My students can't write

Uff. Just finished reading and grading a stack of term papers. It is not usual for computer science students to have to write term papers, but I find it important for all students to be able to do research and to be able to express themselves in the written word.

But many of them can't write their way out of a paper bag.

Research for many starts and stops with the Wikipedia. The structure of the paper follows the Wikipedia article, rambling here and there from one irrelevant detail to the next. Those that actually cracked a book or found alternative material on their topic had a hard time setting up a thesis statement and deciding what they wanted to say.

The concept of tell 'em what you are going to say - say it - tell 'em what you said seems to be quite foreign. A number of papers just stopped the minute they hit 5 pages. No summary, they just quit. There were lots of footnotes: one used Roman numerals; one had footnotes in every heading, I suppose as the source for the information to come; one referenced Wikipedia extensively, but not the permalinks. One had no footnotes, but lots and lots of references.

And the concept of proofreading or using a spelling checker seems to be quite foreign to most of them. Even if you are writing in a foreign language such as English, spelling checkers can be quite useful.

And then there were three really wonderful papers, a joy to read. And I learned something from each. Now, how do we get the rest of them to learn how to write?


Putin's Mailbox and Spies

We found a little notice in the local paper that a colleague of WiseMans, Aris Fioretos, would be discussing the books of Marcel Beyer together with the author at the city library in Malmö this evening.  Since it was Bokrea day, the day the books of the 2011 season are remandered in Sweden and the book stores open at 7am and are packed with people buying books like there is no tomorrow, and we had to be right in there with everyone, we drove down to civilization for the day.

The library in Malmö is magnificent, and they had the open space with about a four-story atrium set up with a stage and lots of chairs. The evening was held in three languages: There was an introduction in Swedish, then the discussion in English. Beyer read a bit from one of his books in German, and a Swedish actor read from two books in Swedish.

His books appear to have a lot to do with identity, and with German politics. He himself, born in the West, now resides in Dresden and would not go back to live in the West. When questioned by a listener he explained, as we also have experienced, that for many people in the western part of Germany, living in the former East Germany is tantamount to living in the Congo. People look at you, wild-eyed, when you say you live there. They wonder if you can get lattes there, and food, and whether the heating works. Yes, to all.

Putins Briefkasten (Putin's Mailbox)  is about a search for the house in which Putin lived when he was a Russian secret agent living in Dresden. Spione: Roman (Spies) is about four children finding a photo album with pictures of their grandfather in a Nazi uniform and start to dig into their grandparents history. Discussing this last book, Fioretos pointed out that we tend to find our parents boring, because we know everything about them (we think) - we've lived with them all our lives. But our grandparents - they are exciting, and our parents know nothing much about them, because they are their parents.

I had a nice chat with Beyer afterwards, he's quite an insightful guy, very sensitive to the environment he is observing. I'll have to get the books back in Germany. No sense buying a nice German book in the Swedish translation, even if the Swedish publisher did spring for potato chips, German sausages, and alcohol-free German beer.

(Spies is also available as a used book in English.)


How do I find a ghostwriter?

I was walking from the church to the train station in Lund Sunday evening, when a group of three people turned onto the street and were walking beside me. They were speaking loudly in German, sure that no one could understand them speaking this minor language.

"I am not making progress on my thesis," one woman says. "I really need help. I wonder how I can get a ghostwriter here."

I perked up at that word, and looked over at them. They were deep in conversation.

"I mean, I'll write the thesis, but I need someone to look up some stuff in the library, do the statistical work and stuff like that."

I stopped, took a deep breath, planning on saying something. They turned off down towards the Espresso House, I needed to go straight and would have to wait 45 minutes for the next train if I missed this one.

I did not chase after them.

But if people are speaking about ghostwriting in the streets, how common is it?


The Virgin Suicides

I was sure that I had blogged about the book by Jeffery Eugenides, The Virgin Suicides, after I read it, especially since this small town story reminded me of so many tiny, unpleasant things about growing up in the US. 

The film, directed by Sofia Coppola in 1999, was on TV this evening. Set in the 70s in an affluent neighborhood, a religious family with five girls tries to keep a tight reign on them. The girls have other ideas. 

For me, having attended high school in the early 70s, there are sooooo many things in the film that trigger memories long forgotten. Eighth grade homecoming party. The football jocks (although the quarterbacks were never that thin or cute). The white dress with pastel flowers on it my Mom made for some dance - and I sat at a table all evening, vowing never to subject myself to a school dance again. And I didn't. Didn't go to the prom.

There is no happy end to this story. But the book is a good read and the movie wasn't bad. 

Feels like home

Turning off the highway onto a snowy street into the woods heading for our cabin I was struck by how much this place resembles where I was born. I was just recently back for my father's funeral in that small town a few miles over the hills from the farm.

The cabin is also in the woods, a few hilly miles from a smallish provincial town about half the size of the place I was born. A horse-driven sled would have been more appropriate for the journey than a car that night. Weaving up and down, left and right, in and out of thick woods, the parallels to Western Pennsylvania are evident.

Getting out of the car to the deafening sound of silence, then picking up the wind and an owl - yes, I think that's why I like this place so much. It feels like home.


Old films

The usual suspects assembled this evening for a traditional chili and film evening. The organizing committee had decided that we were to be watching old films this evening - real old films.

They started off with W.C. Fields in The Bank Dick (1940). I don't care for W.C. Fields, but the rest of the crew laughed and laughed while I read the IMDB entry. Fields filmed in a town, Lompoc,  that was founded as a temperance town - and included a lot of drinking in the film, which apparently enraged the locals. I got into trouble for pointing out all of the goofs, nicely listed on the IMDB ;)

The second course was an old favorite, Karl Valentin. His Umständlichkeit is very comical, although the film is quite old. You want to go hide behind the sofa because it is all so painful watching him try and sort things out. They are rather short, so we watched a number of them.

There was an intermediate, modern, course with Music for Six Drummers and an Apartment (just very, very funny, can be found on YouTube). Just plain sweet.

The evening continued with Laurel and Hardy, and I discovered that you can't knit while a silent movie is on. After a few of these sketches and the departure of the tired, the hard core group got out the aquavit and put on a Monty Python DVD. Oh my, these are so old, too! 40 years old!

There's still some chili left over - anyone hungry?