The occasional ramblings of a freelance lexicographer

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Disability works

Those of you in the UK may have noticed that last week, the BBC was focusing on disability in the workplace with its Disability Works theme. 28 February is also International RSI Awareness Day, so it seemed like a good time for a post about working with a chronic pain condition. For those of you who don't know, I had to leave my in-house job with a publisher back in 2000 because I was suffering debilitating pains in my hands, wrists, neck and shoulders that made it impossible to sit at a desk nine-to-five every day. At that time, I was diagnosed with RSI, but over the years it's morphed into a more general chronic pain condition, but still mostly affecting my hands, arms and shoulders.

Until recently, I would have described myself as having a chronic health condition rather than being disabled. A few months ago though, I started a part-time MA course which involves commuting from Bristol to Cardiff a couple of days a week for lectures. I was a bit wary about how my studies would fit around my work, but I hadn't been ready for how physically challenging I was going to find it. After 16+ years of working from home, managing my time and controlling my environment, it was a real shock to the system.

It sounds a bit silly to say that I struggled with getting up early - leaving the house at 6.30 in the morning to get the train to Cardiff - but my pains make getting started slow-going some days, especially if I've had to take painkillers the night before which leave me feeling drowsy and 'hung over'. On a bad day, a 30-minute walk to the station in the cold and damp is really the last thing my body needs. And carrying a bagful of stuff has been a real killer. My shoulders are where the worst of my pain is, so I tend to avoid carrying bags as much as I can. I started term heading off with a packed lunch, a flask of tea, notebook, tablet and of course, a brand new pencil case. I soon gave up on the lunch and the flask, and on days when there are library books to take to and fro, I've had to ditch the tablet too.

I'm finding ways to cope, but it's really made me think about how much my health makes me unable to do - it really is a disability. It's also made me realize just how much I appreciate being self-employed.

Self-employment and disability:

Environment: The most obvious thing people think of when I tell them about my situation is my desk set-up. My work station does take into account all the usual ergonomic advice, but I don't actually use that much specialist equipment. Having tried all kinds of things over the years, the main difference to my set-up is a graphics tablet instead of a mouse - which I find gentler on my hand because I don't sit and clutch it all the time. I do have voice recognition software, but I only use it occasionally.

Time management: What I think is far more significant is being able to manage my own time. For me, the biggest no-no is sitting at my desk for long stretches, so I take LOTS of breaks. I generally work for 3 stretches in a day with significant breaks between (one stretch in the morning and two in the afternoon), but between those longer breaks I fidget a lot. I rarely stay sitting for more than half an hour before I find some excuse to get up - make a cup of tea, go to the loo, collect the post that's just arrived, put on the washing/dishwasher, empty the washing-machine/dishwasher ... you get the idea. And perhaps even more importantly, I can manage my work around how I'm feeling. My condition's very variable, so sometimes I can manage a fairly full, 6 or 7 hour working day, other days I'm struggling to think at all through the pain. As a freelancer though, on a bad day, I can just do less - get up late, work on easier stuff, go for a longer swim - whatever helps get me through.

Choice: Similarly, I can choose to take on work that I know will suit me. A lot of the time that just means taking on less work. I know from speaking to freelance colleagues that I take on less than most and I do less juggling of several projects running at the same time. I only take on as much as I think I can cope with without overdoing it. I can't afford to find myself working long hours and weekends because everything's come at once - my body just won't allow it. That means that my income is effectively that of a part-timer, but that's something I've accepted. I also think carefully about the nature of the work I take on. Some time back I found that I had to pull out of a couple of projects that involved work on digital materials because the work was just too fiddly - lots of keying in or copying and pasting text repeatedly to fill fields. It killed my hands and just wasn't sustainable. Now I'll ask about formats and templates, etc. up front before I agree to work on something.

Overall, I love being self-employed and most of the time, it enables me to lead a productive working life while managing my condition. I know lots of other freelancers who are working with health issues that limit what they can do to a greater or lesser degree, so I just wanted to give a shout-out to all of you. Hope your work-arounds are working!

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Friday, February 17, 2017

Unexpected corpus findings

I use a corpus all the time when I’m writing – to check how a word’s typically used, its strongest collocates or just to look for inspiration for example sentences. And most of the time, what comes up is more-or-less what I’d expect. Sometimes there’s a collocation I hadn’t thought of, but it’s rarely very surprising. Just occasionally though I’m a bit taken aback by what the corpus reveals …

This week, I was working on some simple vocab practice activities (for B1 level) and I was looking for examples to illustrate the adjective crowded. So I did a quick corpus search to see which nouns it typically modifies. I wasn’t surprised to find:

crowded + street, market, room, area, place, train, etc.

Crowded market seemed like a nice prototypical context which would be easy for most learners to visualize, so I clicked through to browse some examples. In scrolling through the cites, I came across two slightly surprising trends:

The metaphorical: a large chunk of the examples were for the metaphorical, business sense of a market, rather than the physical place with stalls selling goods. I found lots of companies struggling to compete in an already crowded market for energy or cars or whatever. It reminded me that all too often we forget about the very common metaphorical uses of words and chunks in English, assuming that because the learner recognizes the basic, often concrete meaning of an item, they’ll automatically pick up on a metaphorical usage too.

The sad reflection: the other flurry of uses was more of a sad reflection of the world we live in (and the news media who report it), with lots of examples of bombs going off in the middle of crowded markets. It made me wonder about the connotations in different cultures attached to things we tend to view and present as neutral and harmless.

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Thursday, January 19, 2017

Experimenting with note-taking

Most EAP courses include something about note-taking. It’s an area I’m always a bit unsure about how to teach … Is it better to teach a specific note-taking technique? To get students to experiment with a few? Or just to stick to explaining general principles and let them find their own preferred format? 

Recently, I’ve found myself on the other side of the classroom as I’ve started studying for a part-time MA. It’s given me lots of food for thought from a student’s perspective and the opportunity to play around with different approaches to studying, including notetaking.

I should probably start off by admitting that my note-taking in lectures has been minimal to non-existent. All my lecturers use PowerPoint presentations, the slides are available online and often as a printed handout as well and there’s generally another handout and a reading list to take away too. So beyond the odd scribble on a handout, I haven’t really felt the need to take notes. I’m just making sure I file all the handouts for future reference.

When it comes to reading though, I’m very aware of the need to take notes, especially when you’re reading to write. I’ve always banged on to my students about the importance of note-taking when you read to keep a record of ideas that you might want to use with all the relevant reference information so you don’t waste ages trying to track something down again later. I also stress how useful note-taking can be in transforming the ideas you’ve read into your own voice and incorporating them into your train of thought that will then, hopefully, help you slot them seamlessly into your writing. I know that so many of my students slip into plagiarism or patch-writing just because they’re writing their essay with the source text open in front of them and it’s all too easy just to copy the words across. If you process the information as you read and translate it into notes, then half the job of linking ideas together and weaving them into your own argument has been done already.

But what’s the best format for doing that? Well, I’ve had two sets of assignments to complete so far, two pieces of coursework mid-term and two more over the Christmas break and I approached each using a different technique …

I’ve been using Evernote for a while now for keeping notes on various work-related things, so it was the first format I turned to when I was preparing for the first set of assignments. 

Pros: I was doing some of my reading on the train to and from university (an hour each way, twice a week and I found, one of my best times for reading), some I was doing at home and occasionally, I did a bit in the library too. This meant that being able to make notes either on my tablet or on my desktop and having them automatically synced was really useful. Plus the notes are all neatly filed and easy to refer back to in future.

Cons: There’s lots of flicking about between windows, both if you’re reading and making notes on the same device and when you’re using notes to write from. Although during writing, I got round this by having my notes open on my tablet while writing on my desktop. I also found it quite difficult to get on overview of key ideas when faced with lots of screens of similar-looking, small, black text. I could probably experiment with different fonts and colours, but that’s fiddly when you’re making notes on a tablet.

My second set of assignments were during the Christmas break, so I was working almost entirely at home. And with a longer essay which involved a review of the literature in a particular area, I took a different approach. As I was reading (quite a bit from books this time), I noted down key points that might be relevant on post-it notes and stuck them on the page as I went along (including those all-important page numbers!).

Then when I’d done a big chunk of reading, I used my wardrobe doors to arrange the notes into themes and to order them.

Pros: It was fun! I still find it much more natural to write notes by hand than using my fiddly tablet keyboard and rearranging the notes so I could see the shape of the essay emerging was a really nice way to organize my ideas; moving things about, spotting gaps, doing a bit more reading, adding more notes, taking stuff off that wasn’t really relevant. I was almost tempted to stop at that point and just submit a photo of my notes! But actually it did help the writing process too, getting up to look at the notes, taking one off to include it, then sticking it back up, checking that I hadn’t missed any key points.

Cons: It only worked because I was at home for the whole process, it wouldn’t have been practical if I’d been trying to read and collect post-its on the train. And I realized as I took them down that they won’t be very practical to store for future reference, so at some point, I’ll probably sit down and type them up into Evernote anyway!

So what are my conclusions … well, first and foremost, I’d say that experimenting is definitely good, it helps you work out what approach works best for you. If I were teaching EAP classes again in the future, I’d definitely get students to try out different techniques and to make submitting their notes part of some writing tasks … and not just as a boring page of bullets points either!

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