Jan 212018

Biographer Robert Caro’s books are marathon-long, though very much worth the time it takes to read them. His laceration of Robert Moses, “The Power Broker,” is almost 1300 pages. In a wonderful interview published in The New York Review of Books, Caro notes:

The finished version I gave to my editor […] was about 1,050,000 words. That was a polished finished version, not a draft. The book you read is roughly 700,000 words […] the maximum that [my publisher] Knopf’s production people felt they could get into a trade book.

At the time, I asked, “Can’t we do it in two volumes?” Bob Gottlieb [my editor] answered, “I might get people interested in Robert Moses once. I could never get them interested in him twice.”

The amount of research – reporting, reading, interviewing, digging, and corroborating – that goes into Caro’s books is gargantuan. I literally cannot imagine how a person can get such work all done with such intelligence. Surely, then, he must *write* with unbelievable speed. No.

My first three or four drafts are handwritten on legal pads. For later drafts, I use a typewriter. I write by hand to slow myself down.

I’m a very fast writer, but I want to write slowly.

When I was a student at Princeton. I took a creative writing course with the literary critic R.P. Blackmur. Every two weeks, I’d give him a short story I’d produced usually at the last minute. At the end of the semester, he said some complimentary words about my writing, and then added, “Mr. Caro, one thing is going to keep you from achieving what you want—you think with your fingers.”

Jan 052018

In an early NoContest.CA post on editing, I described “the 9 C’s” I use when evaluating another writer’s work:

  1. completeness
  2. conciseness
  3. clarity
  4. convincingness
  5. currency
  6. correctness
  7. consistency
  8. congruency
  9. courtesy

I added:

Almost all writers need a second set of eyes to assess and improve the first four qualities in a document they compose, because they typically already believe they’ve been concise, complete, clear, and convincing enough. To assess and improve the rest often requires that second set of eyes, too.

My mentor Diane Middlebrook once told me, “You cannot edit yourself any more than you can tickle yourself, and for the same reasons.” I thought of Diane the other day when reading an excellent post by Hootsuite Content Editor Curtis Foreman called “12 Quick Editing Tips for Social Media Managers.” Tip #4: “Have Somebody Else Edit Your Work.”

Even if you’re a solo practitioner, there’s probably someone in your life with a decent sense of style and taste who wouldn’t mind glancing over your tweets before you release them into the wild. And if you’re at an agency or brand, you’ve likely got a team member (or an entire team) who will be more than happy to point out that you really should stop using commas to join independent clauses already.

You should read the whole post; it’s excellent. I have to take issue with that first sentence, though. I doubt even the most charming “solo practitioner” would be able to persuade another person to glance over his or her tweets prior to their publication. When we are outside of the workplace or academic setting, we almost always need to fly solo, using solid if less exacting methods of revision: reading the post or tweet aloud, double-checking for facts, or the always smart “sleeping on it” before publishing it.

– photo by Robert Basil

– installation view of Robert Therrien’s No title (folding table and chairs, beige) at Albright Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, NY

Nov 182017

The Republican House of Representatives’ tax plan would transform “tough enough” into *impossible* for tens of thousands of graduate students who receive fellowships that allow them to study “for free.” (Of course these students also usually teach as well, and those in the sciences do publishable research.)

Like a lot of my friends back in the day, I entered grad school with very little money in my checking account. (My savings account? Ha!) My Stanford University fellowship waived my tuition (about $60K in today’s dollars) and provided me with a small stipend (about $13K in today’s dollars). If my fellowship became a taxable benefit, I would have owed more than the equivalent of $8K/year or so in taxes to the IRS, in effect forcing me to choose between food and shelter – that is, preventing me from attending graduate school all together. (Loans would not have been a smart option for a Humanities student like myself; I had no expectation of getting a well-paying job before I went completely bald.)

Eviscerating the population of American grad students wouldn’t just wipe out generations of young scholars. It would also destroy the main mission of large universities – teaching. No tuition tax break = no T.A.s, no teachers of freshman composition, etc.

I cannot think of a simpler, more perfect way of destroying the standing of United States’ higher education.


cross-posted at basil.ca

Nov 032017

No Contest co-founder Tierney Wisniewski has written a beautifully conceived and composed Master’s Thesis. Here’s the abstract. [I’ve added some paragraphing for ease of online reading, because abstracts by requirement are very, very fat.]

Self-determination theory (SDT) is a well-established theory of motivation that posits that we grow optimally to the degree to which our contexts afford us autonomy support, the collective term for the ways in which others afford us opportunities to satisfy our basic psychological needs for autonomy, relatedness, and competence. Although Ryan and Niemiec (2009) suggest that self-determination theory can be “critical and liberating,” I trouble their assertion, making use of literature on student voice, student-faculty learning partnerships, and radical collegiality, and propose that redefining the student role is an essential form of autonomy support if we wish to follow through on SDT’s liberating possibilities.

To that end, I undertook a narrative inquiry into five students’ experiences of transformation through role redefinition in a set of non-traditional university courses.

Participants described their experiences and relationships with peers and instructors before, during, and after this set of courses. A thematic analysis revealed that students experienced their post-secondary courses as largely controlling, with concomitant negative effects on their engagement and well-being, while they experienced these non-traditional courses as highly autonomy-supportive, with concomitant positive effects.

Analysis also revealed that students underwent two transformative processes: an incremental process of integration and a more epochal process of role redefinition. This latter process in particular was fostered through persistent messages that students’ educations belonged to them, through de-emphasis on the instructor-student hierarchy, and through being supported through their struggles with transformation.

Once students redefined their roles, they took more responsibility for their peers’ well-being, offered them autonomy support, and engaged more agentically in other courses by expressing themselves more, taking more risks, and even standing up to and defying miseducative instructors on their own and their peers’ behalves.

They came to perceive themselves as agents of change not only in their institutions, but also in other arenas, following through on the critical and liberating potential of SDT that Ryan and Niemiec had envisioned. This study has broad implications for how educators engage with students and how our institutions are structured, as well as how SDT research is conducted, if we wish to capitalize on this potential.

You can read the whole thing.

I am so very proud of you, dear friend.

Oct 312017

A super-smart student in my Advanced Professional Communications class asked me whether using an app that generates a citation for you in proper APA, MLA, Chicago style was plagiarism. My first thought was “I doubt it,” but in my line of work I’m surrounded by plagiarism hounds so I wanted to be sure. I consulted some expert Facebook friends.

My friend Leigh, a high-school librarian working in England whom I’ve known since fifth grade, posted first: “Haha. No. It’s just a tool, wouldn’t you think? Most journal databases (jstor, etc.) provide all variations of citations to use, as well.”

No Contest Communications cofounder Tierney was emphatic: “Goodness no. If you are doing citations correctly, it is not a creative project; it should produce a uniform result. These tools simply help automate that process. I copy and paste mine from Google Scholar, but I also verify their content (sometimes page numbers are missing.” She added this excellent analogy / rhetorical question: “Is it plagiarism to use a tool like SPSS to run your stats and produce your diagrams instead of doing it all by hand?”

Author and retired university librarian Suzy chimed in on a related issue: “There’s nothing wrong with using a citation-generator app to find citations. All journal-content databases make it easier to ‘find’ citations than ever. But a student shouldn’t cite those in a paper unless s/he has actually consulted those sources. I still wouldn’t call it plagiarism; that’s just a failure to check your own sources before citing them – no different from citing a source from a bibliography (the old-fashioned way) without consulting the source.” Suzy noted that the formatting of these automated citations “isn’t 100% accurate, so a student (or professor) should always double-check. For what it’s worth, in my experience, faculty make plenty of errors in their citations!”

Sep 252017

“The more that you take care with your writing, the more you might explore uncertainties in your thinking,” suggests Stanford University Environmental Earth System Science Professor Julie Kennedy in this excellent Writing Matters video. Kennedy helpfully stresses the primacy of “owning” your topic before putting pen to paper. There’s no short cut.

Sep 252017

… writes MIT cognitive science professor Edward Gibson in Aeon:

Suppose you are at a cocktail party, and your conversation partner – someone with power in your field – wants to know your view about a potentially scandalous issue at your company. You don’t want to divulge what you know, but want the power player on your side. By speaking with a strong accent and using ungrammatical syntax, you can lead your listener to think that you are supporting a politic view while discouraging them from pressing you for more information, because people generally avoid asking a lot of questions of someone whose utterances are difficult to understand. If there is confusion over what you had meant, you can later say you meant to convey something else!

To test the idea that [non-native or second-language] speakers get the benefit of the doubt, my team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology had people listen to poorly formed English sentences such as:

  1. The millionaire profited the tax reduction.
  2. The earthquake shattered from the house.

These sentences were spoken either in standard American English, or with a strong Israeli or Hindi accent. Note that each of these sentences is oddly constructed: either the grammar is wrong, or the speaker is saying something strange. In the first example, maybe the speaker meant ‘The millionaire profited from the tax reduction’ or ‘The tax reduction profited the millionaire’. In the second, maybe the speaker meant ‘The earthquake shattered the house’ or ‘The house was shattered from the earthquake’. Otherwise, they are saying that a house somehow destroyed an earthquake, which makes no sense.

After each sentence, we asked our participants to probe their interpretation of these strange sentences. The upshot: when sentences were spoken with an accent, listeners were more inclined to interpret them in the more plausible way, compared with when they were spoken in standard American English. When the sentences were spoken with no accent, listeners were more likely to interpret them literally and assume that the meaning was implausible.

We interpreted this result in terms of a noisy-channel model of language processing. …

Applying the noisy-channel idea to understanding L2 speakers, we can think of the errors in non-native English as a noisier language model than a native-speaker model. Listeners expect more errors and are therefore more likely to think that L2 speakers mean something sensible when they say something implausible. But if a native speaker says something nonsensical, listeners are more likely to take them literally, because they know their language model has less noise.

I absorbed Gibson’s piece with special interest today, having read this weekend, with much delight, discussion-forum posts written by my KPU students on the topic of miscommunication. Several posts brought a smile to my face. And one made me truly laugh out loud. In the latter a student describes an unnerving interaction between a Canadian Border Security officer and herself at the Vancouver airport. My student was congested and her hearing was muffled. When the officer asked to see her “boarding pass,” she thought he was asking “to see my ‘body parts’.” She had to stop herself from running away.

I will never hear either phrase without hearing its near-homonym again.

Sep 152017

The always smart Kaylynn Chong at Hootsuite has these six good reminders:

Don’t over-hashtag. “Too many hashtags can make you look spammy or desperate if you’re using ones that aren’t relevant to your post. Even if you gain followers, it’s often the wrong kind of follower—like bots or people only interested in being followed back.”

Don’t hop on trending topics.Just because there’s buzz around a topic, that doesn’t mean people want to hear from you on the topic. If it’s not relevant to your brand and target audience, your efforts will fall flat and you might turn people off.” 

Don’t publish the same message all over the place.Even for your fans that are following you on multiple networks—imagine how strange it is to see the same message over and over again?” Create “unique content for each platform.”

Don’t promote-promote-promote.Social media is a two-way conversation. It’s not the place to broadcast how great your business is—at least not all the time. Social networking platforms are place for people to meet and interact with your brand.”

Don’t keep your social media accounts private.A private social media account can convey many things—laziness? Hiding something? Or, you don’t think social media is worth the investment?”

Don’t automate gratitude.An automated thank-you message can come off as impersonal. … Plus, nobody likes talking to a robot. If they did, why hire someone to manage your brand’s social media handle?”