Tag Archives: education

The Time-Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England, by Ian Mortimer

I am a medievalist; this is not a secret. My shame is only that it has taken me so long to read this book and then blog about it. If anything, it’s a book that I wish I could have written – but it would take much more research than I have time and scope for.

It’s such a wide-ranging book: basically, it covers every conceivable aspect of the 14th century, in the guise of a travel book. It discusses hospitality, sights, sounds, costume, social structure, habits….everything (and more) that a modern travel guide would cover.

There’s so much in here that is fascinating to me: meals, physical city structure, social hierarchy and mobility (which changed so greatly from the beginning of the century to the end), travel modes and customs, manners…any detail you might want is probably in this book. I do vaguely remember thinking at points “Oh, there should be more about that” or “Why didn’t he include this” but since I can’t remember now where those points (or what this and that) were, they’re quibbles rather than problems.

Another quibble, which is a little bit ridiculous, is that the book is at times too wide-ranging and also too narrow. The fourteenth century was an amazingly dynamic time, encompassing the Black Death, Peasant’s Revolt, and quite a lot of the Hundred Years War. At times Mortimer (what a great name for a medievalist, by the way) goes into details about how things changed over the decades, but at other times he doesn’t. In some ways, it would have been nicer if he’d started off the book with the disclaimer that he did – because of a lack of surviving information before the 1300s, this book will only focus on the fourteenth century – but then added even further refinement, to a specific decade or even king’s reign. The things that remained relatively constant over the century could have been noted, but the things that were more fluid wouldn’t have been so overdetailed.

My last quibble is just a general shifting in tone. At times he’s very conversational, very much a travel agent/tour guide. You can almost picture him on top of one of the open-topped buses, with a microphone in his hand as his details are translated into fifteen different languages. But at other times, the style gets much more stereotypically historian: less conversational, more dry and serious. Not a big thing, hence the quibble label, and probably inevitable given the subject matter and level of research.

Long story short, though, it’s definitely worth a read if you’re at all interested in medieval life. Even if you’re only interested to the point of “I wonder if that scene in that Robin Hood/King Arthur movie was anywhere close to accurate”, this is the book to tell you – and you’ll definitely learn more than you thought you would along the way.

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Filed under Non-Fiction (History)

The Secret Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot

Like Moon Dust, The Secret Life of Henrietta Lacks is a book where the author/narrator is a character. By the end of the book, you know Rebecca Skloot almost as well as you know Henrietta Lacks or her family. Most of the time this works really well – it is, after all a personal story. The only time I thought that it didn’t work as well was near the beginning, when Rebecca is detailing her erratic, apathetic education. I understand why her initial exposure to HeLa and Henrietta’s identity is important, but the rest of it seemed a bit unnecessary to me. I kept waiting for it to be significant, to be a point of commonality that Rebecca could use, but it never happened.

But that’s a minor quibble for a book that includes so much on so many topics. In addition to being a biography of Henrietta Lacks, it’s also the story of her family, Johns Hopkins, the medical researchers, and the cell line.  It also touches on racism, social inequality, ethics, and education and class.  I’m not going to say a lot about the various biographies that are incorporated into the book: they are, after all, the story. But I do want to touch briefly on the wider issues.

The racism issue is pretty simple: would Henrietta Lacks and her family have been treated differently if they were not black? The answer is, sadly, probably yes. I don’t think the outcome would have been different: Henrietta’s cells would still have been taken, etc., but I think the way they were taken and especially the way her family was treated would have been different. I wish I could be wrong about this; there is of course no way to know.

Tied in with that is the question of social class (which in the US is often tied to race as well as economics and education). I feel fairly certain that the Lacks family would not have been dismissed the way they were if they had been, or appeared, richer and/or more educated.

Which brings me to the next thing I noticed: the assumptions that come with education. It’s something that I am often very guilty of.  When you’re surrounded by something when you’ve spent years learning about something, you forget that not everyone has.  You assume that the basic ideas and vocabulary of your subject are common knowledge, and you forget that there was a time when you had to learn them too.

This is what happened with Henrietta Lacks’s family.  Most of the researchers who contacted the Lacks family (for DNA samples, for example) or whom the family contacted for information assumed a base level of understanding that the family didn’t have.  If that basic understanding of a field isn’t there, the rest is gibberish and there’s nowhere even to start asking questions.  It wasn’t until someone took the time to make sure that the family understood the basics that they could move on and process what had happened.

The last thing – and the most controversial thing – that’s brought up by this story is the ethics of tissue collection. What sort of rights does or should a person have over cells that are no longer a part of their body? What sort of information should someone be entitled to if, like Henrietta, their cells prove to be useful or unusual? What responsibility do researchers have to follow up with patients or their families? There are no good or easy answers that can balance the rights of researchers with the rights of patients.

The Secret Life of Henrietta Lacks is an incredibly well-researched book. There are points where, to me Rebecca’s story seemed a bit intrusive, but overall the stories it tells and the issues it raises help it live up to every glowing review.



Filed under Non-Fiction (History), Non-Fiction (Science)

Great Expectations

I’m teaching Great Expectations with one of my classes right now. I recognize the irony of having to teach Great Expectations very soon after saying I was giving up on Dickens. Luckily it’s one of the ones that I’ve read before, so I’m not totally starting from scratch.

I’d forgotten how ironic Dickens can be in his writing. There were times when I actually laughed out loud at how blind Pip was being. It’s so much better, and more action-filled, than books like Bleak House.

The other thing I’d forgotten is how overwhelmingly unpleasant almost all of the characters are. There are a few exceptions: Herbert is lovely, if a bit dim. Joe and Biddy are sweet. Wemmick is a good and loyal friend, even if he is a bit secretive. They are, I think, the only “good” characters in the whole book.

Women, especially don’t come off well. Mrs. Joe is abusive. She resents Pip for no apparent reason apart from his mere existence. Miss Havisham is insane. She attempted to freeze time around her and is trapped in the most horrible moment of her life – and when she realises her mistake, she dies in a most horrible way. It’s like she can’t exist outside of her need for pity and revenge. Estella is, to put it mildly, a bitch. She is by her own admission cold-hearted and emotionless, the living embodiment of Miss Havisham’s revenge on mankind.

The men aren’t much better. Magwitch is a violent criminal. Orlick is evil – evil with a motivation of jealousy and envy, but still evil. Jaggers is officious, secretive, and probably corrupt. Uncle Pumblechook is overbearing and a liar who blatantly makes up tales (such as his relationship with Pip) to improve his status.

And then there’s Pip. Pip is an idiot. He falls in love with someone who treats him like dirt or worse, simply because she is pretty. At even the word “gentleman” he completely abandons his old life and old friends, treating them the way Estella treats him. He is the most horrible snob who only cares about the appearance of gentility. He seizes on anything that reinforces his misconceptions, while completely ignoring any information that contradicts them. His only redeeming factor is that, by the end of the book, he realizes his mistakes and works to correct them. That doesn’t change the fact that through most of the action, he is one of the most irritating protagonists I’ve ever encountered in fiction.

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Filed under Classics

Dissertation texts

I am writing my MA dissertation on the role of musicians in Middle English poetry. I am starting to reach the point where, even though it’s nowhere near where I want it to be and nothing works the way I thought it would in my head, I may just have to call it done.

One of the good things, though, is that all of the texts I am working on are available online. So, if anyone’s interested….

Sir Orfeo – This was the poem that inspired the dissertation topic.

Orpheus and Eurydice – Another Orpheus story, but very different than the above.

Sir Cleges – A Christmas story, sort of.

Sir Tristrem – A Middle English version of the Tristan story

Bits of Confessio Amantis – There are a few stories in here that feature musicians, although it is probably the text that I am weakest on.

My deadline is Monday…..I will post again and talk more about these texts, maybe, after I’ve finished and turned it in.

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Filed under Poetry

But you don’t have to take my word for it.

Reading Rainbow airs its last episode

This makes me sad. Reading Rainbow was one of my favourite shows, and featured some of my favourite picture books. Like this one or this one.

What I think is saddest is the rationalisation for cutting the show. I have no problem with using television as an education medium to teach kids how to read, with emphasis on phonics or whatever the current vogue method might be. Literacy as an ability is important.

No, what I think is saddest is the implication that once you know how to read, you’re done. That it’s not necessary to instill and foster a love of reading for its own sake. That learning why to read is not important, at least not as important as knowing how to read.

This is patently untrue. Literacy is so much more than just the ability to read – something that I’m afraid the educational standards overlook far too often. Teaching kids that reading is fun and enjoyable is just as important as teaching them how to sound out words. One of the biggest obstacles that teachers face is students that don’t want to read. They don’t see reading as something to be enjoyed, just something to be endured. But if we can teach children that reading is not just required, but recreational, then we can create teenagers who can and will read outside of class, and then we have adults who read for pleasure as well. And adults who read can change the world.

Reading expands your mind. It gives you insights into other people, other lifestyles, other countries, other times, and other ideas. Reading teaches in a way that the classroom cannot. And people who don’t read tend to be more close-minded than people who do, simply because they don’t have the breadth of mental experience to understand that there are different perspectives in the world. Aliteracy is just as much of a problem as illiteracy.

We need adults who will read, not just adults who can read. And in order to have that, we need to have children and teenagers who read because they want to, not just because they have to. That is what Reading Rainbow provided. It wasn’t just about the featured book – although each episode had a fantastic featured book. It was also about how that book could connect with your life: Gregory, the Terrible Eater, for example, led to lessons on healthy eating and getting along with your parents and making compromises. And it was also about ordinary kids telling about the books they liked, showing that reading is something that kids just like you did even when it wasn’t a part of school, and giving a range of ideas for what to read after the show was over.

There is a hole in educational programming now; I only hope that something fills it before it becomes a hole in our lives as well.

The original theme song

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Filed under Children's/YA, News