Sunday, 28 October 2012

Yet another conference

So I've done it again. There is no logic at all. First I cancel all conferences and guest lectures, then I accept another invitation. My motivation for cancelling old commitments or declining new ones is that travel is becoming too demanding. In which case, why did I accept an invitation to a day-and-a-half conference, sandwiched between two days of extremely long and stressful travel?

An obvious reason: I expected it to be a very interesting event, because it is a workshop rather than conference, with seven speakers, pre-circulated papers, discussants and plenty of time for general discussion. Expectations confirmed. It was a very interesting and gratifying event, in which I learned a lot, shared a lot, and received great feedback on my own work from colleagues who don't know me nor my work, who all come from different disciplines, and who had no prejudices against children's literature since they didn't know anything about it. But I have a feeling that they got interested, made the necessary connections with their own research, and definitely will consider reading a least one young adult novel.

A less obvious reason: one of the speakers is extensively referred to in my current research. He spoke about something completely different (and highly engaging), but his questions and comments on my paper showed that he at the very least understood what I was talking about. Actually, since the papers were pre-circulated, I didn't even talk from the paper, but set it into a wider context. All professional gatherings should be like that.

Reminder to myself: yes, it is increasinly more difficult to travel, unless it is a direct flight from Stansted of no longer than two hours. I had investigated all travel options, and I couldn't have won anything through flying from Stansted since the other end would have been awful. It was awful enough. You may think that 12.40 is a very civilised flight that does not require getting up before dawn. But see, it takes me almost three hours to get to Heathrow plus you must be there at least an hour in advance, preferably earlier for security check. Then a relatively short flight to Madrid, four hours until next flight, which was only 45 minutes. A good angel in the form of a shuttle-service driver. It was by then well over nine, and I was fully determined to go to bed right away, but when the host spotted me in the hotel reception and invited me to join the other participants for dinner (those late Spanish dinners!) of course I could not resist.

Then a day-and-a-half of exceptionally stimulating scholarly exchange, interrupted by long and plentiful meals. Then yesterday, a quick walk to the old city centre, mostly to be able to say: Yes. I have been to Pamplona. An expected bonus was an exhibit in the Cathedral. By then, however, it was plus four and raining, and I knew that I would have to make an early start in the morning. So rather than accepting (as I surely would have done ten years ago) the fellow participant idea of a cup of tea or a glass of wine, I withdrew and actually went to bed early. Really early if you consider the changing of the clock. It took me some time – and a few consultations on Facebook – to figure out the correct setting for my two alarms (phone and paddy), and to be on the safe side I also ordered a wake-up call. 4.30 in the morning is not a civilised time to travel, but I really had no choice. The worst thing was that I had no time to get coffee before I was on the second flight. Everything was pretty uneventful until I got to King's Cross. I had looked up the train timetable on my phone while I was heading East on Picadilly line, but there was something profoundly wrong with it because it kept telling me that the itinerary King's Cross to Cambridge was not available. I ascibed it to my tiredness and gave up after five attempts. But when I emerged from the Tube at King's Cross, my itinerary was unavailable. Which is not funny when you have been travelling since very early morning. I stared at the display trying to figure out a reasonable solution when I happened to realise that I had Information right behind my back  With some good advice, I took a train as far as it would take me, and then there was a replacement bus. (A definition by a friend: "A bus that pretends to be a train"). It only delayed me with an hour, and I saw some pretty countryside.

Summary: is it worthwhile.. etc? Professionally, yes, and if I were sure that all events I go to would be so fruitful, perhaps I should start travelling more again. Yet the travel itself is exhausting. Maybe if I learn Apparition.

Footnote: paddy has proved indispensable. I had all the papers on it, including my own, and I had several Kindle books. It is, I must underline, more pleasurable to read on Kindle than on paddy; the latter has a shiny screen and reflections. For checking email and social sites, paddy was perfect, but if I had wished to write something (such as a blog post), the keyboard is too small. But perhaps I will learn. For short travel, paddy easily replaces the combination of Kindle and laptop. So at least as the proof of the pudding, the experience was useful.

Sunday, 14 October 2012

Me and my paddy

I have finally succumbed and got an iPad. I will mostly use it for lectures, meetings and conferences: reading from screen rather than print out (a self-deceit of being green). I have been doing it for a long time noe with a laptop, but coming to a meeting with  laptop is almost like bringing a runic stone. Anyway, I am a happy owner of a paddy, and just as with my recent smartphone I am discovering things that I didn't know I wanted. I don't like calendar on the phone because it is too small and it takes me ages to type in a simple note, but I can imagine that next year will be the first since I was fifteen that I won't get a printed diary. I have a couple of months to discover whether paddy covers my needs.

One thing I did know I wanted was testing picturebook apps that one of my students has been studying for her thesis ever since the first iPad was launched. I remember her coming to supervision almost in tears saying: What shall I do? This changes everything. I can just as well throw away my thesis. To which the clever supervisor said: On the contrary, seize the day! Be the first to investigare picturebook apps in your thesis. Which she did.

The first picturebook app, that came free with the first iPad, was Dr Seuss' The Cat in the Hat. What my student and I agreed at once was that the app destroys the paratexts: cover, endpapers, title page - those element of the picturebook that sometimes are essential (if you want to know more, read my book How Picturebooks Work). What we tried to figure out was whether apps add something new or at least compensate fior what they have lost. The Cat in the Hat has been updated since then (one feature you can't do with a printed book, for better and for worse: you'll have to buy a new printed edition, while an app update writes over the previous version. No way you can compare covers). It is a good way to start a discussion of apps as compared with printed books. I put it on my syllabus before I got my paddy. But I will need more examples for this particular class.

I then bought Oliver Jeffers' The Heart and the Bottle, made by a celebrated picturebook author specifically as app. I suppose that you need to think slightly differently if you are doing an app from scratch, rather than transferring an existing picturebook into an app. If you are a clever picturebook creator you will think about how to make the most of the medium. I will need to play with it a bit more, but it is interesting, and it works. 

The third app I got was one of my favourite picturebooks, What Happened Then, by Tove Jansson. It's a wonderful book with cut-outs and lots of surprises. It is a interactive book, long before interactivity was associated with digital media. It is a sophisticated book. The app has lost it all and offers nothing instead. You tap and something pops up. Then it hides. You tap again, it pops up again. You shake, and leaves fall. Then they rise again. This app is a good argument for those against apps. It's merely a gimmick. Too bad. Too bad because parents will buy it for their kids who will never discover the real book. But that's what we have been saying about tevevision, movies and glossy Disney booklets of The Hunchback of Notre-Dame with a happy ending.

Sunday, 7 October 2012

Here we go again

I was going to write a very angry post about how I spent this beautiful autumn Sunday, but luckily I checked what I wrote on a similar topic two years ago. Now I don't have to write a new post, because it would be absolutley identical. Including all dirty words between the lines.

Saturday, 6 October 2012

It's a book!

I am reading a book. OK, you say, so what else is new? You are not getting it, are you: I am reading a book. You don't scroll it down, You cannot blog with it. It cannot tweet. It cannot text. And so on. It's a book.

It's not like I am a totally digital person, but suddenly I find myself making ridiculous comparisons. The book is five hundred pages long, and even if it is a paperback, it's heavy and hard to hold. I have to break the spine to open it properly. The paper is yellowish and not friendly to my eyes. Worst of all: I cannot zoom to make the font larger. I find myself getting irritated because the book I am reading is not delivered through a medium I have got used to and find pleasurable.

I am not sure how to react to my own reaction. Does it mean that I will avoid printed books? To be frank, I am doing it already. If a book I want to read it not yet available in e-format, I wait. Am I missing something? The book I am reading is Swedish, therefore I could not get it on my tablet. But this is a matter of time. Will I ever buy another printed book? Well, there are still some kinds of books that work better in printed form, like picturebooks. But it's a matter of time.

Is the digital immigrant getting naturalised, and if so, what are the implications? The only consolation is that I am so old I'll be dead before it goes too far.

Friday, 5 October 2012

Memorable matriculation

A matriculation dinner in Cambridge is a very special rite of passage that I have now witnessed for the fifth time. It started with a group photo in front of the college, which I didn't go to, but when I entered the Combination Room at five to seven it was crammed beyond capacity. Or perhaps I had just forgotten how many students we have. I managed to identify some of "ours" and started a conversation over a glass of wine while suddenly fire alarm went, and we were all pushed out through the two glass doors into pouring rain. It took some time. If it had been real danger some of us might have died. There we were, in our party outfits, and I didn't even have my warm and cosy gown because the instruction had been "No gowns" (some people wore them anyway). Finally, we were allowed back, and the matriculation ceremony began, the Tutor calling out names, and the students stepping forward to sign the Book. (You only matriculate once, so students who have studied at Cambridge before don't have to do it. Once you have done it, your name remains in the Book for all eternity). Around the letter P, the alarm went again. The two hundred students and professors went out through two glass doors into pouring rain. It was weird. Something really memorable for the students to look back at.

The rest of the evening was uneventful. I left half through the Ceremony of the Horn.

Thursday, 4 October 2012

First week of term

The term came over me like a tsunami. I thought I was well prepared after four years, but it all starts at once, and suddenly the buildings and the lawn are full of students, some of them confused, some very confident. Tuesday was PhD induction day, and I went to lunch, forgetting how horrible the food was. This was compensated by identifying our four new child lit PhDs, two continuing from last year's masters, two coming back after two years. We can't be doing things wrong if students want to go on and come back! Staff meeting next, full of news that sounded vaguely familiar and group discussion on to be or not to be of a new University Training School. I must admit that I didn't feel engaged. They will not want workshops for teachers on the pleasures of children's literature. It's all about synthetic phonics these days. (Imagine, four years ago I had no idea what synthetic phonics was. Has it made a difference in my life?) Then a get-together of new PhDs, current PhDs and supervisors within my academic group. When I entered the room, the students were all sitting in neat rows. I acted like the subversive teacher in a well-behaved classroom: Let's pull the tables together, and (not teacher-wise) by the way, there is wine downstairs. The new students were confused: they were prepared for another lecture. I said this was a welcome drink, and after a whole day of informatiuon, I was sure they couldn't take in any more anyway. Thay laughed. I asked everybody to introduce themselves, and when it transpired that more than half of the students were doing children's literature the rest of the group certainly started wondering whether Cambridge was the right place for them. After the semi-formal introduction, the Second Language students gathered together, apparently intimidated, but the two arts students, who also continued from masters, chatted away happily.

Yesterday was masters induction day, but before that I had a supervision, a "career development" talk, and my academic group business meeting. The latter was short, to my surprise, because we normally go over the hour, but I guess everybody was too overwhelmed by the beginning of term. We did all the business though, and my secretary was as amazing as ever in anticipating things I was going to ask her to do by having done them already. I managed to delegate two tasks to someone else. I am getting better as a leader.

While I was waiting for our child lit masters to get together, the phone rang. It was Julia. My first reaction to an unexpected phone call is always panic: what has happened? Nothing serious, she was in London and could she come for dinner. This sounds undramatic, but a) she lives in Stockholm b) the last I had heard from her, she was in New York. Dropping in for dinner is not what she does every week. However, we have told our children that they are welcome any time, and this was the time. There were some conversations back and forth about what train she would take and whether she was staying for the night. In between, I went to introduce myself to the new masters and even had a glass of juice with them, mostly talking to our second-year part-time students who were delighted to be back.

I picked up Julia at the railway station, Staffan concocted dinner. Isn't it wonderful that our daughter is prepared to go all the way from Stockholm via New York and London to have dinner with her old parents! We were really moved. This morning I dropped her off at the station by far too early for my liking, but it gave me a long morning to tidy up all the millions of accumulated small things, including recommendation letters, payment forms and other joys of academic life. Over lunch, there was a discussion on St Augustine and original sin which I was genuinely upset to leave because there was a prospective student coming to see me. I hope she applies as she said she intended to, because she sounded really good. How much time do we spend meeting and corresponding with prospective students who never turn up? Can this time be accounted for in my workload?

Supervision; the first PhD session, which I almost managed to monitor so that everybody had time to deliver their small presentations. This seminar has grown so much! I remember it all started as group supervision with three students in my office.

Tomorrow is matriculation dinner. It is also part of my work.