How I accidentally became a published writer in 1998 by authoring a book filled with blank pages


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Four score and seven years ago in 1998, I became a published author. It was an accident and I didn’t mean to.

The published book was filled with (mostly) blank pages. That’s the cover up above.

I found a copy yesterday because I have this banana box in my office that I’ve been trying to tidy. Like, for years.

Hashtag relatable, right?

It’s a tricky box full of stuff that I find difficult to throw away. It’s all actually crap. But I have a sentimental attachment to some of the crap. Actually, all of it.

But I’m determined to try and live a more minimalistic lifestyle. You know… have less stuff. Be more zen etc.

Aside from meditating and eating Lima beans, one strategy then, it would seem, is to get rid of all the stuff.

This is much harder than it sounds.

For example, at the moment, I can fit everything I need to run my business and do my work in a 35L backpack. And there’s still room for clothes for a couple of days away.

It’s a great bag. It’s a new one. I got it for my birthday.

I also have too many bags. I need a separate closet just for bags.

But what if I wanted to go away for a long time? That’s what I’ve been mulling over. What about all the other dross that has accumulated? What kinds of bags would I need?

More importantly, what about the box of crap that I can’t seem to unload?

A few years back I when I seemed to be moving house every 18 months I realised that I had more than 25 banana and apple boxes full of books on applied linguistics and language teaching and other stuff that I didn’t really care about anymore.

I don’t even know where I got most of the books from. Some of them I bought. But others just seemed to find me. Piles of them.

I think I read one or two. But mainly they made me feel good.

They looked great on the shelves. It’s another dirty little pleasure of mine. Interesting books on bookshelves.

You can tell a lot about someone by the books on their shelves. That’s what we book snobs tell ourselves.

But really, it’s about as accurate as trying to psychoanalyse your friends by reading meaning into the titles of the songs they listen to on Spotify (yes, I’m watching you).

I tried to sell the 25+ boxes of books to the second-hand university bookshop close to my old university. All I wanted was a hundred bucks.

They just laughed at me. And eventually, they had to ask me to leave the premises. The books had no value they said.

So I dried my tears and went back to the department where I used to work and offloaded all of the boxes of books to Carmen the secretary.

They were, of course, very grateful.

No one said anything, not even Carmen who was of course very happy to see me after so many years and who tried to re-recruit me to the academic staff.

It hadn’t been the same since I left, you see.

It’s also possible that many of the books were actually theirs to start with.

Mea culpa.

I was still a student at the same university in the same department when I accidentally became a published writer of the book with blank pages.

No, it wasn’t a diary.

But that must be a similar kind of thing. I mean, if you write diaries for a living and they’re published, then aren’t you a published writer as well?

Diary writer at a party: “Yeah, man… I usually put a book out every year… Last year, though… that was a toughy. Nearly missed the deadline… But you should see what I’m working on for next year…”

Diaries don’t usually have the author’s name on the front, however. So I’m a step above a writer of diaries.

The cause of my accidental publishing was my students. It was, at least, partially their fault.

As an ESOL teacher, I needed ways of filling in time. You know, in the classes.

Sometimes these fillers also had the added benefit of having pedagogical value. That means people learned as a result.

I had stumbled onto the idea of getting my students to do a journal writing exercise every class for 10 minutes.

Hardly original, but it was brilliant. I set the time and patrolled the class. They stopped talking and started writing.

We had some rules. Such as there were no rules. Apart from the rule that there were no rules.

And they could also ignore pesky things like spelling and grammar. Also a kind of non-rule, rule.

The idea was to focus on pure fluency.

If I still had the 25 banana and apple boxes full of second language acquisition theory and research I could probably justify it some way.

But on a purely pragmatic level, it worked beautifully. That’s all I really care about these days. If something works, do I need to know why?

Not only did the journal writing use up at least 20 minutes by the time they had come in, said hello, settled down, got started, written a bunch, done a word count and graphed their output… but it actually improved their writing.

I had the data to prove it.

And then when I was wracking my brains on what to submit for one of my assignments for the degree I was completing, I decided to write up my journal writing activity.

The lecturer liked it so much that she sent it to a national organisation that worked with refugees and migrants. And they liked it so much that they made a few suggestions and published it.

I was so happy. Especially when I received royalty cheques for years after too.

Once I got a cheque for $1.43.

That must have covered the envelope, paper AND the stamp costs.

If you’ve never received a royalty cheque you wouldn’t understand. Even though it cost me around $10 in fuel to get to the bank and back, I loved depositing those royalty cheques.

Happiness can’t last forever though. And a few years ago I asked them to keep the royalties and donate them to a good cause. Namely themselves.

And today I realised that if I scan and post the last remaining copy here, I can get rid of the last remaining paper copy from the banana box of crap on my floor.

There might be one more copy though, slipped deviously into one of those 25 boxes of books off-loaded to Carmen at the university.

Workbook for Learners of English and their Tutors by Graeme Smith

 

 

 

 

The Pragmatist’s Guide to Essay Writing, AKA The Underground English Manual


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This is a picture of my hand holding a picture of my hand. How’s that for meta?

When I went to university, I was a slow learner. I had to write essays. I was a poor BA student.

And I mean metaphorically and literally.

No multichoice for me. Things may have changed, but I doubt it. C’est la vie…

I didn’t even take film studies. Close though. English literature major.

Nothing wrong with BA students, mind you.

Bob Jones always liked BAs because they could write. That meant that they could think. And that meant he could train them to run his businesses.

That was back in the days when he used to fly in commercial airlines, but after he punched the journalist in the face who disturbed him trout fishing in Turangi.

And long before he was called out for racist comments in a national newspaper.

Anyway.

It took me three years to learn how to write. I was totally unprepared. This is mainly due to the fact that I thought I was above average at English at High School and I thought I had above average teachers.

I got a scholarship in English in 7th form, you see. It was worth an extra $150 towards my studies at the time I think. IKR…?

So I declined. I grew my hair long and joined a rock and roll band. Actual about 5 different bands. It’s a blur now.

And after three years of selling guitar strings in Taupo, I realised that my best years were probably behind me now.

That international tour to Norfolk Island with the Wairakei Country Music Club.

Those cassette tape recordings of the original music my friend in the goth band wrote and we performed.

Coming second in a talent contest with another mate who sounded exactly like Dave Dobbyn but was never gonna win because the winner and the judges were all family members.

Those drunken 21sts.

The biker club in the industrial area with the spiked corrugated iron fence (whose idea was the whipped cream…?).

Good times, but my best years were behind me and I needed to move on, find another life, settle down.

Get a haircut, eventually. Regrow those brain cells.

So I had to learn to write essays about 21st-century literature.

And I could read but I couldn’t write.

It turns out that my scholarship in English was suspect as well. Possibly fraudulent.

I blame the NZQA. And my high school. It was their fault.

My test results for English had been scaled as part of rather dodgy norm-referenced testing.

In other words, my score was almost above average. But not exceptional.

It was just that everyone else in my cohort was crap and I was the least crap. Plus they had already allocated a scholarship to the school from the year before that had to be used.

Ka pai me…!

But back to the writing. I got Bs. I got the occasional B+. It was hard to rise above this level of mediocracy.

In the end, I got help. Professional help. From someone who KNEW.

Her name with Judith. She was very old. And she had her own office. I think the university had forgotten about her, because it was in a really obscure location.

I’m not sure what she was supposed to do. And I can’t remember how I met her. Or if she was paid.

But she would interpret the scratching on the bottom of my essays and tell me what they meant. It was like reading tea leaves. She was my medium.

And it worked like magic. Judith was my saviour.

One of my lecturers would write something like “This is Ok, but lacks cohesion”… I was always “Whuh…?

But even when you go and talk to these pillocks in their office hours they just say more of the same thing. Meaningless drivel.

That’s when I began to develop a deep-seated suspicion of academics. I mean, as a species they are kind of cute. But we should be sceptical of them. Just sayin’.

Thanks to Judith, though, I started to learn how to write. She showed me the basics.

Like how to understand the topic or question. How to plan. And then how to write.

And then… Dulce decorum est…! I started getting As and then A+s. It was a freaking miracle.

To be honest, it was a little mindless after a while.

To start with I was so jazzed, I’d print out every A+ on a sheet of golden A4 paper on my new Cannon Bubble Jet printer that I’d paid ONE THOUSAND DOLLARS for.

And I’d put them up on my wall.

Soon the whole wall was covered. And by soon I mean relatively speaking.

But it got embarrassing so I took them down and wrote a book about how to write essays instead.

And this book, I got designed and commercially printed. And I even sold a bunch at the unofficial student bookshop where they always had all the second-hand books that no one really wanted.

That’s the cover in the picture up above. I kinda feel that I started to find my voice when I wrote this book.

Unfortunately, that was the voice of a snarky arrogant git. Funny though.

Here is one pearl:

Always give a monkey a banana

…your tutor, teacher, lecture – whoever set the assignment – is a monkey. What you have to do is give them a banana – that’s your essay. What’s important is that you give them the right kind of banana. Probably, this person is an academic. An academic is just a monkey with a degree and it’s the job of these monkeys to make difficult things more complicated. He or she won’t just come out and tell you what kind of banana they want. However, as you work through our method, you can increase your chance of dishing out the right kind of banana.

It’s a bit cringy now.

But I wanted to share it because it illustrates a point. And this is… that this is what is wrong with our education system.

The current situation with NCEA comes to mind. This kind of strategy still works. You can try it out.

The skills you need to get through are not the same as learning the content that you’re learning to navigate.

But don’t let that stop you from getting those A+s… Download link below for the full unexpurgated version.

Forensic Linguistics – Or A Story About How I Used To Help Sneaky Lawyers Get Immigrants Off Drunk Driving Charges


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This is not a dig at the cops. I have good mates who are police. It’s just a story… recorded here for posterity. Also, if I was doing all this again, I would take a different approach.

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A long time ago, when I was much younger (and much more naive), I had a gig where I would work with lawyers defending immigrants and refugees who couldn’t speak (much) English.

The accused were always poor and had a court lawyer appointed and paid for by legal aid.

They were also all speakers of English as a second (or third or fourth) language.

I must have helped on around 20 cases like this in the 90s just after completing my post-grad studies in applied linguistics. In 19 out of 20 cases I think we were successful in getting the charges dropped.

Usually, their stories would unfold something like this.

He (the accused were always male) was minding his own business when the Police got involved for some unfathomable reason. One thing leads to another and suddenly he’s being arrested, charged and sentenced in court.

Of course, he has no idea what is going on. Especially through the early stages of the process.

I had one client who was asleep in his car when it happened. Let’s call him Mr A. The Police knocked on his window, woke him up accused him of drunk driving and then charged him with refusing to give blood.

I had another guy (Mr T) who was arrested after chasing down another dude who he caught burglarizing his house. He called the Police himself. But he probably should have put down the metal rod he was holding when he chased the burglar down the road.

And this is when I used to get called in.

I was engaged as an expert witness. My speciality was part of what I learned was called forensic linguistics. This is a fancy way of saying you use skills from applied linguistics in the pursuit of justice.

You see, our justice system relies on everyone having certain rights. This is codified in the Bill of Rights. And for me, the essential thing was the Advice Pursuant to the Bill of Rights.

Things are different now. I hope. I do know that now there are lots of cops who come from many different ethnic and language speaking backgrounds. So hopefully the problem doesn’t exist.

But 20 years ago, here’s how it used to play out. The cop would recite the Bill of Rights Advice at 100 miles an hour. Like a mantra or telephone number.

It sounds like this: “Yunnastandthatdjuvdaritetaconsultninstructalawyer?”

The answer, of course, was always “yes” on the part of the accused. What was happening is that they did understand that they were being asked a question. What they didn’t understand was what the question was about.

But they usually knew that the answer had to be yes. Because you don’t say no to a Policeman right?

So they just said yes. Usually, that meant they nodded.

And then they signed a statement to say that they understood.

But did they actually understand? Well… that’s where it all gets kinda grey.

For me, it was easy to make a case that they didn’t have a clue what was going on. I would meet them and interview them for an hour. I’d test their vocabulary – both general and specific to the Bill of Rights.

And I’d interview them. I might ask them to read something or do a few other tasks. But the outcome was always compelling evidence that they did not understand their rights at the time that they were read to them.

Yes, they signed a statement to say that they understood. But that’s a minor detail when you can prove that someone knows less than a thousand words of English and none of them are the weird legalese of the Bill of Rights.

Case closed. Nevermind whether they were actually guilty or not.

I see you cringe. The point was that their rights were more important.

Police prosecutors hated me. I understand why. No hard feelings. It wasn’t personal. Well, it was a little bit personal at the time.

I got cross-examined a few times. That was terrifying. But it was also exhilarating. Eat your heart out John Grisham.

Afterwards, the lawyer told me that only new or inexperienced prosecutors will cross-examine an expert witness.

I’m not sure that is always true. But it was easy to run rings around him. He just dug himself a deeper and deeper hole.

I’m sure the story as a moral somewhere. But I stopped doing this work because I moved to Japan. And I felt that a couple of my clients probably should have gone to jail. Or at least lost their licences.

For a boring version of this tale, please see the attached PDF which I wrote for an equally obscure academic journal while teaching in Japan.

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What are some easy-to-use Service Design Tools…? Part 3 – Customer Journey Maps


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Updated: In collaboration with the University of Auckland Business School, get 10% off the course fees for Service Design Thinking at checkout by using this code before the end of 2018: GRAEME10

Customer journey maps are another simple but powerful tool from the Service Design toolkit.

These sit nicely with the other tools I’ve been looking at including Stakeholder maps and using Personas.

The idea is that you map out in a highly visual way the experience of a person (or persona) over time. You can do this for different purposes. Some of these might include:

  • Collecting real-life stories from users. In my case, this might include learners or tutors.
  • Understanding how services work – don’t work as the case may be. A journey map might help you identify pain points and roadblocks or potential inefficiencies that you want to target.
  •  Envisioning future services.

All you need really is a bunch of sticky notes and a decent wall space. I like the style below where you also map the emotional ups and downs of the user journey as well.

I haven’t used this one yet, but I’ve been thinking through how I could use it in the implementation phase of the current project.

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What are some easy-to-use Service Design Tools…? Part 2 – Using Personas


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Updated: In collaboration with the University of Auckland Business School, get 10% off the course fees for Service Design Thinking at checkout by using this code before the end of 2018: GRAEME10

Another easy to use and super helpful tool from the Service Design toolkit is to develop and use personas.

Here’s an alternative definition to the one in the image above from this great website:

Each persona is based on a fictional character whose profile gathers up the features of an existing social group. In this way, the personas assume the attributes of the groups they represent: from their social and demographic characteristics to their own needs, desires, habits and cultural backgrounds.

Personas can be assumption-based or research-based. And sometimes one leads to the other.

For my project, I needed to develop personas that were composites of different kinds of tutors, educators and other support personnel working in the foundation education sector.

My process for this evolved over time and I would modify it based on each group I worked with. But the basic idea was this:

  1. Get a group of tutors together who share common attributes. An example might be that they all work in an ESOL context with refugees and migrants, or that they work with Māori learners in a particular special character context.
  2. Talk about my project in a way that makes sense to the participants. Often this involved telling the story of the most recent personas created from a previous group. And then drawing out differences or similarities to their own contexts.
  3. Set up a task with two or three key questions. In this way, they were able to describe the kind of work they do and evidence that they might bring to the table.
  4. Facilitate a discussion around the emerging categories. Usually, I’m finetuning the categories with each group. By the end, I had a good idea about what categories would encompass all of the different kinds of responses I was likely to encounter.

My questions were specific to the context of my project. For example, we were looking to create a draft professional standards framework for educators and others. This meant that there were three key questions to ask.

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Responses didn’t give me the broad categories I needed for the framework. Rather, the responses allowed me to play with different categories and see how the responses fit.

The result: Now I have a selection of personas that I can use to tell stories about different kinds of tutors who may be affected by the new service that we are looking to design. This cuts across a lot of technical jargon and needless education-speak.

And that makes it easier for me to pitch the work to others when I need to in a very user-friendly way.

What are some easy-to-use Service Design Tools…? Part 1 – Stakeholder maps


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Updated: In collaboration with the University of Auckland Business School, get 10% off the course fees for Service Design Thinking at checkout by using this code before the end of 2018: GRAEME10

The idea with a stakeholder map is that you can visually represent all of the various groups involved in a service. This might include organisations, staff, experts and others.

I got to this late. So the image above is one that I did retrospectively after I did the Service Design course at Auckland Uni. I’d already made a start on my project but it was still helpful. The context for me is education service provision.

What it made me realise, is that when I encounter difficulties it’s because the network of relationships in my field is complex. No kidding, right?

But this helped me realise that it’s a bit like an ecosystem. Which is a polite way of saying that it’s really like a swamp.

Here’s how I mapped my stakeholders:

  1. I started with my project in the centre.
  2. Then I listed all of the key organisations or types of organisations that I needed to work with or talk to.
  3. Then around the outside, I added other influences.
  4. Finally, I added questions that I needed to think about.

What I haven’t shown on here – that some people like to add – is arrows showing linkages and relationships between organisations and groups.

If I did it would start to look like a crazy wall very quickly.

The way I’m using this now is that if I need to, I can structure discussion or thinking around one or more aspects of what I’ve mapped. And at the same time hopefully not lose sight of the bigger picture (which sometimes has a habit of slipping away when you go down a particular rabbit hole).

Key to acronyms in case you read this far.

  • TEC = Tertiary Education Commission.
  • SME = Subject matter experts.
  • ITP = Institute of Technology and Polytech.
  • PTE = Private Training Establishment.
  • WPL = Workplace literacy.
  • NCLANA = National Centre for Literacy and Numeracy for Adults (Now defunct).
  • ESOL = English for Speakers of Other Languages.
  • ITF = Industry Training Federation.
  • ACE = Adult Community Education.
  • NZCALNE = New Zealand Certificate in Adult Literacy & Numeracy Education.
  • NZCATT = New Zealand Certificate in Adult Tertiary Teaching.
  • NZQA = New Zealand Qualifications Authority.
  • PLD = Professional Learning & Development.
  • HEA = Higher Education Academy.

 

What is Service Design Thinking…? Part 4


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Service Design Thinking Guidelines

Updated: In collaboration with the University of Auckland Business School, get 10% off the course fees for Service Design Thinking at checkout by using this code before the end of 2018: GRAEME10

This is part 4 of a follow up on the Service Design Thinking short course I did through the University of Auckland‘s executive education programme.

Above are some service design thinking guidelines drawn from the book I mentioned in the previous post.

I’ve put my own spin on this, but there are a couple of things that the graphic above does not show:

  • One is that the creation and concept design phase includes making mistakes. Sometimes you need the freedom to make these mistakes in order to do the learning you need in order to refine your prototype.
  • The other thing is that the process is not really linear. I’ve dropped in the icon with the circular arrows to suggest this. But I think the reality is quite messy as you flip back and forth across different phases in the design process. More like the squiggle image below.

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