Friday, 14 November 2014

Five of my favourite literary spots

Earlier today I spotted a Buzzfeed article on “19 British Places all Book Lovers Must Visit”. It’s a great list, and I was slightly ashamed to have only made it to four of them, but it did miss out some of my personal favourites…so here are five UK literary spots I’d add to the list:

The West Yorkshire Moors
Although they all left home at various points in their lives, the Bronte sisters were all very much attached to their home of Haworth (itself now a much-visited destination, featured in the Buzzfeed list) and the West Yorkshire Moors are a major feature of most of their novels, perhaps most famously in Charlotte’s Jane Eyre and Emily’s Wuthering Heights. You don’t even have to brave the elements to enjoy this literary setting; take the train from Leeds to Manchester and you’ll be certain you spotted the imposing Wuthering Heights up on a cliff amongst the breathtaking scenery.

St Peter’s Church, Bournemouth
If you know me well, you’ll know that Mary Shelley was always going to feature in this list! She is buried in the graveyard here, along with her mother, the famous feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, her father, the philosopher William Godwin, and the heart of her husband, the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (he died in a storm at sea and his rotting body was recovered and cremated…it is said that his heart did not burn, and Mary took it and kept it in her desk drawer, where it was discovered by her adult children after she died). As a Mary Shelley fan, this was a bit of a pilgrimage for me. If you fancy a drink after a wander around the churchyard, there's a Wetherspoons called The Mary Shelley next door!

St Pancras Old Church, London
Just one more Mary Shelley one, I promise! She grew up in Somers town and her mother was originally buried in the graveyard here (first Mary’s remains were moved to Bournemouth after the second Mary’s death). Mary would often visit her mother’s grave to think and to write, and after she met Percy Bysshe Shelley, this is where they would meet in secret (he being married already). It was here that they admitted their love for each other and, it is suggested, erm…acted on this (well, they didn’t really have anywhere else to go!). There is still a memorial stone for Mary Wollstonecraft here but I have never been able to locate it; however I love walking round the churchyard, following in Mary’s footsteps.

Perrott’s Folly and Edgbaston Waterworks, Birmingham
I grew up in north Birmingham, and as a teenager I played trombone in a jazz band which met on the south side of the city every Monday night. I was a bit of a Lord of the Rings fan, reading the books around the time that the films came out, and one evening my Dad took us on a detour home, to see Perrott’s Folly, which is said to be one of two towers in Edgbaston (the second being Edgbaston Waterworks) which inspired Tolkien’s Two Towers. There’s no solid evidence that this is true, and there are many articles and blog posts out there arguing otherwise, but as someone with an active imagination, I loved standing there and thinking about how Tolkien may have pulled these ordinary industrial urban features into his fantasy land.  I’m no longer a LoTR fan but I’d still argue it’s a must-visit for those who are.

Newnham College, Cambridge
The poet Sylvia Plath first came to England on a scholarship to Cambridge University, studying at this women-only college. She wrote lots and published work in the student newspaper, and it was while she was here that she met and married Ted Hughes. I discovered Sylvia Plath, as many girls do, when I was about 17 years old, and around this time I went on a school trip where we stayed overnight at Newnham College, learning about life at the university. I was completely taken by the idea that I was wandering the same corridors that Sylvia Plath had, and that perhaps I or one of my friends were staying in her very room...

Friday, 31 October 2014

The basement stacks

It was the summer of 2010 and I was in my final few months of my MA in Librarianship at the University of Sheffield, spending my days grappling with research methods and data analysis as I wrote up my dissertation, and my evenings working as a shelver in the Western Bank Library there. This had been the main research library before the fancy Information Commons was built, and had a lovely spacious sunny reading room, along with several floors of old-fashioned windowless basement stacks, tightly packed with shelves of journals. Part of my role as the library closed for the night was to go downstairs and switch off all the lights and lock up the doors on the little staircases between the basement floors. It was quiet and very dark down there with all the lights off - you had to take your phone with you to use as a torch - and neither I nor the other shelver liked doing this, so we would take a floor each and try to get it done and over with as quickly as possible.

One night I had switched off the main lights, and there was only one dim light in the middle of the shelves left to go. I was walking down the aisle towards the yellowish glow, when I noticed the book trolley sitting at the end of it. It was oh so gently gliding from side to side, back and forth, the creaking of the wheels audible in the otherwise silent room. There was no one else around.

I was seized with a sudden urge to run, and without any further thought I left the light and turned and legged it up the aisle towards the exit, with an overwhelming expectation that something was going to reach out from the shelves and grab me. But nothing got in my way and I made it out and upstairs to the evening sunlight.

No one else I've spoken to since has experienced anything like that down there. I don't know if I believe in ghosts. There may well be a rational explanation for the moving trolley, and that would demonstrate the amazing power and complexity of the human mind - that I was certain that something was wrong and that I was in danger. That tapping into human fear, that writers and filmmakers who create horror play on.

Whatever it was, I haven't ever forgotten it.

Happy Halloween.

Thursday, 30 October 2014

Teaching first-year undergraduates about plagiarism

At the beginning of this term I was asked to take over the seminar slots for the first year Sport and PE students during the third week of teaching; two hours in which I would teach the students how to use the library resources, how to reference, and how to avoid academic offences such as plagiarism and collusion. I did something similar last year, and had found it difficult to keep the students engaged over the two hours on what can quite honestly be dry topics. So this year I decided to try some new things to add some more interactivity and liven the session up a bit, and I remembered a plagiarism exercise I had heard about at a Library Camp. This came from a school librarian and I'm afraid I didn't write down her name - if you're reading this, please contact me so I can credit you! - and I adapted it slightly for use with first year undergraduates.

About halfway through the seminar I handed out pieces of scrap paper and asked the students to write down the best thing that had happened since they'd been at university so far. After some looks of bemusement they all managed to write down something (I emphasised that neither I or their tutor would read it!) and I asked them to swap their piece of paper with someone else, then to write their name at the top of the paper they'd received, and to count up the words on it. I then asked for the highest word count, and gave the holder of the piece of paper with it a chocolate. Each time, this person looked baffled and said "but I didn't write it", to which I replied "but it's got your name at the top!" - and then the students realised what I was getting at!

I was worried that it wouldn't work; that either the students would twig straight away and would see the whole exercise as childish, or the opposite, that they wouldn’t realise what I was getting at, but it actually worked pretty much perfectly in each seminar – the students appeared a bit taken aback by it and then realised what I was doing at exactly the right point in the exercise. I think it also worked really well at that halfway point in the session; after the “finding books and journals” bit that they would be expecting, doing this exercise shook the session up, got the students doing something different, and added an element of unpredictability which was also humorous too; the students gently laughing at the rightful owner of the chocolate missing out (I did actually give them one too eventually!), and also much hilarity ensuing when they read each others’ answers to the question I had set!

I will definitely use this exercise again with first-years (hopefully their by-then second-year peers won’t spoil the surprise before I get to do it!).

Saturday, 7 June 2014

My "Big Thinker" - Mary Wollstonecraft

Since last September, I have been studying for a Postgraduate Certificate in Academic Practice at UoB; a teaching qualification for HE which will also allow me to apply for accreditation by the Higher Education Academy (HEA). I have been meaning to write some blog posts about it but I have found studying part-time on top of working full-time, keeping up with my writing, continuing to make and maintain friendships in Bedford, and dealing with everything else that life entails quite demanding! I have completed the first unit and found out this week that, subject to ratification at the exam board in July, I have passed it (hooray!) and this week was also the first session for the second and final unit.

We talked about “Big Thinkers” – people who have influenced the way we think about and carry out our practice in teaching – and some of the course staff shared theirs. I couldn’t help notice that they were all men – Lacan, Heidegger et al. – and, whilst these figures were undeniably significant, I couldn’t help but wonder about which women we could come up with. I suspect it’s because of my ignorance of theorists, but I could only think of one – Mary Wollstonecraft. Mary was in many ways the “mother of feminism” – her text A Vindication of the Rights of Women, published in 1792, is, as far as I’m aware, the first text arguing for sexual equality, and in it her argument was that women needed to gain equality with men for a happy society, and that the way to achieve this was to educate girls.  Education is a hugely powerful thing operating in a context that goes way, way beyond the classroom. Even now, recent events – the shooting of Malala, the abduction of hundreds of girls from a school in Nigeria – demonstrate the power of education and how it is feared by those in this world who wish to continue to oppress women. As a teacher I am part of something much bigger than helping students find journal articles for their coursework.

I’ve been thinking about this over the past few days, and also the fact that I can’t think of any other female “Big Thinkers “ in education right now, and I’ve decided I want to explore more about educational theory, and in particular feminist educational theory. There’s quite a bit of literature out there on it, and a new book about feministpedagogy in info lit teaching has been on my radar for a while, so I’m going to make the time to learn more, and maybe make this my kind of focus for the remainder of my course.

Oh, and Mary? Well she sadly died shortly after giving birth to her second daughter, another Mary, but her husband William Godwin shared her beliefs, and the girls were educated and exposed to writers and philosophers of the time from an early age. Young Mary went on to, at 19 years of age, pretty much invent science fiction