Archive for August, 2012

George, you’re playing with my mind!

When I set out to write this post, I realised that my recollection of the film Star Wars, had become corrupted. Like Orwell’s Winston Smith in 1984, I was a victim of the “He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.” scenario. However, a little bit of memory is a dangerous thing.

“Blast it Biggs, where are you?!” was originally, “Blast it Wedge, where are you?!” and even as I type the latter, it feels more like a memory implant than my own memory, now returned to me. You can see why I’m confused. The following was written before I went to one of the many alterations pages available on the Internet:
For years, this line from Star Wars, expressed by Luke as he flies about the Death Star in his X-wing fighter, seemed out of place. It was only years later, with a (updated cut), that, with the introduction of additional text, the relationship between Biggs and Luke was made clear(er) in the exchanges prior to their departure on the mission. This went some way to explaining why Luke would be sounding off at “Biggs”, who had been unseen and heard of thus far. I had coped with the original position but felt it thoughtful that someone (George?) had seen fit to help clarify the oversight.
Wrong, wrong, wrong!
Now, having decided to type in a few more search phrases and click on a few more links, I’ve realised the behemoth that I’ve come across. The aim of my blog was not to add to the vast range of fan sites dedicated to haranguing Lucas over his “upgrades”. There are many of them, including Nicolas Pell’s George Lucas’ 8 Most Irritating Changes To The ‘Star Wars’ Films and they do an excellent job in their own right.
For me, I had no intrinsic issue with some relatively “cosmetic” improvements. Things such as making sure that you could see the fleet of x-wings as they blasted off into the twilit sky, or “fixing up” the pink glow of their engines when viewed from behind. I understand that the film print can become worn and might need a bit of a facelift.
But, it was only sometime later, as I watched the film with my son, that I came across all manner of additions. Silly creatures having to get out of the way of the landspeeder containing Luke and Obi-Wan as they approached Mos Isley, was niggling; making the film feel more like Sesame Street than Star Wars. Then, at that time, the big surprise as a “new” scene showing Han Solo negotiating with what can only be described as a svelte Jabba the Hutt was revealed. That it was obvious that this was original footage blended with new CGI effects only added to the sense of annoyance. Why would you want to “improve” Star Wars? Having grown up seeing it at the cinema, followed by numerous viewings on VHS tape, recorded from the TV, one comes to create a personal perspective about a text.

You might have guessed that the paragraph above was another “draft 1.0” version of my post. But I thought it worth keeping. So now to the larger idea which, thankfully, remains intact.
I recall coming across Roland Barthes’s article on The Death of the Author when I was at Uni. At the time, I found the idea that a text could become ‘alive’ with the experiences that the reader brought to the text when reading it, invigorating. The end result saw texts with almost limitless possibilities for interpretation, based on time, locale and perspective.
It has only been recently that I have come to value Mr Barthes afresh. For the following, think of the old “author” equals “composer”, in the sense that this applies to any “text” you might conceive, including film.

“The Author is thought to nourish the book, which is to say that he exists before it, thinks, suffers, lives for it, is in the same relation of antecedence to his work as a father to his child. In complete contrast, the modern scriptor is born simultaneously with the text, is in no way equipped with a being preceding or exceeding the writing, is not the subject with the book as predicate; there is no other time than that of the enunciation and every text is eternally written here and now.”
Where is George Lucas in all this? Is he afraid of his own relative mortality with Star Wars, that he would lose control? Texts may show that “writing is the destruction of every voice, of every point of origin” but the possibilities from that one definitive act of creation can lead to countless possibilities in the millions of “readings” that individuals bring to a text. Why not create fresh representations of a text if it is deemed worthy of consideration, whether this be through a re-make of the original (for instance, the two versions of Ocean’s Eleven, decades apart) or a re-presentation of the original idea (as in the film Seven Samurai, which became the western The Magnificent Seven, the space film Battle Beyond the Stars, and later again, A Bug’s Life)?

I recall an art teacher telling me that a skill for an artist (or a school student) was when to know that the picture was “done” – in other words, when adding anything more would lead to the decay of the artwork, through overwork. Why would it be any different for any other text type?

I wonder whether George Lucas should acknowledge that “Having buried the Author, the modern scriptor can thus no longer… indefinitely ‘polish’ his form… we know that to give writing its future, it is necessary to overthrow the myth: the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author”.

Barthes wrote this in 1967, a decade before Lucas released the first Star Wars film. We aim to teach students when, after the necessary re-drafting, to leave a work alone – perhaps it is time for George to put down the brush and do the same with Star Wars.

The future of the humble (hand written) essay?

Posted: August 16, 2012 in Uncategorized
Tags: , ,

Why do we get students to write essays?

It’s always good to reflect on what, how and why we’re assessing. Try asking students in a class (such as English) why they think you are asking them to write an essay. After the avalanche of quips and retorts, consider asking the question again.

Eventually, some sort of consensus will come out; that essays aim to show that a writer is able to answer a question, with a logical progression of ideas, using examples and techniques. Rather than quick fire responses, essays allow the writer to build a more considered response and afford the marker the chance to see what a student is capable of.

Yet, more and more with the changing face of education, students question this type of assessment.

Sir, what relevance is this going to have when we leave school!!” would not be an unfamiliar student observation.

And sometimes it is nice to play to the observation – “Not much…”

Of course, this only piques their interest (or, in more stubborn cases, confirms their disregard for the subject) to which, after a moment’s pause, I look to consider it with them more fully and open it up for some debate…

Of course, I might say, in many ways, you’re right. Think ahead to possible future careers. When, in your life, will you be asked to:

  • write a first draft as your final draft
  • by hand
  • in 40 minutes (with two other sections, just to add to the lovely muscle-feeling your hand now displays)
  • without being able to consult another person, a set of notes or (gasp) the internet
  • on a range of texts, techniques and critics

And the answer is, I would hope, never. I’ll throw the following back to their side of the court to consider. Why not, allow students to type their responses on a computer (with, if you are feeling draconian, spell-check and the like disabled), with a larger window of time, to facilitate some basic editing to occur? This would allow us to build the word count, if nothing else – on the basis that students could type much faster than they could write by hand. Could there be a range of sources that could be brought in for consideration and possible inclusion? What about collaborative efforts? My wife is currently studying for an MBA, where much of the work is group orientated and subsequent efforts assessed.

A. D. White Architectural Photographs, Cornell University Library
Accession Number: 15/5/3090.00830

So, it is interesting then in 2012, to consider why the essay response, an item that probably dates back to the 19th Century, still holds such a significant place in final testing? As changes in ICT occur, I feel this will probably warrant ongoing scrutiny. I did enjoy the introduction of the current HSC system in NSW, which looked to connect texts to real-world events and situations (seen in the Area of Study- from Change, through to Journeys and on to Belonging), but it seems like (giving a nod to old debating training) it might be time, to revamp the method and manner in which students are able to respond (rather than the matter).

With the roll out of lightweight consumption devices such as iPads and laptops and the like at schools across the globe, I wonder how long before students will be able to respond ‘electronically’? Are we within a school generation that would see the younger students able to use these devices in final exams before they graduate? Not that I am suggesting that the iPad is the way to go – it certainly has its limitations and, being a touch-typist myself, I’m not sure a semi-SMS-tapped-out-essay on the virtual keyboard is the way to go. I use a wireless keyboard when I need to do more than a few lines, but we still have some way to go before all this is seamless. And then it will need to be available to all students at all schools, without any nagging tech concerns of batteries, lost data or being unable to save or upload.
So, for the time being, the status quo remains. And so, I usually end by telling the students that the final exams are a kind of game. Not one that tests what your full capabilities are, but one that asks you to put your skills to a 40 minute test and how well you can play under those rules. I still like essays and what they can offer.
But how close are we to seeing this all change?

All Libraries Great and Small

Posted: August 3, 2012 in Uncategorized
Tags: , ,

How can we develop online borrowing without fully fledged owning?

I should start by saying I love libraries. I grew up with my parents taking us to get books out every three weeks when the loan period was up. They were, and still are, voracious readers. That discipline and sentiment has been a significant factor for me over the years.

As I write, my local council is looking to build a 22 million dollar library in the area. I teach high school English in this area. The idea of building a new state-of-the-art library should excite me, and certainly would have done a bit over a decade ago. Now, following a petition that came around and the changing nature of reading, I am wondering about the vision of such a building and the fear that such an enterprise could lead to a white elephant being created. Not that I quibble about the variety of public uses such spaces can and ought to generate.

In addition to loving reading, I have also enjoyed owning books. When young, I admired the collection of hardbacks, dusty softcovers, new editions and classics my parents possessed. I even went so far as to emulate a library in my pre- teen years, putting smaller stickers to identify the elaborate co-ordinates that the books came from on my shelves (Dewey had yet to make an impact on a 9 year old). Later, having moved out of home and with the excitement of a salaried income, I took a certain pleasure in buying up books, whether it be buying up a handful of 2nd hand classics that I had always desired, or forking over larger sums to buy a first edition. When going to a person’s house for the first (or even subsequent) times, I would draw interest in the choices that their shelves offered and what it said about the thoughts and values of the owners. A personal book collection often gave a good indicator of the character of a person.

However, behind all of this, my love of libraries stood as equally, if not more, important. Libraries satisfied the various pangs that I might have, from the trashy fairy-floss page turners that I could read in a night, to curious desire based on a recommendation that a friend or librarian might offer. There are books that I am quite happy to read and not own. I bought my wife a Kindle a couple of years ago. The idea that you can have a book, as the thought or remembrance of it occurs to you, within seconds, is enticing. Having watched Graham Hill’s liberating TED talk on removing the ‘stuff’ in our lives, the idea of having a “library” of hundreds of books in your hand, without the cheap paperbacks becoming moth-eaten and dusty, was compelling. I found my basis for reading and owning books had changed.

Thus the nub of my post – the need for a better library system for the online age we currently inhabit. Libraries are generally “free”. Certainly tax and rate payers pay for this system, but in terms of a greater societal good, it is ostensibly free for all to use thereafter.
In the United States, Amazon has its Prime service, which for 80 odd dollars, offers the lure of free shipping within two days for purchases, the ability to stream television and movies and the ability to read a “A Kindle book to borrow for free each month from the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library“.
Currently we have nothing comparable in Australia and I am not sure when Amazon (or other providers) are looking to bring the game to Australia. Not that I am suggesting that Amazon has it ‘right’ either for US customers and readers. The $79 cost seems reasonable enough on the basis of purchasing, say 4-5 “regular” novels at a book store. But compare this to my local library – my children can borrow up to 30 (yes thirty!) items at a time, including books, DVDs, music and magazines. The only issue I face is ensuring all of it gets back by the due date to avoid the overdue fines. However, I think a ‘subscription’ to a library is infinitely sensible and practical.

So to all those developers out there, I am wondering if we can bring about or consider the following: –

  • Being able to access books, on a ‘device’ to read without having to ‘buy’ the book.
  • Perhaps having a limited period to read it for free (or a ‘stepped’ price, like a rental, for the longer you possess it – thus encouraging you to read it more quickly)
  • Ensuring that author’s continue to get royalties, as they would via systems like the Public Lending Right that currently operates

Of course, one could still choose to purchase a book, as now. But what other options could we use? I would love to hear other viewpoints that further or even challenge these sentiments!