May 28

 

I'll readily admit that as tech savvy as I like to pretend I am, the one thing that pretty much passed me by is the whole text-messaging craze which is now, well, way beyond the craze stage and into ridiculous fetishism (yeah, go abbreviate that shiznit!).  Initially my objection was basically focused on the interface–watch people try to work on their computers with an instant messenger program up and you'll laugh (or cry) as they get inundated with hundreds of messages from ten, twenty, thirty or more people all asking pretty pointless questions.  I'll admit the multitasking is pretty crazy from these people–I'm not sure how they can keep ten separate conversations in the head going even via written chat, but they're obviously doing it–but still, it's got to be pretty overwhelming.  When I log on I usually don't want to be bothered…but when someone sends a "'sup? :) " message, how do you turn it down (I mean he's smiling at you, for Christ's sake!)?  You guessed it, kids: that pleasant little noise you hear is the sound of productive work getting flushed straight down the toilet.

Still, all of this is about setting boundaries, right?  I can just shut the thing down.  But lots of habitual text-messengers can't or won't do the same–they'd rather leave up crazy away messages ("Listenin' to Floyd, meet you on the dark side of the moon laters") so their friends won't get too freaked out, and as a result we've got bandwidth usage way up and actually getting things done way down.  That too wouldn't bother me if the conversations really made a difference–but for whatever reason, people have conversations online they wouldn't even want to have on the phone:

Cutiegyrl17: 'sup.  Goin later?

PLAYA4LiFe: ya

Cutiegyrl17: what ru doin' now?

PLAYA4LiFe: nothin

Cutiegyrl17: lol, yeah u r 

PLAYA4LiFe:  wtf, no

Cutiegyrl17: :(

I mean it's scintillating, sure, but does it really sing to you? /sarcasmoff

But fine, you say–you're not a college freshman, so don't have conversations like that one.  Talk about absurdist art instead (actually I think Dali would be really into IM convos…or pretend to be, anyway).  But even then, the issue is how easy it is for people to throw away time like it's going out of style on this kind of banter–or worse, how easy it is for people to carry the banter over.  Because it's spreading, my friends, and I have no idea how to stop it.  Never mind E-mails I get from students with ":), ru done with my grde yt?  tnks"–and no, I'm not making that up.  It's gotten to the point where this stuff is showing up in formal papers.  Now I'm not trying to be a stickler, but there is something a trifle offputting about seeing students say Hamlet must be thinking "what's wrong with u?" in the nunnery scene with Ophelia (although an IM conversation with DenMarkPRINCE is an appealing thought).  Confront a student with the, er, inappropriateness of this particular register of speech and you'll normally get a blank stare or, occasionally, an apologetic shrug.  "I'm kind of used to it," one told me.  I can't argue; I'm starting to get used to it myself.  The smiley face in particular is pretty hard to avoid.  Got something rather nasty you want to say but without sounding like too much of an !%@hole?  Just add :) afterwards, and hey presto: instant joke.  (How can you be offended?  She's smiling at you, for Christ's sake!)       

On one level, of course, this is simply part of a linguistic process which has been going on a long, long time.  The simplification of language, when it's not offset by other factors (cultural considerations and identifications, the need to describe and define new things, etc.) is a constant in human history.  And I don't agree with the current conventional wisdom that "young people hate to read and write."  If the text message phenomenon proves anything, it's that the written word is more intriguing and engaging than ever.  The question is what registers of literacy our young people know: can they shift gears from "LOLZ" to "endlessly amusing" without divine intervention?  Can they be as comfortable writing organized analytical essays as they are juggling ten conversations with Cutiegyrl17 and friends?  And, even more importantly, can we figure out how to make them comfortable with the former if we can't understand the latter?

The optimist in me says we can.  The pessimist says Oh Noes.  Stay tuned over the next twenty years for the final verdict.

RewriteReality72: u think?  :) 

PLAYA4LiFe: wtf, whatev

May 3

 

I suppose I shouldn't be surprised any more when this happens, but for some reason fights in academic circles still surprise (and amuse…they never fail to amuse!) me.  My regular readers might remember my post a few months back where I talked about the controversy within the Modern Language Association regarding some formal resolutions about political issues.  At the time I wasn't sure anything could top that catfight for sheer ridiculousness.  But they say records are made to be broken, and sure enough, I found out about a doozy this week–this one from the MLA's one time rival, the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics.

To understand why I say "one time," you'll need a bit of background.  For a long time the MLA has been the most important humanities association in the world, boasting tens of thousands of members…and for a long time it basically served as an advocacy and networking organization (and the sponsor for the hideously boring and/or terrifying annual conventions, but I digress).  But as it entered the weirdness of the sixties and seventies, then staggered into the eighties and the early nineties, it grew increasingly political and driven by ideology…ideology which took away from the business of literary criticism, at least according to some of the old guard.  Eventually the discontent got loud enough that some people decided to do something about it, and in 1994 a group of scholars formed a new organization–the ALSC.  In the beginning the ALSC joined the culture wars in support of the old guard, and so was more or less in opposition to the MLA–often vocally so.  Roger Shattuck, one of the ALSC's most notable members, even got into a big fight with the late Edward Said, former president of the MLA, where words like "pathetic" and "idiotic" got thrown around like they were going out of style.  (Okay, not exactly a street fight, but we're talking about people who think elbow patches are the height of fashion here…)

In the late nineties I was pretty down myself about the MLA's obsession with criticism which didn't rely on weird notions like, you know, actually talking about literature, so I joined the ALSC.  They weren't quite past the march on Washington stage, but they had matured enough that they were starting to create an identity that wasn't all about being not-MLA, and for a while I found a lot of value in their more reasoned approach.  But as time went on I started noticing a change–not only in the tenor of the organization, which went from fiery to, well, flat, but in its mission.  With the end of the culture wars (the only conflict in history where no one outside it knew who won, lost, or even that a fight was going on in the first place) the ALSC seemed to lose its mojo, and the annual conference got to be a pretty depressing affair of white haired white male academics talking about issues which, well, only white haired white male academics cared about.  Even their journal, Literary Imagination, got incredibly self-indulgent.  (One issue was devoted entirely to Saul Bellow.  No, not criticism of Saul Bellow, or work by Saul Bellow, or even interviews of Saul Bellow.  Instead it was about people discussing how much they loved Saul Bellow…really.  How compelling can you get?)  And so an organization dropped from a membership high of about 2500 members to 850 today, with no sign of the drop slowing down any time soon.  Confronted with the stark reality of the numbers, the ALSC had no choice but to rally together and forge ahead.

So instead they decided to eat their young. 

Well, okay, not exactly.  But over the last month the organization has been engaged in a contested election for VP–the first in its history–and boy, has the fur flown.  The problems all started when ALSC elders objected to the VP put forward by the ALSC Council, claiming (more or less) that the candidate was too committed to the current path which was, well, a complete failure, and put forth their own alternative candidate.  No problem; we'll just have an election, right?  Except that the ALSC isn't exactly super efficient when it comes to these sorts of things, and, er, mistakes were made.

Like forgetting to let the membership know who the other candidate was.

Oops.

In fairness, this isn't what everyone says went down.  The Council–specifically the President and the Ssecretary-Treasurer (that's your problem right there…never give someone the power to both write AND cash checks!)–claimed it never got the information to send out about both candidates, and so instead sent a very cursory description of the "challenger," while the Council's own choice got plenty of print.  But this was obviously just an oversight, right?  Pheh, and I bet you buy ideas about bullets that take left turns in mid-air, you credulous fools!  For in truth–as the membership were told by the challengers via E-mail a couple of weeks ago–the President and Secretary-Treasurer lied to the people putting up an alternative candidate about deadlines and procedures, and by the time anyone figured out what was going on the election was already in full swing.  The challengers called foul and demanded a new election, and so the President immediately acted to resolve the dispute in a fair and equitable manner.

……….

Uh, no, actually, not so much.  Instead the President (a guy named Christopher Ricks, who had already sent a letter–on ALSC stationery, no less–to everyone explaining why it would be a bad idea to elect the challenger candidate) sent out an E-mail to the membership accusing the challengers of "bullying" and "lying" and indicating that there would be no new election of any kind.  In a rambling thirty-plus page diatribe (and "rambling" is probably a little kind), Ricks laid out the "truth" as he understood it, with plenty of sarcasm left over for the people who wanted to challenge the status quo.  (Hey, the culture wars are back, woohoo!)  The challengers fired back with their own response, laying out counter accusations and charges, and the battle was on.  And just yesterday we got the "official" result of the election from the Secretary-Treasurer…who made it clear that there would be no redo of the election forthcoming.  I figure the next step is to bring in a juicy sex scandal, just to fire up the troops.

Why do I bring all of this up?  Because all of this back-and-forth, this virtual jousting, is being done for the benefit of a grand total of eight hundred members.  That's it.  Eight hundred.  Of that eight hundred, about four hundred voted. (And this ain't Sparta, so I don't want to hear how cool a few hundred people can be when you put them in armor.)  So all of the vitriol, all of the claims of the ALSC's destruction at the hands of this or that party, is being waged for an organization one fortieth the size, if that, of the MLA it was once designed to oppose.  This is like fighting the Trojan War, uh, now.  (I know Helen was hot, but seriously, a couple of millennia ought to do it for the sex appeal, right?)  A simple question: what is the point?  And more importantly, who the hell is minding the store while this world-class bitchfest continues?  Answer: none, and no one.  And yet rather than putting aside the absurd spectacle of grown men and women fighting over the vestiges of a rapidly dying organization, both parties seem quite content to keep the war going…a war of small resources and limited impact, the only effect of which will be to further shrink what's left of the once scrappy upstart.

(You know, though, the biggest reason I love Saul Bellow is…) 

The point here isn't to wax philosophical about how worthless academic organizations are.  Some of them are important, and they've hardly got a moratorium on pointless conventions anyway.  But I just can't fathom why academics, who are constantly accused of being out of touch with the majority of society, love this movie so much, or why they feel excited to play the same performances over and over again.  The culture wars ended ten years ago, folks, and no one really "won" as much as got tired of fighting.  And if there's one thing we all should have learned from that fiasco, it's that when we fight we ought to make sure we get a cause worth fighting for.  A VP election for an eight hundred-person strong organization just isn't one of them.  If you're really interested in making an impact for a group you care about, you just might start by trying to pull together: circle the wagons, do some soul searching, and come out swinging…but do it collectively, not separately and mutually opposed.  

Ultimately, of course, those of you not in academics, or in the ALSC, might not even care about this whole business–and that is, of course, really the big issue here.  Until we figure out how to get people to care about what we do, we're destined to end up relegated to the back pages and quirky blogs of the Internet…and when that happens, we'll have no one to blame but ourselves.  

Of course, there will always be Saul Bellow.  And I really dig that guy.

Apr 18

 

I talked a few weeks ago about the moving target syndrome in finding an agent: some agents want to be called by their last names, some by their whole names, and still others by their first names (and some find it hysterical that other agents might ask for anything different); some want a particular brand of genre fiction (and are a bit irritated if you don't get the genre right); and some want to talk about their cats.  (Kidding, Colleen–we consider you a friend here at R.R., even if dogs are cooler.)  The issue isn't that agents have different wishes; it's easy enough to read the requirements on their websites and adjust accordingly, at least most of the time (I'm looking at you, Barbara Bauer–any time your site comes up ninth on a Google search for "worst literary agent website," you know you've got some garbage HTML coding on your hands (and, apparently, garbage elsewhere as well).).  The problem is agents assume that their requirements ought to be (or are) everyone's requirements, and thus authors are left scrambling to avoid violating one of the sacred commandments (queries must be short, queries must be targeted, queries must only be sent to one agent at a given agency, etc.), which tends to be a pretty big waste of time when most queries get rejected anyway for reasons having nothing to do with whether the letter went longer than four sentences.  Still, there's a kind of comfort in all of this; sure the hoop jumping is pretty tiresome, and the self-love laughable at times, but at least you know where you stand (and you stand here, in case you're wondering.  I forget sometimes myself without a friendly reminder.).  Agents tell you what to do, you nod your head and comply, and on it goes.  It's got that vaguely soothing feeling of a massive bureaucracy; sure the DMV pisses you off, but don't you feel even a bit more relaxed knowing that it's always going to be there, unquestionable, enduring, slow and unresponsive as hell but still there, by God?

Whatsa matter, you got something against faceless bureaucrats?

The truth is that agents have a limited tolerance for what they see as easily avoidable mistakes, and so you're pretty much out of luck if you make one.  Until, that is, now.  For straight out of Bizarro World comes Janet Reid's recent blog post, where she tells you to make mistakes.  Actually, make lots of them.

No, I'm not making this up.  Reid says, apparently with a straight face, that "you have to come out of your safe little cave for the opportunity meteor to hit you."  And then she proceeds to throw the meteor (actually meteors):  "Query everyone. Forget that crap about honing a list and researching what agents like….If you don't hear back in 30 days, query again. Don't EVER assume silence = no. Not even if the agent says that's what no response means…It's not illegal to query twice, or a hundred times…If one agent at an agency says no, query the other ones…Write what you don't know."

Wow, check out the opportunity crater in my front yard! 

I really don't know what to say about this.  All of this advice–especially the query everyone and query again after thirty days business–runs counter to pretty much every official suggestion I've ever read anywhere about this sort of thing.  I'd like to think Reid's got a bet with friends about how many careers she can permanently ruin by giving terrible advice, or alternatively that she's reached the "what the hell, I'm never going to consider these authors, but let me act contrary and radical so I can feel all countercultural again" stage.  And it's entirely possible she was just hideously drunk when she posted this.  But the post is still there five days later, so unless she got a hold of some pretty badass Goldschlager I'm going to guess she's sobered up by now (though that is some powerful stuff).  No, apparently she's actually serious.  And the reaction has ranged from dumbfounded ("Who are you and what did you do with that agent who used to live here?") to positively giddy ("Janet, Janet, how I love you. Don't worry. I'm married. It's only in an obsessed-fan type of way.").  It's like Santa Claus merged with the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy into the Sweet Jesus, This Guy Freaking RULES!!!!!!!!!…Guy.  (Not so catchy.  I've obviously got to work on my pithy names.)

But the question still remains: what the hell are we supposed to make of this?  Even if Reid would actually encourage authors to do this with her, and would have no problem reading queries about, say, fantasy fiction (and if she happens to mosey on by this site, I've got a nice offbeat one I'd love to send if you're curious!), are other agents going to go all Haight-Ashbury on us the same way?  If I query Nathan Bransford–twice–with a romantic graphic novel about the forbidden interspecies love of a hamster and iguana, is he going to dig it because I couldn't possibly have left his alleged comfort zone any farther behind?  Am I just doing this so I can "learn from my mistakes" (in which case I'd rather skip the lesson and get to the grade part, thanks)? 

And that's what gets me back to my point about shifting goalposts: I'd love to take this seriously.  Really.  I'd love to be able to send my work to a bunch of agents without having to worry that they only like left-handed tennis-playing Eskimo protagonists or something (though Game, Set, Igloo was a damn fine book).  But it's hard for me to escape the feeling that this is exactly the way to get my work ignored and get me dismissed as a lunatic who doesn't play nice at lunchtime, and that's an issue when agents are looking for any and every reason to get authors out of their overflowing "maybe" piles.  Of course, it's equally conceivable that thinking outside of the box like this, when done the right way, might help my queries stand out in those piles; it's entirely possible that agents haven't suggested these kinds of tactics because it hadn't occurred to them that authors would be able to use them properly, with discretion.  Hell, it's possible that the Sweet Jesus, This Guy Freaking RULES!!!!!!!!!…Guy exists.  (You don't have any proof that he doesn't exist, do you?) 

But still, I'd sure love some independent confirmation that we've changed the rulebook before I jump on the crazy train.   Say what you like, but I've seen Deep Impact, and some of those meteors are no freakin' joke.

Mar 29

Making the grade…AGAIN.

Posted by A Writer

 

My regular readers will notice that I've been absent for a while, and there's good reason for it:  I've been buried up to my neck in grading.  In fact I'm still buried up to my neck in it, and I'm taking a break.  Okay, in fact, I'm procrastinating right now from doing more of it.  Happy now?

Sorry, I'm a bit cranky.  Don't get me wrong: being a college professor is great (and it is, seriously.  If/when my music or writing careers take off, I'll reevaluate…but teaching is great nonetheless.).  I actually enjoy (usually) going to conferences, the research (in moderation) doesn't bother me, and the teaching is almost always a positive experience (even the prep isn't that bad).  I'm a long way from a millionaire, but I'm not poverty-stricken, and having a flexible schedule is a big plus.  Hell, I don't even mind committee meetings (so long as there are donuts.  Never trust a committee chair who doesn't think a meeting needs donuts.  It does, I promise.).  In fact I spend the first half of every semester pinching myself: "I get paid for this?  Seriously?  To talk about literature?  With people who have to listen?!?!?"  Ah, the heady days of September/February.

Then the papers start coming in.

Now I've been at this a while, and you would think by now that I'd have the process down to a science.  And in fairness, I have picked up some tips over the years to speed things up…even if most of them have to do with grading less.  (In my first class I decided I would permit any amount of revisions a student wanted on any paper.  Now I allow ONE revision on ONE paper and that's it.  Ever.  I also carry a crossbow now in case of emergencies.)  And I'm all about the experimentation, kids: I've tried spreading out the grading ("five papers every day for two weeks and I'll be done, WOO!"), setting aside a day for it ("sorry, honey, I'll be locked in the office for the next twelve hours…please slide a granola bar under the door at four hour intervals"), all-nighters (and Mountain Dew just isn't getting the job done for me the way it used to in college), staggering assignments among classes, group work, self-evaluation, you name it.  But I'm always left with the same problem: at the end of the day (or really every month of the semester…I hate the "end of the day" business) there's only so much you can streamline, and reading and commenting on papers just takes time.

And it sucks.

No, it really does.  I'm not joking.  I've actually heard some teachers try to make the ridiculous claim that grading is a positive thing: "I'm so happy to get to know my students better!!!!!"  (This is usually followed up by a slight giggle.  They're so cute at that age.)  But once the fresh-faced upstart has grown up a bit, he/she starts realizing that you get to know your students much better in the classroom.  Oh, sure, the quiet ones are more difficult, and their writing can surprise you.  But you could get just as "surprised" by meeting them one on one during office hours, or reading written responses that you didn't have to grade.  The need to comment meaningfully, to give suggestions on how to get better, to explain what the student needs to elaborate on–and especially to explain why you're giving the student a C instead of a B–that's the pain in the ass part.  And it's not a step you can reasonably skip if you're going to do your job properly.  I've often dreamed of creating the ScanTron paper grading system–just run the paper through the scanner while it looks for phrases like "objective correlative" and "at the end of the day," and out pops the graded paper on the other side–but the truth is it ain't happening.  Like it or not, I've just got to keep slogging through.

It wouldn't bother me so much, I think, if I felt that the comments I made really got used.  But students tend to react very specifically to comments–all I have to do is "fix" every part with a comment, he/she reasons, and I'll be into the A range without a problem.  The fact that I specifically say that my comments reflect a trend in the paper, or that one misinterpreted quote leads to lots of problems in the paper as a whole, is irrelevant.  What I really need is a rubber stamp which says SEE ABOVE.  I've actually had a student show me a paper with a hugely misspelled mess of a concluding paragraph–after ten previous paragraphs, equally bad, marked to hell pointing out the same mistakes–asking "what's wrong with this part?"

Why, nothing, oh charmingly precocious one!

In truth, it's not all the students' fault either.  They've been broken down by years of teachers viciously slashing and burning their work with red pen marks galore, and the experiences are traumatic.  So they've learned to look very carefully for every stray pen mark and "do something" with it…even if they don't know exactly what to do.  The pen mark is a danger sign, a shot across the bow, the "Where's Waldo" of academia: figure the answer out or give up the ship.  The idea of striking out on their own–of revising things of their own volition–has been so beaten out of my students by the time they arrive in my classroom that I'm lucky if I can get them to look for and correct a certain kind of mistake without holding their hands to get there.  And even worse, many of the things I comment on aren't concrete to begin with; it's probably relatively simple to tell a student how to fix a quadratic equation (relatively simple…there's a reason I teach literature), but asking him/her to expand on the analysis in a paper is a whole different kettle of man-eating fish.  No wonder I get the "I thought I said everything anyone can say about Hamlet!" response once in a while.  (Maybe they're right…there is a hell of a lot of babbling about that guy out there.) 

And so the dance goes on, my encouraging students to see the patterns in their analysis, them digging for the secret treasure map to a better grade, both of us tugging over the always charged interaction between student and teacher.  Maybe there's nothing at all the matter here; maybe this is all part of the equation that makes the process work, and helps some students become better writers and thinkers by the time they leave my classroom.  Maybe the hours of tedious commentary do add up to better educated, more well-rounded kids.

But at the moment, I'd rather just wallow in my sorrows for a couple more hours before heading back to fight the good fight.  Anyone up for a few  completely pointless games of poker?  If you're lucky, I might even give you an A when it's all over.

Mar 5

Hit points = -10.

Posted by A Writer

 

I just heard that Gary Gygax passed away, and it actually hit me a bit harder than I might have thought it would.  For those of you who didn't spend many of your teenage years (and a few years after that, okay?) hanging out with friends with a bunch of junk food, Mountain Dew and way too many dice, Gygax was the creator (co-creator, but he was really the brains behind the operation) of Dungeons and Dragons, the mother of all role-playing games.  D and D's gotten a bad rap over the years, first for allegedly drawing young people into cults, Satanism and suicide (often all at once!) and then for building an ultra-nerd culture which directly led to even more dangerous pursuits like, say, World of Warcraft.  It's also spawned a whole host of imitations, most of which are far inferior to their predecessor, and a few of which highlight some serious problems with the original game.  But when the game first came out in the mid-70s (after a few months for people to get used to the idea), it forever blew up the notion that games were about as interesting as your grandmother–she was nice, right, but how many times could she show you the same tintype of her great grandfather from the Civil War?–and about as old.  D and D told gamers to forget about boards, pieces, even boxes; just gather a bunch of friends, get a lot of sheets of paper, pencils, and dice, and let your imagination do the rest.  And once it took off, there was no looking back–even if the boards, pieces, and boxes eventually came back, since D and D is always about the bling.

I got into D and D pretty much right as it was reaching its zenith, and when I started playing it (Keep on the Borderlands was my first adventure, by the way, and it was pretty freaking awesome at my age…though it's pretty dated, looking at it now) I couldn't believe how cool the concept was.  I loved fantasy anyway–Tolkien was especially my bag–and here I was getting to actually be a wizard.  Awesome.  And besides, it tied together everything I liked best growing up–hanging out and playing games with friends.  And as I got older, I discovered that I was a pretty good DM (that's Dungeonmaster for those of you who aren't up on the lingo), and pretty good at running adventures…both because I was pretty good at retaining obscure rules for which the game was famous, and because I could ditch the rules when needed so as to create a more dynamic adventure.  It was a pretty productive time for me from that point of view–I was starting to learn how to pull together storylines, ideas, and characters to create a new world, and you better believe it helped me much later, when I was starting to create worlds in literary form.

Yes, in those early days D and D was pretty much the greatest thing ever.  Of course it couldn't last–we actually kept it going longer than a lot of people did, and to this day I still play sessions now and again.  But it's never going to match those marathon once a week deals in my friend's basement, or sometimes in the living room of my house, cracking up over stuff which wouldn't make much sense outside the game context.  Like this time one guy grabbed a Trident of Yearning and leaped into the nearest body of liquid, which just happened to be a pool of acid.  Man, that was some funny sh…er…right.  Like I said, you had to be there.  But it's one of my fondest memories, and I wouldn't trade it for anything. 

Of course, there were a lot of problems with D and D, both as a game and a pastime.  On the game side, it tended to the formulaic….dwarves, elves, dragons, you know the drill.  There wasn't a whole lot different about the game's setting, although later on it started to wander pretty far afield…flying ships, desert wasteland planets, stuff like that.  After D and D was sold to Hasbro, it had a pretty steep drop-off, and it really wasn't a pretty sight–the game got dumbed down, cartooned up (and not the good kind!), and basically beaten badly by a lot of more sophisticated competitors.  On the pastime front, it certainly did contribute to a feeling of isolation at times.  Why live your own life when your level 15 wizard is that much cooler?  And since D and D tended to appeal to more sensitive, intelligent and even oddball types, playing it soon got to be a badge of dishonor–leading to even more "nerd" jokes than before.  I always found this odd–I love sports too, but I never understood why painting my face blue and going to a football game without a shirt in sub-zero weather was cool while playing a game where I used my *gasp* imagination was nerdy–but there it was.  Besides, it wasn't really a physically active thing anyway, unless you were one of these people.  God help you if the kids ever found out about something like this.  

But still, D and D has always had an undeniable pull.  A few years back I was in a store in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin (original home of D and D), owned by Gygax's son–who invited me to play D and D with him and his father that evening!  I turned it down because of other plans, but I've always felt a little bad about it.  I would have loved to see what the father of role-playing would do in front of one of those cool altars with jeweled eyes.  I'm sure all of this makes me some kind of latter-day geek, but I can't even tell you how tired I am of labels, pretty much of any kind.  All I know is D and D got my imagination fired up in a way nothing else did during those years, and it deserves a lot of credit for not letting me sink too far into my own head at that time.  For me, and I suspect a bunch of other people, D and D will always be associated with cool stories and good times.  And for that alone, it's worth all the weirdness and odd people and cult accusations that have sometimes gone with it.

I'd like to imagine Gygax somewhere in his version of heaven–playing at a game table with friends, laughing his ass off over some conversation with an obnoxious goblin or something.  Come to think of it, that's not such a bad afterlife for anyone.  Rest in peace, G.G.  Thanks for the dungeons, and the dragons, and even the dice.  And for the rest of you non-converts, throw whatever charges of nerd-ism at me you like.  I've still got my Ancient Katana, and I've got my lucky twenty-sider right here.

Feb 24

 

Loyal readers of this blog (if you've cheated on me by reading some other blogs recently I forgive you, but don't let it happen again… :) ) may remember that I was recently working on my second book; I've completed it now, and am in the process of querying agents.  For the uninitiated this may seem like a relatively simple process: send a letter telling an agent about your book, if he/she is interested he/she asks to see more, and if all goes well you get representation and everyone has a Merry Christmas.  Ah, grasshopper, how much you have to learn.  Because the truth is that while technically it is more or less like that, in actual practice it's a long, long way from reality (even the rewritten kind).  No, in fact the process of finding an agent tends to be a long and arduous lesson in patience, humility, and a whole lot of gnashing of teeth, sackcloth and ashes optional–and it all starts with the sacred Query Letter, the key to agent bliss.  Having been through this process several times now I think I've started to get the idea–er, ideas–about how this all works, and so at the risk of stealing the thunder from my friends over at LROD, I now present the Five Steps to Writing the Query Letter of Righteousness (I considered "Justice" instead of "Righteousness," but decided that the latter term has got a touch more religious fervor).  Feel free to use this plan if you like, so long as you credit me once you've landed your agent…and, uh, so long as you put me in touch with that agent.  No reason, just would like to talk to him/her.

1.  YOUR QUERY SHALL BE SHORT.

Really.  Short.  If you think you've already made your query short, you're wrong.  Make it shorter.  No matter that there isn't any conceivable way to communicate what your story is about in two sentences; do it, or there's something wrong with you as a writer.  The agents say that this is necessary because of the hundreds, thousands, or millions (the numbers keep shooting up every time I look, so I'm extrapolating on the fly a bit) of queries they receive every week; if you can get things down to a few sentences, they might have a chance of getting through the query backlog by the fall, if all goes well.  They also claim that this demonstrates your ability as a writer, and there's something the matter either with you or your work if you can't distill your magnum opus into a few simple, easily remembered phrases.  And I'm really not making this up:  on Colleen Lindsay's blog, she quotes Shelly Shapiro's (editor-at-large for Del Rey) advice:  "I tell people that I want to see your plot summed up like a TV Guide entry:  three sentences.  No more.  If a writer can't do that, I know there's something missing."  (Such as the ability to compress a complex novel into a Powerpoint presentation, I suppose, but I digress.)  So I've taken up the challenge and have written a few sample queries for famous novels using this advice.  How many can you get right?

A.  "White whale.  Wooden-legged weirdo.  Want manuscript?"

B.  "Big-watered river.  European cannibals–the horror, the horror!  Like more?"

C.  "Guy bites necks, lives a long time.  Gets bored, does interview, keeps on un-living.  Whaddya think?"

D.  "Guy meets girl.  Girl seduces guy.  Girl's twelve.  Thoughts?"  (I cheated a bit on this one, but I'm still working on it.)

These probably wouldn't get picked up today–they're still too long for our overworked agents–but at least it's a start!

2.  YOUR QUERY SHALL BE DIFFERENT.   

Fine, you can write a TV Guide entry.  But can you write a TV Guide entry that stands out from the pack?  One that makes an agent say "now THIS book, different from any other one I've seen described in three or fewer sentences, is one I can sell!"?  If so, you're well on your way to completing step 2.

3.  YOUR QUERY SHALL NOT BE TOO DIFFERENT.

Fine, you can write a TV Guide entry that stands out from the pack.  But can you write a TV Guide entry that stands out from the pack without convincing the agent that you're a lunatic ("Come on, now, who the hell is going to want to read a book about a talking Xerox machine that plays a mean game of golf?  Get real!  Where's a good vampire book when you need it?")?  If so, you're well on your way to completing step 3.

4. YOUR QUERY SHALL GIVE MAXIMUM INFORMATION IN MINIMUM SPACE, EXCEPT WHEN IT WON'T.

Much of the time agents want to know a lot about you–your credentials, background, awards, that sort of thing.  It's important that they know this so they can understand the kind of person they're dealing with.  Much of the time agents don't want to know anything about you.  It's about your book, not the workshops you've enrolled in or the pieces of paper you have hanging on your wall.  What the hell would make you think that you should tell them about all of that stuff?!

Oh.  Right, yes, there is the first part of that paragraph.  Hmm.

5.  YOUR QUERY WILL REFER TO AGENTS FORMALLY, EXCEPT WHEN IT WON'T.

Most agents prefer a personalized letter with a formal mode of address:  Mr. Kleinman, say.  Calling them by their first names is juvenile and unprofessional.  But try that on other agents and you will get not only rejected but laughed at en route:  

    "Thanks so much for bringing it up in the first place, Ms. Lindsay."

    "Oh, GAWD!  Don't call me 'Ms.'  It's the most ridiculous thing ever."

Well, of course it is!  Who would even dream of calling an agent by her last name, with a professional honorofic attached?  Where would they have gotten that…oh.  Yes.  Hmm.

Were I a cynic, I might think that all of the above contradictory and sometimes whimsically arbitrary edicts were indicative of a larger problem in the agenting business–say, a tendency to substitute one's ego for common sense, and a belief that most of the people submitting manuscripts to agents–manuscripts on which these agents depend for their livelihoods, by the way–are cretins who don't know any better than to ignore "obvious" directions.  But of course I haven't gone down the cynic's path quite yet.  In truth there are a number of excellent and well-meaning agents, who live normal lives and are solid, good-hearted types; I know some of them, and they're good people.  And it's obviously true that a lot of writers have a sense of irritating entitlement, believing that it is the world's responsibility to publish their work regardless of its perceived or real artistic worth and value.  But I must admit that there are some times when it's hard not to get annoyed at the attitude expressed by some of the "gatekeepers" who seem stunned ("Oh GAWD!!!") by and dismissive of authors who just don't get how to do a query letter "properly"–and would be equally stunned at the idea that any of their fellow guardians of the publishing industry might be demanding things in direct opposition to them.  To those agents, a simple request: a measure of compassion would be much appreciated.  You really aren't the only one reading queries, and it isn't always easy to jump through your particular hoop at your particular time.  And while we sympathize with your workload, we must respectfully point out that it's one you freely chose to take on.  At the point that you make that choice, I think a measure of kindness blended with the savvy business sense necessary for your profession becomes a major part of your job description.  And remembering why you got into that profession in the first place might help you place those rules in their proper perspective.

In the meantime, I'm looking through every TV Guide I can find to get some pointers.  I may accidentally still use the "Ms." term again…but at least I'll have a super short description of my book to compensate for it, and who knows?  I think "Raft.  River.  Racism.  Read?" has got promise…even if it takes me some time to work out the details.

You think? 

Feb 13

 

Unless you've been living under a rock (and if you have, I hope you didn't need a subprime mortgage to get it), you've probably heard about the whole Roger Clemens steroids fiasco.  Clemens, a supremely gifted baseball pitcher (probably one of the five best to ever play the game), was named in the Mitchell Report on steroids as a user, largely based on the testimony of his former trainer Brian McNamee.  The story's much more juicy (pun sort of intended) than that, of course; Clemens has commenced an all-out assault on McNamee (who admittedly isn't exactly a choir boy), who in turn has thrown Clemens' wife under the bus (told you this was good stuff).  Clemens hasn't been shy about doing the same thing to his wife, actually, and his mother or anyone else he can find to blame.  Even his best friend has bailed out on him.  Yep, things aren't looking good for Clemens, and the possibility of a federal perjury charge is getting more real every second. 

Now loyal readers might be double checking their address bar at this point.  This is a blog about language, literature, and music, not sports, after all…and a good thing too, since as much as I like sports the last thing I want is to start holy wars over whether Duke is better than North Carolina, or whether Ali would have beaten Tyson in their primes.  (Answers:  None of the above, and yes.)  But this week I've been inundated with news about the Clemens business, and today it reached its zenith with a hearing in front of Congress.  My take on the subject doesn't have much to do with the hearing itself, though, or whether the Rocket was using some additives in his jet fuel or not (seems like a whole lot of evidence against a whole lot of furious denial to me, but hey, it's not like the state's got a perfect record on this stuff).  No, I've been far more interested in the coverage…what different people say about the exact same event, and why.  Because the sports media, which naturally can't get enough of this business, is falling all over itself to classify what's happening early and often, with ever more ridiculous headlines:

"Clemens blames all but himself."  (Straightforward, to the point.) 

"Hearings: Untruth and consequences." (Cute.)

"Clemens shelled by Congress." (Now we've gone to Saving Private Ryan?)

"Is Clemens the Antichrist?" (Okay, this isn't really about the steroids business, but I love it anyway.) 

Wow.  Put these all together and you seem to have some serious consensus against the guy.  And it's not just the headlines; read the articles themselves and you'll see the writers lining up to savage the guy they couldn't stop praising a year ago:

"Question by question, disputed answer by disputed answer, Roger Clemens' house of lies came tumbling down upon him Wednesday…Clemens had nothing, just pathetic ramblings…and throwing everyone from his agents, to his mother, to his wife under the bus of blame."

"Wednesday was a day of losers. While the Mitchell report withstood its stiffest challenge yet, baseball lost. Roger Clemens lost and Brian McNamee lost. Clemens had his day under oath in front of the country, and he spent it flailing, splashing against relentless waves of facts he could not calm, even after 4½ hours."

"Clemens was a much more compelling personality….[he] spoke with passion and energy, and with what sounded like heartfelt conviction… He made a tremendous witness."

Whoa, whoa, whoa.  What the hell happened to the savaging?

It turns out, kids, that ultimately truth really is in the eye (or the pen?) of the reporter.  For Dan Wetzel and Howard Bryant, Clemens' appearance was an utter failure, "pathetic," "flailing," and the work of a "loser."  For Jayson Stark, though (who hasn't exactly been Mr. Objectivity throughout his career), Clemens was "compelling" and a "tremendous witness."  Same place, same time, same hearing.  Different Clemens.  

Why do I feel like I'm in a bad remake of Sliding Doors?

Of course, everyone knows that truth is ultimately dependent on those who perceive it.  It shouldn't be surprising that different observers will have different takes on the same event.  But the issue, ultimately, doesn't concern them–it's about us.  When you can have one person alternatively described as "pathetic" and "compelling," at the exact same moment, how are we supposed to parse the difference?  Check up on your sources, you say; do some research and discover the truth for yourself.  Well, sure…you can find out all you want about the backgrounds of your reporters, and decide whether one person's distant relationship by marriage to a given newsmaker taints his reports on that newsmaker or not.  Or you can go to one of the million online news sources and watch everything for yourself.  Maybe you'll let the meteorologist slide (he's probably not in bed with the hurricane, right, so at least he's not taking any kickbacks from Mother Nature), but anything which could even have a tinge of subjectivity gets vetted by your crack analysts (er…by you, in other words).  Problem solved, right?

Well, maybe.  Maybe you figure that you've got the education, the knowledge, the background to be able to get a sense of truth or falsehood from someone doing steroids, or testifying at trial, or describing wartime atrocities.  You're a well-rounded citizen, right?  But what about the deeper levels of knowledge?  Do you know enough to decide whether a medical professional got kickbacks from a pharmaceutical company, which might affect her prescription for your medical condition?  Do you know enough to figure out whether your special ed coordinator really is interested in the welfare of your child, not in getting the principal off his neck about his tendency to run over budget?  Are you savvy enough to know whether mechanics are telling you the truth about how safe or unsafe your brake pads are?

Uh-huh.  All of a sudden the Renaissance man theory is getting a bit strained, isn't it?

The point is not that you should be content to sink into the typical blissful ignorance which often characterizes a lot of your fellow citizens (and don't act shocked, all of you reading this feel the same way occasionally.  Smile).  We could all use a lot more healthy skepticism.  But it's clear that the position of objective fact-finder, the person whose job is to report on reality and put it in a context we can all use, is rapidly vanishing.  In its place we have a lot of very opinionated people (walk into any bookstore and you'll see their proxies screaming at each other from their respective bestseller tables) with very definite impressions of reality, and not a whole lot of ways to distinguish between them.  (We all know Ann Coulter is a lunatic, but what's the deal with Jon Stewart?  He seems trustworthy–I certainly trust the guy–but is that reasonable?)  And that leaves us either to become experts on everything–not very likely–or determined to know nothing, since at least that way we won't get fooled again, at least in theory.  The result is that we cede the field to the ones who very much know what agenda they want to promote, and truth suffers as a consequence.

Maybe this sounds too maudlin and sentimental, like I ought to be crying for the loss of the Walter Cronkites and Edward R. Murrows of the world.  And maybe it's too much of a stretch to see some overzealous sports journalists going at it and worry about the fate of veracity in 2008.  But spin it however you like, there's something more than a little troubling about the he said/she said mentality that seems to be infusing all aspects of our world, from pundits to the ordinary people who listen to them.  Whether Clemens had something injected in his butt so he could throw a baseball faster may not really be important in the large scheme of the universe.  But whether we'll ever be able to get a fair-minded appraisal of how likely the possibility is–whether Clemens is indeed compelling or an Antichrist–without needing a medical degree to be sure, is.

The truth is out there, friends.  Just make sure you've got all of your search equipment in order when you set out to find it.

Feb 2

 

The Chronicle of Higher Education has struck again with another of its first person columns this week.  When these columns first started (perhaps ten years ago now) I used to enjoy reading them for their often intriguing insights into a world which I in my naive graduate student mind believed to be beyond my ken (or Barbie, actually.  I was still confused by radical feminism and how many Judith Butlers could dance on the head of a pin in those days.).  But two things changed as the years progressed: I grew older and theoretically wiser, at least in terms of the academic world, and the columns grew younger and definitely more juvenile.  That's perhaps a bit harsh–there are still some interesting ideas which get bandied about in the first person columns from time to time, and certainly the writers usually intend to be helpful to their readers.  But for the most part the subject matter of the columns has grown progressively less relevant to actual academic life.  Exhibit A: Thomas William Pannapacker Benton's account of fashion in academia.  With book recommendations.

Now that you've had a chance to pick your jaws up off the floor, I'll continue.  Yes, Benton (the pseudonym for William Pannapacker–I don't know why the guy decided to maintain his pseudonym after he revealed his real one, but maybe he likes getting to wear two name tags at conferences), who's come under fire before for some rather odd opinions he's expressed in his column on "academic culture," decided this time around to take a look at the fashion sense of academics.  Some of this is expressed with the appropriate amount of deadpan humor (or what passes for it: "Male professors do tend to dress casually at my college.  And it was my plan, you see, to assimilate–at least until I received tenure.  Dear reader, you must know that I have since trimmed my mullet, shaved my mutton chops, and donated my Carhardtt duck-billed overalls to Goodwill."  Bentapacker may not have been aware that "casual" did not mean "ZZ Top.")…but a lot of it seems to be trying to strike a serious tone:

"…I think my year of dressing formally was a worthwhile experiment…I found that a higher level of formality improved my students' learning. My larger classes ran more smoothly. I had fewer disruptions, less chatter, more note-taking. I had fewer grade appeals, even though I graded more rigorously and made larger demands. I saw fewer bare feet, boxer shorts, bed hair, and pajama pants in my classrooms. E-mail messages to me almost invariably began with 'Dear Professor' instead of 'Hey.'" 

And he wraps up his survey of academic attire by proclaiming that "the most important thing about clothing is contextual appropriateness, in addition to quality and fit…Above all, when I dress, I pay careful attention to context, including my age, rank, and the nature of the task at hand, even if that means adjusting my clothes in the middle of the day–like superman in a phone booth–as I change from professor to counselor to administrator and back again."

Well, that's a relief.  I used to wonder why I always got in trouble for wearing my snorkeling outfit to my committee meetings.

Sarcasm aside, I'm genuinely puzzled how Boilermaker (I know, and I have the nerve to call other people juvenile!) believes these platitudes about the dress code to represent some kind of revelation to people within the academic field.  All academics do is think about situational context, often to a crushingly boring degree.  And it's not just academics; if you're told that you have casual Fridays, and the rest of the time need to dress "in accordance with company decorum," it's a pretty damn good bet the default outfit isn't jeans and a T-shirt (not even the classy kind with a different colored collar).  Test it out for yourself if you're feeling lucky.  Is this something which is seriously in dispute?  Someone somewhere was about to walk into a classroom wearing a "Joss Whedon is my master now" shirt and was stopped by ThomWill's warning just in time?

Boy, I hope not.  Now don't get me wrong: there's no doubt that some academics' vision of appropriate attire can be a bit blurry at times.  The Paper Chase world of elbow patches and well worn tweed coats is still alive and well at many institutions of higher learning to this day, springing about equally from positions of defiance and desperation; some professors wear their suit pant/sneaker look with the appropriate amount of Vietnam protest pride, and others just didn't have a plan B after the bell bottom era.  But in the majority of these cases the person in question is well aware that his/her outfit isn't quite blending in with the baggy jean/baseball cap look of his/her students, and would probably nod sheepishly and a touch helplessly (or angrily) if the subject was brought up.  For those of us who straddle generations, neither world is particularly foreign; we can enjoy hanging out with friends in soccer jerseys and jeans on Friday evening and comfortably show up for work in suit pants and button down shirt and tie the following Monday. 

But we also don't stress quite so much about the implications, and I think this is pseudo-Packer's biggest problem: he reads far too much into what should be second nature and forgets what's really important in the process.  I myself begin every semester with a vest, tie, pocket watch, formal pressed pants, the works.  In part this is to portray the image of confidence and establish a certain educational distance which my manner and behavior will constantly reduce (I'm not a big fan of the massive "lecturing for lecture's sake" theory of instruction); the more competent and confident I can appear early on, the easier it will be throughout the course of the semester to pull back, when necessary, on the discipline and straight-ahead approach.  My default teaching outfit, meanwhile, is a button down shirt and business-quality pants, no tie: comfortable but appropriate.  Clothes may be a "complex negotiation," but I think mine send a simple message: I take the class seriously, but have enough levity to have a fighting shot at relating to my students who won't think I'm cool just because I wear no belt and a backwards baseball cap.  Where my class will ultimately be won over, though, is in the attitude I express–humorous, light, but also serious and disciplined–which signals to my students that they're worth the challenges I'm giving them.  Benton/Pannapacker, on the other hand, seems to want to rely on pressed clothing and "French cuffs" as the backbone of his instructional paradigm, and you'll excuse me if I find that approach a bit…limiting.

Ultimately, of course, clothes don't really make the man (or woman), and TWPB may simply want to suggest a few good books on academic fashion to get those of us who still love paisley out of the psychedelic age.  Fair enough.  But I think his take says much more about what academics too often value–appearance, outward show, and projected image–than it does about some fresh new look at the classroom environment.  As for me, I'll stick with my vest and pocket watch to button down shirt and dress pants transition.  And if Queer Eye for the Straight Guy ever does decide to give me the full makeover treatment, I've got this awesome Joss Whedon T-shirt that would be a sweet addition to any classroom outfit.  Hey, man, I hear they're just ahead of the trend!

Jan 26

Technology is your friend!

Posted by A Writer

 

As you may have noticed (I hope), I've been AWOL the last few days for several reasons–one of which is the beginning of a new semester, with its excitement, nervous energy, and idealistic visions of a better tomorrow.  (And its committee meetings, and faculty meetings, and…sigh.  You get the idea.)  And as usual, the new crop of students looks both promising and hopeless, depending I think on changes in the moon.  (This is a leap year, right?)  All seems to be routine in the college world.  But on my way into class today I noticed some changes around my institution's campus–a few new mysterious towers, a couple of vans bristling with ladders and wires parked outside two of the major classroom buildings, some folks in hard hats and carrying clipboards wandering the halls; and within my classrooms, brand spanking new projectors.  Digital zoom, Dolby surround system…nice.  This'll be sweet for the Super Bowl.

Except, of course, that you don't watch the Super Bowl in a classroom.  You might talk about the economics of the game there, and maybe discuss injuries in a sports science class.  But watching the game itself?  Nope.  You're not going to play Madden '08 there either (more's the pity, I suppose), or check out Law and Order in HD.  No, this is an educational setting…though you might start to wonder about that if you wander around campus a bit.  Brand new computers in all the rooms, high-tech podiums with built in DVD players, VCRs, iPod docks…yep, it's a veritable sea of tech, and my school hasn't been shy in advertising that fact.  Top 200 Most Wired Campuses, Top 200 Most Wireless Campuses (the lists weren't in the same article, though it would have been fun to watch them fight it out if they were), in partnership with major technology corporations, developing new technology programs–it's a brave new world, and we're leading the charge right into it.

But hey, I like technology.  I have an mp3 player and a cool smartphone myself, to say nothing of my DVR and flat-screen HDTV with HDMI inputs.  When I watch the Super Bowl on that bad boy, let me tell you, I'm going to…um…

Wait a minute.  How did I get off the subject of education again?

Because you see, that's the real problem here.  My college is so hot and bothered about its technological profile it's almost funny…but what's getting lost in the shuffle is the educational side of things.  How are all these wires, gadgets and doodads (I love that I was able to use "doodads" in a 2008 post) actually helping the learning process?  My college, and many others, claims that adopting all this technology is just getting us in "sync" with the younger generations, that we will either adapt to the IM / iPod mindset or perish in our overwhelming irrelevance.  To a degree I understand this argument; a lot of professors are fiercely anti-tech, and whether they realize it or not that stand certainly isn't helping them reach a new crop of 18-22 year olds in their classrooms every year.  (They probably don't realize it.  The same view of the world that makes them look at a computer as Satan's child and pop music as Perry Como's domain generally doesn't allow for very insightful self-assessments.)  But there are two major issues here: first, just having cool whiz-bang technology sitting in a classroom won't help students absorb the professor's (hence the subject's) coolness through osmosis and further the educational mission.  In fact, most institutions are lousy in explaining what the hell they're really using the "Web-rific Powerpoint Enhancer 2008" for, since, well, they don't really know.  Someone like IBM or Apple has sold some poor innocent VP for Technological Advancement on vague promises of how the Projector 2020 will enhance student learning a hundredfold, and the next thing you know they're showing up in every classroom to the bewilderment of professors who never asked for and will probably never use them in the way they're intended.  Not only this is a waste of resources (but that's the capitalist way, right?), it can detract from the classroom, particularly if an overzealous Dean decides that his school is going to be the most techy place in America no matter what it takes.  All of a sudden professors start seeing memos about portfolios and running student chat rooms, and that's when we know that we've started down that long, steep hill.

But most of us are used to resisting or deflecting institutional pressures; it's a lot easier to smile and nod beatifically and then do what we want in our classes than it is to confront the dragons head on.  The second issue is the really bad one: students see through this ridiculous charade.  Contrary to the mass media's opinion, the younger generation is not reachable only by technology; it's reachable by accessible, meaningful and challenging work.  I'm continually amused by a lot of college professors' obsession with Powerpoint, which is generally used to produce a bunch of boring slides while people look through the Xeroxed handouts–of the exact same slides–just in case the program breaks down.  (Now that's a brave new world, baby!)  It's certainly "technological," but who cares?  You could have gotten the same result with a standard slide projector and a good old reliable set of handouts.  And students immediately recognize this problem; you can force-feed technology into a lesson all you want, but if the lesson itself feels like it was pulled from Ferris Bueller it's not going to matter if you can send the knowledge right into the students' brains.  Students resent being patronized, and this is patronization of the highest order.  Beyond that, it's a hopeless chase; academics have only now started to hear about what a "podcast" is, and by the time they start integrating it into their classrooms the students will already be on to "text-casting" or something similar.  Chasing the sun would be an easier proposition.

So what's the answer, then?  Should we just bail out on all things tech and head back to chalk and notebook for our exclusive educational diet?  Well, no–technology can be useful, so long as it's used to enhance a lesson which could have stood on its own.  I can tell my students all I want about Greek drama, but when I can play a film with period costumes and acting techniques I can really heighten their understanding.  I can explain the creative process, but if I show examples of different takes on the same song, for instance, using a combination of YouTube, mp3s and websites, I can give them multiple ways to access their own understanding.  Technology is indeed your friend, but no one likes a friend who never gets the message that it's time to leave.  The sooner school administrators get that message and stop bringing that friend along to every party, the sooner we'll be able to get back to the real business of educating our students–even when we aren't using something with a computer chip to do it.    

Jan 19

 

There's an interesting discussion going on over at Absolute Write about the newest plagiarism scandal to rock the romance world.  I admit to being a bit late to this topic, since romance novels and I have kind of a hate-hate relationship (which is really understating the case; nothing says "supermarket line" quite like a Fabio cover).  Anyway, apparently the fine folks at Smart Bitches Who Love Trashy Books (the subtitle is even better: "Come for the Dominican Bitches, Stay for the Man Titty") have outed one of the most popular romance writers in America (i.e. another person I've never heard of), Cassie Edwards, showing how she plagiarized large portions of Luther Standing Bear's Land of the Spotted Eagle and an article by Defenders of Wildlife for her book Shadow Bear.  The evidence does seem pretty damning:

1.  From Spotted Eagle: "There was no kneeling, no words were spoken, and no hands were raised, but in every heart was just a thought of a tribute. No assembly ceremonies were held in the morning, each and every person on his own account holding his moment of worship."

    From Shadow Bear: "'That is because there is no kneeling, nor words spoken, nor hands raised, but in every Lakota heart there is just a thought of tribute,' Shadow Bear proudly explained. He turned to her so that their eyes met. 'You will learn that no assembly of our people is required for that tribute, either. Each and every person, on his own account, holds his own moment of worship.'"

Hmm.  Well, maybe just a harmless mistake, right?

2.  From Defenders Magazine: "Ferrets stalk and kill prairie dogs during the night. Using their keen sense of smell and whiskers to guide them through pitch-black burrows, ferrets clamp a suffocation bite on their sleeping prey — an impressive feat, considering that the two species are about the same weight."   

    From Shadow Bear: "'I read that ferrets stalk and kill prairie dogs during the night. Using their keen sense of smell and whiskers to guide them through pitch-black burrows, ferrets suffocate the sleeping prey, an impressive feat considering the two species are about the same weight,' Shiona said, shivering at the thought, for to her one animal was as cute and precious as the next."

Uh…

3.  From Spotted Eagle: "So the sunflower and the buffalo were two beloved symbols of the Lakota. So first, last, and throughout existence, the Lakota knew that the sun was essential to health and to all life. In spring, summer, and winter its rays were welcome. In the spring its warmth brought forth new grass; in the summer its heat cured the skins, dried the meat, and preserved food for storage…"

    From Shadow Bear: "She paused, swallowed hard, then said, 'The sunflower and buffalo are two beloved symbols of our Lakota people. The sun is essential to all health and life. In spring, summer, and winter, rays are welcome. In the spring, its warmth brings forth new grass; in summer its heat cures the skins, dries the meat, and preserves food for storage.'

Okay–what the hell!?

I've been teaching long enough to know that this is flat out plagiarism from the word go, and not particularly artful plagiarism at that.  If I had an example like this from one of my students (and I have), the paper would get a zero and the student put on notice in my class and in the department that one more such case would result in immediate failure of the course and the student referred to the Dean.  In the world of publishing, of course, the situation is a little different, and the consequences ought to be worse.  You would assume that Ms. Edwards would release a public apology, the book would be pulled from the shelves, and some settlement made to the authors who had their work blatantly stolen.  Maybe she could become an advocate for truth in writing from this point forward…giving seminars, talking to aspiring writers about what she's learned…right?

Nope, not so much.  Not only did her publisher (Signet) not apologize for the plagiarism, it actually claimed she had done nothing wrong

"Signet takes plagiarism seriously, and would act swiftly were there justification for such allegations against one of its authors.  But in this case Ms. Edwards has done nothing wrong.

The copyright fair-use doctrine permits reasonable borrowing and paraphrasing of another author’s words, especially for the purpose of creating something new and original. Also, anyone may use facts, ideas and theories developed by another author, as well as any material in the public domain. Ms. Edwards’s researched historical novels are precisely the kinds of original, creative works that this copyright policy promotes.

Although it may be common in academic circles to meticulously footnote every source and provide citations or bibliographies, even though not required by copyright law, such a practice is virtually unheard of for a popular novel aimed at the consumer market."

Buhhhwhattt??

Leaving aside the not-so-subtle shot at academics in the last paragraph (although you jackasses may waste your time asking permission to use other people's work, we're too busy making money and don't have to put up with that crap.  Stealing stuff is what we're all about.  Run along now and play in your ivory tower.), this is perhaps the most ass-backwards explanation of plagiarism I've ever heard.  "The copyright fair-use doctrine permits reasonable borrowing and paraphrasing of another author’s words, especially for the purpose of creating something new and original"?  Uh–no, no it doesn't.  First of all, fair use applies to the educational arena (you know, where us naive academics like to play) and specifically non-profit and/or public good purposes.  I promise you that if I start quoting Robert Jordan like it's going out of style in my next novel Tor isn't going to smile beatifically as I start cashing checks.  Second, do any of those examples I just cited strike you as "reasonable"?  Particularly when half of what Edwards is plagiarizing is from an actual Native American!?  The resulting outcry from this ridiculous answer apparently caused Signet to reconsider, releasing a second statement that they now "believe the situation deserves further review."  Uh-huh.  As does their legal team's initial advice, no doubt.

But surely this is just the money-grubbing publisher's issue; Ms. Edwards, who claims to be sensitive to Native American causes and culture, obviously feels terrible about the whole business, right? 

"Hi, Lisa,

I just got on My Space and I found your wonderful encouraging letter. Thank you for believing in me, for I have done nothing wrong. My publisher is standing behind me 100%, for they know my work better than anyone, and they know that all romance authors who use research for historicals have to use reference books to do this. My readers love this accurate material about the Indians. And if I couldn’t use this material my books would not be worth anything to my readers who depend on me.

The sad thing is that I am writing these books now in a way to honor our Native Americans, past, present and in the future. And I am honoring my great grandmother who was a full blood Cheyenne. She would be so proud of me if she could read what I am writing about the Indians who have been so maligned for so long. And do you know? I feel picked on now as our Native American Indians have always been picked on throughout history. I am trying to spread the word about them and what do I get? Spiteful women who have found a way to bring attention to themselves, by getting in the media in this horrible way.

Right now I am getting hit from all sides….CNN, The New York Times, AP, everyone who those women could think of to contact. And what is also sad is that a fellow author, has spoken up and condemned me.

Thanks again for your support. When I am feeling stronger I plan to write a bulletin on My Space, but right now I am totally drained of energy from what has been done to me. I hope that you will tell your friends, who are so much also mine, the wrong that has been done to me, and tell them that I will get through this. I will be found innocent and vendicated of any wrong.

For now, it’s all too raw and horrible, but I will be alright.
Love, Cassie" 

Surprised

(The "fellow author" who condemned her, by the way, is Nora Roberts, who I have heard of and who knows something about plagiarism issues.) That's right, kids: not only does Edwards not want to apologize, she thinks she is the victim…and not only the victim, but a victim just like the Native Americans were.  

Let's just let that sink in for a minute.  (As one of the commenters put it: "Pointing out copy-pasted paragraphs of statistical information about ferrets: the smallpox blankets of the twenty-first century.")  

I'm not sure what I find more stunning–her breathtaking defiance of the evidence right in front of her ("Sure I was holding the ax which was in her head, and naturally I was yelling at her, and of course I had told all my friends and family I was going to kill her with an ax, but I didn't do anything wrong!!!!") or the almost obscene reversal of blame she engages in ("you know, no one ever thinks about the murderer's feelings!").  It's Patriots Videogate redux–I'm just the criminal, man, don't blame me.  But however you want to slice it, it's apparent from her reaction and that of a lot of her fans that something's getting lost in the translation here: either she doesn't get it (which would imply a level of ignorance from a bestselling author so staggering I can't freaking deal with the possibility), or she does get it and is involved in one of the most disingenuous and reprehensible campaigns of "screw you, stop attacking me, I'm a big time author, bitches!" I've ever seen.  Neither option is particularly appealing, especially concerning a woman who claims to be honoring Native Americans while referring to them as "Indians" in the same breath.

In a way none of this should be surprising.  Teachers routinely ignore blatant examples of plagiarism in their classrooms because they just don't want to take the time to track down the relevant material, and as a result a number of students sail through their educational careers merrily stealing and robbing other people's intellectual property without once being slapped down for the practice.  The result?  They get out into the "real" world (well, pseudo-real in the case of publishing) and do the exact same thing they learned would get them places earlier–steal like mad and angrily deny culpability if and when they get caught.  Does anyone think that Cassie Edwards never did this before?  She never wrote, say, some tenth grade paper on Moby Dick using something other than her own, er, rapier-like wit and silky smooth prose?

There's this cool bridge I know, see, and there's a big sale going on…

The point is that mindsets of this kind develop early, and it's incumbent on all the "first responders," if you will, to change that mindset as soon as possible, despite the tearful pleas and the furious denials.  You do your students, children, or reprobate authors no favors by looking the other way for a minor infraction.  Because the longer you wait, the more you let go, the stronger the suspicion becomes that there are no consequences for wrongdoing, and stealing really isn't that big a deal, and "everyone does it anyway" so who really gives a damn?  And that, my friends, is where the Cassie Edwards of the world start to pop up.  This certainly isn't the first time plagiarism has reared its ugly head; it's happening all over the place, in fact.  But unless we stand up and say something now, we're going to have a hard time slowing it down.

So kudos to the Smart Bitches for the revelation.  As I've often said, never was so much owed by so many to so few.

What do you mean that sounds familiar?