Friday, July 17, 2009

Moved home...

If you are looking for me, I have moved home.

This is my new address:

Saturday, May 03, 2008

Something shylockian

Sometimes in this era of commercialised education, in this era when a university degree is a product sold over the counter to those willing to pay, we forget how difficult it can be for some students.

THIS is about a 24-year-old girl who wanted to do a master’s in England with all her heart.

Late in the summer of 2005 she boarded a bus from a town on the edge of Russia, clutching a first-class undergraduate degree, £110 in borrowings, and a handful of English words she had picked up at school. Three days later she arrived in Bournemouth.

Over the next year she got herself a waitressing job and saved pennies. She learnt English.

Last October she visited the Bournemouth University main campus for an open day. Staff there enthusiastically tried to sell her postgraduate enrolments, pointing out the wonderful opportunities BU offered.

She knew which MA she wanted, she told them. But she wouldn’t have the whole course fee -- as she was foreign, it was double what a European Union student paid, £8,000 -- by February. Could she pay half the fees then and the rest six months later?

Oh yes, she was told. BU was always glad to help.

This meant she had to raise nearly £3,000 in the next four months somehow, but she went home happy. She was going to the university finally.

She renegotiated a deal for her matchbox accommodation. Got herself a tougher but better-paying job. Budgeted brutally. Begged extra shifts and killed herself working in the holidays. Borrowed. She also managed to pass the IELTS.

In December she got an unconditional offer from the university. By mid-January she had the money. She got together her certificates and application and went to enroll -- and was told she would need to pay the rest of her fees not six months into the course, but a month later.

Sorry, they said. And now that you mention you don't have enough money, we are not sure we can offer you this seat. We need to think about it.

She spent four days agonising as they thought. Then she was called for a second interview.

She said she had been assured on two separate occasions -- explicitly -- that she could pay her second half of the fees after summer. She pointed out the first installment was a fortune to her -- enough to buy a small house back home -- and she could not afford to lose it, so she would definitely, definitely not run away.

I earn £620 a month, she said, and I live on £300, so I save £320. That and the extra money I earn during the summer holidays will add up. Please don't withdraw the offer.

Can't wait six months, they said. But maybe we can treat you as a special case. You pay the first £4,000 now, then make monthly payments towards the other half. You say you save £320? Excellent, if you sign an undertaking to pay that every month till October, and £1,400 in August -- you said you would earn more in the holidays, didn’t you, and you might be able to borrow some money? -- then we can let you enroll. We don’t normally do this for anyone, mind.

She signed on the dotted line.

That week she put in an application for an international student scholarship. By the time her course started, she got a response: she had been awarded £1,000 in fee-waiver.

That was a big relief. And now that her ‘debt’ was reduced, perhaps they would adjust her monthly payments proportionately? She wrote in with a request: £50 less -- £270 per month instead of £320 -- would make all the difference to her, she said, and the university would still get its money by October as agreed.

Sorry, they said. Now that your situation has improved, we would like you to finish paying early. The original installment had stretched us well beyond what’s acceptable, so we will stick to it.

Two months have passed, with two touch-and-go payments. In the meantime, her first piece of course work -- in a language alien to her just two years ago -- was graded a first class and presented to her peers as a model essay. She’s pleased, she said, but very tense when it rains and her shifts are cancelled (she works at a restaurant on the beach) and customers leave miserly tips. What if she doesn’t make enough to cover payment? They were about to send her away once because she didn’t have the full amount.

It’s more worrying now than ever before, she said. When I came here, I didn’t have anything to lose. Now I do.

Sometimes in this era of commercialised education, in this era when a university degree is a product sold over the counter to those willing to pay, we forget how difficult it can be for someone like this girl.

We forget there’s something shylockian about squeezing the last drop of blood out of someone.


Labels: , , ,

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Look, this TWAT's not working

ACRONYMS are ever so useful, so here’s one worth noting.


You will understand why I find this of particular interest when I say it is part of the academic lingo -- at least over here in sunny Bournemouth.

TWAT stands for Three Week Assessment Turnaround (elsewhere it also stands for The War Against Terror, but that’s not surprising if you consider who’s behind it). Goodness knows what the powers-be were thinking when they came up with this particular construction and not, say, Assessment Turnaround in Three Weeks, or Three Week Turnaround for Assessments.

Considering many lecturers welcomed the idea very, um, warmly, I look forward to the next staff meeting when the issue is bound to come up. Imagine solemnly sitting among venerable colleagues discussing Important issues, and someone says with a straight face: “Look, this TWAT is not working.”

Oh Lordy.

Labels: , , , ,

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

O, be some other name!

PURELY as a matter of scholarly interest, I wonder who should rank higher in the academic hierarchy -- associate dean or deputy dean?

I ask because my university is in the throes of a titular makeover that involves a variety of deans. Recently we sprinkled holy water on our head of school and told him in no uncertain terms that henceforth he shall be called the dean. We also supplied him with two deputies, by another of those blessed acts.

Now I am told we are about to acquire two more deans, of the associate kind, and I am kind of worried.

Don’t get me wrong. I quite like the idea of deans. I am in excellent shape and can take a few more without breaking into a sweat; besides, there’s a nice academic twang to the title, wouldn’t you agree?

But as something of a semantic simpleton, I find the ‘associate’, ‘deputy’ prefixes confusing, especially when they fall under the same chain of command -- as it is about to happen in my school, where the associate dean will report to the deputy dean.

I had always thought ‘associate’ had a near-equal status whereas the deputy was, well, only a deputy. So I looked up the words.

An associate, the dictionary tells me, is a person “united” with another in an act of “enterprise”, or “joined with another or others and having equal or nearly equal status”, or “having partial status or privileges”.

A deputy, on the other hand, is only an agent, a representative, “authorised to act as substitute for another”.

A dean by any name would smell as sweet of course, but there’s something about the surrogate issuing orders to the near-original that makes me want to passionately cry out, O, be some other name!

Labels: , ,

Monday, January 29, 2007

By Barry's beard!

AND the student said, bold as a first-year: “You don’t know what you are talking about, Chindu. I have done my A-levels. And that’s not what they taught us!”

Actually, the student didn’t say quite that. But if I were to summarise the response I get when I talk about the apostrophe, that’s how I would put it.

In my three years of marking student work, nothing has given me more pain than the apostrophe: my teeth are all gnashed-out now, and I think I am in need of an urgent hair transplant. Good grief, how difficult is it to grasp it’s is a bit different from its? And your and you’re are not really the same?

I digress. It’s not such mundane usages I want to pick on today. What gets my goat more is how the poor 'postrophe is used to ‘drop’ –- the purpose English printers adopted it for originally -– a certain s in a certain possessive. Let me take you to my classroom…

"Barry Richards’s beard, is that correct?" I say. "Or should it be Barry Richards' beard?"

"Barry Richards' beard,” they say confidently. "You don’t need the second s."

"Actually," I say, "you do need the second s."

Which is when my students tell me I am rubbish. Sometimes, seeing me all crestfallen, the sensitive among them offer me an honourable exit.

"It’s up to you," they say soothingly. “You can keep the s if you want, Chindu -- it’s a matter of choice."

Beg your pardon. It’s not a matter of choice.

THE rule is this. To indicate possession in a singular ending in s, you need an apostrophe and a second s. So it is Barry Richards’s beard and Bronwen Thomas’s beauty.

Think about it this way. If the beard belonged to Jim Pope, we wouldn’t write Jim Pope’ beard, would we? Nor would we think it entirely appropriate to put down Jim Pope’ beauty (not that Jim is lacking in beauty, mind). So I don’t think it is fair to deprive poor Barry and Bronwen their due just because they are richer by an s. Luckily, Lynne Truss agrees with me (Eats, Shoots & Leaves, 2005, page 55). So does the University of Ottawa, the Purdue University Online Writing Lab, and Fowler’s (Fowler’s used to recommend dropping the second s, though I could be mistaken there).

Perhaps it would help if we looked at how the ’s came to indicate possession. English printers first used the apostrophe some time in the 16th century. Its sole purpose then was to show omission of letters, and thus it stayed for a fair few decades, while Shakespeare energetically dreamt up apostrophic dialogue for Hamlet and other worthies.

Till then –- and here I quote The Dreaded Apostrophe -- possession in English was shown by adding an es at the end of the word. Thus, if you wanted to write about the beard that belonged to Barry, you wrote Barryes beard.

Came the 17th century. The printers, bored silly with the es business, decided to drop the e. What do you do when you omit a letter? That’s correct, use an apostrophe. And thus came about the Barry’s beard we see today.

Things would have been simpler if they had stopped at that. But no, along the way, someone decided the possessive of plural words ending with an s needed modification. Take, for instance, the word parentses, which was now, apostrophically, parents’s. To write it with the second s, this someone decided, was a bit daft. So today we write parents’ house, not parents’s house.

Now I can’t for the life of me think why they didn’t do the same in the case of singular words as well. Perhaps they didn’t want to work the poor apostrophe too hard. Or they just liked to complicate things. But the fact is, they didn’t, and we are stuck with Thomas’s beauty and parents’ house –- and neither is a matter of choice.

Don’t think that’s it. There are exceptions to this rule as well (as if it wasn’t confusing enough). Jesus, for instance, doesn’t need an extra s. Nor does any name from the ancient world. And if a word ends with an iz sound, then again, no s after the ’postrophe. There’s more, but I will refer you to Truss’s (now this third s, I don’t like at all; doesn’t look nice typographically) excellent Eats, Shoots & Leaves.

LET me wind up with a final note. Is it 1920s? Or 1920’s? Most of us would go for the former. Some of us might also say the latter is incorrect -– and it is here I advice caution.

If I am not mistaken, not too long ago, ’s was used to indicate the plural of numbers (and also acronyms, for instance, CD’s, thus). Blame it on the printers again. Possibly this was because the typefaces they worked with weren’t as ‘clean’ as the ones we have now, plus the headlines those days were mostly in capital letters -- which was where the apostrophe came in, to stop letters from jumbling together.

Those days are over, luckily. Today, though ’s is used to indicate the plural of lowercase letters (for instance, p’s and q’s not ps and qs), to see it used with numbers or acronyms is unconventional. Unconventional, I say, but still in vogue, especially on the other side of the ocean -- the venerable New York Times, for instance, still continues with 1920’s.

Perhaps, in this particular case, it is a matter of choice.


Labels: , , , ,

Friday, November 03, 2006

Don't sputter. Just say

THERE is this four-letter word in English that many of us are severely allergic to -- and no, this one doesn’t start with ‘F’.

‘Said’ is the word in question. The one we brush aside when we attribute direct speech.

It is too simple for us, too common. Where is plain plebian Said when compared to alleged, argued, articulated, averred, claimed, disclosed, declared, held, offered, opined, stated, and pronounced? And the 'action-packed' laughed, grimaced, cried, sputtered, spat, and spewed?

"Said," a reporter claimed, "is okay when you are attributing for the first time. But you can't keep saying 'said, said' all the time. The copy will become repetitive and monotonous."

"Said," disclosed another, "is too bland. It doesn't say anything."

Precisely. Said is neutral. And that is its beauty.

A long time ago I remember reading a clipping my editor-in-chief -- an elephantine gentleman with an elephantine memory for the published word -- passed around. It, well, said Said is a writer's best friend, and when a reporter uses anything other than Said, he is poking his nose in, colouring the quote.

This is not always acceptable, certainly not in newswriting -- objectivity and all the rest, you know. More than that, if it is a passable quote, the words should convey whether the speaker is disclosing/alleging/stating/laughing/sputtering, whatever.

At times we also end up conveying the wrong meaning when we opt for frilly attributory words. Take, for instance, the quotes above.

‘...a writer claimed’ goes the first, conveying our disbelief at what the writer has to say. We are thus telling the reader, hey, mate, this is what he says, but it ain't true.

The 'disclosed' in the second attribution, for its part, implies a revelation to the reporter. And since it is a revelation, it must be true, is the impression.

An editor at the Wall Street Journal had an effective way to handle such writers. Whenever he spotted funny stuff, he would call the writer in question to his desk. "Laugh me this sentence," he would say. Or "Sputter me this sentence."

Now that doesn't mean you don't communicate the speaker laughed when he said his say. Go ahead. Try attributing it differently, though: "...he said, laughing".

The reasoning Said should be used 'sparingly' to avoid repetition doesn't wash either. Because, Said is one of those invisible words. So non-intrusive, so low-key that we skim across it. Here's a bit of Hemingway -- I think we can take him for an authority on good writing -- to illustrate my point:

    'No,' I said. 'There's nothing to say.'
    'Good-night,' he said. 'I cannot take you to your hotel?'
    'No, thank you.'
    'It was the only thing to do,' he said. 'The operation proved--'
    'I do not want to talk about it,' I said.
Five exchanges. Four Saids. Now let's try some fancy attribution and see where that takes us:

    'No,' I seethed. 'There's nothing to say.'
    'Good-night,' he wished me. 'I cannot take you to your hotel?'
    'No, thank you.'
    'It was the only thing to do,' he justified. 'The operation proved--'
    'I do not want to talk about it,' I spat out.
What do you say?

Now please don't tell me Said works only for dialogue, in fiction. It works perfectly fine for captured conversation in non-fiction as well. Here's Michael Herr, one of the best war correspondents ever, exposing the psyche of a bunch of scared American youngsters in Vietnam trapped in a war they want no part of. From Khesanh, a piece he wrote for the Esquire in 1968:

    Day Tripper heard the deep sliding whistle of the other shells first. 'That ain' no outgoin',' he said.
    'That ain't outgoing,' Mayhew said.
    'Now what I jus' say?' Day Tripper yelled, and we reached the trench as a shell landed ... A lot of them were coming in, some mortars too, but we didn't count them.
    'Sure was some nice mornin',' Day Tripper said. 'Oh man, why they can' jus' leave us alone one time?'
    'Cause they ain't gettin' paid to leave us alone,' Mayhew said, laughing. 'Slides, they do it cause they know how it fucks you all up.'
Stats? Let's dip into the work of two Pulitzer-winning journalists.

Michael Vitez, in the first chapter of his series Seeking a Good Death (1997, Explanatory Journalism), quotes some 1,200 words of speech, across 46 exchanges. He uses 2 'tells', 3 'askeds', 1 'agreed', 1 'insisted', 1 'flinched', 1 'concluded', '1 whispered', 1 'continued' -- and 36 Saids.

In his 3,828-word piece titled Final Salute (2006, Feature Writing), Jim Sheeler uses 27 complete direct quotations (about 700 words of it) to tell the story of a Marine major who helps the families of colleagues killed in Iraq to cope with grief. All 27 times he uses Said.

I think that says it all.

Labels: , , , ,

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

They ain't getting me to buy books!

I think the most interesting part of an academic year is the first couple of weeks. I love the buzz it brings.

Suddenly the corridors are not empty, the forecourt is not deserted, the library is populated, the cafeterias are open, and my colleagues are back from Spain (and China). There’s talk, activity, excitement. Everywhere.

The main reason for my partiality, though, is the freshers. They simply wash across the campus, their faces open and eager (alas, it's only a matter of weeks before that innocence sets into the grim expression of the hardened student). I love watching them, in a rather nostalgic way.

The period allows me to mingle with students incognito -- a task made easy by my youthful looks and innocent face, I would like to believe -- with the explicit purpose of eavesdropping. On one occasion I sat down with them and waited for the lecturer -- myself. It was great fun, quite insightful. I strongly recommend it to all staff.

CHRISTCHURCH House. First floor.

1st girl: “…and I really don’t know why they said that.”

2nd girl: “They want to keep you quiet, that’s why.”

3rd girl: “But you haven’t even gone to a lecture!”

2nd girl: “I tell you, they want to keep her quiet."

1st girl: “But--”

2nd girl: "Honey, this is Bournemouth University!"

Much intrigued. Anyone know what that was all about?

IN Waterstone's, on campus.

Girl waving copy of Public Relations Theory: "This one, y'think? She said this one's good!"

2nd girl: "So take it."

3rd girl: "They can say what they like, but they ain't getting me to buy books."

2nd girl: "Me neither."


Girl 1: “…and the first thing I will do after I clear my overdraft is get myself a jumper. Not books. A jumper.”

GYM. Noon.

Baggy-Trousered, Tousle-Haired Fresher 1, heading straight for the chest-press machine: "This is the best one. I luvv it!"

B-T T-H F 2: "Yeah?"

B-T T-H F 1: "Yeah! This works your chest. You gotta get some chest, mate -- chicks go for chest."

SEMINAR room. Break-time.

Girl: ", one of the guys can't cook? At all? And he actually came to ask me how to boil an egg? All he can do is pasta and ketchup and he has had it every single day!?"

EAVESDROPPED by my good friend Lakshmi. Third floor, Weymouth House.

Boy: "...nobody has talked to me like that before! She talked to me like an adult! It's great, I love her!"

Rachel Dungar, take a bow.

CHRISTCHURCH House again. First floor.

Girl 1: "I love my housemates! They are so lovely, we get along so well!"

Girl 2: "One of my housemates is quitting because she says our place isn't clean."

Girl 1: "Then she should come to our place. It is a mess! And my housemates are lovely. The guys do the washing up! One day we sat around talking till 7 am and the guys did the washing up!"

GYM. Ground-floor.

Big guy to small guy, peering in at open door: "Let's see what they've got here... Uh-huh, it is the aerobics room!"

Small guy: "Uh, the girlie room. Naff."

Labels: , , ,