By the way


Did I tell you I got a new job? It is so momentous (and took such a long time to be confirmed) that when it finally happened (well over a month ago now) I couldn’t quite bring myself to write about it. But, there it is – I have a permanent job as Associate Professor of English Literature at my local University College. The start date is August 1. August 1 also happens to be the due date of my baby. Norway is one of the very few places in the world in which this isn’t a problem – I can take parental leave, and begin work next year.

It will involve the type of teaching I’ve already been doing (though slightly less of it), plus research and admin responsibilities. Even now, it feels a little too wonderful to write down. It is truly my dream job, which I’d almost abandoned hope of ever getting, in my dream location (a five minute drive from our house), with excellent colleagues and lovely students. And I will be able to get into research again, and there will be a point to it, and it will be supported.

It does feel a little strange that I won’t be able to start right away (currently I’m working there under a temporary contract, which will carry me through to the end of the exams period). Right now my head and my heart feel pulled in two directions – I’m 29 weeks already – can you believe it? I’m getting to the point at which I need to pull Felix’s baby things down from the loft before I’m too heavy to do so, and preferably clear some cupboard space for them first. The kicks I’m feeling are more solid, slow, persistent, and the baby blanket I’m knitting is growing. Third trimester tiredness and discomfort are catching up with me. But the fact that the job is waiting for me is a wonderful thing indeed.


Sunday morning

Felix’s train engines are having polite conversations as they shunt each other around the track. ‘Can you take my flat bed for me?’ ‘Of course I will. Straight away. We’ll have you back on the track in no time.’ I wonder what percentage of Felix’s life so far consists of pushing little wooden trains around and making up stories. He’s all floppy hair and blue pyjamas. We’ve already cooked and eaten pancakes. Baking is his other passion. ‘Shall we make something in Mummy’s kitchen?’ By the time I’ve finished cooking my pancake, he’s nearly finished his. ‘Who’s going to eat Mummy’s pancake?’ ‘Mummy!’ ‘Who else?’ ‘Just Mummy.’ ‘Mummy share!’ I acquiesce but he realises he’s full and its back to the trains.

Tomorrow it is back to teaching for me after a much needed høstferie, autumn  break. Six weeks into the semester now, and it’s been great but intense – I committed to a little too much so I feel I’m rather stumbling through the weeks, and would be doing a better job if I were doing less. All the same, while teaching British civilisation as well as literature has been challenging, it’s been fascinating, and I hope I have the chance to do it again. I’m thrilled to have some more teaching lined up for next semester (a much civilised 8 hours a week, instead of 13).

The cold kicked in here about three weeks ago. Until then it was cold in the mornings but warm by midday, and then, suddenly, it wasn’t. The colours are gorgeous. I’ve nearly finished knitting a jumper for Felix – just have to cast off the neckline and sew in all the ends. I have lacked the momentum to do so this past week as I know actually getting the thing on him is going to be a ridiculous struggle. Despite chatting endlessly about how it’s ‘nearly winter’ and we have to wear ‘lots of clothes’, the reality of wearing more layers is not going down well.

The boy needs some attention now. I may be back.

Summer rain

It’s raining and still a little light at 10pm. I’m sitting in my office room, which has been recently cleared of more than a hundred exam papers, and is calm, white, inviting. Today was my last day at work at the barnehage for a while. Summer holidays start tomorrow, and then I have six months leave in order to take up a full-time temporary post at the University College in my town. I’m excited and a little nervous. Before my summer holidays start for real, I need to finish off a very important job application, due Monday, but here I am, writing on my blog instead.

I felt a little strange at work today, because I didn’t know whether I was saying goodbye or not. The afternoon was warm with a threat of rain so the kids wore their rain trousers and boots and peddled madly on the tricycles and bounced on the bouncy balls and splashed in the puddles and dug in the sand. There are two job applications in the works, and if either of them comes through (far from a certainty) I won’t be coming back to work in the barnehage. I’ve been away a lot this semester, due largely (though not entirely) to my teaching commitments, so I felt less in tune with the place than I would have liked. In any case, I have good friends there, and Felix will continue to go there, so I’ll maintain a connection with the staff and the children. Several of the children in my class have just turned four, and I’ve been working with them for three years. To see them grow up from babies to chatty, clever little people who can write their own names in the role book is quite extraordinary.

Michael has been away this week but it is much less exhausting being alone with Felix now he is a little older. Can’t wait to spend more time with my little man throughout July. He’s so incredibly entertaining at the moment, and loves acting out scenes from his favourite Thomas the Tank Engine stories with his trains and buses, complete with snippets of dialogue and renditions of the theme song.

Marking essays

I’m currently reviewing the final drafts of the essays which I painstakingly corrected a month or so back. I meant to write something about that at the time – how marking essays is a curiously intimate thing, although ultimately (especially when there are fifty of them) mind-numbing. To read and correct the words and thoughts a student has put together in the solitude of books and a computer screen is quite a privilege (admittedly undermined by the interminable ‘I’ll help with your student literature essay’ websites). But it really is quite lovely to see that a few essays have made some significant improvements after heeding my comments. One student emailed me for more detailed feedback and emailed me straight back again to thank me. And that was nice.

As an undergraduate I could barely read the comments on my essays, I was so nervous. This process is also making me think of my phd – the tireless detailed notes my supervisors left on draft after draft, and how, slowly, after about a year and a half, I finally got what they meant.

Good morning


Well, it’s evening here at the moment, but I like this snap of Whitby I took a few weeks back with the sunrise reflected in our windows. I have been busy teaching and preparing my course outlines for the autumn. Did I tell you that I have a very exciting temporary job for the autumn semester? I’ll be teaching full-time at the University College in my town – English Literature and Culture, and a second year subject in Postcolonial Literature. I’m very excited indeed.

I’m also happy to report that I passed my level two Norwegian tests that I took in January. I’m very pleased and relieved, and am already plotting when I can take the level three ones. They’re offered three times a year. October is probably the best bet but I’m allowing myself to consider May, in order to trick myself into progressing faster. I don’t need to decide till the first week of April.

Already I’m using every spare moment to feed words and grammar into my fuzzy brain. Learning a language is a funny thing. You can’t learn to speak a language without making a million mistakes, because everything hinges together and you can’t learn everything at once. At the moment it feels like I’m laboriously constructing a scaffolding in my brain, upon which I’ll be able to build a more elegant structure at some unspecified point in the future…

This afternoon I was wondering – just how exactly do you say ‘probably’ in Norwegian. I found it in the adverb section of my grammar book this evening: ‘sannsynligvis’. Very good, I thought. But then I read on, and discovered ‘modal adverbs’. ‘Ved’ and ‘nok’ also mean (approximately) ‘probably’, but they function a bit differently within the sentence. To complicate matters, these words mean completely different things in different contexts – I was more familiar with ‘nok’ as meaning ‘enough’. Suddenly a sentence I had been squinting at the day before became a lot clearer, if ‘nok’ could mean ‘probably’ instead of ‘enough’. A lot of the time I feel I’m peering hazily at one of those magic eye pictures, and just sometimes an image emerges out of nowhere.

Exam day

I’m kicking myself for not packing my camera this morning, though I had two exams, so I guess I had other things on my mind. But my Norwegian exams were held in Gamlebyen, which is pretty at the worst of times, but a winter sunrise while the world is covered in fresh snow is something else altogether. It really is so lovely here. The clouds were dissolving as the sun came up, the sky a warm yellow behind the paper cut-out trees.

The tests went as well as they could have, I guess. The spoken test was fine and quite fun, really. The written test was split into listening comprehension, reading comprehension, and writing production. It’s the last section that I’m most unsure of – I guess it just depends how many little errors they let through. At this level they tell us it’s about communication more than perfection, so I should be ok. I’ll get the results in a month. These were level two tests, which are the end of the beginner’s level. I can’t wait till I’ve learnt enough to come back for the intermediate ones!

Looking at my schedule I thought – oh, good, I’ll have just enough time after the exam to go to a coffee shop and work on some teaching preparation before picking up Felix. And I may take out my books in a minute. But right now it’s so nice just to sit for a moment, amid the increasingly comprehensible conversations going on at tables around me.

You’ll learn a language just to be able to eavesdrop in cafes? A friend asked me while I was in Australia. There are other reasons, but, well, yes, actually. It’s very alienating not to understand the words spoken by strangers.

Teaching last week was wonderful, by the way. We spoke about sonnets, and my students were lovely, and it made me remember that there’s not too many things I would rather do than talk about poems.

Rainy day

Perfect for exam marking. But of course I am procrastinating. When there are exams to be marked, what better time to write a blog post! The rain is quite lovely in fact. Mermos is purring in my lap, Whitby is curled at my feet (I have a lambskin rug under my desk). They are such funny, friendly kitties. They always follow you around (even to the toilet, one thing I could do without!). A load of washing is on, I’ve sorted out the kitchen, and hung some pictures on my office wall.

On my left is a lovely print of an early drawing of a wombat family, by Charles-Alexandre Lesueur in 1804. I bought it when there was an exhibition in Adelaide many years ago of early French drawings of Australian plants and animals. It was the most amazing thing! Because Australian creatures were still relatively odd to European eyes, the representations looked slightly odd because they hadn’t worked out how draw them yet. Anyway the print sat under my bed in Adelaide for about seven years, but I took it back with me in January and found a frame for it. There is a mother wombat with about four little baby wombats toddling out of her pouch (do they have that many babies?), and a father wombat looking on bemusedly.

On my right are two prints of pages from the Book of Kells. I bought them on a trip to Ireland with the University of York hiking club in early 2004. Michael had organized the trip, so he was there, but we weren’t together yet. (We did, however, always sit next each other and talk for hours…) I remember offering him one of the posters on the train home in a kind of clumsy courting gesture. He said no thank you, he wasn’t into putting pictures on walls, he wanted to wait until he had his own place and could do it properly. (I bet he’s forgotten the entire conversation!) Anyway, here they are, and here we are. One of them is extra special to me now, because it is the Q from the Quoniam page, which Les Murray has written a poem about, and which I devoted about two and a half pages of my thesis to… (I can tell you more about that if you’re interested…)

Michael has been in the south of France all week which I am insanely jealous about. He gets back tonight only to leave again for Texas on Wednesday… Anyway, I’m very glad not to be at work today. Fridays are now my own! But the exams are calling. Wish me luck!


I did it! Got through my first class despite multiple technical failures… (The person who promised me late last night that he’d help me with photocopying and getting the projector to work was off sick!!!) The students are lovely and friendly and engaged, and come from a wide variety of cultural and intellectual backgrounds, which should make for interesting discussions… The two hours just evaporated, especially once I got them into smaller groups. This worked extremely well, and is as I suspected absolutely necessary as it’s difficult to have a discussion between thirty people. Who knows, we might be doing a bit of that by the end. But I have very bad memories of a class I was in once of about thirty people. It’s just too easy to sit by the sidelines, which gets incredibly boring.

I’ve got a better idea now of how to more efficiently prepare for the next class. Really two hours is no time at all, especially for this number of students. But about half of this class was taken up with introductory stuff, so we’ll have more time from now on to get stuck into things…

When I couldn’t work out how to get the overhead projector to work I cornered a lovely young man in the lift who sorted it out for me. He looked at me quizzically and told me I looked far too young to be teaching. ‘Well,’ I said, ‘I must be older than I look.’

Truth be told the train conductor mistook me for a student as well. But here I am, on a snow covered campus, a shiny PhD in my pocket and a class all of my own.

Oh, and the university bookshop is lovely. I will have to be very restrained.

Tuesday afternoon

I am in the humanities library at the University of Oslo. I am terribly excited. I just had a chat with the people who established the postcolonial literature subject I’m going to teach. They are so lovely! As soon as I stepped onto the campus it felt like coming home. A university campus!!! With courtyards and large square glass-fronted buildings and students in coats and scarves! The library smells like old books. There are high windows above the shelves and sunlight slants in through the blinds. I am sitting opposite The Riverside Chaucer, two shelves away from Peter Carey’s Collected Short Stories. (This is a small library; they have a larger one a few buildings down.) The musty book smell and the yellow sunlight make my heart skip. This is where I want to be.

A ridiculous amount of good news for one day

I got an email from Oslo University last night, asking if I wanted to teach a course on colonial and postcolonial literature in the spring. I emailed them ages and ages ago, and they said they didn’t have anything at the moment but they’d keep me in mind. I hadn’t expected to hear from them again. I can’t tell you how happy this makes me. Much bouncing was involved.

I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to do it, because I will be in Australia for a completely wonderful conference during the first week of teaching, so I’ll need to start a week late. But they emailed back today and said that’s fine. I got this second email at work, during my break. There was more bouncing, to the astonishment of my colleagues.

It’s just two hours a week, so I’ll keep working three days at the kindergarten. But I will teach the entire course by myself, and there will be a mix of BA and MA students. I can’t believe my good fortune.


School’s out

I felt a bit sad after my class today. It really has been lovely being involved with these students in this way. The relationship between teachers and students is a unique one. I have been a student for most of my life (eek – eight years of university education), so it is nice to see the other side of the coin. It’s been such a privilege to watch them thinking, and to see them bring their own unique thought patterns and experiences to the classes. They’re so young and enthusiastic, and it’s pretty cool that so many people choose to do English degrees.

It’s been a learning experience as well, and I know there are things I can improve. I think next time I should make more of an effort to write things on the white board, for example – especially when I want to keep certain concepts in play. One of my clearest memories of my own undergraduate tutorials was about structuralism, and the tutor wrote lists on the white board of light/dark, man/woman etc. Discussion was flowing fairly smoothly in my class by the end, and most of them were talking to each other rather than just to me, and bouncing off each other’s ideas. Not quite all of them did, however, and I wonder if some more small group work would have helped a couple of them to integrate better. I hardly used small groups at all this time because it seemed to work so well without it. (I started to go into more detail there but thought better of it…)

Anyway they were absolutely great and it’s sad to see them go. One of the new lecturers in the department was saying the other day that academics always complain about having to squeeze research into the cracks between other commitments, but he felt that up till this year he’s always had to squeeze teaching into the cracks, and he’s loving being able to concentrate on it for a change. I definitely squeezed teaching into the cracks this semester, and it was necessary to do so. But I’m glad I was able to do it.

Why you should read Francis Webb (with a medievalist interlude)

Because he’s different from anything you’ve ever read, or ever will read. Because he fools you into thinking he’s naive or obtuse before you realise he’s something else altogether. Because he knits his stanzas together with rhyme schemes so cleverly that you don’t even know they’re there. Because – just sometimes – his words make your breath stop and your heart beat faster. He takes you to strange places that you recognise.

Take ‘On First Hearing a Cuckoo’, for example. Here I’m going to take a medievalist detour and talk about a different poem first – a very famous thirteenth century poem which he most likely would have been aware of:

Sumer is icumen in
Sing, cuccu, nu. Sing, cuccu.
Sing cuccu. Sing, cuccu, nu.

Sumer is icumen in –
Lhude sing, cuccu.
Groweth sed and bloweth med
And springeth the wude nu –
Sing cuccu.

Awe bleteth after lomb,
Lhouth after calve cu,
Bulluc sterteth, bucke verteth,
Murie sing, cuccu.
Cuccu, cuccu,
Well singes thu, cuccu –
Ne swik thu naver nu!

I first came across this poem in a small leather-bound anthology of English poetry with bible-thin pages, given to me by my Grandma. I remember sitting down in her spare room in summer and deciding to read all of it. I didn’t get very far. This was the first poem. What a strange little thing, I remember thinking.

More recently, I discussed this poem with my students. We talked about how the ‘u’ sound holds it all together, and makes it wierd and wonderful. And about the internal rhyme in the 6th and 11th lines. My students loved ‘icumen’. And one of them pointed out that the bucks are being a bit rude (read ‘f’ for ‘v’ in line 11 and you might work it out). The last line means: ‘don’t you ever stop’, or ‘don’t you ever deceive’. ‘Nu’ means ‘now’. Cuckoos, of course, deceive by nature, and the English summer sadly never lasts long. In the lecture, my supervisor pointed out that when it says ‘cuccu’, you can never be sure if it means the bird itself or the sound it makes. This poem is memorable because it is small, simple, secretly ambiguous, joyful, naughty, rueful, fun. And it has been claimed as quintessentially English – English enough to open a serious looking anthology.

Cross to an Australian poet in England in the 1960s. He’s never heard a cuckoo before:

It was never more than two unchanging words
Heard in the first coming green of daybreak,
The sleepier green than sleep, with a sheer white
Between this yawning advancing green and the colour
Of all lights out. Not consciousness, the awakening early green:
For that was steep curtain, immediate
Structure of pain and learning, familiar rattlings.

In a Webb poem, there’s usually a few phrases you don’t understand on a first reading. What’s this ‘sheer white’ doing, and why is he using the odd phrase ‘all lights out’? But the image of the green dawn and the sound of the cuckoo is gentle and haunting. I love ‘the sleepier green than sleep’, and the idea of an awareness and a feeling of peace beneath a more frightened and confused ‘consciousness’ trying to come to grips with the surroundings and the self rationally. The poem goes on to twist around this image of green, and the ‘two words’ of the cuckoo, which enter through the window:

With this taut white wariness two words
Involved themselves, formed and changeless, cool and haunting.
. . .
. . . But they were quite apart,
So freely entering, so at home,
Not softening, not disturbing, but making distant.
Old-story-devious green, all shapes and sizes
Of illusion, turned right out of doors:
Two words, always the same words, freely entering.

It’s hard not to quote the whole poem. It continues through a single day. The speaker hears the cuckoo again whilst ‘playing cricket at eleven’, at dinner, and at nightfall. ‘Voyaging green’, ‘robust green’ and ‘sleek green’ give way to the ‘dissolute green’ of evening, and all the while the cuckoo speaks ‘two level and small words/Never at odds with self, never with green’. Night approaches:

. . . Then the changeless words
Unelectric among the going green and the advancing
Colour of lights out and the nagging strands
Of an anger. And cool before the cavernous
Green of sleep which could alone lose them.

And you start to realise that the whole poem is about the triumph of colour and light against darkness and confusion. The words of the cuckoo, which embody colour and light, cut through the confusion of the self and the ‘nagging strands/Of an anger’. They also cut through darkness. The poem never names darkness, it’s called ‘lights out’ – a phrase that is repeated three times. Electric lights fail against the darkness because they are switched off. The cuckoo’s words, however, are ‘unelectric/Against lights out’, which gives them their calm, persistent power. The poem ends:

What in themselves? Twelve hours shaken away,
Not the abandoned green remained, not self,
Not spring, not Surrey, no, nor merely
A dead word-haunted man. Two words remained –
The language foreign, childish perhaps, or pitiable –
Heedless of enmity, again and again coming
To a taut candour, to a loose warbling green.

Curiously enough, the last three lines could easily be describing ‘sumer is icumen in’. The poem is edged by feelings of unease and displacement – England’s excessive greenness is strange to Australian eyes and almost threatening. But the cadence of the cuckoo’s words overcomes this, even if, like the thirteenth century poem, their language is ‘foreign, childish perhaps, or pitiable’. ‘Ne swik thu naver nu!’

Teaching Rainbows

The last two days have been a blur of marking essays and seminar preparation. I felt quite irritable about marking the essays because they pulled me away from the last stages of fixing up my chapter. But it has been interesting to see what my students are capable of (one essay in particular was utterly fantastic). I also had to be observed by a lecturer during my seminar today. I was not looking forward to this at all. I felt flat, exhausted and uninspired. I’d only met my ‘teaching mentor’ last week, and didn’t feel like I clicked with him particularly well. So it was a rather reluctant meli who turned up to class today, having very elegantly managed to forget both her pen and her role book.

But it went GREAT! The students really got into Chaucer, and we had fun looking at the relationship between the tale, the teller, and the person he interrupts in order to tell it. My teaching mentor was extremely positive afterwards, and said it was the best postgraduate taught seminar that he’d ever observed. Both relaxed and scholarly. Hurrah, hurrah! A tutor with a slight stammer is not a kiss of death. It doesn’t matter. And I even managed to bond with the student who lent me – and then very kindly gave me – her pen.

I rewarded myself with a fat, fudgy brownie from the cafe across the road. I mustered the energy to attend the medieval lit lecture, which was entertaining and reminded me how international Chaucer is. And then I cycled home as fast as I could, arriving at my door as the thunderclouds cracked above me, and a faint rainbow shimmered above the rooftops. A good day.

And this was a good week

I met with my supervisors on Wednesday, and they liked my chapter!!! This is my last chapter. It was pretty tough to write and I was worried they’d tear it apart. Instead they said all kinds of nice things like I’m streaming ahead on my own now, they’re happy to sit back and watch! It just needs a little stretching and tidying, no more than ten days work. They reckon if I put my mind to it I could be done in September! So. I’m putting my mind to it. Most of what needs doing is adding in more close analysis of poems, which is my favourite bit anyway.

I taught Beowulf this week. It was so much fun reading it again – apart from reveling in the shiny, heavy language, I kept making all sort of new connections. (New for me, anyway.) I thought it was so interesting the way fratricide is emphasised in the narrative, and how Grendel’s descent from Cain (specifically, from Cain’s murder of Abel) is played against this. He is a monster – an enemy of God, and of the people of the story, but the people of the story commit the same sin which made him a monster in the first place. One of my students asked if this was another example of the Christian author of the poem distancing the Christian audience from the pagan practices of the past. An interesting thought…

I also asked them to read Tolkien’s ‘The Monsters and the Critics’, but I told them it was optional – a mistake I will not be making again (none of them read it). I enjoyed rereading that, though, too. When I was an undergraduate, I missed out on the Early Middle Ages module, but I made a point of reading Beowulf and that essay. Beowulf didn’t do a lot for me the first time I read it, but the essay made me shiver with delight. The way he talks about dragons! (I have a fondness for dragons.) This time I couldn’t help noticing how both universalism and nationalism frame his interpretation of the poem. He says it is a poem about man confronting the darkness of impending doom and inevitable death. He says this quite poetically. But – it’s not just that. The poem isn’t just about universal ‘man’. It is about a very specific society, which it goes to great pains to construct. The monsters don’t threaten humanity, but the Scandinavians. Hence my theory about Grendel, which I outlined above…

Anyway. The students weren’t quite as excited about it as I was, but it is a difficult poem and I think they did pretty well. Next week, the sagas….


I once wrote a poem that went like this:

i know the cruelty of consonants
the sweep deep swish
of sss-ss-sssss, the fish gaping



i want to float
soft drifting word-sea
slide through meaning


Kookaburra laugh
helicopter wings whirring
shatter air

you guess my words
from my throat
with clear tongue,
precise mouth, cruel

my words
choking, knocking, flapping
dying moths


This was ten years ago. I was eighteen. I wrote it during an English tutorial on postmodernism at Adelaide University. We were reading poems by Ania Walwicz and J.S. Harry. I sat in the corner, a bubbling mess of emotion. I was in awe of the playful and violent ways they made language sing, but I couldn’t express how I felt. I was too afraid to speak, knowing my words would crash and crumble and collide.

Flashback to a history class, aged fourteen, when the teacher asked me a direct question because she knew I knew the answer, and I pretended I didn’t, because I knew I couldn’t say it.

I sat in the corner some more. And then I started writing. The words tumbled out, as fierce and pure as the words everyone else was discussing. It felt good.

The poem won a competition. There was an awards dinner, and we were supposed to read out our poems. I said no, I couldn’t do it, not this time. So the organizer of the competition said she’d read it for me. She took me aside to practice reading it. She read it well, but not quite right. I would read it more like this, I said. I read it. I made the harsh bits hard, and in the quiet, wistful stanzas I put all my longing. She looked at me. Meli, she said, you are reading that poem.

I did. And I read it again, to hundreds and hundred of people, when the book was launched at Writers’ Week. Someone recorded it and played it on Poetica on Radio National. The best bit was, my second cousin’s step-father, who is an academic in Sydney, heard it on the radio in his car. That night, he said he’d heard an amazing poem about stammering on the radio. That’s Meli, said my cousin. No, he said, it couldn’t have been, it was someone older. And then she showed him the book.

The poem is an elegy. And it is a sharp sword, sheathed. These days, I don’t need to think about it very often. Only sometimes, giving conference papers, or meeting new people, or teaching… Yesterday, my class crumbled a bit at the end. Afterwards, I felt embarrassed and distraught and wanted to hide. I remembered the poem. When I was younger, I used to wish I could swap my disability for something else. I thought – I would rather be in a wheelchair than stammer. Having since worked with people who rely on wheelchairs, I take this back. I definitely have the better deal. But if you’re in a wheelchair, you work things out. You get ramps fixed in your workplace. I can work things out, too. I can work out what went wrong, and how to avoid it next time (in this case, make sure I have all details like names of websites on a printed hand-out). It can be done.

Lots of good stuff

Pink clouds above the red terrace.

I am very excited. On Monday it finally started to sink in that I’m going to Australia. I’m heading down to London tomorrow night, and we fly out on Sunday. We have a day and a night in LA, and six days in New Zealand with my parents, before heading to Adelaide for Christmas. After Christmas, we’re going up to Queensland to hopefully get some paragliding in. Not only do I get a slice of summer and Christmas with my family, but I’ll be will the lovie for a whole month. Hurrah!

I taught my last writing workshop today and it was great fun. We discussed the students’ essay plans. Actually the disparate topics had some interesting connections: one was on ‘ancestry’ in slavery narratives, and one was on ‘modern heroism’ in Lord of the Rings. Both to do with interactions between the past and the present – my specialty. Fun fun fun. Tolkien taught at Leeds for a while. Apparently he hated it, and jumped on the train to Oxford at every opportunity. In its ‘dark satanic mills’ he saw an image of Mordor. Bah, I say, bah. Studying and teaching at Leeds has made me realise how completely brilliant it would be to do an undergraduate degree in English here – so much choice!

Anyway, if I teach essay writing workshops again, I’ll do more of this kind of hands-on approach to the students’ own work, and getting them to help each other. It’s often easier to see how to improve someone else’s essay than your own. I’d quite like to teach this again, because helping people to write is exciting. Such a nice change from staring at my own words.

A good work day. The trinity of computer, note-book, and printed draft seemed to go together well – three different places to write.

The other completely brilliant piece of news is that my supervisors loved my Stow chapter redraft. It’s too long now, and needs to lose about 5000 words, but when I’ve done that next year, it will be a pretty spiffy chapter. I’m exorbitantly pleased with it, and just so happy that all my hard work paid off. Reworking it took longer than I thought it would, but now every bit of it is interesting, and it hangs together, and I was able to refine my ideas and develop some new ones. Three cheers for clarity. That’s what I told my students today – keep an eye out for hazy statements and generalizations – it’s when you think carefully about what you really mean that you come up with the best ideas.

With that in mind, my Francis Webb chapter (the first one I wrote) will be in for a pretty hefty rewrite next year. I had a brief look at it yesterday, and it’s full of hazy metaphors likening time to chiming bells. Hmmmm. I’m glad it was enough to get me through my upgrade procedure, and supervisor one says he’s impressed with the way I read Webb’s poems (admittedly pretty complex stuff), but I can see why every time I showed it to them they told me it wasn’t quite there. Bring it on, I say (after my holiday, that is).

Now I just have to concentrate my mind enough to shave some rough edges off my Kevin Hart chapter, and send it to my supervisors before I leave. It’s not a whole chapter draft – more like two thirds – but I’ve worked through some of the difficult bits, and at least I’ll come back to a solid piece of work to build on. That’s 50,000 words I’ve written this year, including two chapters which are pretty much done apart from some minor tuning and pruning. And I’ve worked out what a chapter is really supposed to be – something I didn’t know nine months ago. I’ve almost got the whole thing in draft form. Next year will be a lot of work, but all going well, I will definitely be finished by this time next year. Hurrah!

Okay, enough gloating. Back to work…

Teaching structure

I only have two writing workshops left to teach, and I’ve been wondering how helpful they actually are. They must at least be a bit helpful, because (most of the time) the students turn up, and it’s entirely voluntary. Because of the workshop format, we don’t have time to give a lot of one on one attention, which would probably actually be the most useful thing. We talk about structural ideas and grammatical rules, and look at examples. Next week we’ll discuss how to approach exam questions, and hopefully in the last week the students will bring along some of their own essay plans, which we’ll be able to look at with the group.

I know it’s been helpful for my own writing to read through some of the student writing guides, and think about how to best communicate some of the ideas to my students. This week we talked about structure: introducing an idea, pushing it along, and arriving somewhere. John Peck and Martin Coyle’s The Student’s Guide to Writing explains this idea really well, comparing writing an essay to describing a scientific experiment. My students were initially a bit confused about this idea, thinking it too prescriptive. The idea isn’t to pretend your essay is an experiment, however, it’s just to get you thinking clearly about what each section of your essay is doing. Peck and Coyle then talk about taking it further, or, as they put it: ‘set it up, push it along, then push your luck.’ Their point is that if you introduce the topic, and develop it clearly, it’s often nice to introduce a new element or angle about two thirds of the way through, to push it up to a new level.

I really like this idea because I can see that’s what the most interesting essays and articles do. Writing that does that is exciting to read. I’ve always found it difficult to pin down a mass of swirling ideas into a linear form. I’m too impatient to get to the point. One of the things I’ve had to learn in writing my thesis has been to slow down, to give ideas time and space to develop. To set up the basic points of my argument clearly before diving into the new stuff. Otherwise I end up mistaking vague, unsubstantiated statements for poetry.

So… This might end up helping me more than it’s helping them. But hopefully it’s also helping me to help them better. And I think in the end writing’s a bit like riding a bike. You can talk about it all you like, but it’s not till you jump on that you start to get somewhere.

Teaching, writing, learning

Teaching is a lot of fun. At the moment I’m leading a weekly essay writing workshop. It’s great fun on two levels: preparing for the class each week, and interacting with the students. On the weekend I got together two pages of dot-points of what I thought was most important about essay writing. They seemed to find that helpful, especially my idea of labeling paragraphs while you are revising them (a technique I still sometimes find essential). Thinking about the details of writing, and of how to communicate these details effectively, is proving to be useful for my own writing as well as my teaching.

I think English literature students are more concerned with marks here in England than they are in Australia. This could be an unfair generalization, but I think that the fact that your degree as a whole is graded here has quite an impact on students. In Australia an Arts degree is an Arts degree. The only time the marks matter is if you want to go on to further study, and even then, your Honours marks are more important than your Bachelors degree (correct me if I’m wrong).

Interacting with undergraduates makes me reflect on how I learned things in my undergraduate days. Sometimes I wish I could give my poor undergrad self a good talking to, and go back and do things differently. I never had a problem with marks, mostly because I already had a pretty fluid writing style, which many undergraduates lack. But I did find some of the ideas pretty challenging. And I found some friends who confirmed my fears, and proceeded to block myself off from a lot of things (like theory) I should have taken more seriously.

We were scared, in those days, of Cultural Studies ‘taking over’. I think there was a bit of tension in the department itself, and some of the old school lecturers felt a bit under siege. I was intimidated by the super-trendy students who tried to fit the word ‘Foucault’ as many times as they could into one sentence, whilst leaning provocatively back in their chairs. They treated postmodernism as a religion. My response was to duck out of the firing line. I sat through the compulsory theory course in my Honours year under duress. It was torture.

It’s not torture any more. At least, not all the time. What is literary criticism anyway, but theories about literature? I’ve been thinking a lot about teaching and research, and how they intersect. And exactly what are we teaching anyway? To write? To think? To situate yourself within an ever-changing field of ideas? Teaching, writing and research seem like linked adventures, raids on the inarticulate, to quote one of my favourite passages from Four Quartets:

And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion.

It’s fun to share this adventure.