Saturday, June 29, 2013

Do the write thing

After posting my blog last week hailing the "news" that studying humanities is important to individual development and national well-being, I read this article on a friend's Facebook page. In "Why MBA-bound Johnny Can't Write," columnist and Financial Times editor Michael Skapinker takes on the seeming epidemic of bad writing in classrooms and on campus. He questions whether deterioration of writing skills is, as many assert, a new phenomenon -- one led by reliance on the shorthand of Twitter and texting. He says the origins of this diminution in skill is beside the point: "Whether poor writing is new or old, it is odd that it persists at a time when parents are vying to provide their children with any possible advantage, exposing them to the paintings of Paul Klee at the age of four, as the New York Times recently reported, and teaching them to sing 'Heads, shoulders, knees and toes' in Mandarin."

I agree. In a highly competitive world, I find it amazing that ambitious and gifted young people do not take their use of language--spoken or written--seriously. I have been teaching gifted students this summer. Many of them have taken Honors or AP English. After a while I stopped pointing out noun-verb agreement mistakes, tense shifts, the awful substitution of "less" for "fewer." They did not ask, as student have before, "what does grammar have to do with public speaking?" So I give them credit for perhaps knowing that they should know this stuff. And maybe I should cut them some slack because, well, it is summer! I do wonder, though, if parents who are so eager to provide the enrichment of a great summer program in communications have also invested in the basics of good grammar.

Clear thinking and good writing are essential to living a fully-realized life. I truly believe that, but  may not be able to convince everyone. So let's shift our focus and look at the matter more "practically." Good writing and speaking --"excellent written and verbal communications"-- will continue to be a requirement for most jobs sought by college graduates. Why not give students that training when they are younger? Then they will have a lifetime to develop these skills, and will be that much more attractive to employers.  As Skapinker says,"There’s a gap in the market and the smarter parents and students should get on to it. Good writing is far easier to master than Mandarin."

Xie xie.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

English majors are people, too: The Academy report

Margaret Clapp Library, Wellesley College
You may have heard that this week the American Academy of Arts and Sciences released The Heart of the Matter,  a report on the crucial role payed by arts, humanities and social sciences to our nation. This report was requested by members of the Senate in 2011, in response to a spate of reports, symposia, conferences, etc., on the importance of investing in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education.

I have not yet read the full Academy report (it's 92 pages long!), but did peruse the report brief. I especially enjoyed the Executive Summary which states that non-science curriculum is essential to our global competitiveness as well as national security: "A fully balanced curriculum—including the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences—provides opportunities for integrative thinking and imagination, for creativity and discovery, and for good citizenship. The humanities and social sciences are not merely elective, nor are they elite or elitist. They go beyond the immediate and instrumental to help us understand the past and the future. They are critical to a democratic society and they require our support." (If you don't have time to read the report, watch several Commissioners--including John Lithgow, Ken Burns, Sandra Day O'Connor--lay out its core argument on this video.)

I cheer this report with a resounding "hurrah!" Concentrating on courses within the vast subject area known as Humanities is most definitely not elitist! But those of use who spent most of our educational lives in those departments are frequently written off. How many times I have heard it? "Arts and literature are frills, not essentials!" I was thinking of several recent examples to cite here (e.g., using "cite" not "site"), but they all seemed rather trivial and--well, if you must know, stupid--when typed into a blog. That is part of the insidiousness of the problem.

I agree with Verlyn Klinkenborn commenting on The Heart of the Matter report in today's New York Times: "What many undergraduates do not know. . .  is how valuable the most fundamental gift of the humanities will turn out to be. That gift is clear thinking, clear writing and a lifelong engagement with literature." As I tell my students and clients, you can't communicate clearly unless you can write clearly. No one will "get" what you mean if you cannot express it succinctly to yourself. No amount of dancing around a subject and "waxing eloquent" will hide the fact that your thinking is imprecise.

So, those of you who think we are being snooty or elitist when we wave our Humanities flags, realize that we, too, occupy an important place in the world. And now class, the lecture is over. I'm off to enjoy the rest of the afternoon immersed in Joyce Carol Oates' latest exercise in brilliant writing, The Accursed.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Storyteller gets scoop!

Laura Poitras, filmmaker and MacArthur genius, might seem like an unlikely person to break such a big news story as the one about NSA data-miningBut Edward Snowden thought she was exactly the right person for the job. She describes how he approached her and how she got the "scoop" in an interview in yesterday's Salon. There are many fascinating aspects to this story -- but I am sure you don't need to read one more blog about the relative merits of Snowden's actions, one more blog that places him somewhere on a continuum between traitor and hero. What I think is so interesting is the fact that Poitras was contacted by Snowden in January.

That means months went by before the story actually broke. What was happening during all that time? Poitras won't say, yet. She does say the identity of her source was not known to her "until very, very recently." So there was obviously some work being done to investigate the source, to see if what he was saying sounded credible. By February she was discussing the possibility of going forward on the story with The Washington Post's Bart Gellman. 

But that was February. The story broke in June. In the Salon interview, Poitras offered this response to the unasked question about the time lag, and about her reluctance to disclose how she was investigating: "I’ll tell my story, you know, about my reporting. I don’t need reporters reporting on my reporting. So maybe that stuff contributed to different timelines. But. . . I don’t want to tell the whole story now, I don’t think it’s the right time. And I want to tell it in my own words. I’m a storyteller. I’ll tell it when I’m ready to tell it, in detail."

Poitras knows that even in the news business, you need to take time to get it right. Even when the story screams out to be told now. If you are an investigative reporter, you need to actually investigate. The difficulty in finding out the truth about any action taken by the NSA makes this a mystery that deepens almost hourly. But Poitras & Co. felt they had enough substance to bring the story to the people. And even after the story has broken, the story behind that story cannot be told in a rush. An Academy Award nominee in 2006 for her documentary My Country, My Country, she knows that each story has its own rhythm, and needs time to unfold. And so this new story will be told in good time. As Ben Franklin so eloquently put it: "Great haste makes great waste." I shudder to think what would have become of Snowden's revelations if the reporters had been careless and sloppy in a rush to publish.

So, three cheers for story-tellers who take the time to get the story right!

Most of us will never, ever be called by anonymous sources who say they have secret info that will rock our world. But if we pass on information we do not know to be accurate, or fill in the blanks with details of our own devising, we may find ourselves quite far from the success we are rushing to achieve. And in our haste, we can waste some pretty great opportunities.