Wednesday, 31 August 2016

What can we learn from a pencil?

I came across the essay 'I, Pencil' written by Leonard Read in 1958 via Maria Popova's blog Brain Pickings. There are many lessons to be drawn from this piece as it follows the production of an ordinary pencil. You are invited to consider what may appear as just a simple pencil, but we are reminded that we take this item for granted and in the main, most of us are probably completely unaware of how a pencil is produced and who is involved. 

Leonard Read writes... 
"But, sadly, I am taken for granted by those who use me, as if I were a mere incident and without background. This supercilious attitude relegates me to the level of the commonplace. This is a species of the grievous error in which mankind cannot too long persist without peril. For, the wise G. K. Chesterton observed, 'We are perishing for want of wonder, not for want of wonders'.” 

Below is a powerful animation based on this essay. 

Some thoughts that resonated with me as I reflected on this essay were about the value of connectivity and communication and through this opportunities for collaboration and cooperation, and what we can achieve with others. It goes without saying the creativity the written word can produce and of course the images as sketches in a multitude of ways. 

When we work for the mutual benefit of others we can all benefit more. Sharing the outcomes so others can learn can ad further value. Technology allows us to not only 'listen in' but also to interact and communicate with others from across the world, thus opening opportunities to question, to learn, and to help others learn. Those who are open educators and learners are providing new windows for others to look through and in doing so are helping to stimulate curiosity and a wonder for learning. Yes we can Google practically anything we want to but in limiting ourselves to just this, we can often miss out on the chances to question and discuss the detail of the hows and whys. 

My take away? We must remind ourselves to enjoy the wonder of learning in its many shapes and sizes - formal, non formal, and informal. Sharing these experiences can only benefit others. 

Saturday, 20 August 2016

Academic fitness: Is your writing flabby or fit? #Acwri

I came cross an article that is titled 'Ask the Professor about academic style'. This was written to respond to the question: 
"Why is so much academic writing stodgy and unreadable? To be taken seriously, do I have to write like that too?"
The author Dr Helen Sword begins by asking academic peers what they personally thought a stylish academic writer would produce. These are the responses: 

  • express complex ideas clearly and succinctly
  • write with originality, imagination and creative flair
  • engage and hold their reader’s attention through relevant examples and anecdotes
  • convey a sense of energy, intellectual commitment and even passion
  • produce elegant, carefully crafted sentences, using language appropriate to the audience, discipline and subject matter
  • tell a story
  • provide their readers with aesthetic and/or intellectual pleasure
  • avoid jargon, except where specialised terminology is essential to the argument.  

I for one have laboured over academic papers with a dictionary at hand to attempt to make sense of the heavy text, jargon and often staid approach to writing that is impersonal and frankly not quite capturing my imagination. 

In Helen's paper she says that "'academic style' need not be an oxymoron". She goes on to advocate those writers who do truly have their readers at heart. 

Verbal fitness

Helen provides some excellent tips in the article and one of these is 'verbal fitness'. Aside from using stodgy prose, she highlights the redundancy in the way we write and over use of 'waste words' such as it, this, that, there. 

Now what really caught my eye was the Writer's Diet Test Helen has created, where you can submit between 200-2000 words and it will score your prose as lean, fit & trim, needs toning, flabby or heart attack. Words are analysed and colour coded as verbs, nouns, prepositions, adjectives/adverbs, or waste words. 

The Writer's Diet Test comes with the caveat that it is an automated feedback tool, not an assessment tool. The test identifies some of the sentence-level grammatical features that most frequently weigh down academic prose. It is not designed to judge the overall quality of your writing — or anyone else's.  

However the test is useful and Helen's book complements this. When writing, the word count can often be an issue. The test at the very least can help you weed out those waste words.  

Helen Sword


Sword, H. (2008) Ask the Professor about Academic Style. MAI Review, 2008, 3, Writing Workshop 7. 

Sword, H. (2016) The Test. The Writer's Diet [website] 

Sword, H. (2016) Writer's Diet: A Guide to Fit Prose. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Wednesday, 17 August 2016

You can't eat an elephant whole #wol

A few weeks ago I had a nice surprise when I received a comment on my blog post which was not spam. I choose to monitor comments and whilst they are few and far between, I delete those that have no relevance. Well this comment was relevant. I confess to doing a little happy dance whenever a comment leads to an extended discussion, no matter how brief!

Simon Fogg  took the time leave a comment  on my last post to say:

"... just to encourage you, people are reading :) ... I am up to nearly a million page views on my blog and have never written for an audience (as you will quickly tell from older posts), mainly as a place online to host my content that is accessible wherever I am connected to the internet ..."
I then of course checked out Simon's blog, which was an interesting journey in itself (lots more to learn from Simon, but that's scope for another post). The immediate connection was 'working out loud' and I noted a post he had written which included Michelle Ocker who instigated the #WOL circle I am now involved in. 

Simon also tweeted a post in relation to my blog post

The elephant technique Simon referred to is useful when you are faced with very large tasks, i.e. elephant sized tasks. In my previous post I had talked about taking small steps and celebrating these as progress. 

So what are elephant tasks? I looked up TMI's Elephant Technique to remind myself. They give examples like:

  • Overwhelming tasks demanding prolonged effort
  • Tasks in which little progress can be seen after each stage
  • Tasks often put off or reduced in priority in the short term.
I could certainly relate to these, the treadmill being a personal one and the juggling of multiple projects in my working life. The advice given is to:

  • Divide the elephant into "bite-size" pieces.
  • Schedule regular "bites" of the elephant as "task of the day", "task of the week", etc.
  • Make sure you "eat" a bite every day in addition to completing your other routine tasks.
  • Make sure you finish the elephant.
  • Concentrate on no more than 1 or 2 elephant tasks at a time. 
I think I would add try not to be eating too many different elephants at any given time....

Mastering the Elephant Technique enables you to progress from a 'maintenance' person (just getting by to maintain the status quo) to a 'development' person (embrace learning new skills and ensuring goals are translated into actions).

When I met with my #WOL circle we talked about some of the things we could do to make sure we recorded the progress of the tasks we were setting ourselves. The examples we shared included:
  • Having a pocket notebook as an ongoing to do list
  • Getting a good old fashioned diary that has a week to a page on the left and a notes page on the right.
    Tip: Moleskin do a great 18 month diary July-Dec. 
  • Using our smartphone and the Notes app
  • Using an app like Todoist via your phone, tablet, or desktop.    


The Elephant Technique