Being a Friend in the Fray

Christmas is coming and despite the recent figures around decreased sales, the shops are in the usual throes of December mayhem. We fight our way through throngs of barging bodies, bands blaring carols, and endless charity chuggers wanting a minute of our attention. The hundreds of worthy causes present an agonising quandary as to which will benefit from our generosity. Perhaps we will think about this later; for now, we are all out with things to buy and even more to do. Once home, we flop on the sofa and browse social media, scrolling through a few pages before we find something that reminds us of what Christmas is about . Then we immerse ourselves in the soaps’ Christmas-themed storylines, although they are simply a reflection of society’s malice. The script writers don’t have to look far to find spite, not even at this time of year. After all this, it’s hard to know how to be a good person, let alone channel the spirit of goodwill and merriment. Eye4Detail has compiled a list of simple take-home messages from those who are often overlooked in the fray.

 

Consider the Impact of a noisy, flashy Christmas

 

The first of these is from Nottingham resident, Azza Booth. She suffers from epilepsy and has experienced four times as many seizures since her neighbourhood was decorated for Christmas. One of these occurred on a bus when driving past a house decorated with flashing lights. Her seizures have caused her serious injury in the past, and she is now afraid of going out at this time of year.

 

Whilst not creating the same strobe lighting effect, fireworks can cause distress to many residents. Sleeping children and petrified pets are examples of populations who aren’t keen on the late-night bangs. If you require further convincing, consider those who have fought for our country; they deserve a quiet Christmas, one that is free of the reminders of gunfire. There are many petitions calling for the ban of private firework displays. I would argue that lights in the house can twinkle freely and letting off the fireworks earlier in the day is far less problematic. The answer is to engage with those around you who might be affected by the extreme sights and sounds of your Christmas.

 

“Donate safe items to your local unit.”

 

 

The title Inside a Children’s Psychiatric Unit at Christmas doesn’t seem like it’s going to be an easy read. This blog post relates an experience that few know about with an honesty that keeps to the facts. It is well written with a sprigg of humour and ends with a simple message for readers to take away:

“Spare a thought this Christmas for those in CAMHS units and their families. If you can, donate safe items to your local unit. Chocolate and cake always go down a treat- and teddies, games or a good DVD! Just knowing that someone donated something out of kindness could make a patient’s day.”

 

Being a Friend

 

Last week I attended a course on being a friend. It was run by Dementia Friends, and aims to teach others to adopt a compassionate, understanding attitude towards people living with the condition. Most cases of Dementia are not formally diagnosed due to the stigma that still surrounds invisible illnesses, particularly those of the mind. People experience a gradual loss of memory, perception and inhibition. The course leader explained how someone might see a dark floor as a hole that could swallow them up, or patterns on furnishings as being live snakes. It can be difficult to understand a person’s reactions to seemingly normal things, such as their reluctance to enter certain places. People often regress to a former period of their life and are baffled by the complexities of such modernities as the electric kettle. The course leader told us about the case of an Indian patient, who came to the UK and learnt English in their thirties. Because they had regressed to their twenties, they could no longer speak English.

 

When memory fades, emotions remain. It’s common for relatives to become angry and upset that their loved one no longer recognises them. Although the Dementia sufferer may lose their memory of the incident a few minutes later, they remain troubled. It’s difficult for someone to explain their emotions if they can’t identify the source, which only adds to their distress. On the other hand, a relative who takes them out for a nice lunch will leave their loved one happy and content. They might not remember why they feel good, yet this does not trouble them. Because of this, professionals who care for people with Dementia have the person’s emotional well-being at the centre of their work. Initially, the idea that someone with Dementia should remain independent for as long as possible seems strange when it involves unearthing antiquated kettles and the like. Giving some Dementia sufferers dolls or stuffed toy animals is something that makes perfect sense when we consider how high their anxiety levels would be if they relived their time of parenthood and weren’t able to find their baby. And is it necessary to remind a person that their wife is dead when their grief will resurface long after they have forgotten the fact?

 

The course taught me a great deal about the importance of being compassionate to others. I have always thought that Christmas is about making memories so that we can look back and smile. Perhaps the most important part of the season is to create a warm, compassionate atmosphere of affection for those we love. When our Christmas memories fade, their emotion will remain.

 

Here’s wishing you a considerate, compassionate, generous and enjoyable Christmas.

Lost in Translation?

It’s a Sunday afternoon and I’m dozing in front of the fire, half-listening to the background murmur of the telly. It is playing my dad’s viewing of choice: a documentary on Colombia.

The programme cuts to the presenter interviewing Buenaventuran citizens, and I tune in properly.

 

I rarely watch tv and when I do, it’s because I’ve been drawn in by the title of a documentary. Factual, informative, and with a structure that’s easy to follow, this is the type of programme I get the most out of. However, I have always felt snubbed on behalf of their contributors who speak a foreign language. Both TV and radio broadcasts give the listener little time to digest the richness of the speaker’s language before a voiceover cuts in with an English translation. The identity of the speaker is superseded by the English reader, and the authenticity of their language and culture is lost. Imagine my delight, then, when the residents of Buenaventura began to tell their story, and there was no sound of an English translation.

 

Disregard the screen and the interview becomes a one-sided conversation. Reeve’s questions are poignant in their simplicity, and their answers remain a mystery.

I spent the next half hour listening to the programme in this way, and it opened my eyes to a lot of things. I have always thought Spanish was a beautiful language, yet I had never appreciated how skillful it is in conveying deep emotion. I listened to Colombian people shouting and weeping, gaining a greater sense of their loss from their spoken words than I could have found in the English translation. I began to notice patterns in their speech: repeated phrases, and silences too. Their pauses provided a moving contrast to the constant stream of indistinguishable words by

saying the things that couldn’t be said.

 

Turn again to the screen and it is a stream of captions. The dialogue has been subtitled, and our appreciation of the language is sacrificed to this intrusion.

It was only recently that voiceovers were replaced with subtitles in video footage. People with a visual disability rightly complained about this injustice; why should they be excluded from understanding what the speaker is saying?

 

I want to take this idea a step further and suggest that we should all feel that same sense of exclusion. Voiceovers and subtitles should be consigned to the history of broadcasting; the future is in the voice of the speaker and their language. How else can we fully appreciate the way a person lives than through their culture? Language is integral to a society; therefore, it is essential for us to grasp how someone forms sentences and expresses their emotions. Most of all, an authentic, uninterrupted view of the speaker instils us with the desire to learn about them.

 

I learnt at a young age that you have to immerse yourself in a language in order to fully appreciate a country. I was eighteen when I spent a year in Germany, teaching English as a foreign language. I had good grades in German, but it wasn’t until I had found my way around the city, opened a bank account, dealt with internet and energy providers, and bought the essentials – only then could I begin to understand what it was like to live there. My German became shaped by others’ responses and the natural spoken word of the culture I was inhabiting. A year of socialising gave me insight into how direct German speakers can be, and how refreshingly genuine they are.

 

I wonder if we have ever fully understood the privilege of being fluent in a language that is one of the most widely spoken in the world. Teaching English certainly makes you realise what a difficult lexicon it is to get your tongue around. Countries meet our continual exploitation of their sunnier climes and interesting sights with tolerance and often friendliness. In return, we are reluctant to learn or even engage with their language. Living in another country means that your attempts to imitate the fluency and grace of native speakers are applauded yet rarely corrected. Your mispronunciation of a familiar word will invariably be ridiculed, and there will be a point when you force back the tears because you’re lost in a strange place with no idea of how to ask for help. When your English friends come to visit, you translate for them – back and forth, back and forth – until your brain hurts. Only after this can we claim to truly understand the privilege of being fluent in a language that is universally understood. Meanwhile, the native folk of our favourite holiday destinations continue to repeat slowly and patiently for us – a poor repayment for the years of study they have put into learning English.

 

Without verbal and written translations, we can learn a lot. Watch people speak and you will glean so much from their body language alone. Listening to them will enable you to experience their feelings through their tone, pace, and pitch of their speech. It was the American writer Tom Peters who said that “if you’re not confused, you’re not paying attention.” Instead of half-listening to an English speaker voice the tragedies of someone far away or absently scanning the bland subtitled fragments of their story, our inquiring minds become sharpened to the unfamiliar sound of a foreign language. Depriving us all of our English language safety blanket enables us to become curious. This curiosity is the beginnings of the motivation to immerse ourselves in their world. It’s time for the voices of foreign language speakers to remain untranslated. Only then can we hear them for what they are: diverse, authentic shards of humanity.

Ruling the World one Disembodied Voice at a Time

The Future of Voice and the Implications for News is a report which was published by the Reuters Institute in November 2018. Any title that contains the words ‘future’ and ‘voice’ is enough to enthuse any journalist, and Nic Newman’s summary is well worth the read. As I logged into Wednesday’s webinar on this very topic, I reflected that, once again, I was at the disposal of a disembodied voice. Refreshingly, Newman’s engaging presentation style is far more palatable than the programmed voice of the home.

 

Before 2015, the idea of our houses being ruled by faceless voices seemed more Star Trek than reality. Yet, since Amazon’s release of the first hands-free speaker in 2014, the use of virtual assistants has doubled each year. No sooner had Alexa been welcomed into the bosom of the family with the parrot having got the hang of how to use it,  than other tech giants got in on the act. the Google Home, Cortana from Microsoft, Samsung’s Digsby and the Apple Homepod joined the list of smart speakers that are changing our society one task at a time.

 

I bought the Amazon Echo at the beginning of 2017 and, after the faff of setting it up using the Amazon Assistant app on my phone, spent a fruitless month looking through the list of skills before realising that I would never view them all because Alexa is constantly being evolved to do new things. It’s disappointing, then, that she still knows so little, and that she often has to be asked to open a skill before doing anything of use. She spent eighteen months in our living room playing the radio, a hypnosis podcast that I was too scared to finish, sound effects, and, like 84% of users, I have asked it to play my music. Then she was moved to the kitchen when I bought the Google Home, and now sets timers and reminders, plays games with me when I cook, fails to find the recipe of anything I’d want to eat, gives me garbled cooking instructions, and plays a lot of radio. During meal conversation, one of us will ask her a question to which she invariably doesn’t know the answer. I will then walk a few steps to the doorway and shout to my Google Home in the sitting room. Google provides the answer we want. In fact, the only thing I can say Alexa does that Google can’t involves an amusing skill called Ditty, which sings what you say to it. Perhaps it’s no surprise – this is Google we’re talking about, after all – although Alexa is the most popular of the smart speakers in UK homes. Newman’s findings predict that this hands-free technology will soon extend to cars and other places outside the house. I think a battery-operated smart speaker would be amazing, as the freedom to control the playback of music and podcasts with soapy hands cannot be underestimated.

 

Nic Newman began the webinar by demonstrating three of the smart speakers. He asked them to find different pieces of information, when I thought it would have been more effective if he had given the same command to each. Still, Reuters aren’t trying to play one off against another, and Newman was quick to point out their overarching benefits. The first of these is the view that smart speakers have enabled an older demographic to engage with the tech, even if they dofind it difficult to get their heads around! Google’s function of enabling the user to tell them where they have left important things, and Alexa’s skills for people living with dementia are examples of how the older generation have been thought about. During his research, Newman has encountered people who have never been able to use a smartphone, yet quickly get the hang of how a virtual assistant works. No mention was made of the assistants’ reliance on their associated app; not only is this required to connect the device to internet, but the speaker will regularly send information to it, which the user is expected to read. Newman unintentionally created a paradox by mentioning their appreciation for a device which does not require gazing at screens, yet companies are now experimenting by releasing smart speakers with a visual interface. Perhaps even the big Apple and know-it-all Google struggle to get their heads around what we want.

 

The report’s findings suggest that the smart speaker appeals to so many users because they dislike the labyrinthine nature of the great drain on time known as the worldwide web. However, the report seems to overlook the fact that disembodied voices can take you down rabitholes too. I’m referring to the confusing process of trying to get the speaker to understand what you want. This often involves asking for things in a particular way. I could say to Google “Postcode of Cadbury World”, yet I would have to ask “what is the postcode for Cadbury World?” for Alexa to give me the information. Subtle difference, but not so subtle when you’re dashing around getting ready for work, and you need to scribble something down before you leave.

 

Having these devices around the house creates all sorts of mix-ups. I once asked for the definition of a word, and the device told me about a band with the word as its title. Newman talked about the importance of the smart speakers being able to have a conversation with you. For me, Google comes out top again, as Alexa can’t remember the last question she answered, and Siri only has limited capacity for this. If I ask Google for a synonym (something I’m doing every five minutes of my writing this) and I then ask it to spell the alternative word it has given, I can’t get it to tell me. Following up my original question with “hey Google, spell it” results in the response “it is spelt I t.” In frustration, I once said, “ok Google, spell the word you just said to me” and it replied, “the word you just said to me is spelt t h e w o r d…” etc. It’s like talking to an obnoxious child. I have to get the synonym I want, and then ask Google for the spelling by including the word in my request. There was one strange occasion where Google remembered its previous answer for hours so that whenever I asked it something, it informed me that “Aston Villa lost in the match against Arsenal.” I’ve asked my devices to ‘ban my boyfriend from talking about football’ – no response there! The point is that this stuff is confusing, frustrating, and laborious. Companies are aware of this, so watch this space.

 

It hasn’t taken long for the concerns around an ever-listening disembodied presence to emerge. Privacy is a big worry, particularly in light of Alexa launching her creepy laugh on unsuspecting ears. I asked her to demonstrate it and she said “sorry, I don’t know about that.” These voices will join in your conversations at odd times – the strangest being when I was talking about taking the dog for a walk and she played the sound of a dog barking. She regularly mistakes “I’ll ask her”, or “I’ll take her” for her name; perhaps it’s my Northern accent! Google was once playing a podcast which was co-presented by Dougal. When his colleague said, “hey Dougal”, it set Google off! I cannot understand why people are panicking about what their smart speakers hear and report back when they’ve been carrying phones around with them for years that have the same capability. Your phone has a microphone and your location tracked, which is what a smart speaker would use. I once talked to my friend who works at GCHQ about this. They said that the security services don’t have time to listen to all the recordings created by these devices – there would be no server big enough, for a start – so they pick up on certain words, like a wake word that alerts them of potential danger. If my devices are listening to me every day, they would tell you that I’m obsessed with chocolate, cake, and guinea pigs. The message here is that there’s nothing to worry about if you have nothing to hide.

 

It won’t have escaped your notice that I have referred to my Google Home as ‘it’ and Alexa as ‘she’. This didn’t escape Newman either. The findings in his report suggest that the gendering that is singularly applied to Alexa is due to her having more personality as an assistant than her competitors, therefore increasing her integration of function in the family home. Toddlers can talk to her, although shedoesn’t understand what they’re saying.

Part of this speculation arose from his data on the number of users who insert words like ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ into their requests. That indicates less to me about Alexa’s personality, and more about users’ initial reaction when talking to something that doesn’t exist in a human sense. Consider the names of these devices, and you will find that Alexa is the only one with a human name – until we welcome the next generation of Googles, Pods, Cortanas and Digsbys, anyway. It seems Amazon properly thought about this one and allowing the user to change the wake word was a nice touch too. With a choice between Alexa, Amazon or Echo, we can see how they went for three unique female names!

 

The webinar’s focus was to examine how these devices will affect the news industry and my head was full of questions by the time Newman devoted the last portion of his presentation to discussing this. A mere 1% of slaves to disembodied voices use them to listen to the news, although I wonder whether this statistic includes the larger portion of people who stream the news through playing live radio. Each device enables the listener to hear a three minute ‘flash briefing’, which they can customise in the app. I once added The Economist news to mine, only to discover that the briefing had become an hour long because it stuck their podcast on the end of the news. Newman found that people want more information and control to customise the device’s reported news to suit the reader’s tastes, preferably in a minute-long bulletin. 60 seconds of news summary – that’s a challenge for the industry.

 

These views have become so extreme that Newman’s report describes smart speakers as an ‘existential threat’ to broadcasters. I would be surprised if there were a time in the next decade when we would actively choose to hear information from a synthesised voice over a human who happens to know a bit about talking proper. For a start, a person doesn’t require you to repeat the same question 12 times because the internet is poor that day. If smart speakers continue to grow in popularity, I predict that society will either talk in the way the devices require them to, or they will die out because learning the art of conversation takes a lot of time and money.

 

I now have an Alexa and two Googles in my house, plus Siri on my phone. As a result, my Maths skills have declined and I have been known to say “Alexa, what’s 9.5…” outside of the house. There’s no denying that voice-activated machines have taken off as inventer and futurist Ray Kurzweil once predicted. He also suggested that the rate of technological development is so powerful that it grows exponentially each year. If I could put one question to Reuters, I would be interested to know if they think this will be the case for our disembodied voices.

The Accessible Voice: Dave Williams’ Aspirational Advice for Journalists

Perhaps it’s his Northern Twang or the way he speaks as if he’s really thought about what he’s going to say – in any case, journalist Dave Williams has one of those voices that radiates warmth. I first met Dave last year, when he came to interview me for his recent venture, Braillecast . It didn’t feel at all like being questioned by a journalist; we chatted away for a couple of hours, sipped our tea, and Dave made a great podcast out of it. That’s the mark of a true professional.

 

During our conversation, I felt that I had found out as much about Dave as he had about me. He has a family, works as an accessibility consultant, and enjoys cricket and cycling in his spare time.

“I’ve recently got into running,” he told me. “I found a guide runner, who happens to live next door. I think it’s important to do it every week so I don’t feel like I’m dying!”

With his busy work schedule, taking his son to various after-school activities and his frequent trips all over the country, it’s not surprising that he doesn’t have time for all the things he’d like to do.

“I want to go to Toastmasters. It sounds fun, but Monday evenings are when I run.”

Dave is a natural public speaker. He has presented on Calon FM, BBC Radio 4’s In Touch, and has recently reported on the centenary of World War I. It didn’t take us long to discover that we have a lot in common. We are passionate about the use of braille in the education of blind children, enjoy exploring the latest technology, and share a love of journalism.

In our turbulent world, with news coverage radically changed by the internet, I ask him what his tips are for getting content out there. He agrees that the journalism industry is a challenging one to get into.

“For that reason, you can’t do it as a job,” he says. “It’s unlikely that you’ll get regular work. You have to enjoy it and be passionate about what you’re doing. It’s a labour of love.”

Dave describes how any requests that come to him are opportunities he can’t refuse. The demands of being in a certain place at a certain time are easily outweighed by the people he meets.

“I spoke to this veteran who had no arms, no legs, and he was blind. He’d been blown up at the age of nineteen, and he was just… It was good to hear his story.”

Dave also recommends connecting with radio producers on social media.

“It says at the end of the broadcast who produced it. They’re always looking for content, and you want to attract their attention.”

His most salient tip was to continuously generate new content. In the ever-changing climate of news coverage, we never know what producers might decide to use. Dave told me about how he recorded himself going to vote several years ago. The polling station didn’t have the tactile template that is required for people with a visual impairment to vote. He shared the footage on his social media and soon, a BBC producer got in touch.

“We had to check that we could use the material,” Dave says. “You’re not allowed to film at a polling station but because this was audio, it was fine.”

Dave’s recording had brought an important issue to public awareness. The atmosphere of a polling station can be so powerfully conveyed through sound that the visual aspect isn’t necessary. I want to ask Dave if he believes that there are other benefits of audio reportage over film, but he has a train to catch. If our conversation hadn’t been cut short, we would probably still be sitting with our cold cups of tea, discussing the ethics of audio recordings, and how these compare to the tricky business of creating video footage. It occurs to me that there must be many situations when a recording is preferential and more poignant. I’m sure Dave has many examples; I must remember to ask him next time.

Another aspect of Dave’s friendly nature is that he makes everything sound easy. As a blind journalist who advocates for accessibility, he must come up against barriers on a daily basis that would give him plenty of license to moan. If our conversation turned to negative matters, Dave only touched on this lightly before posing another thought-provoking question. His main worry was about what to get his son for Christmas! I promised to have a think and received a hearty handshake in return.

Celebrating Zoë for being Zoë

Once journalists had got over the fun of sandwiching Zoë Ball’s name into amusing headlines, they homed in on a well-worn angle. There were few stories about how warm, engaging and otherwise talented media presenter Zoë Ball had been appointed as the next presenter of BBC Radio 2’s weekday breakfast slot; instead the headlines were full of exclamations that she is to be the first female presenter of the show. You can hear the big reveal here, with an emotional Zoë raring to get started. If it niggles that the current Breakfast Show host, Chris Evans, preceded the interview with Cyndi Lauper’s Girls Just Want to Have Fun, our sense of injustice increases with the discovery that she is to be paid less than Evans . Yet, this too makes for smug news, with Ball reported as being the BBC’s highest paid woman. Although Jane Martinson calls their inequality of pay an ‘outrage’, she acknowledges that we’re talking about vast amounts of money. It’s the enviable difference between £1.2m  and £1.6m, or does this difference run deeper?

 

I have friends who are vocal about being feminists. I’ve seen some who trample men to advocate their womanly rights and most, like myself, believe that feminism is a matter of gender equality. They found it hard to understand why I stayed away from the university’s society, bewildered by my remark that I had as much intention of going to a meeting of feminists as I did to the nonexistent Alliance of People with Brown Hair. In a culture of true gender equality, there would be no need for a Feminist Society – or for the Trampled Men’s Brigade, come to that.

 

Although we have undoubtedly become a much more accepting society in the last century, we have a lot of work to do before we can call ourselves a fully equal and diverse nation. Interestingly, this is the second time that Zoë’s status as a woman is being used to make history; in 1997, she was the first female presenter of Radio 1’s breakfast show. Notice from her interviews how she is thrilled at the privilege of taking over from Chris Evans. Her acknowledgement of being the first female presenter of the show pales in comparison to her fountain of enthusiasm for the role. You’d think that journalists would have a more interesting angle to take than recycling the one they employed twenty years previously.

 

This way of thinking stems from my experiences of how society views me as a disabled person. Whether the public are questioning me, grabbing me or looking determinedly in the opposite direction, I am treated as blind, therefore different, and what your classical philosophers call ‘the other.’ We are quick to pick out the ‘other’ in people: an unusual hair colour, a rare name, an accent that isn’t regional. For me, being an ‘other’ means that I view things differently, use alternative means of achieving my goals, and I have a good laugh along the way. I can often be found chuckling to myself for reasons that aren’t always apparent. Finding a brailled card in the shops is so rare that you can imagine my amusement when I discovered that it read: ‘with festive fishes for the season.’ Or when I fight to keep a straight face as I ask my friend to accompany me on an urgent toothbrush buying mission because I got the toothpaste mixed up with the hair remover and have a bald brush to show for it! I wouldn’t have blamed you for giving me a few strange looks on that night out with my visually impaired friends. You would have watched us, after a few drinks, get up and meander across the bar, clearly in search of the loos. We crossed the room together, opened the door, piled in, and then realised that we had ceremoniously shut ourselves in the broom cupboard! How we laughed amongst the mop buckets!

 

The point is that it’s ok to be ‘the other’ if it means being a unique package of your faults, differences, and the quirks that make you memorable. Zoë has those too. Her fully functional toothbrush is only evidence that her mistakes come in other forms. I find it sad that in the era of great advancement, we are unable to see difference as one of the few things we have in common. Zoë isn’t Radio 2’s first female breakfast show presenter; she’s the person whose music taste sometimes matches mine, and whose manner of speaking makes us all feel included. I wish her every success in her new role and if one of her nights out ends in a broom cupboard, I’ll be laughing with her.

Why NaNoWriMo Makes Monkeys of Writers

Monkey TypingFor writers, November is about closing the blinds to block out the fireworks, plugging our ears, and chaining ourselves to the desk. We used to think of it as National Novel Writing Month, which sounded prestigious even if the most sophisticated thing about that month was reading another letter of rejection over a breakfast of takeaway left-overs. Yet, November is now known to writers by the Hashtag NaNoWriMo. You could be forgiven for thinking that it sounds tacky – shouldn’t writers be more inventive with their words, after all? Type it into Google (patting yourself on the back that you’re

one of them good writers that do their research proper), and you will see thatNaNoWriMo is no longer a term, so much as a phenomenon.

 

Next year will see the twentieth anniversary of NanoWriMo, better known to writers as a challenge to write a novel of 50.000 words or more in November. If that seems daunting, it can be made to sound manageable by breaking it down into 1667 words per day. A simple concept, which has somehow spawned avirtual writing retreat, ,merchandise to buy as proof of your accomplishment, and even opportunities tofundraise for, anddonate to this nonproffit organisation.

 

The best thing that can be said about NaNoWriMo is that it helps aspiring authors to practice writing every day, although I would argue for doing away with regularity in favour of passion and creativity. In my seven years of studying creative writing, I found that no two writers take the same approach to getting their words down. My friend forces himself to write at a certain time every day, yet often has little to show for it because he tears out pages and deletes documents faster than he can finish them. I wonder if he’s a fan of Roald Dahl. It leads me to question whether being able to write daily is really something to celebrate, especially when you consider what all those monkeys do in front of typewriters. I am proof that it takes less than a week to sit and write out 50.000 words of nonsense. Surely the focus should be about the quality of the language and how the writing is structured.

 

We arrive at the age-old debate of how we judge the quality of something as subjective as creative work. There is no definition of good writing; some, like myself, value well-written literary fiction, whereas others prefer writing as escapism and all the goblins and Martian dragons that come with it. Chiclit is not to everyone’s taste, yet it still makes up the majority of commercial fiction. Creative writing studies encourage the production of work that is of publishable quality. The university tends to deride self-publication, probably because it is the antithesis of the peer-review. I wonder how many NaNoWriMo projects become commercially published novels.

 

Laura Milleralso questions the productivity of a 50.000 word November in view of literary agents’ reactions to it. The word NaNoWriMo is a big turn off when mentioned in an author’s cover letter, which should be a turn off for any writer who wants to take the business seriously. Besides, any author who does take it seriously isn’t going to limit their word splurging to a specific month; a writer’s work is never done, and work we do, all year round. It makes you wonder who the big writing challenge is aimed at. Does NaNoWriMo promote a true writing experience, or is it an exploitation of the impassioned hordes who have a novel they’ve always wanted to write?

 

I was sceptical of Miller’s observation that a lot of writers don’t read. The writer and reader are two co-dependent entities in my mind; it is impossible for one to exist without the other. Yet I had to reconsider this assumption when she gave examples of how the ‘selfless art of reading’ is being overshadowed by the ‘narcissistic commerce of writing.’ Writers project themselves out there to be heard; the reader digests what they have to say. Add to this the difficulty ofcoming up with something original,the importance of structure, the dilemma of which viewpoint to take,and it seems a wonder that any author makes it at all. At a rowdy party where the authors are all talking at once, the readers look on quietly with increasing confusion about who to listen to and what is being said. My metaphor illustrates Miller’s point that in our ever-increasing abundance of published novels and their authors, who will be left to read them?

 

In any case, who would want to read the by-products of an authorial challenge which views wordpadding as some sort of achievement? Writing is a qualitative phenomenon by nature and the number of words on the page is irrelevant. If spouting 50.000 words was all it took to become a successful author, I’d be a millionaire. This is only the beginning of the process, with months of grafting, ruthless cutting, persisting, editing, fistbanging, and revising ahead. Part of the reason that so few books are published is that it takes a great deal of self-discipline, resilience, and persistance on the author’s part.

 

I’m therefore advocating for a National Month of Novel Writing that focuses on the editorial aspects of the process. It would be sensible for editing month to come after wordsplurge November, but we’ll let people get Christmas out of the way first. In the bleakness of January, when we draw up the same list of resolutions we’ve striven to keep year after year, this seems like the perfect time for a month of editing and all the self-loathing that comes with it. Your 50.000 words will probably be more like 2000 by the time you’ve finished, but it will be the strongest short fiction you’ve ever penned. So, who’s joining me for National Editors’ Month? Let’s make NEdMo a thing.

The Student Experience: A Whirlpool of Disconnection?

Over the past few years, students have rarely left the headlines. Alongside the comparisons and rankings of various universities, journalists have been keen to thrust the voices of students, academics and other members of staff into the public eye. The ripples may settle temporarily but the whirlpool remains, and the concerns of today’s students are coming through loud and clear.

The increasingly pressurised nature of the university experience has been attributed to the steep rise in tuition fees and job markets that are only becoming more competitive. The Guardian’s Annual Survey of Student Experience found that 87% of Freshers struggle to cope with these social and academic pressures. It is not surprising, therefore, that universities have experienced an increased demand for mental health support that often results in students waiting months for an appointment to discuss their well-being – even less surprising if we are to believe what the statistics say about young people drinking more responsibly. I would like to use my student experience to examine what is really at the heart of the struggle for a degree.

 

 

Last week, I was given the result of my Masters. MA Distinction: quoted on my certificate as ‘the highest award available.’ After a long, hard slog, I had done it and now I couldn’t wait to don my cap and gown. Still in a state of disbelief, I emailed my lecturer to ask about graduation as I hadn’t heard anything. She replied to say that booking was open, with instructions to find the required page hidden in the help section of the university’s website. Upon finding the right page, I was informed that booking was now closed, and my ceremony fully booked. My happiness vanished. Was that it? A door closed just like that? I emailed the student records team to explain that I hadn’t received any information about my graduation and had wanted to attend with my family. Did they have any tickets left? After a few days, I received this automated email:

 

Thank you for contacting the Student Records team

Your email has been assigned the following Ref Number: 105052

Staff will endeavour to respond to your enquiry as soon as possible.

If you require an update on this job, please visit the portal.

 

I eventually rang Student Records. They told me that the reason I hadn’t heard about graduation was because postgraduates are lazy about checking their student web pages, but that they could find some tickets for me. Although this story ends happily, this initial bureaucratic response to a personal problem was far from reassuring.

 

This is just one of the idiosyncracies students experience as a result of a bureaucratic system. Last year, my peers and I were asked to register our module choices well before the start of term. However, because there was a problem with the system that prevented us from enrolling on the course, the lecturers had each class down with far fewer attendees than was the case, and we were consequently crammed into small rooms. It took several weeks for us to be moved to rooms that could accommodate our classes because our need for somewhere bigger involved negotiating a whole new time table.

 

Like most institutions, my university requires students to book all appointments through the online portal. This means that although sounding like something out of DR Who, the portal becomes an essential gateway to accessing careers advice, campus events, and, you guessed it: mental health services. Once the booking has been made, the student receives an automated email of similar clinical coldness denoted above.

 

And that’s before we hit my experiences as a disabled student. As I’ve been blind since birth, I knew that I would have to make certain preparations before starting the university. I had deferred my entry for a year so that I could go galivanting abroad. I reasoned that an advantage of this was that the institution would have lots of time to put the necessary adjustments in place for when I arrived, and, before heading for my plane, I sent an email to the disability team to ask them to make my lecturers aware of my needs. Alas, when I walked into my first lectures, I was greeted with a mixture of bewilderment, indifference and panic. My lecturers didn’t know that I was coming, and my studies would pay the price. It took me a year longer to complete my degree because my lecturers weren’t prepared and were unsure of how to support me. I had to watch the friends I’d made graduate the year before me and leave me behind. In that first year, I had gone back to the disability team to ask why the lecturers hadn’t been made aware, despite my request. Their reply was that I hadn’t signed the appropriate form which enabled them to share details of my disability with other parts of the university.

 

A recent news story featured James Murray, the father of a first year student who killed himself at Bristol University, and how he has campaigned for better data sharing in universities.

Guardian journalist Jon Wakeford also advocates for a more joined up approach between the academic, social, and residential faculties to improve the transition to higher education. I recently discussed this with my lecturer, who felt that the disconnect ran deeper than between departments.

“There is a big difference between the marketed experience – the things that the people at the top think the student experience is about – and what it’s actually like to be a student here,” he said.

This brought to mind the occasion when part of our tuition fees was spent on replacing the old, shabbier chairs in the lecture rooms with aesthetically pleasing multicoloured plastic ones. I would miss the old seats every time I left a lecture with an aching back, and once remarked that we should make the Vice-chancellor try sitting on these chairs.

 

I asked my lecturer how he feels teaching has changed over the years.

“People are stuck to their phones,” he said. “They don’t look where they’re going, they don’t look at each other. I had to get used to students having their phones out when I’m talking. It’s like there’s a fear of having that connection.”

It reminded me of when he had taught my class and joked that:

“If I collapsed at the front of the class, you’d take a picture of me and I’d be all over Facebook before I’d regained consciousness!”

 

My lecturer’s views may seem far-fetched, yet I am left wondering whether this disconnection between the corporate and the real is responsible for students’ fear of making the connections they need to succeed and feel supported. In a world where you know longer have to attend an open day to find out what university’s all about – you can participate in an interactive tour, after all – what message are students being given? What happened to being able to talk to someone on the phone, or even face-to-face, when there’s a problem?

 

Having recently received the mark for my dissertation, I asked my lecturer if I would be able to collect the two hard copies I was required to submit. She informed me that I should be able to go and pick them up from the library. I reached the library to discover that I couldn’t just take my work back; I had to ask the assessment team to let me know when I would be able to do so. I have since sent emails to various departments in the hope of reaching the one that will enable me to collect my work. Most of my requests have reported as undelivered.