the university approach?  Were he and your grandfather so proud of what they’d done?

ALAN: It’s the class thing again – “People like us don’t do that kind of thing.”  My father and grandfather were both very proud of their skills and their achievements. But they knew their place in the class system. They knew what they were and, more importantly, what they weren’t. They would never have dreamed of leading the kind of life that I’ve lead. It just wasn’t done.

After my grandfather died, we found his apprenticeship certificate when we cleaned up his house. It had actually been torn in two and was being used to line a drawer in his dressing table! The terms and conditions were fascinating. He was paid one shilling a week, and if he was five minutes late reporting for work he was fined three pennies. In modern terms, that means that a quarter of his salary was deducted every time he was late!

JANE: That’s both fascinating and sad.  Did you keep the certificate?

ALAN: I’ve no idea what happened to it. I certainly don’t have it, and I didn’t find it in my parents’ house after they died.

JANE: Well, now I understand a lot better why so many British rock and rollers didn’t go to university, but instead ended up in trades and playing guitar.  I wonder what the ramifications of the end of the eleven-plus exam have been for British popular music?

Anyone know a study on that?


From My Side of the Page

August 29, 2012

I think my reading went well…

Tori and Dominique at our Afternoon Tea

As I mentioned in last week’s Wandering, I decided to debut my new “Artemis Awakening” series  at this year’s Bubonicon.  That’s the new series I just sold to Tor Books.  I was reading from the first book, Huntress.

Well, I printed out the first three chapters and took them with me.  Since I had been working on getting enough of the second Stephanie Harrington manuscript done so that I could print Jim something to start reading for me on Monday, I didn’t have time to do a practice reading.

So there I am, sitting on some weird bit of hotel furnishing at the front of the room, checking out the lighting.  Yep.  No way I can do this without my magnifiers…  Oh, well.

One thing I don’t like about doing a reading this way is that the various focal lengths mean I can’t look up at the audience as easily.  Still, people chuckled in the right places, which was a relief.  And several people snagged me over the course of the weekend and told me they had enjoyed the reading, so I think the story went over well…

Funny thing is, the person doing the reading is actually the last person to know.  I once talked to David Case, a professional reader for audio books.  He told me that often he had no idea what it was he was reading.  His focus was on reading slightly ahead, making sure he got the accents and pacing right.  I find I have much the same problem. Worse is that, with my vision at a stage when it’s shifting rapidly, if I look away – say to check the time – I can find myself reading from two lines at the same time…

I’m always horribly embarrassed, but the audience was pretty patient.

So you’ll need to ask the people who were there what they thought of the story.  I do want to thank the large number of people who came.  The turnout was really quite flattering, especially since registration had been open a bare two hours.  Moreover,  I was reading right when the Art Show opened, opposite both another reading and another panel.  So, thanks for making the effort.  I did notice.

Bubonicon this year was at a new, larger hotel.  This created a distinct disconnect for those people like me who have been going to the convention since it was so small that it only had two tracks of programming (they’re up to five).  The tracks were basically a room with panel discussions and a room for readings.  I rather liked when the convention was that small.  For one thing, you could talk to just about anyone you met and be certain that you’d been at the same events.  That just doesn’t happen now.

Still, Bubonicon remains solid gold as a convention where a lot of people attend programming.  I’ve talked to friends “back East” who joke that it’s a successful panel if the audience outnumbers the panelists.  That’s never a problem at Bubonicon.  This year I was only on two panels, but both of them were in the same huge room and both of them were filled front to back.  True, I was on the panels with some heavy hitters (Brandon Sanderson and Carrie Vaughn for both) but my solo talk on writing series endings drew somewhere between eighty and ninety people – and that’s a rough and possibly conservative estimate.

In fact, the con chairs commented that Bubonicon was one of the rare conventions where the Opening Ceremonies are standing room only.

One of the events Jim and I went to as audience members was the Artist Guest of Honor’s presentation.  This year we were blessed with a versatile, talented,  and very funny Artist GOH in Ursula Vernon.  I love artist presentations because these are creative people who tell their stories in a different way.  Those of you who know Ursula Vernon’s work (and I’m sure many of you do, as she’s up for a Hugo this year) know she is also a writer.  Those communications skills meant that she was able to talk about her process in a manner that non-artists could follow easily – without, I think, dumbing it down for those who are fellow practitioners.

Jim and I got a bonus from attending.  After the Mass Signing  – (thanks to all of you who dropped by, especially to those of you who were excited to see Changer and Changer’s Daughter available again) – we went out to grab a quick dinner before going to the costume contest.  We saw Ursula walking with her partner, Kevin, ahead of us on the sidewalk.  I’d wanted to thank Ursula for agreeing to pour at the Afternoon Tea and to tell her how much I liked her presentation, so I called out.  The four of us ended up going searching for the elusive Pei Wei restaurant and, failing to find it (we stopped two blocks short), we ended up at a Japanese steakhouse.

Turns out that not only did we share a fondness for SF/F, we were all gamers, so it wasn’t hard to find things to talk about.  In fact, we ended up missing the costume contest…

Yeah…  It was a good convention.   Maybe next week I’ll talk about the return of Bill Scott…  But that would lead me into one of those crazy discussions about writing and characterization, so I’ll save it.  Let me know if you’re interested!  And if you have any thoughts about this year’s Bubonicon, I hope you’ll post them in the comments.  Like I said, the convention has gotten so big, I feel as if I’m missing most of it!

TT: Regurgitation or Creation?

August 23, 2012

If you missed the Wednesday Wandering, do page back!  I’m talking about a new series I’m writing for Tor Books.  But do come back and join me and Alan as we discuss just how exams work — or at least how they should.

JANE: Now that I know what those “level” exams are, I admit to curiosity as to how the exams actually work.


ALAN: The structure of the British exams is quite interesting. Invariably, they are essay questions.  Even the scientific exams which, by their very nature, involve mathematical calculations still generally require discursive answers. And there is no such thing as a single correct answer. If you can justify your answer you will get the mark even if what you said was not what was on the question setter’s mind when the question was devised.

My chemistry teacher was one of the official GCE markers (though not for his own students, obviously). I well remember that he was marking a paper where the question had asked the examinee to devise a chemical reaction for producing hydrogen gas. The answer that one candidate presented was weird and convoluted and my teacher was sure it was absolute nonsense. Nevertheless, he set up an experiment and tried the student’s answer out. Much to his surprise, it did actually work. The yield was abysmal (the reaction was not efficient) and nobody in their right mind would ever use it. But nevertheless it worked. The student got the marks.

JANE: It’s wonderful that the teacher actually did the experiment.  That’s devotion!

ALAN: So you can see why I’m quite uncomfortable with the idea of exam questions that expect unequivocally right (or wrong!) answers. Generally speaking, there is no such thing. I positively despise multi-choice exams because they encourage that way of thinking. The only advantage that multi-choice exams seem to offer is that they are easy for the teacher to mark. And that should be the very last thing on the teacher’s mind. The job of a teacher is to teach, to encourage students to understand the subjects they are studying, not to rote-learn facts.

Any fool can learn to chant that the square of the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares on the other two sides of a right angle triangle. It’s just a magic spell, right?

JANE: It isn’t?    Seriously, I get your point.  All three of them on a triangle.  Go on.

ALAN: But it takes real understanding to derive Pythagoras’ Theorem from first principles or to calculate the length of the shortest side given the lengths of the other two, showing all your working along the way of course. Any British candidate who answered that last question by providing only the length of the shortest side would get only partial marks. You must demonstrate your understanding and show all the steps along the way to the answer. Nobody gives a monkey’s what the calculated answer really is. Even if you get the answer wrong (because you made an arithmetical error), you’ll still get the marks if your working shows that you knew what you were doing.

Such exams are hard to write and even harder to mark. But students who work under this discipline emerge with a greater appreciation and understanding of their subjects than do students who merely regurgitate isolated facts parrot-fashion in response to (often ambiguously phrased) multi-choice rubbish.

The only honest answer to most multi-choice exam questions is “Who cares?” If you need a fact, look it up.

JANE: Mostly, I agree.  However, I will argue that sometimes you can’t look a fact up because you don’t know where to start.  I think this is where rote memorization comes in – it provides a foundation.

I’m a lousy speller – a direct result of being a fast “by the shape” reader.  When I was a kid, I was often told “look it up,” when I misspelled a word.  I’d get furious because I couldn’t look the word up because I didn’t know how to spell what I was looking for.

Oh, by the by, we call them “multiple choice” not “multi-choice…”

But I wander…  What was your hardest exam?  Did it have a letter or number?

ALAN: My degree exams were the hardest I’ve ever taken.  Erudition flowed in a never-ending stream from my brain, down through my arm and dripped out of the end of my pen onto the paper. I ended up with a lower second (the people’s degree!) though I think I deserved an upper second. Oh well, never mind – I was a bit unlucky with the choice of questions.  Our Organic Chemistry Professor had two questions on the final paper.  Normally the prof only got to set one question. But he was new and flexing his muscles a bit. And his questions were in my weakest areas.

JANE: A lower second degree?  You’ve lost the American again.

ALAN: For (probably) hundreds of years British degrees have been graded as First Class, Second Class Division One, Second Class Division Two, Third Class, Ordinary and Fail. Though it is almost unheard of to fail. If you make it through your course, they bend over backwards to find an excuse to award you a degree of some kind. I think you’d have to be caught en flagrante delicto abusing the Vice-Chancellor’s pet goat on the lawn in front of the Chapel before they even thought about failing you. And even then they’d only do it because you walked on the grass. Normally that’s a hanging offence…

JANE: I am not going to ask why there was a goat on campus…  Or why you couldn’t walk on the grass.   I am glad to hear that if you’ve worked hard, they try to make sure you get your degree.  I’ve heard some nasty stories here about students forced into eternal student-status by an autocratic professor or department.

ALAN: No – that simply can’t happen.

And the goat is poetic licence. The grass is not – in order to keep a lawn pristine, you sow the ground with grass seed and mow it carefully for 800 years. Nobody except the gardener is allowed to walk on it for fear of spoiling the look. And I’m being perfectly serious here. In England, by and large, you do not walk on the grass. People shout at you…

JANE: There are places where that happens here, too, but not usually on a college campus.   Maybe it’s because American lawns are younger and more vital.

I have a question I want to ask, but I’m going to wait until next time…

Artemis Awakened

August 22, 2012

I have some great news!

Artemis Awakened

I’ve sold a new series to Tor Books.  The series title is – as you may have guessed – “Artemis Awakened.”  The working title for the first book is Huntress.

Here’s a bit from the proposal I wrote:

A world forgotten, a world rediscovered, a world awakening – with consequences that will embrace the entire Universe.

“When Adara the Huntress and her puma demiurge, Sand Shadow, rescue off-planet archeologist Griffin Dane from his wrecked space shuttle, Adara knows she’s getting into trouble – she just has no idea how much or how far reaching that trouble will be, nor that it will involve the awakening of forces thought forever dormant.

“The residents of the planet Artemis have not forgotten their long-ago heritage as a pleasure planet, nor the violent assault that ended with the slaughter of the elite ‘seegnur’ and the ‘death’ of any machinery more sophisticated than a simple grist mill.

“Seeking the means to get Griffin in contact with his orbiting ship, a small group sets off to Spirit Lake where the enigmatic Old One Who Is Young resides in what is one of the few technological facilities that was not bombed to rubble.  Is the Old One the friend that Adara and her mentor, Bruin, believe him to be?  What is behind his obsessive interest in the things of the past?

“Complicating matters is the growing romantic tension between Adara, Griffin, and the third member of their company – Terrell the Factotum.  Terrell feels he owes the debt of his life to Griffin, while at the same time he deeply resents the other man as competition for Adara’s affections.

“For her part, Adara is uncertain about her feelings for either man.  Can these mismatched associates conquer the obstacles that lie between them and the stars?”

As with most proposals, this barely scratches the surface, but I hope it gives you some feeling for the project.  In response to a couple of separate requests (thank you, Dominique; thank you, Jim) I’m going to break my usual reticence about a work in progress and read from the first couple of chapters this Friday at Bubonicon (5:00 pm, Acoma room).  I know it’s early in the convention, but maybe some of you will be able to be there.

The novel is about half-written and I plan to get back to it as soon as I finish the sequel to Fire Season – hopefully in just a few days.  I’m eager to be back on Artemis…  I hope some of you will join me there.

TT: Give Me and O! Or an A!

August 16, 2012

Looking for the Wednesday Wandering?  Just page back and take a look at why I think writing for kids is as hard – or maybe even harder – than writing for adults.  Than join me and Alan while he explains the mysteries of the British exam system.

JANE: Now we get to unravel the mysteries of level exams.  Pray, oh, wise one,

Both Passed Their Exams


ALAN: Actually the phrase “level exams” isn’t used as such. I think you are probably referring to the national qualification exams that British children take at ages 16 and 18. In my day they were called O-level and A-level exams (Ordinary and Advanced) though I believe the names have changed a bit since I took them. Nowadays O-levels have largely been replaced by GCSE exams (General Certificate of Secondary Education) which is a slightly more pompous name for essentially the same idea.

JANE: Hmm…  If the names have been changed, Harry Potter’s “Owl” levels must evoke the older exam.   Would kids have gotten the joke?

ALAN: Probably not – it’s been about 25 years since O-levels turned into GCSEs. Though by a strange coincidence,  I recently discovered that there is a move afoot to re-introduce O-levels and scrap GCSE. Quite what this would involve is not yet clear to me.

JANE:  So these are national exams.  Interesting.

ALAN: Yes – these are government-run exams which lead to a nationally recognised qualification that is useful for putting on a CV (you’d call a CV a resume).

JANE: Excuse me, sir, I’d call a C.V. a curriculum vitae!  In my profession (before I became a good-for-nothing writer), we used C.V.’s, not resumes.    Jim also uses a C.V.  I wonder where the split is?

ALAN: Oh I’m so pleased! I thought the CV had completely died out in America. I’m glad to find out that I’m wrong.

JANE: It isn’t all that common.  I remember listening to Sting’s song “Epilogue: Nothing ‘Bout Me” with a friend…  There’s a line in which Sting mentions checking his “C.V.”  My friend said, “What’s a C.V., anyhow?”  So it’s not exactly common outside of the more academic professions.

Sting also mentioned “college tutors…”

Now, to get back the topic…

ALAN: Anyway, in order to make such an unwieldy thing as a national exam easier to manage, the country is divided into several autonomous educational regions and each region administers its own exams.

When I was 16 I took my O-level GCE exams (GCE – General Certificate of Education). Most people take up to eight subjects at O-level. But I was a bit of an exception and I took nine. Feel free to call me a show off.

JANE: Show off!  <grin>

ALAN: And when I was 18 I took my A-level GCE exams. These are very advanced exams indeed, and after taking their O-levels, students have to specialise and choose up to three subjects to take to A-level. I studied maths, physics, and chemistry to A-level. And then I went on to university to study chemistry – not only are A-levels quite prestigious qualifications to have in their own right, they are also university entrance exams. You simply can’t go to university if you don’t have good marks at A-level.

JANE: Ah…  That explains something that has puzzled me since I read the biographies of rockers Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood (good books, both, actually), I had a sense that there was a point where they couldn’t have gone on to university, rather than choosing not to do so.

ALAN: That would be right. University study is very challenging and there are only a limited number of places available. There would seem to be little point in awarding a place to someone who is unlikely to benefit from it. So the universities use high grades at A-level as an indicator of academic ability and potential. Even so, the dropout rate is not negligible – the courses are very, very tough indeed and some people simply can’t take the pressure.

JANE: Interesting.  Here there is no barrier to getting a college education other than willingness and ability.  As someone who has taught, some of my best students were those who came in late.  It would have been a pity if they’d been shut out based on not being able to score high enough when they were young.

ALAN: That’s fair enough – but how do the potential candidates demonstrate their ability in the first place?

JANE: As well as the grades they receive in classes and the GPA we mentioned before, there are standardized tests of various sorts: PSAT, SAT, GRE.  They’re not the same as the exams you mentioned because they’re not government-sponsored.   However, they’re meant to provide a basic exam that makes it easier to compare between different schools.

ALAN: So it amounts to much the same thing in both our countries – you cannot go to university without providing proof of academic potential. Only the mechanisms are different. The ideas are the same.

JANE: I’m still not sure…. Somewhere down the line, I’d like to discuss this further.  For now, I’ve got a book to write.

Kids As Readers and Critics

August 15, 2012

Over the last week or so, I’ve had several talks with people about YA as a

Read On!

sub-genre.  One thing kept coming up that really disturbed me.  This was the assumption that writing for “kids” is automatically easier, that “kids” are a less demanding audience than adults.  I think that this is the exact opposite of the truth.

I feel a need to define the difference between “middle grade” and “YA.”   Once you get beyond picture books and books for beginning readers, fiction is fit into two general categories: middle grade and YA.   These differ not only in the age of the reader for which they are intended, but in structure and form.

Middle grade books usually have a tight focus that explores one plot element at a time.  Because of this, they are often episodic, with a chapter or series of chapters focusing on one event, then moving on to the next.  The Mary Poppins novels (see WW 11-16-11, “Not a Spoonful of Sugar” for more about these great books) are a good example of the episodic format.

YA novels are harder to define – in fact, a while back I did an entire piece on on what makes a YA novel.  There was a lot of disagreement, but I think everyone  generally agreed that YA novels often focus in on characters in their mid-teens to late twenties.   They are often “coming of age” novels because these years are a  time when people usually are exploring the boundaries between what it is to be a “kid” and what it is to be an adult.  However, that doesn’t mean “growing up” is the only theme.  Hardly.  It’s just a frequently recurring element.

By these definitions, the Stephanie Harrington books I’m writing with David Weber are solidly YA, even if the books are accessible to younger readers.

Of course, there are books that fall in between.  Jeanne Birdsall’s very enjoyable “Penderwick” novels are a good example of these “bridge” books.  They are episodic, but there is usually  a theme that ties the various episodes together.  Elizabeth Enright, whose books I read as a kid and that I still love, was also very good in building this sort of novel.

I’ve  never stopped being a reader of YA and  middle grade novels.  Now that my elder nephews and niece are moving into this level of reading, I’ve had several opportunities to discuss books with them.  When I asked my niece whether she was disturbed by kids killing kids in  The Hunger Games, not quite eleven year-old Rebecca said thoughtfully:  “Not really.  There’s actually not a lot of that.”

Well, you can imagine I was confused because, in adult circles, kids killing kids was the main aspect of these books being discussed.  I also hadn’t read the novel yet.  When I finally read it, I thought that Rebecca’s assessment was right on target.   In The Hunger Games, very little of the killing is “on-stage.”  The distancing from the realities of mass murder is neatly, formulaically handled.  Most of the killings happen “off-stage.”  You can predict from the moment one character is introduced that she will have a tragic and horrible death.  (I was reminded of the cliched “kid from Brooklyn” in old war movies.)

Rebecca may not have had the critical vocabulary to explain to me why she found The Hunger Games exciting, but not at all upsetting, but once I’d read the book I realized that her thoughts were as sophisticated as those of any adult.   Lots of would-be writers of YA make the mistake of believing that, because younger readers lack the vocabulary to discuss what they’re reading, they don’t have the capacity to think about the content on many and complex levels.

But they do.  In fact, since a book may be their first exposure to a particular idea, I believe that young readers think more, not less, about what they are reading.  Here’s a personal example.  I first encountered Islam when my parents gave me Marguerite Henry’s novel, King of the Wind.  The story opens during the festival of Ramadan – a very different concept to someone raised in a Catholic context.  I mean, I knew Catholics fasted sometimes, for a day of so, but a fast that was extended even to animals?  A fast that went on for a whole month, stretching  between sunrise and sunset?  These were very exciting and different ideas.   I thought about them a lot.

Another example: Recently, Jim and I watched the very fine animated series, Avatar: The Last Airbender.  When we discussed it with some friends, the question arose as to how different types of “bending” were passed on genetically.  In the end, we agreed that the people who wrote the story hadn’t really thought through that detail very carefully.

I said, “Well, I guess they thought American kids wouldn’t be interested.”  One of my friends promptly responded, “But the kids do get interested.  Especially since the sequel came out, there have been lots of kids on the boards trying to work  out just how different types of bending get passed on and whether the abilities could be culturally restricted like they are in Avatar.”

So, as I worked on  Fire Season, I wrote it with a lot of consideration for my audience.   As I work on the sequel, with its complex, multi-level plot, I don’t think, “Ah, this is just for kids.  Getting the details right doesn’t matter.  They won’t notice.”

I know they will…  And I’m really thrilled.

TT: Toot-toot Tutors

August 9, 2012

Looking for the Wednesday Wandering?  Back up one entry and join me in “The Mystery of the Anomalous Cucurbita.”  Then come back here and let Alan elucidate the question of what an English college tutor actually does.

JANE: I think you folks use the term “tutor” very differently than we do.  Here, a tutor is a person who helps a student who needs a bit of extra coaching in an academic area.    When I was having trouble with Spanish, I went for extra “tutoring” each week.

Archeology Tutor and Students

However, I believe the post is much more formal and central to your educational system.  Can you explain?

ALAN: A tutor is a member of the university staff who holds tutorials. That’s not as silly as it sounds – students in any one year are divided into small groups of half a dozen or so who meet regularly with their tutor. Because of the small size of the group, the tutor can give them lots of individual attention. The tutors give assignments and hold discussions and generally explore points of interest. It’s an interesting structure which is both formal (in the sense that the meetings are regular and work is assigned) and informal (in the sense that the plan the tutor has in mind may be completely discarded as a result of something a student wants to ask about).

JANE: That sounds rather lovely.

ALAN: The idea of extra tuition is quite foreign to me. By the time you reach university, you really sink or swim on your own. If you feel you are having trouble with a subject, well – that’s what libraries are for. And if you can’t keep up, that’s a problem you largely have to deal with yourself.

JANE: I think our college students also sink or swim on their own – maybe far more than your students ever do.  We don’t have a tutor to hold our hands on a regular basis.  Our students attend  classes, then deal with individual instructors at their own initiative.  There is no one assigned to give you that one-on-one attention.

Therefore, if you can’t keep up, then you need to find help.  Really, I think having a formal tutor assigned to answer questions would be a wonderful luxury.

ALAN: I always found it very valuable when I was a student. And it also had its amusing moments. I vividly remember one tutorial a few days after a lecture where we’d been introduced to some rather advanced ideas which we were finding more than a little puzzling. So one of our group asked the tutor about it.

“I never understood that either,” said the tutor, cheerfully. “It always seemed a little bit like black magic to me.”

Then he picked up the phone and rang the lecturer who’d introduced us to the topic and asked him to pop down to the office to see if he could help us.

I suspect that lecturer had a rather busy week or so as he visited lots of tutorial groups…

JANE: Oh!  Wonderful.  I really admire your tutor for having the courage to admit he didn’t know and then get help for all of you.

ALAN: So if you don’t have tutorials, how are assignments handed out and marked? Does the person taking the class (the lecturer in my terminology) do that? I find that a hard concept to grasp as well. Any given lecture  at my university could have had a hundred or more attendees. That’s far too many for one person to contend with in any administrative sense.  Perhaps our tutorials are closer in concept to your classes, and perhaps your class sizes are smaller than our lectures. Would that be a reasonable assumption? I suspect that it might have been the large size of the audience at lectures that led to the development of the tutorial system in the first place.

JANE: Hey!  This was supposed to be my turn to ask questions. <grin>

Like so many things we’ve discussed, the answer is a bit more complex than you might imagine.

Let me start with class size, then double back to how assignments are handed out.

ALAN: Sounds good to me.

JANE: Class sizes vary with subject matter and how advanced the class is.  In some areas – like sciences – introductory classes are often quite large.  However, in other subject areas – like literature – the classes are often smaller in order to permit discussion.  However, I don’t think even these smaller introductory classes get as small as your British-style tutorial groups.  Many will have forty or so students.  Science classes often have associated “labs,” but someone else will have to tell you about them, since I haven’t had a “lab” class since high school.

ALAN: Labs are a completely different kettle of fish. I remember being very jealous of my non-science student friends. They had most afternoons free while my afternoons were filled up with labs. Humph!

JANE: As the subject matter becomes more sophisticated, however, the class size can get quite small.  Often these are called “seminars” and might not have more than eight or ten students.  Sometimes a class with small enrollment becomes seminar-like by default.  I remember with great fondness one I took about the Faust motif in European literature.  We did everything from ur-Faust texts to James Blish – and ended by going to see a part of Goethe’s Faust performed in the Village.

In graduate school, a student might even convince a professor to do an independant study focusing tightly on one small area.  I did a couple of these and loved them.  One was on Yeats’s plays.  Another was on the works of D.H. Lawrence – this one led directly to my doctoral dissertation.

ALAN: Sounds like fun. I wish I could have done something like that, but once I’d chosen to study a science, all the arts subjects vanished from my curriculum.

JANE: Assignments are handed out by the lecturer for each class.  In some subjects, these might be examinations.   In others, the assignments are essays or research assignments.  One reason courses in literature are often kept smaller are because written exams and essays are the rules and the instructor must have time to read them.  When I taught composition, classes were kept quite small because the only way to learn writing is to write.  I’d grade over 500 essays a term just between my two composition courses…

Now I have a question for you.  From what I’ve read about the British educational systems, you have special “level” exams.  Can you fill me in on these?

ALAN: Now there’s a complicated subject. We’ll talk about it next time.

Anomalous Cucurbita

August 8, 2012

Some of you probably remember how a couple of weeks ago (WW 7-11-12, “Taking a Break”), I mentioned that Jim and I had a couple of volunteer cucumber plants growing out front.   We made this judgment based on the leaf shape, the color and size of the flowers, and the manner of growth.


Based on all of this and the space we had (not much unless we wanted to give up the sidewalk leading to the front door), we put tomato cages around the plants, then supplemented them with rope trellises when the plants grew taller. No problem… until the plants started setting fruit.

The first fruit to appear started as more rounded than our typical just-set cucumbers.  We raised eyebrows, but didn’t think much about this because we couldn’t recall if the cucumbers we’d been growing were hybrids or not.

Oh!  Wait.  Want me to back up a bit?  Right.  Many of the plants grown today are hybrids, bred for one or more special qualities.  Disease resistance, handling heat or cold, flavor, shape or color, and low seed production are among the things that growers have worked toward.  The cucumbers Jim and I have favored these last several years have been “oriental” varieties.  We like them because the flesh is crisp, they grow well in our heat, the skins are so thin you don’t need to peel them, and, frankly, because they look cool and you rarely see them in stores.

However, if you plant the seeds of a hybrid plant, you may find it has reverted to one of the “base” types.  This is what Jim and I initially thought was the case with our volunteer cucumbers.  We left them in, interested to see what we were going to get.  Even when the fruits became rounder, we didn’t give up our initial hypothesis as to plant species.  Lemon cucumbers are quite round and ripen to a distinct yellow, so we knew there could be lot of variation within the species.

But as the fruit continued growing, we began to give up on our hypothesis.  We stopped referring to them as “volunteer cukes” and started calling them “anomalous curcubitae,” the latter word being a reference to the larger genus that includes cucumbers, squash, melons, and gourds.  The first fruit kept growing, first softball size, then larger.  The shape stayed distinctly rounded.  The exterior began to change from a fuzzy green to something patterned.

Such was the case when Jim and I left for a long weekend visit to celebrate my mother’s birthday “back East.”  We asked our cat-sitter to keep up with the watering and hoped for the best.

When we got home, it was after dark, but the next morning I went out and checked the plants.  In five days, the fruit had changed enough that we made a new diagnosis.  What we had growing out there was not a cucumber but a cantaloupe.  Or, rather, I should say, cantaloupes, because at least two others had set.

This didn’t seem at all impossible.  We collect grey water in our kitchen and use it for the smaller beds and isolated plants.  Last summer, we ate a lot of cantaloupe.  Quite likely, seeds had made it into the water, landed on fertile soil, and later germinated.

I found myself  thinking that this was a good omen for the summer.  As I mentioned a while back, “cantaloupe” means “wolf song.”  You may have guessed, I have thing for wolves.  How utterly fantastic to have wolf song melons volunteering to grow in the front of my house!

I’m tempted to end this with a moral about writing and never knowing what random seed is going to become a story, but I’ll spare you.  However, I do have a question.

Can any of you tell me how to know when a cantaloupe is ripe?

TT: Deans and Dons

August 2, 2012

Looking for the Wednesday Wandering?  Page back one and curl up with me as I share a bowl of curry and a good book.  Then join me and Alan as we decipher who is what in the British academic world.

Lewis and Tolkien

JANE: Now I have a question about your educational system. When I was reading about C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, they were referred to as “dons” or was it “deans”?  Anyhow, what is a don?  Is it the same as a dean?

ALAN: They were both dons. A don is the head of a mafia family, and also a fellow of a university or college. I doubt if the two professions have much overlap in real life.

A fellow is a retired member of the academic staff who continues to be associated with the university in some capacity. Do not confuse a fellow with a teaching fellow or a research fellow. A teaching fellow is a person currently active in a teaching role on the academic staff. A research fellow engages in research at an academic institution but is not involved in teaching. Research fellows tend to be young and inexperienced, just starting out in academic life. They aren’t trusted to teach yet…

We don’t have deans except at collegiate universities such as Oxford and Cambridge. The dean of the college is responsible for discipline. An interview with the dean as a result of bad behaviour is, I am told, much to be feared.

What’s a dean in America?

JANE: At least at the schools I knew, a dean was the head of an academic area.  There might be a dean for the liberal arts college, another for sciences, another for business.  Deans usually had started life as professors, but shifted at some point to administration.

ALAN: Ah, I see! That sounds similar to our collegiate deans, though I don’t think we have an exact equivalent, at last not in the sense of the head of something as vague as an academic area.

But while we’re on the subject of job titles, I’ve always been puzzled by the vast numbers of professors that American universities seem to have. As far as I can tell, any member of the teaching staff seems to get called professor. Is that right?

JANE: Not quite…  It works like this.

The lowest rank is an instructor, sometimes called an adjunct professor.  This person can be considered a contract worker, not really a part of the department.   Next comes the assistant professor.  In some places, there is an in between role – the “visiting assistant professor.”  This person teaches classes, but usually doesn’t hold any committee appointments.

Now, neither adjuncts or assistant professors should be called “Professor.”  This lofty title is reserved for “full professors.”  Full professors have years of teaching and publications behind them and have passed the complex and demanding tenure review.

Therefore, an adjunct or assistant professor should not be called “Professor.”  He or she should be called “Mr. or Ms.”( if he or she has not completed the Ph.D.) or “Doctor” (if he or she has done so).

However, most American students use “Professor” indiscriminately.  I guess they feel it’s better to “promote” than accidentally demote someone who gives them their grades.  Calling a Professor “Doctor” is actually a demotion of sorts, because it acknowledges only the degree earned, not the passing of the complicated tenure process.

ALAN: We only have one “official” professor per department. The professor is the administrative head of the department and, as with your professors, will have years of teaching and research experience. Though having said that, my degree is in chemistry which traditionally divides into three areas of study: organic, inorganic, and physical. Consequently at my university, the Chemistry department had three professors, one for each discipline.

Depending on their relative positions in the hierarchy, our university teaching staff are known as readers, lecturers and junior lecturers.

Not that it particularly matters, except in terms of the pay packet the different ranks receive. Most students call their teachers by their Christian name. I can’t really imagine calling any of the university staff by a formal title except perhaps “Doctor” for those who were a little strait-laced, or those I met only once in blue moon.

JANE: A couple of terms that have always puzzled me are “chancellor” and “rector.”  The latter sounds vaguely ecclesiastical.  Can you fill me in on these?

ALAN: A chancellor is a figurehead. The actual work of administering and representing the university is carried out by the Vice-Chancellor. Chancellors are non-resident and generally non-academic. Often they will be prominent people in other fields who are appointed so that the university can (somewhat cynically) ride on their famous coat tails for a while. Princess Ann is the Chancellor of the University of Edinburgh, for example.

And, to answer the other half of your question, in Scotland, the Vice-Chancellor is called the Principal and often has a Rector as the third administration/management official.

JANE: And a rector is?

ALAN: Just another administrator as far as I know. There probably were religious connotations once upon a time, but if there were, they have long since vanished. Of course, I don’t really understand the Scottish system all that well. They’ve always been a law unto themselves and I might be missing something subtle.

JANE: Well, at least we have an abundance of administrators in common.  Next time I want to ask you about a term we have in common – but one I think has widely different meanings.

Kim and Curry

August 1, 2012

Sometimes books bring very unexpected things into your life.  As the summer unfolds and the garden produces our daily vegetables, I am fondly reminded of how Rudyard Kipling’s novel Kim brought Indian cooking into mine.

Kim and Vegetable Curry

Although I was already a huge fan of Kipling’s The Jungle Books, I was an adult before I ever tried Kim.  What made me take the gamble was my fondness for recorded books.  As I was browsing the library shelves one day I decided to try Kim, which I had avoided for some time out of a child’s loyalty to my first love.  The reader was excellent – so talented that Jim later suggested we buy a copy for our private library – and the story was complicated, full of twists, and just plain marvelous.

Jim had heard Kim in fragments but never from end to end, so he asked if we could take the tapes along on one of our forthcoming road trips.  Early in the book, when Kim begged vegetable curry and rice for himself and his new friend the Tibetan lama, Jim said:

“I don’t know why, but that sounds wonderful.  I’d like to try some sometime.”

We have a couple of Indian restaurants we enjoy, but for some reason the idea of simply going and ordering a dish of vegetable curry never crossed our minds.  Instead, we hunted through shelves of Indian cookbooks until we found one that we liked the look of.  By now it was summer, so we adapted the recipe in the book (which called for cauliflower, which neither of us care for cooked, though I’ll eat it raw) to use the surplus from our garden.

To a base of browned onions and oil saturated in powdered turmeric, coriander, chili, and cumin, we added zucchini, eggplant, peppers, and string beans.   Since we were using “wet” vegetables rather than the drier potatoes and cauliflower called for in the recipe, we cut the broth, adding just a few tablespoons of liquid so that the vegetables would not singe before they started producing their own broth.  The end result was both savory and spicy.

These days, we make some variation of this recipe every summer.  When we have more produce than we can use immediately, we cook up surplus and freeze it for the winter.  As good as the curry tastes in summer, it’s even better in winter when the spices warm the body from the inside out and the reminder of summer warms the soul.

We’ve also made other recipes from that book.  They’ve all been good, but nothing has pleased us quite as much as that vegetable curry, maybe because when we eat it, we join in spirit with Kim and the lama as they dine together in the shadow of Zam-Zammah outside the Wonder House in the city of Lahore.