Sunday, June 30, 2019


Four rejections this week, and then a fifth as I was posting this, but one acceptance/publication this week:

My first published drabble (a drabble is a story exactly 100 words long) is up at

Writing Drabbles and other types of flash and micro fiction is a good way to 'tighten' one's writing. Editors and agents often say things like, "this is good, it just needs to be tightened up a bit" but it's not always obvious to the author what that means exactly. As I try to edit down my novel by 25% without actually cutting any scenes, paring down my verbose style to something a little 'tighter' is what's required. The discipline of writing a story in a hundred words, or even 1000 words for flash, helps develop the skills necessary to be more concise...

Try it! Harder than it looks!

Thursday, May 23, 2019

Cover Reveal: The Group of Seven Reimagined

Yesterday, I got to see the cover of The Group of Seven Reimagined: Contemporary Stories Inspired by Historic Canadian Paintings.

It's available now for pre-order on (and not, apparently, available outside of Canada except by special arrangement)—I'm guessing a question of obtaining copyright permission for the paintings.

My story, "Iceberg", was my first piece of flash fiction. When I was first approached by editor Karen Schauber to participate in this project, I objected that I didn't write flash fiction. She insisted, however, so I agreed to at least try, and to my surprise, ended up drafting five stories for her to choose from. After choosing "Iceberg" she really helped me shape its final form. I learned so much from working with Karen, that I wrote a second flash piece using what she taught me, and came in second in Pulp Literature's Hummingbird (flash fiction under 1000 words) contest. After that, I was sort of hooked.

I also quickly realized that the discipline I learned writing within very strict word limits of 1000, or 500, or 100 words could be transferred to my novel revisions. I was able to really tighten up the writing in my somewhat bloated novel, by applying what Karen had shown me.

But all that aside, I'm really honoured to have been able to participate in this fabulous project. Being included in the ranks of these other writers, and associated with these classic paintings—yeah, it doesn't get better than this!

Friday, February 22, 2019

Knife Fights

I going to try to post more, and relate random stories from my life as they come up as my kids ask me stuff or questions come up on social media. A writers' list today had a discussion of knife fights, so here are my three knife-fight stories, while I think of them:

1) A classmate in grade 11 was offended by my subjected-headed, color-coded, neatly hand-printed chemistry class notes (of which I was, admittedly, inordinately proud) so he came to my desk and slashed through them with his six-inch knife. Having put a ridiculous amount of effort into those notes (being dysgraphic, "neatly printed" implies insane levels of commitment, but I had been told that was the only way to learn Chemistry) I had placed my hand down over my notes to protect them. I hadn't believed he would actually cut through my hand, he hadn't believed I'd be stupid enough to put my hand down in front of a moving knife blade.

So that happened. When the principal drove me to the UofA hospital with my finger hanging by a thread, the resident in the hospital took one look at it and said, "oh wow, you're in luck" and disappeared. A short time later a group of about 11 doctors showed up and sewed it back up. Turns out, the worlds leading expert on reattachment was there from England giving a seminar to the doctors at the hospital, and they all poured into my cubicle while he sewed me up. "Now here's where a lot of guys make a mistake. You have to reattach the tendon with this technique, not that one" or some such. (This was 50 years ago or so, so can't get the wording exact.) Slightly surprised that wasnt considered an operating-room operation, but I was awake and they just did it right there on the gurney in the ER.

Still have a pretty cool scar on that finger, but otherwise, types fine.

Classmate was incredibly apologetic and I never identified him because I had recognized it had been an accident (adolescent males, eh?) but pretty sure that would be his only knife fight story too.

2) My third or fourth day as a substitute teacher, I arrived in that day's assigned junior high to find two males facing off against each other holding knives. Being inexperienced and not knowing that one should not insert oneself into a knife fight I said, "Right! What's all this then?" in my best Monty Python voice. I put my hand out for the knives. Which they both fell over themselves to give me, having realized before I had arrived that they did not want to have a knife fight, but had no idea how to back down with everyone else watching this standoff. "Oh damn! If this guy had made me give him my knife, you'd be dead, man!" "Oh yeah? You would have been dead if this guy had made me give him my knife!" Had either of them been vaguely serious, I would have had a very short teaching career. The punchline though is that when I phoned down to the principal's office to report having taken knives off two students and asking for a little backup here, the VP replied, "Is that 8F?" I allowed how it had in fact been 8F. "Well,can it wait until after lunch?" "Knives," I repeated. "I had to confiscate knives from two students in a knife fight." "Yeah, that's 8F. I'll see you after lunch." I chose not to return to that school.

3) A young protege of mine found himself holding a knife facing another guy holding a knife on a dark street with no one else around and the other guy was apparently quite serious about this being an ACTUAL knife fight. My protege, realizing he was about to die, made the unexpected move of stabbing himself in the stomach. His opponent went, "The F***?!" and took off. My protege dragged himself to the bus stop where the driver called an ambulance. When the police asked him, who did this to you, he said, "I stabbed myself" and the police said, "look, we know you don't want to testify against the other guy, but the bus driver saw the fight." "No, I actually stabbed myself" "Don't worry, we won't ask you to testify, but he's going down for this." etc. Not a strategy I'd recommend, but he did survive.

Image Credit:

Tuesday, January 08, 2019

Setting Goals

One of my goals for 2018 was getting published in Pulp Literature, and here is Issue 21 (fifth anniversary issue!) of Pulp Literature with my story in it.

My second goal was to place a story each month, but that appears to have been over-reaching. I only placed six stories in 2018, though I sold a seventh first week of 2019, so maybe that one almost counts.

My third goal (in support of the first two) was to have as many stories out in circulation as possible. In addition to the six I placed in 2018, I had another thirteen stories sitting on various editor's desks awaiting a decision. At the peak, I had 20 stories in circulation at one time and gathered a total of 35 rejections. Selling short stories is largely a numbers game. Writing is only the first step; keeping them out there until they sell is equally important.

My goal for 2019 is to finish the damn novel.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Dave Duncan (June 30, 1933 - Oct 29, 2018)

Dave Duncan, 2014

Dave Duncan, author of over 60 novels, passed away peacefully, surrounded by family, Monday morning, Oct 29, 2018. He had fallen the previous Thursday evening and suffered a brain haemorrhage from which he never recovered.

I was working flat out Monday, so had stayed off email for once, but my brother-in-law phoned me on the way home and told me to pull over, he had some bad news. So that's how I heard. I couldn't believe it. I kept saying, "No, he just emailed me Thursday, so that can't be right, you must have heard that wrong." I was devasted when I opened my email and saw the notice from Duncan's son.

Duncan had been having a particularly productive period. Having announced his retirement several times after suffering strokes, he had recovered enough to start up again, and he had gone through his unfinished manuscripts and redone them and completed some new ones as well. He told me how much he loved writing again and I certainly saw that the books were coming out fast and furious.

On Thursday afternoon, Dave Duncan sent me his most recent novel to edit. I sent back the edited copy Sunday evening—noting that there was almost no editing needed on this one, just one trivial change in the world-building and some copy editing (the result of his having some trouble with typing largely one-handed). It was a standalone SF novel called The Traitor's Son and is absolutely up to his usual high standard. He told me he already had an agent interested in it.

It's the third novel I'd worked on for Dave in the past three or four weeks. The White Flame series consists of Corridor to Nightmare (which is finished and great) and the sequel, The Angry Lands, which was only a third done. The Angry Lands hadn't quite jelled for him. We talked about what had been done so far, but he told me the ending—which I haven't seen—wasn't working. He said, "I'm worried it may turn out to be my Edwin Drood" but that he'd get back to it this week or next, once The Traitor's Son edits were finished.

I hope Corridor to Nightmare is published. It would be fine as a standalone novel; or perhaps there are notes for The Angry Lands that would allow for it to be finished. I know he's sold one other novel besides The Traitor's Son, and there may be others I haven't seen. I certainly hope so, because he really was my favourite author and I'm not ready to stop reading Duncan.

With 65 books, if I ration myself to re-reading one every two months, that should see me through to the next decade; and then I could start over again, if I'm still around.
Dave Duncan at the Aurora Awards, 2005

Conversion, 1996. Al Onia (standing) Karl Johanson, Robert Runté,Jean-Louis Trudel, and Dave Duncan.

Edit Nov 17: the link to the Globe and Mail obituary for Daveh

Saturday, October 13, 2018

The First Line

I recently discovered The First Line Literary Magazine, which has a fascinating premise. The call for submissions for each issue gives you the first line of the story, and then you take it from there, the idea being that different authors will have very different takes on where to go with it. So fun!

I submitted a new story in my "Ransom and the ..." series in response to "The Window was open just enough to let in the cool night air" and "Ransom and the Open Window" was one of eight stories selected out of the nearly 1,000 submissions. Pretty pleased with that, given it was my first try at this game. If you're looking for a stimulus to get you past writer's block or just want a fun challenge, one could do worse than giving this contest series a try. It's a paying market, but the fun quotient far outweighs the token payment.

Friday, August 31, 2018

Fire: Demons, Dragons, and Djinns

Rhonda Parrish has pulled together another worthwhile anthology, this one published by Tyche Books, featuring a stunning cover by Ashley Walters.

The standout story was Laura VanArendonk Baugh’s “The Second Great Fire”, which gives us a wonderful evocation of movie theatre projection rooms, WWII London, and the Blitz. It alone is worth the price of admission.

Entirely different in tone and approach is Chadwick Ginther’s “Midnight Man vs. Frankie Flame”, a sort of superhero story; and Dusty Thorne’s “Permanence”, an unassuming but entirely satisfying piece. And I confess to a soft spot for Krista Ball’s “Bait”, though I’m not sure how well it will work for someone not already familiar with her fabulous Dark Abyss series. (If you don’t already know the Dark Abyss series, stop reading this and go download The Demons We See immediately.)

I was mildly disappointed by Hal J Friesen’s “The Djinni and the Accountant”, as the premise led me to anticipate a laugh riot, when in fact the story has a quite serious point. It’s an excellent piece, just not the story I had expected, and therefore my judgment is entirely unfair. Similarly, “Light My Fire” by Susan MacGregor is an intelligently written and engaging story, but I tend to dislike fantasies that feature actual historical figures, a personal idiosyncrasy that readers of this review may safely disregard. The only story I actively disliked was “Cilantro” by Annie Neugebauer, which repulsed me partly because it is the category of horror that is supposed to be repulsive, and partly because it reminded me of a Dean R. Koontz Ace Double from my youth, of which no more need be said. In other words, none of my negative comments have any relevance to other readers, who will likely enjoy each of these stories

In between were fifteen other strong stories, covering a wide range of styles and themes. Parrish provides a nicely balanced package with something for everyone, a fascinating cross-section that provides a glimpse of where the genre stands in 2018.


Thursday, August 16, 2018

Report on When Words Collide 2018

Back from When Words Collide writers' conference in Calgary. Always my favorite convention, this year's was the best one yet for me. Usually, I do too many panels and end up not being able to socialize or take in other people's presentations, but cut back by 50% this year, not having to do anything for the publisher I used to work with. So concentrated on meeting friends, listening to other panels, and thinking about my own fiction and editing.

Thursday night was the Fish Creek Library readings by the Guest of Honours, all of which were engaging. I actually already had one of the books featured but had never gotten around to reading it because the cover/blurb had turned me off, but hearing the excerpt read, I'll have to dig that out and give it a go--much more interesting than I would have thought.

The Guest of Honour speeches on the Saturday were excellent, starting with Arthur Slade's amusing account of his use of a treadmill desk to write, and ending with the single most moving speech I have ever heard at any convention in over 40 years of conference-going. Harold Johnson talked about the problems for indigenous within the criminal justice system, the subject of his upcoming book, and received the only standing ovation I can remember seeing at a writers convention. I approached conference organizer, Randy McCharles, immediately after to say what a brilliant choice Harold Johnson had been for the convention and found Randy in tears over the speech. As a sociologist, I was astounded at Harold Johnson's analysis, which was blindingly obvious once he had laid it out, but which had never occurred to me before--indeed, doesn't seem to have occurred to the public. Thank god we have the likes of Harold Johnson to articulate the issue with such clarity and to lobby for change through his book. No one expected such a hard-hitting moment at a writing conference, but it will likely remain the most memorable talk ever at what has always been a brilliant conference.

Speaking of conferences, I was very pleased by the positive reaction to our announcement of WordBridge, the Writers Conference we're planning for Lethbridge and area. We wore and distributed buttons at WWC and a lot more Calgary authors expressed interest in attending than I ever thought would be, and all the folks at WWC from Lethbridge were ecstatic. We are starting with a modest one-day event on Feb 9, 2019.

On the fiction front: I sat next to a NY agent at supper Thursday night before the readings, as he gave me the depressing run-down on how few books he could actually sell in a year: 8-10, though those were often 2-book deals so more than that sounds. But out of 1,800 submissions, that's pretty high odds against. Started to think of self-publishing... But then, on Saturday a major Canadian literary agent expressed interest in my novel, having read the submission package of the first two chapters and synopsis. He basically gave me until March to edit the whole over-sized manuscript (166,000 words) into a presentable (closer to 100,000 words) package. Then, the best editor in Canada--who theoretically isn't taking on new clients--agreed to take my novel on in November, so I can have it ready for the agent by March. And as I was about to leave the convention, one of my beta readers came up to visit with me and said, "Oh, by the way, I forgot to mention X about your book. You need to do X and Y." And my brain exploded because that was exactly the insight I needed at this precise moment as I start editing my current draft. I have great beta readers, all but one of them being authors themselves. I have a good feeling about this!

Went to Evil Alter Ego Press book launch of Finding Atlantis Friday night, then hung out with the authors and publisher for the rest of the evening, and part of Saturday, talking business plans and the possibility of their taking my book somewhere down the line if the above big time avenue doesn't work out. But made the 'mistake' of introducing one of the staffers to the publisher as someone who he should look at, and she promptly snagged (at least tentatively) the next spot in their publishing schedule. I love successful networking!

Went to another book launch: Rhonda Parrish's "Fire: Demons, Dragons, and Djinns". The readings were consistently excellent teasers, and I bought the book at once. Had to miss Krista Ball's 20th book launch for my own panel, but already had the book through pre-order, so good there.

On the editing front: I sat on several editing panels, including editor/writer speed mingle --speed dating for clients looking for editors. At one editing panel, when the moderator asked for questions or comments from the audience, Dave Duncan spontaneously stood up and gave me a rave testimonial! I was not expecting that, so that was a bit of a morale boost! And then, as a result of Duncan's comments, another of the editors on that panel approached me later about joining Since I intend to focus on getting my novel in shape by March, I might actually need a new staffer to take some of the SF editing off my hands for a while...

I approached a publisher with a proposal for an anthology. . . and it wasn't rejected out of hand. I'll hear back in Sept about whether that's a go or not. I had started from the assumption another editorial team had already been assigned that slot, so 'maybe' still sounded pretty good to me.

So, all things considered, an excellent convention for me.

Saturday, July 28, 2018

The Compliment

Tigana: I just wanted to say, I forget how smart you are sometimes.

Me: What?

Tigana: I mean, of course you're smart, but it's not always obvious the way it is with Mom.

Me: What?

Tigana: I was reading your story and I forgot that you had written it.

Me: Okay?

Tigana: I was reading your story and enjoying it; not, you know, because my dad-had-written-it-enjoying, but actually enjoying it, and I thought, "this guy writes kind of like Terry Pratchett." Well, not as good as Terry Pratchett, of course, because--Terry Pratchett--but you know, kind of like that. So I just wanted to tell you that.

I'll take 'kind of like Terry Pratchett'.

Earlier this week an editor said a different story of mine had reminded her of Connie Willis.

But know I will never be in the same league as "mom".

Monday, July 23, 2018

A Good month for my fiction

After coming in second in the Hummingbird Prize, I got more good news today: my time travel story, "Sermon on the Mount" was selected by On Spec Magazine to showcase the magazine in Alberta Unbound, the Alberta Magazine Publications Association online exhibit. The exhibit only lasts a couple of months, but you're welcome to read my story for free while it lasts.

Friday, July 20, 2018

Visit from a Ghost

Exhausted this morning because dogs going crazy all night with a particularly scary thunderstorm. So half asleep in the shower this morning, which may explain why I was visited by the ghost of one of my old professors, who told me I was the only person left with a copy of class notes from his lectures, and would I please publish them because he hadn't had a chance to get his theory out to the public before passing over. And I thought, well, that's odd, I'm being visited by a ghost in the shower and it's not even freaking me out. And he said, well, it's not the shower so much as you're asleep right now. And I said, 'right' and woke up, finished showering, and had breakfast.

Finding it odd that I should think of this professor some 43 years since I last spoke to him--well, not counting in the shower this morning. Perhaps it's because I am finishing up on the novel I started the same time I was taking his course; or perhaps my subconscious trying to distract me from working on my novel yet again, by suggesting this other project; or perhaps it's because I'm coming up on the scene in the town square where I had originally envisaged placing a statue to said professor, but that version had never made it to paper; or, you know, perhaps it was his ghost asking me to publish his notes. And he's right, I DO still have a copy of those notes, even after all these years. His course had a profound influence on my thinking from then on, even more than my mentor Dr. Pannu, because his theory covered EVERYTHING, not just my specialization(s). So it is a little tempting.

I am aware, for example, that John Dewey, the great American philosopher and educator, founder of the progressive movement in education and politics, never actually wrote any books--they were compiled by his graduate students who pooled their class notes to come up with a coherent copy. So it's not without precedent that one's student writes up one's book. So I am a little tempted. But am going to finish the novel first, damn it.

Then we'll see.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Runner-Up for Pulp Literature's Hummingbird Flash Fiction Prize

The Current Issue of Pulp Literature

Very pleased that "Day Three", my second-ever piece of flash fiction, came in second in Pulp Fiction's Hummingbird Flash Fiction Prize. I don't know what the actual field I was up against was, but the contest is said to be limited to 300 entries, the longlist had 27 stories, the shortlist 10, so...even the second-best out of 50 or so would feel validating when we're talking a publication the quality of Pulp Literature.

I am particularly pleased because getting published in Pulp Literature was one of the five writing goals I set myself for this year. Getting X number of stories written for the year was goal one, of course, and two was to see if I could get something published/sold each month (so far, four out of six, but still time to catch up), and the third was to finish polishing the novel and approaching agents—I'm lined up for a session with an agent in three weeks—fourth was selling to Pulp Literature; and fifth was writing an article for University Affairs, which I'll probably get to as soon as I finish teaching for the year.

So, what writing goals have you set yourself for 2018?

The Hummingbird Contest was an exception to my general rule not to enter contests that charge admission fees, since some of those are scams and others are just too expensive for the odds of being the winner. I generally don't mind fees under $3 because I understand that small press magazines have to support contest costs somehow, but when it's $20 or $30 or $50 to enter, not so much 'support' as a tax on the egotistical and the desperate. But having fallen in love with Pulp Literature the moment I saw it (I mean, even just the covers—wow!) and having already gone through four single issues, I had gone to their webpage with the intention to buy a subscription when I saw the contest. The contest fee included (i.e., was for) an e-subscription, so two birds with one stone seemed like a plan to me. And now I'm $50 up on the deal. Pretty pleased how that turned out.

Looking forward to reading the winning story in Winter 2019. I know I have to up my game when it comes to flash fiction—I'm generally pretty verbose, with most of my short fiction coming in at the 6,000-10,000 wordmark, so need to focus more on short, sharp writing, which in turn will help me tighten the writing in my longer stories. Judge Bob Thurber said of the winning story: "The language of “The Angler” blisters like sunburn. The edges of this very short (under 600 words) story are prickly bright and they’ll leave blind spots on your eyes for days." Yeah, I need to learn how to do that.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

VidCon USA 2018

Went to VidCon this year, which was as fascinating as I expected. I was tempted to sign up for the creator or industry tracks, but ended up in the community track so I could take my youngest daughter, Kasia, with me. (I had been debating surprising her with a VidCon trip when she brought Mary and I a video of MatPat's GoH speech at this year's Vidcon Europe and spoke wistfully about someday going to a VidCon herself, so...that happened.)

Taking Kasia turned out to be helpful because she knew way more of the personalities than I did, For example, I had only a vague idea of who SMOSH Games were, but Kasia was totally pumped to have met them.

Kasia surrounded by SMOSH Games

But I know who MatPat is and was honoured to meet him. I told him I thought he had done more to promote critical thinking than any school curriculum, and he told me that from the beginning, he had always intended GameTheory and FilmTheory to promote critical viewing, and that he was trying to pay forward the lessons he had learned from some of the excellent teachers he had had.

Dr. Robert Runé talking with Matthew Patrick of Game Theory and Film Theory

MatPat really impressed me with how caring he was—taking quite a bit of time to talk to Kasia about her depression, for example, and I observed him being equally nice to everyone else, as well. You should watch the embedded video at the top of this post to get an idea of why MatPat is one of the forces of light among YouTubers.

I also got to meet Anthony Padilla, who was again, extremely approachable and caring in his interactions with his fans. Kasia wasn't with me at the time, and when I told Padilla I was teaching in July and that getting to name drop that I had met him would make me seem way cooler to my students than I actually am, he posed me (i.e., physically moved my arm and head etc to get it right) dabbing with him. I frankly had no clue what dabbing was (I have since looked it up, of course) but his photographer and both security people assured me that dabbing was a thing, and that my students would love me for it. (It's possible they were assuming a younger age group.)

So I got that photo and had started off down the hall when Padilla called me back and asked if I could wait for just a minute to be in a video with him. Well, yes, I could possibly manage that. Padilla finishes up with the last of the other fans lined up to meet him, and then has me and two other adults line up as if we were the entire crowd at his meet and greet. We are told to exhibit a general lack of enthusiasm. I do my best to look like I am lost and standing in the wrong line. Padilla then has himself filmed coming out to greet his fans, and finding just the three of us looking past him, like we are confused over who he is and why he is there. "Is this the right line?" Padilla asks the camera, "Is this it?" And then us waving as if we realize he is probably somebody, even if we're not entirely sure who. It's a nice simple bit of self-deprecating humour that Anthony has orchestrated.

Of course, he may not actually use the footage, but I'll edit in the link here if he does.

Unfortunately, in the excitement of being in an Anthony Padilla video, I managed to lose the original photo. Don't know where or when—I searched everywhere I could think of—but such is life. (Being in the video is better!)

[Edited: hayden @kickthehayden found the photos and posted them on Twitter so here's me dabbing with Anthony Padilla:

While waiting for the above scene to be filmed, I naturally started a conversation with the security guy, who turned out to be a senior manager just helping out on the floor to get a feel for the operation at ground level. The guy was a former coach, so we talked about the role of the coach in educating adolescents, and it was obvious he would have been a great coach, because he had a lot of the right type of charisma and I liked what I was hearing regarding his views on education. I have to say, Vidcon was one of the best organized and most heavily staffed events I've ever attended, so pretty impressed with that end of things too. Not sure how many people were there, but I'm guessing well over 30,000, so something like that takes a bit more organizing than the SF events I've organized over the years. (See, for example, the disastor of TaraCon, a competing convention the same day, a couple of hotels over.)

L to R :John Green, Betty (Articulations), Cory Arnold, Dr. Daniel Bainbridge, Sarah Urist Green, and A.E. Prevost.

In terms of panels, the highlight of Vidcon for me was the "Edutube: Beyond Science" panel. Best thing I've seen at a convention in 30 years: John Green, Dr. Daniel Bainbridge, Betty (Articulations), Cory Arnold, Sarah Urist Green, and A.E. Prevost. Everything the panelists had to say was music to my ears: that the humanities were as important as the sciences; that the barriers between disciplines were artificial and arbitrary; that specializing too early was disastrous for the individual and for society (e.g., having to chose STEM route through school by age 12; STEM graduates having no idea how to write an essay or to express themselves; parents forcing kids into STEM subjects because they believed that's the only realistic route to a career; etc); that the dichotomy that humanities/art=beauty and sciences/engineering= doing was false, and that engineers needed to do beautiful engineering, and mathematicians did high-level math on the basis of how beautiful it was, not by what it could do for you, and so on. The all spoke eloquently for the need for interdisciplinary, cross-boundary education, and that one strength of online edutubers is that they were not restricted by the artificial boundaries imposed by the school system/academia; that there was no one to stop them from drawing on multidisciplinary approaches when they did their programs. John Green, did add the caveat that those educators working through PBSDigital and so on had to at least label their shows as history or art or etc, because otherwise, their potential viewers would not be able to find them. The problem, he said, is that the viewer doesn't know what they want to know until they see it. He gave the example of the Australian vlogger who talked about the evolution of human culture from stone to bronze age, based entirely on the artifacts he had unearthed on his own farm. "I didn't know I needed those videos until I found them, but now I need them very much!" Thus, constrained by the marketing need to do some labelling, Green still spoke to the error of artificial and arbitrary lines drawn between disciplines.

There was even a Ferris Wheel

I was most impressed with Dr. Bainbridge, who was funny or stirring every time she spoke. (My favorite saying now is her, "I don't think of myself as a nerd, but as a niche enthusiast," which resonated with everyone in the audience.) Bainbridge contrasted the sort of interesting social history video bloggers address, and the "names and dates" boring forget-immediately-after-the-test history taught in schools. Instead of history being the record of great men doing deeds, she was interested in the history of those whose voices had been marginalized or ignored; social history, the life and times of the average person; and the history of everything else. She argued that science cannot be understood separate from history because all science is a social construct: how that idea come to dominate (or not) in this or that discipline. She gave the example of "Why do we know that breakfast is the most important meal of the day?" (I happened to know the answer because Terry O'Reilly had covered it in an episode of Under the Influence, but Bainbridge left that hanging as a teaser for her series.) I loved everything she said about teaching, about what the experience of education should be like for students, about the need for liberal arts for STEM students, and on and on. I could listen to her for days, and will now that I know about her series, Origin of Everything.

The others on the panel were very nearly as fascinating. Betty was a museum guide who, discouraged by how many visitors did not know even basic terms like "Modernism" or "Impressionism", started a YouTube show defining general terms, but quickly got into her true love, design and architecture. "People notice bad design, but they never think of good design" so her show is about the history of Exit signs and building codes and answers all those questions you didn't know you had. Articulation came about because Sarah was an archivist stuck in the basement of a museum who never got to talk to the people for whom she was curating exhibits, and now talks to everyone via video. Cory talked about explaining music theory concepts on his channel being watched by a few hundred students looking up that concept when studying for their music theory exams until he was inspired to approach the topic from the other end: take a famous piece of music and analyze it using music theory, when suddenly his videos went viral. Viewers commented, "I always thought the music was about the lyrics...I never realized you could analyze the how the music contributed to the meaning!" And so on. Fantastic panel!

The avenue of food trucks at Vidcon.

The other panel I particularly enjoyed was "Nerding Out: Creators and Fandom" (Andre Meadows) Ricky Dillion, Wes Johnson (SMOSH Games) and Meredith Levine (Fanthropologist). As a sociologist and long-time contributor to SF fandom, I am always interested in how community forms avocational subcultures around various media and personalities. The panelists mostly spoke to the fandoms they were involved in (some great stories!) but did speak a bit about the YouTube community and their sense of their own followers. I was again most impressed by how these creators were concerned to keep their own fandoms positive and their pay-it-forward attitudes. Wes Johnson, for example, spoke about how the cosplay community welcomed and encouraged him as a newcomer and was a safe space for everyone; and then proceded to encourage Rick Dillion to "go for it" when he said I had wanted to cosplay at ComicCon. Although we are all familiar with the few bad apples who exploit YouTube for personal gain at the expense of society and their followers (e.g., Logan Paul), the vast majority of YouTubers are good people. Even self-confessed "professional children" like Wes Johnson are in fact extremely responsible individuals who are at some pains to keep their material and their online followings constructive.

MatPat discusses 'depression' with Kasia.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

The Destruction of Planet Zor

Today's launch of Sherry Ramey's mid-grade SF adventure, Planet Fleep, reminds me of my own attempt to launch Planet Zor. Enough time has passed that I can tell that story here without hurting anyone's feelings (and they can't fire me over it at this late date) so here goes:

Back in the 1980s, I was in charge of compiling (which usually meant actually writing most of it myself) the Grade 3 Social Studies provincial exam. The exam had significant issues, chief among them all the research available that said Grade 3 students couldn't write multiple-choice questions and that the concept of a Grade 3 examination was a stunningly stupid idea. I had read all that research, compiled it for my then boss, who agreed with me, but such decisions are not made by the technical experts but by politicians. We were, therefore, going to have a provincial Grade 3 examination one way or another, so up to me to make it the least ghastly possible. (To their credit, the team did come up with a number of innovations that did make things better, and for a while there we were able to resist political pressure to keep the results from affecting the students' grades, but all that is a story for another time...)

One of the key concepts for Grade 3 Social Studies was "culturally distinctive communities" and the understanding of why, in Canada's multicultural society, some people want to preserve the traditions of their homelands while living in Canda. This presented two problems to me.

First, being a province-wide test, I had to be fair to everybody, but the curriculum encouraged each community to take as their case study in the course their own culturally distinctive communities. So students in Southern Alberta studied the Hutterites, because that's where most Hutterite colonies are, but students in Calgary studied Chinatown because Calgary still has a vibrant Chinatown, and kids in Northern Alberta studentied the Old Believer colonies and so on. Which makes it impossible to take a case study on the test that everyone had studied, so I would necessarily be biasing the exam depending on whether I used one case study or another.

The second problem was, when I got teams of Grade 3 teachers together to write questions on "culturally distinctive communities" it quickly became painfully obvious that these white English middle-class ladies had absolutely no idea why anyone would want to retain their culturally distinctive community. They all tried valiantly to understand what was to them a mistaken desire of these communities to hold onto a dead past, but um, I couldn't use anything they wrote. It was terrifying that the teachers did not get the curriculum objective here themselves, let alone teach it to children. (I like to think the situation is better today as all the work on addressing First Nations content over the last couple of decades might have given the general population, including Grade 3 teachers, at least a glimmer of why multiculturalism is a better idea than assimilation. But then, I'm a hopeless optimist.)


As much as I tried to come up with generalizable questions on "culturally distinctive communities" that would apply to all cultures everywhere--that can't be done. Being an SF reader, however, I hit upon the idea of writing the test about human emigration to the Planet Zor and why some humans might wish to retain their human culture, even when living among the friendly Zorians. So my artist and I worked together on mocking up a unit on the Planet Zor and why some humans preferred to stick with their own holidays rather than celebrate Ko Day, and so on. Problem solved. I wasn't biasing the test by which case study the class happened to take in their community because Zor would be new to all of them; and putting the kids in the position of a human among Zorians was a pretty good way of getting them to think about why people want to retain their "culturally diverse" community.

The artist and I presented the mock-up to my boss. Who immediately got it, but said NO in no uncertain terms. "I can't put science fiction on a provincial exam! What were you thinking! Zor is not part of the curriculum, and I did not authorize this!"

I may have argued back a bit. Like a lot. Because it was the only possible solution to my problem, and the artist's illustrations were brilliant, and the two of us had already talked about doing the book that would be used in every grade 3 classroom in the province, because this was gold, right?

But my boss was adamant--in spite of conceding the logic of my argument--because he was convinced science fiction was simply a nonstarter with the public. When I argued that it was no longer a nonstarter in the age of Star Trek and Star Wars and so on, he retreated to his ultimate defense which was, "You could never get it past the Committee."

The Committee was actually one of several that oversaw our work, and had absolute veto power, as it should, since it consisted of representatives of all the relevant stakeholders (except parents and students, of course--another one of my suggestions that went nowhere) and the Committee was inclined to err on the side of caution.

So having had Zor shot down by my boss in anticipation of a 'no' from the committee, he set us to chose the culturally distinctive community of Old Believers because that represented the smallest population in the province, so probably new to most students. *sigh* All work on Zor stopped, and we struggled to put together a test on the Old Believers about which none of us knew very much, and very little of which would fit into the Grade 3 curriculum.

And my boss explicitly ordered my colleagues and I NOT to mention Zor to the Committee because we were a team, and the team had to present a common front to the Committee, so whatever arguments we were free to have among ourselves, we must toe the line when facing those outside the office, etc.

So his was the exam we wrote and took to the Committee which said, "you can't just take one community at random; that's not fair to everybody who studied a different one. And what are you going to do next year, and the year after that? If you always use Old Believers, then everybody will end up studying them to do well on the exam. And if you rotate communities through the test, then some students will be advantaged over others." And so on. Round and round we went with the impossibility of making any of this work. My frustration at not being allowed to even suggest the possibility of the obvious solution of Zor grew steadily throughout the day of the meeting, but my hands were tied, as were my colleagues' who knew about and thought the artist's illustrations for Zor were pretty awesome.

Near the end of the day, one of the Senior members of the committee looked up from the draft exam and said, "I don't know...why don't you have something like a Canadian going to an alien planet? Kids today love SciFi, and that way, it would put them in the shoes of someone trying to hang onto their own culture." And then he stopped talking because I and my colleagues were glaring at my boss.

"Did I say something wrong?" the Committee member asked, confused by our reaction.

There was a long pause as I continued to glare at my boss with the "I was right, you were wrong, and I'm probably going to find a way to kill you" look.

And then my boss turned to the Committee member and reassured him, "No, no, you said nothing wrong. It's just...that's a bit of a Zor point with my staff."

To the eternal confusion of the Committee members, I exploded into laughter, and my closest colleague fled the room to keep from doing the same. She returned, grinning, and announced, "I just needed a refill" holding up her coffee and trying not to weep with laughter. Because, of course, my boss' terrible pun was both acknowledgment and apology. After the meeting my boss shrugged and said, well it's too late to go back to Zor, so we'll have to move forward with this version for this year, but, we'll see for next time. But the Grade 3 Social Studies exam only happened every three years, so by next time both the artist and I had left for other careers, and Zor never happened.

I still wished we had written that textbook, though.

[I'm out of town at the moment, but will add some of the illustrations from Zor when I return home. I wanted to post this today, while the opening line was still true.]

Monday, May 21, 2018

Social Issues in Education

I've signed up to teach a course at the UofL this summer: Ed 4321, Social Issues in Education. I've posted my course outline already, so that students taking the class in July can make suggestions now if they like. I've been teaching the course since 1991 but because it's an issues course, the specific content is different every year, and I've changed up the assignments to make them more manageable for a compressed summer course. Looking forward to a bit of teaching to break up my steady diet of editing and writing . . . I love working with authors and graduate students, but it's mostly solitary deskwork, so it will be good to away from the computer keyboard and actually interact with other people for a bit. My idea of a July holiday. . .