Dec 092016

It is a truism that dormant websites and social media platforms can do more harm to you than good, no matter how active you have been in the past. I teach my students numerous methods to keep their online presence bubbling even when they are busy with other things – the holiday season, school finals – or when they are ill. I have certainly used these methods myself, in both situations, to keep my many platforms up to date.

For websites and blogs:
– Feel free to recycle past posts that have a timeless or timely quality to them – maxims, insights, humour. Make it clear to your readers that these are re-posts.
– Point your readers to good writing posted by others whom you bookmark or follow via your news-feed (see below). There is nothing wrong with a post that is composed mostly of another writer’s thoughts. Give credit where credit is due, and Bob’s your uncle.
– Create and use an extensive photo library. A photograph with a short description will indicate that you are still “on the case.” And people like pictures.

For Twitter:
– No matter how busy or under the weather you are, you can usually get out of bed and review your news-feeds (see my own Feedly feeds); this can take as little as twenty minutes.
– Then: Tweet the posts and articles that will appeal to those who follow you.
– To make sure that you don’t spam your readers, spread out your tweets. There are numerous tweet-schedulers. I use Hootsuite and Buffer. With these I can be tweeting all day with just a few minutes’ effort in the morning.

For LinkedIn:
– Many, if not all, of your blog posts will be of interest to your LinkedIn “connections.” Post these in your LinkedIn updates. There is nothing wrong in repurposing your work this way.
– Once or twice a week, head over to your LinkedIn account and see what your connections are doing. Comment on or “like” their updates. Show that you are still attending to the work and insights of your online friends and colleagues.

So there you go: easy peasy lemon squeezy. Keep your online presence active and your ‘brand’ beaming. Have a wonderful holiday.  [And – if you’re a student – good luck on your final exams!]

Originally published December 25, 2015. Minor edits.

Dec 092016

The renowned and divisive Hungarian-American physicist Edward Teller would tell this little story about an exchange he had with the great Niels Bohr:

Some of us, including Bohr, were having a discussion about the spectrum and states of molecular oxygen. Bohr had some opinions, the details of which I have now forgotten, but which were in obvious conflict with the facts that were known. In this special detailed case, I knew the situation and tried to explain it. Unfortunately I could not do so to Bohr’s satisfaction.

He began his objection: “Teller, of course, knows a hundred times more about this than I.” With a lack of politeness occasionally seen among twenty-year-olds, I interrupted (with some difficulty): “That is an exaggeration.”

Bohr instantly stopped and stared at me. After a pause, he declared, “Teller says I am exaggerating. Teller does not want me to exaggerate. If I cannot exaggerate, I cannot talk. All right. You are right, Teller. You know only ninety-nine times more than I do.” He then proceeded with his original argument having dispensed with any possibility of further interruption.

I have never forgotten, nor have I often neglected to mention, Bohr’s wisdom: If you cannot exaggerate, you cannot talk.

This is one of my favourite stories.

Nov 182016

This is beautiful. From Open Culture:

1. Decide your own life; don’t let another person run or rule you.

2. When in town, always respect the local law and officials, and try to be a gentleman at all times.

3. Don’t take advantage of someone who is in a vulnerable situation, locals or other hobos.

4. Always try to find work, even if temporary, and always seek out jobs nobody wants. By doing so you not only help a business along, but ensure employment should you return to that town again.

5. When no employment is available, make your own work by using your added talents at crafts.

6. Do not allow yourself to become a stupid drunk and set a bad example for locals’ treatment of other hobos.

7. When jungling in town, respect handouts, do not wear them out, another hobo will be coming along who will need them as badly, if not worse than you.

8. Always respect nature, do not leave garbage where you are jungling.

9. If in a community jungle, always pitch in and help.

10. Try to stay clean, and boil up wherever possible.

11. When traveling, ride your train respectfully, take no personal chances, cause no problems with the operating crew or host railroad, act like an extra crew member.

12. Do not cause problems in a train yard, another hobo will be coming along who will need passage through that yard.

13. Do not allow other hobos to molest children; expose all molesters to authorities…they are the worst garbage to infest any society.

14. Help all runaway children, and try to induce them to return home.

15. Help your fellow hobos whenever and wherever needed, you may need their help someday.

Nov 142016


Over at Research as a Second Language: Writing, Representation, and the Crisis of Social Science, Danish writer Thomas Basbøll does not view this question as an academic one. Neither would he give “both” as his answer.

In his stirring dissection of the United States election, “The Liberal Arts of Being Ruled,” Thomas writes:

The past few years have seen an intense effort to “purify” our political organisations, not least within the university and it would seem that university students and their teachers are now the least equipped to understand how Trump was able to win the highest office in the land.

You can’t beat a political opponent that paralyzes you with fear simply when he expresses his opinion. It’s because the left demonized Trump that they were unable to defeat him. In a word that I hope to give a particular meaning to in this post, they dehumanized him. In that sense, the rise of Trump can be attributed to the fall of the humanities. …

And that means that it can also be attributed to the inextricably related rise of the social sciences. For over a century, funded by a network of powerful foundations, they have wrested our understanding of our own selves away from, well, our own selves, and placed it under the tutelage of confederacy of academics and journalists, a convocation of politic worms, who are more comfortable with ideologies than actual ideas. …

Think of rhetoric as the liberal art of humanizing your enemy, of converting animosity into language. Not for the sake of your enemy but for the sake of your own moral orientation in the universe. Once you have decided that half your country has chosen a leader to represent only its bigotries, you have lost your way. Your ethics have been compromised by generalities. You have allowed a vague “theory” to overwhelm your data, which you have, I am afraid, taken too much for given. You’ve been taken in. And now you are living in fear of an inhuman oppressor. …

I think we may have to face the fact that social science and democracy are incompatible. The social sciences conduct an undemocratic inquiry into society. Democracy is an unscientific way of governing it. It is because psychologists and sociologists have supplanted poets and novelists as experts on who “we” are that we have lost faith in democracy—at a deeper level, we have simply lost faith in each other. Democracy is possible only on a “humanist” foundation. As Pound tried to tell us a hundred years ago, the arts provide the “data of ethics”.

Basbøll is a brilliant writer and thinker. I can recommend all his work to you without reservation.

Nov 092016

Professor Mayhew’s recent take on the topic:

terminal1Teaching is transactional. The instructor is not feeding information to the students, teaching them that information, but interacting with them. A third element is the text in the class. The text is not inert, but active as well. For example, yesterday we were reading Olvido García Valdés, one of the best Spanish poets of the day.I could see the students rise to the intellectual level of the poetry itself, and it was wonderful as their comments got more and more brilliant. 

One student brought up the idea that this poetry was “elitist,” because it required a certain level of education to read and understand. Well, we are an elite, even to be in a graduate classroom reading anything at all, even non-elite poetry. For me elitism would be despising those who are not in the classroom with us, feeling that we are special because we get to spend our time like this.  To call ourselves “elitist” for this is a wretched sentiment.

Elitism is a theme in his online life. His many posts on this subject are illuminating.

Nov 022016

In a blog post this morning called “A Raging Snowflake,” my good friend Clarissa writes:

Remember the Oppressed Tiffany, a very special snowflake whose “narrative was erased by the entire field of academia” when a hapless prof asked her to work on her writing?

The administration of her college is now going to humiliate the entire teaching faculty by forcing them to attend classes on microaggressions to appease the raging snowflake. Serves them right for not figuring out that their job is not to teach the snowflakes but to praise them slavishly and exuberantly without pause.

I normally tend to agree with Clarissa but need to part ways with her here. The unnamed professor apparently announced his/her suspicions – that the student had plagiarized an assignment – to the entire class. There is never a reason to humiliate a student that way, IMHO, even if you have proof of such wrongdoing, and there doesn’t seem to have been any in this case.

Below is a photograph of part of the assignment. The professor indicates that this student could not have used the word “hence.” I might have been offended by that remark, too!


I am not certain that this teacher was trying to “marginalize” a Latina student. The prof was, though, certainly being a real oaf and, in those moments, a terrible teacher.

And, too, who the heck doesn’t know the word “hence” – in an academic environment? I teach students from all over the world, and practically to a person the word “hence” is in their vocabulary, and if anything used too often.

By the way, you should read Clarissa’s blog every day. She is very prolific, opinionated, brilliant, and vivid. A joy.

h/t Clarissa

Oct 162016

There needs to be two of you: you and “you prime.” The latter is an heuristic entity brought into being by you for the purpose of protecting and orienting you.TigersAtBronxZoo

Your “you prime” makes the hard decisions – saying no to friends, curtailing vampiric commitments, enforcing skeptical habits of mind, and keeping you safe – when you are, for any reason, disinclined to do so.

This little bit of as-if – this guardian phantasm – is a nifty trick, I have found, and good mental hygiene.

Oct 162016

In the New York Times obituary section recently I came upon one for Jacob Neusner, a scholar (and polemicist) who published more than 900 books in his lifetime. I calculated – on the back of a napkin, as it were – that Professor Neusner wrote approximately 10,000 publishable words every gosh-darn day for 50 years – over and above all the other words he wrote, including professional and personal correspondence, of which there must have been a ton. And he did this while mastering numerous complex disciplines (and languages) and raising a family. 

The Times obit quotes an admiring detractor:

[Neusner] is perhaps most widely known for his irascible, sometimes quite nasty and often pugnacious personality, his famous excoriating reviews, sometimes book-length critiques, and his fallings-out with almost every institution he worked in, almost every teacher who taught him, many of his students — as well as the errors that scar his many translations and publications.

A friend notes:

It seems that it would be better to be known for writing only 450 books, without the nasty and pugnacious part.

I doubt that Professor Neusner would have taken that deal, for many reasons. Here is the main one, I think: Along with study Neusner seemed to learn about topics via contention with others, which, happily for him, also fertilized his prose. (Churchill is said to have learned about a topic primarily by writing about it.)

Decades ago I had the pleasure of working with the formidable philosopher Sidney Hook. Up until his death at 86 he was still picking fights with both luminaries and unknowns. I have thought a lot about why he took aim at the latter, when there was little clear imperative, and even less interest among his readers, for Hook to do so. I believe he wanted to stay sharp rhetorically, and, as important, he wanted to make sure he had not missed anything.

Sep 212016

One of the best pure writers I have ever seen was a psychology student at Kwantlen Polytechnic University named Emily. She could amalgamate and compress numerous, complex source articles into a hyper-lucid page or two, which on top of that was mellifluous when read aloud. Just the memory still gives me goosebumps.

Once Emily complained to me that professors in her major often dinged her for submitting assignments that did not meet the page requirement. “I wish they understood how hard it is to be so brief.”

I thought of Emily the other day when I read scholar and blogger Bryan A. Garner’s post Law Prose Lesson #260: Acronyms and Initialisms, which I quote here in full:

Legal writers are addicted to defined terms, especially shorthand forms made of initials. (An acronym is sounded as a word [UNESCO], while an initialism is pronounced letter by letter [HMO].) Although abbreviations are highly convenient, it’s a false sense of convenience: they benefit the writer but burden the reader—unless they’re already extremely well known, and most aren’t.

This burdening of the reader skews the reader-writer relationship. The whole idea instead is to make the reader’s job easier, even if this means making the writer’s job more difficult.

A certain judicial opinion defines the following terms: EFP, FCM, HC, NYME, REDCO, ROI, and TOI. Before we know it, we read that an FCM represents REDCO before NYME, expecting an improved ROI, but that the FCM also has duties to TOI, under EFP-1, to certify that TOI owned enough HCs to cover its EFP obligations. To most readers, it’s all gibberish.

Instead, use real words. Make it succinct, but use real words. Otherwise, your readers will rebel by putting your prose down and never again returning to it—or if they do return to it, they’ll detest you.

Dear Reader, Try to make the above piece of prose more clear or more concise. I tried; couldn’t. Emily could probably give it a whirl, but I don’t know what she would come up with.

Readers of this blog know how much we esteem author Garner‘s work, the scope of which is wholly humbling:

Garner is editor in chief of Black’s Law Dictionary and the author of many leading works on legal style, including Garner’s Dictionary of Legal Usage, The Elements of Legal Style, The Redbook: A Manual on Legal Style, The Winning Brief, Legal Writing in Plain English, and The Winning Oral Argument. His latest books are Reading Law: The Interpretation of Legal Texts and Making Your Case: The Art of Persuading Judges—cowritten with Justice Antonin Scalia—and Better Business Writing, a work focused on the art of communicating in the business world, published by the Harvard Business Review.

His magnum opus is the 942-page Garner’s Modern American Usage, published by Oxford University Press. It is widely considered the preeminent authority on questions of English usage.

If you are already feeling lazy today, check out these links another time. Just a recommendation.