The End of Timetabled Education

Almost two weeks ago, the taught part of my Master’s at the Oxford International Centre for Publishing Studies ended. It culminated in a day of presentations, as if by each division of a publishing house to the board of directors.

New Product Development, a module renowned as much for the stress it causes as the rewards that follow. I feel particularly lucky in that I didn’t find the experience hugely stressful or unpleasant in any way. I would both be lying and inhuman if I said that there was no stress whatsoever in the process, part of the module is, in itself, learning how best to cope with workplace stresses (though the stresses of working life will be vastly different than MA stress). Each of us had other assignments to do for other modules and it at times felt a little overwhelming.

As (I think) I have written in a previous entry, I was placed in the Humanities and Social Sciences division of the fictitious ‘Buckley Publishing’ with seven others. I leapt at the chance to be Head of Design and my group graciously let me. We developed a proposal for Buckley Gold Open Access, an innovative open access platform (and four journals to be launched alongside it) for the Humanities and Social Sciences. Future plans included the expansion of the platform to cover other divisions such as STM and AAD.

I very much enjoyed creating the designs, building our brand even through the slides we used in our presentation. It was a exercise in team work and creativity and something I greatly enjoy. What I didn’t enjoy so much was the presentation; I am not a fantastic public speaker, the thought of speaking in front of people is not one that excites me. (As you probably already know.)

It went better than I thought it would. I may have rewritten my little portion of the presentation unintentionally as I was saying it but everything went well. Alongside the speaking, I was in charge of the smooth running of the slides, the changeovers were in my jittery little fingers. There was one hiccup caused by the jitteriness of the aforementioned fingers, otherwise all was well.

We were second, something I was incredibly grateful for as the day progressed. Having to wait any longer would have increased the nerves and decreased the likelihood of our presentation going as well as it went; we came in third place. (Below are only some of our slides.)

It was a good end to the taught portion of the course, a greater end than lessons simply stopping. It felt like a kind of closure.

Now begins the job search and the completion of our Major Projects or Dissertations and in true Emma fashion (the Elou in me shakes her head at this) I have created a schedule. Of course, I won’t stick to this schedule to the letter but it is nice to have one. Having been in formal education since I was four, with no breaks longer than the summer holidays, the idea of life before I secure myself a job is somewhat terrifying. Hence the schedule.

Everything is covered, from exercise to searching and applying for jobs, to my Major Project, to finishing my novel; it is packed and that is how I like it. As endings go this is a particularly good one and in no way do I regret my decision to do this Master’s. It has been a great experience, one that is not yet done.

But now I move on to the great job search and I feel like I’m finally ready.

Grove Street Media: New Media Production

Today we say farewell to the #DLL13 series at OICPS; Digital Lunchtime Lectures 2013, I bid you adieu.  In our final expert-led romp into the land of digital we were visited by Tom Scholes of Grove Street Media, a new media production company which  specialises in eLearning products.

From the start, the talk was informal; the opening line being ‘Well, I have a beard’ – excellent. As I have written before (in my entry about Osprey), I enjoy informal and personable presentations, they’re easy to listen to and often enjoyable. This was no exception.

Grove Street Media originated 10 years ago. This year it is about to earn its millionth pound and it is not difficult to see why. Their remit is to design for and communicate through screens, a task they appear to meet well if what we were shown today was anything to go by (take a look at e-Bug, a prime example). When talking us through how the company works with its clients he stressed the importance of simply talking to people, showing them what you can do and how you can help them. Communication is key in any business, not least when they’re paying you a considerable amount of money.

The changes in technology also effect the way that they work with clients, a lot of their work has been on CD-ROMs for publishers like OUP but as technology advances new problems arise when it comes to meeting the clients needs. He used the example of the icons they use in a lot of their work: on a computer you can hover over an icon and it will tell you what it does, this makes users more comfortable with clicking on something that looks unfamiliar but with the rise of the tablet the ability to show button functions by hovering is diminishing.

However, it is not all doom and gloom, Grove Street Media caters for most if not all platforms, as Tom said ‘if it has a screen we can develop for it’ (paraphrased but the meaning is the same). Their focus is on interactivity, their products are rarely flat designs and can be for anything from the web to kiosks in stores like Ikea. When asked, he describes them as a UI/UX company, user interface/user experience; they want to make user experience barrier-less.

Not only do they want the best for the user but they want the best for the client as well; if a client wants to make an app which would work just as well as a website, be much simpler to make/commission and cost a fraction of the price the urge to make money does not override the urge to create the best product they can. I find it incredibly warming that some companies are willing to do this despite the current financial climate – kudos, Grove Street Media.

After explaining the anatomy of a digital media offering (great content, attractive graphics, good layout) and the components involved in making them, we were given a live demo! Tom set to work creating a simple web-based chasing game. After some suggestions from the audience and a little bit of an argument with the coding we were met with a spaghetti western in which Kim Kardashian and a giraffe had a race. Kim won. The demonstration illustrated that something which looks complicated may not be that complicated at all.

The talk ended with a few lessons:

  1. Plagiarism happens. You have two things content and brand. Content can be copied, especially from the web and there’s nothing you can do about it, it is the brand that matters. 
  2. Copying isn’t always bad, there is nothing wrong with looking at the competition and using their ‘best bits’ to influence the betterment of your own design.
  3. Innovation or Usability? It is possible to do both! But when it isn’t always go for usability.
  4. Testing costs a similar amount to development in both money and time – always budget for testing.
  5. When requesting a quote precision is key, precision will enable you to get the best deal and save you from the wrath of the developer should they find out you forgot to tell them something. What takes a few moments to say can take weeks and large amounts of money to create.

So that was the last of the Digital Lunchtime Lectures, and perhaps the one I enjoyed most. I will miss my Wednesday leaps into the well of digital but this will not be the end of my digital blogging adventure – never fear. Keep an eye out on my twitter for a link to my official blogging treatment for the OICPS website!

Without Exception: Equality, Diversity and Inclusion in Children’s Books

The thing I love about OICPS is the variety of speakers that we have the pleasure of listening to, I may have said this before (probably on Twitter) but it holds true and today was no exception. Today’s session was on diversity and difficult topics in children’s publishing. Beth Cox, of Without Exception and Inclusive Minds, talked us through how publishers can be more inclusive, what is being done and how she, and we, can help.

The session started with a word association exercise, which really got us into the inclusive brainspace. We were given four words: traveller, girl, gay and disabled. I have to admit that the exercise did make me feel like a bad person, every word that popped up in my head affirmed a stereotype – I class myself as a pretty open person, I don’t like to rely on stereotypes and prefer to get to know a person before I make a judgement but this exercise didn’t show that. I think everyone felt the same. This led into Beth’s talk really well. Her first point: Authors and Illustrators have unconscious bias just like everyone else and this may be reflected in their work.

Children are open, children do not carry the biases that we gather as (young) adults via the media. As such, these stereotypes and unconscious biases should not feature in children’s literature and it is (or should be) the job of the publisher to ensure their books are bias-free. Having bias does not make you a bad person (we are not bad people because we engender stereotypes in a word association game, but if we try to spread that bias, well, that’s an entirely different board game). It is important to ensure that the work produced by authors and illustrators (illustrators especially in regards to younger children) does not promote stereotype. Visuals are incredibly important to young children, it is essential for a child to be able to see a character that they can relate to.

Beth commented that a lot of the publishers she talks to tell her that they do not publish issue books but diversity in publishing is not about issue books, it is about inclusion. It does not have to be a main feature it just has to be there. We were shown some brilliant examples from picture books, in one image there were at least two same-sex couples (one of which had a child), various different races, a wheelchair user and more. None of these characters were mentioned in the text but just by being there for a child to find, the book is showing children that they are normal.

The problem with inclusion comes when the ‘not average’ character is made too special, in Wonder, which is a book I love, Auggie is given an award not because he is exceptional but because he has a disability. There is a risk of going too far. Every main character is made special in some way (it is the nature of being a main character) but even in fantasy settings authors must be realistic. It is in writing that sentence that I have realised a sad fact: it might be realistic. A child in a ‘normal’ school when they, themselves, are not the average student may well be given such an award in real life. Not because they did anything worthy of recognition but because they are different, often all these children want is to be seen as normal (to themselves they are  normal). There are exceptions of course but the point is: characters, people, children should be the treated the same way regardless of whether they are disabled, ill or of a different race.

Another problem that arises is the tendency to ally disability with evil wherein all good characters are perfectly healthy; bad characters with deformities, unlike-able characters described as ‘crazy’, ‘mental’, ‘lunatics’.

She then went on to talk about young adult literature, wherein some issues are resolved too quickly and publishers/authors are sometimes unaware of restrictive judgements about gender. An example of a series which does not restrict gender is The Hunger Games with strong, female Katniss and sensitive, cake-decorating Peeta; it is not assumed that, because Peeta is interested in cake decoration, Peeta is gay. Quite the opposite, he is in love with Katniss. 

I hope that I can enter the industry and bring with me some of the messages we were given in today’s talk, I hope to be part of a future in which there are children’s books which deal with difficult subjects effectively and without bias (there are some that do this fantastically but, arguably, not enough), which present non-average characters as normal human beings, not something that should be tip-toed around and coated with bubblewrap.

It is with that thought that I leave you and offer you this link to a TED talk by Chimamanda Adichie, which we watched during the talk, it’s brilliant and I highly recommend watching it. Later, I will be blogging more on difficult subjects and how they are explored, watch this space.

Electronic Enlightenment

Old marketing material but I liked the design

This week the Digital Lunchtime Lectures resumed (though there is only one left now, boo!) and today’s lecture was delightfully technical; we were visited by Mark Rogerson, the technical editor of Electronic Enlightenment, the ‘most wide-ranging online collection of edited correspondence of the early modern period, linking people across Europe, the Americas and Asia from the early 17th to the mid-19th century’ (in their own words). It is distributed by Oxford University Press and sounds fascinating.

The project not only has keyed versions of the letters but some of the manuscripts as well; I am a sucker for letters and handwriting so the idea, to me, sounds perfect. The project is available on subscription (due to the copyright on some of the letters) and Universities from around the globe are already utilising it.

Mark is the only technical staff at EE, it is a small operation with only the project management, himself and freelancers.

The project takes the form of a website which takes collections of letters from about 1610 to 1840 and brings them into a web system for access online. Along with the copyright, the subscription has another purpose, EE have an aim to make a sustainable model for this type of content as most distributors put it online for free and then fade into obscurity as they lack the funds to continue the work. However, the letters are not the only content this project provides, the whole project is made up of:

  • correspondence and related documents
  • images of manuscripts where possible
  • biographies of authors and recipients
  • critical apparatus
  • source information
  • annotations

The sources of the letters is often critical editions (printed books from over 30 publishers which are normally copyrighted), Mark explained the digitisation of these often hardback books and I have to admit, the first step made me wince. Books are taken apart, spine first to enable scanning, each letter/page is scanned to PDF and then sent to India for keying. He emphasised the importance of keying when it comes to old texts, OCR would not work in this context due to the difference in language between that period and this. All of this results in XML, which is the backbone of the process. The process being going from print to digital to the web for subscribers.

Along with those sourced from critical editions, there is also born digital content which is created for them in Word with their style guide, converted into XML. They are currently working on web-based tools, like zoomable images of the manuscripts so that subscribers can really inspect the texts (and perhaps so they can cut down on the amount of annotations on the typed versions).

We were given a behind-the-scenes look at the database used in the editorial process and, to be honest, it was a little terrifying; it’s all because of the dates. Due to the age of the correspondence they are dealing with some function on different calendars, not only this but some of the dates are un- or partially-known, as such there are over 70 fields involved just to input the date. Another issue meaning that they need such a complicated database is the names – the long names.

Another behind-the-scenes type insight we were given was an explanation of the make up of the website itself, which I found particularly interesting and particularly helpful for NPD. (Miracles do exist and they exist in the form of guest speakers.) Something they are looking into at the moment is responsive design and I will be interested to see where they go with it.

Open Book, when OICPS Children’s does Radio

Between giving my Dad a topical, appropriate and somewhat hilarious (if I do say so myself) birthday card and a very short story, and formulating an argument for my Children’s research article (which is harder than it might seem), I thought I would come here and update my blog, since I haven’t for a little while. This, however, will not be a long entry due to the aforementioned argument formulation.

Today was the day we ‘performed’ our first Children’s assignment; a radio show. While I am emphatically not a fan of public speaking and the thought of doing the assignment terrified me more than I would like to admit (but admit it, I shall), I did greatly enjoy listening to the radio shows of the other groups in the class. Topics included: the taboo of poo in children’s literature, homosexuality in children’s literature, the censorship of racism in re-releases of classic children’s books, the affect of library cutbacks on children’s publishing, the importance of reading at home, and the attempt to break away from stereotypes in children’s publishing.

The scripts were engaging and often brought out a giggle or two throughout the rest of the class, especially when amusing accents were involved. It was an interesting alternative to the usual presentation style of assignment (though no less nerve-racking).

Round Up: Week One

So, as was made evident by the last entry, I am now back from the mammoth Christmas holidays, trying to get back into the real world and running head first into Semester 2. I have just completed my first week, filled with obligatory introductory lectures which, while informative, tend to be somewhat mind-numbing. There are only so many times you can take a guided look through module documentation without feeling a little bit queasy.

That said, it has been a good week. Let the round up commence:

Monday: New Product Development (NPD)

Starting at 12 was a novel idea or would have been if not for the bus timetable I am chained to. Naturally, I was in from 9am. The session began with an introduction to our teams and a few exercises, which included coming up with five ground rules for our teamwork (my favourite was #5 Have fun, be nice, bring snacks), describing yourself beginning only with J or H and coming up with ways you can fail.

There was a short break and then we found out what the module actually entailed, something we are still a little bit confused about.  NPD is like a giant roleplay, wherein each and every one of us is part of a broad publishing company which publishes everything from Children’s to STM to Trade Non-Fiction. The lecturers are the board of directors, each taking on a department. We are split into divisions and inside those divisions (made up of 7/8 people) we are split into departments too.

My team were given the Humanities and Social Sciences division, a division which, according to the scenario, has shown some complacency but did well with collections/journals/series on ethnology, particularly their Balkan and Native American series. From what I gather, we have to come up with a new list (both digital and print products) and win over the board with our proposal, convincing them that we deserve the money to see through our ideas.

I am not particularly well-versed in HumSoc but after spending 12 weeks at Berghahn, I do feel I have some idea of what we’re doing, which is comforting. I will be taking the role of head of Design in our division as well as assistant to the head of Production and we will be teaming up on top of that to focus on the Digital opportunities for our division. Both of us are taking the digital module, it seemed like a good fit.

After being talked through the different board members and the module handbook, we were given an informative slide show about the module and then sent off to our own little seminar rooms (one per group) to talk about said module and try to decide what we were doing. We had a lot of questions but our group seems pretty solid, so solid we will be having cupcakes and team bonding time over the weekend. As we know, cupcakes are very important.

Tuesday: Children’s

As introductory sessions go, Children’s was pretty good. We got to look at various books (and I got to geek out about one to my lecturer at the end of class, which was satisfying) and were given a run-through of what was happening in the world of Children’s, as well as a quick author quiz. Next week, we will be viewing a special collection of very old children’s books and in a few weeks we get to go and play with the Wonderbook in Wheatley. I can’t wait, even if getting there might be a bit of a hassle.

We will be having lots of visiting speakers, which promise to be interesting, and while others are off to Bologna Book Fair we who are left behind may be getting a copy writing master class (specifically for children’s books) with Sue Miller. There is definitely a silver lining to not being able to afford to travel to Italy on your birthday.

Wednesday: Digital Media Publishing

I won’t talk about the visiting speaker here, as I blogged extensively about that on Wednesday, check out my last entry. Instead, I will hop, jump and skip to the introductory session. If you follow me on twitter, you will have seen the live tweeting of intermingled sass and excitement (the former fills me with a small amount of guilt – sometimes you just need to sass). Despite what my twitter might suggest, it does sound like it will be a good module, it is just that most of the things we were told in the introduction we were told as part of two different modules last semester so it wasn’t anything new.

I did, however, get a bit of feedback on my first assignment. It’s not due in until week three but being the keen bean that I am, and already knowing the basics of HTML and CSS, I attempted it before the semester started. According to my lecturer, it is looking good. Excellent.

Major Project Meeting

Also taking place on Wednesday, I had a meeting about my major project. My idea has changed since I last blogged about it but I will still not be revealing what that idea is until the proposal has been handed in and approved. My idea was liked and I may possibly get an internship with a Children’s publisher – though, it’s a very small office and it may not happen but it’s nice that she’s trying to help me.

I now just need to work on the proposal of my major project, which is scary in itself and something I should be getting on with rather than writing this blog.

But instead we skip to Friday because my Thursday productivity plans went up the spout when I lost something important and then had to find it again. I did, however, do some work on my proposal and write some of this blog.

Friday: Market Research and Fun

It’s quite good that my Thursday plummeted, it meant I was able to do a little bit of work then have a long break of fun and play involving Doctor Who Monopoly (in which I got rich and then ended up in jail with very little to my name) and friends and French food followed by more work when I got home.

On the subject of work, I have recently accepted a work experience position with Dodona, a one-person publishing operation which produces local calendars, as well as diaries and coasters and the like. The position is mostly market research and looking for local photographers to take part in a possible local Oxford/Cotswold calendar and Friday, today, was the first time I’ve been able to go out and get things done. True, all I managed to get done was to glance at some shelves in a few book shops but it has given me some idea of what to ask when I talk to supervisors (hopefully on Sunday before team-building/getting-to-know-each-other shenanigans in Jericho). I still have to work out the best way to present my findings and I am currently thinking ‘report’.

Now that I’ve had all of my introductory sessions, it is time to get my head down and crank up the work hours and with that, despite the time, I go back to work on my proposal. Let the proposing commence.

Major Projects and an Apology for Slacking

So, it’s been a while and I am not blogging about what I said I was going to blog about and I am not currently reviewing what I said I was going to review in the future. I am a terrible person and I shouldn’t attempt to plan blogs in advance. In truth, there has been a lot of work going on and a lot of stress and I simply haven’t had the time.  I will get to everything, possibly in January. Until then, hello, it is nice to see you again.

As suggested in the title, this is not just about my failure as a blogger. No, it is a whirlwind of thought processes about the monster that is and will be my Major Project. Today, we were shown some previous Major Projects to make us aware of what constitutes as enough. Each of them were highly illustrated and, from what they said, took a lot of work in terms of image and text creation. I began to worry. My idea up until this point was to simply redesign an old text with the possibility of some illustrations. Now I am wondering if that is enough.

During my wondering (and also wandering), I came to the conclusion that using my strengths would definitely be worthwhile here and by strengths I mean my photography. After a quick search on Amazon, I discovered that the text I am redesigning/reworking has been released semi-recently as low cost paperbacks and kindle editions. Again there was worry but then I realised how, to put it bluntly, ugly they were. From what I have seen there is not a single beautiful version of this book, and during a wider search, I found that books on the same subject (here I am being cryptic again until I am definitely sure of myself and my project – sorry about that) were also a little frail on the design side of things.

There is only one, produced by the Folio Society, in which the design seems worthy of the beauty that is the content. One in all that I have seen so far. Could it be that I have found an angle for my analytic report? Could it be that simple? We shall see in the next episode of Elou and the Major Project. Coming to a blog near you.

Major Project Musings: Folklore (and a rediscovery of reading)

Since writing my last post, I have now finished The Night Circus and succumbed and read Insurgent too (yes, I read fiction absurdly fast even if it is just on bus journeys* to and from OICPS and Berghahn Books, where I intern – the book was wonderful, by the way) and am now researching for possibilities for my Major Project. For those among anyone reading who might be OICPS students, I had an epiphany while trying to sleep a few nights ago – do not panic, I am pretty sure we don’t need to be planning yet; thinking, probably.

Without having emailed one of my lecturers, I would not be doing what I am doing right now. It would not have entered my mind. I am so glad I sent that email and I am so glad I got the response that I did.** Currently, around writing this blog post, I am immersing myself in Folklore, something which I have always been interested in but have never really delved into properly; I have never really explored many cultures.

I am currently asking myself why. The stories I have discovered this evening are brilliant, and so very different from the ones I am accustomed to even though they do all have the same basic archetypes hidden beneath them. I could go into some lengthy analysis and bow and scrape about how wonderful they are but I promised myself this would be a short blog post so there will be more on folklore, mythology, legends and the cultures they come from later, as the project progresses should I chose to go down this route. (I probably will; it’s this or Lord Dusany, I am almost certain – even if it is completely different to the idea I envisioned earlier.) There shall be no gushing today.

There is something I have learned, over the past few weeks of reading while I travel: I have missed reading and I am so glad to have made it a regular part of my life again instead of doing snatches of reading in the small moments I could steal away from other activities (read: internships, university and etc).

Bring me words.

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* I spend around 6 and 3/4 hours on buses every week.
** Vague and unhelpful, I know.