Remembering Diana Wynne Jones

I spent what I count among the happiest three days of my life in Bristol, in early July 2009, attending and presenting a paper at the international conference on Diana Wynne Jones. Scholars, students, editors, and many who “just” read and enjoy Diana Wynne Jones’ novels came together, and spent an entire weekend discussing, enthusing, reminiscing, delighting in and celebrating her work, and rejoicing in the company of so many who shared a love and admiration for this not-well-enough known author for children and young adults. That time could only have been made more sublime (is it possible?) if DWJ herself had been able to attend, as she had planned. She could not, because she was ill with lung cancer.

And now she is gone.

That she was loved by many is attested to by the outpouring of tributes and expressions of grief all over the blogosphere and the internets. She even trended on Twitter yesterday (and would have been highly amused, I’m sure). No doubt, there will have been many on Facebook and Twitter and elsewhere scratching their heads, wondering “who the heck is Diana Wynne Jones”? She was not well enough known. Mention Howl’s Moving Castle and more will have seen Miyazaki’s movie than read the book. Mention a school for wizards, and everyone with think “Hogwarts,” though DWJ created Chrestomanci castle many years earlier. Those of us who love and admire her work gnash our teeth at the popularity of a certain JKR or the books about sparkly vampires, when DWJ has been writing richer, funnier, more literate and just plain better books for so long. It took the popularity of JKR to bring DWJ’s books back into print. But back into print they are, and she will live on in her words.

And what words they are. What books. So many! Not all equally great, but even her weakest books are worth reading. And her strongest are … oh, so good.

Everyone at the conference agreed that Diana Wynne Jones writes books for intelligent people. They challenge you. They make you think. They are inventive, and original and can be tricky. But they are exciting and often hilariously funny.

She writes about strong children and weak adults. She writes about how easy it can be to lose your identity and sense of self-worth when everyone around you is preoccupied with other business and no one cares about your feelings. She writes about the importance of independent thinking and self-reliance. She writes about reading, and writing and the power of the imagination and of words. She writes about power, and vanity, and getting things wrong, and making things right, and responsibility. She writes about girls and she writes about boys and she writes about wizards and griffins and a fire demon and a goon and dogs and cats, and every single one has more character in his or her or its little finger than many other author’s characters put together (JKR, I’m talking about you).

One of my favourite little moments in DWJ’s books comes in The Ogre Downstairs, an early domestic fantasy, already demonstrating how delightful and original her work could be. It’s about a newly blended family of children who hate each other, and the “ogre” who is stepfather to half of them, and who are brought together through misadventure with a magical chemistry set filled with mysterious (but entirely logical) ingredients that do things like give the power to fly and bring inanimate objects to life. One of the ingredients is labelled dens drac. (dragon’s teeth). Remember the myth of Jason and the Argonauts? And the dragon’s teeth that when scattered on the ground spring to life as fully armed soldiers? When the children drop these on the driveway of their house, a motor-cycle gang springs up, speaking Greek. Written in Greek. And if you happen to know Greek, there’s a wonderful inside joke, because it’s not Greek. It just looks like it. If you read it out loud they say things like “Let me at ‘im!” and “Full of spirit, aren’t they?” And it’s such a readerly joke, because the family hearing it doesn’t understand the “Greek” but we reading it (maybe) do. And the awful stepfather, who at this point in the book is becoming not-so-awful, saves the day by following the trick that Jason uses in the original myth. And it’s all metafictional and thoroughly delightful.

Ask me to name a favourite of her books, and I will unhesitatingly offer Fire and Hemlock, a lovely, rich, strange, complex, bewildering and truly wonderful riff on love and heroes and reading and enchantment and poetry. But, oh… there’s Howl’s Moving Castle with the vain but charming wizard Howl, and Sophie, who doesn’t know how powerful she is until she’s turned into an old woman, and the fire demon Calcifer who wants to be free but is loyal to them both. And there’s the debonaire and mysterious Chrestomanci. And Archer’s Goon. And The Homeward Bounders, whose final line “But you wouldn’t believe how lonely you get” never fails to bring tears to my eyes.

They are there now.

Thank you, Diana, from the bottom of my heart, for years and years of reading past and to come. Those bright characters and complex worlds will never die; they will be there always, ready to spring to life in the pages of your books.

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“Likes” is so Inadequate

Facebook is so strange.

I’m on it because, well, basically I’ve tried everything, and FB does seem to be quite a nice way of keeping up to date with “RL” friends and relatives, or to see another side of some acquaintances from other social networks like Flickr or LJ.

But it is very strange.

For example, I’m always rather disconcerted when someone “likes” it when someone else posts about something bad. You know: I post that one of my dogs died, and so-and-so “likes this.” I mean, I know they don’t like it, they are not pleased about my misfortune; what they really mean is “expressing sympathy” or “I feel for you.” So why can’t we have a range of responses? A drop-down menu with other possibilities like “empathizes” or “sympathizes” or “is sorry” or “is angry”? There isn’t even a “dislike” button, for heaven’s sake.

And don’t get me started on Farmville…

Someone at PETA has a sense of humour

Twenty Years

I can’t believe it’s been that long.

Thanks, Camosun. It’s been a good time.

I might have celebrated this evening, but I was teaching! Which is somehow appropriate 🙂

Celebrating my Students’ Blogs

My first year Creative non-fiction students are asked to write blogs. Part of the purpose of using blogs rather than a more conventional “journal” or just individual homework assignments is that the blog is public. They can read and comment on one another’s work. They can see the best, and I find that they work hard to outdo one another and themselves. Their work is, in a word, awesome. I am so proud.

With their permission, I’d like to open a window on my class blogs. They blog anonymously, linked to a list in our password-protected class site – we all know who the authors are, but you won’t.

The first assignment was to write about the nature of “truth” (what is “creative” about creative non-fiction?) Here is one response

Then we started working on description, and their task was to write about a place they knew well and visited frequently. Lots of varying responses to that one; I loved this one about Island View Beach and this one that turned into a ghost story.

Another week we did interviews, then I suggested that they might like to try writing about themselves in the third person. They had a lot of fun with that

Then, they were asked to write about someone they’re close to, if possible with a photograph.

Maybe the most difficult task so far was the “braided essay” – focussing on structure and weaving together several different types of writing. These were based on a class where everyone brought “treasures” and there were many possibilities for how the students tied them together. Here’s one I loved
And another one.

I hate to limit this post to only a few entries – there were so many others I could have chosen, and there is so much talent in my class. But this will give you a taste of the exciting work that my students are doing.

If in doubt, go for a cat video

It’s midterm, and midweek, and I’m out of inspiration. But this is funny:

Sometimes cats really do seem to come from another planet.

Thoughts on the Shadow Scholar

The Chronicle of Higher Education recently published this article, written under a pseudonym, by someone who makes a (rather good) living writing papers for students who cheat.

He accuses us (we teachers) of being ignorant of how much of this goes on. In fact, I was perfectly well aware that such services exist; you only have to Google any vaguely academic topic and after Wikipedia usually a high percentage of the top ten entries are links directly to a term-paper factory.

What is more disturbing is the somewhat accusatory tone:

I live well on the desperation, misery, and incompetence that your educational system has created.

This is like the criminal blaming the system, and, as in many criminal cases, there is probably some truth to it. We create pressures and perhaps do not adequately provide means for students to meet and handle those pressures.

I liked the example he gave of the “rich kids,” who are learning to do what they will spend their lives doing: pay someone else to provide a service for them.

This comment is perhaps a greater cause for concern:

Last summer The New York Times reported that 61 percent of undergraduates have admitted to some form of cheating on assignments and exams. Yet there is little discussion about custom papers and how they differ from more-detectable forms of plagiarism, or about why students cheat in the first place.

Custom papers do not make it impossible to detect cheating: of course we know that the student who can barely string two words together in an email did not write that smooth, coherent, intelligently argued paper. But how to prove it? Sometimes, if confronted, a student will break down and admit it. But often they do not. What are we to do?

Students hate in-class work, but often that is the only way to control whether or not the work is original.

I believe that we need to change our assignments, and to change the way we measure student success, but it feels like an endless problem. And cheating is not limited to colleges and universities: look at the Olympic athletes, already in the top of their field, already performing at a higher level than most mere mortals, who feel that they “have” to take performance-enhancing drugs in order to “compete.”

Indeed, I believe it is “competition,” and perhaps, at risk of sounding like a rampaging socialist, our market-driven society, that is pushing people to cheat. Colleges and universities are only the places that institutionalize the system. If the academic institutions were once again the places where people came to explore ideas, to learn, to express creativity, instead of credential factories, perhaps there would be fewer students willing to get those credentials by any means necessary.