Enjoy your summer reading. Faster! Faster!: Technology, Recreation, and Being Human

A nice essay from novelist Graham Swift in the New York Times on the issues of reading, writing, speed and leisure.  A lot of what’s here is well travelled ground, though travelled well again by Swift.  I especially noted his sense in which time-saving has become the means by which we are enslaved to time.

A good novel is like a welcome pause in the flow of our existence; a great novel is forever revisitable. Novels can linger with us long after we’ve read them — even, and perhaps particularly, novels that compel us to read them, all other concerns forgotten, in a single intense sitting. We may sometimes count pages as we read, but I don’t think we look at our watches to see how time is slipping away.

That, in fact, is the position of the skeptical nonreader who says, “I have no time to read,” and who deems the pace of life no longer able to accommodate the apparently laggard process of reading books. We have developed a wealth of technologies that are supposed to save us time for leisurely pursuits, but for some this has only made such pursuits seem ponderous and archaic. ­“Saving time” has made us slaves to speed.

via The Narrative Physics of Novels – NYTimes.com.

To some degree Swift is picking up on a perpetual conundrum in the advancements of technology, a dialectic by which we pursue technological ends to make our lives easier, more convenient, less consumed by work and more open to enrichment. Making onerous tasks more efficient has been the dream of technology from indoor plumbing to the washing machine to email. In short we pursue technological means to make our lives more human.

And in some ways and places, we are able to achieve that end.  Who would want, really, to live in the Middle Ages anywhere except in Second Life.  Your expected life span at birth would have been about 30 years, compared to a global average today in the mid to upper 60s, and it would have been a 30 years far more grinding and difficult than what most of the world experiences today (with, of course, important and grievous exceptions).  You would likely have been hopelessly illiterate, cut off from even the possibility of entering a library (much less purchasing a handmade codex in a bookstore), and you would have had no means of being informed of what happened in the next valley last week, much less what happened in Beijing 10 minutes ago.  It is little wonder that  becoming a monk or a priest ranked high on the list of desirable medieval occupations.  Where else were you guaranteed a reward in heaven, as well as at least some access to those things we consider basic features of our contemporary humanity–literacy, education, art, music, a life not under the dominion of physical labor.  What we usually mean when we romanticize the ancient world (or for that matter the 1950s) is that we want all the fruits of our modern era with out the new enslavements that accompany them

At the same time, of course, our technological advances have often been promoted as a gift to humankind in general, but they have as readily been employed to advance a narrow version of human productivity in the marketplace.  Our technologies facilitate fast communication;  This mostly means that we are now expected to communicate more than ever, and they also raise expectations about just exactly what can get done.  Technology vastly expands the range or information we can thoughtfully engage, but increases the sense that we are responsible for knowing something about everything, instead of knowing everything about the few dozen books my great grandparents might have had in their possession.  One reason the vaunted yeoman farmer knew something about Shakespeare, could memorize vast expanses of the bible, and could endure sermons and speeches that lasted for hours is because he didn’t have a twitter feed. Nor did he have an Outlook Calendar that becomes an endless to do list generated by others.

I do think the novel, even in its e-book form, resists this need for speed.  On the other hand, it is worth saying that reading like this must be practiced like other things.  I find that when I take a couple of vacation days for a long weekend (like this weekend), it takes me about 2/3 of a day to slow down and relax and allow myself to pause.  Luckily, I can do this more readily with novels, even at the end of a hectic and too full day or week.  But that might be possible because I learned how to do it in another world, one without the bells and whistles that call for my attention through my multiple devices with their glowing LCDs.

Novel reading is a learned skill, and I wonder whether our students learn it well enough. Re-creation is a learned skill, one we need to be fully ourselves, and I do wonder whether we lose that capacity for pause in our speedy lives.

Celebrating the liberal arts in the marketplace (cautiously)

A new survey of 225 employers just out emphasizes the continuing value of the liberal arts in the employment market.

More interesting, at least for those of us who got some parental grief over our college choice, was the apparent love being shown for liberal arts majors. Thirty percent of surveyed employers said they were recruiting liberal arts types, second only to the 34 percent who said they were going after engineering and computer information systems majors. Trailing were finance and accounting majors, as only 18 percent of employers said they were recruiting targets.

“The No. 1 skill that employers are looking for are communication skills and liberal arts students who take classes in writing and speaking,” said Dan Schawbel, founder of Millennial Branding and an expert on Generation Y. “They need to become good communicators in order to graduate with a liberal arts degree. Companies are looking for soft skills over hard skills now because hard skills can be learned, while soft skills need to be developed.”

via Survey On Millennial Hiring Highlights Power Of Liberal Arts – Daily Brief – Portfolio.com.

I don’t particularly like the soft skills/hard skills dichotomy.  However, this fits my general sense, blogged on before, that the hysteria over liberal arts majors lack of employability is, well, hysteria.  Something manufactured by reporters needing something to talk about.

At the same time, I think the somewhat glib and easy tone of this particular article calls for some caution.  Digging in to the statistics provided even in the summary suggests that liberal arts majors need to be supplementing their education with concrete experiences and coursework that will provide a broad panoply of skills and abilities.  50% of employers, for instance, say they are looking for students who held leadership positions on campus, a stat before which even engineers and computer scientist but kneel in obeisance.  Similarly, nearly 69% say they are looking for coursework relevant to the position you are pursuing.  My general sense is you can sell you Shakespeare course to a lot of employers, but it might be helpful if you sold Shakespeare along side the website you built for the course or alongside the three courses you took in computer programming.

Generally speaking, then, I think these statistics confirm the ideas propounded by the Rethinking Success conference in suggesting that students really need to be developing themselves as T-shaped candidates for positions, broad and deep, with a variety of skills and experiences to draw on and some level of expertise that has been, preferably, demonstrated through experiences like internships or project-based creativity.

Speaking of Rethinking Success, the entire website is now up with all the relevant videos.  The session with Philip Gardner from Michigan State is embedded below.  It was Gardner who impressed me by his emphasis that students need to realize that they either need to be liberal arts students with technical skills or technical students with liberal arts skills if they are going to have a chance in the current job market.

Deep and Wide: Katharine Brooks on Becoming a T-shaped Professional

Earlier today I blogged on the need for humanities students to take seriously the need to become more literate in science, technology and mathematics, both in order to pursue the ideal of a well-rounded liberal arts education and very pragmatically in order to prepare themselves for the world of work. Katharine Brooks (UT-Austin), one of the keynoters at the Rethinking Success conference at Wake Forest takes up the same point in a different manner in her reflections on the need for job candidates coming out of college to present themselves as T-shaped individuals, persons with deep knowledge of one or two areas and broad knowledge of several.

According to those in the talent-seeking field, the most sought-after candidates for management, consulting, research, and other leadership positions are T-shaped. The vertical stem of the T is the foundation: an in-depth specialized knowledge in one or two fields. The horizontal crossbar refers to the complementary skills of communication (including negotiation), creativity, the ability to apply knowledge across disciplines, empathy (including the ability to see from other perspectives), and an understanding of fields outside your area of expertise.

Organizations need workers with specialized knowledge who can also think broadly about a variety of areas, and apply their knowledge to new settings. Since T-shaped professionals possess skills and knowledge that are both broad and deep, developing and promoting your T-shaped talent may be the ticket to yourcareer success now and in the future.

The term “T-shaped” isn’t new: it’s been in use since the 1990s but mostly in consulting and technical fields. Several companies, including IDEO andMcKinsey & Company, have used this concept for years because they have always sought multidisciplinary workers who are capable of responding creatively to unexpected situations. Many companies have also developed interdisciplinary T teams to solve problems.

Dr. Phil Gardner at Michigan State University, who researches and writes regularly on recruiting trends, has been researching the concept of the T-shaped professional and the T-shaped manager. At the recent Rethinking Success Conference at Wake Forest University, Dr. Gardner described the ideal job candidate as a “liberal arts student with technical skills” or a “business/engineering student with humanities training”— in other words, a T-shaped candidate. Dr. Gardner is currently developing a guide for college students based on this concept. He notes that “while the engineers are out in front on this concept – every field will require T professional development.”

As my post earlier today suggested, I think this kind of approach to things is absolutely crucial for graduates in humanities programs, and we ought to shape our curricula–both within the majors and in our general education programs– in such a way that we are producing students confident in and able to articulate the ways in which their education and experiences have made them both deep and broad.
If I can take a half step back from those assertions and plunge in another direction, I will only point out that there is a way in which this particular formulation may let my brethren who are in technical fields off the hook a little too easily.  If it is the case that engineers are leaders in this area, I will say that the notion of breadth that is entailed may be a fairly narrow one, limited to the courses that students are able to get in their general education curriculum.
My colleague, Ray Norman, who is the Dean of our School of Science Engineering and Health has talked with me on more than one occasion about how desirable his engineering graduates are because they have had several courses in the humanities.  I am glad for that, but I point out to him that it is absolutely impossible for his engineering graduates to even minor in a field in my area, much less dream of a double major.  About a decade ago when I was chair of the English department, I went to a colleague who has since vacated the chair of the engineering department, asking if we could talk about ways that we could encourage some interchange between our departments, such that I could encourage my majors to take more engineering or other technical courses, and he could encourage his engineers to minor in English.  He was enthusiastic but also regretful.  He’d love to have my English majors in his program, but he couldn’t send his engineers my way;  the size of the engineering curriculum meant it was absolutely impossible for his students to take anything but the required courses in general education.
I don’t hold this against my colleagues; they labor under accreditation standards and national expectations in the discipline.  But I do think it raises again important questions about what an undergraduate education is for, questions explored effectively by Andrew Delbanco’s recent book.  Should undergraduate programs be so large and so professionally oriented that students are unable to take a minor or possibly a double major?  Whistling in to the wind, I say they should not.  Breadth and Depth should not mean the ability to know ONLY one thing really well;  it ought to mean knowing AT LEAST one thing really well, and a couple of other things pretty well, and several other things generally well.
Oddly enough, it is far easier for liberal arts students to achieve this richer kind of breadth and depth, if they only will.  A major in history, a minor in sociology, a second minor in information sciences, a couple of internships working on web-development at a museum, a college with a robust general education program.  There’s a T-shape to consider.
[Side note;  It was Camp Hill Old Home Week at Wake Forest and the Rethinking Success conference last week.  At a dinner for administrators and career officers hosted by Jacquelyn Fetrow, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, Jacque and Katherine Brooks discovered they’d both grown up in Camp Hill, and both within a half dozen blocks of where I now live.  Small world, and Camp Hill is leading it :-)]

What is the future of the book?–Anthony Grafton’s Keynote lecture at Messiah College

This past February we had the privilege of hearing from Dr. Anthony Grafton from Princeton University at our Humanities Symposium at Messiah College.  Grafton is a formidable scholar and intellect, and a generous soul, a too rare combination.  The following video is his keynote lecture for the Symposium.  Grafton’s instincts are conservative, readily admitting his undying love for the codex and its manifold cultural institutions (libraries, used bookstores, even Barnes and Nobles).  At the same time, he is under no illusions that the future of the book lies elsewhere.  His lecture looks at what is threatened, what should be valued and protected from the fast, but also what might be a potential for the future of the book, and what values we should bring to bear to shape the book, which is, after all, a human institution.

Many thanks to Derick Esch, my work study student, for his work in filming and producing this video.  Other videos from the symposium can be found at the same vimeo page.

Dr. Anthony Grafton: 2012 Humanities Symposium Keynote Address from Messiah Humanities on Vimeo.

Conrad’s Typhoon: or, An Ode to My iPad

Joseph Conrad

Typhoon by Conrad, Joseph

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Conrad’s Typhoon: or, An Ode to My iPad

I think one reason I don’t write and publish more than I do is because I am far too slow on the trigger. The ubiquity of blogging hasn’t helped this any since I usually find that someone else much more intelligent and articulate than I has blogged on what I think of as MY SUBJECT in a manner far more perspicacious, acute and interesting than I could manage. Take Charles Simic’s meditation on boredom during the recent power outages along the east coast, blogged over at the NYRB. I had several of those, Yes-that-is-exactly-what-was-on-the-tip-of-my-tongue moments reading lines like these:

“We sit with our heads bowed as if trying to summon spirits, while in truth struggling to see what’s on our dinner plates. Being temporarily unable to use the technology we’ve grown dependent on to inform ourselves about the rest of the world, communicate with others, and pass the time, is a reminder of our alarming dependence on them.”

Of course, these words weren’t actually on the tip of my tongue, but by imagining that the poet is only telling us what we have always known but could not say so well, we are able to give ourselves credit for a lot of intelligence and imagination that we don’t actually possess. Simic goes on to talk about the notable demise of reading and other delights like radio in the fact of our ubiquitous gadgets. Now, of course, reading books on a rainy afternoon or listening to a radio show has the faint reek of quaintness when we can’t manage to champion with a straight face these distractions as relics of authenticity. Simic reminds us that reading too was a form of distraction as surely as an i-phone.

“All of this reminded me of the days of my youth when my family, like so many others, lived in a monastic solitude when the weather was bad, since we had no television. It wasn’t in church, but on dark autumn days and winter nights that I had an inkling of what they meant when they spoke about eternity. Everyone read in order to escape boredom. I had friends so addicted to books, their parents were convinced they were going crazy with so many strange stories and ideas running like fever through their brains, not to mention becoming hard of hearing, after failing to perform the simplest household chores like letting the cat out.

“Living in a quiet neighborhood made it even worse. Old people stared out of windows at all hours, when they were not staring at the walls. There were radios, but their delights—with the exception of a few programs—were reserved for the grownups only. Thousands died of ennui in such homes. Others joined the navy, got married, or moved to California. Even so, looking back now, I realize how much I owe to my boredom. Drowning in it, I came face to face with myself as if in a mirror.”

Be that as it may, I lived out this boredom during the last hurricane by taking up Conrad’s Typhoon, the Project Gutenberg version, on the recommendation I received via my facebook friending of the New Yorker Magazine. (Let’s be frank, folks.  Oprah’s book club is absolutely yesterday).  Too dark to read, yes, but unlike the youthful Simic I had one gadget in hand that bore its own light to me in hand, my trusty iPad, fully charged and functioning.

When I began blogging three years ago at Read, Write, Now (a title I have come to detest, so future bloggers choose carefully), I had a suspicious and doubtful mindset about e-books, e-readers, and many things e-in-general. To be sure, I saw the advantages of blogging as a means of immediate intellectual self-gratification, and even then I think I felt that a great deal of writing and reading, especially in the academic world, would migrate effectively online. But I could not imagine, then, that an electronic gadget could take the place of paper. I wrote about the fact that I freely took my paper books in to saunas and bathtubs, that I could find my way through paper books more quickly and simply than with a scrolling sidebar, that I didn’t have to worry about whether it was sunny outside. And the smell, the smell, the smell. E-books were sterile, it seemed to me. In a word inauthentic.

I may still believe some of this, but I believe it less than I used to, largely due to my i-Pad. To come back to the

The steamer Nan Shan in the Storm

ostensible purpose of this review, Conrad’s Typhoon, it was the first full book I had read on my IPad, if a novella of 100 some odd pages can be thought of as a full book. And the verdict is that it was like reading…well…a book. The interface felt book like, I can adjust the light to the needs of my aging eyes, and can read more clearly than I could have managed by candlelight. I’ve always worried about the ability to personalize the texts, but iBooks lets me underline, and if anything I personalized the text more than I might have some others since my handwriting is unreadable and my notes in paperbooks cryptic and unintelligible. By contrast, the marginalia tool in iBooks is clean and my notes copious. Perhaps above all, I loved my iPad for remaining charged and working when everything else failed, leaving in the dark and to my own devices. Scary what I might find in that mirror. I read the entire book undistracted by facebook or my email apps, but I took comfort in knowing they were available for my distraction should I need them.

Now as to Typhoon itself. I want to say “Yes,” with qualifications. The story is gripping and intense, a naturalist drama of man against nature that becomes a kind of paean to stoic and pedestrian endurance, though one that is ironic and complicated in the end. The main human character is Captain MacWhirr, whose name betokens a machine-like efficiency. He is a man of small intellect, little imagination, and no intellectual curiosity. Because of this it is hard to describe him as actually courageous in the teeth of the hurricane. While a more imaginative man might have hidden his response to the terrors of the outrageous sea in cryptic understatement, MacWhirr is mostly just given to small emotion and small imagination.

Captain MacWhirr was trying to do up the top button of his oilskin coat with unwonted haste. The hurricane, with its power to madden the seas, to sink ships, to uproot trees, to overturn strong walls and dash the very birds of the air to the ground, had found this taciturn man in its path, and, doing its utmost, had managed to wring out a few words. Before the renewed wrath of winds swooped on his ship, Captain MacWhirr was moved to declare, in a tone of vexation, as it were: “I wouldn’t like to lose her.”

One doesn’t come away from this novel feeling grand and heroic and triumphant about human beings. On the other hand, one doesn’t come away feeling like human beings are small and accidental as you do, for instance in reading Stephen Crane’s “The Open Boat”. Instead endurance seems something to be achieved, and we end up happy for MacWhirr that he has achieved it, knowing we’d rather have him dull and unimaginative, but steady, were we caught in the writhing seas ourselves.

The story as a whole is gripping and seems to reveal something about both our human frailty and our strength and complexity, making it more than just a good adventure story. If I had read it first, I’m sure I would say that The Perfect Storm reminded me of it in being only partly a book about humans against the storm, and as much or more about humans against themselves.

One thing keeps me from a whole hearted endorsement. It really is the case that the depictions of Chinese in the book are deeply troubling. Passages in which Chinese are cast a jabbering animals or as writhing forces of nature are offensive and hard to find a way to redeem. I have always thought the criticism of Heart of Darkness was perhaps unearned since the thesis of that book had always seemed to me to be the evils of imperialism. But there is no redeeming theme that I can find for the representation of the Chinese coolies as brutes, and I found myself less inclined to defend Conrad, either here or for Heart of Darkness than I was before I began. To say this is not to say that the book is not worth reading, since there is no good human thing that is free of the scent of corruption, but it is to say that the goodness in the book does not overcome that corruption and reminds this reader at least that human beings are mixed creations, leaving us to admire and cringe in the same moment.

View all my reviews

Death by Blogging

Tiffany over at Yawn at the Apocalypse sent me the following link to a story on the NYT re. the deadly effects of blogging. An excerpt….

Two weeks ago in North Lauderdale, Fla., funeral services were held for Russell Shaw, a prolific blogger on technology subjects who died at 60 of a heart attack. In December, another tech blogger, Marc Orchant, died at 50 of a massive coronary. A third, Om Malik, 41, survived a heart attack in December.

Other bloggers complain of weight loss or gain, sleep disorders, exhaustion and other maladies born of the nonstop strain of producing for a news and information cycle that is as always-on as the Internet.

To be sure, there is no official diagnosis of death by blogging, and the premature demise of two people obviously does not qualify as an epidemic. There is also no certainty that the stress of the work contributed to their deaths. But friends and family of the deceased, and fellow information workers, say those deaths have them thinking about the dangers of their work style.

Well, now I know what to blame my bulging wasteline on. You, Dear Reader. You. I am so dedicated to my blogging that I am giving up my health for the cause of….well…of something. Of course, before you came along I blamed it on my job, and before that my kids. And before that my mother. If I ever stop blogging I guess I can blame it on the high fructose corn syrup syndicate.

More seriously, I do think that there’s a peculiar way in which writing is degenerating in to the Grub Street model wherein poorly paid hacks scrabble around trying to make a living by the written word. Or should I say the processed word. Whatever. The more things change the more they stay the same. And other cliches.

Writing by numbers: Who needs an audience?

A colleague who is a librarian and shares a lot of my interests in writing and reading sent me the following from a friends blog:

In a previous post my daughter blew me away with her use of eLocker to access her school files from home. Last night my son used MyAccess to write an essay online. Big whoop – right? Get this – it analyzed and graded it in an instant. Took about 3 seconds tops and he was looking at a score that broke out scoring elements not only in spelling and grammar (Word can do that) – things like content and delivery, organization, completeness of development. It was like having my 5th grade English teacher right there – red pen in hand. It saves all of his essays and projects and graphs out a cumulative progression over time, showing improvements and areas to work on. Incredible.

Here’s a snip from the site :

“With MY Access!®, students are motivated to write more and attain higher scores on statewide writing assessments. By using MY Access! in the classroom, teachers can provide students with the practice they need to improve their writing skills. The program’s powerful scoring engine grades students’ essays instantly and provides targeted feedback, freeing teachers from grading thousands of papers by hand and giving them more time to conduct differentiated instruction and curriculum planning.”

I wish I could share the enthusiasm, but I am more than a little skeptical. It may be the science/humanities divide in play, but there is no getting past the fact that a lot of this represents some of the absolutely worst things that are happening with writing in our secondary schools. And we continue to wonder why our kids can’t write and prefer to do anything but read. When we treat writing like filling in the blanks on a mindless test, and treat reading as a mechanical process that any computer can do for us, what message can our kids get but that language is something to be dispensed with as efficiently as possible, rather than one of the essential elements of our being human in the world. Something to be treasured and embraced and explored and played with; not something to slot in to the appropriate input on a machine

Just to be sure I wouldn’t go off on a completely uninformed screed (who would care? this is a blog after all), I did take some time to visit the MyAccess web site and go through the student demonstration. It is clearly more sophisticated than such programs used to be, and it does go beyond simple grammar and spell checkers. Still, it’s clearly caught up in a formal approach to writing that completely removes writing from the intentions and language of the writer, as well as from the interests and concerns of any particular reader or audience. The site makes a point of saying that it will grade for development and organization–as if these elements of writing existed somehow independently of the particular concerns and creativity of the writer, and as if we could address all audiences in a similar fashion. These folks claim that they grade “more accurately” than human readers. What could this possibly mean in grading a persuasive essay? How can a computer be more accurately persuaded than a human being. Absurdity.

One thing that the program grades for is sentence variation, vocabulary, and paragraph length. I admit this makes me nauseated. My daughter, a decent writer in part because she has learned to read a lot in our household, is asked by her teachers to write ten sentence paragraphs. If she has one sentence too many or too few she is graded down. This is done explicitly because of expectations of standardized tests–which I am sure will soon be graded by computer programs like MyAccess, to ensure that we are all standardized. There is no such thing as an acceptable length for a well-developed paragraph, and paragraph length in general is dependent upon genre and media. One of my big problems as a blogger and emailer is that I’ve learned to write for paper and ink, and my paragraphs are impossibly long for this particular media. Similarly, when I write for newspapers, I’m consistently reminded to keep my paragraphs in bounds. Same things go for sentences and sentence variations. First year students are stunned when I tell them a three word sentence can be perfectly OK. or that you can use a fragment. For effect, people, for effect. As if you were a human being instead of a machine. Some of them have actually been told by teachers to not use short sentences at all, and certainly never two in a row. Sentence variation depends deeply upon the kinds of emotional effects you are trying to achieve with readers, not on an abstract calculus that can tell you your sentence variation is good because you have X number of short sentences, X number of complex sentences, X number of such and so.

As for vocabulary. Students seem surprised when I tell them clever words can’t substitute for good writing. They assume a thesaurus indicated sophistication. I tell them to be sophisticated with the language that they know, and read and read and read to become sophisticated in the language that they don’t.

To some degree, indeed, I think this kind of write by numbers approach is designed to bypass the simple fact that kids no longer read enough–if they ever did–to become sophisticated writers and thinkers. Rather than give them the linguistic tools they need to become writers, we give them a formula to make sure they become the machines they are intended to be in this society. MyAccess isn’t part of the solution. It’s a sign of the problem.

(Bizarre sidenote: MyAccess tries to sell itself by saying it will provide 24 hour tutors at a low cost. Does anyone stop to think that in the world of the internet you can get free 24 hour “tutors” in online writing communities–or, if you really want to you can pay for it. At least you’ll be writing for other human beings rather than believing a computer program can substitute for someone that actually uses the language with which you have to communicate).