I have a bag of scraps of fabric, some left over from sewing projects, some from a lovely shop near us that sells cut-off strips of the fabric they use for their bags, cushions, soft toys and clothes. Here are some ideas for what to do with them. Find a cushion that needs a new cover and place the strips on it until you think hey, that looks okay! It doesn’t have to be exact or precise, and even if you leave some seam allowance, a cover for your cushion needs to be quite tight so it looks nice and filled. First line up your bits of fabric in rows and sew them on to each other. Then flip them over and iron the joins on the back so the fabric lies nice and flat again. Then sew the rows on to each other. Cut off any bits that are too wide. For the back, I used a neutral fabric cut to a slightly bigger square than the front and then cut in half. Fold one seam on the long side of the square of fabric, iron it and sew it. Then sew the upper half on to the front of your cushion, right sides facing each other. Repeat with the lower half so the seams on the back overlap. You will have enough of a gap left to insert your cushion.

If that’s too much of a project for a night, try making unique greeting cards. Cut out a shape you like and sew it on to a plain card. Done. It does mess with the needle on your sewing machine so keep one that’s getting on for projects like this đŸ™‚




On the outsider’s perspective

Last week I taught a class of international students from many different backgrounds and many different disciplines. It was a hard class to prepare for as I did not know how many would attend (downside of non-compulsory classes), which disciplines they would be from (downside of general introductory classes) and, most importantly, how competent they would be in the language of instruction – or rather, how wide the gap between their language levels would be.
I spent weeks preparing for this class, rethinking my approach at least five times and fretting about what the desired outcome if this session could be for such a diverse group of students. And then, a couple of days before the class, inspiration struck via the Science Show, an Australian radio program which draws me – a total science failure – in every time. On it, Paul Davies from the Arizona State University explained why an outsider – in this case, he as a physicist and astrobiologist – can be immensely valuable to researchers from another discipline – in this case, cancer research. Outsiders can ask questions that no one in that discipline’s discourse would dare ask for fear of embarrassment. Outsiders do not have the answers to these questions, obviously, nor do they know how to find them. But their perspective is novel, and it is this change of perspective that can contribute truly new directions.
And suddenly the class came together. The students brainstormed about potential research projects and interviewed those from entirely different disciplines about their approach to finding new knowledge. They did all this in a language not their own, an immense feat, and with complete strangers. I hope this gives them the courage to ask questions in the months to come, when they take actual classes and have to earn actual credit points. And hopefully they will remember that their point of view is not the only one, that the world is bigger than just their discipline, and that it is worth looking beyond its limits.
You can find the transcript of the Science Show and download the audio here:The Science Show with Paul Davies

Rosie Project on Writing

“The Rosie Project” by Graeme Simsion is a brilliant read for lots of reasons. It is funny without being condescending, it is set in Melbourne (and a few other places), you learn a lot about Asperger’s and even more about why “normal” people are not always so normal. And then, right towards the end of the book, there is a great scene on writing. More specifically, on writing in a language that is not your own – and resorting to having someone else write a paper for you. Anyone who has taught students who grew up and received their university education in a language other than the target language of the class will know how hard it can be for them to meet the requirements. And many will have had an encounter when individual students, for many different reasons, resort to means that are not permitted. Such as, in “The Rosie Project”, having a tutor write the paper for you.
It is impossible to give a one-size-fits-all approach to how to deal with cases of suspected plagiarism or collaboration. Except maybe that we must, as lecturers, take the time to address each case individually, as time consuming as it is. If we ignore such cases, no one wins. The students learn that they are incapable of writing, and speaking, for themselves and that they need to rely on (often paid) services from others. Their fellow students will learn that the lecturers don’t seem to mind and might resort to similarly illicit means themselves.
Don Tillmann, unlikely hero of “The Rosie Project”, takes a different approach. He asks his student to explain, in his own words, the topic he had the paper written on. And the student demonstrates that he does indeed have the knowledge – he was just worried that his writing wasn’t good enough.
Most universities now have programs that can help both with future projects and with current ones. Language competence instruction that aims to let writers express their own thoughts, in their own words, is not a quick fix, but it is the only one that will work for both students and lecturers.
And also: Look at content, not just perfectly polished – but possibly hollow – phrases.
Which can, however, be quite amusing. Want to craft a computer science paper without actually knowing anything about computer science (and without it making any sense)? Try http://pdos.csail.mit.edu/scigen/. Have a giggle. Then go and write something that is really your own.

Breathe, count to ten. One. Two. Three…

So intensely frustrating when you have done everything right, all day, and look forward to the reward you have set for yourself. I will get to watch two episodes of my favourite program so I can get through long meetings, be at everyone’s beckon call, drive like a crazy cabbie to get everyone from a to b and c, cook the wrong dinner again (or so they tell me) and get through it all with a smile thinking “it’ll be ok, only a few more hours…”. And then – bleeeeeeep, this service is not available in your area. Try the provider’s website. Which tells you no more than the telly: This service is unavailable.

I get it, stuff happens. But a “we are really trying to fix it, and we are sorry for any inconvenience caused” would have been good. It is not just what you say, it is also how you say it. Sorry is a big word, and not always easy to say (ask the Australian Howard government what they think of saying sorry, and even years later I am sure there will not be much enthusiasm…)

So, my plan for tomorrow: I can do better than that. I can be mindful of how you say what you say. Maybe the people I will talk to have had rough days so far as well and could use someone who makes an effort for them.

And keep perspective, I know. It is just a tv show. Books are better anyway. And best of all: writing. This has helped already. Maybe some more writing will do the trick. Back to the book manuscript then. Maybe there is an angry scene waiting to be rewritten while I am in the mood?…

The joy of language

Seeing I am getting serious about writing, why not start right at the top đŸ˜‰ with Shakespeare. I am reading Bill Bryson’s biography (who likes to keep things nice and short – 196 pages and just one word for a title – Shakespeare). Last night, I came across a thought I really liked. Bryson muses about whether or not Shakespeare’s vocabulary was greater than that of other writers and comes to the following conclusion: “…it wasn’t so much a matter of how many words he used, but what he did with them… what really characterizes his work … is a positive and palpable appreciation of the transfixing power of language. … What it (his work) does do is take, and give, a positive satisfaction in the joyous possibilities of human language.”

Great point. Shakespeare, according to Bryson, used language to be enjoyed. He was creative, inventive with it, experimented, used new and unusual words, seems to have coined new phrases we still use today, and obviously it worked. Shakespeare’s voice can still be heard in his plays after centuries, while almost everything else about him has vanished. This is what I guess motivates most writers, not to become the next Shakespeare – we are usually well grounded enough to keep it real – but to be able to pass something on. I try and explain this to my students as well. All writing is playing with words, seeing in how many ways you could say something and create combinations that no one has thought of before.

Bryson, too, takes joy in the possibilities of language. He draws on information from vastly different disciplines to craft a vivid image of the world at the time of Shakespeare. Back when I was a student, I heard a lecture by Stephen Greenblatt (among many other things, also a Shakespeare scholar) on Shakespeare, and about New Historicism. What fascinated me about this discipline (even though Greenblatt was extremely reluctant to give us a definition) was the approach of taking information from many different areas (tax records, travel reports, church publications) and reading them together to arrive at a fuller picture of the time. Bryson does the same, and he does it convincingly. I am no Shakespeare scholar, and it is not always a hundred percent clear where Bryson’s references come from, so the text would not do overly well in an academic environment. But he does draw you in, and the book is hard to put down. You don’t need to be a Shakespeare expert to enjoy it, either. It is simply a great story told very well.

My copy was published by Harper Collins, and you can preview the book online.


On third times lucky

Things get bogged down. Good intentions don’t always come to fruition. New year’s resolutions can fail. Nevertheless we try and try again. After two half hearted attempts at blogging, mainly to see what all the fuss is about, I’m trying again. Writing should come easy by now. I have made it my job, something else that had many good intentions precede it yet took a longtime to happen.

Writing means structuring thoughts into words. Writing helps to make sense of things that can feel quite fuzzy in our minds. And it can be used in a vast variety of contexts. We write emails, books, poems, articles, blog posts, recipes, graffiti, shopping lists. So here’s to the many ways of making writing happen!


Feeling calmer with less things around you. But more biscotti.

After a year’s absence from blogging, I feel I am now emerging from the complete madness of having three children with very immediate and urgent needs and starting to put everything back together. I read this sentence in an interior design magazine once, “I feel calmer with less things around me.” Entirely true. So a big theme last year has been shedding what is not needed. If you ask my husband, purchases have not gone down but I think they have changed to achieve the goal of having things nice and orderly. I try to do at least one thing every day that will last more than that day and achieves a bit more order. And I do think it works. Yesterday it was going through my youngest (15 months) daughter’s drawers and sorting out the things she has outgrown, taking everything out (she was happy to help with that part) and thinking about what worked or didn’t work about how I store her clothes. The end result is that every time I open the chest of drawers, rather than thinking “oh no, I really need to clean up in here” I now pat myself on the back and think “well done, this is so much better”. As silly as this sounds, it really does help in finding a way out of the chaos of having three children and freeing up time to spend with them doing thing I enjoy. It also meant decluttering. There are so many things we keep that we really don’t need.

On the recipe front, after spending more than I like to think about on favourite biscuits, I have now worked out my own recipe for cantuccini, those really hard Italian almond biscuits that are great dunked in coffee. Here goes:

350 g plain flour

300 g sugar

1 1/2 tsp baking powder

1/2 tsp salt

350 g whole almonds

3 large eggs

1 tsp vanilla essence or 1 packet of vanilla sugar (depending on where you live and what’s available)

Preheat oven to 180 celsius. Crush half the almonds, then mix all dry ingredients. Whisk eggs and vanilla and add to dry mixture. It will be the stickiest dough you’ve ever seen but just push on through it and add more flour if needed. Shape into logs about 7 cm wide and 3 cm high. They rise quite a bit so place them far enough apart. Bake for 35 minutes or until golden and they feel reasonably firm to touch. Take them out of the oven and allow them to cool (best done on a rack), then slice them diagonally about 2 cm wide. Place on a tray cut side down and bake for another 15 minutes. Allow to cool and store in an airtight container. Absolutely delicious dunked in coffee.

In keeping with today’s theme, I am sure you will feel calmer with cantuccini – it doesn’t take long until there are less of them around  and they make you feel better by simply tasting great.