Better research posters

I often give up in frustration when faced with “research posters,” especially as I get older and my eyesight declines. They are hard to read – too much text, not enough appropriate visual organization telling my eyes where to look. This video by Mike Morrison provides and explains some improved designs.

h/t my genius scientist little sister


There are two claims your antagonist will typically corroborate right away:

“You’re being defensive!”

“You always need to have the last word!”

A friend in network news told me that the proper response to the first claim is “You’re changing the subject.”

Most times I would respond to the second assertion with “Thank you for keeping track.”

To judge others

I teach my students that, by and large, the purpose of social and workplace communications is to “foster and maintain relationships” (and “to not screw up”).

A few years back blogger @rsocialskills noted that this rule does *not* carry the day in many conflict situations, though:

People who struggle interpersonally, who seem unhappy, or who get into a lot of conflicts are often advised to adopt the approach of Nonviolent Communication. 

This is often not a good idea. Nonviolent Communication is an approach based on refraining from seeming to judge others, and instead expressing everything in terms of your own feelings. For instance, instead of “Don’t be such an inconsiderate jerk about leaving your clothes around”, you’d say “When you leave your clothing around, I feel disrespected.”. That approach is useful in situations in which people basically want to treat each other well but have trouble doing so because they don’t understand one another’s needs and feelings. In every other type of situation, the ideology and methodology of Nonviolent Communication can make things much worse.

Nonviolent Communication can be particularly harmful to marginalized people or abuse survivors. It can also teach powerful people to abuse their power more than they had previously, and to feel good about doing so. Non-Violent Communication has strategies that can be helpful in some situations, but it also teaches a lot of anti-skills that can undermine the ability to survive and fight injustice and abuse.

For marginalized or abused people, being judgmental is a necessary survival skill. Sometimes it’s not enough to say “when you call me slurs, I feel humiliated” – particularly if the other person doesn’t care about hurting you or actually wants to hurt you. Sometimes you have to say “The word you called me is a slur. It’s not ok to call me slurs. Stop.” Or “If you call me that again, I’m leaving.” Sometimes you have to say to yourself “I’m ok, they’re mean.” All of those things are judgments, and it’s important to be judgmental in those ways.

You can’t protect yourself from people who mean you harm without judging them. Nonviolent Communication works when people are hurting each other by accident; it only works when everyone means well. It doesn’t have responses that work when people are hurting others on purpose or without caring about damage they do. Which, if you’re marginalized or abused, happens several times a day. [full article here]

photo by R. Basil

Hunger in the classroom

When I used to teach writing in Kwantlen Polytechnic University’s Special Education Teacher Assistant (SETA) program*, on our first day of classes I would tell my students that I possessed nearly none of their ability to infer the emotional or psychological state of people around them. “Unless you are crying or bleeding, I have no idea that any of you are in trouble – that is, unless you explain that to me in sentences.”

Seeing traces of hurt, neglect, or psychological distress in people was normally beyond me – without verbal statements from them or from people who were helping them. Discerning what was going on with non-neurotypical learners in a K-12 classroom would have been an impossible riddle to me.

Most of my SETA students, though, had a double gift – of seeing “inside of people,” and of knowing how to communicate what they were seeing *to* these people. Over the course of many years, my students helped me to see and to hear a bit better. But I am still mostly blind and deaf.

In the last several months I have been humbled and indeed embarrassed by how insensible I still am. I simply did not know – it never would have occurred to me even to ask – how many of my students were hungry, chronically hungry.

From the Pacific Standard magazine:

Drawing on surveys conducted with over 167,000 students from 101 community colleges and 68 four-year colleges and universities, the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice—a non-profit research organization focused on higher education and social policies—has documented rates of basic needs insecurity on campuses across 20 states. Sara Goldrick-Rab, the Hope Center’s founder and the study’s lead author, says that, while the data might not be nationally representative, “there are numbers now.”

Food is the most pervasive concern. In the 30 days preceding the survey, 48 percent of responding students claimed to have experienced food insecurity, defined in the report as “the limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe food, or the ability to acquire such food in a socially acceptable manner.” Just over 50 percent of two-year college students and 44 percent of four-year college students “worried whether my food would run out before I got more money to buy more.” Around 30 percent for each group “was hungry but did not eat because there was not enough money for food.”

The vast majority of my students work one or more jobs to make ends meet – that I knew – but I never made the simple connection: What can students cut from their budgets, when they must? Food, of course.

* In composing this post I learned that the SETA program at Kwantlen is now called the Education Assistant program and that special education assistants are now described as education assistants. I imagine that the debate concerning this change in nomenclature might have been fraught.

The Arch Obit

Obituaries must be charming.

When a writer conveys the deceased subject’s wicked faults yet still elicits empathy from the reader, the reader has been charmed into a kind of forgiveness for the dead.

When the writer seeks to elicit no empathy or respect for the deceased subject – there are some brutal obituaries out there! – the reader still needs to be charmed, in order to forgive the author.

The author of this obituary of “Keith Botsford, Man of Letters and Saul Bellow Associate,” Bill Morris, lands in both categories quite beautifully.

Keith Botsford, a globe-trotting, multilingual and multifaceted man of letters who became a longtime collaborator with Saul Bellow, died last year, on Aug. 19, in London — a death that drew little public notice at the time. He was 90.

His death was noted … 16 days later, in a 25-word paid death notice in The Boston Globe.…

Mr. Botsford was a fluid, prolific writer unfettered by the boundaries of form or genre. He was a novelist, essayist, journalist, biographer, memoirist, teacher, translator and founder, with Bellow, of three literary magazines, most recently News From the Republic of Letters. A Renaissance man, he also composed chamber works, a ballet and choral music, and was fluent in seven languages and able to read a dozen. …

Editing provided Mr. Botsford with a welcome respite from the rigors of writing. “I found editing myself difficult and being edited by others humiliating,” he wrote. “I got around this by editing others with generosity and rewriting with humility.” He called translation “the supreme exercise of mastering someone else’s style.” …

In his journalism, Mr. Botsford was equally at ease writing about movie stars, concert pianists, bullfighters, novelists and race drivers. Formula One racing and the Boston Red Sox were two of his passions, along with literature, music and food.

His interest in bullfighting led him to write a biography of the celebrated Spanish matador Luis Miguel Dominguin (1926-96), whom Ernest Hemingway profiled in his nonfiction book “The Dangerous Summer.” In the biography, published in 1972, Dominguin was quoted as dismissing Hemingway as “a commonplace bore” who “knew nothing about fighting bulls.”

Mr. Botsford’s opinions could be just as barbed. He once wrote of the French composer Olivier Messiaen: “Messiaen is the Al Gore of music. That is, he sells a brand of French intellectual sanctity that I will do a great deal to avoid.” …

Severely burned as a boy, Keith spent much of his early life bedridden, and thus reading avidly. By age 7, he told The Times in 2007, “I was a man of letters.” …

He entered Yale but left before graduation to enlist in the Army. By his account he served as a spy in Eastern Europe and the Middle East.

Mr. Botsford received a bachelor’s degree from the University of Iowa in 1949 and a master’s in French literature from Yale in 1952. He also studied composition at the Manhattan School of Music, Japanese at Columbia University and law at the University of Strasbourg in France and at Holborn College in London. …

After Saul Bellow’s death, Mr. Botsford visited southeastern Costa Rica at the urging of one of his sons, Joshua, a chef, and ended up building a house there on a lush tropical plot overlooking the Caribbean Sea. (His wife at the time, Angela Carol Fellows, a molecular biologist 52 years his junior, continued to live in Boston.) [Sometimes the greatest lines are placed between parentheses! – Ed.] …

Whether writing fiction, journalism or biography, Mr. Botsford always kept the reader in mind. For this he thanked Bellow:

“As my dear friend Saul Bellow put it to me, ‘Take the reader by the hand, Keith, and he will follow you anywhere.’ Or as I tell my students, ‘You are not writing for me, but for the world. Or at least for your Aunt Nellie in Boise, Idaho.’ ”

At the end of the original version of this obituary, the author wrote that Botsford’s survivors could not be reached. Discussing this, my partner and I thought that was odd, since several of his children had been named in the obituary. 

In the version linked here, that line has been removed. Normally the Times publishes a note describing changes to posted articles – but not this time.

My partner had suggested that Botsford’s children had broken with their father after he married someone younger than they were. Who knows?

Remaining in the piece, though, is that diabolical bit about the 25-word paid death notice in the Boston Globe.

Also remaining, poignantly, is this single note of tenderness for Botsford. It is from his friend Saul Bellow – “Bellow’s last words to [Botsford], he said, were, ‘One good thing in my life was that I loved you.'” This is almost cruel writing: The only person who attests that you were loved is you.

Does even the most pompous man deserve that? (Perhaps.)

Community College

I teach at a regional, commuter university, near Vancouver, BC: It has superb programs in traditional academic disciplines as well as in the trades. It enrols both the unusual and the usual suspects as students. Teaching them is a challenge and a joy, making my work life profoundly meaningful.

A few weeks ago I came across the New York Times obituary of Janet Lieberman, who established LaGuardia Community College in Queens, NY. The obituary made me happy.

Janet E. Lieberman, an educational innovator who made college education more accessible to struggling high school students and recent immigrants as the guiding spirit of LaGuardia Community College in Queens from its inception, died on March 19 in San Francisco. She was 97.

The college, part of the City University of New York, opened in 1971 in Long Island City in a refurbished plant where White Motor Company once made auto parts and Ford Instrument once manufactured range finders for naval weapons during World War II. The building was within wafting range of a Chiclets gum factory next door.

Dr. Lieberman not only helped shape the mission of LaGuardia, a two-year college that now enrolls some 45,000 students from 150 countries; she also established collaborations with other educational institutions to attract high school students who had struggled academically, or who had to hold down jobs while taking classes, or who could not afford a four-year college. …

“Programs that she revolutionized — guiding promising underserved high school students into college, and forging collaborations between colleges to create pathways to transfer — have become models used nationwide,” Gail O. Mellow, LaGuardia’s president, said by email.

In “The Wisdom Trail: In the Footsteps of Remarkable Women” (2009), Dr. Lieberman and Julie Hungar profiled a range of accomplished women, each of whom, they wrote, “has made her mark and gained gratification by making a difference.”

In her case, Dr. Lieberman said in “Unexpected Influence,” “We made a college.”

Keep your promises, keep your confidences, and keep your appointments.

The prefix para means “beside” or “beyond.” Paralinguistic or paraverbal communication usually refers to *how* one’s words are conveyed: through tone, body language, speaking speed, or even through one’s wardrobe.

Siberian Tigers at The Bronx Zoo

In both workplace and social environments, though, beside and beyond the verbal language one uses with others is also one’s commitment to behave in a sound and regular fashion. Erratic habits subvert sound sentences.

Keep your promises, keep your confidences, and keep your appointments.

Media theorist Jay Rosen’s forlorn list

A current list of my top problems in pressthink, April 2019. Updated from time to time. Ranked by urgency.

1. Absent some kind of creative intervention, 2020 campaign coverage looks like it will be the same as it ever was. Who’s ahead? What’s it gonna take to win? The debacle in 2016 has not brought forth any dramatic shift in approach. The “savvy style” remains in place

2. The Correspondent, with which I am publicly identified, met its crowd funding goals and now has to deliver on these principles. That will not be easy. 

3. With his hate campaign against journalists, Trump has been successful is isolating about a third of the electorate in an information loop of its own. These are people beyond the reach of journalism, and immune to its discoveries. Trump is their primary source of information about Trump. The existence of a group this size shows that de-legitimizing the news media works. The fact that it works means we will see more of it. 

4. Fox News is merging with the Trump government in a combination unseen before. We don’t know what that combined thing is, or even how to talk about it. The common shorthand is “state media.” But that’s only half the picture. It’s true that Fox is a propaganda network. But it’s also true that the Trump government is a cable channel— with nukes. 

5. Around the world, so called populist movements are incorporating media hate into their ideology— and replicating. No one knows how to stop or even slow this. 

6. Now in its 15th year, the business model crisis in journalism is still unsolved. (But at least we know that except in rare cases digital advertising is not going to be the answer.) 

7. Membership models in news need to be participatory to work, but we’re behind in our understanding of how to make that happen. With ad-supported media, we know what the social contract is. And we know how it works with subscription. For membership, we do not know what that contract is. 

8. The harder I work on some these problems (1, 3, 4, and 5 especially…) the more cynical I get. The more cynical I get, the harder it is to believe that any of this work matters.

Jay’s #8 is truly shocking to me. I have faith that his work really does matter.

Reposted with permission.