Nov 292013

I helped a friend out during their trip to Venice (I helped very little actually) but this wine was the thank you gift they gave me when they came back. I know so little that I can say: we discovered that prosecco is like champagne, but from Italy. (The Beav insists that we knew this, or at least, that he did and that I would have too if I had paid attention in Rome.)

This bottle was a treat and I’ll leave the commentary to the Beav: “Wow, it’s like apples, but…” Then he sips again and says, “It’s very good. But we’re going to have a headache.”

Whatever. Sometimes il faut souffrir pour être saoul.

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 November 29, 2013  Moments Tagged with:
Nov 282013

It’s Thanksgiving in the States, and even though I’m living on the wrong side of the border for it to be official, it’s still my favourite holiday. One moment in a busy year to step back, take account and to recognize that I have a pretty good life and a lot to be thankful for.

I’ve been lucky and that’s a good reason to remember to be generous. Because not everyone has been.

 November 28, 2013  Moments Tagged with:
Nov 252013

I’ve been disappointed in my posts these past two months. (Not all the time, but often enough.) When I am, it’s because they seem generic, even review-like. I don’t see my memories in them. And worse, I don’t hear my voice.

Two things seem to be at play:

1. I haven’t had much free time, so I’ve written posts long after finishing a book or watching a movie. Which means the posts are memories of memories, and given how rushed I’ve been the initial experiences remembered were probably dim and bland to begin with. So not great raw material.

2. While the delay between experience and post certainly matters, the bigger source of change seems to be that so many of these posts are written immediately as posts. In the past, I’ve always worked through my thoughts in my notebooks before writing. Without that working through with pen and paper, my posts and my memories and my thoughts feel thin and tentative, like the beginning of thoughts rather than their realization. Worse, I’ve seen myself yielding to the temptation to cover for the lack by talking big. Which I hate.


Until my hellishly busy semester comes to an end in a few weeks, I’ll be writing short, nearly summary posts until I’m caught up. Then when I can think again: back in business.

…I’ve always joked that I was a reviser rather than a writer. These last few months feel like a kind of natural experiment establishing this as true.


 November 25, 2013  Reflections Tagged with:
Nov 232013

The Player of GamesThis is Iain M. Banks’s second Culture novel and then one that made me fall in love with the series.

Two things stuck out to me as I read: the overt sexual politics and the narrative strategy.

The sexual politics: this is a novel about a member of an enlightened, tolerant society who finds himself in a place where power is structured sexually. What’s interesting here is that readers–American, British, Canadian, in other words, Western Anglo–will likely identify with the protagonist, the member of the Culture confronted with alien sexuality. And yet, those readers are not like the protagonist. They are like the alien culture. Our society is sexist, like theirs. Our sexism is arbitrary, like theirs. It is held up by and holds up religious and political institutions. In the Culture, sex does not operate as a fundamental distinction between people because all people can and most people do switch from one sex to the other and back again. This is queer transsexual liberation operating from the centre as a norm rather than from the margin as critique. It’s like watching the queen of Canada sniff into her teacup with disdain at someone who’s too bigoted to consider a sex change.

The final scene in the novel makes the implications of this approach to sex and sexuality material. The protagonist, home again, discovers that a former female lover has been living as a man while he was away but is transitioning back to a female body. This lover’s body is at a stage where it lacks anything but ambiguous, rudimentary genitalia. Yet these two, happy to be together for the night and with no plans for anything to carry over beyond that night, don’t care and aren’t hindered. What matters to them in that moment is each other and not each others’ bodies. It’s a powerful scene.

(Incidentally, this disruptive sexuality is matched by an equally disruptive anti-racism: the members of the Culture are brown-skinned and are genetically modified to allow them to mate with other species. Their adaptability is grounded on the embrace and celebration of miscegenation.)

I have less to say about the narrative. I’ll just point out that as is the case with The Use of Weapons, there is a discovery at the end of the novel that changes the meaning and implications of what has gone on before. This discovery is not as meaningful as the one in The Use of Weapons–the alien culture’s game is an allegory of their society and a tool for organizing society–but it is a nice way to end the book and once again serves as a demonstration of Bank’s control over his material.

 November 23, 2013  Book Logs Tagged with: , ,
Nov 162013

My biggest problems with the wiki project to date have arisen because students don’t read what’s on their screen or pay attention to system prompts. They are used to web-pages that either do nothing or have been designed to just take them along for the ride. When they want something to happen they start clicking buttons–seemingly at random and without waiting even a moment to see what their click did–expecting apparently that if they click enough or in the right place the site will eventually do what they want. But it doesn’t and the carelessness wrecks havoc!

In the worst cases, they erase other students’ work or lose their own. (And they don’t save work in intermediate steps. I don’t understand. Who doesn’t save work?!?) They also don’t pay attention to where they are on the site or adjust to context, and so for example, they lose formatting by cutting and pasting from a display screen to an edit screen. (There’s no markup on the display and the bold, bulleting, etc. they see there disappears in the plain text editor. They respond by clicking randomly and by the time help arrives they’ve erased their tracks badly enough that they have to start the mark-up all over again.)

Teaching attention and carefulness is hard because they are about habits not knowledge.


 November 16, 2013  Hypertext, Teaching Tagged with:
Nov 162013

This wine feels like the shrunk-down version of an typical French red from the south-west, but spunky and charming and worth showing off to friends.

It was easy and great and I suspect it would be a bit of a chameleon, able to pair up with almost any fish or shellfish as long as it were prepared with a non-cream sauce. It wouldn’t be great pairing, but it would work…and just might be a surprise.

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 November 16, 2013  Moments Tagged with:
Nov 152013

The wiki project is off to a solid start, and students seem to like it. My fears about basic site maintenance–can I run the tech for this project on my own?–have also faded. Things are stable and work. That said, my initial goals for the project have been radically revised: what I imagined this project would be about is not what I’m dealing with and so my goals and what I’m trying to teach are changing. Fast.

Linking as Literacy

The most substantial change is in my literacy goals. As it turns out, markup and the distinction between content and formatting is not difficult. Linking is. Creating links (as opposed to following them) requires working at a level of abstraction that is quite difficult for my students to handle. You must hold bits of text in your head, juggle them, and always read (and write) with an ear turned to hear echoes of other things that you could search for and link to. Or at least, you need to see places that ought to link to something and mark them with a link, even if that link is just pointing to a blank page in the wiki for the moment.

Linking also invites confusion. Links can be arranged as a kind of file hierarchy that duplicates a finder or explorer structure. Which is fine and some of my students have fallen back on this strategy. But links can also (more profitably?) be arranged in a web that resembles, when things go wrong, a knot or, when things go right, a line thrown blindly out into the darkness that you hope will grab something useful on the other end. Building a webbed structure requires faith in the process, faith in the idea that good work connected link-by-link will slowly develop into something useful and insightful in the end. But that kind of faith is hard for overworked students to muster. They don’t want to waste their time. And of course: are the links graded?

From Revision to Note-taking

Linking now seems more important to me than revision. I would like students to learn both to make links and to “make links.” And so, I have shifted my expectations and have adjusted the assigned work. I am now encouraging students to take notes on the wiki rather than to create finished texts there. I want this note-taking to be experimental, personal, idiosyncratic; I want it to be a process where they notice, collect and select info and then mark its importance by formatting and arranging it and by drawing links between their various collected tidbits. In order to allow them to experiment in private, I have set up a private group space for each student where they can post pages that only they can access. It was laborious to do but worth it.


A principal assignment for the wiki is now going to be an annotation of a poem. I will assign everyone a poem. They post it correctly formatted and then add explanatory and interpretative annotations as footnotes. These annotations will be sourced and will connect to additional resources on the wiki or the web. It’s a new kind of task. I’ve never done it before and it is only possible online.

What I like about it is that it encompasses both aspects of the course content: literary analysis through close reading and hypertextual, online writing. In this, it moves completely beyond my initial conception of the project, which was mostly just a repackaging of my normal class as an online activity. With this assignment, the wiki project creates something new and useful that changes how I teach my course.

Surprisingly, I’ve had only one major problem so far this term.

 November 15, 2013  Hypertext, Teaching Tagged with: ,