Keyvador Charles Douglas

Keyvador Charles Douglas

09/05/1997 – 21/06/2014

We always said you were one of our rescues. You were bred to be a show cat, a Champion Maine Coon. Your father was the father of half the champion show Coons of your generation in the north of England. But you never got thrown in the bath and thrown in a cage and handled by random judges and gawped at by random strangers. You roamed a mile or more in all directions until one day you limped home only half crushed by a car and we said,”enough”, and put a fence round our big wild garden that even you couldn’t climb. And you still had trees to climb.

I remember people falling silent in mid-sentence, jaw literally dropped, when they first caught sight of you. I remember someone glimpsing you through the window and taking you for a fox.

I remember you coming in out of the rain with beads of water glittering over your thick glossy outer coat. I remember brushing out the knots in your undercoat as fine as merino wool. I remember the incomparable fluid grace of your every movement.

I will try not to remember that forceful presence dwindling, that wonderful double coat thinning and dulling, those luminous gold eyes darkening.

Every night you would settle on the foot of my bed while I read for a while, and as soon as I turned out the light you would delicately walk up and curl under my chin, purring. Sometimes I would wake up to find my arm curled tightly around you, purring. When you stopped doing that – when I started waking in the small hours because you weren’t there – I thought the end was near.

But somehow you pulled round, and you came back to me at night, and we shared a few more precious months. Until now.

You come of a long-lived breed. But we always said you had never read the breed spec, and sadly how right we were. You were barely 17. It’s too soon to go. But you chose your time.

It’s only a lifetime. Nobody lives forever. Nobody lives forever.

I’m half-way through a series of thought-provoking, highly enjoyable workshops on translation, led by the charming and  knowledgeable Rob Rix, at the Instituto Cervantes. We were talking last week about translation as a form of reading – the closest possible.  Would you realise, on a quick skim, that this simple sentence offers a choice in translation worth considering?

El universo (que otros llaman la Biblioteca) se componte de un número indefinido, y tal vez infinito, de galerías hexagonales.

Natural, simple Spanish grammar: a translation using natural, simple English grammar would be

The universe (which others call the Library) is composed of an indefinite, possibly infinite number of hexagonal galleries.

But the whole paragraph (the opening of Borges’ La biblioteca de Babel) resonates with words for the expansive, the indefinite, the infinite. Better, I think, to buy the emphasis at a small cost in the grammar:

The universe (which others call the Library) is composed of a number – indefinite, possibly infinite – of hexagonal galleries.

My father, a fine humanist Professor of Philosophy and a dedicated teacher, used to tell his students that the more criticism he made of their work, the better it was. His harshest criticism was to make no comment – he had found nothing worth commenting on. The best work deserved the closest reading and the most detailed response. And the closest way to read and understand is to translate.  Every word must be weighed, considered, turned over in one’s mind.

If one is learning a language, one is given passages to translate. Even at the elementary level of my Spanish, if these passages are well chosen, they will raise a few questions beyond basic comprehension – perhaps cultural elements (you can’t order food in a restaurant in Chile if you don’t know something about Chilean cuisine), or the correct use of a verb construction with no exact English equivalent. Far richer, demanding of far more knowledge and thought, when one reaches the wide fields and challenging peaks of literary translation.

So by setting or choosing a text for translation, one is evaluating, assessing, that text. Will this offer my students, or me, enough grounding in the achievable to build understanding and confidence, and also enough challenge and possibility to encourage close reading and exploration of the ranges of meaning?

Rob brings passages he has chosen for us to work on, based on his assessment. He also asks us all to choose our own, and to explain where in them we found the grounding, where the challenge. That is how a few days ago I came to realise the subtlety in that Borges paragraph, which  I had “read” many times before, both in the original and in (published) translation. And it is fascinating to see what choices my fellow participants make, and their reasons (especially, for me, the native Spanish speakers searching out the meanings in English texts).

Perhaps, even if one has no intention of embarking on a translation, one could use that as a criterion of assessment for a text. How closely is this worth reading? Will the enrichment of my understanding – of the language, its culture, the text itself – be worth the effort of that close reading? And if one has the power and privilege of teaching, their enrichment? My father was right: to undertake or demand that closest reading is the highest assessment of value.

You know about “to do” lists, of course. You write down a list of everything you need to do, and then as you do each thing you cross it out. So as the day goes on, your list gets darker and messier,  your achievements are obliterated, and you have to hunt through the darkness and mess and obliteration to find the things that are still to do.

Now – it’s counter-intuitive – try striking out the things you’ve done, not in black, but with a highlighter. Now, as the  day goes on, your list gets brighter, your achievements stand out, and the not-done – the not-yet-done – things want to be highlighted too.

Which of these makes you feel better?


I’ve just come across a frustration-provoking discussion, on an academic email forum, of students’ views on feedback.

Several of the contributors reported students, on course evaluation questionnaires, saying that individual comments on their work from staff had helped them to understand the course material, but evaluating “feedback” as poor.

Do we have to define “feedback” for them before asking the question? The prevailing MCQ format of satisfaction surveys precludes asking them what they think “feedback” is, which of course would be The Right Answer.

The most thrilling sight in light aviation, I thought yesterday, is not the evening sunlight glowing in the cloud-tops just under the wing and glinting on the lakes of the English Lake District 60 miles to the north from 6500 feet. Not the skein of the Ladybower reservoirs funnelling down to the crags of Stannage Edge and the cultured gardens of Chatsworth. Not even the Atlantic and Pacific spray clashing across the rocks of the Cape of Good Hope, so close that every fleck of foam is clear.

It is a paved strip under the wheels (or maybe grass), 800 metres long or 2800, the strongly foreshortened centre line markings  stretching away from the nose of the aeroplane, leading – anywhere. Anywhere.

“Checks complete, ready for departure.”

I only realised much later how appropriate it was that my first chance to fly this summer was on the first day of  registration for the university New Year.

Blind double summative marking is common in UK HE, in the interests of fairness and consistency. Blind double feedback – involving a second assessor in formative assessment – used sensibly – has much to recommend it.

Confronting a young undergraduate with contradictory appraisals of their work might be unhelpful. But complementary appraisals can be enriching. Perhaps one assessor comments on the technical content of a draft while the other focuses on the presentation, or they identify different weaknesses, or suggest different directions in which the work could be developed, different references which could be drawn in.

Where a project or dissertation has a supervisor and a second reader, I have often – from both sides – seen the supervisor and the student develop a shared understanding of their material which blinds them to unclear presentation. I remember second-marking an otherwise excellent formal analysis of certain non-standard usages in English grammar which gave no examples of standard usage. Sadly the dissertation had already been submitted, and had to be referred for re-submission. Much more recently a second reader for one of my MSc students pointed out that an existing piece of work was described but no explanation was given of its relevance. Well, the student and I knew what it was doing there! – so neither of us saw the omission. This time, the feedback was given on an interim progress report, and the problem will be corrected in the final submission.

Early formative feedback from a second marker can also alert the student to any special interests or preferences which will affect their summative assessment of the final version. The motivation here could be described as “realistic” or even cynical rather than purely paedogogic – and I will consider its unpleasant extremes in a later post – but it has value nonetheless. After all we teach them to consider their target readership in choosing how to write, and perhaps a readership of one is only a special case.

My son has been reading Matthew Crawford (the American edition, Shop Class as Soulcraft), and picked out his discussion of

how kids who were given rewards for drawing got less interested in drawing than those who didn’t.  That rewards change motivations.

Appropriate for the time of year. One of my undergraduates has been virtually hysterical waiting for his final degree results, another is spending all summer re-writing essays in hope of scraping out a few more Marks. Whatever appeal of their (different) subjects drew them here three years ago has been lost, snuffed out. Another repeatedly complains of how much she is asked to read for each new essay, and repeatedly seems surprised when I remind her that she wants to read and learn this stuff.

What, exactly, snuffs out the appeal? Is it that a passion or pastime has become an obligation? Fear of harsh judgement or failure? Or loss of self-reliance, as others take over the direction of our dreams, and their judgement overtakes our pleasure and pride?