Monday, August 22, 2016

Okay, I get it: you don't like cursive handwriting

Figure 1. You can read this, right?
In "Handwriting Just Doesn't Matter," a clickbait-y title that considerably overstates the evidence supplied in what turns out to be a surprisingly reasonable essay, Anne Trubek lists all the usual suspects about why we don't need cursive handwriting.

Actually,  I agree with a lot of her reasoning:

1. More people are writing more than ever before, so the kids are all right. (Pretty much true).

2. Typed work levels the playing field since bad handwriting can prejudice teachers (which is true).

3. The current proponents of cursive have seen it as a patriotic act, which is pretty sinister (which is sort of true and really one of the strongest arguments).  Typing is more small-d democratic.

4. She and her son had a hard time learning it, so it's not needed. (Can't judge this one.)

Weaker arguments:

1. Everyone has a keyboard or phone (and by extension is presumably wirelessly connected, with fully charged keyboard/phone) at all times. (Nope, not buying this one. Do we have free hardware and free software and free connectivity for everyone in this country? Disgracefully, no. )

2. It's not important to be able to read cursive, since only "experts" can read documents in cursive: "Reading that 18th-century document [the Declaration of Independence] in the original is difficult for most people who know cursive, as the script is now unfamiliar." Proof? Source? No, it's not difficult to read. It's not necessary, though, to be able to read it in cursive, although this seems to be an obsession with the #3 people above.

 The stronger corollary is that these documents are also written in foreign languages, which, although she doesn't say it, is something the U.S. more or less gave up on a while back.

3. She glides over all the studies that show that students who write notes by hand--which is NOT the same as cursive--retain information better.

Where Anne Trubek and I agree most is on this benign and sweeping conclusion: "The cultural values we project onto handwriting will alter as we do, as they have for the past 6,000 years."

As I've argued a lot on this blog, unlike Anne Trubek, I think that handwriting and/or cursive is important but isn't a hill to die on. But like other forms of creativity or self-expression (or the humanities, for that matter), we need to think a little before we can argue for its elimination on utilitarian grounds.

 Every time some form of handcraft goes extinct, whether it's canning or calligraphy or drama clubs or music--or, worse, becomes a class marker, as in prep schools will teach it  but public schools will not--we lose a little something of our small-d democratic systems.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Email: You're doing it wrong, according to random clickbait writers

A few years ago, in 2010, I wrote a post noting how "I hope you are well" had started appearing as the opening to most of the emails I received:
A few years ago, I started noticing that a number of academics didn't just launch into requests or whatever when writing emails. Instead, the emails began with the sentence "I hope you are well" or another courteous phrase unheard of back in the olden days.

And the complimentary closes of the emails became more polite, too. Although a lot of people still apparently prefer "best," I've seen comments at the Chronicle saying that this is too curt, and in the last couple of years, I've seen a lot more variety in this part of the email, too: "best regards," "warm regards," "all best," "with best wishes," "cordially," and so on.
I saw this phrase, and some more courteous phrases generally, as an improvement on the necessarily somewhat curt messages we used to send in the early (pre-)Internet days when it was impossible to go up or down a line to correct typos in the email clients then in use.

I don't usually use this phrase, which is mostly reserved for--ahem--only the prickliest of correspondents--but I don't have anything against it.

But Dayna Perkins, a random person on the internet, wrote a clickbait-y piece full of opinions for New York magazine about it, saying we ought to stop using it.

And she links to Rebecca Greenfield, a media-friendly opinion consultant at Bloomberg, who says we also shouldn't be using "best." She cites another bunch of people with lots of opinions.

Well, I, too, am a random person on the internet, and I disagree with exactly as much weight of factual evidence and authority as they're showing.

I ought to know better than to fall for opinion clickbait at this point. I also know that negative clickbait (don't/never/these 5 things will kill you) generates more clicks than positive opinion pieces, so I really should have known better.

But since I want to be respectful and move along, I will sign this as follows:

I remain, dear madame, most affectionately,

Yr most obedient and faithful servant,

Undine


Thursday, August 18, 2016

Class and academe: a somewhat meandering childhood story with a point

Figure 1. Like the version in my great-aunt's house.
[If you're tired of my posts about/current interest in issues of class, you can skip this post.]

One day, when I was about 10, I walked over to my great-aunt's house. (This wasn't an everyday thing; my parents must have been out of town or something.) My great-aunt had retired from her job as a saleswoman in the major department store of our nearby city. 

My great-aunt and great-uncle lived about a block away in our village, in a stone house built sometime in the early years of the 19th century. The house itself had two living rooms, or rather a living room and a parlor. The living room had regular comfortable furniture; the parlor was mostly Empire and Victorian, with horsehair-covered settees and the first hair art picture I had ever seen.

The house was on the edge of a ravine, under huge maple and oak trees, with a chicken coop where it was a great treat for us kids to gather eggs.

It wasn't common to keep chickens in those days, as it is fashionable now (vide the Portlandia episodes that reference this), and it wasn't fashionable to be conscious of healthy food then, either. But my aunt and uncle had been keeping a large garden for this reason since the 1930s, growing asparagus and making things like whole wheat bread and dandelion wine (which looked and smelled disgusting, incidentally).

On this particular day, I knocked on the screen door and stepped over the worn stone threshold. The kitchen was large, and the fireplace that had originally served as both cooking and heat source was there but unused; my memory is that there was a stone floor still.

When I walked in, I saw the jars of peaches that my aunt had just canned. They were all over the counter and the wooden kitchen table, and she was lifting another rack of them out of the canning kettle.

This was pretty exotic to me then, since like most of her contemporaries, my mother didn't can things much or make bread.

As I chatted with my aunt, I said something like, "It's amazing that you can can these peaches. I wish I could do this when I grow up."

She then turned to me and said, not angrily but seriously: "I never went to college. This is all I can do. But you can go to college and do so much more."





Saturday, August 13, 2016

Class, J. D. Vance's Hillbilly Elegy, and the First Jobs Meme

I'm more and more realizing that I come from a middle-class family that thinks like a working-class family, according to the levels of savvy about m-c norms that J. D. Vance talks about in Hillbilly Elegy.

 Vance describes wildly dysfunctional families--mine was not; it was wonderful and happy--but in terms of general class cluelessness, I offer this:

--Neither my parents nor I had any conception that there was such a thing as financial aid for college. No. Clue. I had a Regents' scholarship, and we thought that was all that was available. [Edited to add: The idea that you would get competing offers from private schools and play them off against each other, as is apparently common, might have occurred on Mars for all we were aware of it.]

--Intense mockery from the larger extended family for wanting to do what Hamilton calls "rise above my station."  Which job did I want? Nurse or teacher?  What's puzzling is that some of them were professionals--lawyers and such--so I think this was probably gender rather than class-based.

--Which state school did I plan to attend, the one 40 miles away or the one 60 miles away? (Vance talks about this place-bound thinking as a class issue; ditto for private versus public institutions.)

--Rules were for keeps, whereas for middle- and upper-middle class students, rules were meant to be bent with a well-placed phone call.  Here's what I said about them in 2009:
 As I said in a too-long comment over at Sisyphus's blog, if you were raised with working-class values (as I was, and which transcend technical middle-class status), you thought that when someone told you the rules, they were really the rules. You didn't realize that you could argue your way out of them and convince people to do your bidding, because that's not how the world works for you if you don't have class privilege to back it up. And then, when you saw others sail past the rules that you'd abided by, you felt angry and betrayed, because you'd played by the rules and they hadn't.
 I did not know that rules would bend to class privilege until well beyond graduate school.  Now I make a point of telling students like me, "Look, let's make a call and see what we can do."

So, forthwith I give you, as seen at Flavia Fescue's, the first jobs meme.

1. Babysitting, a lot of it, enough to buy my first typewriter in high school. Now that I think of it, some of my wages from being a cashier probably paid for part of it, too.

2.  Tried to get a job at the library but couldn't. Ditto a newspaper job. Jobs were scarce in those days.

3. Supermarket cashier. My mother, using her influence, got me an interview at the local chain supermarket, where I worked at a checkout stand through high school and college. I felt lucky to have this job, since each summer I had to earn whatever spending money I needed for the whole school year. This was back when you had to memorize prices (no bar codes), so I got to be good at it fairly fast.

4. Job I did not try for: waitress, due to an intense hatred of smoking and knowing that I'd have to clean ash trays. This was before "smoke-free" anything.

5. Worked in food service in a dining hall, both on the serving line and prepping vegetables.

6. Drugstore clerk. Hated it.

7. Filing and typing in an academic office.

Flavia, I thank you for posting this list, for I had thought that maybe I was making it up about the class dimension of jobs.  In thinking more deeply about it, I can see that I wasn't.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Take a break! Let's go away for the summer; let's go upstate

Take a break. That's what everyone thinks academics do in the summer, to our infinite fury.

"Take a break FROM GETTING PAID FOR THREE MONTHS. Is that what you mean?" we mutter under our breath.

Yet we need some kind of break, for sure; even a week is good.

I recently spent a week with family, near but not at the beloved Land of No Internets.  And when annoyed, insistent emails about non-urgent matters from my collaborators piled up--as in, if I didn't respond to a question within an hour, they'd send the wrong reply to higher-ups--I had had it and told them that they could keep emailing, but I wasn't going to respond.

Once a year I get to see family together in this way. Once a year. The collaborators can chill out for 5 days, don't you think?

But it was a much better visit overall than last year's because I took Lin-Manuel Miranda's famous advice and took a break. I didn't cook as much, or clean as much, and if the dog wanted to steal food off the table, fine by me.  (Others dissuaded him, but I was not going to.)

I swam and kayaked and sat by the water and read and went to get spring water.  I talked with my mother about genealogy (which she loves, but I'm the only person who will listen to her talk about it).  It made me think about all the family who have lived in that part of the state for generations, since it was settled, especially when I drove by the old graveyards.

Did Facebook & Twitter, when I checked them, make me feel guilty about not getting work done? Of course. That's their job. But I have a sabbatical, and I'll get into work mode soon enough.

So did "take a break" work?

Yes.

What I learned was that the world does not hinge on my control. It only wants my participation. There's a difference.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Secret messages to contemporary fiction writers

As most of you have probably figured out from all those shout-outs to Mark Twain, Sinclair Lewis, and the rest, contemporary fiction isn't my area. For a promised article with an immediate deadline, though, I'm reading a lot of it--bearing in mind that contemporary for me is anything from about 1990 on.

Some of what I'm reading is brilliant. It's amazing. It's astonishing, and it's powerful. It deserves its status as a contemporary classic.

But some of it is less so, even within works by the same author. Some pieces are amazing, and others seem more like a bag of tricks.

  • Maybe you were told to write down striking images in your Moleskine and to save them up to use later. Maybe you were told to use figurative language like alliteration, too, to make the language memorable. But please use these sparingly, because reading some of these works is like sitting down to eat a big cereal bowl of chunky rocks. The words can barely make sense because the reader has to work so hard to find a verb. I'm not asking for easy, but it's possible to be literary, powerful, complex, and still enjoyable.  
  • A few really powerful and well-developed characters in a short story can work more magic than fifteen characters all competing for airtime.
  • This goes double if all the characters have been given highly eccentric names. 
  • If you put a character in a novel or story purely to illustrate a point--the Evils of Capitalism, say--the reader is likely to recognize that right away, say, "Got it, thanks," and be longing to skip some of the character's speeches.  

  • I recall from the Steinbeck East of Eden diaries that Steinbeck wasn't sure that readers would get his Big Symbol of Cain and Abel. By this he seems to mean the book's structure wherein the sons of Adam and Cathy (a Lilith figure) are twins, one good and one evil--get it? I like East of Eden, but that's not exactly a hidden symbol. You can trust your reader. 
  • There's an old rule in screenwriting that every scene has to do two out of three essential things: develop character and relationships, advance the plot, or articulate/deepen the themes. Fiction probably has to do more than this with each of its scenes, but it's not a bad rule to bear in mind.
  • Death, dismemberment, torture, loss, repression, and violence are not the only things that can evoke powerful emotions or make a good story, although they make a lot of good ones. 
  • And when does a conventional trope become a cliche? I know that all animals in a contemporary story will die, and I'm ready for that. (TVTropes hilariously calls this "death by Newbery Medal," but it happens in literary fiction, too.)

As I said, most of the fiction is really fine, but that's not to say Homer doesn't nod on occasion, as in the list above. 

Do you have any "bag of tricks" items that you've seen in current fiction? 

Friday, July 08, 2016

Open access: you go first. No, YOU go first.

Note: Published as a distraction from the unrelentingly grim national news. For thoughtful reflections on those events, see the recent posts by Historiann and What Now.

At the Chronicle, Paul Basken reports that despite a faculty vote to encourage open access publication, "only about 25 percent of professors systemwide are putting their papers into a state-created repository that allows free outside access."

The title of the article is "The U. of California’s Open-Access Promise Hits a Snag: The Faculty."

Like everyone else, I love the idea of open access in theory, but I have questions.

Is it "the Faculty," though? Read between the lines and you'll see a few other lightly mentioned or unmentioned snags:


  • "But publishers, predicted to be the primary obstacle, have proved surprisingly compliant: Only about 5 percent of publishers have made any attempt to ask faculty members to opt out, he said."  
    Comment: "Asking faculty members to opt out" is not the same as a publisher giving his/her/its/their blessing to publishing on a university site before publication. Many publishers will allow only uncorrected proofs to be archived, not the final version of an article. Others allow only the manuscript, or "preprint."  What use is that to scholars? How do you cite this, since there would be no final page numbers? What's the point of preprints in this case?
  • "Much of the open-access movement centers on efforts to persuade scientific journals to adopt revenue models that do not rely on subscription fees. A common alternative asks authors, or their institutions or funders, to pay a fee to cover the costs of reviewing, editing, and assembling their journals."
  • Comment: For a humanities journal, that gold access "fee" that the essay so blithely skips over can be $3500 to $4000.  
  • Would your university or department pay that? Mine would not.  
  • Humanities grants would not pay for this, as the scientific ones do. 
  • And what if one journal had a fee of $2500 and a more prestigious one had $4000? Wouldn't you feel pressured to publish where the fee is lower, even if the higher-ranked journal would accept your article? 
  • And wouldn't this fee-for-review model encourage the kind of scammy "International Journal of Everything under the Sun" solicitations that clog my mailbox every morning?
  • To get people to comply, "California has relied on automation, creating a computer system that looks for any article by a university faculty member. The system then sends an email to the author, offering a link that automatically puts the article into the state’s open-access repository. That approach has been key just to getting up to the 25-percent compliance rate, Mr. Kelty said."

  • Comment: This is a good idea, full stop. I'd do this with articles I have already published, wouldn't you? 
  • The push for open access is to create journals that will compete with regular $$$$ journals put out by Elsevier, etc., which have an unbeatable business model: pay the editors in nothing but prestige, the contributors ditto, and the reviewers not even prestige, since they're supposed to be anonymous, and rake in the profits. Cutting back on this business model is a worthy goal./b>
    • Comment: Will publishing only in open access journals result in a tenurable record at Harvard or at your institution, or will a faculty member still need to publish in Science, Nature, PMLA, Novel, or whatever other top-level journals are out there? Once again, the most prestigious schools have to take the lead on this. Apparently people at UCLA, Berkeley, and the other California schools don't think that they can accumulate a tenurable record based on open access, and until they do, I doubt that others would follow suit, however worthy the goal. 


    So, in short: it's not just about the faculty. It's about an entire academic system that is pushing the faculty to do things that are worthwhile but--surprise!--are not necessarily rewarded.