Thursday, May 29, 2008

Don't exams stink?

Well, I'm happy: my exams are over. Last week, I spent 8 hours on trains so that I could sit two papers that will lead me, well, I don't know where, but at least one of them was interesting, and the best thing about sitting exams is that I can pass technique on to my students with a voice of considerably more authority than the voice that was based on my previous exam experience 20+ years ago. I have hit the books, worked at my study skills, annotated and digested and absorbed and internalised. I have deployed my long, medium and short term memory.

I hate exams. As a teacher I hate exams, as an administrator and marker and as a student, I hate exams. They are flaming hoops and we like poodles yap and skip our way through a series of them through life. They are reductive, unfair and unreliable. But I've been an exams officer, I have acted as an official examiner for all sorts of different types of exams (and continue to do so), and I write exams and make people sit them and mark them year in year out. I'm a gamekeeper turned poacher on this one.

Ironically, quite a lot of the reading I did in preparation for my exams was commentary from various academics and teachers on how standardisation tests don't work. Yet here I am conniving in a system which petrifies students into sitting down and jumping through their hoops. At least I have voluntarily opted to take my exams, and I pay handsomely for the privilege, both of which factors are major incentives to extracting the small finger and doing the work necessary to pass (and yes, I pretty much think I have passed, and I'll be mighty shocked and appealing to all sorts of authorities if I haven't passed because I know I answered the questions I was set and did not simply vomit onto the paper like a pelican feeding its young all the lists and bullet points that I had memorised). But why on earth do we make teenagers who have hormones and social lives to cope with do this incessant hoop-leaping business?

There are tests I have operated that I didn't like, but I could understand in terms of purpose - IELTS which is used by Australian and New Zealand immigration services to weed out those applicants who have no English, frex. But the more I see of tests and exams, the less I see the point. Yes, I suppose writing in a structured fashion to a strict deadline is a skill - but is it really that useful?

One of the reasons that I keep putting myself forward for the particular hell that is the exam marker's lot is because it gives my students access to the inner workings of the exam in a way that nothing else does. It also means that I can refine exam-passing and revision sessions down and spend more time broadening out the content of what goes on in the classroom - but argue the case as I might, I really, honestly don't understand the whole exam malarkey. Ultimately life does not come down to whether I passed my Maths O level (I know, I took O levels, I am officially decrepit, trendy tastes in music notwithstanding).

In fact, life once we start living it, has very little to do with what went on when one was 15 or 16. And exams are part and parcel of that. Of course this doesn't make it any easier on those people who cannot do exams (which is different from hating them, since hating them doesn't preclude studying and passing them). Actually, I think exams are just a modern version of initiation rites like sticking hot needles into one's lower lip, or being sent into the jungle or onto the plain with a sharp stick and one arm tied behind your back to see if you'll survive. Once you complete the task, you realise how totally meaningless it was and then get on with the rest of your life. Or of course, you didn't manage to get out of the hogtie, and you dropped your stick and the buffalo stampeded and the hyenas ate what was left of your mangled corpse. In modern terms, this means that when you fail your exams, your parents sell your mobile phone and iPod on e-Bay and either ground you for the rest of your life or kick you out altogether.

Exams are a horrible Catch-22 - if you pass them it doesn't really matter, but if you fail them, your life might as well be over. We really are so skilled at constructing rods with which to beat ourselves. I think that's what actually distinguishes us humans from animals. Obviously there is some stress for the average gazelle/stickleback/Zebra/worm because something out there wants to eat you, and for the average leopard/croc/pine marten/racoon there is that perpetual worry that there won't be enough to eat. But the stress that animals experience arises from natural appetites. They don't make up zebra-killing tests for themselves. You don't have to take Grazing 101. Maybe that's why I hate exams so much - they are just further evidence of the fundamental stupidity of human beings.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

I see Vampire Weekend through the trees

Well, I took No1 Minion to see his first live gig, and we chose a quality one - Vampire Weekend were at Botanique last night, their second show in Brussels apparently, although lead singer Ezra Koenig said that their previous one was lame - whether because of the Belgian habit of trying to move as little as possible during a concert or because VW themselves were lame was not clear. Anyway this time, even the stolid Belgians couldn't stop their toes from tapping and their knees from jiggling just a little bit.

Anyway, last night, they were terrific, and we sang along and I squiggled a bit, and it was sold out and quite squished. They are back for Werchter on 3 July, but that day is sold out - damn damn, because I also wanted to see Chemical Bros and The National who are two of my other current must listens...On the other hand, anyone who goes that day has to put up with Mika who just bugs me.

But what is it about VW? They work very well as the ideal summer band. The songs are catchy, the lyrics intriguing and nonsensical, and from last night, I think you could safely say that they know their way around their instruments. They played one new song. It was good. I love them. I look at them and realise they are all young enough to be my children, and really, perhaps I am too old for jigging about at pop concerts, but with a band as keen and infectious as this one, who cares.

Back to performance indicators and budget planning for education. Sigh. One more week and the exams will be over, and I will be a free woman.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Black Powder War

Apparently, Novik wrote this as a filler between Throne of Jade and Empire of Ivory because EofI shared a plot with a book that had just come out about a deadly virus wreaking havoc on the the dragon population. So she just threw this together and kaboom, we have a fantastic extra episode of the Temeraire series, complete with a meeting between uber-bad guys Napoleon and Lien the evil dragon and the Battle of Jena.

What cheers me up is that we've only got to 1806, Empire of Ivory is 1807 and presumably Victory of Eagles coming up next is 1808-9. That gives us another 6 years of Napoleonic mayhem, and I very much hope a grand finale set at Waterloo.

I love the Temeraire books - the characters are developing well, Novik is a lovely writer with a wonderful style which has never yet lapsed into American, which is a considerable achievement for a genre writer from the US setting books in Europe. The plot of BPW is a little episodic, but there are some great characters introduced, both historical and fictional, and heartstopping moments - the escape from Istanbul was particularly dramatic and startling. And I am enjoying Temeraire's desire for a dragon emancipation movement.

Anyway - for a great historical fantasy, go for Temeraire, the stories buckle and swash, there's action and emotion and Novik is good at raising the stakes conflict-wise. She's setting up some really interesting stuff....But I'm rationing myself and at the moment am reading only dry books on educational management in anticipation of exams next week. Once those are done, my TBR pile needs to tremble and despair, because my plan for the summer is to reduce it from mountain to hillock by August when I next go to the UK for another bumper book-buying session.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Ditching the Dysfunctional Duke

I just finished reading a really irritating book - classic naked man-titty cover, wallpaper history, googoo Disney-princess type heroine, and a Duke hero who was totally f****dup because his mother stood by while he and his little brother were exposed to abuse by their creepy uncle. This has given him licence to roar around Europe wasting what little money he has, drowning his sorrows in absinthe and Russian countesses. It was paint-by-numbers dysfunction.

Here are few more of my favourite detestable dysfunctions: the guy who won't trust women because his first wife was a bit free with her favours; the guy who won't trust women because his mother had more lovers than you could shake a stick at; the guy whose daddy thrashed him; the guy whose daddy and mummy ignored him; the guy whose first wife only married him for his money; the guy whose brother was too good and died; the guy whose brother was too bad but he took the rap for it. Oh poor put upon guy, he broods, he sulks, he beds every available (low class) woman who is up for it, and then he meets our heroine and she is soooo sweet and sooooo kind and sooo vulnerable and cuddlesome and wholesome and good that oooo, he is healed, he is now Mr Nice Guy too.

What really gets me is that this kind of hero is so frequent in Romancelandia and the hidden message is not that love conquers all and overcomes childhood trauma to bring in a new and glorious day, but that lazy writers can get away with codswallop.

Now, I'll confess, I am in thrall to a duke of dysfunction - bring on Exhibit A, Francis Crawford, aka Lymond, or Sevigny. At least a count of dysfunction.

But Lymond is complex. He has legitimate and interesting reasons for his sense of guilt, self-loathing and general hunchbackness in the gutter, like the fact that he is responsible for the death of more than one person. He has plausible and interesting side effects like terrible migraines and suicide attempts. He is genuinely tortured and although there are wonderfully funny scenes in the Lymond series, Dunnett does not dress up her hero's dark side with Christmas lights and cod-psychological explanations. As for romance - well, his is fraught with difficulties and conflicts. Love is not a spiritual bandaid for this man or his heroine.

I suppose that's beginning to reach the heart of my plaint against the 'Big Trauma in the Past' explanation of why a hero has licence to behave like an ass. People behave like asses because they are asses, people are mean because they are mean. Mean, selfish, nasty malicious, manipulative people exist. They can change, but I don't believe that love is the big healer - and I don't want my heroines to be matrons supervising the wards of the terminally self-indulgent.

Let's take a big change of heart story - a favourite one: A Christmas Carol. Love is not what makes Scrooge change. The realisation that he has shut love out of life, that love is more enriching than any amount of gold, that he is capable of giving love and that giving is more than enough reward in itself, these are all facets of what make him change. But along with that is a genuine sense of maturity, of emerging from a deliberate disengagement with his fellow-humans that allows Scrooge to discover love. Love is not the agent. Scrooge is the agent of his own change. We love new Scrooge because he offers us all the possibility of redemption through a realisation of one's own humanity.

That's my point - heroes have to be their own agents for change. That is what a true hero is - someone who is a protagonist, a figure who acts and alters and evolves for themselves (inevitably Eugenides, hero of Megan Whalen Turner's Attolia books, comes to mind here). Love as crutch is just not romantic in my book.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Wishing I were back in Attolia

Having finished my final coursework assignment for the masters, and knowing that now I've got to get on with revision for exams in three weeks time, I decided to give myself a little holiday in Attolia. I finished The Thief about a fortnight ago, and had to wait a little before getting hold of copies of both Queen and King of Attolia, because I knew that having read one, I would want to read the next one straight away. Which I did. Finished QofA last night and got straight on with KofA this morning, and I've now finished, thanks to a little bit of holiday. And I've been converted, I'd like a one-way time travel ticket to Attolia, or Eddis, but not Sounis or the Mede Empire.

What was so good? Well, I was just sucked into this world. And Whalen Turner pared it down - there was plenty that I wanted to know more about, but she tantalised and entangled me in the machinations of the courts of Eddis and Attolia thoroughly. She's left loose ends at the end of KoA that give me hope that she'll revisit this world (Sophos's fate remains unclear and Eddis has to marry someone soon, and Nasuherus the Mede needs some serious comeuppance) but she has sorted out the story of her principal hero, Eugenides, very satisfactorily.

I can't say any more for fear of entering serious spoiler territory, but what I can say is this: go out and read the Thief trilogy - they are wonderful books and it will be time well spent. Whalen Turner has interesting and wise things to say about the nature of power and love and leadership as well as telling an absolutely cracking and original story.