Category Archives: Work stuff

Week 3 – final edits and the aesthetics of space

You may remember that I posted last July about a writing project I’d decided to take on. Well, just six months on, week 3 of this year saw me doing the final edits on the print-ready PDF of the whole thing before it went to press a few days ago – yay! It’s hard to believe how fast it’s all gone, the sheer volume of work and effort that were involved, the amount I’ve learned and the new skills and responsibilities it’s brought. I can’t wait until it finally comes out – I think the publication date is in March (watch this space…).

Any writing project brings with it serious considerations about use of space. In the academic writing I did in the distant past, word counts and style sheets were the all-important units of measurement. Writing for the commercial educational sector brings further constraints, most significantly the need to plan content for each page of each chapter in detail before you’ve even started, and the need for your units to fit onto the page format of the final product. For the first publication of this kind I did, I didn’t really know in advance what kind of space per page was going to be available and this led to much agonizing cutting of material in the latter editing stages (and given that this then had a knock-on effect for the solutions section and the glossary, it was all the more of a headache as a result). For another project, where limited space was a major and deliberate feature, the template I was given to insert content into was so detailed that it more or less automatically generated a WYSIWYG final format and I could see immediately where I needed to economize. This latest project has been somewhere in between these two extremes. While the document template took into account page size/layout and roughly managed things like font size and spacing for the different types and functions of text on any given page, there was still a lot of guesswork regarding how much space various other essential non-textual elements might take up.

Most significantly, this publication was to have lots of full-colour pictures, ranging from thumbnails to double-page spreads, and these in fact accounted for many of these unknown quantities regarding space. The necessity for me to think of the illustration aspect at all times really added a further major layer of planning to the whole project and one that proved at least as complex as the generation of text “content” – and this, I think, was the biggest eye-opener of the whole experience. In many instances I could just indicate where I wanted a photo of what, and someone else would later have the task of sourcing suitable images, but I was also given a list of stock photo sites I could use to source particular images if I wished to do so. I think this combination of perceived freedoms gave me a bit too much ill-founded confidence at first: it was tempting to think the world was my oyster and that I would find a photo of anything I damn well wanted via the powerful search engines each stock photo provider offered, or that writing “please insert photo of x here” would be the end of the matter. Wrong. Big fat wrong.

It was only when I was part of the way through the project that I started actively trying to select my own choice of images for inclusion, having decided that since I do have ideas about what sorts of photos I like and what I don’t, I might as well exercise this choice. And it was at this point that my naivety became blatantly obvious – no, you cannot simply find a picture of this or that brand, this or that paid tourist attraction, or this or that celebrity on stock photo sites, or at least not for any kind of commercial use. This set me into a spiral of despair at first as it necessitated rethinking a number of activities I had planned to base around just these kinds of pictures. Ultimately, though, it led to me having simply to think rather more creatively about how to adapt to the constraints I’d discovered, and although the frustration at not finding a picture of this or that did continue to the end, I think it’s true to say that rather more good ideas were born of this restriction than were nipped in the bud by it. [Insert pithy quote about adversity and creativity here :)]

Needless to say, it was quite something to receive the “semi-final” PDF version of the final document, all typeset, in full colour and with all the photos, for detailed proofreading and final tweaks. What needed to be changed at this stage wasn’t generated so much by mistakes – almost all of these had been nit-pickingly spotted and eradicated earlier – or by the desire to reformulate something more impressively / simply / effectively, but rather by aesthetics and more immediate, measurable considerations of space and spacing. This sentence needed to be shortened so that it didn’t run on to a second line or have such an awkward line break, or that item should be deleted or moved so that there was enough space for the picture / map / diagram; here something needed to be moved up or across a bit, while there some colour-coded items needed to be swapped around so that the overall impression was better balanced visually. It was quite a different kind of scrutiny and editing dictated by often very different considerations from what would govern a purely text-based entity, but I have to say that I enjoyed this challenge a great deal.

So now my work is done, and I can breathe a big sigh of relief. Thanks to all those who suffered and stoically put up with my periodic moaning, groaning and gnashing of teeth during this whole project. You know who you are.

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Feeling slightly on edge

FallingAfter a week of catching up with work and another week of intensive examiners’ meetings following our holiday, today I have been taking stock of what I still need to get done this month. And it’s A LOT. Rather more than I’d been bargaining with.

Much of it’s bitty and routine, but the biggest thing on my mind is the seven new book chapters I need to submit by October 1st, and the thirteen I need to revise. By now I know roughly the range of how long it takes me to draft a chapter – anything from about two-thirds of a working day to three working days, depending on the whereabouts / frame of mind of my muse and how familiar with / keen on the content I am. The revisions are more of an unknown quantity as they range from simple rephrasing to moving and / or replacing whole chunks, with the attendant issues of layout to bear in mind. And there’s one chapter that’ll have to go back to the drawing board as I’m too unhappy with it.

Plus I’m going away for a week next Saturday, but hey, that’s what laptops are for, isn’t it? A change is as good as a rest, etc. etc.

I shall endeavour to provide a few updates as (if?) I make progress…

 

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Storing up some chinks of light

This weekend has consisted largely of catching up with shopping, household chores (yesterday) and time-consuming work projects I didn’t have the space for during the week (I sometimes feel I never get around to significant work during the week :( ). The coming week will consist of regular work / teaching commitments, PLUS exams, PLUS a deadline on Friday for my writing project. Today I forced myself to go out for half an hour – it was a glorious day, weatherwise – and really felt the benefit, brief though it was. I’ve decided that I need to prepare a few such chinks of light to get me through the week ahead: nothing time-consuming, nothing requiring me to go out of the way, but things that will remind me that I’m worth investing time and energy in, too. I’m not going to schedule them specifically, but I want to have done something off this list every day by the time next weekend comes around. I’m quite aware that a lot of these are pretty humdrum things that other people manage to fit in as a matter of course, but maybe that increases their significance…

  • going to bed early with a crossword
  • making a fresh fruit, ginger and soya milk smoothie (I might even manage this more than once – I can’t use a whole carton of soya milk at once…)
  • dyeing my hair
  • relaxing with a magazine while a facepack does its thing
  • making a pot of proper tea before a writing session, rather than a mug of something unexciting
  • eating lunch ONE day in a place that is not at my desk
  • …and making the effort to go and get a salad rather than the quickest sandwich
  • …and maybe even catching a few rays of sun on the way – it all helps to keep the mood buoyant!

Well, I’ve run out of ideas now, which probably only proves that I don’t think about such things often enough. If you know any quick pick-me-ups for the body, soul or general sense of well-being, do please leave a comment and I’ll gladly add them to the list for future reference.

 

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A new project takes shape

As my Facebook friends already know, I was contacted a couple of months ago by an educational publisher I have worked with several times before. The material I have produced for them previously has all been to do with self-study language learning at different levels and in different modes/formats, but this time they asked me if I’d be interested in producing a more “fact-based” book. Both the topic and the type of content* they were looking for immediately appealed to me, but I didn’t immediately say yes: this kind of project obviously brings a lot of extra work with it and when you have a steady full-time job that more than fills your days a lot of the time, you don’t necessarily hold your hand out for more. On the other hand, I do know from past experience that this kind of writing keeps you on your toes in a different way, sharpens your mind and brings out a lot of new and differently packaged material that in turn stimulates the production of creative teaching materials – in other words, it’s a valuable form of re-investment.

While I was still in the fairly static phase of mulling these things over, I semi-casually mentioned the matter on Facebook and was immediately bowled over by how enthusiastic everyone else was about this kind of project. Those working in academic research reminded me of the hoops you have to jump through just to get an article published, let alone a book, while others who are in various branches of the teaching profession were also fired up by the idea of reaching a wider audience beyond the familiar class/student profile. Ultimately I was convinced that this was an opportunity that I needed to grab, and I’m very grateful to everyone who helped me take that decision.

Now, several weeks later, I’m several steps further on – they asked for some sample content based on the basic outline I’d been given, which I provided, and they were pleased with that, saying that I could certainly actually use most of it in the finished product and that the contract was mine if I wanted it. I said yes.

My first submission deadline is tomorrow – a detailed chapter-by-chapter, page-by-page(!) breakdown of the content I plan to include. I’ve been working on it solidly the last couple of days and it’s now FINISHED. It’s all subject to change, of course, depending on the feedback I get from the project manager and the person who’s been assigned as my editor, but I’m keeping my fingers crossed that they’ll like the basic outline…

* I’m being intentionally vague here as I’m under contractual obligation not to divulge details (sorry!)

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How to upload a file

This is probably the most boring blog entry I will ever write. Or at least I hope it is.

The university’s content management / e-learning / blended learning platform is clunky at best, and although I wouldn’t deny that it offers some useful functionality, it is positively user-hostile when it comes to pretty simple tasks such as uploading files. Here is the procedure, which I have moaned about on numerous occasions, most recently today….

  1. Log in to the e-learning platform
  2. Click on “Content management”
  3. Click on “Course management”
  4. Click on “Course manager”
  5. Enter search term in the box, or look under “My content”
  6. Select course (checkbox)
  7. Click on “Edit”
  8. Click on “Contents”
  9. Select the folder you want to upload your file to (checkbox)
  10. Click on “Create”
  11. Prompt: Please choose element type
  12. Select “Content”
  13. Click “OK”
  14. Prompt: Where do you want to paste the components?
  15. Select before, after or in the hierarchy below the selected element
  16. Click “OK”
  17. Prompt: Please choose a category
  18. Select from animation, audio, CBT or twelve other categories
  19. Click “OK”
  20. Prompt: Please choose a language
  21. Select from English (US), English (GB), German etc. (note: only German offers full functionality so it’s not worth choosing anything else!)
  22. Click “OK”
  23. New popup window: Type in title of file and name of creator (these are mandatory, other fields may also be filled in)
  24. Click on “Upload” and select the file you want by the usual route – clickety-click-click
  25. Click “OK”
  26. Another new popup window appears with the  prompt: File successfully uploaded
  27. Click “OK” – second popup window closes
  28. Click on “Save” – first popup window closes
  29. Prompt: Your changes have been saved successfully. Would you like to go to the Release Manager now?
  30. Click “No” (note: I’m not even sure what the Release Manager is, only that I’ve never experienced the need to go there)
  31. Hey presto, your file now appears in the place you wanted to insert it
  32. AND NOW……. repeat stages 9-31 to upload another file to the same folder, or – deep joy – go a few steps further back still if you want to add a file to a different course
  33. BUT DO NOT FORGET TO CLICK ON “SAVE” BEFORE EXITING ANY GIVEN COURSE, OR ALL THIS WILL HAVE BEEN IN VAIN!

Today I uploaded 22 audio files to one folder for one course. It took me over half an hour.

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A perfect day

The rainbow warrior's (clothes) horse It’s been a phenomenally busy week – the beginning of a new semester always brings with it a lot of extra (often unexpected) work and long days, no matter how well you’ve tried to prepare in advance. Almost every class presents a sea of new faces, and apart from the psyching myself up I feel I need to do before going in there to stand in front of them and make a halfways competent impression, and the concentration needed to brief all the people whose names appear on the magically computer-generated course lists, there are always the problem cases to deal with, the last-minute changed minds, and the chaotic paralysis of system overloads caused by everyone trying to access everything at once.

Today, Sunday, is a total contrast. Not that I lay abed for an age in a stubborn attempt to claw back some of the “me doing nothing” time denied to me over the last ten days or so – I wanted to get up, was raring to go, and the reason? I have NO commitments today, NO appointments, NO deadlines, NO annoying chores that absolutely have to be done, and I even have the prospect of NO one to talk to for a good few hours, which, believe me, is all a real luxury just at this particular point in time and after such a peopled-out week. And what am I doing? I opened up the windows and blinds to air the flat, had a leisurely breakfast while reading the paper, have done two loads of washing, tended some of the plants, sorted clean laundry, tidied some stuff on the computer, drunk tea, reorganized the fridge and have a list of smaller tasks to keep me occupied for a couple of hours more. The place is bright, smells fresh, has a ton of healthy-looking greenery, and I’m feeling fresh and well tended myself. Oh, and it looks as though I have now almost written this week’s blog entry, too….

All this might well strike anyone else as a pretty mundane if not boring listing of activities that most people feel are not even worth mentioning (except perhaps on Twitter ;)), but what I’ve managed to get done entirely voluntarily today and how it’s making me feel is quite significant to me. During the university vacation I have a clear (though mostly undramatic to the outside observer) tendency to collapse in a little heap of unmotivated misery if faced with such an unstructured day devoid of obligations, and if I’m not careful this can result in a chronic lack of productivity that creates a sense of dissatisfaction (aaaand repeat, in ever decreasing circles…). I’m writing about how good I feel today and how much I’m getting done – and for ME, not because I HAVE to do it for anyone else or any other reason – just so that maybe it will help if I can look back at it another time when I’m struggling to find the motivation.

It is, indeed, a perfect day.

Note: the image accompanying this blog entry was originally used for this post.

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On the (sometimes dubious) merits of being a university language teacher

There’s been an internet meme in circulation recently, most prominently on Facebook, that – like a great many of its sort – raised a faint smile the first couple of times you saw it but grew increasingly inane and irritating the more (non-)variations on the theme popped up.

It is my (certainly very dubious) pleasure to announce that said meme is the inspiration for today’s post.

The meme looked at different professions and various people’s preconceptions of said professions, varying from the general public to one’s family and friends, and extending to superiors or subordinates in some cases. Among the professional groups I saw represented were journalists, graphic designers and doctors. You get the idea (and probably enough of a taste of the ennui) just by looking at those three examples: various contrasting exotic / risqué / misinformed / ridiculous / overblown images of a given profession are contrasted with “What I really do” – humdrum paperwork or other admin work (in most cases). The best of the rather more cynical takes on it – and one which saves me saying any more on the meme itself, I think – was this one here.

But anyway, the whole episode got me thinking of some of the odd, irritating or misconceived reactions I’ve had from people regarding the work I do, so I thought I’d gather a few of them here.

It starts when people ask for a job title. Speaking in German (which is what I do most of the time outside work), I might describe myself as a “Dozentin für English” (i.e. lecturer in English, as one might say in Britain). On mentioning this in one recent conversation, the response was (and I’ll paraphrase in English for the sake of brevity) an interested “Ah! Literature or linguistics?” My response: “Language, actually”. Their reponse: “Oh. Just language”. You get the picture (and I’ll return to the “just language” issue later).

Within the university hierarchy, the full-time foreign language instructors are often known collectively as Lektoren. Confusingly, though, to most people outside (and even to quite a number within) this sphere, Lektoren are people who work as proofreaders or copy-editors for a publishing house. So it’s not a good idea to use this term unless someone introduces it themselves. In any case, though, in recent years, universities seem to have stopped calling their language staff Lektoren in any case, and we now carry the rather fancy-sounding title Lehrkräfte für besondere Aufgaben. While Lehrkräfte is a fairly dry, neutral and unequivocal term for people who teach, the für besondere Aufgaben bit is potentially rather entertaining, meaning “for special purposes” and opening up a plethora of possibilities I might have put into my “What I wish I did” part of a meme for my profession. Understandably, perhaps, it’s not a term I drop into conversation, though …unless as a joke.

Once I have negotiated my way around the job title bit, we move on to the “What people think I do” part of the conversation. A lot of people will think back to their experience of learning languages at school – which was often quite some time ago – which means that this usually computes to yesteryear-tinted remembrances of learning by rote, vocabulary tests, tortuous, antiquated textbooks and half-remembered useless phrases of the la plume de ma tante variety. If I’m extra lucky, whoever it is I am talking to will switch into their half-remembered English schoolbook phrases at this point in the conversation; others will regale me with tales of the conversation class they and their friend took “just for fun” a few years ago and will express great envy that (as they see it) I can earn money just by chatting to people: “You have a funny job!” they say (actually, they mean “fun”).

And in actual fact, it IS a fun job (and sometimes a funny one, too, in either sense of the word). But it wouldn’t be fun or funny at all if I had to teach conversation classes, stick to a particular textbook or check that everyone had learned their irregular verbs off by heart. However, as with so many things in life, it is fairly inevitable that people will base their interpretation of what I do on their own experience that comes closest.

Friends, who by definition know me much better, tend to develop a much more accurate impression of what I do, though there are persistent surprises here, too… The science-faculty people who just can’t place you because you’re not a professor or a junior professor or a postdoc or a technician – you just don’t fit into their neatly compartmentalized world view. Or the people who, on hearing that you’ve had “a productive day” in the post-semester marking phase, make bright, well-meant enquiries as to whether that means you got through all your exams for all your courses in that one day.

Colleagues from other parts of the department can also occasionally be a law unto themselves. Though I would like to stress that I have had largely very positive experiences over the years, there sometimes arises a feeling that the language section plays a somewhat ancillary role to the big pillars of literature, linguistics and cultural studies. While linguistics is Sprachwissenschaft (literally, the science of language), we are Sprachpraxis (literally, the practice of language), and to some minds we might therefore be nicht wissenschaftlich – a term which could be interpreted as “not scientific” or “not academic”, neither of which has a particularly positive ring to it. In fact someone recently came up to me during a departmental function and asked, somewhat awkwardly, “Don’t you sometimes wish you taught … you know … something with content?” Just where do you start to answer a question like that? (I was evasive, not wanting to get into a philosophical discussion, let alone a rant.)

The content we cover in our courses spans areas covered by literature (e.g. text structure, style, genre, interpretation), linguistics (e.g. pragmatics, syntax, phonology) AND cultural studies (e.g. translation issues, intercultural communication, culture in Britain / the USA etc.), but I think at the end of the day it may be only us and our students that are entirely aware of this.

Most of our students come to us with the express intention of becoming secondary school teachers of English, so why anyone should see language as being “ancillary” in that connection is beyond my comprehension. Watching students’ own changing perceptions of the role and responsibilities of a language teacher is, however, one of the most rewarding aspects of my job. Many of them come to us having done well at school on the basis of getting stuff right, but it can come as a surprise to them to discover that just being good at English isn’t going to get them to the top of the tree in their professional life. In our grammar courses, for example, they quickly have to get used to a further step in the thought process: “OK, correct answer, but why is solution x more appropriate than solution y”. They grumble and squirm at first, but gradually they learn to use the tools of the trade to explain and analyse what is going on, so that later on in their course of studies you can have really quite subtle and nuanced discussions about the effect of changing this or that word or tense or syntactic pattern.

Watching students make this progress not just in their own language competence (which can itself be quite dramatic, especially if they spend a year abroad) but also in their analytical, intercultural and didactic skills, has to be the biggest perk of this job, and every case in which we can do anything to help to foster or encourage someone’s interest in the system of language as a vehicle for communication and cultural interchange, as the raw material of literature and linguistics, has to be seen as a worthwhile venture.

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