This is really just a brief note. The higher education sector in the UK is going through a period of more than usual austerity, and the funding of universties is about to be substantially shifted to students who will later be are faced with massively increased student loan debts.
In the face of this, part-time distance learning degrees may well become a much more viable, thinkable option for many intending students. It’s not exactly a ‘study at your own pace’ and ‘pay as you go’ model these days, because once you commit, you may be expected to complete a module within a defined period of time and complete your degree within a specified time period. That said, a degree that can be completed while working and where study materials can be delivered online may be attractive for many people.
Distance learning degrees these days aren’t the solitary pursuit they were in the past. There are online discussion forums, tutors available by email, phone and Skype, webinars, and in some cases even lab situations can be recreated in Second Life.
The book situation is easier as well, in the UK at least. Institutions offering degrees should have facilities enabling access to journals via ATHENS, and inter-library arrangements enabling students at any one institution to visit university libraries elsewhere. As many books go online, university libraries are making arrangements for online access to them. Though Google Ebooks is still in its infancy, Amazon, Alibris and other portals enable buyers and sellers of secondhand print books to connect.
What’s missing from all this is face to face human contact. And that may be the key factor that remains a barrier to distance learning. Places like the Open University have for years – decades, even – solved this by running summer schools, but if you’ve got a job and a family that’s a hell of a commitment.
There are halfway houses, though as far as I know distance learning providers thus far haven’t experimented with them or explored their possibilities.
One is the idea of the ‘munch’. Munches – informal meetings in pubs or cafes – started in the US, where they were a way for computer geeks with broadly similar interests to know that at a particular time and place every week or month, people like them would be hanging out. Just about every subculture and specialty interest you can think of has, or has had, its own set of munches, meets, moots, gatherings, community evenings, or whatever name the particular subculture wants to apply. They’re informal: one or two organisers who will show up regularly and maintain a discussion group on a social networking site, and maybe some regulars who become sociability stars, paying specific attention to new attendees and performing a ‘meet and greet’ function. For those in distance learning, the likelihood that they’d find someone else studying the same programme as them in the same place is perhaps quite low, but the likelihood they’ll find others facing the same issues and questions is high – and the simple fact of knowing that there are other people around them who are also involved in the same activity is often a support in itself.
Another is the idea of the informal university. When I was a student, which is now some years in the past, there were spasmodic, occasional ‘pub universities’ in which someone or some group made an informal arrangement to run a seminar series in the back room of a pub. It was, perhaps, the French who developed this idea most fully with the Café Scientifique and Café Culturel (NB these are UK sites and the latter is a link to one near me – there doesn’t seem to be a specific national website for Cafe Culturel that works. But here’s a regional one for the northeast of England). These run, not just in France but the UK and many other places as well, and usually comprise a seminar series run in a café once a month. Often the scientifique and culturel – and maybe philosophique and politique as well – are run by the same group of people at the same place, at different times.
There are two places near me that run such events though they seem at the moment not to be as well publicised as I think they should be. In fact there appear to be around 60 running up and down the UK at the moment. Many of the speakers are invited lecturers from local universities, and often the topics are those of current interest that have attracted some media attention. Again, where these exist they’d be an ideal place for distance learning students to plug into and meet people who, again, may not have precisely the same interests as them but would certainly be able to hold up their end of an academic conversation and be interested in what other academics/students are doing.
So what can I say? While these types of events, whether munches or cafes, have historically been dependant on individuals taking informal initiatives, maybe round about now, when more traditional education is feeling the pinch, is the time for distance learning providers to put a bit of institutional support behind these things. They’re largely run at already-existing venues, glad to support them because they bring in people who buy drinks and food. Their expenses are covered from a small entrance fee, and they’re run by volunteers. What they need, really, is simply public statements of support, advertising on student materials and institutional websites, and maybe a little seedcorn money or expenses for volunteers would come in handy. The return might even be better support for existing students and maybe even some new ones. How about it?
I had a conversation over the weekend with a singer, and we were talking about parallels between the entertainment business and teaching.
Her job is to get out on a stage and make people look at her and listen to her. In the days when I was doing actual lecturing, I’d walk into a lecture hall and there might be 300 students – criminology is a popular subject – waiting to be intormed, but also expecting in some measure to be entertained. Otherwise their attention would wander, they’d whisper to each other or fall asleep, or whatever. And yes, I was once a student and I did that too… The most important theoretical revelations and research findings will bypass students unless they’re presented in a way that grabs their attention.
Face-to-face with students as a lecturer, you develop tricks to keep people’s attention. The usual strategies, or my usual strategies anyway, included the classic formula of ‘say what you’re going to say; say it; then summarise it’ which simultaneously allowed me to keep a fast pace because my audience knew where the lecture was going; liberal use of overhead projection, including humorous material such as cartoons as well as charts, graphs and ‘academic’ stuff; involving students with opinion polls based on a show of hands, etc., and using topical real-world illustrations (for example, in lectures on white collar crime I had actual examples of letter fraud emails I’d received).
The purpose of the ‘performance’ was to make what I’d taught memorable, because students would tag the content to a phrase, a joke, an image, an illustration – something, at any rate, that would stick in their memory and trigger that academic content when they thought about it. It’s almost parallel, when I think about it, to the way any professional entertainer (a standup comedian?) operates, and with some elements of the kinds of techniques you might expect in hypnotherapy, or in some forms of counselling. A strange mix, but there you go.
However, in distance learning things are a little different.
Distance learning can be delivered in a variety of ways: printed or downloadable study guides, email support, audio and video, phone conversations, Skype tutorials and seminars. But whatever the methods, there isn’t the same level of immediacy, the same sense of ‘teaching as performance’, the ability to engage with a student ‘audience’ in quite the same way.
The result is that students need to be ‘entertained’ in a rather different way. This is, frankly, hard. Writing a study guide is simply not the same as writing an academic text. Arguably it’s a little like writing a textbook, though a study guide will typically discuss and direct students to textbook readings, perhaps ask them to compare accounts in different textbooks, and it will be more focussed on the specific demands of a particular course or module. It’s also somewhat like writing popular journalism, in that it needs to have the readability that good journalists accomplish, though it may also try to tell a more complex story than a lot of journalism does.
I don’t have any world-shattering revelations about the art or science of writing study guides. They have to follow what we think are established patterns of learning (PQ4R, for example). They need to be structured in terms of the classic overview/body content/summary format that allows readers to navigate easily through written work. But that said, it’s often useful to try to engage students with:
- The use of ‘lighter’ moments with some wit and humour.
- The use of relevant examples and illustrations – often with links to stable URLs that will allow students to go off and explore in useful directions. Preferably some of these are to video or audio content.
- Content that puts the reader ‘into the situation’, understanding more of the emotions and motives that might be present in the situation or context they’re studying.
- The use of some more light-hearted examples – again, plenty of content available on the web (though check for permissions and rights to include them, or just cite URLs!)
- Challenges – not necessarily formal ‘exercises’ or ‘activities’ but for example posing questions in different ways and looking at what assumptions and values might be behind different ways of asking questions.
The key things, though, will be:
- clarity of writing;
- the ability to give readers mental images that should stay with them over time and be attached to particular pieces of knowledge, argument or critical ability; and
- the ability to make students interested enough in what they’re reading that they want to find out more, to go beyond the confines of the study guide and explore independently.
The more I get involved in distance learning, the more I consider it a technical speciality in its own right, and an arcane art!
This is, I guess, a fairly general post and I might add some more thoughts when I’ve cogitated more…
I’ve been thinking about the whole idea of ‘distance learning’ and ‘blended learning’ a great deal more of late. Distance learning is where you sit at home and study materials come to you in the post, or these days increasingly by email. Blended learning is the new big thing, and involves a mix of distance learning and some face-to-face contact.
My principal conclusion is this: the difference between on-site learning and distance learning is really a question of access to the library and to labs, and these are things that can be fixed in a blended learning model with a little ingenuity and institutional collaboration.
This is my reasoning:
In the dim, distant past I was a student. At the beginning of a ‘term’ (like a semester except there were three of them in a year) I’d turn up at the first lecture for each of my ‘courses’ (this was pre-modularisation). I’d get a reading list and details of tutorial and seminar groups. However, in the humanities and social sciences there weren’t a whole lot of lectures, seminars and tutorials – the amount of time I was supposed to attend some place at a given time typically averaged around six hours a week. The rest of the time I spent in the library, reading or investigating what else might be there that was more interesting. Or I was drinking coffee and debating stuff with other people on the course.
This is the thing about being a ‘full time’ student on a campus: what’s full time about it isn’t the number of contact hours but the fact that you have the opportunity to read a lot and debate a lot. The library is the critical part of the process.
If the lectures had been available as videos or podcasts I could have listened to them when I felt the need, and maybe gone back to them later on as well – it would have been a great asset. Tutorials and seminars were generally more interesting if I’d had a chance to read papers in advance and make notes for discussion, but if we’d had the internet in those days it would have been as good, or even better, to have used a discussion board. Some of my best learning experiences were actually casual one-on-one discussions with lecturers, and though I valued the face-time, emails and phone calls would have worked pretty much as effectively. If e-learning had been available when I was a student, apart from wanting to live independently from my parents (and find a way not to have a job!) I could happily have commuted between working via the internet at home and exploring the university library for stuff that piqued by curiosity and interest – mostly, though not exclusively, course related. That’s the beauty of libraries, I find – those opportunistic, haphazard stumbling across books you’d never have found through an internet search but somehow turn out to be crucial to your learning.
Moreover, in a strange reversal, in the institutions I’m working with, it seems full-time students are availing themselves of exactly the same VLEs (Virtual Learning Environments) that are accessible to the distance learning students, and find them very convenient ways of learning. These days, your average VLE (Virtual Learning Environment) has downloadable course content, announcements, a calendar of events, some system for chat/discussion boards/email, lists of useful URLs, and stuff related to assessment (e.g. arrangements to submit coursework via Turnitin).
The only parts of the ‘student learning experience’ that a VLE can’t re-create, and I’d suggest the only part that distance learning misses out on, is the physicality of going to a library and investigating what’s on the shelves, skim-reading and checking a wide range of stuff to determine what’s going to be useful.
The nearest you’re likely to get to that is a library pass to your local university library, reading articles online via ATHENS or browsing books via Google Books, usually with critical bits missing.
Science subjects are different, I know, because of the commitment to hours working in labs etc. Some universities have developed fully-equipped experimental labs in Second Life primarily for distance learning students (though I’d wager full-time students use them as well) but again, I don’t imagine you get the same level of physicality you’d get in a real lab. I don’t, for example, imagine it would replicate a lot of the feelings, emotions and muscle-based sense of the tedious processes of creating an experiment, or building a device of some kind, in real time and with other people you converse with while you’re doing it.
The library and the lab experiences are, though, things that can be somewhat fixed in a blended learning model. University libraries have reciprocal reading (though not lending) facilities and lab sessions may need to be organised say at weekends to complement what can be done in Second Life. So my bottom line on this is: blended learning is going to be the big way forward.
For universities, I think, the major issue is going to be capturing teaching in forms that enable it to be available on the web, whether as PDFs, PowerPoint presentations, podcasts, or short videos (think of the amount of stuff available now on Ted.com, for example).
Finally, here are some useful reference materials:
Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration – I was particularly struck by the article ‘Where’s Walter?’ by Maryann Lamer, about student retention. I’m writing this from memory but the key point seems to be that these days people have an expectation that any query they have will be answered really quickly, so in distance learning, regular communication and speedy replies to queries are a must.
International Journal of Instructional Technology and Distance Learning – I was particularly taken by ‘Improving the Service Quality of Distance Education’ by Rui-Ting Huang (May 2007) – not because of the main argument but its attempt to describe different distance learning structures.
Electronic Journal of e-Learning – there’s a very useful article in Vol 6 issue 3, ‘Navigating the e-Learning Terrain: Aligning Technology, Pedagogy and Context’ by Mandia Mentis. Also in Vol 6 issue 2, Apr 2008, there’s ‘Engaging the YouTube Google-Eyed Generation: Strategies for Using Web 2.0 in Teaching and Learning’ by Peter Duffy – when I first read this I thought it posed challenging ideas for future development of distance learning, but a lot of them have come to pass already.
That’s enough educative stuff for now. I’ll do a few more light-hearted posts before hitting you with any serious stuff again.
This post is about effective learning. How can you learn stuff more effectively?
I’ve never been keen on acronyms and jargon-based abbreviations. Maybe I just don’t remember them very well. Maybe a lot of them just wrap up the latest management technique in some flash nonense word. But here are some acronyms I do remember, because they’re about how to learn effectively.
Effective learning is learning that involves, and supports, critical thinking: questioning evidence, assessing its strength, comparing and contrasting arguments to identify strengths and weaknesses, etc. The methods below are intended to help you think critically. If you’re read my previous post about learning styles, bear in mind that the strategies below will work with all learning styles and most kinds of material.
The strategies were developed for studying written material but should work with anything – if you’re looking at a DVD or PowerPoint presentation, remember DVDs usually have chapters in the menu (and if not, use the fast-forward button) while PowerPoint enables you to scroll through, scroll back, look at all the pages on one screen, etc. to get a sense of the material as a whole.
PQ4R summarises the steps people typically take in learning effectively. It comes from Thomas and Robinson (1972). It stands for:
- Preview – with any learning materials, start with the highest-level headings and any text that is emphasised – e.g. bullet points or bold text. These should give you an idea of structure and key topics or concepts. They might be chapter headings, introductory material, lists of key points, executive summaries, etc. People who start this way understand the structure and organisation of what they’re reading and tend to have better recall of it later.
- Question – the preview will (or should) raise questions in your mind. These might be technical (‘how did they define this concept?’ or ‘what is the difference between a Type 212 valve and a Type 312 valve?’), or more general (‘how do EU fishing policies affect the price of fish?’). Or maybe you’re reading something because you already have questions in your mind. A random example of a question might be this: a book on my desk has a section headed ‘Rough sleepers and the hidden homeless’. What do these terms mean? Do ‘rough sleepers’ and the ‘hidden homeless’ between them include all types of homelesness? You get the idea. In general terms, reading with questions in mind is claimed to roughly double the amount of material you will be able to recall after reading a report, book or other text. Useful questions tend to be ones that ask who, what, why, how, where.
- Read – when you read, look for answers to your questions. Also make notes of anything you regard as key points, concepts, phrases, quotes etc. Writing notes improves the amount of information you retain. More notes does not equal better notes – try to capture what you see as the essential details in as clear a way as possible.
- Reflect – spend time thinking about the material. Does it relate to other knowledge you have? Transform the way you think about a topic? Can you use the information in a practical way?
- Recite – try to put key points and arguments in your own words. Writing about what you’ve read, or discussing it with others, will make you do that.
- Review – this is a form of self-testing. Invent questions and try to answer them. Have other people ask you questions about the topic you’ve been reading about and see if you can remember points that answer their questions.
Thomas, E. L. and Robinson, H. A. (1972) Improving Reading in Every Class: A sourcebook for teachers. Boston: Allyn & Bacon
You can think of SQ3R as the forerunner to PQ4R. It was developed in 1946 by Francis Pleasant Robinson and based on earlier, 1930s, research on school students. His book, Effective Study, went through four editions of which the last was in 1970.
The difference between PQ4R and SQ3R is that while the four Rs in the former are ‘read, reflect, recite, review’, there were only three Rs in SQ3R – ‘read, recite, review’, though the ‘recite’ stage arguably covers more ground.
- Survey (or Skim) – look at major topics and structure of the material through headings, sub-headings and any other outstanding features in the text. The same as ‘Preview’ in PQ4R.
- Question – this is a little more content-focused than PQ4R since the questions Robinson suggests are along the lines of ‘What is chapter X about?’ and ‘What question does this chapter answer?’, though he also mentions questions that relate the material to your personal experience – e.g. ‘How can this material help me?’ Again, this stage includes the technique of turning headings and other emphasised material into questions as discussed above with PQ4R.
- Read – reading is done only once you have acquainted yourself with the major topics and organisation of the material and identified questions (S and Q above).
- Recite (also wRite and/or Recall) – identify answers to the questions raised in the Q step above. Again, note-taking and discussion is important to aid recall.
- Review – self-test in relation to the questions and notes from earlier stages. Recalling key phrases and revising any that have been forgotten is highly recommended.
Robinson, F. P. (1970). Effective Study (4th edition). New York: Harper & Row.
Perhaps the easiest acronym to remember, because the letters are sequential in the alphabet, this method varies slightly from the others in that it is designed to be used as a revision aid when the material studied will be examined in a test. If the test concerns a number of large topics – which would be the case in, say, criminology where many exams address quite large and wide-ranging topics or policy issues – you may need to repeat the sequence over several times, once for each of the topic areas.
- Preview – look at the selected topic; the major heads and subheads in your materials, bullet point lists, etc.
- Question – identify the ‘key’ question areas, debates and issues within the topic. Develop questions based on these.
- Read – read through reference materials, study guides, your notes etc. on the topic and identify what information best relates to each question you have chosen.
- Summary – summarize the available information. Preferably this is done through developing your own summary methods. These might be bullet point lists, perhaps using a mnemonic that aids memory; for example functionalist approaches in sociology can often be reduced to GAIL – Goal setting, Adaptation, Integration, Latency). Equally importantly information can be summarised in diagrams (spider, flowchart, matrix, pyramid, Venn…). Some sources suggest saying the summaries out loud, maybe to another person. Some people find audio helpful, e.g. recording summaries for later playback.
- Test – answer the questions from the question step above as fully as possible, perhaps in the form of a self-set mock exam that can be reviewed later. This can also help avoid diversions, irrelevant material, inadvertent changes of subject, ‘blind alleys’ etc.
This is a simple table that enables you to identify where you are and what next steps you need to take in learning. It is often useful for brainstorming in small groups, or to address specific problems. It is also useful when starting a new reading, usually at the point that you have completed the P stage of PQ4R or the S stage of SQ3R, when it becomes an aid to developing questions in the Q stage of either model. It was first developed by Donna Ogle (1986).
- Know – what do you know? Just list keywords, tags, topic areas, questions that have been answered. This is intended to cerate some engagement with the topic and develop ideas about how the new material might be relevant to prior learning, motivations etc.
- What (or Want) – what do you want to know? Based on the K part of the cycle, what are the next steps to tackle? This set of points is essentially an agenda for what questions to tackle next.
- Learned – what have you learned? Complete this step to summarise what you found out from working through the questions in the W stage.
Teachers, trainers and tutors can use this model to drive how they tackle each stage of a training course or educational programme and modify their approach to address questions students want to cover.
Ogle, D.M. (1986). K-W-L: A teaching model that develops active reading of expository text. Reading Teacher, 39, 564-570
An abbreviation you might see in your notes – often with a question mark or exclamation mark after it – against material you haven’t understood. Following the PQ4R, SQ3R, PQRST or KWL strategies will minimise the likelihood of you writing WTF in your notes!
More info on all strategies discussed is at the Study Guides and Strategies website.
I’ve noticed people coming to this blog through searches about learning styles, so I thought it would be worth writing specifically about them.
The comments below can be applied to situations as diverse as planning a new diet or slimming, learning rock climbing, starting a new job, studying for a degree or writing a novel.
How you learn best is influenced by different factors. Some are specific to the situation. If you want to learn rock climbing, the best way to do it is to climb a rockface, as part of a group, with an instructor – there isn’t really any other way. Some, however, are specific to you. These might include your personality, strengths, resources, prior skills and so on, but also your motivations and aspirations.
In addition, you’re likely to find that learning is a process and you learn different parts of a new skill, technique, job, etc. in different ways.
There are half a dozen ways to describe learning styles and I’ll mention two below. Don’t think of them as worlds apart, because they’re not. They’re just two out of several more or less similar ways to describe the same basic issues and processes. If you want to see a longer list, have a look at the Rapidbi website, or this article on Wikispaces. It’s important, though, to appreciate that what descriptions of learning styles generally do is identify two things at the same time:
- the learning style you as a learner may be most comfortable with, and
- the ‘learning cycle’ as a whole, which usually involves more than one style as the nature of learning changes from initial interest to figuring out specific problems and mastering different sets of skills as you work through a new topic.
Honey and Mumford
The best known description of learning styles is by Honey and Mumford. They point out that learning takes place in a cycle, but most people prefer one part of the cycle to others and work best when they’re at that point. The cycle looks like this:
No one learns exclusively in one style but depending on which part of the cycle you find easiest to handle, you may be:
- Activist – oriented to immediate tasks, works flexibly but may not think about future consequences and may be self-centred. Probably learns best by practical experimentation and experience, e.g. as an assistant or apprentice.
- Reflector – observes and collects information before acting, acts cautiously and keeps the ‘bigger picture’ in mind. Probably learns best through individual research.
- Theorist – works logically, in an ordered sequence, builds information into a theoretical or rational structure. Works best on the basis of principles, models and systems. Probably learns best through structured interaction, e.g. a training course.
- Pragmatist – deals with immediate issues, is ‘hands on’ and wants to experiment. Enjoys applying theory to practice. Probably learns best by doing the job, but with a mentor.
Although you may be able to identify your own ‘style’ from this list, Honey and Mumford have questionnaires you can complete that will tell you with more certainty which style (or sometimes styles, plural) you are most comfortable with.
Knowing your preferred learning style helps you because it gives you self-knowledge of the kinds of situations in which you learn best and most quickly, and you can use that knowledge to get the best out of yourself. For example if you’re not confident with individual research, find someone you can discuss it with; if you learn best with hands-on experience and are on a training course, explain this to the trainers and ask if there are any activities they can build into the course to help you.
While most people prefer one style, remember that your preference may change depending on what you’re learning. For example many people find that legal issues are best dealt with in a structured ‘theorist’ way, but computer work is better if learned in a hands-on ‘activist’ way.
The 4MAT model
Honey and Mumford are popular, but there are other descriptions as well. Bernice McCarthy (the 4MAT model) proposed four learning styles that are slightly different to the Honey/Mumford ones:
- Type 1: Innovative Learners – need to have reasons for learning that connect with the individual’s motivations and how the learning will be useful. Good methods for learning with this type include workshops, co-operative exercises, brainstorming, and anything that enables the learner to understand how new information fits in with, and can be used in conjuction. with some practical tasks they undertake.
- Type 2: Analytic Learners – interested in deeper understanding of concepts and processes. Many different learning strategies will work, but preferably a mix of different ones – lectures, independent study, data analysis, seminar type scenarios where they can see experts discuss relevant topics etc.
- Type 3: Common Sense Learners – interested in how to use information in a practical way. Best approaches are hands-on, learning on the job and learning to resolve issues/problems as they crop up.
- Type 4: Dynamic Learners – independent and self-directed learning, often based on their own curiosity and instincts. Almost by definition this type of learning is individual and independent, and again a mix of different types of input will be stimulating.
Again, while people have their preferred style, all four parts together form a learning cycle that moves through:
- Meaning – ‘why’ questions. Understanding the significance of a topic.
- Concepts – ‘what’ questions. Finding ways to gather and analyse information.
- Skills – ‘how’ questions. Learning practical ways to work in a situation, influence outcomes etc.
- Adaptations – ‘what if’ questions. Refining understanding and looking e.g. at how different decisions/factors/resources can impact on a situation.
McCarthy has a good video presentation of this cycle and what the different sections involve.
You’ll note that she orders the sequence a little differently to Honey and Mumford. I’ve never regarded the difference as important, though, because people will want to jump into studying a topic for a variety of reasons: curiosity or academic interest, ‘need to know’ because they’ve just started working in the area, reflecting on being in an area and wanting to develop knowledge of the bigger picture, etc. The reason will influence which part of the cycle you’re likely to start on. Where you start is less important than completing the different stages of the cycle.
As with Honey and Mumford, the 4MAT model implies that while you may have a preferred style, you need to recognise what part of the cycle you are in and find appropriate ways of addressing it. If you’re taking a training course, discussion with the trainer should be a good way to do this. If you’re in a job, you can talk to co-workers, find out what training is available, or start investigating issues independently (online, libraries, etc.). And if you’re just curious, you can get a long way through independent study but at some point will need to connect with others who are also studying it, teaching it or working in a relevant area.
Trainers, meanwhile, should recognise it is their responsibility to take account of students’ learning styles and the type of material they are trying to convey, and use appropriate methods at each stage of the cycle.
The next blog will cover some related but rather cryptic topics – SQ3R and PQ4R.
Honey, P. and Mumford, A. (2000). The Learning Styles Helper’s Guide. Maidenhead: Peter Honey Publications.
It’s been a day of remembering the 90% rule.
The rule says: in any given project, the first 90% of the work takes up 90% of the time allocated. The remaining 10% of the work takes up the other 90% of the time.
I’d like to add my own twist to this: in developing and updating training materials, 90% of the work is ‘creative’ in the sense that it involves making judgements about whether material is still useful and relevant, adding in updates relating to new publications, etc. The other 90% of the work is the clerical stuff – making sure URLs are still valid and suchlike.
Such is the life of a freelancer.
Hopefully later this evening I’ll squeeze in a bit of time playing with duotrope, since I have a couple of stories written a while back I haven’t submitted anywhere.
Below, for the curious, is a picture of the inside of my brain as I reach the point of having 90% of the work done.
[Pic courtesy of Chris Cafferkey - chriscaff.wordpress.com - see my blogroll for clickable link]
And the implication is that I must have a very tiny mind. I’m writing a distance learning module on criminology. And I found a context in which it became quite sensible and rational to get students to consider and make notes on the following questions:
• Do you think Mr Bungle should have been toaded? Why, or why not?
• What ethical principles would you cite to support your view?
As I said… small minds are easily amused.
If you haven’t got the context to make sense of the question – try looking at the tags on this post, they’ll lead you in the right direction!
Just heard Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction will run a story of mine in the upcoming TQF 34, due out in June – though the website warns that Stephen is doing a lot of stuff for the British Fantasy Society so timing could slip a bit! Zombie fiction with a bit of a twist.
In other news: I’m not at the World Horror Convention, which is where I wanted to be – too much to do in the past few weeks, both writing and playing a minor supporting role in relation to a couple of family illnesses. I hadn’t been able to organise either booking a place at the con, or making the time to get there.
Instead I’m sitting here writing ‘proper’ stuff about the training of solicitors, barristers and paralegals, which is all surprisingly subtle and complex.
I’ve spent the last few days writing the section of of a training course that deals with writing CVs and resumes. It’s been unexpectedly interesting, perversely enough because most of the material I’ve been dealing with tries to be so damn serious and sensible, and I’ve been buried under a ton or it – advice from jobsearch websites, templates for CVs, example CVs and the like.
Most of the rules for writing CVs and resumes are straightforward and obvious – which is not to say we don’t all need reminding of them from time to time.
Keep it simple (content, language, structure, formatting) because whoever reads it is going to get bored within seconds if the print is too small, layout too fussy, or inappropriate technical language is used. Okay, if you’re a research chemist, automotive engineer, IT specialist or the like you may need to use technical and scientific terms to explain what you’ve been doing for the last few years but most of us aren’t and don’t.
Keep it as short as you reasonably can (1-2 pages for a resume, 3-4 if possible for a CV). No one reading these things wants to scroll through 13 pages of stuff, and the worth of a CV isn’t measured by the weight of the paper pr length of the file.
If there’s an ‘industry standard’ for your industry, use that structure. IT in particular expects a format that doesn’t follow the generic guidelines.
The last couple of decades seems to have seen a move towards opening CVs and resumes with a short personal profile or personal statement. This needs to be specific – ‘good sense of humour’ (or even ‘twisted sense of humour’) may be a de facto requirement of many jobs but no one who reads a CV is going to want to read that. And what makes your particular sense of humour ‘good’ anyway?
For the rest, there seem to be two general patterns to choose from. The first is a short list of skills and experiences, with education and employment shown afterwards as essentially the ‘evidence’ for the key points you want to present about yourself. The second is a more traditional format with qualifications and employment history first, and the skills and experiences section following as an indication of what a reader should be able to interpret from the ‘raw data’.
I have to say, though, that one of the things that strikes me about CVs is how far the quest for seriousness seems to drive out creativity. I doubt that CVs have ever been regarded as appropriate documents for the exercise of creative imagination (ok, people tweak CVs to fit particular job and person specifications and there can be some re-interpretation of one’s life history involved…).
In part this will be down to matters such as legal requirements and processes. If the job of putting bells and whistles on things can legally only be done by someone with appropriate professional qualifications and certification to practise, your CV will need to state that you have been a fully accredited member of the Institute of Bell and Whistle Design and Fitting Professionals since 1973 (or whatever). Recruiters would need to know that. Some of it will also be down to the business culture, because people want to recruit dedicated people who are serious about making a contribution to the corporate enterprise.
However it’s at this point that I thank my lucky stars I’m freelance. And I’ll share a secret with you. I haven’t updated my CV or resume for well over a year. This is because most of my work is self-generated and stands or falls on its own merits, not on a list of previous experience and skills.
As and when I do update them, they should probably start with a profile along the lines of ‘Jon Vagg is an experienced writer, editor, proofreader and researcher. He has a PhD in sociology and writes distance learning courses and training materials in the areas of social science and management. He has also authored several academic and nonfiction books, along with numerous articles and some short stories.’
Finally (for this post) if you’re a creative type, you’re in trouble. Many sources say CVs for ‘creatives’ are often difficult to construct and frequently don’t read in a standard format because they can’t. Frequently they will just boil down to a list of published pieces, or discography, or paintings completed/exhibited/sold, along with a rough indication of current projects. They might include stuff like media appearances, voluntary work and the like, but it’s debatable how much of who a creative ‘is’ can be captured in any traditional CV format.
For me personally, the ‘creative’ side of what I do means that the short author tags that go on jacket blurbs, lists of contributors, etc. are more significant than CVs (not least because they’re probably read by at least three or four more people!). And the idea is usually to intrigue and amuse. I can offer two versions.
The semi-formal statement, used at a recent local literary event: ‘Jon Vagg is primarily an author of educational and training materials. He has been writing speculative/science fiction for around 10 years but only recently started to get published. In 2009 his short stories appeared in Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction, Sinister Tales, Ballista and Ignavia. He is a recent member (though infrequent attender) of the Speculators writing group.’
The off-the-wall statement, currently tagged to stories sent out to SF/horror mags: ‘Jon Vagg drinks too much coffee and gets bored easily. Much of his writing is done late at night. The nature of his imagination means he has no social life to speak of. He is based in the UK and has previously published in Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction, Ballista, Ignavia, and online in Dark Fire.’
It would be interesting to speculate about what ‘creative’ things some professional/business people might say about themselves if given the chance, and whether these comments might reveal more intriguing sides of them than their CV.