Opening the shutters

This blog has been a little quiet, for reasons explained over at Music for Deckchairs, but at the beginning of the Australian summer 2014/2015 I have been given the opportunity to engage with a group of writers who are also degree-enrolled students at the university where I work, and so I’ve opened the shutters to create a space for some of the reflections that go with this.

This means messing about with embedded images, so apologies if this doesn’t come through cleanly as I remember how it’s all done. But the image that came to me strongly is of opening up a house that’s been closed.

My teenage daughter is a keen rewatcher of Love, Actually. I know this is a movie that drives some people to incoherent irritation, but she’s a fan. And so several times I’ve watched Colin Firth throw open the shutters on the cottage in France where he goes to write on his battered typewriter.

It’s such a fantasy of writing, especially in the digital world in which we have not protected well the boundaries between reflective writing, bureaucratic and transactional writing, and social writing. It’s the fantasy encoded into my favourite font, American Typewriter.

Did you know that if you listen very quietly to a paragraph of American Typewriter you can hear the sound of someone typing on a real typewriter?

Just kidding.

I suspect this image isn't CC anything.

I suspect this image isn’t CC anything.

So anyhow, now the shutters are open on this blog for the summer, and from time to time there will be some reflective thoughts about working with these students, who will also be reading this.

It’s nice to be back.



Toxic conversations

Steve Wheeler, who maintains a very busy and highly regarded blog on elearning, has written a useful post this weekend on the evolution of his motivation for blogging.

He began his blog as a way to organise his own thoughts, and to keep track of his ideas. He learned that by storing and reflecting on his ideas online, he was able to organise them and link to other thoughts more effectively than if he’d been using a paper diary. “In essence,” he writes. “blogging crystallised my thinking, and extended the scope of my knowledge.”

The second thing he discovered about writing online rather than in either a formal publication or a paper diary is that your thoughts are immediately out there for other people to read and engage with. The pace of formal publication is glacial compared to blogging and a private diary is, well, private. So from the moment you start writing in public on your own blog rather than a site owned by someone else, and you make it possible for people to comment on your posts, then you open yourself up to what Steve Wheeler calls a conversation around your ideas.

I was thinking about all this as I was reading Helen Razer’s furious post on quitting blogging for precisely the same reason. Helen Razer is a well-known writer-in-public, who doesn’t exactly hold back herself, as the link below shows. This week in an op-ed piece she weighed into a situation that’s preoccupying Australia, about the nature of the attacks on probably-departing right-wing Australian MP Sophie Mirabella. On her blog, she explains what happened next:

Man, I got bollocked. Even more than usual. When former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser singled my article out for derision and several of my colleagues posted this information on social media with no little amusement, I just thought WHAT THE ACTUAL HELL. This writing gig is crap. … I have written capably to a large audience for some time for next-to-nothing. I made a contribution that was not without merit. And one to which you are no longer entitled. Because you give me shit and pay me shit.

All I am really saying is that conditions for the professional writer have become untenable. And I quit because the money is terrible and the snark is worse.

I don’t think this is a uniquely Australian problem.  Excellent US tech writer Audrey Watters (who has disabled comments on her blog for similar reasons) would certainly say that women who write in public, in particular, attract personal attacks that go well beyond engaging with ideas, right up to the level of death threats.

It’s something we all need to take seriously, especially when encouraging new writers to try something. When the online public conversation is a toxic swamp, is it still worth making a contribution? Why?

Speaking of new writers in public seeking to make a difference to their own lives, here is my friend, fellow gardener and colleague Chris who has just moved from being a very successful academic writer into blogging about his personal search for simplicity. I love this: it’s not all trolls and snark out there.


writing like those I admire [Pat Thomson]

I really love this post from Pat Thomson from a few months ago, partly because she cares for two books I love: Camera Lucida (Barthes) and The Practice of Everyday Life (de Certeau). But the key point is that the best way to become a better writer is to read with a sense of the craft, not just the content, of the sentences someone’s put together.


That half conscious state between sleeping and waking seems to be the time that I begin to compose a blog post. I often wake up relatively early with a half formed idea. I then work on it idly, gradually waking up, before finally getting up and getting it down.

This post began in exactly this way, with a five am wondering about what my favorite academic books would say about – and to – me. As I started to go through the books I’d put on a very, very short list I realized – and it was one of those kind of Homer Simpson d’oh moments – that the books I most valued were ones which were the kind of work I’d love to do.

So I want to suggest here that it could be helpful to think, more often than I have been doing, not simply about the research…

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Turtles hatching

Here’s the genesis of the blogging project in our degree, 18 months ago.

Music for Deckchairs

Amid all the excitement about whether or not Apple have revolutionized textbooks, or reformed the whole planetary education system, or are just pressuring schools and families to buy iPads,* my colleagues are planning to launch three hundred first year university students into public blogging. Might as well do this while everyone’s busy looking the other way.

It’s a complicated decision in terms of future digital waste.  And then there’s social risk. There are people who don’t want to be identified in the public domain, for reasons of their own, but assessment does require us to know who they are. Despite the impression given in university marketing, people come to university study from a wide variety of social backgrounds, including our international students, and their confidence in being able to express and think about their own values without offending others is important to us. Then there are those who will find…

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