This is an archived page. Images and links on this page may not work. Please visit the main page for the latest updates.

Read my book, TEACHING BEAUTY IN DeLILLO, WOOLF, AND MERRILL (Palgrave Macmillan; forthcoming), co-authored with Jennifer Green-Lewis. VISIT MY BRANCH CAMPUS AT INSIDE HIGHER ED

UD is...
"Salty." (Scott McLemee)
"Unvarnished." (Phi Beta Cons)
"Splendidly splenetic." (Culture Industry)
"Except for University Diaries, most academic blogs are tedious."
(Rate Your Students)
"I think of Soltan as the Maureen Dowd of the blogosphere,
except that Maureen Dowd is kind of a wrecking ball of a writer,
and Soltan isn't. For the life of me, I can't figure out her
politics, but she's pretty fabulous, so who gives a damn?"
(Tenured Radical)

Thursday, November 08, 2007


Good writing about a lack of intellectual curiosity at Harvard.

SOS suggests ways to make the writing even better.

'When I began my undergraduate career at Harvard a little over two years ago, I spent the early days, weeks, and months floating around in a haze. I felt out to sea in my classes, and socially, the scene surprised me. I had expected Harvard to be an oasis of intellectualism, and it wasn’t. [In a haze, out to sea, an oasis... We've got a mess of metaphors here. But the first-person approach is a good idea, and this Harvard undergraduate writing in the campus newspaper is about to say something very important, and say it pretty well.]

To some degree, this lack of intellectualism was a relief: It meant that I didn’t have to worry so much about whether people considered me an intellectual powerhouse, because they weren’t intellectual powerhouses either. It was a shame so few of them read [Note: This is a current Harvard undergraduate talking about the reading habits of others like her. Many do not read... Which can't really be true. But many probably read very little.] and so few of them cared about the happenings of the world [Weak phrase, happenings of the world. Vague. Global events, for instance, might be better.], but at least I felt less guilty when I spent more time freshman year surfing Facebook than thinking about art or culture or politics.

And though I would come to get used to this aspect [grow accustomed would be more elegant.] of the Harvard landscape (and discover microcosms of intellectualism on campus), the pervasive apathy still troubles me. The ability to engage with the world in a multifaceted way, to employ the approach of liberal arts, and to absorb and apply new knowledge over the course of a lifetime is an essential part of being an intelligent and worthwhile person. [This writing is weak, but describing the nature and value of intellectuality is very difficult.] If Harvard, an apex of higher learning, does not hold the pursuit of intellectualism as a central value, then can any other place be expected to?

The phenomenon may have to do with the college admissions game that has reached maniac-scale intensity [maniac-intensity would be better.]. According to a 2000 College Board report, between 1994 and 1999, the number of first-year students in American universities grew by 200,000. In part, this owes to [owes to is awkward] an expanding demographic, Generation Y. Combined with better recruiting by colleges and programs such as the Harvard Financial Aid Initiative (HFAI), winning a spot at Harvard (or Yale or any other top college) has become a considerable feat. The cause of Harvard’s intellectual decline in this period of hyper-competitiveness is two-pronged: It has to do with the transformation of the college student makeup, as well as the growing college preparatory hysteria.

The first part of this lack is due in part to something that is quite good about Harvard: the place is no longer a rich, white boys’ club. Harvard, in the trend of colleges nationally, is increasingly diverse, particularly socioeconomically. [Four is's in two sentences. Let's see how we can avoid them.... An easy initial move: Get rid of that is. Just drop it and read the phrase without it: ...something quite good about Harvard. Much better. Okay. Let's go back and look at the first is. How about This lack stems from? So now we've got This lack stems from something quite good about Harvard. Let's keep our third is in: the place is no longer, etc. As for our final is, I propose radical surgery: Drop the sentence altogether. The sentence right after this one carries the substance of the point.] Thanks to programs such as HFAI, Harvard draws from a much wider cross-section of applicants than it once did.

But this unquestionable benefit has had negative side effects [Drop side.]. With an influx of students from for whom a major draw is post-college career success and earning potential, there will naturally be less emphasis on the “frivolous” pursuits of the liberal arts and more on activities and areas of study that are distinctly pre-professional. [See that that are toward the end of the sentence? Just as with that is before, drop it and read the phrase: activities and areas of study distinctly pre-professional. Get it? Wordy writing is in part about sticking in unnecessary little phrases like these.] Though of course there are exceptions, this culture increasingly pervades campus. This is why there has been a surge of campus business groups, and so-called “leadership” organizations. This is evident, too, in the rise in number of concentrators in areas such as economics, which serves for many as a pre-business track. [The last two sentences both begin with the sometimes confusing and often dull phrase This is. Go back and find the heart of these sentences - campus business groups, economics concentrators -- that's where you should find their first words.] A Crimson survey of the Class of 2007 found that more than 60 percent of those entering the workforce were pursuing jobs in finance. [Too ingy. Rewrite: pursued jobs in finance.]

On the flipside, the intellectual’s status as an endangered species is also caused by a sort of leisure class mania. [To be verb plus passive voice. Rewrite: Leisure class mania also contributes to the intellectual's endangered status.] In this atmosphere of intense competition, the college admissions game has been transformed into an industry. Students are sent off to preparatory programs, and their parents drop thousands of dollars on private SAT tutors and college consultants. Ivywise, a New York-based college consulting firm, charges anywhere from $1,000 for a one-time consultation to $30,000 for a two-year 100-hour program. The company promises pleasing results: 75 percent of its clients go on to attend Ivy League colleges. Ivywise provides a slew of standard services like scheduling students’ testing dates and summer programs and editing admissions essays. But some of the firm’s offerings are a bit unsettling: One Ivywise package promises to “identify the student’s passions and interests.” A teenager, we gather, couldn’t possibly figure out his interests on his own. At least, he couldn’t possibly pinpoint which “passions” would win him a spot at a top college. [Fine writing throughout, but drop quotation marks around last use of word passions.]

When it comes to the college admissions process, vigor is hardly a virtue. The modern child may be a whiz at excelling in [drop at excelling] his courses and extracurriculars, but this does not make him capable of intellectualism. His schedule is jam-packed with all the stuff his hovering helicopter parents and college consultants have picked out for him. He learns the ways of networking and time management, not the ways of devouring a poem or pondering life’s great questions.

Upon arrival at Harvard, many of these students are not so sure why they’re here. Some burn out completely — free from the watchful eyes of mother and father, they stop attending classes and flop as students. But most of them simply don’t get what they should be getting out of college — the rigorous pursuit of liberal arts — because they can’t escape the résumé padding of their earlier years. They continue to take courses they’re not really interested in and they participate in activities they find dull because these are the ways to land jobs at Goldman Sachs & Co.

Though the Harvard of 2007 is a progressive and admirable institution, something has been lost. We’ve mistaken grades, test scores, meaningless extracurriculars, and our college admission as a collective barometer for the successful young person. These are components of personal success, but they are irrelevant if, as individuals, we are deficient in intellectual depth. Only when we recognize (and change) this, will we be able to get something worthwhile out of college.'



...she was always told never argue from emotion.

This rule remained somewhat abstract until SOS read the latest of many letters in the Southern Illinois press in defense of plagiarizing Southern Illinois prez Glenn Poshard.

'I have sat quietly by reading the headlines and editorials about Glenn Poshard, a dizzying roller coaster ride that made me wish I had skipped the chili dog. [A quiet, dizzying roller coaster ride. Confusing.] He devoted his life to serving people of Southern Illinois and is charismatic, enthusiastic and dedicated to his community. [You can be many good things and a plagiarist too.]

I watched him dancing on the sidewalk in Carbondale's Town Square last December, bobbing along to the music of the middle school marching band with his grandson, Tucker, on his shoulders. It was anybody's call as to which of them were having the better time at the annual Lights Parade. He is genuine and caring. [This kitschy description intends to bring a tear to the eye. But you can bob along to the beat, have a grandson with a cute name, and still plagiarize.]

You can hear it in the squeals of laughter of his grandson. [How much, really, can we conclude from this laughter? Hitler made toddlers laugh at Nuremburg, you know...] And if that's not enough, you can read it in his public record.

How is it that a self-appointed, nameless band of plagiarism vigilantes can tear apart a man's career, family and reputation? [John Wayne talk.] The accusations don't have to be true to be damaging. Just because he's accused doesn't make him guilty.

Tossing out a lifetime of stellar public service over a passage written years ago is incomprehensible. At minimum, he deserves the benefit of the doubt. Until the hooded, neo-Nazi, Klansmen of plagiarism snuff out their burning torches and find something better to do there will be no peace. Show us your faces so that we may level the playing field and scare up the skeletons in your dark closets. [Skeletal masked closeted torch-bearing fascists cavort on tilted fields.]

We can look Glenn Poshard in the eye. But we cannot see in yours.'

The problem with arguing from emotion is that you're emotional. You can't think straight. Readers are looking for reasons, not dispatches from the fainting couch.


Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Scathing Online Schoolmarm
Pays Timothy Burke a Visit

'With some trepidation, I venture a few thoughts on the controversy over residence-hall programs at the University of Delaware. Trepidation because the kind of position I take on these issues is increasingly wearisome to hold given the polarization in online discussions of academia. [UD is not at all sure she sees the polarization. I don't see anyone out there - online or off - defending programs like Delaware's. Quite a number of these programs, for students, and sometimes for faculty, poke their heads out, attract enough outrage to appear in the press, and then, in seconds, get killed. I don't read anyone, left, right, or center, mourning their passing. It's too easy for Tim to begin his remarks with a gesture of despair about academic polarization, as if there's no common ground. There's common ground, and it's clear right there in the comment thread on Tim's blog. He has plenty in common with commenters to his right, like withywindle.] but I wish I could write in a looser, more enjoyably idiosyncratic, more compelling way about these questions like Oso Raro, but I’ve made my rhetorical bed and I’m stuck with it.

Before I try to stick any kind of proportionality or nuance into the discussion, one thing should be clear: the program at Delaware as described in the press is just plain wrong, and that’s even if the press description is exaggerated or out of context in some respect. Even if the content of the program weren’t simple-minded and reductive (which it is), doing it as a mandatory institutional program in residence-halls is a big mistake. I’m not sure there’s anything that’s appropriate to that context beyond making sure people know how to evacuate in a fire and communicating basic institutional safety policies (such as no fire sources in rooms). The moment you mandate that all students receive safe-sex tutorials or drug and alcohol abuse prevention training, you’ve exposed the institution to in loco parentis, and where’s that going to stop? [Absolutely correct, and an important point. Imagine if GWU, UD's institution, mandated anti-anti-semitic sessions in response to scrawled swastikas around campus which now turn out -- most or all of them -- to have been a hoax invented by an attention-seeking freshman.] Moreover, if you’re going to ennumerate the “rights and responsibilities” of people living in university housing, you’ve got to include much more forcefully that you have the right to think whatever you want – including to question some of the precepts and approaches of diversity training. (The document does say you have the choice to “stand up for yourself and others and speak up for what you believe has value”, but in context, that seems to mean only that you are encouraged to defend an active commitment to diversity.)

But ok. How to move beyond simple sputtering outrage at the supposed dominance of political correctness [Again, I don't see the sputtering. I see the outrage, and I applaud it. Outrage can catalyze you to act against injustice. How many Delawaresque programs are still lobotomizing students because students aren't strong and clear enough about their speech and privacy rights to protest?], leftist academics or whatever boogeyman is the label of choice in this round of postings?

The first bit of proportionality I’d interject is to look at the source of some simple-minded kinds of political and institutional misbehavior. In this case, I’m guessing that activist students are at least part of where this program is coming from, probably working with a residential administrator or dean who has a hard time thinking beyond dogma.

I’m going to be a bit condescending here, but students are students, and they make mistakes because they’re still learning, whether they’re left-wing activists or intensely single-minded premeds. [Again, this is an important point. Many students are supercharged with responsiveness to perceived injustices, and yet they're still young. This combination can create serious programmatic errors.] That’s what they are in college to do. Residential colleges sell themselves precisely on the point that some learning takes place outside of the classroom through extracurricular activities, social life and so on. Students with strong political or philosophical views naturally turn to their own educational institution to explore how to make those views real or powerful or transformative. Americans who were in the anti-apartheid movement in the 1980s couldn’t do much to directly touch South Africa, so we tried to figure out how to mobilize our own institutions to touch South Africa, however indirectly. I have to admit, looking back, that many of us understood very little about how divestment might concretely function, or about the costs and risks we were asking our institutions to incur. But partly I got a better understanding of both of those things by being involved, an understanding I don’t think I could have gotten just by studying in a classroom. I learned about a lot of the shortcomings of activism by being active.

In other cases, some of these kinds of commitments come from individual faculty or administrators that I wouldn’t hesitate to call simple-minded hacks. (That, readers of this blog might recall, was my first and primary comment on Ward Churchill: whatever else the guy was or did, he was a third-rate hack.) [This is a crucial point, and one that I don't think Tim does enough with. Universities may have in them administrators who think all day about making already culturally competent people culturally competent, through activities that skirt or simply are indoctrination. UD sees these administrators as the enemies of the piece.]

The valid issue in that case is then, “Why allow such extensive access to institutional programs and policy to either inexperienced activists or hacks, then?” Yup, that’s an issue, and it’s well worth exploring a bit more.

In many such cases, it’s not that political projects coming from a group of activist students or from a few activist administrators or faculty members are deeply shared in a consensual way by a large majority of institutional actors and thus become institutional projects by general acclaim. [Too true. Most academics are appalled at the vulgarity of thought and behavior associated with these sorts of activists. That's why I said above that Tim overestimates the degree of polarization among academics.] It’s more that the autonomy and decentralization of academic life which most of us cherish creates a complicated burden when it comes to blocking somebody else’s pet obsessions or commitments. [Yes. Another crucial point. UD would never want to restrict that autonomy. But it's the gradual centralization of authority over matters of social thought and behavior on campus into the hands of diversity appointments that often instigates the scandals.]

Suppose I see a group of students campaigning to get the institution to commit to some political objective that I think is unwise or simplistic in some respect. I don’t quite want to rise to block that on the grounds that anything and everything which is “political” is wrong because that can lead to some truly silly conclusions. I’m interested in the political commitments of the Free Culture movement – but quite beyond that movement’s specific views, it seems obvious to me that intellectual property policy, open-source publishing and so on are intimately relevant to the everyday business of scholars, librarians, and teachers. I’m not wild about some of the rhetoric and unexamined premises associated with demands for universities to have sustainability policies, but it would be silly to rule all of that out of bounds because it’s “political” – environmental sustainability might turn out to lead to some good economic outcomes for an institution, like reducing energy usage, but it’s also a legitimate claim on some level about what an institution can or should do in the world. [The problem with this example is that it doesn't share the intimately mind-penetrating character of diversity training. No one's going to call you a racist because you take a certain position on energy use.] Hell, devoting a big proportion of a college curriculum to studying “the Great Books” is political in some fashion. [Having stretched things too far in his first example, Tim now stretches them to tatters. The basic distinction between selfless intellectual activity with texts -- the foundational, definitive activity of universities -- and self-obsessed personal identity politics in the hands of doctrinaire trainers couldn't be clearer. There may be political as well as intellectual grounds for Great Books choices, but these choices, their justification, and their incorporation into a curriculum, are in an entirely different moral and institutional universe from the fucking with people's heads that is diversity training at its worst, as at Delaware.] You can’t oppose a political argument about institutional politics on the grounds that you yourself are too fastidious to ever be political, because it won’t take long before you’re hoist on the same petard.

So I’d have to take any case of activist demand as it comes. Now what? Well, if it’s students, I honestly don’t want to spend my life running around squashing any student political project I have a disagreement with. That’s not my job. In fact, it’s the opposite of my job: it’s being an anti-teacher, an authoritarian, misusing my power. If it’s a hack on the faculty or the administration? In self-interested terms, I honestly have to weigh whether it’s worth tangling with the person openly, about what kinds of hassles that person can visit upon me in retaliation.

In either case, there’s also a question of the consequence of being a crusader on every single issue where some other institutional actor has what I think is a bad idea. It’s one thing to block or criticize a proposal for institutionalization of a political project when it crosses my desk naturally: when faculty are asked by central administration for feedback, when it comes to the floor of a general meeting, when I’m sitting in a committee devoted to a particular kind of issue, when students or colleagues ask my opinion, when it’s an issue that’s known to be near and dear to my heart because of my specialized areas of knowledge. Or just when I have the time and the energy to compose a blog post, which has a very gentle impact on most issues. For example, some years back, some students here wanted an Ethnic Studies program. I thought (and still think) that was a bad idea for some very simple, non-political reasons (duplication of programs, greater demands on already over-extended faculty, no resources for new faculty lines, weakness of our institutional model for interdisciplinary programs) and some “political” reasons as well (I simply think Ethnic Studies is a bad way to organize the study of many very important and legitimate topics). This was a case where it made sense for me to be in the conversation because what I do was directly relevant to what the students wanted to do.

If you insist on being actively involved every single time someone else in your institution is doing something objectionable, you will almost certainly devolve into being a crank and an asshole. You can’t do that and not become tendentious and self-absorbed, that kind of omnipresent involvement is intrinsically narcissistic. At some point, it inevitably is going to affect how well you do the job that you’ve been hired to do, because there are only so many hours in the day. If you’re always at committee meetings, protest gatherings, scribbling furious emails, poking into dark corners with a cattle prod, then you’re not in the classroom or the library or the lab.

What some people settle for is splitting the difference: being furious at everything but not having the time to be involved with changing any outcomes through direct time-consuming involvement in deliberative process, through painstaking efforts to persuade others. [A lot of these important observations pertain to the scandal of bigtime university sports. Faculty understandably don't want to deal with it.] When you arrive at that point, you have no hope to change any outcome whether you’re coming to meetings or not, because you’ve got no persuasive tools left to you. You started by rolling your eyes derisively in a wholly justifiable way at the excesses of others (probably in concert with the majority of your colleagues) but now you’re the one everyone rolls their eyes at. You’re not connected to anything, not sympathetic to anybody else’s projects, not discriminate in what fights you pick or when you pick them. You’ve got nothing left to help you judge when the stakes are high and when they’re low: your institutional profile is “junkyard dog”, biting and howling at everything.

So sometimes dumb ideas and fringe political visions are going to become institutional projects because the sensible middle is mutually and simultaneously trying to avoid being drawn into this kind of indiscriminate misanthropy. Sometimes hacks and sweetly well-meaning but naive activists are actually pretty savvy about this aspect of institutional life, and know how to muscle something in under the radar, how to keep from triggering a major deliberative process where they’ll get blocked.

That’s one context to keep in mind. Another is that some ideas only become wrong when they’re simplistically truncated so that they can become institutional programs and policies, but that the precursor concepts, ideas and insights are something else entirely. And also that some institutional projects may eventually take a wrong turn on some smaller point, but are basically well-meaning, serious attempts to deal with genuine issues and problems. Diversity is a real question, in many ways, and it’s worth thinking about how to institutionally work towards it.

For example, with the Delaware residential life program, there’s nothing wrong per se with asking straights when they first realized their orientation or when they came out as straights. [There's everything wrong with it. It's nobody's institutional business what my private self-conception may be. Nor does straight/gay as a dichotomy, or "orientation" as descriptive of anything remotely true about my existential experience, make sense to me.] That is, nothing wrong if that’s a sly or mischievious [sp?] aside in a personal conversation about sexuality, or a subversive question directed at a public figure who is intensely anti-gay, or as a way in an intellectual discussion about the history of sexuality to illustrate what the ten-dollar word “heteronormativity” actually means. Turning the question into a set part of a pseudo-mandatory workshop (there’s some confusion at Delaware about how strongly students are encouraged to attend) takes everything valuable out of it. It turns something sly into dogma. [That shit's as sly as Sly Stallone, Tim. It ain't sly.]

Or take the assertion in one of the training documents for the Delaware workshops that all white Americans are racists because they are socialized to a racial identity associated with privilege. Put it that way and it’s crude. Put it in a workshop as an assertion of empirical fact as opposed to a tendentious argument with a pile of priors a hundred miles high sitting on it and you’ve just sailed off the edge of stupid. [No, you're still anchored at stupid.] In part precisely because accusations of racism are taken more seriously in early 21st Century American life than they were in 1960, you can’t casually scale from a general description of the consequences of a social identity to a highly personalized accusation unless you want those accused to treat the idea of racism as trivially generalized and meaningless.

But there are complex questions and debates to be explored about how historically-produced identities structure everyday psychological experience, social organization, and so on. There is an interesting scholarly literature on the history of whiteness. And so on. Part of the problem for me is that some of the people who react negatively to something like this program at Delaware act as if the deeper, more complex, more interesting scholarly debates and discussions are equally risible and discardable, but somehow we never really get around to that kind of conversation. [This is unfair as a description of most people interested in the matter. It's precisely because many scholars take seriously the intricacy and importance of these subjects that their outrage flashes out when activists beshit them.] We get stuck with the hacks and the polemicists. We talk endlessly, oh so endlessly, about Ward Churchill etcetera. We never get to the really deep literature on Native American history that might come to some vaguely similar moral conclusions as Churchill but in much more subtle and nuanced ways. [How does a serious scholar get vaguely near the moral conviction that white people deserved to die in the Towers?] We don’t get to talk about David Roediger or Noel Ignatieff on whiteness, or a huge complex well-researched literature on the history of racial identity in the United States as a whole.

When I say talk, I mean it. I don’t agree necessarily with Roediger and Ignatieff, particularly in terms of the way they read off the history of whiteness to a contemporary political praxis. I tend to come at a lot of the history of identity and the politics connected to that history the way that Anthony Appiah does in some of his recent work, as a skeptic. But Appiah’s work is a million miles away from quick dismissals of “political correctness” that are meant to encompass both superficial institutional projects and detailed monographs written in good faith and with serious craft. At some point, if we’re going to still have anything resembling scholarship left in the smoking ruins of culture war [This language takes us back to Tim's first paragraph. As cultural description, it is unconvincing.], some of the critics need to stir themselves and respond like scholars to tough, nuanced, challenging work rather than continuously dwell on how the hacks have been parasitically turning that work into slogans and screeds.'


Monday, November 05, 2007

Scathing Online Schoolmarm

'Among the many works of art hanging in the School of the Museum of Fine Arts’ atrium, Nantucket artist and SMFA alum Joan Albaugh’s oil paintings were part of a sea of canvases. [Awkward first sentence Her works were among many; her works were part of a sea... The feel of this is redundant. Circular.]

Touted as the largest public art sale in New England, with 4,000 original works and prints from 800 artists, the 26th annual School of the Museum of Fine Arts December sale kicked off last night with a celebration off Boston’s Fenway. The sale features work from students, faculty, alumni and other artists affiliated with the school. [Transition from first to second paragraph murky.]

Albaugh, a 1981 graduate of the SMFA, is known for painting houses without windows.

“I don’t like getting caught up in the details of a house,” Albaugh said last week. Winter light on the island also contributed to the conception of the windowless dwellings.

“The light’s so bright on a house it obliterates the windows,” she said.

At the SMFA, Albaugh studied with professors Barney Rubenstein and Henry Schwartz, in critique classes. She eventually moved to New York, and was living in Jersey City when she decided to move to the island in 1994, to start her son, now Nantucket High School Junior Jack Muhlkern, in preschool.

Albaugh travels often, she said, and each of her house portraits start [Should be starts.] as a real place. Later, she plays with the composition, taking off dormers and restructuring as she goes. She’s attracted to baron landscapes, she said. [Unless the writer means -- seems unlikely -- she's attracted to baronial spreads, I think he means barren.]

“It kind of goes with the idea of isolation,” she said.

This December sale is Albaugh’s second.

Last week, SMFA curator Joanna Soltan [Same last name as UD!], put final touches on the show, as others gave preview tours of the work to patrons. Soltan, who hung the show over the past month with the help of a team of 20 or so, is in her fifth year as curator.

“I knew the space very well so I know where I want to plan the layout,” Soltan said, in her present but not overbearing Polish accent [Polish accent? Mr. UD's Polish too!] [Present but not overbearing? Perhaps the writer meant to say pleasant but not overbearing...], regarding the positioning of the exhibition walls in the SMFA’s Anderson Hall. Under 30-foot ceilings, the space in between the walls is occupied with bins and bins of unframed work, mostly from SMFA students.

Soltan oversaw the drop-off period in early November, three days in which the students, alumni, school faculty and affiliated artists participating in the show could drop off up to 10 pieces.

Soltan then worked to hang at least one piece from each artist each artist [Typo.]. After the show starts, Soltan and company rotate the work, giving pieces several hours of wall time before taking them down.

“We never get bored,” Soltan said. “For us too, it’s like a new way to see something.” [Curious that like many of the other Soltans UD's related to, this one lives in Boston and works in the arts... Wait a minute! Joanna Soltan is Mr. UD's sister! That makes her UD's sister-in-law.]

Around the school, next to some of the work, were place [placed] these blue and gold medallion-like stickers. These denote the favorite works of this year’s art luminaries – Boston area reporters, personalities and curators – asked to share their opinions.

... The SMFA December Sale is open from 12-8 p.m. Thursday, and from 12-6 p.m. Friday through Monday in the first floor of the school, located at 230 The Fenway in Boston, next to the MFA.'

---nantucket today---


Sunday, November 04, 2007

Scathing Online Schoolmarm

The guy in charge of getting rich people to give money to the University of Houston is pissed off by a proposal Robert Reich's been making lately. Reich, you will recall, wants to cut the tax deduction on charitable giving when it's not really charitable giving. Here's part of a recent opinion piece by Reich:

'I see why a contribution to, say, the Salvation Army should be eligible for a charitable deduction. It helps the poor. But why, exactly, should a contribution to the already extraordinarily wealthy Guggenheim Museum or to Harvard University (which already has an endowment of more than $30 billion)?

Awhile ago, New York's Lincoln Center had a gala supported by the charitable contributions of hedge-fund industry leaders, some of whom take home $1 billion a year. I may be missing something, but this doesn't strike me as charity. ...

It turns out that only an estimated 10% of all charitable deductions are directed at the poor. So here's a modest proposal. At a time when the number of needy continues to rise, when government doesn't have the money to do what's necessary for them and when America's very rich are richer than ever, we should revise the tax code: Focus the charitable deduction on real charities.

If the donation goes to an institution or agency set up to help the poor, the donor gets a full deduction. If the donation goes somewhere else -- to an art palace, a university, a symphony or any other nonprofit -- the donor gets to deduct only half of the contribution.'

This seems reasonable to UD -- it's still a generous deduction, after all. But the guy at Houston doesn't like it one bit. Here's his Houston Chronicle opinion piece in response to Reich, with SOS commentary:

'The business of philanthropy and the purposes of fund raising — a $200 billion annual marketplace of givers and receivers — are complex. [Beware of people who begin arguing by announcing the immense complexity of their issue... an immensity only insiders can understand. This comes across as hocus-pocus stuff -- I'm not going to argue against my opponents on the merits; I'm going to insist that they -- and you, the reader -- can't hope to understand the mystical intricacies of my field. This approach is a dud on many levels, but mainly it's a dud because it's condescending.] That's why it's easy for casual observers to mistake generosity for self-interest. [Reich says nothing about the motives of the givers. He talks only about definitions of true charity, and about fair distribution.]

Robert B. Reich made that mistake in his recent Outlook column ("Harvard effect/ When charity really isn't ... ," Oct. 21) where he argued that we have entered what might be characterized as an era of Philanthropic Darwinism, a time when big donors give to bigger and bigger arts and education institutions, all designed — in his mind — to promote a wealthy lifestyle and a hefty tax deduction. So, he would cut in half donors' charitable tax deduction for gifts to the arts and universities because they do not meet his definition of worthy, i.e., helping the poor. [It's not only Reich's definition. Giving to universities and concert halls is not direct charitable aid to the poor.]

I know there are arts organizations and patrons who can make an argument for the positive impact they have on society. [positive impact they have on society is dead language. And the deadness, in the context of this argument, is no mere stylistic matter. If this is the best the writer can do by way of describing the charitable value of the arts, the reader's suspicion that Reich's right only grows.] So, I want to concentrate on the darts he threw at the university world, as he has me seething at his fund-raising fumble. [Okay. If you've been reading SOS for any length of time, you know exactly what she's going to throw darts at here. Yes. Seething. I'm seething! I'm at the boiling point! Hold me back! ... Talking about how damn mad you are is an argument-killer. All you're really doing is showing off what you take to be your moral superiority -- I mean, I'm so ethical, my heart bleeds so for the poor, that I can't control my rage when know-nothings like Reich run their mouths... This sort of thing makes the reader distrust and dislike you. You can't control your emotions. You flatter yourself that you're better than other people. Plus -- see dud approach #1 -- you think you know more than other people.]

Education is the best way, bar none, for people to move up the economic and social ladder. In the 1950s, the GI Bill made education possible for the middle class. Today, it is private citizens, corporations and foundations whose generosity supports tens of thousands of first-generation college students and gives them and their families tools and hope for the future. [Cliche-ridden language throughout, and forgets to mention that it's still overwhelmingly the government that helps out universities.]

Let's look at the University of Houston and what increased philanthropy means to Houston's university.

We are definitely not the ivy-covered palace Reich imagines all universities to be. [At no point does Reich say all universities are Harvard.] This university attracts a large percentage of students who are the first in their families to attend college, so we need scholarships by the barrelful.

No young person should have to drop out of college for lack of funds. More than two-thirds of UH students receive some form of financial aid, but primarily in the form of loans that create a huge financial burden that may take years to repay. Private scholarships make the real difference in getting these students through graduation to become part of the educated workforce needed by Houston industry. That doesn't sound elite to me.

UH must pursue philanthropic gifts for endowed chairs and professorships to recruit and retain the intellectual firepower that will attract bright new students, federal grant support and help create economic prosperity for the nation's fourth-largest city.

And we must build this campus anew because UH is full of young scientists, budding artists and students crowded together elbow to elbow. Our research facilities house faculty aching for the tools and space they must have to apply for and fulfill the requirements of federal grants.

The Moores School of Music is bursting at the seams with too many students and not enough rehearsal space. The Bauer College of Business is exploding with students seeking that old fashioned thing called a job. [that old fashioned thing... Hard to get a grip on his tone in this piece. Indignant, yes. But is he being sarcastic here? Not clear.] We simply need more classroom buildings and more labs.

Today UH has the largest space deficit of all universities in the state, and that's just to serve our current students. So we seek philanthropic support for the buildings this campus must have to stand tall for a new generation of Houstonians. We're not building a palace, Mr. Reich; we're building an ark of economic opportunity. [Again, a strange sort of argument that misreads what Reich says and then attacks him frontally like this. The whole Mr. Reich thing is just weird.] And if philanthropy can help us achieve flagship university status in Texas, then it will be money well spent.

This year, the UH System received $54.3 million from generous contributors, a 37 percent increase over the previous year.

That's just the start. We want our philanthropic intent to be clear. The University of Houston is not seeking to raise more and more money just to build a big reserve. We want to make our case to our alumni, friends and donors that we seek to raise the philanthropic resources that will build a truly great University — one that Houston can be proud to call its flagship public university.

And that Mr. Reich, is the true purpose of philanthropy and the impact it will have on the future for all of us — colleges and universities, art museums and ballet companies. We are all 100 percent tax deductible and a bargain indeed for Houston and the nation. [Essentially, this piece comes across to UD as cynical. The writer isn't really engaging Reich. He's using the occasion of Reich having written about giving to universities in order to remind the newspaper's readers that they should give to his university.]'


UPDATE: Comrade Snowball, in a comment to this thread, says the following:

"The athletic deficit at the University of Houston exceeds $100M over the past 15 years, a fact [the author of the opinion piece] failed to mention when bemoaning the lack of space on campus in which to undertake the essential business of teaching and learning."

Background here. UD's having trouble finding an update on the situation at UH. What's the deficit now?


Thursday, November 01, 2007

Forming, Storming,
Norming, Performing,
and Dying Out There

SOS takes a look at some heartland journalism this morning. From the Salt Lake Tribune.

'Just weeks before the attack on Pearl Harbor plunged the United States into World War II, Utah State made its own kind of history.

The Aggies lost their final game of the 1941 season and finished 0-8.

It was Utah State's first winless season of more than four games and it was the last time the Aggies ended a season without a victory. Sixty-six years later, the Aggies find themselves in a down-to-the-wire struggle to avoid making the wrong kind of history.

Heading into Saturday's game at heavily favored Fresno State, Utah State is 0-8. With four games remaining - three on the road and one at home against nationally ranked Boise State - the Aggies' prospects for victory are grim. [As grim as Pearl Harbor.]

"Life is hard. This is hard, and why we're being tested like this, I wish I had the answer for you," said coach Brent Guy said [Typo there. Extra "said."], trying to remain optimistic. "But we've had a lot of opportunities to win games this season. We've been close. Now, we've got to complete one and we have to do it fast."

This season, Utah State has led four times in the fourth quarter, only to lose in the closing minutes to UNLV (23-16), Wyoming (32-18), San Jose State (23-20) and Nevada (31-28).

Still, the Aggies have lost 14 straight games, going back to 2006. They have lost 25 of their past 27 games, including 12 straight on the road and 10 straight within the Western Athletic Conference.

It's been a grinding stretch that has tested every player and coach who has been part of each defeat - close or otherwise.

"I'm generally an upbeat kind of guy - not much brings me down," said senior fullback-tight end Jimmy Bohm. "[So] keeping guys mentally excited about the game, that's what [the] seniors and leaders of the team are trying to do."

Said Guy: "I'm really, really proud of this group of seniors. These are the guys I inherited - that were here when I got here, guys that could have gone somewhere else. One left, but the rest stayed. I think that's a credit to them and why this team is still really fun to coach."


"You can tell by the way they practice that they are still trying very hard," Guy said. "They chirp around and they laugh with each other, Not that that's the way you want to actually practice [N of Not shouldn't be capitalized.]. But they don't come out with 0-8 hanging over their head. They come out with, 'OK, how can we win the next game? What do we have to do?' That's encouraging to me."

This season to forget continues a long stretch of futility for Utah State, which hasn't won as many as four games since 2002 and hasn't enjoyed a .500 season since 1997. [The team's graduation rate is 54%.]

"To break a losing tradition is tough," said Keith Henschen, a University of Utah sports psychologist. "You almost have to start over because people actually start believing they are going to lose. Not consciously, but subconsciously." [Henschen elsewhere argues that "many teams go through four identifiable stages of performance development – forming, storming, norming and performing."]

Utah State started over by hiring Guy in 2004. He was the Aggies' fifth head coach since 1992.

"A problem at Utah State is that it has been a stepping stone for coaches," Henschen said. "There has been very little continuity and, as a result, very little accountability regarding what is expected." [Bet grabbing and tossing all those coaches has cost the university quite a lot of money. In university football, long stretches of futility tend to be expensive.]

Besides the coaching turnover, Henschen blames the losing environment on the Aggies' tradition of playing two or three "money" games every season - games they have little chance of winning but results in a huge payday for the athletic program.

"By overscheduling, they keep beating their kids down - physically and mentally," he said. "I feel sorry for them. Why do they keep doing that? . . . It just feeds into a situation where everybody involved starts thinking, 'We can't win.' It definitely becomes a psychological situation." [Keith, you have a PED degree, which SOS takes to be a Physical Education Doctorate. Surely you understand the money game.]

Guy seems to understand, saying the hardest thing about the ongoing losing streak is "the emotional toll - the toll you try to keep off the kids. It's a tremendous burden for them because they continually get asked about it and continually have to answer for it."

Of course, it happens at other schools. [Of course. We're not the only ones, you know...]

Three years ago, New Mexico State went 0-12 under coach Hal Mumme.

"The toughest thing is getting the players to believe in what you're doing," he said."It's almost a player-by-player thing and it's very difficult to do."

This season, Idaho is 1-8 under first-year coach Robb Akey.

"When the losses start mounting up, it gets a little heavy," he said. "That's a battle we fight every week. What I'm trying to do is point out the positive things and show them, when we do it together, it works."

At this point, Guy believes his players might be too aware of the losing streak and are not focused on enjoying the game.'


Sunday, October 28, 2007

Scathing Online Schoolmarm Considers...

...prose not yet on the boil, but simmering nicely.

SOS, as you know, likes to feature outstanding prose by university students. She usually finds this prose in campus newspapers, and that's the case with tonight's example, which appears in the UC Santa Barbara paper.

As I say, the writing here's not quite as hot as it should be. But it's on its way. This is a promising writer. Let's take a look.

'Philosophy majors are notorious for being perpetually stoned, easy-going hippies. [I'd drop notorious for being.] They can be found in yoga class, at a NORML meeting or at a party trying to convince a bored sorority girl that the world is really nothing but the dream of a hamster named Fred. [End of sentence great: hamster named Fred is fun. But can be found is a bit clunky. How about Look for them in... And rather than trying to convince I'd simply write telling. I'd also drop is really nothing but and replace it with the world's the dream of a hamster named Fred. Notice the way my edits are about making things snappier, shorter, stronger, more direct.] However, there exists a lesser-known species of philosophy majors. [There exists is okay, because she's trying here for a certain pretentious intellectual formulation.] This minority consists of chain-smoking, coffee-consuming, Friedrich Nietzsche-worshipping emo kids. [Excellent.]

If you have ever been shaken out of your Sudoku-induced trance [I'd drop induced.] by the kid wearing black in the back of the class answering a professor’s question in an inappropriately deep fashion [Drop inappropriately.], you have probably encountered this lesser-known type of philosophy student. No question is too mundane. It could be an innocent rhetorical question such as, “How is everyone doing today?” Instead of joining the chorus of droning “Gooood,” from the class [The two of's are awkward; the joining and droning are too ingy. The sentence is wordy.], they volunteer the answer: “Considering the limitations of the human sense of perception, we can never know anything for sure. I do not even know for certain I exist. So how am I supposed to know how I’m doing? Why would you ask that? Whhhhy?” [Drop the final Whhhy. Too cute.]

For these lovers of knowledge, philosophy is a way of life. Spurning physical activity and rowdy social gatherings, emo philosophers can instead [Drop instead.] be found outside of coffee shops drinking coffee (black) and smoking cigarettes. [Unfiltered in parenthesis after cigarettes would be fun, and would give the sentence balance.] They will inevitably [Drop inevitably.] be reading an obscure philosophical text, or if with a partner, discussing the dark existential truths of life. [Simply dark existential truths would be better. Truths is a stronger word to end on.] Also, due to an affinity for rain and gloominess in general, they are often seen taking melancholy walks in the rain… without an umbrella. [Drop in general.]

They do occasionally detach themselves from their current book and engage in the pointless, shallow social activities that the rest of the world uses only [Drop only.] to distract [Awkward use of distract here. How about to elude etc.?] from the grim reality of life.
[Again, as in earlier sentence, simply write from grim reality.] When this happens, a large amount of alcohol can confer the emo philosopher with [ can confer upon the emo philosopher traits etc. would be better.] traits of their close relation, the stoner philosopher. Articulating nothing more intellectual than “Whoa!” repeatedly while staring up at the stars, or alternately giving long speeches about the futility of hope - both distinct possibilities. Drunkenness, however, is only an occasional respite from the weight of being serious all the time. [Note the unnecessary words gumming up this great material: repeatedly, alternately, long, occasional.]

The most recent on-screen emo philosopher is Dwayne from last year’s “Little Miss Sunshine.” He took an oath of silence in honor of his hero, none other than existentialist Friedrich Nietzsche. His over-the-top rebellious antics are common. [are common is a blah way to end the sentence.] When faced with the depressing conclusions dictated by their chosen philosophical gurus, some philosophy students have no choice but resorting to periods of long silences and listening to Elliott Smith. [Drop depressing; drop chosen. And rewrite latter part of the sentence something like this: resort to periods of silence or the music of Elliot Smith.]

If you have not been able to discern it already from my glowing portrayal [Drop glowing.], yours truly is a member of this philosophical following. My pride in my membership of this minority group [membership in.] stems from an incident that occurred [Drop that occurred.] last year at a party. When I answered a typical inquiry to my major [about my major] with “philosophy,” the response from the questioner [Drop from the questioner.] was: “Oh, did you just try to pick the easiest major possible?”

I was outraged, hot fire burned in my black heart. I knew that Socrates was flipping a shit somewhere in his Greek grave. [Flipping a shit's fun.] I proceeded to explain - while internally cursing
[Drop internally.] myself for participating in this idle distraction from life [Yet again: Drop from life.]- that actually, philosophy is one of the oldest and most interesting disciplines in the world.

Sadly, this one incident [Drop one.] is not the only time the seriousness of my major has been doubted. When faced with these naysayers, I need only relate the horror of the loathed branch of philosophy called “logic.” [Describe might be better than relate. And I'd drop the horror of.]

My teaching assistant actually told us on the first day that this class had a tendency to make students cry, give up hope and get a bad grade. Although filling me with dread, I suppose his warning was helpful. Now I can tell everyone who says philosophy majors aren’t serious students to eat shit and try to solve a biconditional derivation or read 100 pages on the word “the.” [This is good. Feisty.]

Despite their differences, emo kids and stoner philosophy students can unite in agreement [Unite in agreement is somewhat redundant and clunky. How about agree on one thing?] over one thing: Stop fucking confusing us with psychology majors!' [Excellent final line. An earned exclamation mark.]


Poor Poshard's Almanack:
We're Not in 'thesda Anymore

"You're not the center of the world, you know. The sun doesn't rise and set on you, you know."

How many times have people said these things to UD over the course of her life! And how little impact they've had!

Yet a certain widening of one's sympathies, a tentative awakening to the reality of other people, can happen, and sometimes in the most unexpected ways...

For instance, UD's become aware, reading letters in the Southern Illinois press about Glenn Poshard, that her comfy 'thesdan world has nothing in common with worlds where newspapers publish letters like this one:

I've been haunted about the issue concerning plagiarism in connection with President Poshard since I first heard about it. [Haunted is certainly seasonally appropriate...]

My first reflections went back to a recent issue about Dr. Walter Wendler being replaced because of plagiarism. [Wendler is one of three high-ranking SIU administrators who plagiarized.]

I've researched the dictionary and found the meaning of the word to be "To take (ideas, writings, etc.) from (another) and pass them off as one's own." I am persuaded by this definition.

Dr. Wendler didn't plagiarize anyone, because he was using his own plan for a project on the SIU campus. [He recycled a plan he'd prepared for a whole other university and, largely word for word, just stuck it onto SIU. This was stupid and lazy. He also more straightforwardly plagiarized in a speech he gave at SIU.] Dr. Wendler comes across to me as a fine gentleman and an asset to any organization. I've met him on campus a couple of times, and he is very well dressed, presents himself well and speaks to me although he doesn't know me. I'm honored. [See, this is the non-'thesdanian thing. In UD's world, defending a guy from plagiarism charges on the basis of the cut of his suit isn't considered a good move.]

He is a Christian man [Dresses well and isn't Jewish or anything.] and objects to some of the trends on campus, and I, for one, agree with him in what he attempted to do and his attitude about the whole affair. [What whole affair? This is mysterious. Haunting.]

I wonder if these issues [??] stimulated the anonymous letters that inspired the original accusations. I've been guilty of quoting the Bible at times without giving credit and have gotten away with it. President Poshard has been exonerated. Let's correct the issue with Dr. Wendler. [He'll be exonerating the third SIU plagiarist next.]


Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Schoolmarm v. Rev.

A graduate student at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville sends SOS the following letter, published in the SIUE student newspaper. As always, SOS butts in.

'The controversy surrounding the president of Southern Illinois University has begun to bother me. [Recall SOS's many, many cautions against beginning a letter of this sort with how upset, hot, bothered, wild again, beguiled again, a simpering, whimpering child again, you are. Feelings expressed in this way do nothing for an argument except make it feel minutely, dully, personal.] While I have met Dr. Poshard on several occasions professionally, I have no vested interest in the affair. However, as it is playing out I have several observations and questions. [Dead ringer for Mr. Collins, Pride and Prejudice.]

My first deals with the continuous calls for "open and honest" revelation on the part of Dr. Poshard. If that is the case, why is that not also required of the person(s) who brought to light the issue in the first place? [The author of this letter will prove quite the fan of the quotation mark. Read on.]

Next, I struggle with a concept of law known as the statute of limitations. [Writer thinks you're stupid. "...a concept of the law known as..." ] I believe that in law there are very few actions that do not have to follow that rule. One of those exceptions is for murder.

If an academic panel found the text of Dr. Poshard's work acceptable over 20 years ago, why is it an issue now? Please tell me we are not making this "issue" as grave a matter as that of taking a life? [Quotation marks around issue mean to say I don't think it's an issue! It's a non-issue! I speet on your "issue"...] I am also troubled by the faculty vote at SIUE and rational of the person who proposed it. [He means rationale. I think. Bit murky in here.] Quoting a former U.S. President: "What is 'is'?" [Meta-quotation marks. Not murky. Send a search party.]

In philosophy there is a construct known as "cause and effect." [Same thing as with statute of limitations above. Since we've never heard of cause and effect, the writer introduces it to us here. With quotation marks around it.] I wonder what the "real" cause is? [Though a Reverend, author appears to be a radical skeptic. "Does" "reality" "exist"?] Is it academic integrity or perhaps the not so off hand remark to separate the two campuses? Or could it be something else? In short, I find this small rodent-like bump being made into the latest glacial peak. [Off the rails here..] It seems that we are more and more becoming a people caught up in the minutiae while real problems within society remain.

Yes, academic integrity is important, but to the detriment of "real" societal issues; I think not! Perhaps some of those in the academic "ivory towers" and the editorial offices who have been calling for the removal of Dr. Poshard would like to join me in my office where I deal with people who are trying to purchase gasoline for their cars, put food on their tables, pay their rent or keep their utilities connected; "real" issues for "real" people.

Is it not time to return some "common" sense to the issues that seem to drive our media and our lives?

Rev. Gary Gummersheimer

Murphysboro, IL'


Snapshots from Home
Plus SOS

Writing strong opinion pieces for newspapers is enormously difficult. You have little space in which to explain a situation and take a compelling position in regard to it. Your writing has to be razor-sharp and tightly organized. It has to offer a powerful sensibility and a set of brilliant examples.

Tone's important, but there are many pitfalls. Outrage is usually a no-no -- there's something absurd, as the failed writing of Bob Herbert in the New York Times demonstrates, about large emotions in small spaces. Humor is a yes-yes, but only if you're really funny...

A few writers -- David Brooks, also in the New York Times, comes to mind -- can manage all of this. Most writers end up bland and ineffective.

Here's an example, from today's Philadelphia Inquirer. [Did one of my readers send me this or did I find it myself? I can't remember!]

'Thousands of Americans will travel to colleges and universities this fall for "parents' weekend." [Drop the effing quotation marks! ... Who told me that there's a whole blog now devoted to unnecessary quotation marks?] They'll wander leaf-strewn lawns and quadrangles with their sons and daughters, asking earnest questions about courses, sports and friends.

Later, when they retire to the local Hilton, Sheraton or Holiday Inn, they might notice something funny: It looks a lot like their children's dormitory. [This actually is funny, and a good comic writer could do great things with it... The idea that the parents' hotel room might indeed be less glamorous than their kid's dorm is a winner. But this writer will not be able to capitalize on the comic potential.]

Dorms are changing - to resemble hotels. Student centers have gotten makeovers, too. They look like museums or corporate office buildings. [These sentences, which gesture in the direction of description, but don't really describe, would be better if they featured actual physical details.]

At elite private universities and even at some public ones, students have nicer facilities and services than their parents could have imagined. That raises big questions about what we're teaching this generation and why.

Consider George Washington University in Washington [This is the Snapshots from Home bit in this post.], where incoming students receive engraved chocolates under their pillows during freshmen orientation. [Nothing's too good for UD's charges.] Or Ball State University in Ohio, which just opened a $36 million residence hall featuring mobile furniture, a digital music lab, and a dining hall that takes online take-out orders. [Isn't all furniture -- except for my new baby grand -- mobile?]

Plasma TVs? Got 'em. Refrigerators and microwaves? Check. Fitness center? Of course. Weekly housecleaning service? For an extra fee, it's yours. [The question and answer plus slangy language thing here is sort of lame.]

That's hardly the kind of luxury that Princeton president Woodrow Wilson envisioned a century ago, when he commissioned residential buildings. Wilson worried that too many students had moved off campus into "eating clubs," which separated them according to interests, tastes and wealth. Better that they live together in monasterylike brick or stone dormitories, sealed off from the world.

"A university was conceived as a place where the community life and spirit were supreme," wrote one Princeton architect in 1909, three years before Wilson entered the White House. "It was a walled city against materialism and all of its works." [Not sure of the wisdom of choosing America's most status-conscious, Social Registered university for your example of higher university values.]

After World War I, Harvard erected seven new dormitories along two sides of its famous yard. Featuring elaborate outside details but humble interiors, the dorms created a literal and symbolic divide between students and the surrounding city.

At new women's colleges, meanwhile, educators feared that off-campus boarding houses would lead innocent young women astray. So they took special care to construct solid but simple dormitories that would place all students under college supervision - and on equal economic footing. [He's muddying things here. Why bring in this now-unattractive paternalism? Does the writer want to go back to that, as well as to anti-materialism?]

"We have a chance to see what the human spirit can do when unhampered either by deprivation or by excess," the dean of Smith College wrote in 1919, praising a new set of dormitories.

The big boom in dorm construction occurred in the 1950s and 1960s, sparked by massive state and federal spending. In 1958, the University of California's nine campuses could house only 2,900 students; by 1970, they had residential space for nearly 20,000. Despite some new architectural styles, most of these dormitories were built in concrete or cinder block - functional, not fancy.

Fast-forward to the latest $22 million dormitory at Tufts University, offering suites with two large singles off a sunlit living room. Each has a dining room with a glass table and a kitchen with a dishwasher. "This is like going from Amerisuites to the Ritz-Carlton," a Tufts senior told the Boston Globe last month.

The dorm is a hotel, but it just got way nicer. That's bad news for anyone who cares about the future of the university. [Note the abruptness with which the writer now returns to the argument he introduced at the beginning of the essay. This is of course about the space constraint he's under. But it comes across as too sudden -- unprepared, unsupported.]

By providing really nice things for our kids, we're teaching them to expect such goodies as their due. And we're forgetting the older collegiate ideal, which prized the life of the mind over the lure of materialism.

Only a segment of students can afford the new luxuries, of course, which makes matters worse. More colleges now price dorms at different rates, depending on how many bells and whistles are included. So rich kids get the fancier residence halls and poorer students the older ones, which yields the economic divide Wilson and his generation wanted to avoid. [Again, it's not as if Princeton ever housed an economic divide.]

How did we get here? As government aid has declined, colleges chase the students with the most dollars, and the best way to do that is to offer really cool amenities. University presidents may not like catering to the whims of already-privileged 18-year-olds, but competing schools are doing it, so what choice is there?

During the Cold War, that kind of thinking was called "mutually assured destruction." At universities today, the era could be called "mutually assured consumption." And we're all impoverished by it. [Ask yourself: Is this a strong piece? I think the answer's no. And why is it not strong? Because it's sketchy. It's not able to gather its complicated and multifaceted subject matter into a concise little polemic. And the main reason for that failure, IMHO, lies in the writer's lack of an individual sensibility. The one crucial ingredient missing in this piece is an interesting consciousness. The writer might have, for instance, started in the first-person rather than the third, drawing on his own years of university life to give his argument a sense of emotional immediacy to go with its intellectual substance. Instead, his voice is that of a vague, disembodied, complainer.]'


Monday, October 22, 2007

UD's Calming Mandarin Bath Salts
and In-House Writing for the NCAA

UD takes baths. She's always experimenting with bath salts.

Despite a pretty empirical orientation to the world, UD notices that she actually seems to believe a certain combination of bath salts can have, as claimed on their containers, a "calming" effect on her, while another combination can have an "energizing" effect.

Each time she pours a new combination of bath salts in her bath, she lies still for a moment to see whether she's been energized or calmed.

Certain forms of writing are like calming bath salts. Their words soften in your brain and make it what Wallace Stevens, in his poem "Sunday Morning," calls "wide water, without sound."

Reading bath salt prose, you are calm, content, a cocotte into whom prose pours...

In-house writing, writing aimed at an already-captured constituency, is often bath salt writing. It doesn't want to be an astringent, argumentative, intellectually challenging sort of thing; it wants to confirm you in the preferences that made you a member of the constituency in the first place. Alumni magazine writing is usually bath salt writing. Article after article, what it really means to say is that of course you made the right decision to graduate from Grinnell...

A reader - Mike from Profane - sends UD/SOS a fine example of bath salt writing, from the in-house publication of the NCAA. The article appears in a section called NCAA News, but it's not a news article. To be sure, it's announcing something new, but only to assure NCAA members that, like all NCAA news, this is really good... not to worry... all for the best...

The first signal Division I’s dashboard indicators project [Cute name, and UD's just able to make out that it has something to do with cars.] has revealed is that the “check engine” light is on. Athletics spending is progressing at a rate three times that of overall university spending — a pace presidents and chancellors know is not sustainable in the long run. [The piece is about to announce a new service for member universities -- the NCAA will provide schools with comparative sports spending numbers from the other schools. Note that the piece does begin with a seeming acknowledgment of problems in bigtime university spending on athletics. But, typical of bath salt writing, it will do this only in order to calm readers' fears as the piece progresses.]

While the blinking beacon may be alarming to some, others are reassured [The calming process begins.] that the NCAA’s collaboration with the National Association of College and University Business Officers to produce a uniform data-reporting system and provide dashboard indicators that allow for peer comparison will serve as a financial GPS for big-time intercollegiate athletics. [Note the hokey playing out of the dashboard metaphor.]

The dashboards, which are expected to be finalized in spring 2008, are to fiscal responsibility as the APR is to academic reform. [This sentence exemplifies the to be verb problem in writing, about which SOS has written in greater detail here. In one sentence, the writer has given us four instances of is: are, to be, are, is. It makes for a dull and wordy sentence. Rewrite it something like this: The dashboards, due in spring 2008, are a kind of APR of fiscal responsibility. Your reader knows what APR means.] They are benchmarks developed on a by-campus basis that provide presidents, athletics directors and university CFOs the most comprehensive, accurate and comparable data to date that inform decisions about athletics spending.

That means Kent State can compare itself to its Mid-American Conference peers in its reliance upon university-allocated funds as a percentage of the total athletics budget. Texas Tech can see where it ranks among Big 12 schools in football revenues. Duke can run a comparison with other private institutions on athletics giving. Oregon can determine its percentile in revenues via ticket sales. Illinois can stack up against other traditional basketball powers in facility investment. A Football Championship Subdivision institution can see the investment it takes to reclassify to the Football Bowl Subdivision. [This is a good paragraph, with varied prose and rich examples. It mentions one of UD's favorites, Texas Tech, where four of every ten annual debt service dollars repays loans for athletics facilities. Texas Tech's program just emptied its reserve fund because of a multi-million dollar deficit.]

In other words, the dashboards can be all things to all schools. Simply put, it is the best customized financial data Division I has ever had, and the system is being applauded by those who will use it. [We're living in the best of all possible worlds. It's not as if many of the schools mentioned in this article are, like Texas Tech, ancient hulking sports factories with almost no interest in academics, schools who'll be made so anxious about this new data about what their rivals are spending that they'll add a few more catastrophic athletic expenditures to the ones they've already made. No -- things are great, and they'll be made greater by the dashboard indicators.]

“We do a lot of benchmarking at the institutional level,” said Michigan State University’s Kathy Lindahl, the school’s vice president for financial administration. “The dashboard project for athletics has tremendous potential in that it gives you instant validation as to whether you are ahead of the curve, behind it or in the ballpark. The data bring athletics to a level of sophistication that universities are accustomed to in other areas of the campus.” [Machine-generated prose, with an eerie manufactured enthusiasm thrown in... Oh, and here's another example of this sort of prose...]

... “Presidents are deeply engaged in benchmarking in every other aspect of our work — why not in athletics?” University of Cincinnati President Nancy Zimpher said. “We are creating a system for accountability for the value added of a college degree, a system about what students are learning from their general studies program and a system about the degree to which students are satisfied with their college experience. We are using national instrumentation to probe those areas, so the idea of a common data set for gauging the return on our investment in athletics is just as important.” [Gauging what's going on -- financially, legally, morally, academically -- in most of bigtime university athletics isn't about dashboards. It's about sledgehammers. Texas Tech doesn't need sophisticated instrumentation to know it's got its head up its ass.]

...“The kind of change we’re talking about will be more incremental than revolutionary,” said University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, Chancellor James Moeser, who as a Task Force member helped draft the white paper on the dashboard project. “But we are giving leaders the tools to make more informed decisions. It’s up to every president and chancellor to use them in their own situations.” [This overlooks the fact that presidents and chancellors, at many of these schools, have little to no power over athletics.]

...“There will be a lot more conversation between the athletics department and our vice chancellor for financial administration than there has been in the past, for example,” Moeser said. “And there will be more regular presentations by athletics to the budget committee.” [Uh-huh.]

... Task Force members acknowledge the possibility that the additional data may in fact fuel the perceived arms race in athletics [Note the word "perceived." It's not perceived. It's actual.] rather than douse the flame, but most of them downplay the concern [Bath salt prose. No cause for alarm! Keep doing what you've been doing!], saying that more accurate data beats little or unreliable information.

... Others, though, think the dashboards will prompt institutions in the upper echelon to hit cruise control and some in the lower half to step on the gas.

“Large governing bodies are guilty of that kind of behavior, and you can’t help it,” said Katie Hill, a senior associate athletics director at Clemson University. “You presume that everyone’s decision-making is based on the global good. It’s not. Does our government scale back spending because the national budget is out of hand? No. Does our national debt keep us from borrowing from China? No. We’ve heard the expression that all politics are local — well, all athletics decisions are local, too. It’s about what our universities, our athletics departments, and our fans and supporters expect from us.” [Writer sticks the truth of the situation at the end of the piece -- things like dashboard indicators hasten the trend in which schools like the University of Texas maintain obscenely over-funded sports programs, and smaller schools destroy themselves trying to keep up. The writer gives us another paragraph insisting this worry is groundless, and then he concludes the piece.]


Thursday, October 18, 2007

Laughingstock Speaks

UD has called Southern Illinois University, with its now-exonerated plagiarist president, a laughingstock. If you want to hear how a laughingstock sounds, read along with her the following opinion piece in the university's newspaper, written by two members of the committee that came up with the intellectually insulting designation "inadvertent plagiarism" for the intentional, and rife, plagiarism in the president's dissertation.

But before you do, note the student editors' introduction to the piece, which says that "Their [the faculty members'] words have not been altered in any way other than to correct grammar and style." If that's true, UD/SOS wonders what the thing must have looked like before the student writers corrected their professors' writing, since it's still an embarrassment.

Note also that one of the writers is a professor of speech communication.

We are writing in response to the "Our Word" editorial (including the cartoons) in Friday's DE, and Monday's "The P Word" editorial (including the cartoon), both which have occasioned a good deal of negative response on campus and in the wider community. We hope that you will explain what's puzzling about those editorials, as an initial contribution toward developing a reasoned and positive educational experience from what now is a sadly contentious episode in our university's life. [Beyond the vapid positive educational experience cliche, note that these two initial sentences are, well, puzzling. Does the word "puzzling," for instance, mean puzzling to the writers, or puzzling in the editorials? And already the tone feels condescending, irritated, defensive.]

What needs explaining is this: In Friday's paper, under the headline of [Drop of.]"Exactly what the doctor ordered," you say: "The committee has failed us. The Board of Trustees has failed us. Our university is a joke. And the Daily Egyptian is at a loss for words."

The initial question we ask is: What committee has failed you, and how? The first editorial appeared on the day that the review committee, charged last month by Chancellor Fernando Treviño, delivered its report to the chancellor, who in turn delivered it to the Board of Trustees. Yet the cartoons that follow those four sentences show a caricature labeled "blue ribbon committee" - an entity formed by SIU President Glenn Poshard, more than a year ago, which delivered its report last month. Both editorials confuse these very different committees.

These are different committees, chosen in radically different ways, and with completely different charges. We cannot speak for the "blue ribbon committee," and we certainly do not speak for the Board (any more than the Board speaks for us). Nor can we speak for President Poshard - or he, for us. However, we can speak as members of the review committee to what we have determined.

We ask that you, and all concerned persons [all concerned persons is police-speak] in our community, listen to the press conference and hear, for yourselves, that the chair of the Board of Trustees, in response to a specific question, said that "the Board does not feel that he committed plagiarism."

The chair of the review committee, however, responded to the same question by saying that the review committee concluded that "inadvertent or unintentional plagiarism" was the result of student Poshard's citation practices. (The Southern Illinoisan provides the audio: See their Web site under "Archives," Oct. 11.)

The report submitted by the review committee on the day that you published the first editorial does not consider plagiarism to be a joke. [Since it has treated it like one, it certainly does consider it a joke.] And the report submitted by the review committee on the day that you published that editorial does determine that plagiarism, understood within a particular definition of the many that exist [There aren't many definitions of plagiarism. These writers are obfuscating in an effort to get Poshard off the hook.], is present in the dissertation that student Poshard's committee approved. One item in the review committee's charge was to determine the "severity" of instances of incorrect citation. [It's clear that Poshard's dissertation represents severe plagiarism. Long verbatim passages from other places appear in it.]

Just as there is a spectrum of severity in a messy room, a case of poison ivy, a broken bone, or a misleading newspaper article, there is a spectrum of severity in plagiarism. Correlatively [Ooh, aren't we fancy. Correlatively. Throughout this piece, these two, who can't write, are talking down to students who can.], the law recognizes shades of severity in both civil and criminal cases - from negligence to intentional wrong doing; from manslaughter to first degree murder. People commonly accept that there are differences in the character of acts that make for differences in what decision is warranted. We determined that the category of "inadvertent plagiarism" was the most warranted in this case. [But why? In his remarks about the case immediately after the paper's discovery of it, Poshard himself seems to acknowledge that he was aware of what he was doing.]

Lastly, although we regret that the Board feels otherwise, that difference should suggest, at the very least, that we have acted independently in investigating the allegations and reaching our conclusions and recommendations. [What? Because you attached a bogus designation to your exoneration of him while the Board didn't bother to do this? That only makes the Board more honest than you.] Our report, listed as "Faculty Review Committee Report," along with the Board's statement and other statements and reports, is available for all to read at

The DE editorial board, as well as various commentators and letter writers, feel that because the review committee was composed of SIU faculty, it could not have remained objective because we were evaluating our boss. We believe that you should reconsider this presumption.

First, President Poshard is not our boss. We do not report to him directly or indirectly. We are all tenured faculty. [So? He determines your budgets, and is certainly, in a variety of other ways, in a position to make your lives unpleasant.]

Second, had the chancellor or we decided to convene an outside panel to review the allegations, this panel could not have been blind to the subject of the review (as is usually required in external, peer review). [I don't understand this sentence.]

Third, had that committee come to the same conclusion that we did, we're sure that the DE editorial board would have found many ways to discredit them, such as accusing us or the chancellor of cherry-picking panel members. To avoid any appearance of cherry-picking, the chancellor named this committee on the basis of our already being in elected positions of leadership in the Faculty Association, Faculty Senate and Graduate Council. [This is a sweet one. Choose institutional insiders to make sure the committee isn't made up of insiders.]

Fourth, we knew from the beginning that our findings would be highly scrutinized by both President Poshard's distracters [The student editors missed this one. Or did they -- as UD hopes -- non-inadvertently retain it, in order to display the semi-literacy of professors who feel comfortable condescending to students about their writing?], and his supporters. Moreover, we have our academic colleagues around the world looking over our shoulders. These concerns kept us in check, and kept us honest in our attempts to reach a fair conclusion.

Finally, as teachers and researchers, we suggest that reading our report and listening to the press conference might alleviate your sense of being at a loss for words. In the light of reading and listening to the relevant evidence, we, as members of the review committee, ask that you reconsider the belief that you have been failed, in light of reading and listening to the relevant sources of information and considering the following: [Dizzyingly circular sentence full of light.]

Had the review committee not followed due process, as set out in established university policies (specifically, in the Student Conduct Code) for investigating allegations of academic misconduct, we would have failed you.

Had the review committee not applied thought, deliberation, and analysis, and instead relied solely on plagiarism software technology to reach our conclusion, we would have failed you.

Had the review committee not gone further in our analysis than is indicated in recent media reports - which, in some cases, are misleading or inaccurate - we would have failed you.

Had the review committee not fully investigated the context and circumstances in which the alleged plagiarized text was prepared, we would have failed you.

Had the review committee not concluded that the attribution style and other errors resulted in inadvertent plagiarism, we would have failed you. [Dayenu.]

Would you want any current, former or future SIU student accused of academic dishonesty to not be treated with due process, as we have treated this former student?


Saturday, October 13, 2007

Scathing Online Schoolmarm

'Past generations of Arizona's football and men's basketball teams wrote the headlines, but when essay assignments arrived, your high-profile athletes took a hit in the loss column. [The reporter for the University of Arizona newspaper is a freshman who writes pretty well. Naturally, though, SOS has some suggestions...] [...For instance, generations would be better than past generations. Past is implicit when you refer to generations. And while SOS is about to notice and more or less admire the flamboyant language throughout the piece, she will also issue a caution about overuse...]

Both teams held the worst graduation rates in the Pacific 10 Conference from 1997-2000, according to the NCAA's Graduation Success Rate report released Oct. 3. For the third year in a row, Arizona football occupied the Pac-10 cellar with a 41 percent graduation rate of players earning a degree within six years of enrollment.

This year, the men's basketball team joined the basement party with a backboard-shattering 25 percent graduation rate - less than half of the national average of 61 percent. [Basement party's nice, and backboard-shattering's great, but when you put them together you get a mixed metaphor.]

The McKale male ballers may have grabbed plenty of rebounds in March, but when it came down to snagging a diploma on the hardwood, three of four players shot the air ball in May. [Peppy, peppy. But a little over the top with all the sports metaphors.] Wonder if 25 percent from the free-throw line would be an acceptable performance on the court? [Very good. But I'd tighten it a bit: Would 25 percent from the free throw line look good to you? Something like that.]

Then again, look who's laughing now, sitting pretty with multi-million dollar bankrolls. [Look who's laughing now is a walloping cliche... But SOS has pointed out before on this blog that sports writing is cliche writing, so there may be no way out of this...]

"For the elite-level kid, basketball is everything," said Josh Pastner, a UA men's basketball assistant coach. "Why do you think Mike Bibby came here? He came here to get ready for his chosen profession."

Pastner believes the NCAA data is skewed, since the numbers penalize student-athletes who leave school to turn professional. [Um, in what way is this skewed? It's exactly what the numbers mean to reveal.] The percentage also fails to credit former players like Mile Simon, who left Arizona in 1998 but returned to finish his degree outside of the designated six-year period.

Can you blame current NBA superstars Bibby, Gilbert Arenas and Jason Terry for walking away from Tucson to cash contracts combining for hundreds of millions?

"Make Gilbert Arenas stay four years - I want to hear how they're going to do that," said Jim Rosborough, UA special assistant to the athletic director.

In his 18 years as an assistant coach for Olson's Arizona men's basketball program, Rosborough ensured his players attended class. But since the new mindset in athletics drastically evolved into dollar signs, academic priorities evidently fell down the ladder. [Rewrite this sentence, getting rid of drastically and evidently, and choosing between dollar signs and ladders for your images.]

Through the eyes of an elite athlete, turning professional is a continuous fixture [Continuous is redundant. And I'm not sure fixture is the best image. How about saying fixation?] from youth basketball up through high school. Rosborough said those attitudes develop from parents' pressures to become great.

And as Pastner said, "In the NBA, they don't require you to have a degree."

The debate boils down to one simple argument: stay for an education or leave for financial freedom. [That's two simple arguments.] Eat at Which Wich, or own a Which Wich franchise? [Nice example.] In senior cornerback Antoine Cason's case, his education remains priceless.

Despite opportunities to enter last year's NFL draft and prognosticators pegging him as a first-round pick, Cason believes his tough decision to stay was a "gut check," showing dedication to finish out something he started. [Writer did well to highlight "gut check." It's a good phrase.]

"You can't duplicate your college experience," Cason said. "Graduation is one of my goals, and that's what I want to do."

Rocky LaRose [Great name!], a UA associate athletic director, believes being last place in the Pac-10 is irrelevant, due to the diversity of public and private schools in the conference. [Huh?] She compares athletic graduation rates to the entire UA rate, which she said has exceeded the school percentage in the past. [Confused sentence. Problem starts with the word which. Rewrite for clarity.] The recent decrease, however, dips athletes below the university percentage.

LaRose, who forecasted such a downfall, seeks an optimistic future after the football program went through four head coaches in five years between 2000-2004, leading to multiple player transfers. [Futures can't be optimistic. Only people can be optimistic. Find a better word.]

The academic unit now reports to the university side, rather than the athletics department.

More changes include a revamping of the C.A.T.S. program that Pastner describes as "the best in America" and the MVP of McKale Center. From life skills to academic help, C.A.T.S. provides athletes with the proper resources to succeed in the classroom.

Pastner stresses the significance of the term "student-athlete" over the common mindset of an athlete-student.

Hopefully Wildcats today and beyond bear down and take that to heart. [Hopefully always comes across as a bit awkward - and a bit rhetorically weak - when used in this way. It's particularly limp in the context of what's just been written. Most of the staff has just told him they don't give a shit whether athletes graduate. So the hopefulness seems exclusive to the reporter.]'

---the wildcat online---


Monday, October 08, 2007

Scathing Online Schoolmarm

Hope it's not too early in your day for a higher-level consideration of bad writing.

By bad writing here, I don't mean full of grammatical errors or stylistic faults. I simply mean writing that doesn't work, writing whose clear desire to move the reader in a certain direction intellectually and emotionally meets with resistance and failure.

Consider this opinion piece in this morning's New York Times.

Terror and Demons [Weak title. Too vaguely portentous. The entire piece is vague and portentous.]

History happens, but only just. The lives of individuals, as of nations, may hinge on a millimeter’s difference in the trajectory of a bullet, a road not taken on a whim or the random spray of shrapnel. But there is no undoing what is done. [This first paragraph introduces the problem. It's a string of ominous but vacuous cliches -- road not taken... undoing what is done... It suggests a smug writer who thinks himself full of life wisdom. It's preachy.]

Nothing, for example, can bring back the life of Carol Ann Gotbaum, 45, whose terrible end in a holding cell at the Phoenix airport was chronicled in a Times report by Eric Konigsberg. [Little is yet known about this woman and the way she died. The author nowhere acknowledges this. Instead, he spins a still-mysterious story his way, and that feels to the reader like manipulation.] Depressive and fighting alcoholism, Carol missed a connection by minutes. [Was she fighting it? We don't know. Maybe she wasn't fighting it, or wasn't fighting it very hard. And note the use of her first name. This creates a false sense of intimacy. The writer doesn't in fact know her, and he knows almost nothing about her. He intends, early in the piece, to make us sympathize with her, first names creating a greater sense of vulnerability and particularity, I suppose, than last. In fact it comes across as condescending.] She became hysterical and was subdued, handcuffed, shackled, abandoned and found dead with the shackle across her neck. [The writer unfairly slips in the incendiary word abandoned. She was, it appears, not abandoned.]

All this happened fast. We can hear her cry: “I’m not a terrorist. I’m a sick mother.” [We. We can hear her cry. You have seen their faces. Bad writing is about emotionality forced upon us. Readers tend not to like this. It's alienating. No one enjoys being manipulated. The effect of the writer's portentous and histrionic language is to push us away from his point of view, not to bring us into his mental world, where he'd like us to be.]

We can see the heavy-handed police officers, their sense of mission redoubled by the alcohol on her breath, muscling Carol to the ground. [How come the police officers don't get first - or even last - names? Monsters don't get names.]

In their zeal — for American airports are now temples of zealotry — they would not have imagined her three young children, her distraught husband, much less the dislocated life that had put her en route, alone, to an Arizona addiction-treatment clinic. [This is contemptible writing. Fuck the pigs, the author tells us, because in subduing an out of control person they failed to imagine the fact that she has ... not children, of course, but young children... a distraught husband (who, according to the Times account, put a woman like this on a plane by herself)... and a dislocated life... Let me pause a bit on the dislocated business, okay?

I love the NYTimes, but never was there a louder public address system on behalf of special pleading for the rich. The woman in question lived in unimaginable opulence -- unimaginable, I mean, for the police whose ugly job it was to deal with her shouted threats and profanities (We can hear her cry... Why doesn't the writer tell us what else we heard before she was subdued? Because the saintliness he's sketching would get fuzzy if we heard her fucks and shits.) No doubt this woman suffered from clinical depression, but it's clear from the newspaper account that her life was a glorious one by any standard. As a result, the only aspect of it the writer can glomb onto in order to convince us of her miserable existence is the fact that she moved from one city to another when she got married, and therefore felt displaced.]

As it happened, on another perfect New York morning redolent of the endless summer of 2001 (a time when sunlight mocked pain), I was particularly affected by Carol’s story; and here I am writing about her, rather than brave monks in Burma, because certain signals are too powerful to ignore. [As with the opening sentences of this piece, this sentence is just a mess. A mess. What the hell is he saying? Is there a reference to 9/11 in there? What's the temporality of this sentence? Was he moved by this woman's death in 2001, years before it happened? That's how the sentence reads. And note again the stilted writing ... brave monks... redolent... endless summer... These are dead words.]

In many particulars — her South African upbringing, her uprooted life, her acute postpartum depression after the birth of her last child, her hard-working and often absent husband, her radiant smile overlying pain and her powerlessness before her own self-destructive urges — Carol resembled my mother. [Forget the cliches -- radiant smile, etc. Just note again the use of inappropriate words that mean to rev your emotional engines. For instance, the word "uprooted." This woman had an international background, moving from one city to another in search of a good education, a good job, and then a good family life. This ain't uprooted, a word that suggests involuntary removal.]

So having read about Carol, my head filled with her disoriented rage before punitive officialdom [Again, the writer prejudges the police response.], I did something I rarely do. I went back and read my mother’s suicide note of July 25, 1978.

The note reads in part: “It’s as though I’ve turned to stone. I can’t relate, I can’t communicate and I can no longer bear the pain and gloom I cause to those I love most. I feel I’ll never completely throw off this mood and hopelessness and depression. I know I have everything to thank God for and be thankful for, which only makes my ordeal worse and worse.”

In conclusion, my mother asks if “my body — any part of it — can be used for research.” With that, she downed valium, antidepressant drugs and gin.

That was almost the end of the story, or the start of a different tale of anguish, but my father, a doctor, found her just in time. Her life hung in the balance and was salvaged. [Wretched cliches.] Other suicide notes would follow — one of June 15, 1982, says: “I’m just too tired to fight anymore” — but never again was the attempt so serious.

Technology leaps forward. Medicine advances. Lives grow longer. Diseases are vanquished. But the brain, and in particular the vagaries of mental illness, present mysteries as deep as the elusive enigma of life itself. [Straight out of a cheesy public tv documentary.]

When Carol, raised in Cape Town, had her postpartum depression after the birth of her now 3-year-old son, she was a relative newcomer in New York. When my mother, raised in Johannesburg, had hers after the birth of my sister in 1957, she was new to London, with its chill postwar pall.

What happened to my mother in the 1950s — insulin shock therapy, electric shock treatment, hospitalization in harrowing wards; things about which she could never speak without a shudder — were of that time. Nobody would have treated Carol’s despair, or anybody’s, like that today.

But the riddle remains, etched in radiant mothers’ faces clutching laughing children, faces that seem to mock the very idea of panic, delusion and suicidal self-hatred, but contain them nonetheless. [Radiant mothers in whose faces are etched... Bugger me. This is unbearably bogus writing.]

You can look at Carol’s end in many ways: as an innocent’s devastating encounter with terror-obsessed police, as a ghastly but haphazard event, as a death foretold. [Beyond pompous. Offensive in its facile dismissal of the complexity of police-work. Self-congratulatory in its lazy lifting (death foretold) of talented writers' formulations.]

In the days of the Irish Republican Army’s terrorism in London, my mother was thrown into what amounted to a holding cell at Fortnum and Mason, the department store, after she left a bag unattended. Under questioning, she became hysterical, confused, unhinged — and was locked up. There was no shackle, however. [This last sentence is just funny. Amid an absurd campaign to paint two women as political prisoners, the writer does feel compelled to note the absence of shackles ...]

Thus do the affairs of the world intersect with individuals’ pain. The upshot then rests on a razor’s edge. Lives veer into a vortex. [What can UD say at this point about this sort of prose that she hasn't already abundantly said? Bad writers try to invest their dead writing with life by lists of brief portentous cliches. Sometimes this leads them to the sort of crisis point in which upward shots come to rest on the edge of razors.]

Carol Ann Gotbaum and June Bernice Cohen are dead. Cancer took my mother in 1999; she viewed the illness as a trifle beside depression. Her favorite book, unsurprisingly, was Anna Karenina. Her favorite line was from Othello: “What wound did ever heal but by degrees?” [What does this mean? What is the writer trying to say? Nothing much, actually. He's emoting.]


Friday, October 05, 2007

Scathing Online Schoolmarm
Anatomy of an Unworked Poem

An English professor at Virginia Tech who had the killer in his class writes a weak poem about it.

So I know

He put moisturizer on the morning he shot
thirty-three people. That stands out. The desire
to be soft. I could tell the guy from NPR
that's what I want, to be soft, or the guy
from the LA Times, or the guy from CNN who says
we should chat. Such a casual word, chat.
I'm chatting to myself now: you did not
do enough about the kid who took your class
a few buildings from where he killed.
With soft hands in Norris Hall killed.
This is my confession. And legs I think
the roommate said, moisturizer in the shower,
I don't know what I could have done
something. Something more than talk to someone
who talked to someone, a food chain of language
leading to this language of "no words" we have now.
Maybe we exist as language and when someone dies
they are unworded. Maybe I should have shot the kid
and then myself given the math. 2 < 33.
I was good at math. Numbers are polite, carefree
if you ask the random number generators.
Mom, I don't mean the killing above.
It's something I write like "I put my arms
around the moon." Maybe sorry's the only sound
to offer pointlessly and at random
to each other forever, not because of what it means
but because it means we're trying to mean,
I am trying to mean more than I did
when I started writing this poem, too soon
people will say, so what. This is what I do.
If I don't do this I have no face and if I do this
I have an apple for a face or something vital
almost going forward is the direction I am headed.
Come with me from being over here to being over there,
from this second to that second. What countries
they are, the seconds, what rooms of people
being alive in them and then dead in them.
The clocks of flowers rise, it's April
and yellow and these seconds are an autopsy
of this word,

Here's a poem that's sincere and emotional and unable to be poetic. Unable to control itself emotionally and express itself artistically. People will say a poem like this one makes artistic sense because its rush of messy lines and words, its lack of linguistic interest or beauty, adequately reflects a traumatized consciousness struck speechless -- or at least hobbled linguistically -- by atrocity.

But a poet only has words, powerful words powerfully shaped to convey any number of things, including in cases like this one the failure of words under pressurized circumstances.

Look more closely. The moisturizer detail is intriguing but empty. The writer finds it intriguing but does little with it metaphorically or conceptually. He himself, he says, like the killer, wants to be "soft" -- that is, to avoid the hard business of coming to grips with violence in the world? Avoid the hard words that might truly convey what has happened? What precise parallel is the writer suggesting here between his softness and the killer's? It's left unsaid -- but not interestingly, allusively, unsaid. The moisturizer, and the idea of softness, isn't explored. It's simply stated.

Then the guys show up - the guys from the paper, the guys from tv. These lines - like the rest of the poem - are prose, not poetry. No lilt. No larger sense of meaning in any of the words used. Just his thoughts as he scribbles.

He now calls this poem his "confession." He says he should have done "more than talk to someone / who talked to someone, a food chain of language/ leading to this language of 'no words' we have now." Food chain is a perplexing and weak metaphor. Our empty no words keep us alive? But they are empty, unsustaining. The "maybe we exist as language" and are "unworded" at death line comes across as a somewhat pretentious effort to be philosophical, mainly because it's dropped in and then dropped for good, given no context.

And after all, isn't the point of the poem that we are much, much more than language, and that the poet feels guilty precisely because he's remained too comfortably within a kind of soft-language-only setting? That would seem to call for a poem of much more formal and linguistic toughness. As it stands, the poem is another softball, an instance of the fallacy of imitative form, which Ivor Winters describes as "the procedure by which the poet surrenders the form of his statement to the formlessness of his subject-matter." To convey emotional and linguistic debility, you write a debilitated poem.

The poet describes a world in which "we're trying to mean," which sounds just right; but surely a poem is something which tries to mean more successfully than the rest of us do as we chat with each other. The poet's defense of his impulse to write poetry so soon after the event inspires a clunker of an image: "I have an apple for a face" when I write, instead of "no face." Yet how is apple meant? A face that's an apple is a rather comic image, and that can't be meant in this context. And an apple is an exceedingly overdetermined symbol. The poet needs to make its significance precise, or the reader's mind will go all over the place with it.

Now he moves from apples to flowers, "the clocks of flowers" expressing the turn of the seasons, the way the blooming of the flowers in spring marks the forward motion of time through the seasons. Okay. But he muddies his metaphorical structure once again by throwing an autopsy at us: "these seconds are an autopsy of this world/ suddenly."

Actually, in itself this final autopsy line is great, and the poet should have started the poem with it, then explored backwards, perhaps through its morbid idea that time moves in a deathly way in the aftermath of such an event, and that the difficult part of the response to such events is simply moving forward, simply convincing yourself that life goes on.

As in many weak poems, it's as if the poet at the very end chances on what he really wants to say, and the right words in which to say it. UD's suggesting here that this poem is really a first draft, the poet's first gust of emotion as he takes on his subject. Perhaps he retains the poem in this inchoate form because he thinks its messiness is authentic, an authentic snapshot of his feelings at a particular moment in time. Yet good poems are worked, no matter how ambitious they may be to capture spontaneity. This poem isn't worked. And as a result, it doesn't work.


Friday, September 28, 2007

Surprisingly Blah...

...piece by Andrew Delbanco in the New York Times magazine about American universities. He's usually a strong writer - stylish, polemical - but here he offers bland generalities in a tired voice.

One of many indicators of this weariness -- cliches abounding:

'...[P]ublic concern, if not yet an outcry, is on the rise.

For many parents, the cost of college casts a long shadow before and beyond the time their child actually spends in college. With financial aid lagging behind tuition at private institutions and state subsidies declining at public ones, it gets harder every year for low-income students to pay their way. Like hospitals, colleges have generally got the benefit of the doubt on the question of why they cost so much...

...It’s happening at every rung of the academic ladder. ...[A] review panel sharply criticized the senior administrators at Virginia Tech...

...College presidents, naturally, are armed with answers. ... [U]niversities and faculty members have been raking in royalties from technologies ...

...How are college students treated in this brave new academic world?

... [S]o why, especially in view of the immense explosion of knowledge requisite for a true education, shouldn’t the time allotted for college stretch too?

... But college should be a place that fosters open debate of the ethical issues posed by modern life ... They can be profoundly transformative experiences that bolster the motive — indeed, the need — to live a life of civic engagement.

... As our children go through the arduous process of choosing a college and trying to persuade that college to choose them, it will be a sign of improved social health if we can get to the point of asking not about the school’s ranking but whether it’s a place that helps students confront hard questions in an informed way.'

Note that no particular tossed off expression in itself is fatal -- it's the combination of Delbanco's lazy verbal gestures in a short piece that pretends to be charged up about civiization's highest concerns that does him in.


Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Scathing Online Schoolmarm

Background here.

'Beer Not A Civil Right

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Our reaction to Thursday night’s rally, for which over 100 students strode into Red Square to bravely raise up their voices against the terrible iniquity of stricter alcohol policies, can be summed up in three words:

Only at Georgetown. [Pretty good opening. Laying it on a bit thick, though -- drop either bravely or terrible, for instance.... Actually, let's try dropping them both and see how things go: raise up their voices against the iniquity of stricter alcohol policies... Yes - that's snappier, and the sarcasm remains intact. And you avoid the split infinitive. Only at Georgetown's great.]

Only at Georgetown, where an abnormally high thirst for political activism complements a robust college social environment, could such an event occur. There is no other school with the personalities, or the pomposity, or the sheer gall to pull off a spectacle as extravagantly preposterous as the one that took place in Red Square on Thursday. [Again, fine, but note that tightening up a bit on the adverbs and adjectives will make it even better. Only at Georgetown, where a high thirst for political activism complements a robust social environment, could such an event occur. No other school has the personalities (There is, with its prominent to be verb, is a dull way to start the sentence.), the pomposity, and the gall to pull off a spectacle as preposterous as the one that took place in Red Square on Thursday.]

We have on several occasions condemned the new alcohol policies enforced this year by the university and the Metropolitan Police Department as a misguided, unfair and exaggerated response to a problem that has never truly been pervasive on our campus. [On several occasions is a bit pompous, and you've just complained about pomposity. Drop "new," since "enforced this year" does the trick there. Drop "that has... been" and just write a problem never truly pervasive...] But there are right and wrong ways to oppose those policies.

Last fall, during consideration of a proposed keg ban in campus housing [Drop proposed.], student leaders actively lobbied the university and held a forum for students [Say campus leaders to avoid the repetition of student.] to present their concerns to administrators. Their efforts clearly paid off; the university ultimately chose not to implement a ban. [Loading up a bit on adverbs -- actively, clearly, ultimately. Drop some of this.] And most of the tactics by which students have opposed the new policies this year have also been reasonable — more than 2,000 students signed a petition against the new policies that was sent to university administrators.

As the movement against the new policies grows more and more hysterical, however, it will grow harder for anyone on campus to take it seriously. [Let this sentence stand alone; it makes the introduction of wonderful detail in the next section come out more strongly.] At the rally, organizers demanded that administrators meet their demands of [Say organizers insisted, to avoid repetition of demand.]— we’re not making these up — “amnesty” for all Category A violations related to the new policies this year, and for age-neutral party registration, a condition that would require Georgetown to blatantly disregard local alcohol laws. [Drop blatantly.] Some students want to boycott this year’s senior gift. And a recent thread on the protest group’s Facebook page seriously discusses the possibility of a sit-in.

What’s next? A hunger strike? Or better yet, maybe a “sober strike!” [Exclamation mark cutesy. Drop it.] We won’t drink until we can do it on our terms! [Exclamation mark here okay.. How about rewriting the sentence like this: Or better yet, a sober strike: "We won't drink until we can do it on our terms!"] (See how many kids sign up for that.)

Or maybe — just maybe — there are better ways to use Red Square.

A considerably smaller group of students met there earlier on Thursday. They were protesting what they considered racial injustice in the prosecution of six black students in Jena, La.

In 2005, students and faculty gathered there, lit candles and prayed for the victims of Hurricane Katrina, one of the deadliest natural disasters in American history. [Drop final clause in this sentence. Just end on Katrina.]

STAND used to hold rallies in Red Square, but they’ve been struggling lately to maintain student interest. [Drop lately.] They’re a Georgetown-founded group trying to bring an end to genocide in Darfur.

Mom and Dad held rallies, protests and sit-ins of their own. Theirs were to advocate civil rights and to oppose a war in Vietnam. If the only thing that can unify Georgetown students outside of basketball season is the desire for a more convenient game of beer pong, well then, that’s so depressing that we may decide to just quit drinking altogether. [Nice, amusing, final line. UD'd do it like this, though: Ours advocate a more convenient game of beer pong. How depressing. We might just swear off drinking altogether.]'

---the hoya, georgetown university student newspaper---


Monday, September 24, 2007

SOS Utopia:
Houston Chronicle

'LEGAL WOES BEGIN TO TARNISH UT's REPUTATION [Begin? Tarnish? The reporter needs to get out of Texas.]

There have been dark days for coach Mack Brown at Texas, but rarely have they coincided with a 4-0 start and top-10 national ranking. [Again, big ol' Texas hankies come out right away for the person who did the recruiting.]

These days, it's not the close calls against Arkansas State or Central Florida that trouble Brown. [Wasn't anyone troubled by Brown's attraction to criminals when he was forming his team?]

It's the seemingly never-ending wave of off-field legal problems that has brought more pressure than an Oklahoma pass rush the past few months. A string of arrests and suspensions has made the Longhorns a national punch line befitting an opening dialogue for Jay Leno and David Letterman.

What do you call a drug ring in Austin? A huddle.

The Longhorns have adopted a new "honor system." Yes, your honor. No, your honor.

Four UT football players are riding in a car, who's driving? The police.

Mack Brown should not have hired a new defensive coordinator this offseason. He should have hired a defense attorney.

Even the familiar Hook 'Em Horns slogan has been replaced by Book 'Em Horns from rival schools.

Texas officials are not amused.

"We need to fix it and keep it fixed," UT men's athletic director DeLoss Dodds said. "We will survive and come through this." [Tough guy.... Or Blanche Dubois? You make the call.]

Since June, six UT football players have been arrested on charges ranging from driving while intoxicated to drug possession to aggravated robbery to tampering with evidence.

Brown, in his 10th season at Texas, has acted swiftly and sternly. [Blatant damage control for local consumption. Reporter has no shame.] One player (safety Robert Joseph) has been kicked off the team and three others are suspended indefinitely pending the legal process.

"I've dealt with more in six months than I've dealt with really in about 23 years," Brown said. "Especially more than in the 10 (years) here." [Sob. Why me?]

The latest arrest came last Monday when James Henry, a freshman running back, was arrested on third-degree felony charges of beating up a victim and tampering with physical evidence in connection with a July 27 robbery allegedly involving two other football players — Joseph and defensive tackle Andre Jones. [Teamwork.]

A Hard Town and State

Henry's arrest came on the same day Brown chided coverage of the school's legal run-ins, saying "Austin is as hard on people and this state's as hard on kids as I've ever seen." [Not sure what these two sentences are trying to say.]

Brown, who led the Longhorns to a national title during the 2005 season, has taken a tough stance with a zero tolerance policy.

Sophomore linebacker Sergio Kindle and junior defensive end Henry Melton were suspended for the first three games of the season for their DWI arrests, the harshest penalties handed down by Brown since arriving in 1998.

Last season, Brown suspended starting cornerback Tarell Brown for the Longhorns' showdown with top-ranked Ohio State after he was charged with misdemeanor drug possession and unlawful gun possession. The drug charge against Brown was dropped.

Another player, running back Ramonce Taylor, was charged with possession of marijuana prior to last season and sentenced to 60 days in jail. He transferred to Texas College, where he was academically ineligible. He was not selected in April's NFL draft.

"Young people who do not obey the law, university or team rules will continue to be disciplined with a stern hand and we will move forward," Brown said. "We continue to have a zero tolerance policy in that regard." [If I were a Texas student, I'd wonder whether the best use of my athletic fee is the recruitment of criminals and then the suspension of same. How about not recruiting them?... The university's playing a high-stakes, cynical game: It knows it's recruiting bad guys, but figures maybe it can control most of them long enough to get a championship out of them. Probabilities being what they are, the university is losing this game. The rush of events reveals UT as a university that doesn't know its ass from a hole in the ground.]

The UT administration has solidly supported Brown, who received a two-year contract extension and sizable raise in late August that makes him among the nation's five highest-paid football coaches. Dodds repeatedly has praised Brown for his handling of the program, and UT president William Powers Jr. offered a show of support last week. [Guys. Guys are pretty bizarre. A coach whose mismanagement of his job has been so flagrant as to make his university a national laughingstock gets the total adoring backing of his university. UD awaits UT's announcement of his million dollar bonus.]

Coach is Devastated [Hankies now sopping wet at the thought of this fine man dragged through the mud because of the way he recruits football players.]

Those close to Brown said he has been "devastated" by the off-field problems and how it has stained the program's reputation. [When all else fails, get girly.] After the latest arrest, Brown took full responsibility and said "it's all on me."

"What I've got to do is just go back and look at me, and not point fingers, not make excuses but put it solely on my shoulders," Brown said. "I am responsible for everything we do, and I want to make sure the University of Texas is getting what they're paying for and right now I've got to do a better job."

In 20 years as coach from 1957-76, legendary UT coach Darrell Royal said he dealt with his share of problems, but nothing compared to the current Longhorns. Although it was a different era and different kids, Royal said the message remains the same.

"I eliminated some of them, just told them to move out of the dorm and their scholarship wasn't any good anymore. That makes it damn serious to the rest of them that are there," he said. "I could do things they can't do now. They'd like to, but they can't. It's against the rules." [Well, but what they can still do is refuse to recruit shits.]

What can the Longhorns do to prevent such incidents? Presently, freshmen and sophomores are required to live in on-campus dormitories. Those upperclassmen requesting to live off campus must receive permission from everyone from the coaching staff to the athletic department's academic advisers.

There are no plans to implement a curfew or centralized housing for the team, Dodds said. All but one of the arrests occurred during the summer, when the NCAA prohibits contact between the coaching staff and players. [Curfew. See how pretty your campus gets when you only care about whether someone can carry the ball?]

Where the Longhorns can avoid issues is during the recruiting process [Ah, oui. Finally shows up.], leaning heavily on Brown's close ties to the state's high school coaches. [It's their fault, not mine!] None of the 19 players for the 2008 recruiting class have backed out of their commitments, including several from the Houston area, a school official said.

Joseph, who remains in Travis County Jail facing two felonies, was charged with misdemeanor marijuana possession and evading arrests less than nine months after committing to the Longhorns in August 2005, according to the Port Arthur News. Brown had no knowledge of Joseph's previous arrest, a school spokesman said.

"Where we need to start is recruiting," Dodds said. "We are careful who we recruit to the University of Texas." [Official Orwellian Statement.]

Texas isn't alone in dealing with off-field legal problems. No fewer than seven Florida football players have been in trouble with the law since the Jan. 8 national championship victory over Ohio State. [This intends to make the paper's readers feel better. Hell, we only have six. Florida has seven!]

Oklahoma State linebacker Chris Collins, a former UT commitment, continues to play despite remaining under indictment for sexual assault of a 12-year-old girl in 2004. [See how naughty OSU is? We're not that bad.]

Nebraska suspended Maurice Purify, the team's leading receiver last season, for one game after he pleaded no contest to assault this summer.

With an influx of high school players leaving school a semester early to enroll in college, schools need to invest more in a support staff to tackle early problems arising from immaturity and being away from home for the first time, said sports psychologist Dr. John Murray. [Wheeling out the psychologist here... Another consoling move... These kids just need help adjusting... ]

Reputation at Stake

"Money should not be an issue when talking about the reputation and the success of the program," Murray said. "The administrators, alumni and power people at every particular campus across the country need to wake up, smell the coffee and get real." [More Dr. Phil poopoo.]

Despite the arrests, Brown said the problems are not indicative of his program.

"I will put our long-term record of character up against anybody," he said. [Mack's the one who needs a shrink. Pronto.]

• • •

A recap of recent arrests involving UT players.

Robert Joseph
Class/hometown:Sophomore/Port Arthur

Position:: Safety

Arrest dates: June 9 and July 29

Charges: Two charges of burglary of a vehicle (misdemeanor); aggravated robbery (first-degree felony) and tampering or fabricating physical evidence (third-degree felony).

Status: Transferred from the team (remains in Travis County Jail)

• • •

Henry Melton
Class/hometown: Junior/Grapevine

Position:: Defensive end

Arrest date: June 1

Charge: Driving while intoxicated

Status: Reinstated Sept. 17 after serving three-game suspension.

• • •

Sergio Kindle
Class/hometown: Sophomore/Dallas

Position:: Linebacker

Arrest date: July 28

Charge: Driving while intoxicated

Status: Reinstated Sept. 17 after serving three-game suspension.

• • •

Andre Jones
Class/hometown: Freshman/El Paso

Position:: Defensive tackle

Arrest date: Aug. 2

Charge: Aggravated robbery with a deadly weapon, a first-degree felony.

Status: Suspended indefinitely from team

• • •

Tyrell Gatewood
Class/hometown: Senior/Tyler

Position:: Safety

Arrest date: Sept. 12

Charges: Two misdemeanor counts for drug possession.

Status: Suspended indefinitely from team

• • •

James Henry
Class/hometown: Redshirt freshman/Schertz

Position:: Running back

Arrest date: Sept. 17

Charges: Obstruction and tampering with evidence, third-degree felonies, in connection with July 27 robbery involving Joseph and Jones.

Status: Suspended indefinitely from team'


Saturday, September 22, 2007

Sporting News:
University of Texas
Reigns in Bad Publicity


It was a rough summer for Mack Brown. [Starts, as all of these sorts of articles do, with sympathy for a coach experiencing the outcome of his own cynical recruitment strategies.]

Six of his Texas players were arrested -- the most recent on Monday -- and close wins against teams most considered big underdogs have left many wondering if his team is overrated.

Still, the No. 7 Longhorns are 3-0 heading into Saturday night's game against Rice (0-3). A comfortable win there could ease a lot of the anxiety around campus.

The talk of Texas right now is not about football. It's about a rash of felony and misdemeanor arrests, suspensions and what Brown can do to minimize the damage to the reputations of coach and school.

Fans are complaining, national sports columnists are taking pot shots and "Book'em Horns!" jokes are zipping around the Internet, leaving Brown trying to reign in a wave of bad publicity. [This is an AP story. You'd think the AP would know how to spell rein.]

"I've spent 33 years of my life coaching young people and trying to be a great role model for young people and prepare them for life after football," Brown said. "It has been very, very important in my life that we have a team with character and that they act responsibly. When someone is accused of trouble or has trouble, it's devastating to me personally." [As the criminals I recruit become more brazen, my cliches become more threadbare.]

University President William Powers went public this week with his support of Brown and the program.

"I strongly endorse the penalties he has imposed on this player and others who have been arrested for various offenses. [SOS likes "arrested for various offenses." It's a neat catch-all term.] I know Coach Brown feels accountable for the conduct of his team and that these players must be held accountable for their own behavior on and off the field," Powers said. [As the criminals we've recruited become more brazen, my cliches become more threadbare.]

Brown this week reinstated sophomore linebacker Sergio Kindle and junior defensive end Henry Melton, both suspended three games for drunken driving arrests over the summer.

"It's going to be good for us to have those guys back," linebacker Roddrick Muckelroy said.

Anything that allows Texas to concentrate on the playbook rather than the police blotter is welcome right now. Senior defensive tackle Derek Lokey said playing Rice helps the team put the arrests in the past.

"Instead of dividing the team, it's going to unite the team," Lokey said. [Win this one for the probation officer!] '

---associated press---


Saturday, September 15, 2007

Scathing Online Schoolmarm
A Hack

We have already encountered the tabloid-style writing of Susan Estrich.

Estrich assumes that hysteria and partisanship are the way to go if you want people to agree with you.

Which UD finds odd, since this is totally, radically, incorrect. Yet Estrich persists, column after column, in the sort of writing which guarantees no one beyond her close political allies will shriek along.

Since Estrich is a smart and accomplished woman, UD assumes she takes this writing approach cynically. UD assumes that Estrich assumes -- snobbily, lazily -- that people who read newspapers like to be shouted at and talked down to.

Another way to say this is that Susan Estrich thinks you're stupid.

'THE MOST CORRUPT MAN IN CALIFORNIA [National Enquirer headline.]

How do you get hired and fired from a prestigious position in the same week?

That is what happened to my friend Erwin Chemerinsky. He signed a contract to become the first dean of the new law school at the University of California, Irvine (UCI) last week. Then, days later, he was fired because the UCI chancellor decided his liberal opinions made Erwin, one of the most respected, quoted, cited and beloved constitutional law scholars in the country, "too politically controversial" for the job. [Who's the author of the "too politically controversial" quotation? Estrich doesn't make it clear.]


This column isn't about Erwin. [Um, so far it is.] In the world of law professors, everyone who knows Erwin — liberal and conservative — respects him. [It's still about him.] The outpouring of support [Cliche.] for him and the disgust at what was done to him have been overwhelming. It's about the cowardly fool who is leading his university down the tubes, the one who should be fired by the Board of Regents when it meets next week. [Cowardly fool is over the top. Estrich is preening. She means us to admire her hogwash and cowardly fool no bullshit approach. But it's over the top, so it feels like preening. Attention-getting. Tabloid stuff.]

"Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men."

So wrote Professor Lord Acton, who was the Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge University, even though he had not been allowed to attend Cambridge as a student because he was Roman Catholic. In the same year, 1877, in a famous lecture on "The History of Freedom in Antiquity," Acton defined liberty as "the assurance that every man shall be protected in doing what he believes his duty, against the influence of authority and majorities, custom and opinion." [In classical music, they call them warhorses. In writing, the absolute power quotation is the equivalent of forty warhorses. It's an insult to your reader to drag this dead, pretentious, much-satirized statement out as if you're sharing some shiny wisdom-gem. And "So wrote"! She's simply convinced you're a fool, someone not worth any real thinking on her part ... And what's the relevance of the shit about Acton being a Catholic, etc? That supremo law prof/tv pundit Chemerinsky is a similar sort of martyr?]

By Lord Acton's standard, Dr. Michael Drake, Chancellor of the University of California at Irvine, is the most corrupt man in California. [An absurd statement. Same sort of crap hacks like Bill O'Reilly say.] His job is, or should be, to protect the "liberty" of both students and faculty, the academic freedom that is the cornerstone of great universities [Cliche.].

But Dr. Drake has a twisted view of academic freedom, one that allows Muslim students to engage in open anti-Semitism, to hold rallies on campus attacking Zionist control of the media, equating Jewish support for Israel with Hitler's Nazis, even (according to campus Republicans) displacing previously scheduled Young Republicans meetings with rallies denouncing Israel's right to exist. But there's no room for a liberal, Jewish law professor who is routinely the object of bidding wars between top-rated law schools vying for his services. [Since she has made no effort to introduce the relevance of this paragraph, its connection to the Chemerinsky/Drake situation is unclear. It comes across as more steam-blowing.]

Last February, Hillel of Orange County formed a task force to investigate what it viewed as a troubling number of anti-Semitic speeches and incidents on the UCI campus, including complaints by Jewish students that they were being followed and harassed by their Muslim classmates. That was before UCI's Intifada week this past spring, which included speakers supporting the terrorist group Hamas and a speech entitled "Zio-Nazis." That was before the infamous Ward Churchill, defender of the 9/11 attacks, was invited to speak on campus. [Yeah, hey, why don't I throw Churchill in too... I mean, what's she on about? Chemerinsky is Jewish... Is Estrich hinting that Drake's decision was another instance of what she believes to be his anti-Semitism?]

This past June, at a meeting attended by hundreds of concerned members of the Jewish community in Irvine, Dr. Drake told one parent, whose children don't want to attend UC Irvine because of the virulent expressions of hatred, not to worry because these incidents "are not every other day. It's a couple times a year." Asked why he didn't exercise his own right to free speech to "speak directly to statements made on campus" (as former Harvard President Lawrence Summers did when he opposed calls for divestment from Israel by terming such actions "anti-Semitic in their effect, if not their intent"), Dr. Drake ducked. [Does she mean this to be funny? Drake - duck? It's not clear.] "We have 1,000 guest speakers on campus every year. Could I evaluate them and say this one is anti-Semitic? I could not. What I could say is that as a person and a campus, we abhor hate speech, period."

On the other hand, we have no room for a liberal law professor — whose views were well known before he was hired, who is squarely in the mainstream of modern constitutional thought — because we're afraid to take the heat that may be coming from some of Drake's biggest donors. [On the other hand...? What the hell's she talking about? There's no discernable logic.] While Drake told Erwin it was the Regents he was worried about, that was an out-and-out lie. He later admitted he didn't consult a one of them, and instead pointed to an op-ed Erwin wrote back in mid-August about death penalty procedure — even though he signed a contract with Chemerinsky three weeks after the op-ed was published.

No, this was Drake's call, and it will doom his law school, if it doesn't doom him first.'

SOS summarizes:

A hack rushes into print, with bad results.


Friday, September 14, 2007

Scathing Online Schoolmarm

No one but pissy SOS would subject so excellent a gesture as the following letter to style-scrutiny.

But hell. What else am I supposed to do with myself? Watch four-hundred pound defensive ends obliterate each other?

As the LA Times, which ran it, explains: "Posted on a website for UC Irvine students, faculty and staff, this letter was signed online by 160 people in four hours."

'Chancellor Drake:

We find deeply disturbing [Drop deeply.] the many [Drop many.] reports now circulating regarding the hiring and "firing" [Dump the quotation marks. He was fired. Say fired.] of Erwin Chemerinsky as the founding Dean of the UC Irvine Law School because he is too "politically controversial," and not least regarding [Two is too many regardings, especially since this comes from lawyer-types. You don't want this to sound like a brief.] your role in this unfortunate debacle [Okay, kids. Why is unfortunate debacle a prose debacle? Datz right. Because debacle is a very very extreme word designating a really really bad thing. Unfortunate - recall its amusing ironic use in those children's books about the unfortunate Baudelaire family - is a very moderate word. No debacle is ever unfortunate. Debacles are horrible, hideous, tragic...] We are disturbed because of the deep violation [Drop deep. Note how the very upset letter writer thinks to convey her upset by shoving intensifying adjectives everywhere. Don't do this. It has the opposite effect. It dilutes.] both of the integrity of the university and of the intrusion of outrageously one-sided politics and unacceptable [By now you get the idea. Outrageously and unacceptable have to go. You want to keep your temper, and you want your prose to be strong and direct.] ideological considerations into a hiring process that should be driven by academic excellence, administrative expertise, leadership capacity, and personal integrity. By your own admission, Professor Chemerinsky exhibits all of these qualities in very considerable measure, which is why you sought to hire him in the first instance. Thus to withdraw the offer even after it has been formally accepted confirms that it is for reasons that should play no role whatsoever in the process, as even self-professed conservative deans of law schools have been quick to point out.

We are deeply concerned [Drop deeply. Note that it is our third use of the word in two paragraphs.] because this action places UC Irvine once more in the spotlight for the most negative and debilitating of reasons. One commentator has ridiculed your action as rank amateurism, and we cannot help but agree. It makes attracting to UC Irvine administrators, faculty, and students of the highest quality so much more difficult, and will all but torpedo the appointment of a Dean of the new Law School of Chemerinsky's quality.

But perhaps above all we are deeply [Yikes.] concerned that, if the reports are true, as our institutional and intellectual leader, and as our representative, you have failed to defend the integrity of the university, its recruitment process, and the sanctity of academic freedom you have given voice to supporting in the past. We have no idea what pressure you came under from those promising to support the university financially or politically, but we have heard nothing of your public undertaking to stand up for the intellectual independence of the university, its hiring processes which weren't allowed as a consequence to run their course, of academic integrity and of the principle of reasonable independence. It is this that disturbs us most deeply. [Deeply... See how, at this point, winding up on this sentence tends to have little impact?]

We urge you in the strongest terms to reconsider your position, and to reverse your decision thus to reinstate the process for Professor Chemerinsky's appointment. Anything less is an attack on the integrity, reputation, and morale of faculty, staff, and students alike at the University of California, Irvine.


Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Borderline Depressed Writing

UD now predicts that President Glenn Poshard of Southern Illinois University, who has led by negative example, and whose plagiarism case is only the latest among recent fallen SIU leaders, will resign.

There are reasons the world envies America's public and private universities. The crucial reason is one of legitimacy: To an amazing degree, by global standards, we maintain a reality-based higher education establishment, in which the quality and substance of scholarship and teaching undergoes authentic and frequent scrutiny.

This scrutiny is both external, in the form of things like the US News and World Report rankings and Rate My Professors, and internal, as in tenure review. Some of it's sort of internal/external, as in our remarkably free market of professors, a market whose operations make administrators aware of their best faculty, since they're the ones who can move somewhere else.

Even in advanced European countries, and certainly in many other countries, as UD has chronicled at length on this blog, nepotism, abuse of power, meager admissions standards, illegitimate procedures in faculty hiring and retention, laziness or corruption in research activity, extensive government control, and restrictions on free speech are common. The core problem in many of these countries is the politicization of higher education, its primary use as a patronage machine, or as a place to stash unemployed young people for awhile.

Many weak American universities look a bit like European universities. They're run by people like Poshard, political hacks without intellectuality -- without, really, a grasp of what a university is.

UD understands why public systems in particular would find the prospect of political machers running them attractive. These people are powerful, well-connected, can make things happen in the legislature, etc. But without personal academic legitimacy, and without an understanding of the ethos of the university, such presidents and chancellors represent a real risk. Frank Brogan of Florida Atlantic University has a resume similar to Poshard's -- a life in politics, degrees in education (Brogan only went as far as a Master's) -- and he demonstrates, in the way he runs the school, the same embarrassing unawareness of the nature of a university.

Observers of American higher education warn that the model of the intellectual president who can also run things (George Washington University's new leader, Steven Knapp, looks to be one of these) is being displaced by the CEO-type for whom the mega-university is a profit-driven business. But we have just as much to fear from hacks who don't know what they're doing. Poshard still doesn't know that he plagiarized. In his world, you eke out an ed degree because you need the credential, and everyone knows the work in it is shabby but no one cares. That's why he was able to say, when asked, that his committee didn't care whether he cited stuff, so why should he?

When you can't defend a person intellectually, there's always a temptation to go the emotional route. This is almost always a mistake. SOS says lookee here:

To the Editor
: In regards to the recent stories concerning Glenn Poshard, I feel [In regards is a clunky formulation, best avoided; and SOS has already warned you off the emotive, girly I feel thing.] this is nothing more than the efforts of disgruntled individuals, Alumni and Faculty Against Corruption, who by remaining anonymous, give little credence to their allegations and in fact are cowardly. [Awkward word order, and ad hominem: disgruntled, cowardly...] This perpetuates the efforts of some to keep this university from moving forward. [The claim here is simply wrong. SIU was not moving forward as a university before this latest disgrace; and if it is going to move forward, it'll do so by finding a better president.]

We would be hard pressed to find anyone who cares more about SIUC or has done more than Glenn Poshard. [The writer needed to cite one or two achievements here. As to Poshard's caring, this is the emotive rather than substantive problem again. You can care a lot about something and destroy it anyway.] He is certainly not without his warts but to nit-pick improper or missing citations in a dissertation written 23 years ago, and approved by faculty, is petty and mean spirited. [Image of a nit-picker picking a wart not pretty... We're talking about vast uncited stretches of prose; doesn't matter how long ago it happened; faculty approval only deepens the scandal.]

I am tired [I feel... I am tired... Trust me: No one cares.] of this divisive, constantly attacking culture we seem to have fallen into. [Breaking out into vast cultural generalization is a real mistake here. Along with the hankie-shredding, it makes the reader suspect that you don't really have a substantive case and are trying to distract her attention from this by going cosmic.] Whether its [Apostrophe missing.] national politics or local gossip we have become so focused on the politics of destruction [Thunderous cliche.] versus getting something done it's no wonder people walk around in a borderline depression. [Hey baby, I'm fine. I don't walk around depressed. And my position on the Poshard question will have little to do with what outcome will cheer you up.] My best recommendation is to tackle the real issues and move on. This issue does not deserve the ink or time it's generating.


Monday, September 10, 2007

Scathing Online Schoolmarm

A news article from a Tuscaloosa Alabama newspaper:

'In the beginning, Ed McMinn knew that at the University of Alabama, football was like religion.

And that prayer factors in quite heavily.

“There may be quite a bit of prayer that goes on, especially when Alabama is facing fourth down in the last minutes of the ball game,” McMinn said.

So he decided to combine the “two things that many people are passionate about — college sports and their faith” — to write the book God Bless the Crimson Tide: Devotions for the Die-hard Alabama Fan.

A collection of 90 stories from sports played at the University of Alabama, the book includes a Bible verse for each of the stories.

The end of the book concludes with a “replay” of the major points of each devotion.

“God is extremely persistent,” McMinn said, recounting how he had the idea for the book for a while before he got around to writing it.

McMinn, who spent most of his life in the newspaper business as a reporter and editor, taught journalism in college before becoming a minister at a non-denominational church in Terry, Ga.

He entered seminary when he was 52 years old.

Now he has gone from Methodist minister to non-denominational minister and book author.

“I guess I can claim that the book was divine inspiration,” McMinn said. “I was raised in the south. I grew up in Georgia, and I’ve always been a sports fan, especially of college football.”

A secret? He’s really a University of Georgia alumnus and fan, but the publishers wanted him to focus on Alabama and Tennessee first. (McMinn also wrote God Bless the Vols.)

McMinn said he would first find stories of faith, success, loving others and other inspirational topics about Alabama sports teams and coaches, then go look for scripture that complimented those stories. [The writer means complemented.]

“Football in this part of the country is a big thing. But other sports are in there,” McMinn pointed out. “You cannot do a book about Alabama sports without doing gymnastics. “

And from gymnastics to volleyball, figures and teams from the pages of Alabama sports history come to life, filled with passion and faith. [Cliches.] Bear Bryant is, of course, included, as well as Gene Stallings and Sarah Patterson, as well as other, lesser-known names.

“It comes at a good time for Alabama,” McMinn said of the book, and the hopes and prayers of Alabama fans for a good season. “The Alabama folks are really excited with the hiring of (head football coach) Nick Saban.”

Gary Cramer, director of the Fellowship of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes for UA [How's that again?], said that one of his favorite quotes from the book was from Senator Jeremiah Denton, who at one time said, “We believe that on the eighth day the Lord created the Crimson Tide.”

“That’s not necessarily a theologically correct statement, but true to the heart of the Crimson Tide fan,” Cramer said. “The book is just a real relative way of tying in scripture to some of the great stories of Alabama [UD doesn't get what the speaker means by calling it a real relative way.], and some of the truths that have occurred over the years. It was very entertaining to read as he ties it into scripture and encourages people on their daily walk.”

The book, which was published by Howard Books, the Christian book arm of Simon and Schuster, was not initially about the University of Alabama. [To be verbs and redundancy are making the writer's walk a little labored here. Possible rewrite: Published by Howard Books, Simon and Schuster's Christian imprint, God Bless the Crimson Tide was not at first about Alabama.] He initially [redundant] wrote about — brace yourself if you’re a Tide fan — Auburn, before he pitched the book idea to publishers. [Four uses of the word "book" in two sentences.]

But the Auburn University library was the closest college library to Terry, Ga., where McMinn lives, he noted in his defense. He was able to go there to de [typo] research on his off time.

McMinn said he hopes the book serves as a way to connect with people who might not otherwise read devotionals, as well as those who already practice faith.

“For too long there’s been a disconnect,” McMinn said.

“You go to church on Sunday, you practice your faith on Sunday and forget about it the rest of the week. Of course that’s not the way it should be. This was a way to connect people.”

More SEC schools are on McMinn’s list to write about next, but for now, he hopes Alabama fans enjoy the book.

“It is my prayer that it reaches many audiences,” he said.'

Amen. [Editorial comment doesn't belong in a news story.]


Sunday, September 09, 2007

Scathing Online Schoolmarm Says...

... satire is extremely difficult to write.

Barbara Ehrenreich, in The Nation, finds a perfectly satirizable subject - overpriced college educations - and manages to fall flat with it. Why? Because satire shouldn't be about your anger and sense of futility. When your peevishness dominates, the thing's undercooked. Satire is done to perfection only when you've removed your aggravation.

Ehrenreich needed to let this piece sit overnight. Then she needed to go back to it and make it amusing rather than sneering. Take a gander. (And if you know UD, you know she's fine with Ehrenreich's dig at George Washington University. UD's problem with the piece is style, not content.)

Here, by way of contrast, are two successful examples of satires which, like hers, adopt a persona.


Monday, September 03, 2007

SOS Takes Her Hat Off... this master of the craft of cliche. Don't ask how he does it. You're either born with this or you're not.

'As the season plays out, time will tell if Michigan's stunning loss to Appalachian State was a defining moment or merely a hiccup....

...When it happens so obviously right smack dab in front of 109,218 pairs of eyes and a couple dozen more on the Big Ten Network, against Appalachian State, that's a different story.

...The previous high-water mark for I-AA teams was win by The Citadel over Arkansas in 1992. Hogs' coach Jack Crowe was fired on the spot.

Some distressed UM loyalists think Carr merits the same fate.

...But Carr has enjoyed considerable success and has earned the right to go out on his terms at his time. He will never live down the loss to Appalachian State, but he deserves the opportunity to steer his team out from under it.

...Gregg Brandon: It's easy to play by the book. You score in overtime, trail by one, kick the extra point and proceed to another overtime period.

It was sheer genius, and called for a heavy dose of guts, for Bowling Green to go for a two-point conversion and the win in the first OT at Minnesota on Saturday night. It was genius because it worked, but the right call even had it not.

Brandon knew his Falcons were reeling. Minnesota scored 24 unanswered points and BG had just 125 total yards in the second half before driving 63 yards for a game-tying field goal in the waning seconds of regulation. The Gophers scored effortlessly to begin overtime. BG's defense was dog tired and on its heels and Brandon knew it.

So he put the ball in the hands of his best player - quarterback Tyler Sheehan was an astounding 34-of-51 for 388 yards in his first college start - and rolled the dice. Nice call.

...Notre Dame had 121 yards of total offense and three turnovers in a 33-3 loss to visiting Georgia Tech. Weis had a quarterback controversy even before that game; now, he has a dire mess heading to Penn State. He'll no doubt sink or swim with Jimmy Clausen, who has the best arm, from here out.'

---toledo blade---


Sunday, September 02, 2007

Scathing Online Schoolmarm

Two locals respond in the newspaper to the Poshard plagiarism controversy at Southern Illinois University.

I write this letter as a taxpayer! [A taxpayer who uses exclamation marks!]

As a taxpayer [I said it again!], I am outraged [Bursting with pride and outrage!] by this self-anointed, holier than thou [Proud, proud cliches!] group calling themselves the Alumni and Faculty against Corruption at SIU. I am outraged [Dear Letter-Writer: SOS finds your ability to experience intense emotion over and over again exciting! She is panting!] they are trying to destroy a good man [John Wayne talk.] but don't have the guts [JW again.] to identify themselves. In my opinion [Dear L.W.: You can't start out fully extended and then all of a sudden shrink into in my opinion. Gotta keep it up. Try Here's the deal or Wake up suckers BEFORE IT'S TOO LATE!!], they are cowards of the worst kind. I challenge these cowards to publicly identify themselves! [You yellow bastards! Come back here and take what's coming to you!] I challenge each one to turn over every dissertation, thesis or other academic paper they have written in the last 30 years for review. I have found over the years that people who hide their identities may be hiding something dishonest, unethical or even illegal in their past. [Ooh, now you're scaring me.]

Read my lips, you cowards! I pay your salary to teach [That taxpayer thing again.], not to spend your time searching a 23-year-old dissertation, which was approved by a review committee 23 years ago, looking for quotation marks to destroy the reputation of a good man. Is it possible you hide because you may have used taxpayer resources illegally in your witch hunt? [Read my lips... witch hunt... This man does not mince words!]

If these gutless geniuses refuse to publicly identify themselves, then I would urge the SIU Board of Trustees to find out who they are and whether they might have acted unethically or even illegally. I, and every other Southern Illinois taxpayer, have a right to this information.

Finally, Alumni and Faculty against Corruption at SIU, look in the mirror and you might find the real corruption staring back at you.

Charles R. Garnati, Carterville


Enough is enough

To the Editor:

Once again SIU is embroiled in controversy [Cliche, but let it go.]. This time over a 24-year-old Ph.D. dissertation by SIU President Glenn Poshard. The paper contains unattributed passages. The critics have a point: plagiarism is inimical to the academic enterprise. [Good - acknowledges some legitimacy on the other side.] But, in the annals of plagiarism, this appears to be small beer [The figurative language is making things a bit weird... annals... small beer...]. His academic committee, using information that was [Drop that was.] available to them at the time, granted the Ph.D. Poshard then went on to a brilliant career as a state Senator, a U.S. Congressman and a candidate for governor of Illinois. He then turned back to academia and rose to president of SIU. Arguably, he is one of the most illustrious graduates of SIUC in its history. [Yes, this is arguable. Also sad.]

I think we need to keep this in mind as we reflect on the continued turmoil at this university. From Jo Ann Argersinger's dismissal to Walter Wendler's firing to the hoax in the DE over a fictitious Iraq veteran, the university's name and reputation has taken a brutal beating.

The university community is in danger of devouring itself in these endless controversies. Meanwhile, its core mission of educating deserving students from the middle class in a world-class research environment is threatened.

It's time to move on and press for the things that will make SIUC the best university that it is [Drop that it is.] possible to have in this day and age [Thundering cliche.]. Let's argue about better classrooms and maintenance, better salaries for staff and faculty, better neighborhoods and a safer city. Let's support the students as they struggle through debt and the state's indifference to higher education.

And let's support Poshard. He's earned it. [Letter #1 came on too strong; this one comes on too weak. Cliches, unnecessary words, and insufficient confidence in the tone make the whole thing small beer. It moves unsteadily from unpersuasive assertion -- Poshard's brilliance -- to vague generalities about the purpose of a university. The writer, most damagingly, fails to see the connection between the state's indifference to its universities and a tradition of political hacks like Poshard running them. ]

D. Gorton, Carbondale

SOS summarizes: Complete lack of substance in both letters.


Friday, August 31, 2007

SOS Agrees, Of Course...

...but thinks this opinion piece about professor/student affairs might be punched up, prosewise.

I think [Drop I think] academia honors bans against professor-student relationships more in theory than in practice, because if professors and students couldn’t hook up, the professorate [sic] would go extinct.

Now, I think we can almost all agree that dating a student while he or she is in your class is inappropriate – but what about students not in your class, but with whom you might have to otherwise professionally interact? [Clotted up with various style problems. Overuse of to be verbs; too many weasel words, as in another use of I think; an awkward split infinitive in to otherwise professionally interact.] When I think [Another I think.]of all the seemingly [Drop seemingly.] happily married couples that I know who started out as faculty advisor and graduate student advisee, the line starts to blur.

Look at it this way: most academics’ social universes could be bound in a nutshell and within that nutshell, many of the individuals are already married. So, if you’re still single upon entering academia, you really feel the pinch. And, then you put professors with students who have common interests. For example, as shocking as it might sound, both political science professors and political science majors tend to be very interested in politics. The rules seek to discourage any attractions that develop. It’s like academia is a dating agency in the ironic punishments division of Hell. [In principle, this is amusing and charming. But his heavy-handed writing style, his tendency to gum things up with too many words and phrases, keeps the lightness from appearing.]


Monday, August 27, 2007


'Blogs: All the Noise that Fits

The hard-line opinions on weblogs are no substitute
for the patient fact-finding of reporters.

By Michael Skube
August 19, 2007

The late Christopher Lasch [Great so far. UD, who knew Lasch a little when she taught at the University of Rochester, and who, long before she met him, admired his work, always welcomes his name.] once wrote that public affairs generally and journalism in particular suffered not from too little information but from entirely too much. What was needed, he argued, was robust debate. Lasch, a historian by training but a cultural critic by inclination, was writing in 1990, when the Internet was not yet a part of everyday life and bloggers did not exist.

Bloggers now are everywhere among us, and no one asks if we don't need more full-throated advocacy on the Internet. [No one and then don't are awkward together here.] The blogosphere is the loudest corner of the Internet, noisy with disputation, manifesto-like postings and an unbecoming hatred of enemies real and imagined.

And to think most bloggers are doing all this on the side. "No man but a blockhead," the stubbornly sensible Samuel Johnson said [Stubbornly sensible is hokey.], "ever wrote but for money." Yet here are people, whole brigades of them, happy to write for free. [What we now know of how this piece was written makes the cynicism of this view of writing all the greater, pointing it directly at Skube, who in exchange for money let editors seriously fuck with his prose.] And not just write. Many of the most active bloggers -- Andrew Sullivan, Matthew Yglesias, Joshua Micah Marshall and the contributors to the Huffington Post -- are insistent partisans in political debate. Some reject the label "journalist," associating it with what they contemptuously call MSM (mainstream media); just as many, if not more, consider themselves a new kind of "citizen journalist" dedicated to broader democratization.

Markos Moulitsas Zuniga, whose popular blog Daily Kos has been a force among antiwar activists, cautioned bloggers last week "to avoid the right-wing acronym MSM." It implied, after all, that bloggers were on the fringe. To the contrary, he wrote, "we are representatives of the mainstream, and the country is embracing what we're selling."

Moulitsas foresees bloggers becoming the watchdogs that watch the watchdog: "We need to keep the media honest, but as an institution, it's important that they exist and do their job well." The tone is telling: breezy, confident, self-congratulatory. Subtly, it implies bloggers have all the liberties of a traditional journalist but few of the obligations. [So subtly that UD fails to see anything like this in the Moulitsas statement.]

There is at least some reason for activists like Moulitsas to see themselves as the new wave. Last year, the California 6th District Court of Appeal gave bloggers the legal victory they wanted when it ruled that they were protected under the state's reporter shield law. Other, more symbolic victories have come their way too. In 2004, bloggers were awarded press credentials to the Democratic National Convention. And earlier this month in Chicago, at a convention sponsored by Daily Kos, a procession of Democratic presidential hopefuls offered full salutes, knowing that bloggers are busy little bees in organizing political support and fundraising. [Busy little bees = They're so gay.]

And yet none of this makes them journalists, even in the sense Lasch seemed to be advocating.

"What democracy requires," Lasch wrote in "The Lost Art of Argument," "is vigorous public debate, not information. Of course, it needs information too, but the kind of information it needs can only be generated by debate. We do not know what we need until we ask the right questions, and we can identify the right questions only by subjecting our own ideas about the world to the test of public controversy."

There was something appealing about this argument -- one that no blogger would reject -- when Lasch advanced it almost two decades ago. But now we have the opportunity to witness it in practice, thanks to the blogosphere, and the results are less than satisfying. One gets the uneasy sense [less than satisfying... one gets the uneasy sense... These vaguely British locutions, coupled with the Samuel Johnson mention, tell you that Skube wants his style to be what he considers non-bloggy -- profound, weighty with gravitas, for the ages. But he's writing for the LA Times.] that the blogosphere is a potpourri of opinion and little more. The opinions are occasionally informed, often tiresomely cranky and never in doubt. Skepticism, restraint, a willingness to suspect [Er, suspend?] judgment and to put oneself in the background -- these would not seem to be a blogger's trademarks.

But they are, more often than not, trademarks of the kind of journalism that makes a difference. And if there is anything bloggers want more than an audience, it's knowing they are making a difference in politics. They are, to give them their due, changing what is euphemistically called the national "conversation." But what is the nature of that change? Does it deepen our understanding? Does it broaden our perspective? [Old Grandad prose again. And again, the problem is that people who want to deepen and broaden understanding don't write op/eds for the LA Times.]

It's hard to answer yes to such questions, if only because they presuppose a curiosity and inquiry for which raw opinion is ill-suited. Sometimes argument -- a word that elevates blogosphere comment to a level it seldom attains on its own -- gains from old-fashioned gumshoe reporting. Compelling examples abound. On the same day I read of the Daily Kos convention in Chicago, I finished "The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle and the Awakening of a Nation," winner this year of the Pulitzer Prize for history. No one looms larger in the book by Gene Roberts Jr. and Hank Klibanoff than Claude Sitton, whose reporting in the New York Times in the 1960s would become legendary. [Cliches abounding.]

Full disclosure: I once worked for Sitton at the News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C., after he had left the Times, and I knew that he and others, including Karl Fleming, had put themselves in harm's way simply to report a story. I naively asked Sitton once if he had encountered veiled threats. "Veiled?" he asked. "They were more than veiled."

He recounted the time in Philadelphia, Miss., when "a few rednecks -- drunk, shotguns in the back of their truck -- showed up at the Holiday Inn where Fleming and I were staying." The locals invited the big-city reporters -- Sitton from the Times, Fleming from Newsweek -- to come out and see the farm. "I told 'em, 'Look, you shoot us and there'll be a dozen more just like us in the morning. You going to shoot them too?' " [John Wayne bullshit.]

When I knew him, Sitton seldom mentioned those dangers of 20 years earlier. What mattered was the story, and the people swept up in it. But it was his vivid, detailed reporting that, as Roberts and Klibanoff write, caught the attention of the Kennedy White House and brought the federal government to intervene in a still-segregated South.

In our time, the Washington Post's reporting, in late 2005, of the CIA's secret overseas prisons and its painstaking reports this year on problems at Walter Reed Army Medical Center -- both of which won Pulitzer Prizes -- were not exercises in armchair commentary. The disgrace at Walter Reed, true enough, was first mentioned in a blog, but the full scope of that story could not have been undertaken by a blogger or, for that matter, an Op-Ed columnist, whose interest is in expressing an opinion quickly and pungently. Such a story demanded time, thorough fact-checking and verification and, most of all, perseverance. It's not something one does as a hobby. [Gotta get paid, baby.]

The more important the story, the more incidental our opinions become. Something larger is needed: the patient sifting of fact, the acknowledgment that assertion is not evidence and, as the best writers understand, the depiction of real life. Reasoned argument, as well as top-of-the-head comment on the blogosphere, will follow soon enough, and it should. But what lodges in the memory, and sometimes knifes us in the heart, is the fidelity with which a writer observes and tells. The word has lost its luster, but we once called that reporting.'

[SOS summarizes: A pisher trying to sound like a grownup.]


Saturday, August 25, 2007

Scathing Online Schoolmarm:
The Movement to Make Football
an Academic Discipline Grows

Over at UD's branch campus, we've already considered one argument in favor of making football a university major (the post's title is The Oregon Trial). Here's another, from Massa Saban's plantation:

'Not All College Education is In the Classroom

There is at least one aspect of this Hoover High School investigation that does not seem in doubt: At least one grade was changed, and that grade change enabled a football player to become eligible to play at the college level.

Josh Chapman apparently missed being eligible under NCAA minimum standards by the narrowest of margins.

Unfortunately for Chapman and Alabama, being "barely" ineligible is kind of like being pregnant: Either you are or you aren't. And Chapman, according to the correct transcript, wasn't.

That's the problem with having standards. [There's a refreshing village-idiot quality to this piece... That's the problem with having standards...] The NCAA has a minimum standard that is supposed to draw the line that determines whether an athlete has a reasonable chance to do the work necessary to get a college degree.

But like most such standards, the numbers are arbitrary. [Everything's subjective.] I've known athletes who graduated near the top of their high school class who struggled in college, and others who were accepted as "special admissions" - in the days when schools could take one or two athletes who didn't meet minimum standards - who wound up becoming outstanding students. It often depends on what they go to college for. [Each case is special. Everything's arbitrary. You wouldn't want to consult graduation statistics, grades, test scores, and shit like that.]

I do not know Chapman, so I can't speak to his motivation for attending college. [His total fuckupery as a high school student tells you nothing.] But I have met many athletes whose primary interest in attending college was to get an education not in the classroom but in football or basketball. These athletes' ambition was to play sports at the highest level for as long as possible. [So why did they go to college, where they have, like, classrooms?]

Is that really so wrong? No less than Princeton Athletics Director Gary Walters made the argument last spring that participation in athletics should be given the same status as playing in the band, or performing drama, or getting a degree in art - all endeavors in which students can take classes and get academic credit. Shouldn't football players, Walters seems to suggest, get some kind of academic credit for playing football? [You haven't yet told us why playing football is equivalent to academic training in the arts. And nobody gets a degree for playing in the band.]

Walters quoted Jon Veach, a starting tailback on the Princeton football team who wrote a paper that said: "The reason athletes put so much time and dedication into athletics is because the athletes do not view varsity athletics as simply an extracurricular activity but rather a vital part of their life and an intense learning experience. I have been an athlete since I was eight years old, and I can honestly say that the summation of my athletic experiences to this point has prepared me for the hard times of my life better than any other experience. Varsity athletics are imbedded with an abundant number of life lessons, values, and striking comparisons to the real world. I believe so strongly in these values that I feel varsity athletes should be given some type of academic credit for the countless hours of training and learning." [To be sure, a cursory reading of this blog -- or your daily news feed -- reveals the profound values college and professional sports imbed in so many of their participants. Glance at a few headlines to grasp the life lessons our sports heroes have absorbed... UD proposes that rather than make football an arts performance major, we make it an Ethics major.]

Of course, playing at Princeton is a far cry from playing at Auburn or Alabama. And the potential for abuse in rewarding academic credit for athletics - or even the idea of creating majors based on athletic participation - gives academicians the willies. [What's the matter with these dour academicians? Don't worry! Be happy!]

But if playing football is why some kids go to college, and the ability to play football is the primary reason many colleges award scholarships (and accept minimum academic standards in return), then is Walters' idea really so far off base?' [Again, refreshing. Admits that some football players only go to college to play football. The solution to this isn't to change college into a football training facility. It is to find a place to stash these guys -- far, far away from colleges -- until they can play on professional teams.]


Thursday, August 23, 2007

Having Heard from the Blancheites...

...of college athletics (see below), let's listen to the real stuff, the authentic voice, the one true thing. SOS likes this writing very much.

When Football Players Go Bad

By Lyndon Collins

'A while back I sold a restored car and got a check for $5,241. It was the most money I’d ever had. For a poor kid like me, who considers a bowl of rainbow sorbet and rented porn a delicacy, $5,241 may as well have been seven ka-billion dollars. [We've got a charmer on our hands. Rented porn a delicacy alone is worth the price of admission.]

There were limitless possibilities for this seemingly endless supply of money. [I'd drop seemingly.] The spending spree I went on was monumental. I lost my fucking mind. I wasted money on everything from a $150 ping-pong paddle (seriously), [Drop seriously.] to $30 hair gel from one of those fancy-pants hair salons. My hair has never had so much body, so much life. It glowed. One time, I even bought shots for a girl and seven of her friends if she showed me her boobs, when I could have gotten the same action at a strip club for a buck (which I did later that night anyway)...I digress. [Drop I digress.]

Of all the ridiculously stupid things I did with my money, [Drop ridiculously.] one thing I didn’t do was sponsor a dog-fighting ring out of my house. This makes me exponentially smarter than Mike Vick  —  who apparently has the intelligence of your average pube hair. [Fine, this is juvenile. He's allowed one or two of these.]

Being the all-knowing, ever-seeing, devilishly good-looking, cocky fucker [The writer puts bashful little stars over the u's in all of his uses of the word fuck. UD's removed them.] that I am, it’s hard for me to criticize someone for being arrogant, but Mike Vick makes me look like the Dali Lama.

Athletes are a different breed of people. By their very nature they are a confident, sometimes cocky, bunch  —  they have to be. Performing in front of thousands, sometimes millions, of spectators takes a certain kind of confidence that most people just don’t have. And while that confidence is great for throwing touchdowns, it can also be a recipe for disaster and embarrassment. [He's young. He's already a very good writer. He'll learn to excise all the to be verbs that are gumming this up.]

Mike Vick had three things that never mix well: amazing talent, a shit-ton of money, and glowing arrogance. [Shit-ton's fun.] This combination is getting Vick a free 18-month vacation to prison. But Vick isn’t alone in his dangerously obvious arrogance.

I love college football. Moreover, I love Ohio State football. If it weren’t for college football I would kill myself every autumn. [There's a pleasant absurdity to the seasonal suicide idea.] The first fallen leaf is a reminder of the frozen drudgery that looms in the coming months. [Drop in the coming months.] But the prospect of drunken Saturdays and screaming ‘til I can’t speak keeps the razor blade from ever piercing a vein. [Lovely.] And while I love Ohio State football, some of their players REALLY worry me.

I would never be so silly as to pretend to know all 100 (or whatever) players on the football team, but I’ve had my share of run-ins. I’m sure that most of them are fine student-athletes who do very little to tarnish the reputation of themselves or the University, but every once in a while a player shows Clarett-like qualities that scare the shit out of me. [Clarett-like qualities. It's poetic.]

I once had a class with an unnamed-but-easily-recognizable football player. He was hard to miss. Before each class he stood out in front of the building laughing obnoxiously, cursing loudly, and grabbing his crotch with a bothersome frequency. [Drop the adverbs -- obnoxiously, loudly. I love the jarring formality of bothersome frequency. It's clever to play with your tone a bit.]

As if annoying the entire campus outside of the building wasn’t enough, he usually spent most of the class talking with his buddies and disrupting the whole class. [Don't repeat class.]

One time the professor actually had to stop class to ask him and his friends to be quiet. The class was in Hitchcock. The player was sitting in the balcony...he was being that loud. [Drop being.]

This guy never brought as much as a pencil to class. I never missed a class, took every note, studied my ass off and still only got a C. It could be that I’m just really, really dumb (and I am)...but then again, I didn’t spend my whole life getting pounded in the head by 300-pound linemen. [Drop (and I am).] Apparently the little brown-haired jock-sniffer that followed him around campus took really good notes for him. I’m sure he [pronoun reference?] didn’t have a problem passing the course. Am I just jealous? Yes, yes I am.

People like our unnamed football player and Mike Vick annoy the shit out of me. They think that their athletic ability and money puts them above the standard.

I know what you’re thinking...”Money?!?! How does a college football player have so much money?” Hell if I know. But you don’t have to be an NCAA investigator to drive by the Woody Hayes Athletic center during football practice. The parking lot looks like a Cadillac dealership. And I won’t even go into the platinum chains and diamond earrings that decorate some of our more eccentric players.

I can’t stress enough that I’m sure that a vast majority of the players for our fine football program are upstanding models of academia. [Redundancy here okay because he means to lay it on thick.] But it only takes one arrogant and talented asshole to bring a story like Mike Vick’s to our own campus.

An important part of life is knowing what you have to lose. A loser like me can drink, smoke, curse in public, and spend my hard-earned money on hookers, [See how nicely he returns to his first paragraph? Good instincts.] and no one would ever care. But when you truly have something to lose and everyone is watching, maybe you ought to act like you have some fucking sense.'


Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Saint Tublitz

Every great social movement
has its martyrs, and the movement
to rid universities of corrupt
and destructive bigtime sports
has now got one in Nathan Tublitz.

Professor Tublitz looks like
a professor. He writes like
a professor. But he's also,
unlike professors as a class,
very tough. He goes up against
corrupt and destructive bigtime
sports on his campus, the
University of Oregon.

And you just know he's pissing people off when the boosters come out of the woodwork and swarm all over him, like this guy Mike DeCourcy, who writes for Sporting News. Mike's mad with Nathan. He's having a hard time arguing his points against him onaccounta he's real mad. Let's walk calmly through Mike's points and help him collect himself.

'It's not easy being a billionaire, apparently. You think ahead. Work hard. Build a business. Grow the business. Create jobs. Make billions. Give a lot of the money away. All good, right?

No, sir.

You've got to give it to the right people. It doesn't matter that it's your money. It doesn't matter that your vision built that fortune. If you give the money away as you see fit, well, then, gentlemen such as Nathan Tublitz come along to tell you how indecorous you really are. [I'm steamed! Signed, Disgusted! I mean, the guy's not even working up to the rage and the insults. It doesn't occur to Mike that most people think it actually matters a great deal what you do with large sums of money. It matters how you make it (working conditions for Nike employees around the world aren't merely a matter of what Phil Knight feels like making them) and it matters how you spend it.... Of course we can't dictate to Knight's twin, T. Boone Pickens, that he not give 165 million dollars to Oklahoma State University for the exclusive use of the sports teams there; but we can certainly do what Nathan Tublitz is doing in regard to Knight, which is criticize such choices harshly. We can point out that, like Pickens, Knight will increase the corruption of the program because the size of his gift will mean he can basically run it as he likes. We can point out that Oklahoma State University is a third-tier school kept there by the anti-intellectualism of powerful people like T. Boone Pickens, etc. All of this and more Mike should think about before he begins shouting.]

You know who Phil Knight is, most likely. He's the guy who built the Nike empire after attending the University of Oregon and running track for the Ducks. His love for the university and appreciation for what his sporting background helped do for him led Knight recently to donate $100 million to the athletic department, which reportedly will help to fund a replacement basketball arena for the esteemed -- but crumbling -- McArthur Court.

You probably don't know who Nathan Tublitz is. I can't say for sure, but this seems to trouble him. [Here Mike offers his psychoanalysis of Tublitz. Tublitz, fundamentally, is jealous. He wants to be rich and famous like Phil Knight. His opposition to bigtime campus sports stems from these psychological problems.] Tublitz is an Oregon biology professor who is co-chairman of the Coalition on Intercollegiate Athletics, a self-appointed group of professors that presumes to tell universities who they should be admitting and athletic departments how they should be operating. [Yes, Mike's annoyed that professors complain about special admits who will never ever ever graduate. Mike doesn't care that these guys don't graduate, because he doesn't care about universities. He cares about sports. And he really dislikes people who care about universities.]

And now, Tublitz is telling Knight how to spend his money.

"The priorities of the university are totally out of whack when so much money can go to an ancillary activity of the university when the rest of the university goes begging," Tublitz told The Oregonian about Knight's gift.

Tublitz is registering his ire with Oregon, but the university really only had two choices when Knight called to offer the chance to bathe in his largesse: yes or no. [Mike, Mike. Your monomania has kept you from learning about university philanthropy. It's quite common for universities to advise alumni on how they might best direct their gift. In fact, it's not unknown for universities to turn down all or part of gifts which alumni donors insist must go in directions the university for whatever reason doesn't think they should go. This is called integrity, Mike. All universities have it, or should have it.] Any other response would have been more than a little presumptuous. One does not keep one's relationships intact by opening the Christmas present and saying, "Great, but I'd much rather have a Rolex." [What sort of relationships do you keep intact by passively acceding to everything your friend demands?]

In fact, Knight has given many more millions to his alma mater, money that helped build a law school building, renovate the library and endow academic chairs. As if to prove he's as much a fan of higher education as hoops, he also dropped $105 million on Stanford's business school, where he long ago earned an MBA. [Mike's first good points. He's buried them in this paragraph, though, and he's about to leave them.]

Tublitz and the group he fronts, however, have an obvious animus toward collegiate athletics. When they issued a report in June that essentially called for universities to make their athletic teams more in line with their student bodies, I wrote an e-mail to him and posed the question of why, indeed, athletes aren't treated more like other students in similar disciplines. I asked why students who major in theater, dance and music are presented academic credit and degrees in those subjects, whereas athletes do similar work in their sports are said to be performing strictly extracurricular activities.

His response was so revealing:

"You seem to have a bit of a misunderstanding of the fundamental bases of academics. Art, music, theater, and dance are serious academic disciplines; they are not a game. If you believe that their subjects are only 'entertainment,' you might consider taking an art history, music theory, theater staging or physics of dance course at an accredited university. These courses are academically rigorous and packed full with serious academic content, something not present in any athletic endeavor." [UD would have been a mite less condescending. On the other hand, Mike's confusion is pretty amazing.]

This is the kind of attitude sports frequently confront within a campus setting. It does not matter that the coaches who work for colleges study their sport and innovate within their sport with as much rigor as any ballet teacher or voice instructor. [LOL] It does not matter that the public and the university community, on the whole, place an obvious value in what the coaches and athletes are creating for them. [Everybody loves us!] You've still got professors such as Tublitz demeaning their work -- dismissively calling basketball or football "a game," as if it's no more sophisticated than Parchesi. [What are we supposed to call it? A Socratic dialogue?]

When a person with this approach makes a public statement about athletics, he or she should be taken no more seriously than the person who looks at a Picasso and claims the guy just didn't know how to draw.'



This new feature has University Diaries' Scathing Online Schoolmarm SOSing prose which is itself SOSing prose. Know what I mean?

I mean, SOS ain't the only person out there subjecting prose to close, usually hostile, analysis; there's even a verb -- to fisk -- which describes the activity, although fisking tends to be satisfied with eviscerating an argument only, rather than, like SOS, going after argument and prose (they're connected, after all).

SOS proposes to look at two recent style and content fiskings. One of them's not too bad, though it doesn't knock my socks off. The other is very bad indeed.

The not too bad one's by Alex Beam in the Boston Globe. He's taking off after a soft target -- the simulacral Mortimer Zuckerman -- but it's worth attacking writers like Zuckerman, writers who don't really write their pieces themselves, and for whom publishing is about keeping their name in the papers. Zuckerman represents the lazy corruption that gives journalism a bad name, so he certainly should be fisked. Here's how Beam does it:

BREAKING OUT THE WOODEN PROSE-O-METER [Starts with an absolutely terrible title. There's nothing clever here, and it's also rather confusing as to meaning.]

There was a curious detail in The New Yorker's recent, none-wished-it-longer profile of real estate and media tycoon Mortimer Zuckerman. The longtime chairman [Repetition of longer/longtime not good.] of Boston Properties, Zuckerman writes a weekly column for U.S. News & World Report, which he owns. Here is how he goes about it:

"Generally, Zuckerman reads up on his column subjects on the weekends, underlining as he goes. He writes early in the week, dictating a first draft of the column over the phone to a secretary in Mexico City. She transcribes his musings, and sends them to him; he fiddles and dictates anew, until he has a workable draft."

Inhale. These New Yorker paragraphs run on for ever. Exhale. [Inhale/Exhale fun, but you kind of have to think about it.]

"('I wish that I could write with metaphors, but I just try to marshal the facts as well as I can,' he said.) Then, typically, he sends it to Harry Evans, the eminent newspaperman and publisher. Characterizations of Evans's contribution vary, depending on which former editor of the magazine you talk to. Evans calls his round 'a conventional dust job.'"

Wow. Phoned down to Mexico City; more fiddling and dictating; multiple drafts; touched up by the legendary former editor of the London Sunday Times. [The wow's good. And he's already insinuating that all this fiddling actually isn't wow.]

So why are the columns so bad? How come they read as if -- metaphor comes naturally to me -- they were written with a trowel? [Trowel's great, as in just lays it on.]

How bad are Zuckerman's columns? They are pretty awful, a solid 8.7 on the Wooden Prose-o-Meter, where the typical Eleanor Clift or Clarence Page outing scores a perfect 10. [The o-meter thing just isn't working here. Too tired. It is itself a species of woodenness.] They are awful because they are boring and predictable, which is the last thing an opinion column should be.

Let's flit through some recent work. Zuckerman offers up a dutiful, by-the-numbers hand-wringing about Don Imus: "Imus has helped reset the boundaries of acceptable speech. But we must go further, reawakening awareness of the unmet needs of our society." [Great selection. How much more pompous and vapid can you get than the unmet needs of our society?] And of course an in-crowd abrazo for New York mayor Michael Bloomberg: "He has governed in a common-sense, adult, nonideological manner." Doubtless it is so. [Abrazo's embrace. Nice offbeat word. Good. But I'm not sure his "Doubtless it is so" is doing the work he means it to do -- I mean, being sarcastic. It's not quite strong enough.]

Separately, Zuckerman frets over the disturbing political insurgency of Senator Barack Obama: "He must grow." Of course he frets big-time over the Hamas insurgency in Gaza and the West Bank. Zuckerman saves his worst writing for the subject he cares about most -- the state of Israel -- because he fancies himself a player in Mideast politics. To wit: "The stakes are high. This is a time not for rolling the dice but for prudent, tough-minded diplomacy and realism. Or else we are doomed to repeat the past failures." What? No "Time will tell"? Perhaps that was in a previous column. [Excellent. I giggled a bit at this ridicule of the stupefying cliches Zuckerman's elaborately-edited work produces.]

Zuckerman writes with the moribund evenhandedness of someone worried that he might not be invited back to A-list dinner parties. [Here's where satirists need to be careful. The sentence is great until Beam gets to A-list dinner parties, which is itself a cliche, and a rather dumb populist one at that.] Which is curious, since he hosts about one-half of them. On Israel, I'd much rather read Marty Peretz from the right or Eric Alterman from the left. To paraphrase the Book of Revelations, Zuckerman on the Middle East is neither hot nor cold; I spew him out.

Maybe I should ease up on the former Hub resident who calls Cambridge a "suburb" of Boston; did U.S. News fire all the fact-checkers too? The fact is that any jackass can write an opinion column and many do. [Repetition of fact not so hot; also, he needs a transition -- maybe a new paragraph -- to the jackass point.] Zuckerman's work matches up nicely with syndicated scribblers like Susan Estrich, Bill O'Reilly, or the Emperor of All Received Wisdom, David Gergen. [Again, Emperor, etc., just falls flat. It's too broad a species of satire.] When I applied for a fellowship years ago, the first words out of my mouth were: "I am a newspaper columnist, but that doesn't mean I am an idiot." [Probably should have begun the piece with this.]

So who does columns right? Marc Fisher of the Washington Post, whom I don't get to read often, may be the best reporter/writer/commentator at a big newspaper. Ron Rosenbaum at the weekly New York Observer could really cook. Whether writing about Shakespeare, Bob Dylan, or Yale's secret society Skull and Bones, Rosenbaum pursued ideas to the very end, with fussy, envy-inducing prose. [Not sure fussy's the right word here.]

Michael Kinsley is probably the best newspaper columnist of my generation, but he's really a magazine guy, so we don't have to feel threatened.

Me? Let others judge. I'd love to hold forth longer, but I have to phone some of these thoughts down to Mexico City. [Very good. Nicely revisits this absurdity.] These deadlines creep up quicker than a bobcat with slippers on. Oh, look -- a metaphor! I must be doing something right. [Actually, I think that's a simile...]

Beam admires Ron Rosenbaum's writing, but if the following Rosenbaum fisking is typical, he can't be right to do this.

THE WORST OP-ED EVER WRITTEN? [Again, a terrible title. Unless the essay to come is the cleverest, most definitive decimation of a piece of writing ever. Which it's not. One reason it's not, right up front: Cast your eye down the page. It's way too long. You want to get in and get out of these things pretty quickly -- after all, they're talking about a short, pretty superficial bit of prose; and the more you rant on, the more the thing seems to be about you, which is death on wheels for this sort of writing. It shouldn't be about your resentment or irritation or disdain; it should be about the prose.]

It was Aug. 5, and Professor Stanley Fish, the famous postmodernist and "guest columnist" [Already the bizarre and unhelpful use of quotation marks. Why the marks? Does he mean to suggest that Fish isn't a guest columnist? That guest columnist is a pretentious formulation? WHAT?] for the New York Times, had some breaking news to expound upon in an op-ed piece. He had discovered a new development in American culture that deserved the kind of exegesis only he could deliver: the appearance of a new kind of coffee place. [Expound... exegesis... Rosenbaum thinks using these fancy words satirizes what he sees as the intellectual pomposity of Fish. But they're not working this way; they're just vague snark-markers...]

Have you heard about these new coffee places? Professor Fish's column made it seem as though they had never been noticed or discussed before. [Drop second sentence. It's sentences like this one that make this far too long a piece.]

"Getting Coffee Is Hard To Do" was the title of his essay, which in its self-satisfied cluelessness may just qualify as the worst op-ed ever written. [Rosenbaum's shooting off his guns far too soon. And he's telling rather than showing -- he's name-calling rather than doing what, say, Christopher Hitchens does so well -- cunningly, calmly, working the prose of his adversary so as to expose, amid gradually building hilarity on the part of the reader, its stupidity.] (I'm not sure if "Worst Ever" will become a recurrent feature in this space, but my column on "The Worst Celebrity Profile Ever Written" (Esquire's pretentiously fawning profile of "the best woman in the world," Angelina Jolie) stirred up some useful controversy.) [Bad idea to mention in a self-aggrandizing way an earlier column he's written along these lines. Makes this one look like a lazy effort to replicate that success.]

At the very least, Fish's column showcases what happens when certain academics descend from the ivory tower to offer us their special insights on popular culture. [UD's got nothing against anti-professor rhetoric, but this is really meager stuff.]

Not that Fish would cop to living in a tower. The professor took great pains to demonstrate that he is not one of those academics who mingle among the commoners for a mere 20 minutes or so before pronouncing on their baffling customs. [Why is the satire falling flat here? One reason is that it's simply very badly written, clogged with adjectives - great, mere, baffling - which dilute the force of the writing and account for its length.]

It seems that professor Fish is a real man of the people who has been getting his coffee served to him amidst the regular folk for years, at the kind of place where you could order your coffee and cheese Danish, and "twenty seconds later, tops, they arrived, just as you were settling into the sports page."

You can tell he's a down-to-the-earth guy, not some pointy-headed intellectual, because he uses phrases like "twenty seconds later, tops" and reads "the sports page."

But our professor seems to think he has encountered a brand-new cultural phenomenon: coffee places that are disturbingly different from the lunch counters of yesteryear.

Well, I did a little Googling, and it turns out he's right! There are hosts of these coffee chain stores, including one with the improbable name Starbucks, infiltrating our cities. I don't understand why the Times' cutting-edge "Styles" section hasn't done something on this before. Wake up and smell the coffee, "Styles" section editors! [Comes across as protesting too much, pleasing himself, stretching out to admire his irony... ]

It turns out these new coffee places are incredibly difficult to navigate, even for a brilliant academic like professor Fish.

Here's how he describes his harrowing experience: "As you walk in, everything is saying, 'This is very sophisticated and you'd better be up to it.' "

Of course, we know that professor Fish is being ironic here. Some might say condescendingly so. From his tone, we know that the elements of what he mockingly describes as "sophistication" — "wood or concrete floors, lots of earth tones, soft, high-style lighting, open barrels of coffee beans, folk-rock and indie music, photographs of urban landscapes, and copies of The Onion" — aren't true sophistication to a man of professor Fish's discernment. They're kitsch, faux-sophistication — and you can't fool him. He can see right through it! [It's quite damaging to Rosenbaum's case that this short excerpt in which Fish describes the place's interior is superior to anything Rosenbaum has so far written.]

Although at this point you begin to wonder if his op-ed wasn't meant to be a feature in The Onion ("Area professor befuddled by coffee place"), Fish is apparently serious about the profound difficulty this new cultural phenomenon presents. [Most readers have stopped reading by now. Rosenbaum is excruciating in his insistence on chewing at this prose...]

In any case, professor Fish's description of his terrifying encounter with this coffee store is enough to make a grown man weep [Wan cliche.]:

First, unlike his previous coffee shop, which evidently was never crowded, you have to get in line [!] and wait to be served for more than 20 seconds, tops. In fact, "You may have one or two people in front of you who are ordering a drink with more parts than an internal combustion engine." Oh the humanity! [DOA cliche.]

What's worse, these, these PEOPLE, whoever they are, use unfamiliar terms: "something about 'double shot,' 'skinny,' 'breve,' 'grande,' 'au lait' and a lot of other words that never pass my lips."

Not only are they unfamiliar, practically indecipherable, these terms (what could au lait possibly mean? It doesn't even sound like English!), you virtually have to sound them out to read them. They are, furthermore, literally, unspeakably vulgar to a man of educated taste. (They "never pass my lips" — imagine if a man of his intellectual distinction had to say au lait!) [Sorry baby. You're all worked up, but it ain't working. You're overdoing.]

And by the way, you satirists and improv comics out there. Why haven't you picked up on this elaborate coffee-name trend and made fun of it? That new show I've heard of, Seinfeld, could really get some mileage out of those funny names for coffee sizes. Tall is small! Comedy gold! (I myself have tangled with Starbucks, though mostly back in the day when Seinfeld was still on the air. But my tiffs were with its management, not with the 20-second-plus wait or the beleaguered baristas.)

But professor Fish's ordeal does not end with the profoundly confusing names, confusing even for someone who specializes in language. (And I should say here I am an admirer of his early, pre-postmodern work Surprised by Sin, a controversial study of Milton's Paradise Lost.) [Any reader still with Rosenbaum is befuddled at this point. Suddenly he's expressing respect -- but are we sure it's non-ironic respect? -- for Fish's scholarly work... Rosenbaum's tone is all over the place, and tone is crucial in hit pieces like this.]

No, the ordeal continues even after you master the ordering process: "[Y]ou get to put in your order, but then you have to find a place to stand while you wait for it."

Professor Fish is particularly good on the inhuman stress positions this requires of him. "[Y]ou shift your body, first here and then there, trying to get out of the way of those you can't help get in the way of."

How he maintains his priceless sense of humor in this Abu Ghraib-like environment of torment is hard to imagine. But it gets worse. You can bump into people and spill coffee, and it's hard to find a seat. I'm not kidding. (Well, he isn't.) [No selectivity here at all. Far more effective to use one or at most two of Fish's comments against him... It feels pathological for Rosenbaum to gas on like this.]

But there's more! "[T]hen your real problems begin," he says with stoic grit. Some readers, the faint of heart, may want to skip this next part, because things really get ugly: the "accessories" difficulty. (Note to self: Tell agent about plans for thriller to rival The Bourne Ultimatum — The Accessories Difficulty.)

You must face "a staggering array" of "things you put in, on and around your coffee ... " Here, he's referring to such highly fraught choices as sugar or Splenda, whole milk or skim. High stakes choices, with so little time to tease out the implications and consequences. What's more, there's no service person to help him make these terrible decisions. "[S]o you lunge after one thing and then after another with awkward reaches."

At this point, one can sympathize not so much with professor Fish as with the Times op-ed editors who had to come up with a "pull quote" for the hard-copy edition. You know, the pithy phrase that billboards the column's essence. Here's what they came up with:

"Cream? Sugar? Get it yourself."

I think that about captures the unbearable excitement of these revelations. Oh, the exquisite, um, awkwardness of those "awkward reaches"! But he "got it himself" despite the indignity. And he lived to tell about it. And make it relevant! In fact, one can see a hint of professor Fish's signature moral relativism — known in the lit-crit trade as anti-foundationalism — creep into his prose as he attempts to grapple with the accessories difficulty.

"There is no 'right' place to start," he notes, no solid philosophical foundation upon which to base difficult sweetener decisions. As with the most difficult questions of philosophy, politics, and literature, there are only subjective perspectives.

He is once again face to face with the tragedy of the human situation.

But he's got a much larger point to make. The dread "New Coffee Experience" turns out to be emblematic of one of the key ills of modern times, the servant problem:

It is "just one instance of the growing practice of shifting the burden of labor to the consumer — gas stations, grocery and drug stores, bagel shops (why should I put on my own cream cheese?), airline check-ins, parking lots."

Imagine, a man of his distinction, forced to "put on my own cream cheese." Why is there no one to do it for him?

He might have mentioned ATMs. Used to be you could walk into a bank and ask a teller to give you a couple hundred bucks, and they'd hand it over, "twenty seconds, tops." No troubling paperwork, remember? And what about credit card machines? Now, it's "insert this, swipe that, choose credit or debit, enter your PIN, push the red button, error, start again."

One wants to feel sympathy for professor Fish in his distress. But although most of the unintentional humor in professor Fish's column comes from his comic cluelessness about things he thinks are "new" in the culture, this note of entitlement gives it a kind of nasty edge. [We're totally not with the writer by now. We're not necessarily with Fish, but we're nowhere near the writer's sensibility and response. This piece became a dud in the fourth or fifth paragraph; anyone still chugging along is a marm or a Duke student whose dissertation defense Fish failed.]

He concedes toward the close of his column: "[N]one of us has chosen to take over the jobs of those we pay to serve us."

Is it just me, or is there something grating in that phrase: "those we pay to serve us"? So distasteful, the life of the servant class, compared with the life of the mind.

But at least in the old days the servant class hopped to it and got professor Fish his coffee and Danish in "20 seconds, tops" and worked themselves to the point of exhaustion all day for less than a minimum wage to make sure he would have something to consume with his "sports page."

As multidegreed as he is, I have a feeling that it would be an invaluable addition to his education if professor Fish spent a week "serving" as a barista. You know: For someone who believes in perspectives rather than foundations (except when it comes to grants), it would seem like a useful additional perspective on the whole coffee-servant question. [The parenthetical snark about grants is just mystifying.]

He also might want to consider that, while in some ways we do more ourselves these days, some of us might just prefer that to having servants? Just another perspective.

Still, the column makes clear why his kind of deep thinking has earned him academic stardom and university deanships. Such a man deserves to be served. Not to have to serve himself. [Rosenbaum doesn't believe any of this shit. He's just going with his formula.]

In any case, the op-ed may not have been a total loss; it might suggest the subject for his next magnum opus: Surprised by Starbucks.


SOS Travels to the Heartland...

... for an up-close look at how they write about university sports in the center of the fiasco.

Receivers' Suspensions a Blow to Depth [Why've they been suspended? Oh, same old shit... Doesn't matter... What matters is the blow to our depth...]

With Douglas, Bowman out, Hawks' receiving options few

By Andy Hamilton
Iowa City Press-Citizen

The receiver position on the Iowa football roster morphed from an area of concern to a source of strength for the Hawkeyes during the second half of 2006, and the excitement generated with that growth carried through the first two weeks of preseason camp. [Starts on an up note. Will also end on one. Actually, the last note will be not just up, but inspirational, intended to swerve our attention from the latest, er, unpleasantness...]

Sure, Iowa had a few causes for concern leading up to the last two weeks of preparation for the Sept. 1 season opener against Northern Illinois. But there were seemingly few questions regarding the receiver position, perhaps other than how the Hawkeyes would utilize so many young and talented players. [Not terrible writing -- and SOS likes that cozy Sure to begin the paragraph -- but note the weasel words: seemingly, perhaps. And note his use of the very ugly utilize. Always use use when tempted to use utilize. And given the charming casualness of tone he's got, a word like regarding clashes.]

Until Monday.

That's when Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz announced the indefinite suspension of sophomore receivers Dominique Douglas and Anthony Bowman after both players were arrested for unauthorized use of a credit card stemming from a May 8 incident when the Detroit natives allegedly racked up more than $2,000 in charges on two cards belonging to two separate victims, according to Johnson County District Court records. [Kind of reads like a run-on sentence; too many clauses. But it's okay.]

"The accusations are serious and, if proven to be true, are extremely disappointing for everyone associated with the University of Iowa and our football program," Ferentz said in a university-released statement. "As always, we will work with the appropriate individuals and entities on and off campus as this matter works its way through the legal system.

"As is often the case in matters of this nature, I am aware of inconsistencies in what may or may not have taken place. We need to let the legal process run its course."

[The writer simply quotes the coach - who, like most bigtime university coaches, is probably reading from very yellowed notes here - and then goes back to his anxious concern about depth.]

In the meantime, the Hawkeyes are left assessing who they have left [Repetition of left is a little clunky.] and which players slide into the roles previously held by Bowman and Douglas, Iowa's leading receiver last season.

Without Douglas and Bowman, the Hawkeyes have just two wide receivers on their roster who have caught passes at Iowa -- Brodell (45) and sophomore Trey Stross (13).

Stross sat out Saturday's scrimmage with leg soreness, although Ferentz said he expected Stross to return to practice early this week. Freshman Paul Chaney also spent time on the sidelines Saturday with a foot injury.

That left a lot of repetitions for redshirt freshmen James Cleveland and Derrell Johnson-Koulianos and true freshman Colin Sandeman.

"(The receivers) had really good practices -- about as good as I've ever had in any camp that I've ever had since I've been here," junior starter Brodell said Saturday. "We all seem to be making plays. ...We all have the potential and we all have the ability, but it's production over potential, and whoever makes the most plays on a consistent level is going to play."

Douglas had already proven to be a consistent performer. He broke Iowa freshman receiving records for catches (49) and receiving yards (654) last year when he ranked first in the country among freshmen in those categories.

Bowman played sparingly last season as a true freshman. He returned four kickoffs for 76 yard but did not catch a pass.

Both players participated Saturday when the Hawkeyes scrimmaged at Kinnick Stadium and Douglas was one of 10 players made available to the media afterward. [This is all perfectly competent sports writing. And it moves the reader's attention swiftly from the routine, uninteresting business of criminality on the team -- these two aren't the only Iowa players in trouble with the law at the moment -- to what the guy's readers really care about: Whether they can win the next game.]

Douglas started the final 11 games of 2006 for the Hawkeyes and seemed to work his way back into good graces with the team after being demoted to working with the reserves late in the spring when he was dealing with academic issues. [Academic issues is a pleasant euphemism. The graduation rate for Iowa football players is appalling. But let's not go there.]

"I messed up in school my first semester and I learned from it," Douglas said Saturday. "I'll never put myself in another position like that because I hurt myself and I hurt the team also. I'm not a selfish person and I want to get my education, that's first things first."

When asked if he was fearful of having football taken away, Douglas said: "Definitely because you love football."

Douglas said two weeks ago at Iowa's annual media day gathering that he felt he learned a lesson from having to get his academics in order.

"I feel like I've grown as human being and as a football player," he said. [Note the power of ending this piece on this resounding cliche. From the start, the article has shifted our attention from the newsworthy, scandalous aspects of this typical bigtime American football team to parochial questions of field strategy. And to make sure we forget why the team's up shit's creek, the reporter will end with this utterly false assurance from one of the players that all is well.]


Monday, August 20, 2007

The Styrofoam Cup Defense

'As the trial for former Texas State University [How much trouble is a university in when the Houston Chronicle gets its name wrong in the first sentence? Long, long ago, the place was called Texas State... The Chronicle reporter needs to update his files... UPDATE: And UD needs to get corrective lenses. Andre Mayer, a reader, points out that the writer says "former Texas State University." My bad. Though it seems a strange choice to start your piece about the place by using an obsolete name for it... UPDATE UPDATE: Another reader, TAFKAU, points out that former seems to refer not to the school but to the school's president... And that therefore UD is at least correct that the formulation's messy... Anyway, TAFKAU notes that the reporter has now rewritten the sentence.] President Priscilla Slade starts this week, observers expect a fight that is more contentious than the paper-heavy trial of her chief financial officer who was convicted of criminal financial mismanagement as part of the same investigation. [that is... who was... Especially in concise newspaper writing, you want to avoid these draggy to be verb formulations. Notice how the sentence reads if you simply take them out: "...a fight more contentious than the paper-heavy trial of her chief financial officer, convicted of criminal financial mismanagement..." See? Just drop them.]

And while prosecutors are expected to bring in alleged bad acts like wrongful termination of TSU employees and minor legal infractions if Slade is convicted, university supporters hope the public can separate the allegations against her from the troubled institution. [For background to this story, go here. ]

Slade, 55, is charged with two counts of misapplication of fiduciary property over $200,000. If convicted, she faces five to 99 years or life in prison for the first-degree felonies. She could also receive probation.

Slade was fired in June 2006 after a TSU investigation concluded she had failed to follow university policies and state laws while spending more than $260,000. A criminal investigation concluded that more than $1.9 million was spent during her tenure on such purchases as home furniture, artwork, club memberships, spa treatments and tickets for sporting events.

Slade's attorney, Mike DeGeurin, said other university presidents, like Slade, buy fine furniture and accessories, like crystal stemware, to entertain donors at home. He framed the expenses as reasonable and necessary to turn TSU into a "first-class university."

"Dr. Slade ordered crystal and china for Texas Southern University so that when people came to visit, they weren't drinking out of Styrofoam cups," DeGeurin said. [These being the only alternatives.] "The complaint reflects, to me, that where other universities can have nice things, TSU should not have that nice of stuff." [She's hired herself quite the eloquent advocate.]

DeGeurin said Slade was working to improve TSU, and would have shepherded the university through its current troubles.

"What TSU needs right now is someone like Dr. Slade," DeGeurin said. [TSU has endured enough thieves. It's time for it to look for administrative officers who don't steal. But so far no competent and ethical people want to work at a place that has fallen to pieces.]

He said no crime had been committed, and he isn't worried about prosecutors proving a crime.

Assistant District Attorney Julian Ramirez noted that one jury has already found that a crime was committed.

In May, Slade's former CFO, Quintin Wiggins, was convicted of the same crime and was sentenced to 10 years in prison. He is appealing that conviction.

With Slade, both sides began gearing up for a bitter battle months ago.

During the monthlong Wiggins trial, prosecutors kept a fraud investigator in the courtroom and DeGeurin had a staff attorney observe the entire trial. In pretrial hearings, both sides have staked out their positions and say the gloves have come off.

Assistant District Attorney Donna Goode said the two indictments relate to about $523,000 worth of purchases that benefited Slade. Wiggins, on the other hand, was part of her plan and received little benefit, Goode said.

"The stakes are higher," Goode said. "We're now trying the alleged principal of the crime."

If Slade is convicted, prosecutors have filed a notice of "past bad acts" they will work to prove up to bolster the jury's outrage. Because of a motion that limits what they can say about these acts, neither side would discuss alleged wrongful firings of TSU employees and legal infractions.

In Slade's wake, the spending scandal left the state's largest historically black university in turmoil. Shortly after firing Slade, regents eliminated 178 jobs, or 16 percent of the workforce, in an attempt to contain costs while enrollment continued to slide.

Gov. Rick Perry later asked the regents to make "tough decisions" to turn the university around. But the board failed to offer the specific proposals necessary to correct the financial situation, prompting Perry to pressure the regents into resigning en masse in May.

The new regents are now working on a reorganization plan that should soon be forwarded to the governor and state lawmakers. The board also is making plans to replace interim President J. Timothy Boddie Jr. with another temporary leader after recently extending the search for a new president.

Enrollment, meanwhile, is expected to be down as much as 15 percent when classes resume Aug. 27, officials said.

Legislators who have supported TSU historically said they hoped the public would be able to separate the university from the scandal.

"I don't want the school to be penalized for mistakes some have made," said state Sen. Rodney Ellis. He said he hopes the public will be able to draw a distinction between the university and the crimes alleged to have been perpetrated.

State Rep. Garnet Coleman said the public hasn't learned to separate TSU from Slade.

"Priscilla Slade has done a disservice to TSU," Coleman said. "She abused the public trust, harmed the students and harmed the school."'


Thursday, August 16, 2007

Mr. Ingarao

From "Aes Triplex" ---

And, after all, what sorry and pitiful quibbling all this is! To forego all the issues of living in a parlour with a regulated temperature — as if that were not to die a hundred times over, and for ten years at a stretch! As if it were not to die in one’s own lifetime, and without even the sad immunities of death! [Sad immunities of death is gorgeous poetry.] As if it were not to die, and yet be the patient spectators of our own pitiable change! The Permanent Possibility is preserved, but the sensations carefully held at arm’s length, as if one kept a photographic plate in a dark chamber [Wonderful simile.]. It is better to lose health like a spendthrift than to waste it like a miser. It is better to live and be done with it, than to die daily in the sickroom. By all means begin your folio; even if the doctor does not give you a year, even if he hesitates about a month, make one brave push and see what can be accomplished in a week. It is not only in finished undertakings that we ought to honour useful labour. A spirit goes out of the man who means execution, which out-lives the most untimely ending. All who have meant good work with their whole hearts, have done good work, although they may die before they have the time to sign it. [Again, notice how simple great writing tends to be. A very simple sentence here, and among the most moving of the essay's.] Every heart that has beat strong and cheerfully has left a hopeful impulse behind it in the world, and bettered the tradition of mankind. And even if death catch people, like an open pitfall, and in mid-career, laying out vast projects, and planning monstrous foundations, flushed with hope, and their mouths full of boastful language, they should be at once tripped up and silenced: is there not something brave and spirited in such a termination? and does not life go down with a better grace, foaming in full body over a precipice, than miserably straggling to an end in sandy deltas? When the Greeks made their fine saying that those whom the gods love die young, I cannot help believing they had this sort of death also in their eye. For surely, at whatever age it overtake the man, this is to die young. Death has not been suffered to take so much as an illusion from his heart. In the hot-fit of life, a-tip-toe on the highest point of being, he passes at a bound on to the other side. The noise of the mallet and chisel is scarcely quenched, the trumpets are hardly done blowing, when, trailing with him clouds of glory, this happy-starred, full-blooded spirit shoots into the spiritual land.

Of course I don't mean any of this to glorify Mr. Ingarao, who along with being a very good student of philosophy seems to have been a cold-blooded murderer. I suppose I mean only that even wretched Mr. Ingarao, with all his sins on his head, appears to have been responsive to some of what Stevenson's going on and on about here. He seems not to have wanted to be one of the deadly philosophers Stevenson satirizes, but rather to have wanted to deepen his experience of life by consulting the thoughts of people who had actual contributions to make along these lines. He had what Stevenson calls "the hungry curiosity of the mind."

For after all, however seductive Stevenson's raptures about the saving power of non-reflective engagement in life, vibrant reflection on life is itself part of a life well-lived.


Mr. Ingarao
Part Four

From "Aes Triplex" --

There is a great deal of very vile nonsense talked upon both sides of the matter: tearing divines reducing life to the dimensions of a mere funeral procession, so short as to be hardly decent; and melancholy unbelievers yearning for the tomb as if it were a world too far away. Both sides must feel a little ashamed of their performances now and again when they draw in their chairs to dinner. Indeed, a good meal and a bottle of wine is an answer to most standard works upon the question. [Funny.] When a man’s heart warms to his viands, he forgets a great deal of sophistry, and soars into a rosy zone of contemplation. Death may be knocking at the door, like the Commander’s statue; we have something else in hand, thank God, and let him knock. [Again, note the casual tone, which makes things amusing and authentic.] Passing bells are ringing all the world over. All the world over, and every hour, some one is parting company with all his aches and ecstasies. [Repetition of all the world over works well; aches and ecstasies is an attractive pair.] For us also the trap is laid. But we are so fond of life that we have no leisure to entertain the terror of death. It is a honeymoon with us all through, and none of the longest. Small blame to us if we give our whole hearts to this glowing bride of ours, to the appetites, to honour, to the hungry curiosity of the mind, to the pleasure of the eyes in nature, and the pride of our own nimble bodies. [These last phrases are beautiful, if you ask me.]

We all of us appreciate the sensations; but as for caring about the Permanence of the Possibility, a man’s head is generally very bald, and his senses very dull, before he comes to that. Whether we regard life as a lane leading to a dead wall — a mere bag’s end, as the French say — or whether we think of it as a vestibule or gymnasium, where we wait our turn and prepare our faculties for some more noble destiny; whether we thunder in a pulpit, or pule in little atheistic poetry-books, about its vanity and brevity; whether we look justly for years of health and vigour, or are about to mount into a bath-chair, as a step towards the hearse; in each and all of these views and situations there is but one conclusion possible: that a man should stop his ears against paralysing terror, and run the race that is set before him with a single mind. [Incredibly long sentence. Yet it's full of charms. I particularly love pule. Pule, pule, pule. Great word. And the nasty phrase it's part of -- pule in little atheistic poetry-books -- hot stuff.] No one surely could have recoiled with more heartache and terror from the thought of death than our respected lexicographer [That'd be Samuel Johnson.]; and yet we know how little it affected his conduct, how wisely and boldly he walked, and in what a fresh and lively vein he spoke of life. Already an old man, he ventured on his Highland tour; and his heart, bound with triple brass, did not recoil before twenty-seven individual cups of tea [Again the amusing deflationary tack.] As courage and intelligence are the two qualities best worth a good man’s cultivation, so it is the first part of intelligence to recognise our precarious estate in life, and the first part of courage to be not at all abashed before the fact. A frank and somewhat headlong carriage, not looking too anxiously before, not dallying in maudlin regret over the past, stamps the man who is well armoured for this world. [Sure, this is nineteenth century bootstraps stuff. SOS doesn't care. She's captured.]

And not only well armoured for himself, but a good friend and a good citizen to boot. We do not go to cowards for tender dealing; there is nothing so cruel as panic; the man who has least fear for his own carcase, has most time to consider others. That eminent chemist who took his walks abroad in tin shoes, and subsisted wholly upon tepid milk, had all his work cut out for him in considerate dealings with his own digestion. So soon as prudence has begun to grow up in the brain, like a dismal fungus, it finds its first expression in a paralysis of generous acts. The victim begins to shrink spiritually; he develops a fancy for parlours with a regulated temperature, and takes his morality on the principle of tin shoes and tepid milk. The care of one important body or soul becomes so engrossing, that all the noises of the outer world begin to come thin and faint into the parlour with the regulated temperature; and the tin shoes go equably forward over blood and rain. To be overwise is to ossify; and the scruple-monger ends by standing stockstill. Now the man who has his heart on his sleeve, and a good whirling weathercock of a brain, who reckons his life as a thing to be dashingly used and cheerfully hazarded, makes a very different acquaintance of the world, keeps all his pulses going true and fast, and gathers impetus as he runs, until, if he be running towards anything better than wildfire, he may shoot up and become a constellation in the end. [Mad dashing prose!] Lord look after his health, Lord have a care of his soul, says he; and he has at the key of the position, and swashes through incongruity and peril towards his aim. [Swashes! A swashbuckler!] Death is on all sides of him with pointed batteries, as he is on all sides of all of us; unfortunate surprises gird him round; mim-mouthed friends and relations hold up their hands in quite a little elegiacal synod about his path [Crazy Quilt prose! But its wild vitalism is its subject... ]: and what cares he for all this? Being a true lover of living, a fellow with something pushing and spontaneous in his inside, he must, like any other soldier, in any other stirring, deadly warfare, push on at his best pace until he touch the goal. “A peerage or Westminster Abbey!” cried Nelson in his bright, boyish, heroic manner. These are great incentives; not for any of these, but for the plain satisfaction of living, of being about their business in some sort or other, do the brave, serviceable men of every nation tread down the nettle danger, and pass flyingly over all the stumbling-blocks of prudence. Think of the heroism of Johnson, think of that superb indifference to mortal limitation that set him upon his dictionary, and carried him through triumphantly until the end! Who, if he were wisely considerate of things at large, would ever embark upon any work much more considerable than a halfpenny post card? Who would project a serial novel, after Thackeray and Dickens had each fallen in mid-course? Who would find heart enough to begin to live, if he dallied with the consideration of death?


Mr. Ingarao
Part Three

From "Aes Triplex" --

Indeed, it is a memorable subject for consideration, with what unconcern and gaiety mankind pricks on along the Valley of the Shadow of Death. [pricks is the great word here.] The whole way is one wilderness of snares, and the end of it, for those who fear the last pinch, is irrevocable ruin. [pinch. pricks. There's a casualness of word and phrase tossed in to the more formal salad of this essay which creates a nice off-balance feel.] And yet we go spinning through it all, like a party for the Derby. Perhaps the reader remembers one of the humorous devices of the deified Caligula: how he encouraged a vast concourse of holiday-makers on to his bridge over Baiae bay; and when they were in the height of their enjoyment, turned loose the Praetorian guards among the company, and had them tossed into the sea. This is no bad miniature of the dealings of nature with the transitory race of man. Only, what a chequered picnic we have of it, even while it lasts! and into what great waters, not to be crossed by any swimmer, God’s pale Praetorian throws us over in the end! [Sure, this is exclamatory and overdone for our contemporary tastes... too many classical and biblical allusions, etc. And yet what's also here is a richness of thought and image that carries us along.]

We live the time that a match flickers; we pop the cork of a ginger-beer bottle, and the earthquake swallows us on the instant. Is it not odd, is it not incongruous, is it not, in the highest sense of human speech, incredible, that we should think so highly of the ginger-beer, and regard so little the devouring earthquake? [His ordinary images convey quite adequately our oblivious engagement in sublunary life.] The love of Life and the fear of Death are two famous phrases that grow harder to understand the more we think about them. It is a well-known fact that an immense proportion of boat accidents would never happen if people held the sheet in their hands instead of making it fast; and yet, unless it be some martinet of a professional mariner or some landsman with shattered nerves, every one of God’s creatures makes it fast. A strange instance of man’s unconcern and brazen boldness in the face of death!

We confound ourselves with metaphysical phrases, which we import into daily talk with noble inappropriateness. We have no idea of what death is, apart from its circumstances and some of its consequences to others; and although we have some experience of living, there is not a man on earth who has flown so high into abstraction as to have any practical guess at the meaning of the word life. [Attractive, conversational, straightforward prose.] All literature, from Job and Omar Khayam to Thomas Carlyle or Walt Whitman, is but an attempt to look upon the human state with such largeness of view as shall enable us to rise from the consideration of living to the Definition of Life [The capital letters tell you he thinks there's no such thing, and that it's pretentious to pretend otherwise.]. And our sages give us about the best satisfaction in their power when they say that it is a vapour, or a show, or made out of the same stuff with dreams. Philosophy, in its more rigid sense, has been at the same work for ages; and after a myriad bald heads have wagged over the problem, and piles of words have been heaped one upon another into dry and cloudy volumes without end, philosophy has the honour of laying before us, with modest pride, her contribution towards the subject: that life is a Permanent Possibility of Sensation. Truly a fine result! A man may very well love beef, or hunting, or a woman; but surely, surely, not a Permanent Possibility of Sensation! He may be afraid of a precipice, or a dentist, or a large enemy with a club, or even an undertaker’s man; but not certainly of abstract death. [dentist is very fine.] We may trick with the word life in its dozen senses until we are weary of tricking; we may argue in terms of all the philosophies on earth, but one fact remains true throughout — that we do not love life, in the sense that we are greatly preoccupied about its conservation; that we do not, properly speaking, love life at all, but living. Into the views of the least careful there will enter some degree of providence; no man’s eyes are fixed entirely on the passing hour; but although we have some anticipation of good health, good weather, wine, active employment, love, and self-approval, the sum of these anticipations does not amount to anything like a general view of life’s possibilities and issues; nor are those who cherish them most vividly, at all the most scrupulous of their personal safety. To be deeply interested in the accidents of our existence, to enjoy keenly the mixed texture of human experience, rather leads a man to disregard precautions, and risk his neck against a straw. [Here is the essence of Stevenson's argument.] For surely the love of living is stronger in an Alpine climber roping over a peril, or a hunter riding merrily at a stiff fence, than in a creature who lives upon a diet and walks a measured distance in the interest of his constitution.


Mr. Ingarao
Part Two

From "Aes Triplex" --

And yet, when one comes to think upon it calmly, the situation of these South American citizens forms only a very pale figure for the state of ordinary mankind. [Strong transitional phrase -- And yet, -- into this next, very long paragraph.] This world itself, travelling blindly and swiftly in over-crowded space, among a million other worlds travelling blindly and swiftly in contrary directions, may very well come by a knock that would set it into explosion like a penny squib. [A penny squib is a cheap firecracker. Notice how this long cosmic sentence ends with a fine deflationary thud.] And what, pathologically looked at, is the human body with all its organs, but a mere bagful of petards? [Pathologically here meaning scientifically. And a petard is also a firecracker. The body as a bagful of petards. Fun.] The least of these is as dangerous to the whole economy as the ship’s powder-magazine to the ship; and with every breath we breathe, and every meal we eat, we are putting one or more of them in peril. [A powder-magazine is a storage room for ammunition and weapons. Note the impressive extension of the explosion image.] If we clung as devotedly as some philosophers pretend we do to the abstract idea of life, or were half as frightened as they make out we are [Here he elaborates on his earlier criticism of philosophers; they think we actively fear death and grasp pathetically at life.], for the subversive accident that ends it all, the trumpets might sound by the hour and no one would follow them into battle — the blue-peter might fly at the truck, but who would climb into a sea-going ship? [The blue-peter's a flag flown when a ship is ready to sail.] Think (if these philosophers were right) with what a preparation of spirit we should affront the daily peril of the dinner-table: ["the daily peril of the dinner-table" -- amusing, poetic...] a deadlier spot than any battle-field in history, where the far greater proportion of our ancestors have miserably left their bones! [Yes. I recently mentioned here Joan Didion's book about her husband's death - The Year of Magical Thinking - and that's just how he died -- sitting down to dinner.] What woman would ever be lured into marriage, so much more dangerous than the wildest sea? And what would it be to grow old? For, after a certain distance, every step we take in life we find the ice growing thinner below our feet, and all around us and behind us we see our contemporaries going through. By the time a man gets well into the seventies, his continued existence is a mere miracle, and when he lays his old bones in bed for the night, there is an overwhelming probability that he will never see the day. Do the old men mind it, as a matter of fact? Why, no. They were never merrier; they have their grog at night, and tell the raciest stories; they hear of the death of people about their own age, or even younger, not as if it was a grisly warning, but with a simple childlike pleasure at having outlived some one else; and when a draught might puff them out like a guttering candle, or a bit of a stumble shatter them like so much glass, their old hearts keep sound and unaffrighted, and they go on, bubbling with laughter, through years of man’s age compared to which the valley at Balaklava was as safe and peaceful as a village cricket-green on Sunday. [Well-observed, funny, though a bit of too much in terms of length. You can't have everything. ... Larkin has a bit in a poem on this subject too. From The Old Fools: For the rooms grow farther, leaving / Incompetent cold, the constant wear and tear / Of taken breath, and them crouching below / Extinction's alp, the old fools, never perceiving / How near it is. 'Extinction's alp' - very same business you see in Stevenson.] It may fairly be questioned (if we look to the peril only) whether it was a much more daring feat for Curtius to plunge into the gulf, than for any old gentleman of ninety to doff his clothes and clamber into bed.


Mr. Ingarao
Part One

Philosophy Now takes note of it. So does the Chronicle of Higher Education. Nicola Ingarao, a Mafia chief who was shot and killed in Palermo a few weeks ago, turns out also to have been a serious student of philosophy, having just passed with a perfect score an advanced exam at the University of Palermo.

When an unknown assailant in Palermo, Sicily, fired five shots into Nicola Ingarao on June 13, he killed the reputed boss of the Porta Nuova gang, breaking a 10-month cease-fire among the city's Mafia bands and possibly setting off a new war among them.

The killer also deprived the University of Palermo of one of its most promising nontraditional students.

A day before his murder, Mr. Ingarao, 46, passed a final exam in the history of philosophy with a perfect grade of 30.

"He was a model student, very assiduous and attentive," says the course's professor, Pietro di Giovanni. "His tone was always very polite and distinguished."

Mr. Ingarao, who was facing trial for racketeering and extortion, had been in and out of prison since 1995 for various crimes, including murder, though that conviction was overturned on appeal. He began work toward a bachelor's degree in psychology while still behind bars, and was released from custody only four months before his death.

Mr. Di Giovanni, who is chairman of an interdisciplinary department at the university called Ethos, says that Mr. Ingarao introduced himself as a toy retailer. But the professor does not find it surprising that one of his best students had a more exotic occupation.

"It is quite common for people in their 40s to take a greater interest in culture," he says. "That this person had a private life, however you want to describe it, and yet wanted to learn more about these subjects, seems to me perfectly normal."

For some reason, this story reminded UD of an 1878 Robert Louis Stevenson essay, Aes Triplex (it's from Horace, and means 'triple brass'), which she's loved ever since she found it in an old copy of the Oxford Book of Essays. Times being what they are, the essay is right here, in its entirety, in a very pleasant typeface with a gray matte finish.

In a self-indulgent effort to figure out exactly why she so admires this essay, and to figure out why the death of Mr. Ingarao made her think of it, SOS will now consider Stevenson's writing very closely.

But before we get started -- Who more likely than a major Mafia player to be a philosopher? As Stevenson will note again and again in his essay, we all live under the threat of our own extinction, though we don't think much about it. Or at all about it. A person caught up in deadly turf wars, though, knows moment by moment the contingency of his life... He owes it to himself to get his thinking about it done, pronto...

Here's Stevenson's first paragraph, with SOS commentary along the way:

The changes wrought by death are in themselves so sharp and final, and so terrible and melancholy in their consequences, that the thing stands alone in man’s experience, and has no parallel upon earth. [There's something almost comical about this sentence... Yes, death certainly does change things... But it's also refreshing to read a writer who leaps into the subject in this rather naive and direct way. Why not...] It outdoes all other accidents because it is the last of them. [See Phillip Larkin's great poem, Aubade: Most things may never happen: this one will,/ And realisation of it rages out/ In furnace fear when we are caught without/ People or drink.] Sometimes it leaps suddenly upon its victims, like a Thug; sometimes it lays a regular siege and creeps upon their citadel during a score of years. And when the business is done, there is sore havoc made in other people’s lives, and a pin knocked out by which many subsidiary friendships hung together. There are empty chairs, solitary walks, and single beds at night. [Rather florid stuff, but I like his rich images, the way he plays a figure out...] Again, in taking away our friends, death does not take them away utterly, but leaves behind a mocking, tragical, and soon intolerable residue, which must be hurriedly concealed. [Sure, he's breaking some SOS rules -- He's wordy, and he uses evil adverbs - hurriedly, utterly... But there is something in the alternation between long sentences, and then short ones with a certain classical composure -- empty chairs, solitary walks, and single beds at night -- that is charming to me.] Hence a whole chapter of sights and customs striking to the mind, from the pyramids of Egypt to the gibbets and dule trees of mediaeval Europe. [There's a richness in his examples, and a lilt in his phrases.] The poorest persons have a bit of pageant going towards the tomb; memorial stones are set up over the least memorable; and, in order to preserve some show of respect for what remains of our old loves and friendships, we must accompany it with much grimly ludicrous ceremonial, and the hired undertaker parades before the door. [Again, his prose turns out to be about intriguing mixes -- in the earlier sentence, both mocking and tragical; here, grimly and ludicrous, the undertaker who parades -- it seems a way of capturing the tragicomic aspect of our life and death, our efforts to hide death, make the dead go away...] All this, and much more of the same sort, accompanied by the eloquence of poets, has gone a great way to put humanity in error; [Ah. The argument approaches. Our ornate death ceremonials have in some way put us in error.] nay, in many philosophies the error has been embodied and laid down with every circumstance of logic; although in real life the bustle and swiftness, in leaving people little time to think, have not left them time enough to go dangerously wrong in practice. [Bit convoluted here, but he seems to be saying that our philosophers too misunderstand death and lead us astray about it. Fortunately, we don't do much thinking in the heat of human event, so we ritualize death - and live our lives, for that matter - pretty adequately.]

As a matter of fact, although few things are spoken of with more fearful whisperings than this prospect of death, few have less influence on conduct under healthy circumstances. [As long as life moves along normally, we don't think about our death.] We have all heard of cities in South America built upon the side of fiery mountains, and how, even in this tremendous neighbourhood, the inhabitants are not a jot more impressed by the solemnity of mortal conditions than if they were delving gardens in the greenest corner of England. [Again, few of us in this century would write so floridly, but there's an energy and wit here that's attractive.] There are serenades and suppers and much gallantry among the myrtles overhead; and meanwhile the foundation shudders underfoot, the bowels of the mountain growl, and at any moment living ruin may leap sky-high into the moonlight, and tumble man and his merry-making in the dust. [If you don't think Stevenson was aware of the delicious alliteration in all the M's in this sentence, think again. Great prose stylists are very self-conscious. And yes, I've highlighted said M's. Note the internal rhyme, too, in "bowels of the mountain growl."] In the eyes of very young people, and very dull old ones, there is something indescribably reckless and desperate in such a picture. It seems not credible that respectable married people, with umbrellas, should find appetite for a bit of supper within quite a long distance of a fiery mountain; ordinary life begins to smell of high-handed debauch when it is carried on so close to a catastrophe; and even cheese and salad, it seems, could hardly be relished in such circumstances without something like a defiance of the Creator. [Again, a very long sentence, but just lots of fun to be inside, no? The adorable absurdity of "with umbrellas," the freshness of "to smell of," the humble foods...] It should be a place for nobody but hermits dwelling in prayer and maceration, or mere born-devils drowning care in a perpetual carouse. [Maceration? Neither do I. But as SOS has said before on this blog, we go to great writers in part for new words, for the pleasant interior twist we feel when confronted with strange formulations... We go especially to the poet for this, but also to the great prose writer... So, I looked it up, and I think Stevenson means starving themselves.]

Let's take a break. More paragraphs to come in a bit.


Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Scathing Online Schoolmarm

Jim Acho, Sports Review Magazine:

'I have received close to 1000 emails the last month, from people asking me to address this. Initially I disregarded, but it reared it's [First of many spelling errors. Dude cannot spell.] ugly head again, after a piece last week by ESPN's Pat Forde, a writer I generally respect [Pompous. Do you think we care who you do and don't respect? UD respects people who know how to spell.].

Well, its been a tumultuous two weeks for the folks at Michigan, I'm sure, having to defend itself against comments made by a once-proud alum who decided to take a cheap shot (twice) [Time to start listing the cliches... reared ugly head... once-proud... take a cheap shot...] at the nation's finest institution for blending sports and academics at a high level [Who says it's the finest? I do. End of argument. What a fool.]. This wasn't Fresno State he was chipping at, but Michigan. He took indirect shots at a program overseen by my wife [Yikes. This piece is a pissy defense of the little lady. Way to make your case.] and more directly, Lloyd Carr and his program. Now, what his motivation was for spouting off with such sophomoric vitriole [Spelling continues to eat shit.] is beyond many, though methinks it has to do with insecurity and some serious jealousy. [As opposed to my motivation -- Outrage on behalf of my wife.] What other reason could there be for going after not only his alma mater [God forbid you should ever criticize your university.], but spreading rumors about fellow Pac-10 school USC and coach Pete Carroll, who absolutely lambasted the comparitively [Spelling vastly shitty.] young coaching whippersnapper (Harbaugh's in his 40's, older than say a Brett Bielema, but never a head coach at this level) for running off at the mouth.

I've met Jim Harbaugh before, at a coaching clinic, and he is a nice guy. Handsome sonofagun, too. If Tom Cruise had been a real-life football player, he'd have been Harbaugh, I imagine. He showed a lot of moxie as a qb at UM and in the league--I was chatting today with former Rams qb Roman Gabriel (who belongs in the HOF, if not for his stats, his many guest appearances on tv shows in the 60's/70's) and it occured [Spelling creating a merdacious firmament which spreads throughout the essay.] to me that Harbaugh and Gabriel's careers mirrored each other, though in different eras: both played 15 years, both threw for nearly 30,000 yards, both went into coaching when their NFL careers ended. In other words, Harbaugh was legit. A gritty player whom Bo Schembechler adored. And perhaps that's what hurts--some of what Harbaugh said was true (as it applies to all schools at this level, not just Michigan) but Harbaugh pointed out Michigan, and it was said to dig, to jab, to prod a program no longer overseen by the emeritus, Bo Schembechler, who passed last November. Harbaugh never would have said what he did had Bo been alive. So, to me it smacks of cowardice. Plus, Harbaugh referenced grad rates from an old media guide without knowing the full scoop, and he was off-base on the crux of his argument. [Wacky sentence. His basic approach, of course, is Guy Writing bigtime -- Got his shoulder around your shoulder, confiding, one good ol' boy to another, in your ear... And that's fine, fine. But then he pops a word like referenced in and you think what a confused person...] As they say in the D, his mouth wrote a check his ass can't cash. [Hadn't heard this one. UD's hardly in a position to complain about vulgarity, but this saying is, er, a bit obscure...]

Now, does every D-I school let in some marginal kids to play ball? Yes. EVERY SCHOOL does, with the exception of the academies, which really cannot compete (see ex-AFA coach Fisher DeBerry's public begging for the admission of more black athletes two years ago) year in, year out, at this level. Michigan graduated 22 of 25 football players last year, a rate you can stack up against any school in the country. Jim didn't mention that though. Instead, he chose to talk about degrees, and now "general studies" was something unseemly. Well, we know that Michigan is an Ivy League-caliber school, right? That is uncontroverted [Again, suddenly uncontroverted... Just weird.] --it takes a 4.0 to get in. So you're saying that one of this prestigious school's majors (a major that dates back a century) is suddenly bogus because of football players? That it was okay for say, James Earl Jones in 1955, but not Chad Henne in 2007? Preposterous. How many of us ever use our specific degree in the occupation which pays us, anyway? The whole topic is absurd. [Absurd, preposterous. We're sputtering. UD's told you about high emotionality and argumentation.]

As a lawyer who has handled a number of defamation/slander/libel cases, I'm careful to say that I have no proof Jim Harbaugh was drunk (I do know the Thunderbird jingle above is lost on some of you young 'uns) when he spouted off about UM and USC. And I won't call him a drunk (as he's been referred to on sports radio and over the net by some), either--hell, we all make mistakes in this life. [Hard to think of a better example of sleazy rhetoric than these sentences.] ...[W]e do know that Harbaugh has been drunk before: 1) He got a DUI in recent months and had to take alcohol classes for those guilty of DUI and 2) he left his wallet in a bar just a few months ago. Now, is THAT the standard Stanford holds itself to? Obviously not. The moral here: don't cast stones when you're in a glass house. Especially when the reason you even have that house is because of a man who is now deceased. Don't spit on Bo Schembechler's grave, Jim Harbaugh; he taught you better. Your father Jack taught you better. Apologize, show contrition, and all will be forgotten; eventually, you'll be accepted back into the fold. But I think Jim may be too stubborn to do so. And that will be his undoing. [Really disgusting. At this point, only Mrs. Acho is nodding.] In the end, I think Harbaugh, who is making enemies among prominent coaches at an alarming rate, is jealous of two programs: USC and Michigan. And he foolishly went after both. A still-irate Carroll and USC will thrash Stanford. Oh, and check out Phil Steele's last two editions and see what Harbaugh's predecessor Buddy Teevens recruited. Buddy Hackett would have done a better job recruiting. He left Stanford bare as Mother Hubbard's cupboard [Gawd.], and Harbaugh will likely go bowl-less the next three years, have his contract bought out, and take over Jack's old squad, Western Kentucky. Let's just hope the Hilltoppers don't have too many general studies majors there.'

SOS summarizes: Sucks radically.


Wednesday, August 08, 2007

They're Dismantling the University of Oregon's
Academic Units Piece by Piece... prop up their sports program, but it doesn't seem to be working. Apparently you can destroy a university intellectually and still have shitty teams.

In a spectacularly well-written piece, a sports columnist at The Oregonian makes the point.

'The dominant image on the front cover of the 2007 Oregon football media guide is coach Mike Bellotti. Same as the back cover, which has a second dominant photo of Bellotti, and the words "Fearless" and "Leadership" and "Intensity" and "Strength" and "Determination" and "Innovative." [The author knows the importance of understatement, of letting language do the work for you. He just lists the words; he just describes the photos. He doesn't comment. He knows we get the idea.]

Except they forgot one word.


When we last left Bellotti, he was muttering under his breath after the Las Vegas Bowl, having been run off The Strip by a herd of stampeding Cougars. His team had just lost its fourth consecutive game and sixth in nine tries. He was telling anyone who would listen that Brigham Young (11-2) wouldn't have finished in the top half of the Pacific-10 Conference, which wasn't exactly an endorsement of his program if he'd stopped to think about it. [Nice pleasant conversational, somewhat confiding, prose.]

So maybe you weren't surprised last month when Bellotti publicly lambasted Dennis Dixon after his projected starting quarterback hit .188 in 24 at-bats in the minor leagues. Bellotti chided Dixon for signing and going to Florida to give baseball a try, effectively sending a Code Red to any future player who dares to miss a summer workout chasing a dream.

Nevermind [Should be two words.] that a few months before, Bellotti was jockeying for the vacant athletic director job. In Eugene, what's good for the coach isn't necessarily good for the quarterback. [Drop necessarily to make this nice observation about hypocrisy even nicer.]

And so this season begins with people wondering if Dixon will find enough confidence to lead. And with the Ducks picked to finish sixth in the conference in the annual media poll despite big-time resources, deep-pocketed boosters, a pro-athletics administration and blue-chip recruits. [Reminds the reader that the university has given over its identity to rich sports boosters.]

But what about high expectations?

Oregon basketball coach Ernie Kent reached the NCAA's elite eight, but because of a history of underachievement found himself with minimal offseason negotiating leverage. Which is only to say that Kent apparently isn't as good at politicking and schmoozing as Bellotti. If Coach Teflon gives a speech at a coaching clinic, it should be titled, "How Cultivating Key Boosters Can Save Your Tail." [Some of this is sort of hokey. In fact, the whole teflon thing is pretty tired. But it's still a fine piece of writing.]

When Mike Riley underachieves at Oregon State, he's held accountable. So is Kent. And so is OSU basketball coach Jay John.

But Bellotti skates [Knows how to play his teflon metaphor.] unlike any other highly compensated employee of the State of Oregon. And he shares in a percentage of season-ticket sales. And he uses a university automobile and a Eugene Country Club membership, among other perks, that are afforded to him as part of his contract. There's something about the free pass that doesn't feel right. [Excellent nasty detail. And the final sentence has a good understated feel to it. Remember: High emotion is the enemy of argumentation.]

Oregon has lost five or more games in four of the past five seasons. Since the 2002 season, Bellotti's teams have zero bowl victories. The Ducks have lost, in order, a Seattle Bowl, a Sun Bowl, a Holiday Bowl and a Las Vegas Bowl. [Ouch.]

Bellotti has passed around the blame for his shortcomings. He's changed offensive coordinators, season to season to season. He's changed starting quarterbacks, series to series. He's changed team captains, game to game. [Repetition of "He's changed" at beginning of each sentence an example of effective repetition. Careful when you try this. The line between effective and deadly is thin. You know who does this really well? Joan Didion. Take a look at almost any page of The Year of Magical Thinking for brilliant use of initial repetition.] What really has to change, though, are the expectations surrounding the head coach, because without it, I suspect Bellotti is going to underachieve, go winless in bowl games over the next decade and shake hands all the way to the university Hall of Fame as if life were a glorified booster luncheon. [Nice simile. Life as glorified booster luncheon is nice.]

Bellotti hasn't performed poorly enough to lose his job, but the cries for appropriate improvement and focus and results are strangely absent at the start of this season. [Drop appropriate. Way blah word.] His inconsistent body of work merits more public scrutiny. His failure to break through given his resources merits a lower threshold of tolerance on a campus where Kent, and other coaches, are held accountable.

For Ducks fans, the football season turns into the stuff of an 18th-century Alexander Pope poem. You know, "Blessed is the man who expects nothing, for he shall never be disappointed." [HE'S QUOTING ALEXANDER POPE. HOLD ME BACK.]

But Pope only said it that way because nothing rhymes with Teflon.'


Sunday, August 05, 2007

Scathing Online Schoolmarm

The bellicose Joseph E. Bellacosa shows you how not to argue a case.

His way-angry opinion piece in Newsday insists that Duke University students boycott all classes taught by the 88 faculty members there who, when the lacrosse story raged, put their names to a letter which rushed to judgment against the players.

It was a stupid letter -- badly written, too, though who but SOS cares about such things... -- and I don't have anything in particular against boycotts... But Bellacosa's writing makes me want to boycott him.

Accountability finally came to Durham County District Attorney Michael Nifong last month, when he was disbarred as an attorney and forced to resign as a disgraced public officer. Last week he issued an apology and a full retraction of the rape accusations against three Duke University lacrosse players. [So far so good.]

Now, with students heading to Duke in just a few short weeks [Instead of the sort of dumb cliche just a few short, write the actual number of weeks.] for the beginning of the fall term, the time is at hand to demand some accountability for Nifong's academic enablers. [Already we're in trouble with demand. Angry insistency is not the way to go, especially at the beginning of your essay. Work up to a bit of rage if you must, but don't start in on demands in your second paragraph. The reader responds by assuming that you've got a personal agenda that's making you nuts.]

Eighty-eight members of the Duke faculty publicly promulgated a dreadful letter, enflaming a premature and prejudicial atmosphere against their own students. [You absolutely have to quote a sentence or two from the letter at this point. Or you could link to it. The reader can't be expected to remember it, and you need to demonstrate how dreadful it is. ] Yet, their conduct is largely shielded from accountability. Equally troublesome, their ironically and suddenly protective university masters executed a confidential settlement to further immunize the Duke cabal from civil liability exposure. [Notice how bizarre the combination of constipating adverbs (largely, ironically, suddenly) plus Harry-Potter-speak (cabal, masters) is here. The writer does not have control of his tone.]

The 88 are thus granted a kind of institutional immunity, a corruption of process all by itself because it sidesteps a day of public reckoning.

But although the group can't technically be charged with crimes - though abandoning your young and endangering youth sure do come close to real definable crimes - there are ways these professors can be held accountable. [The writer overstates the magnitude of the offense.] The identities of the 88 professors should be posted in significant ways and places, including in the media and on the Internet, so that they may be known for what they have done.

The likely howls of protest [howls of protest is a cliche] from the tenure police, university guild apologists and free-speech absolutists [Beginning to sputter here. You don't want to sputter.] notwithstanding, the professoriat should not be shielded from appropriate public condemnation for their misconduct. Their dormant consciences and sensibilities should be reawakened to the abhorrent nature of the actions they inflicted on their own students. [Read this sentence aloud. While there's nothing grammatically objectionable about it, it's just weird. Awkward. Stilted. You want your writing - especially opinion piece writing for newspapers - to be as close to conversational speech as possible. No one talks like this.]

But even belatedly squirming consciences are not enough to compensate for the betrayal of fundamental principles involved here. [Ecoute. You don't have to be a poet, okay? You don't. But... belatedly squirming conscience?]

Because the identities of this "Group of 88," as they have been dubbed, are blurred by their group anonymity, they should not be allowed to get away with their prejudgment - a brazen violation of the presumption of innocence, despite later protestations to the contrary. [What we need here is precision about the content of the letter, not sputtering redundancy.]

Their roles as teachers should have included special protection of their pupils from mob hysteria and media hype, not collaboration in the spectacle. These 88 and the rest of the Duke "family" [You guessed it.] stood in loco parentis - in the place of the parents who entrusted their youngsters to Duke's professionals, with substantial tuition payments. The parents' trust was painfully misplaced, and their children suffered irreparable reputation injury and a fundamental breach of duty.

The courses and classrooms of these 88 professors should be emptied. The university's academic leaders should consider assigning them to teach only elective courses. [Someone needs to tell Mr. Bellacosa that university professors pray to teach only elective courses. Only elective courses is not a punishment. It is a reward.] No students should be forced to sit through mandatory courses with professors who evidently believe more in their ideologies than in their human charges.

Next, when students select among their electives, they should shun these professors and their courses - a good, old-fashioned revived remedy of accountability. Shunning is, under these circumstances, a proportionate penalty for the sin of heedlessly injuring young people placed in one's care and charge.

These 88 would thus be professionally disenfranchised, and as they look out at empty rooms and seats, that lesson would be felt and take hold. [ {Cough.} When they're done praying for a straight roster of electives, professors turn to the Give me the Smallest Possible Number of Students in My Class prayer.]

The university's powers that be are unlikely to have the backbone to employ this measure, based on their lack of spine throughout this debacle. But, it's an idea - and aren't universities supposed to be all about openly and courageously exploring ideas?

Duke and especially its 88 should-have-known-better professors were responsible for aiding and abetting Nifong's "crimes" [Second violation.] against his Duke student targets. The DA has had his day of reckoning for what he perpetrated; the 88 should, too. They flunked with a capital "F" the course in Principles of Justice 101, whose first lesson is the presumption of innocence and protection of innocents.

Everyone should be held ultimately accountable for their actions, even the hostile unintended consequences thereof, lest, in the future, hubristic ideologues, invested with power and fiduciary responsibilities, think that they, too, can act irresponsibly, with impunity and immunity. [So there! I mean, thereof! Lest!]


Saturday, August 04, 2007

A Letter to the Wall Street Journal

Multiple offenses italicized by UD.

'I applaud Hank Brown ("Why I Fired Professor Churchill," Opinion, July 26) for his resolve to restore a semblance of honesty and integrity to an academic world riddled with self-inflated egos who behave as though the First Amendment and archaic tenure policies offer a cloaking device for culpable behavior.

Although I occupy a very small corner of academia, the "self-sought controversy" of faculty members like Ward Churchill and, from my own alma mater, Sami Al-Arian causes a ripple effect across the professoriate. Clearly, the insular, elitist traditions that Mr. Brown challenges have created a breeding ground for such arrogant, antisocial behavior.

I can only hope the firing of Prof. Churchill serves as a wake-up call to accountability and decency to all of us entrusted with the noble responsibility of educating young minds.'

This sort of prose, which packs cliches and mixed metaphors into very few lines, prompts thoughts in SOS which do often lie too deep for tears...


Friday, August 03, 2007

UD Has Always Been Intrigued... skilled propagandists, people who know how to use language in order to frighten people into agreeing with them. The last piece of writing she looked at in detail along these lines was about Patrick Henry College, fascist Christian robot manufacturer. Here's another good one, by Tom Hayden in The Nation. My commentary's included.

Should a human rights center at the nation's most prestigious university be collaborating with the top US general in Iraq in designing the counter-insurgency doctrine behind the current military surge? [The genius of this opening sentence lies in the word "collaborating." The subject is the military, and the relationship between the military and the university. There's a well-known history, on which the writer is depending, involving CIA/university collaboration, as well as other forms of collaboration. Our other association with the word "collaborating," on which the writer equally depends, is the disgusting history of European collaboration with the Nazis. An excellent opening gambit.]

Led by Gen. David Petraeus, the so-called surge--an escalation of over 25,000 American troops--is resulting in hundreds of killings, mass roundups, door-to-door break-ins, and military offensives in Baghdad, Al-Anbar and Diyala provinces, on the side of a deeply-sectarian Baghdad regime which, according to the White House benchmarks report, still compiles official lists of Sunni Arabs targeted for detention or death. The counter-insurgency campaign is explained as a military way to create "space" for Iraqis to reach a political solution without violent interference. [No problem here, although the writer's already implicitly suggesting collaborative support of this policy on the part of a still-unnamed university.]

The new doctrine was jointly developed with academics at the Carr Center for Human Rights at Harvard. The Carr Center's Sarah Sewell, a former Pentagon official, co-sponsored with Petraeus the official "doctrine revision workshop" that produced the new Army-Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual...

This is not an academic text but, in the Marine Corps' title, a "warfighting doctrine," complete with hundreds of recommendations ranging from how to "clear, hold and build," how to use secret agents in calling in air strikes, even advice on public speaking ("avoid pacing, writing on the blackboard, teetering on the lectern, drinking beverages, or doing any other distracting activity while the interpreter is translating.").

The new counter-insurgency approach purports to be more civilized and humane than conventional kinetic war. It seeks to save the population ("winning hearts and minds") from the insurgents. It attempts to minimize civilian casualties and avoid torture of detainees. It promotes social programs. These no doubt were the attractions of the collaboration for Harvard's "humanitarian hawks." The introduction to the manual is thoughtful and balanced, even raising questions whether the effort can work at all. Sewall tastefully avoids any references to the brutal though targeted suppression necessary for the mission to succeed, but states in Ivy League language why she stands in coalition with the Marines: [The word "tastefully" is terrific. It plays on the sexism of the audience -- women do things tastefully -- and suggests that -- again, just like a woman -- Sewell is able to collaborate with brutality because she's in a Martha Stewart state of denial about what's really going on. This plays beautifully into the history of collaborationist dupes.]

"Humanitarians often avoid wading into the conduct of war for fear of becoming complicit in its purpose. The field manual requires engagement precisely from those who fear that its words will lack meaning..."

She goes on make an ambiguous comment about the dirty war supported by US Special Forces in El Salvador, now known as the "El Salvador option":

"Military annals today tally that effort as a success, but others cannot get past the shame of America's indirect role in fostering death squads."

The only sense in which the fostering of those Salvadoran death squads was "indirect" is that US forces went to great extremes to hide their role as advisers and trainers, the very role be carried out today by US advisers embedded in Baghdad's Interior Ministry, which is dominated by sectarian Shi'a Badr Brigade personnel.

The manual is explicitly based on the traditions of the British in Malaysia and Kenya, the French in Algeria, and the American forces in the "strategic hamlet" and Phoenix operations. Called "gated communities" in Iraq, these population control areas are surrounded by concertina wire and watchtowers as Iraqis are identified, fingerprinted, and eye-scanned in a system of total surveillance and coercion. Outside the concertina wire, Iraqis who the Americans officially call the Kit Carson Scouts are armed for divide-and-conquer missions against other Iraqis in a plan devised by Harvard-trained academic Stephen Biddle, now a Baghdad adviser to Gen. Petraeus. [The writer works the conspiracy angle: Another Harvard person!] Biddle's concept, described in Foreign Affairs, is to manipulate both Shi'as and Sunnis into depending on the US occupation for self-protection. Sewall of the Carr Center writes more generally that the US "strategic challenge is stabilization", meaning the rescue of multiple failed states like Iraq from their own internal insurgencies. The Carr Center hosts a series called "The Long War", in which generals like John Abizaid hold forth on the threat of "Shi'a revolutionary thought" and the looming World War Three.

It's not that counter-insurgency Harvard-style has been effective, as proven by the continued suicide bombings, sniper activity and increasing casualties among US forces since the "surge" began. It is an academic formulation to buttress and justify a permanent engagement in counter-terrorism wars.

But counter-insurgency, being based on deception, shadow warfare and propaganda, runs counter to the historic freedom of university life. [Note what Hayden's saying here. No university professor, or university unit, by his reckoning, could ever be involved in tactical or ethical advice, or thought about, any form of warfare involving deception, since university life is free. It'd take quite some time to clarify the muddiness inside this assertion. The propagandist rightly assumes you don't have the time.] Why then should Harvard collaborate? Is it now a violation of academic freedom to demand there be protocols limiting professors providing support and legitimacy for inherently secretive, classified and deliberately deceptive programs designed ultimately to kill people? [Now the propagandist shows his hand. He's not about university freedom. He wants protocols, baby.]

Perhaps it is the attraction of some intellectuals to the Devil's Game (the phrase originated with Robert Dreyfuss). These are not the "effete intellectuals" so often scorned by the right. These are intellectuals who presumably can "get past the shame" of those death squads, and this time do it right. They believe that the exposure of the generals to a civilian academic atmosphere may humanize the process of war-making, not worrying that the actual danger may be the militarizing of the university. [Yes, actually, they do seem to believe that rather than ignoring the military, academics should pay attention to it in responsible ways. Since Hayden's pretty much defined any form of military activity as demonic, there's no way academics can get involved here. In fact, protocols forbidding involvement must be formulated. Otherwise -- and here's the way scary thing!! -- it's 'the militarizing of the university.']

The Carr Center does not officially favor the war in Iraq [Good of Hayden to point that out. Now for a little character assassination.], though one of its former directors, Michael Ignatieff, is famed for endorsing the US as a "21st century imperium", an "empire lite", and publicly calling for "acceptable degrees of coercive interrogation." On the other hand, there is the formidable Samantha Power, an Irish-born humanitarian who strongly supported the US-NATO Balkans war and campaigned for Gen. Wesley Clark in 2004 [Campaigning for a retired general is proof of collaborationist evil...]. Power is a close adviser to Sen. Barack Obama, who supports a withdrawal of US combat troops by next year with exceptions for "advisers" and special units to battle al-Qaeda. Power, who worked last year in Obama's Washington, DC office, writes that even the proposed combat troop withdrawal can be reversed if Iraq's condition continues to worsen. Intentionally or not, the cautious, complicated Obama proposal as described by Power leaves open the likelihood of thousands of American troops remaining in counter-insurgency roles for years ahead.

If that is the limit of legitimate debate at Harvard [See how good he is? Whoever said 'limit of legitimate debate'? Who's keeping anyone at Harvard from taking up the question of whether advising the military in any capacity is the devil's work? Hayden would have us believe that Harvard's a police state.], the Pentagon occupation of the academic mind [Nice. The Pentagon occupation of the academic mind. It's insidious, evil, and going on all around us. Joe McCarthy, come on down....] may last much longer than its occupation of Iraq, and may require an intellectual insurgency in response.

The Center's response is here.


Thursday, August 02, 2007

Charles Simic...

... a poet who ain't never done nothin' for UD, is the new poet laureate.

I never see any poetry in a Simic poem, any language that's beautiful or surprising or odd. His work seems to me short declarative sentences, propositional statements that toss domestic ordinariness in with suggestive surreality and hope for the best.

Sadder still, I never believe his poems. I mean, Simic doesn't seem to believe them. They seem exercises.

And tired ones. Lookee here:

Late September

The mail truck goes down the coast
Carrying a single letter.
At the end of a long pier
The bored seagull lifts a leg now and then
And forgets to put it down.
There is a menace in the air
Of tragedies in the making.

Last night you thought you heard television
In the house next door.
You were sure it was some new
Horror they were reporting.

So you went out to find out.
Barefoot, wearing just shorts.
It was only the sea sounding weary
After so many lifetimes
Of pretending to be rushing off somewhere
And never getting anywhere.

This morning, it felt like Sunday.
The heavens did their part
By casting no shadow along the boardwalk
Or the row of vacant cottages,
Among them a small church
With a dozen gray tombstones huddled close
As if they, too, had the shivers.

Look at that first stanza. The guy goes from a one-legged seagull to the grandiosity of tragedies in the making in a menacing world... So... I'm laughing at this point. Don't throw tragedy at me until you create the mood, buster. Foreplay matters. It's lazy to toss me two images -- a lonely mail truck toddling down the coast, and a forgetful bird -- and then shove that shit about tragedy in my face. I'm not ready.

The "Last night you heard" stanza is what I mean by poetry-free poetry. Take the lines out of poetic abbreviation and make them the straightforward prose that they are. There's no suspense in them, no haunted connotation. They're just blah.

"So you went out to find out." Why repeat out? Is it of verbal interest to do so? No. It's the same lazy redundancy Scathing Online Schoolmarm finds in so many of the prose pieces she analyzes... And then the weary sea, "rushing off somewhere/ And never getting anywhere." Same sense of laziness rather than intriguing echo in where and where in the last two lines.

Oh, and now we wind up, and we reach for something really big: religion. But nothing's been earned here - the solemnity of faith, the terror at the ominous vacuity of existence - these are among the grandest themes of the greatest art. Here, they're sketched in a gesture so superficial as to be a form of contempt:

...a small church
With a dozen gray tombstones huddled close
As if they, too, had the shivers.

Huddled. Hard to think of a more predictable word.

You want creepy? Here.

Friday Night at the Royal Station Hotel

Light spreads darkly downwards from the high
Clusters of lights over empty chairs
That face each other, coloured differently.
Through open doors, the dining-room declares
A larger loneliness of knives and glass
And silence laid like carpet. A porter reads
An unsold evening paper. Hours pass,
And all the salesmen have gone back to Leeds,
Leaving full ashtrays in the Conference Room.

In shoeless corridors, the lights burn. How
Isolated, like a fort, it is -
The headed paper, made for writing home
(If home existed) letters of exile: Now
Night comes on. Waves fold behind villages.


Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Criminals Downfield

A strong-minded and not too badly written opinion column in Oklahoma State University's newspaper. It's about the Oklahoma University football team. UD admires the writer's toughness. SOS has a few suggestions.

The honorable tradition of college football is tarnished by the University of Oklahoma football team. [Take this out of passive voice for more force in your first sentence: The University of Oklahoma football team tarnishes...] The history and tradition [Don't repeat tradition so soon.] of OU football is richly filled [richly filled is a bit awkward. Just go with filled -- or find a better word.] with National Championships, hall of famers and uncontrollable players [Very nice conclusion of the sentence... sort of unexpected... "uncontrollable players."].

The school’s history of putting criminals on the field is not ending [won't end? continues? Try to avoid the to be verb formulation here.] with Bob Stoops. Barry Switzer’s gang of hooligans is not so different from Stoops’ band of heathens.

They have been involved in controversy after controversy regarding numerous NCAA violations. The most notorious OU coach to be involved with NCAA infractions was Switzer. [Note the short sentences and the reliance, again, on dull to be verbs. Punch it up!]

His history with the school includes winning three national championships, multiple Big Eight Conference championships and producing 54 All-Americans.

Switzer was also accused spying on Darrell Royal’s 1976 University of Texas team and bailing out on OU after the team was placed on probation in 1989.

For six months in 1988, players from Switzer’s team were involved with a shooting, a rape in the athletic dorms, a robbery and arrests for drug dealing.

The Stoops era seems to be steamrolling down an eerily similar path. [eerily seems to clash with steamrolling.] Since being named Oklahoma’s football coach in 1999, Stoops’ team has been involved with numerous scandals. [An awkward word order here makes it look as though the team was named coach.]

The decision to remove quarterback Rhett Bomar and offensive lineman JD Quinn were [should be was] not enough to evade an investigation by the NCAA. The NCAA charged OU with “failure to monitor players” and has forced the team to forfeit the winnings from the 2005-06 season as well as being placed on probation until the 2010 season.

The team has also been involved with a number of secondary violations including providing two banned substances to players, calling recruits multiple times and showing three prospects lockers with their high school number on an OU jersey.

All these violations lead me to believe that OU is showing poor leadership and giving college football a bad name. [Understatement. And poor leadership is a cliche. Speak more directly, with more force, here.] The reputation and tradition of OU has been tarnished and is only getting worse with the increased monitoring of the school by the NCAA. [Repetition of tarnished makes this short piece feel sluggish, as if it isn't going anywhere. Find another word.]

It is the responsibility of the coaching staff to control and supervise the players they recruit. If players could understand that they are being given a great opportunity by receiving many free educational services, I don’t think they would break the rules as often. [Content problem here. Many players don't give a shit about educational services, considering them an impediment.]

It sickens me to see talent like Bomar’s wasted because of greediness and failure to appreciate the rules. [sickens is very good. The piece would have been better altogether if the writer had used variations on the I almost plotzed metaphor throughout.] The NCAA has made these rules to preserve the tradition and reputation of college football. [Drop this sentence.]

Hopefully [hopefully is incorrectly used here] the recent punishments will turn a light on in Stoops’ head [turn a light on is awkward] that OU football is corrupt and needs to be changed.


Saturday, July 21, 2007

Scathing Online Schoolmarm

UD's already told you that Gophers fans are stupid. In so very many ways. But you don't listen to UD, because she's ...well, you know her demographics. So listen to this guy, who writes for the Minnesota Star Tribune. Admittedly he introduces his opinion piece oddly. But in his own way he's making my point.

'Abraham Lincoln is credited with this observation: "You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time." [We're starting in a galaxy far away from our subject... But it might work...]

Honest Abe [SOS is getting nervous. Honest Abe... ] succumbed to an assassin's bullet in 1865. The University of Minnesota would have its first graduating class in 1873.

There were two graduates, or roughly the number of scholarship basketball players that wore the cloak and gown during the Dan Monson era.

The above timeline makes it obvious that President Lincoln never met a loyal follower of the Golden Gophers, or to maintain honesty he would have amended the quote to say:

"... You cannot fool all of the people all of the time, unless you're talking about Gophers fans." [Whew. What an exhausting way of getting to a very very simple point.]

Lou Holtz proved without question what saps we can be when his relentless bull-slinging instantly filled the Metrodome. To his credit, Holtz brought with him a strong résumé as a head coach. When the rhetoric stopped for three hours on a Saturday, he was a tremendous offensive coach.

Two decades later, we are being swept off our feet by another slinger in Tim Brewster. What this says is our sap ratio actually has increased in the past two decades, since Brewster brings with him only the verbosity and no track record.

The guy coached for 18 years in Division I-A or the NFL and his bosses resisted the urge to make him a coordinator.

The Gophers fired Glen Mason after the bowl choke against Texas Tech, and Joel Maturi started his search. Once Brewster got the athletic director in a room and started excitedly spewing clichés, our poor bumpkin from the Iron Range didn't have a chance. [This gets better as it goes along, but the writer needs to drop some excess weight: excitedly, poor.]

The spewing hasn't stopped since Brewster was hired in mid-January. He has gone running to every group that will have him, flapping his arms like San Diego's Famous Chicken and screeching, "Rose Bowl, Rose Bowl."

He's also the runaway pitchman in recruiting, where his enthusiasm seems to be convincing all of the prospects some of the time.

Brewster reached a new level in his self-promotion last week when he used a sexual assault investigation to tell us how lucky we should feel to have him.

On Monday, Dominic Jones was charged, and it came with the allegation that his actions were videotaped on Alex Daniels' cell phone. Once Mike Freeman, the Hennepin County attorney, told the tale, it was certain that the university hierarchy was not going to have Jones, Daniels, Keith Massey and E.J. Jones playing football for the Gophers.

The university allowed Brewster to offer the spin that he had reached independently the decision to dismiss the four players from the team.

A statement was released Wednesday in which Brewster said: "We spend a considerable amount of time addressing our players regarding their personal conduct. ... We are establishing a culture of integrity and we will demand that our players are held accountable for their actions."

Two questions:

• Brewster was on the job for three months when the alleged assault of the 18-year-old woman took place. So, why is the coach bragging about addressing his players on personal conduct, if some of them obviously didn't listen?

• If he's forced to establish a culture of integrity, it would seem that he's telling us it was missing when he took over for Mason. So, how was it that Mason dismissed several players for much less serious failings, without feeling the need to pay tribute to himself for doing so?

Yes, this was a high-profile situation that demanded a statement from the coach, but a simple declaration from Brewster that the action had been taken would have left no room for cynicism.

Throw in Maturi's comment -- "I am in full support of the decision of coach Brewster and I appreciate how he has handled this very difficult situation" -- and it all comes off as more of an ain't-Tim-great sales pitch than a sincere reaction to this embarrassment suffered in the athletic department.

You're being manipulated, folks, but as we've learned previously, a football coach with a talent for slinging can fool all of the Gophers fans all of the time.'


Friday, July 13, 2007

Sometimes Scathing Online Schoolmarm...

...just has to scratch her head. Guys! The way guys write! The way guys write about university sports!

Penn State's Number Two in the current Fulmer Cup rankings, which track the most criminal bigtime university sports teams in the country. It's got real problems. But when you just love those lunks, here's how you describe the situation.

The only Heisman Trophy winner in Penn State history was never consigned by his coach to spending a Sunday morning crawling across the clammy, sticky concrete of Beaver Stadium, collecting hot dog wrappers and empty Cheese Whiz cups. [In response to a variety of serious offenses on the part of his players, the Penn State coach had them pick trash up at the stadium one day. Let the punishment fit the crime and all... The writer's first sentence, while jammed with all the vivid detail your writing teacher tells you to jam into your sentences, is a bit overwhelming. The coupling of "only" and "never" at the beginning of the sentence is confusing. And the writer's effort to make a trash clean-up sound like years in a gulag looks unpromising.] If Joe Paterno ever punished John Cappelletti and those Nittany Lions of the early 1970s the way he has his current players, putting all of them on trash detail to pay for the alleged offenses of some of them, Cappelletti doesn't remember it. [Note "alleged." Nothing alleged about them. And for "some," write "lots." That's the only way you get to the top of the Fulmer.]

“Then again,” Cappelletti, the 1973 Heisman trophy winner said by telephone the other day, “we may not have had the same problems that he's experienced now.”

The problem was an off-campus brawl in the spring at which at least 15 Penn State football players were present and six were arrested. The university ultimately disciplined 10 players last month, placing four on year-long probation and two on permanent probation and temporarily expelling safety Anthony Scirrotto, defensive lineman Chris Baker, linebacker Jerome Hayes and cornerback Lydell Sargeant.

Those expulsions can end in time for the fall semester and for the four to play in Penn State's season opener against Florida International on Sept. 1 [whew!], but Paterno had beaten the university's judicial affairs system to the punch. He announced his team-wide cleanup detail in May, igniting accusations that he was attempting to subvert the school's investigation. [Coach's punch starts a fire.... Yeah, I know, don't go there... It's sports writing...]

“What Joe does to run the program, what he decides,” Cappelletti said, “is still his call.”

Scheduled to appear at Northampton Country Club in Richboro on July 22 for the Louis P. Merlano Scholarship Classic, Cappelletti, 54, doesn't get back to the East Coast much, maybe three weeks a year. He lives in Laguna Niguel, Calif., now and talks to Paterno only occasionally, but even from that distance, he can see that Paterno's handling of the situation hasn't been all that surprising.

“If coaches don't feel they're getting the most of you, they may have to do something to jump-start you,” Cappelletti said. “It may not be things you want to hear, just like when you're growing up and you hear things from your parents about curfew. But for me to be the best son I could be, my parents had to be tough. And for me to be the best player I could be, Joe had to be tough. If not, what value other than Xs and Os was he bringing to the program?”

It's easy to suggest that, at 80, Paterno is out of touch with today's elite athletes and their parents, that no kid who expects a football coach to smooch his tuchas would choose to play for a crotchety old-timer who might have his entire secondary standing in the center of a 107,282-seat stadium with Hefty bags in their hands. [No comment.] Surely, there are opposing coaches who already have tried to use Paterno's punishment against him in their daily recruiting skirmishes, and maybe that strategy (“You don't want to be picking ... up ... trash ... do you?”) works sometimes. It also sends a terrible message: that at certain programs, an athlete can check his personal accountability at the door. [Penn State - uncompromising in its punishment of misdeeds.]

Remember, too: A university's judicial affairs system is no more bound by due process than a coach's conscience is, and a few recent, high-profile cases have proven that agendas and biases aren't the sole provinces of coaches and big-time boosters.

In 2002, after Penn State's judicial affairs body had expelled defensive back Anwar Phillips for two semesters on accusations of sexual assault, the university's president, Graham Spanier, publicly chastised Paterno for suiting up Phillips in a bowl game, only to look foolish when Phillips was easily acquitted of all charges in Center County court. And if the Duke lacrosse scandal didn't reveal that college administrations and faculties aren't necessarily strongholds of integrity and justice, nothing does.

This doesn't make Paterno infallible — just a man with a measure of integrity, which these days is enough to stand out among the sinners. [John Wayne talk.]

“I'm not sure that there's not a lot of parents who wouldn't see that as a value,” said Cappelletti, a father of four. “If you're not a parent or don't have young adult kids, you may not understand this. At some point, someone taking action like that can be very refreshing. Some parents and athletes going into the process may say, "I'm not going to play for a guy who makes me pick up trash.' But I think the kids realize they did something wrong. [SOS loves it when coaches call the lads kids.]

“It's as much a part of life as it is anything with football. It might be a little embarrassing to a point, but they'll never do something like this again.”

If they do, their punishment will again be Joe Paterno's call. His program, his decision. Always. [Choke. Blubber.]

(PS: One sportswriter lists ten things he's looking forward to this college football season. Number 3 is

'Seeing the Gameday piece on Penn State football players cleaning Beaver Stadium and then having Desmond Howard sit down with select players and ask, "So, do you think you'll ever home-invade again?"')


Sunday, July 08, 2007

Scathing Online Schoolmarm:
Flyover Guy-Writing

SOS has already discussed the category of prose she calls guy-writing. Flyover Guy-Writing is guy-writing from the heartland. Here's an example, from the Toledo Blade. There are problems.

Countless University of Toledo alumni and sports fans, and even the casual everyday observer who relishes dirty laundry being aired, must be wondering just how long Mike O'Brien will be able to hold onto his job as UT's director of athletics. [Background here.] [And, uh, as to style... If you've been following SOS at all, you know we've already got a wordiness problem. Yes, the laundry thing is a cliche, but sports writers only do cliches, and we're about to get a full hamper of them. So forget cliches. Just factor in cliches. Look, instead, at the words jamming things up: both casual and everyday, when one of those two would be better... There are other bad signs: The word "relishes" isn't quite right for the laundry image, and there's his choice of the clunky "to be" word ("being") in place of something smoother...]

Me? I wonder why he'd even want to. [This is good. Strong, simple, and gets its own paragraph. Note that he'll nicely return to this point at the end of the piece.]

His department is being micro-managed by the president's office, which has also been the source of much information that has found its way into media reports lately. [Is... has... has... Again with the dull "to be" words. And don't forget content, as the writer's argument revs up: He's trying to defend a very corrupt athletic department -- a difficult thing to do even with excellent writing ability -- by complaining that it's really an okay place, just suffering from micro-management... He fails to point out that it wasn't managed at all for so long a time that it became impossibly corrupt: The new oversight is a direct result of the department's own fuckupery.] UT's relatively new president believes that public business should be conducted in public. That's fine. But it is one thing to conduct public business and it's another to let a major department head publicly twist in the breeze.

O'Brien isn't perfect. There's enough smoke coming out of UT to indicate there might be a fire or two at least smoldering. [Sure, sure, the cliches ... the bizarrely mixed figurative language... But I'm telling you that this is how all sports writers write... ] Maybe he hasn't paid enough attention to every paperclip and every penny. [Cry me a paperclip. We're talking bigtime corruption here. This is where Flyover Guy-Writing most clearly expresses itself. The guy's a booster. Probably buddies with many of the principals, etc.] Maybe coaches and administrators have overstepped vague bounds when it comes to travel and expenses. [Why are they vague?] Maybe having revenue from an away basketball game sent directly to a third-party sporting goods company was a bad idea. (Actually, there's no maybe about that one.) [A tragic schizoid thing begins to emerge here, in which the guy both acknowledges obvious malfeasance and complains about people who point it out...] Maybe the athletic deficit is too large, although I'd defy you to find many, if any, [many, if any, is pretty weird] mid-major universities playing Division I-A football that are operating at a profit. [Hey, that's right... To all the other stuff we can say about programs like Toledo's, we can add money-loser.] Maybe some of the staffers at Savage Hall should not be enrolled in the free and reduced lunch program.

And, of course, there's the smoking e-mail. In the aftermath of the merger of UT and the Medical University of Ohio, which took place just over a year ago, an assistant athletic director whose job was to oversee business affairs and monitor finances was dismissed, ostensibly because her position was absorbed by the merger. It was hard to buy from the start. If the alumni director at one school or the other was let go it would make sense. [A bit obnoxious, I know - just reminding you about the WAS problem...] Or a public information officer. Or a campus police chief. Or a president. One merged school, one merged job. But MUO, to my knowledge, had no athletic department. So in what way did the merger render this woman's job unnecessary? It didn't add up.

O'Brien, who is a smart man, then did a very, very stupid thing and it might ultimately cost him his job. [The wordiness thing again. Drop who is. Drop then. Drop very - you don't need either one of them. Like a lot of intensifiers, these actually dilute. Drop ultimately.] Knowing that this woman, by now a very disgruntled ex-employee who was never popular among the Savage Hall set - in part, perhaps, because she was counting every paperclip and penny - was talking to The Blade, O'Brien sent an e-mail to a Blade executive attempting to discredit her and her story. It said, in part, that "I had to eliminate her role as she was a tremendous blow to our morale, among other things." [I'll go through this quickly, since you're getting the idea: Drop by now; drop very; drop who was; instead of she was counting, write she counted.]

The former assistant AD is expected [write will probably to avoid yet another to be word] to file a lawsuit challenging her termination and that e-mail could end up being very expensive [drop very -- and if you want to get rid of the "being very expensive," rewrite the phrase: that email might really cost the university -- something like that.] for UT. O'Brien must have been temporarily brain dead to have clicked the "send" button.

So, all is not well at UT and with O'Brien. And, you may note, we haven't even mentioned the alleged gambling scandal, once a sizzling topic, which now is simmering on the back burner as the FBI presumably goes about its business. That will likely be another story for another day.

Oddly enough, considering all of the above, I'll go on record as saying Mike O'Brien is a heck of an athletic director [Here's where the tragic schizoid guy thing comes in. Having written a spectacular indictment of the place, he will now swear undying love.], at least in regards to the things UT fans really care about - wins and losses, championships, academics (and it might be a stretch to say college sports fans anywhere really care about that), scheduling, game contracts, and facilities. [Off the rails here. So the writer cares only about the shit the fans care about? And what's that thing about academics? Bizarre.]

In fact, had he done nothing else since being hired in January of 2002, O'Brien should be inducted in the Varsity T Hall of Fame for negotiating one contract for one football game. On Sept. 19, 2009, the Rockets will play Ohio State in Cleveland Browns Stadium. Toledo will be the home team, which is an unprecedented coup, and will pocket the proceeds from an allotment of 58,000-plus tickets. The game is an automatic sellout and UT's net proceeds after expenses should top $2.5 million. And that may be conservative. To our knowledge, only one athletic director of one mid-major college football program has ever signed his name to such a contract. The day the tickets go on sale will be the day Toledo's athletic deficit all but disappears.

UT also will realize a $500,000 payday for a recently-announced football game at Michigan during the 2008 season. Over the next four seasons, the Rockets will play home football games against Purdue, Iowa State, Fresno State, Boise State and Arizona, among others.

O'Brien played the lead role in orchestrating a $5 million gift from UT graduate Chuck Sullivan and his wife that jump-started the Savage Hall renovation project. An indoor practice facility for football is also in the advanced planning stages. Needed renovations to several minor sports venues have also been accomplished under O'Brien's watch. And, for seven straight semesters, at least half of UT's athletes have compiled 3.0 grade-point averages or higher. [Well, this is all fine, and I'm sure it means that Toledo's program will soon be one of the few in the country to be profitable, as well as an academic role model.]

Prior to the smoking e-mail, Lloyd Jacobs, the university's president, said publicly that he wanted to retain O'Brien and extend the AD's contract beyond its June, 2008 end date. But he then appointed a committee to examine O'Brien's performance and make a recommendation regarding any extension. Strange. [Not strange. Someone who understands the term "tipping point" finally got to the university's president.]

Jacobs has announced a restructuring that moves all athletic compliance and financial accounting under the central administration. He removed from the post of faculty athletics representative a respected law professor with 17 years in the position. He suggested in a letter to O'Brien that laws may have been violated in the control of medications and that the AD should consider replacing the head team physician, a contract employee for 18 years with impeccable, nationally-recognized credentials in sports medicine, with an employee of the university's Health Science Campus. He requested an inquiry by the Ohio Board of Pharmacy, which subsequently found no critical problems and no laws broken.

Jacobs also declared that all returning football and men's basketball players would be subject to an interview with a special counsel appointed by the state attorney general's office before their eligibility was certified for the upcoming school year. He put a spin on it but, frankly, it sounds every bit like forced participation in an internal investigation into the alleged gambling scandal.

So, to sum up, the UT athletic director has the main campus finance and compliance offices, internal investigators, a contract committee, a special counsel, the Health Science Campus, a new faculty rep, an inquisitive media, possibly the FBI, and most definitely a president who seems intent on reinventing the athletic wheel looking over his shoulder.

Mike O'Brien may or may not be able to keep his job.

Frankly, I can't imagine why he'd want it.

A lot of flyover guys can't think straight. They've got a barroom charm UD likes to be around. But they can't think straight. They emotionalize everything. UD stirs her pina colada and smiles at them sympathetically as they spin their tales, but inside she's thinking There, there, little fella...


Saturday, June 30, 2007

{NOTE: This SOS post has already appeared at UD's branch campus, Inside Higher Education. She reproduces it here in order to add it to her SOS-labeled posts, now all gathered in one place. Just click on SOS at the bottom of this post to get to UD's Scathing Online Schoolmarm collection.}

Scathing Online Schoolmarm

A vain man struggles with the threat to his self-importance that student evaluations represent.

His writing, in the New York Times Magazine, is a good example of something UD's written about on her main campus, in relation to another New York Times writer, Jane Brody: If you're not a very good writer, your writing may reveal unpleasant elements of your character. These elements, which you of course do not wish to reveal, but which your inability to control your writing will out, may fatally distract your reader from the content of your argument.

The writer, David Holmberg, a man of the left, has strong political views. A piece he wrote for The Nation elicited a furious letter from someone he interviewed about the Emmett Till case:

Holmberg provided misinformation to your readers by not accurately quoting me and, in several instances, by misquoting me regarding my supposed subjects--from conversations that were strictly off the record. One individual erroneously mentioned by name in the troubling piece later contacted me by phone. "This article has ruined my family!" he said. I never identified any individual when speaking to Holmberg, neither confirming nor denying his speculative assumptions. I certainly did not quote any source by name at any time. Holmberg's actions have cast The Nation in a dreadful light.

Holmberg's response makes pretty clear that he considers what he pompously calls his responsibility to "history itself" to be a higher moral imperative than niceties like source protection:

... I'm sympathetic with his concerns, but I don't consider it journalistically responsible to indefinitely withhold possibly important information about a historically significant case. And as a practical matter, it's not possible in a competitive journalistic environment.... As for compromising or jeopardizing his sources, that's a risk journalists take every day when they decide to publish a story. It can't be used as a permanent excuse for sitting on information that's vital to the public, and in this case to the possible administration of justice and to history itself.

Here's the New York Times piece:

We know, aphoristically, about sticks and stones breaking our bones and words being comparatively harmless. But those of us who work with words professionally may be especially susceptible to etymological wounds. [Already a bit strange. Etymology refers to the study of the history of words. UD's been wounded by words, sure, but never by the study of the history of words.] I have been a working journalist and a part-time professor, both of which harbor a verbal vulnerability factor — or should I call it a linguistic punishment index?

During four decades or so in the journalistic trenches [cliche], I tried to develop a resilience to tough critiques by editors, reporters, readers; that seemed de rigueur to protect one’s sanity. Then I started teaching journalism, as an adjunct professor at New York University for four years and at Drew University in Madison, N.J., for one year. And much to my chagrin, I realized again just how hurtful words can be. As the focus of student evaluations, I suddenly became the reader, not the writer, and I started to react as other readers might when they think they have been wounded in print. [The writer wants us to believe that the notorious rough language of adults in newspaper and magazine offices is less wounding than student evaluation form language. UD finds this really unpersuasive.]

An established tool of student empowerment in American higher education, student evaluations are a staple in all classes at the end of each semester. A journalist-professor friend who is less than enamored of teaching caustically refers to them as “customer service.” Translation: He has been burned by his students. But his larger meaning is that higher education, like American society in general, is increasingly market-driven, and by his jaded reckoning a student and his parents are not markedly different from Harry the Striving Suburbanite roaming the aisles of Home Depot. [This is a guy who wants to write caustic American satire. His horrible writing only manages a sneer.]

Student response to the product must be quantified — a college education is a product for which someone is paying upward of $40,000 a year. Just as television executives cannot assume that people are watching their channels and approving of what they put on the air, the powers-that-be in higher education cannot afford to be less than responsive to the reactions of their fussy postadolescent clientele. [I haven't marked all the cliches this writer has already used, but I trust you've noted them. The writer's effort to reduce the whole business of course evaluation to profit-driven baby-sitting has failed, but he is certainly succeeding in drawing a personal character sketch.]

So you have course evaluations. First, there are the forms. Students fill in blanks to rate the correctness of several statements about their classroom experiences. Here are three typical statements from a Drew University evaluation form: “Sequence of course material was logical and systematically organized.” “Instructor was clear and understandable in giving explanations.” “Instructor seemed open to and interested in the concerns of students.”

Then students are encouraged to add written comments — anonymously, as with the forms. Take your best shot, or give credit where credit is due: those are the implied options. In my pedagogical innocence, I failed to realize at first how much impact evaluations could have, especially those scrawled comments that ranged from harsh indictments (“Professor Holmberg is the worst professor I’ve had at N.Y.U.”) to high praise (“Professor Holmberg is a great editor.”) [How much impact they could have on him, that is. Most professors, receiving empty generalities like these about how great or horrendous they are, dismiss them.]

The “worst professor” comment came, I am virtually certain, from a schmoozing student who curried favor with me throughout the semester. But during our one-on-one semester’s-end interview that I had with all my students, he said sarcastically about this presumably helpful ritual: “Are you trying to be a talk-show host, or what?” [Put aside the image of this man squirreling about in search of the identities of students who hurt his self-esteem. This is Scathing Online Schoolmarm, not Scathing Online Freudian. Note only his deadly overuse of adverbs: virtually, sarcastically, presumably...]

Only in retrospect did I recognize the underlying hostility of this silly remark. (As always, incidentally, I determined this unnamed student’s probable identity by carefully and compulsively analyzing the few facts the students gave about themselves on the forms — the grades they expected in the class, for instance. It was a pathetic sight, no doubt: the old, aggrieved journalist-professor poring over the slings and arrows from youth in bloom who had penetrated his sheltered universe.) [Again, ain't this weird? What sort of journalist gives a shit about what pishers say? And maybe the writer means these excruciating cliches -- youth in bloom, slings and arrows -- to be ironic, but it's just not coming off.]

The bottom-line appraisal of me at N.Y.U. by a supervising faculty member: I was a “fair to good” teacher. That was probably an equitable assessment, and as far as I could determine, it was based largely on the senior faculty’s evaluation of evaluations. At N.Y.U. and Drew, I was not subjected to classroom visits and critiques by full-time faculty members. So it doesn’t appear to be an exaggeration to say that in higher education the students often make the call on the caliber of their teachers. [A confused paragraph. If the appraisal was fair, why does he go on to say that it wasn't fair, since it was based not on adult visits to his classrooms, but exclusively on student evaluation?]

Sad to say, because Drew is such an exemplary school that in one of my three classes there I experienced the worst psychic injury in my university stint — from words I thought were severely lacking in intellectual openness and self-knowledge. I began the semester with what I hoped was an illuminating discussion of the digital revolution and its impact on print journalism. And throughout the term, as I had done routinely at N.Y.U., I used The Times as an educational tool. I tried very hard to convey the value and enormously important traditions of print, of quality journalism. [See how all of his intensifiers and qualifiers and cliches not only muck up his prose, but somehow evoke for us a man whose pomposity and offended sense of personal greatness create self-involved, petulant forms of expression?]

But in their evaluations, 4 out of 11 students ignored my efforts [Well, you've told us you tried "very hard," but we're not compelled to believe you. Maybe you didn't. Maybe those four students were right. Your writing hasn't been able to make us like and trust you enough to put us securely on your side in the case.] and attacked my journalistic and professorial credibility in what was for me an unprecedented fashion. They said I showed a “liberal bias” by using The Times in class (perhaps echoing the political bent of their parents, as the young are wont to do) [Or perhaps his students noted what Holmberg himself does not note in his bio for this piece -- his most high-profile writing has been for The Nation...], and two students said — glibly and absurdly in my view — that the class was of no benefit because of my perceived bias. One said bluntly, “I learned nothing from this class.” Another — very likely a medical student with whom I worked more than the rest because she was outside her field — said that “I did not learn anything in this class besides a strong dislike of The N.Y. Times. There was no journalistic background taught.”

That last remark was so stunningly and obviously wrongheaded [Pause a moment with me to collect our last batch of mad-as-hell adverbs: glibly, absurdly, bluntly, stunningly, obviously... See what I mean about how prose can do you in? The guy's sputtering with outraged self-love.] that I nearly tore up the evaluation sheet. An overreaction to be avoided, of course. My always-supportive English department chairman calmed me down, and with the acuity of a true educator put student evaluations in perspective. She explained that there was an ambivalence about New York implicit in the suburban students’ comments, in addition to the political component. I thanked her for her wise counsel and began bracing myself for another set of evaluations: this summer I’ll be teaching a course in introductory journalism at Drew.

My heart goes out to the department chair. Here's a paranoid furious man doing personal searches on students who've offended him, practically tearing up evaluation sheets, getting pretty wretched course evaluations again and again... What the hell can she say? She's gotta think fast. Why do his students dislike him? The reasons are as obvious to her as they are to us, but... uh... no, it's suburban bias against the big city! Plus they're clones of their right-wing parents! Calm down, man!


Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Blogoscopy / SOS

A lot of guys find blogs threatening. I don't know why. We've seen Robert Samuelson growl at them. We've seen Michael Kinsley whine about them. Now there's Paul F. Campos.

I once asked a friend of mine, a novelist, why so many writers have drinking problems. "A better question is why so many drinkers have writing problems," he replied. [This is amusing, but what's the connection between the sally and the point coming up about there being a lot of law bloggers?]

His response came to mind recently when I began to toy with the idea of starting a blog. Although the contrarian in me is attracted to the prospect of being the last law professor in America without one, the forms' advantages are obvious. [The writer is correct that, among academics, law professors are particularly drawn to the blog form, with Ann Althouse among the most prominent.]

A blog allows one to dash off a brilliant riposte to some flawed argument or rhetorical atrocity, without having to deal with publishing schedules or, worse, editors who insist that factual assertions be true, and who place other tiresome demands on creative genius. [
The sarcasm ain't working. It's failing partly for stylistic reasons -- the guy's not a good enough writer to pull off humor -- and partly because it's unfair. It doesn't
describe what legal bloggers do or how they think of themselves at all.]

These same features also represent the disadvantages of a blog. Every time I hear the Blog Siren singing its Celine Dionesque song [Have no idea what this means.], I end up thinking of a certain type of legal academic blogger — the sort who has a habit of concocting (intentionally?) preposterous posts, which then elicit a predictable stream of insults from various precincts of the blogosphere. [
The guy absolutely has to name a few of these, with links. I can't think of any, and I read lots of legal blogs.]

Our brave blogger then sallies forth in a state of high dudgeon, demanding apologies from those who have insulted her, while at the same time exacerbating the situation by engaging in the most incredibly juvenile banter. [Constipated writing. Again, not funny. UD can help this guy out with his problem: He should not start a blog.] I find it difficult to believe such witticisms aren't composed with one hand, while the other holds a glass of cabernet sauvignon the size of Lake Tahoe.

Among writers in general, and bloggers in particular, alcohol and narcissism go together like peanut butter and chocolate. [Does the writer mean this to mean that they do go together? What the fuck?] Psychologists define narcissistic personality disorder as involving a grandiose sense of self-importance, and an overwhelming need for the constant attention and admiration.

What better example of this can there be than bloggers obsessed with how many "hits" their posts are eliciting, or how often they're mentioned on the Internet, and who take pride in drawing attention to themselves by being aggressively obnoxious? [Once again, if the writer's unwilling to name any legal blogger who does this, he's easily dismissed as a jerk.]

Blogs pose special dangers for academics. The whole point of academic life is to offer those who live it the time to spend months and years becoming expert about, and reflecting upon, complex issues, before committing thoughts on such matters to print.

The same can't be said for the chardonnay-fueled rant posted at 3 in the morning, which may inadvertently tell your readers far more than they wish to know about your living-room decor, your psycho-sexual neuroses and your views on "American Idol."
[Lame and lamer. Get ready for two bizarre final paragraphs.]

None of which is to deny many bloggers, including academic bloggers, do excellent work. Just a few of the lawyers and law professors who regularly write first-rate things in the genre include Glenn Greenwald, Jack Balkin, Eugene Volokh and Sandy Levinson. [If you want to be taken as a powerful satirist, with those chardonnay references and all, you can't restrict yourself, like some little missy at a teaparty, to naming law bloggers you like. You've got to name the ones you're attacking... Notice, by the way, that the guy gives a female pronoun to the sort of blog he hates, and then lists among the blogs he likes only those written by men. Biggies like Ann Althouse clearly have this guy's knickers in a twist. Who cares.]

I could list many more. These writers represent a variety of perspectives, but they all write fluent, accessible prose, they mostly avoid shooting from the hip and their analyses of various topics are, if I may say, generally quite sober. [End of essay. No particular reason why it's the end of the essay, but then this piece of writing is incoherent from the get-go. UD's advice: Consult a psychologist.]


Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Cries and Whispers

This morning, SOS shifts her ancient glittering eyes to higher level problems in prose, problems that can convey a kind of whispery weakness to an essay. She considers an okay piece in Inside Higher Education that would be much better if the writer stopped overusing to be verbs.

First, here's the deal on to be verbs, from the South Dakota State Writing Center's webpage:

To be verbs are all the various forms of that verb: am, is, are, was, were, has or have been, had been, will have been, being, and to be. They are used to link a subject with a noun or adjective complement, to precede the ing-form of an action verb to form continuous tenses, and to precede the past participle of a transitive verb to form the passive. All of the following examples are correct, but many of them are boring. Changing them to the actor-action sentence pattern normally makes the sentences more interesting and concise.

Laura is a photographer for the local newspaper.

Better: Laura works as a photographer for the local newspaper.

Better: Laura shoots photographs for the local newspaper.

George hasn't been well for a long time.

Better: George's illness has lasted for a long time.

That scandal is interesting to a lot of people.

Better: That scandal interests a lot of people.

Let us see how to be or not to be plays out at greater length.

This month I finished my first full year of teaching as a tenure-track professor. I’ve learned a lot this year [redundancy of "year...year" not a great idea], much of it an odd amalgam [odd amalgam's nice] of the practical and philosophical: I’ve reflected on the nature of education. I’ve pondered the ultimate existential importance [drop ultimate -- already the reader's getting a general sense of wordiness] of education for the development of the individual. I’ve also mastered the overhead projector in my classroom and learned how to make two-sided hand outs on the office photcopier. [This is supposed to be funny, the absurd disproportion between grandly existential values and the trivial business of two-sided handouts. It could be funny. But it's not, because the writer's prose isn't sharp and lean enough to let the humor out. Again, it's the wordiness problem.] But the one thing that I learned this year that I did not expect to learn was the value — and inevitability — of intimacy.

As an adjunct teaching for the first time I hungered for acceptance and praise. I wanted my students to tell me that I knew what I was doing because I couldn’t quite convince myself that I did. I quickly learned, however, that adjuncts have to have thick skin — negative student feedback is inevitable [The to be problem begins to creep in - feedback is inevitable is less interesting than, say, feedback happens...] when you are inexperienced and overworked. [I'm going to start bolding the problem.] And of course students are interested in receiving a high grade and learning a thing or two along the way, not being caught up in the complex interior psychology of their professor [Overuse of adjectives is a problem here too. Drop "complex," and certainly drop "interior," as UD is unaware of any psychology which is not interior.] As a result, the message I took away from my years of adjuncting was the importance of separating my private thoughts and feelings from my public role as an academic: professionalism, judiciousness, and a commitment to the craft of teaching were all skills that I worked to cultivate.

Of course, these are not values that I gave up once I became an assistant professor (a point I’d like to underline in case my chair is reading this!) But now, at the end of my first year, what has struck me most about being in a tenure-track position is interplay between professionalism and personal intimacy. And the nature of this interplay is, as far as I can tell, denial: a necessary and yet futile insistence that we can separate who we are as professors is different from who we are as people.

There is very little in a professor’s life that does not stem from intensely personal commitments. With the job market the way it is these days you don’t become a professor unless you are in love with your area of expertise. In fact, given the length of graduate school and the rise of adjuncting as a near-inevitable phenomena in some fields, it takes so long to become a professor that you have to fall in love with it two or three times as you grow and change as a person in the course of your career. Of course it might not be love for you — it might be obsession, addiction, or any of the other emotions that keep people coming back for more when they should walk away. But regardless of which [This is wordy and awkward: Just write "Whatever feelings draw you in..."] particular feelings draw you in, this is a line of work that’s hard to get into without it getting pretty deeply entangled in who you are.

In many ways, however, these are unseemly entanglements that ought not be displayed by professionals. Pencils do not get purchased and job advertisements do not get written when faculty meetings involve table-pounding denunciations of the false readings of Blanchot perpetuated by others in your department. Students leave your classes feeling wounded and bitter when they become ego-fests in which your personal agenda dominates. For all of these reasons and more, we tell ourselves that professors — “even professors” — must act professionally.

Of all the lies that we tell ourselves, this one is probably the most necessary and also the most heinous. Like most strongly-enforced boundaries, we insist on separating intimacy and professionalism because in practice the line between them is so blurred as to be indistinct.

Take teaching, for instance. I was very lucky this semester to have some very good discussions in one of my classes. I remember one moment in particular when the class as a whole began focusing in on one particular issue. I could feel the entire room poised on the brink of commitment to the idea that what we were talking about was not just interesting, but important. It was one of those rare moments of intellectual and emotional commitment that educators live for. [Again, note the wordiness. Going through the paragraph, UD finds that the following words diminish the writing's power: very, very, in particular, as a whole, particular, entire, on the brink, rare. Drop them all.]

But why were we only on the brink? What was missing? As I attempted to draw students out I realized mid-sentence that the missing ingredient was me. I brought an important issue to the table, but in doing so I distanced myself from it because I was, at some level, afraid to let my students see just how seriously I took it. I was just about to tell a joke — the easy way out for all young hip assistant professors — to lighten the mood but instead I stopped, reset, and tried to lead by example by demonstrating how important I thought the topic in question was for me.

It is not easy for students to speak in class, especially when what they say lays who they are out on the line. In these moments students need to know it is OK to take risks, and the way they learn this is by seeing their teacher do it. As an adjunct I learned the downsides of this sort of openness, but this year I was struck by how inescapable and important it is to temper one’s professional remove with a generous helping of intimacy.

Advising graduate students is even more clearly a case of managing the tension between intimacy and professionalism. As someone whose Ph.D. is just over a year old, I have more in common with my graduate students than I do with some of the faculty members in my department. Indeed, some of my graduate students are older than I am. And yet, professors have power over graduate students: Structurally, they control letters of recommendation, grades, and of course approval of M.A.’s and Ph.D.’s. They have soft power as well — graduate students care about what professors think of them, and we have an infinite amount of opportunities [This should be number rather than amount.] to make ourselves feel more important by making our students feel less so.

Despite — or rather because of — the ambiguities of this boundary, professionalism is key. And yet graduate students are ill-served by professors who hide behind a shield of professionalism. Professors are role models, and much of graduate teaching involves modeling what Malinowski called the “imponderabilia of everyday life” for our students: methods of underlining books, the intuitive way we handle data, and of course the informal shop talk of our disciplines.

Even more important, professors demonstrate to students what a life lived as a professor is like. Having these sorts of role models is key not just to earning a Ph.D., but to one’s choice of career. It is not impossible to become a professor in today’s job market, but it is difficult. What, then, are we supposed to tell our students? Not to pursue the careers that we ourselves have chosen? The truth is that being a professor is good, but it is hard — and we need to let our students inside our lives so that they can see this, and make up their own minds about their careers informed of both the intimate and professional side of the professoriate. In my case, I believe the best way to do this is let my graduate students see me in all my anthrogeekery.

Of course [Notice how often of course shows up in this short essay.] the other thing about have graduate students is that they figure out stuff about you whether you want them to or not. In fact, they figure out stuff about you that you yourself didn’t know. Does my extroverted overenthusiasm in class hide a deeper, more easily wounded side that I hide from others? Is my overblown dislike of certain approaches bluster which papers over a private more embracing pluralism or am I in fact a brittle, doctrinare academic?

This is the other side of intimacy: its inevitability. As an adjunct I could get in, teach, and get out again — the relationships I had at the institutions where I adjuncted were relatively unentangling. But mentoring graduate students allows them to see who you are — indeed, it is in the very process of working with them that I find myself spinning out who I am and will be as a professor.

Even the complex webs of self-cultivation woven during graduate advising seem as nought compared to the ultimate form of academic intimacy: faculty meetings. Hard decisions about important topics get made in faculty meetings, and it is exactly in these high-stakes situations that it is most necessary to act professionally to advance the interests of your department, rather than just yourself. And yet these are also the decisions that will have the most effect on us as people, and deal with the topics that we are least likely to compromise on. You cannot escape being who you are for other faculty in these sorts of situations.

And worse, like some sort of existentialist novel, departments perdure [The comparison is unclear.]. We have track records. Decisions made and relationships forged decades ago play out in every faculty meeting. This means that new faculty walk into rooms filled with history, and it makes us — or me, at least — keenly aware that the decisions we make today will impact us for many years in the future. Here intimacy is at its most inevitable.

I’m very lucky to have a department full of colleagues who have been [Drop who have been] welcoming and eager to help me get my footing on the tenure track, and overall my first year went really well — especially after I learned how to use the projector in my classroom. [Again, the attempt at humor fails.] As I take my first tentative steps down the road to tenure, I realize once again that however much we tell ourselves the academy is not ‘the real world’ [Grr. Quotation marks.] it is far more real than the cubicleland to which many of my high school friends have been consigned. Professionalism is important because it is the only way we [Word missing here.] to deal with the very scary fact that professors and students share a life together that is both very real, and intimate.

One of the commenters on this piece at IHE writes "Get an editor. Brevity is the soul of...oh, never mind." This person is noticing... er, notices, what UD has noticed: Although in fact a short essay, it reads long because of its writing style.


Sunday, June 24, 2007

Page A1,
Sunday New York Times

This morning, Scathing Online Schoolmarm considers a very well-written, high-profile news article on the front page of the Sunday New York Times -- arguably the most prominent, most-read, front-page in the world.

UD has already noted on this blog occasional lapses of news-sense on the part of her beloved newspaper, moments when this impressively international publication loses the bigger picture and betrays a certain parochialism. Here's an example.


A Fairway View, But the Window is Often Broken

Intriguing. What's it mean? What's it about? Golf, I guess. A good headline -- makes you want to read on. Let's do that.

When she moved into her retirement condominium on a golf course, Eleanor Weiner admired the lush, pristine views of the fairways and greens, a landscape she never had to mow or maintain. Not long after, as she prepared dinner, a golf ball shattered the kitchen window, whistled past her head and crashed through the glass on her oven door. Ms. Weiner retrieved the ball from her oven and stalked outside to confront the golfer who had launched the missile.

Starts with narrative. A very good idea. But the writer clearly means this story to generate sympathy for poor Ms. Weiner, shattered by the evil golf ball. And we're going to have trouble sympathizing, aren't we?

“He told me that’s what I get for living on a golf course,” said Ms. Weiner, who has lived for a dozen years alongside Rancho Las Palmas Country Club near Palm Springs, Calif. “That was the first time I heard that, but it surely hasn’t been the last.”

Damn straight. Live on a golf course, get golf balls. UD's with all the guys telling her off.

So the story's already a bit broken.

Also, UD's beginning to wonder why the editorial staff of the New York Times thinks golf balls in your windows is a subject, let alone a Sunday A1 subject. Has Ms. Weiner has been hit in the head by so many golf balls that she's become a demented invalid? If UD doesn't read something like this in the next few paragraphs, she's going to wonder even more why an international newspaper has put a non-story on its front page.

The intersection of errant golf shots and private property is not a new phenomenon. But with new gear that enables average golfers to hit a ball 250 yards, and with golf communities sprouting nationwide — 70 percent of new courses include housing — it is becoming an increasingly prominent problem. Most homes built near this country’s 16,000 golf courses may not be in the cross hairs of slicing duffers, but thousands are.

Already the note of desperation. The writer knows how microscopically trivial his assignment -- the dueling interests of the rich, the battle royale between lush-living retirees and state of the art golf gear owners -- is, so he struggles to beef it up with words like "prominent" and "cross hairs."

Plus look at that statistic! Thousands of people just like Ms. Weiner all over this country are being shattered by golf balls...

And listen to this!

Before buying a five-bedroom house in Maricopa, Ariz., Jenny Robertson scrutinized it, with her mother’s help, according to feng shui principles to assess its harmony with its surroundings. Mrs. Robertson, who is not a golfer, barely looked at the tee box 150 yards from her backyard.

“We did not consider the feng shui of bad golfers,” she said. “When I go outside, it’s like dodgeball out there. I wish I knew that you have to be careful where you live on a golf course.”

Some people have become virtual prisoners in their homes. Earla Smith lives at Lookout Mountain Golf Club in Phoenix. Look out, indeed.

“The second day I was in the house, I kept hearing a banging outside,” Ms. Smith, 85, said. “It was golf balls hitting the outside walls. Three or four windows were broken. I sat out on the patio and I was lucky I wasn’t killed. I had a 70-inch picture window broken on the front of the house, and that doesn’t even face the golf course.”

In Rehoboth, Mass., Joyce Amaral collected 1,800 golf balls from her property abutting Middlebrook Country Club, then lugged them into court when she sued the club. Ms. Amaral’s house was hit so regularly, her landscapers wore hard hats. Balls set off the burglar alarm and dented her car.

Abu Gharib nothing! Look what people right here in this country are going through! And this woman did everything right -- she feng shuied for Chrissake! And the havoc! Dented cars!

But there's a solution. There's a happy ending. Which also makes UD wonder why the Times ran this piece.

Ms. Weiner ... turned to Screenmobile, a company that specializes in heavy-duty screens for doors and windows. Screenmobile said it received more than 400 calls from homeowners last year.

Four hundred calls just last year.


Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Oh Kaye!

Sunday's Palm Beach Post carried the following article:

I Give I Take It Pays!

Florida Atlantic University budget chief Ken Jessell says FAU conducts Internet searches on donors such as Barry Kaye, the self-made millionaire who has donated more than $20 million to the school and for whom FAU's business college is named. A loud hint that FAU may need to begin inquiring a bit more closely came after a Palm Beach Post check with the Florida Department of Financial Services.

That public records request uncovered two past investigations of Mr. Kaye, and FAU was aware of neither. Add new allegations that FAU failed to uncover - Mr. Kaye's company may be involved in defrauding a 73-year-old woman - and the fact that Mr. Jessell says he is not concerned is of some concern.

Mr. Kaye is known by the ads that echo the title of his latest book: You Buy You Die It Pays! His business is part of a new industry. Investors buy life insurance policies of senior citizens in hopes that they will die sooner rather than later. The Post reported last week that after a state investigator wrote in 2004 that Mr. Kaye's publicity was "grandiose" and could "lure unsophisticated consumers" to the free insurance seminars he offers, Mr. Kaye reached settlements with the state on two cases dating to 2002.

The new allegations come amid questions about Mr. Kaye's business symposia held on FAU's campus, replete with newspaper ads designed by FAU and carrying FAU's logo and Web address, and brochures listing him as FAU professor "Dr. Barry Kaye" although he is not an FAU professor and holds no traditional Ph.D. [Background on this here.] Now, a state Office of Insurance Regulation complaint says one woman would have received "substantially" more than $968,832 for her two insurance policies worth $19.4 million had she been dealt with in good faith, in a transaction on which Mr. Kaye's company earned $800,000 in commissions for work regulators could not specify.

Mr. Jessell is serving as interim head of the FAU Foundation, which President Frank Brogan had hoped might finance some of the still unexplained $577,950 severance for the fund-raising arm's former director, Lawrence Davenport. At least some FAU trustees, however, are expressing concern about misuse of the university's name and logo, and urging new naming policies.

Mr. Kaye is leveraging his relationship with FAU. His attitude contrasts with that of FAU's largest donor, the Schmidt family, which made a quiet, yet nationally record-setting donation of $75 million for the Charles E. Schmidt Medical Center on FAU's Boca Raton campus. How long does FAU intend to tolerate Mr. Kaye's behavior?

FAU's president has issued, in response, the following campus letter:

Subject: To the University Community [Oh hell, SOS can't help sneaking in here... In what way is "To the University Community" a Subject?]

Over the last several weeks, the Palm Beach Post has written several articles and editorials about the University and philanthropist Barry Kaye. The University shared its stance on the newspaper's position through a letter to the editor, which the editorial board members have indicated they will not run as submitted. [Stance... indicated... There's already evidence that we have here what's formally known as a corncob-up-the-ass writer.]

We strongly believe the University family should know our opinion on the issues raised by the news outlet. Below, you will find a copy of the letter we provided to the newspaper. We would like to thank you for your continued support. [Who's we, and what support is he talking about? UD got this letter from a faculty member at FAU who is not at all supportive.]

June 7, 2007

To the Editor:

The primary mission of any university is to serve as a forum where knowledge is imparted to its constituents. [Oy. Why not start pontificating about the primary mission of universities in a letter to a newspaper editor about a shady businessman who's taking advantage of your school...] Great responsibility comes with serving as a vehicle for this knowledge -- universities must strive every day to provide accurate, honest and truthful information. [Gevalt. Whatever word gets you past "pompous" applies here.] A similar responsibility is expected of the press. This is why we can no longer continue to tolerate the clear attempts made in the last several weeks by the Palm Beach Post to malign and damage the reputations of Florida Atlantic University and philanthropist Barry Kaye. [Again, get the "we" business. If I were a student or faculty member at FAU, I wouldn't be too happy with the president's papal approach. I realize this letter has three writers -- see below -- but in the context of the president's beginning this by thanking everyone for their support, it feels as though he's speaking for the FAU community.]

In its latest editorial of June 3, the Palm Beach Post stated its official position on a variety of subjects pertaining to FAU, including a current professional regulatory agency investigation of Barry Kaye's company. In the editorial, the Post calls a question, "How long does FAU intend to tolerate Mr. Kaye's behavior?" The Post is clearly hungry to condemn Barry Kaye, rushing to judgment without allowing due process to take its course in the completion of the regulatory review. The timing of the Post's editorial is particularly upsetting; coming one day after the Sun-Sentinel reported that the investigation of Mr. Kaye may be the result of an error. Is it the Post's contention that FAU should not "tolerate" Mr. Kaye potentially being the victim of a mistake?

By taking this reckless action, the Post is not only damaging the reputation of an institution of higher education that is making great strides in programmatic and research endeavors but is also hurting each and every alumnus whose degree carries the University name and also students working towards their degree. [Inept run-on sentence. Barry needs to fund some ghost writers.] Furthermore, the Post's relentless onslaught against the University has the potential to negatively impact the University's relationships with donors. [To negatively impact. Gag me.]

Like so many of our benefactors, Mr. Kaye is a friend to FAU. It is with his gift of $16 million to the University -- the largest single gift in FAU's history -- that FAU is able to provide some of the best educational opportunities for its students. Kaye's gift establishes a school of finance, insurance and economics; develops an institute of insurance in philanthropy; and extends far beyond our current capacity the ability to hire world class faculty. Kaye has also donated an additional $900,000 to create gathering space for alumni in the alumni center and established an endowment fund in integrative arts education and outreach in the arts and letters college. The philanthropic support of the Kayes also allowed the University to completely renovate its performing arts auditorium lobby.

Barry Kaye's sustained and extraordinary generosity should not be vilified. [Sleazy pseudo-logic. The paper's not vilifying the generosity. It's vilifying evidence of illegality, as well as Barry's pretend doctorate, which degrades the university's name, and in which the university conspires.] It should be emulated. Newspapers that make the community aware of generous university contributions help instill a sense of charity within others and provide the community a service. Vilifying donors does not serve the community. [The rhetoric here - lecturing a free press on how it's compelled to issue good news - is amazing.]

As part of the University's responsibility to its faculty, staff and students, there are a number of tools the University employs [Mr. Jessell's one of them.] to ensure that our friends and donors have the best interest of the University at heart. The University has and will continue to exercise due diligence to ensure our donor gifts remain in the best interests of the University.

We remind the Palm Beach Post editorial board members again of their responsibility to provide for its readers clear, accurate and honest opinions based on fact.


Frank T. Brogan
Florida Atlantic University

Leslie M. Corley
Florida Atlantic University Foundation, Inc.

Norman Tripp
Florida Atlantic University Board of Trustees


The Combination of an Impeccable Argument
and a First-Rate Writing Style Will Always
Get You Where You Want to Go... this stellar opinion piece in today's Inside Higher Ed demonstrates. The writer is so good that even though he's too emotional (being too emotional is poison when arguing anything) it doesn't matter. Polemically, he's completely in the right, and stylistically I just want to kiss him.

Let us see how he makes UD/SOS adore him.

On April 11, the president of Columbia University announced that it had received a $400 million pledge from alumnus John W. Kluge, who in 2006 was 52nd on the Forbes list of the wealthiest people, earning his fortune through the buying and selling of television and radio stations. This gift, payable upon the 92-year-old’s death, will be the fourth largest ever given to a single institution of higher education.

Emotional, you say? The man's a data machine! Well, hold on. He knows he can't hit you up with his anger just yet. He's got to run some numbers by you. And $400 million. That's a big one.

With such a massive transfer of wealth, the accolades poured in, justifying such a gift to an Ivy League university. Columbia’s president, Lee Bollinger, said: “The essence of America’s greatness lies, in no small measure, in our collective commitment to giving all people the opportunity to improve their lives… [Kluge] has chosen to direct his amazing generosity to ensuring that young people will have the chance to benefit from a Columbia education regardless of their wealth or family income.” Mayor Michael Bloomberg indicated that investing in education produces returns that can’t be matched. Rep. Charles Rangel said the gift would ensure greater numbers of students can afford a first-class education.

Laying it on even more thick here. Taking a risk, too, because he's about to argue that this form of philanthropy isn't philanthropy at all, but the rankest bullshit. Yes, yes, everyone's happy, and what a wonderful thing to give all that money to a university like Columbia...

Next paragraph only has one line, and a short one at that:

Oh please!

Goody, goody. Now we get down to it. Hold on tight.

I am becoming less and less tolerant of people who pass wealth on to the privileged and masquerade it as philanthropy. Philanthropy is the voluntary act of donating money, goods or services to a charitable cause, intended to promote good or improve human well being. When a billionaire gives money that will benefit people who are more than likely already well off or who already have access to huge sums of money, attending the ninth richest university by endowment, this is not philanthropy. This simply extends the gross inequities that exist in our country — inequities that one day will come home to roost. [Sure, come home to roost is a cliche. I don't care. I love him. I forgive him.]

Almost 40 percent of all college students nationally earned a Pell Grant, which in general represents students from families earning less than $35,000 a year. Yes, almost 40 percent of students in college today are from low income families. At Columbia, where tuition and fees alone tops $31,000, only 16 percent of students are Pell Grant eligible. In fact, over 60 percent of Columbia students don’t even bother to apply for federal financial aid. They can pay the bill — no problem (see the Economic Diversity of Colleges Web site). Columbia is not alone. A recent New York Times article, which provided a great story on a recent Amherst College graduate, indicated that 75 percent of students attending elite colleges come from the top socioeconomic quartile, while only 10 percent come from the bottom half, and just 3 percent from the bottom quartile.

For comparison, 83 percent of my students received the Pell Grant during that same year, and 84 percent applied for financial aid. Even with tuition and fees less than $9,000 a year, my students on average will leave college with MORE debt than Columbia students, in fact $11,000 more even though tuition and fees are $22,000 a year less! [Yes, UD SPEETS on the exclamation mark. I don't care. I forgive him. I love him.]

I am hopeful that Columbia will do as it states it will, which is to expand the number of scholarship grants to needy students. President Bollinger has been a strong advocate for affirmative action, and I am very hopeful because he has shown great integrity. But even assuming that Columbia spends the money on aid, and that it couldn’t spend more of its existing money on poor students, not to mention admitting more of them, the university’s current campaign has a goal of $1 billion for facilities – that’s an astronomical sum of “philanthropy” to help a wealthy institution have better facilities. And Columbia isn’t alone — as there are similarly ambitious spending plans by the other public and private universities currently seeking to raise billions of dollars.

The writer goes on to note that the situation isn't much better at public universities, that in both private and public universities the trend is toward the shutting out of truly needy students and toward a concentration of wealthy students. He continues:

America’s so-called philanthropists ignore these facts, and we continue to laud their generosity to the privileged. At the same time, people of color continue to fall further and further behind, and unless we begin to help those who actually need help, America’s economy will suffer.
Fat, over-endowed universities with well-off students and a few less well-off keep struggling populations down, and make social unrest and economic instability more likely.


Our political leaders must begin to challenge the wealthy to practice real philanthropy. They should be encouraged to give gifts that will benefit a greater number of people with real need (most of their constituents), versus a wealthy minority ... It is time for us to restore the integrity of philanthropy, and call gifts to the wealthy what they really are — the perpetuation of privilege.

It all reminds me of the Larry Ellison/Harvard University dustup a few months ago, when everyone got all upset because Larry was going to give hundreds of millions to Harvard (current endowment close to thirty billion dollars) but then decided not to. Oh please.


Monday, June 11, 2007

It's Not How Sleazy You Make It...'s how you make it sleaze. And UD, you know, is an aficionado of sleaze served up by the finest Italian hands.

Example [SOS commentary in red.]:

In the course of its investigation [of schools throughout the Maricopa County Community College District], the Tribune interviewed dozens of past and current athletes and coaches. A reporter attempted to attend numerous [academic-credit] coaching classes but found only one meeting at its scheduled time and place. ... Typically, [when reporters went to the locations of classes at the scheduled times,] the classrooms were empty, the lights off. [These are best understood as courses in ontology: What is "being"? What would a "non-being" class look like?] The newspaper also reviewed course outlines and other material from coaching classes offered this school year.

During the 2004-05 and 2005-06 school years, MCCCD data shows almost 1,000 athletes enrolled in 64 coaching classes at the Mesa, Scottsdale, South Mountain and Glendale colleges. Thirty of those classes contained only players.

Athletes made up 75 percent of all students who took coaching classes, the data shows.

“A lot of them aren’t going to be coaches, but they’re taking it because they enjoy that class,” said Amy Goff, head of SCC’s physical education department.
[Fine Italian Sleaze: The kids are okay!]

They also get good grades.

Ninety-nine percent of the athletes who completed coaching classes got passing grades. That means 951 students passed and only four failed, the data shows.

In all health and P.E. classes, only 88 percent of the athletes passed.

Maria Harper-Marinick, the district’s vice chancellor for academic affairs, said there is nothing wrong with a coach running a class as a team practice so long as the required material is covered. The required material for the coaching classes is generic she noted, saying mainly that students must learn how to produce a “motivated team.” [Fine Italian Sleaze: There's no real 'material' here, see -- This is a college course in... er... whatever you do to produce a motivated team...] The district refused a Tribune records request for copies of written exams from coaching classes held last school year. Pete Kushibab, MCCCD’s general counsel, said the release of past tests would undermine the integrity of future coaching classes. [
Really Fine Italian Sleaze: Academic integrity is what it's all about! If you so much a lay a finger on a previous test, and then you publish even one challenging question from it, our students might read it in your paper and fail to learn the material...]

If a coach chooses to teach using the same on-field techniques for class as he would for practice, “that is considered teaching methodology,” Harper-Marinick said. “In our system, it’s up to the instructor to decide for that period of time, that was the best use of time to convey information, to elicit learning.” [Fine Italian Sleaze + excellent use of pedagogical buzzwords -- It's all about the unstinting effort to elicit learning... Calling weekly ball practice a college course is part of the freedom to implement your own teaching methodology...]

... College officials insist that athletic directors are not creating classes simply to keep their players eligible.

“Let me make it very clear. Exercise science is an academic program,” said Ann Stine, chairwoman of MCC’s exercise science department. “Athletics is student services. They’re separate. Not the same.” [This bit isn't sleaze so much as, to vary Keats a little, the Vehemence is Truth, Truth Vehemence technique, in which saying something really really forcefully -- I'm gonna make this really clear -- somehow equals that thing being true.]

... [One coach/professor] balked when asked about the academic value of teaching his players these subjects. “Now you’re questioning my academic freedom,” Giovando said. [Very very fine Italian sleaze. It's called academic freedom, fucker!]

---east valley tribune---


Friday, June 08, 2007

Scathing Online Schoolmarm,

'A tenured psychology professor at Texas Christian University remained Thursday in a Texas jail, arrested on charges that he made a “terroristic threat,” a class B misdemeanor. ...According to police reports, Bond hinted in an e-mail about bringing a submachine gun on campus. An arrest warrant affidavit cited by The Dallas Morning News said that Bond sent out harassing e-mail messages to a number of university employees last month, and made a statement saying he would spit in a colleague’s face. TCU officials would not confirm that those allegedly targeted were employees, nor would they expand on the nature of the alleged threats.

According to the affidavit, TCU already was investigating Bond and had asked him to stop communications with anyone at the university. When TCU officials requested that Bond meet with them, he refused, according to the affidavit. Then, last week, he allegedly sent an e-mail stating: “Is it possible a sexist could snap and bring an ouzi [sic] gun on the TCU campus? Might he target young women? Might others get in the way?”

Bond’s lawyers said that Bond “has had some health issues lately that may have hampered his ability to effectively communicate his message, and perhaps he was misinterpreted."'

--- inside higher education ---


Monday, June 04, 2007

Scathing Online Schoolmarm

An opinion piece in today's Inside Higher Education -- where UD has just proudly opened a branch campus -- assumes the thankless task of defending courses in business ethics in MBA programs.

The short essay begins promisingly, by acknowledging the absolute absurdity of the endeavor, at least as it's now conceived:

The dreaded question: "So, what are you teaching this semester?" When I reply that I teach a business ethics course, more often than not my questioner laughs and asks whether that isn't an oxymoron. And then laughs some more. [This rude response - in which UD lustily joins - reflects the staggering disconnect between a successful life as a capitalist and personal morality. As in Nice Guys Finish Last. As in a statement a journalist made at a recent meeting of the Knight Commission: "Jerry Tarkanian said nine out of ten major college teams break the rules. The tenth one's in last place."]

So it is hardly surprising that the recent cheating scandal at Duke University's business school has fueled cynicism about the teaching of business ethics. ["Fueled" is a bit weak. The writer should try to find a business-related image... Cynicism's stock has gone up? Something like that.] Business schools across the country responded to corporate wrongdoing over the last decade by emphasizing ethics within their curriculums. [Big mistake. Their students, especially at elite places like Duke, are absolutely brilliant personal-advantage maximizers -- that's why they were admitted. Now you're hitting them up with a course that flies in the face of their entire academic preparation. No wonder everyone's laughing.] In the daytime MBA at Duke, students are required to take "Leadership, Ethics and Organizations" as part of an initial three-week summer term. [Requiring people to take dumb courses guarantees an uptick in cynicism. Just ask Berkeley's faculty about the ethics course they've all got to take. Such courses almost always make the problem worse.] Yet close to 10 percent of first-year students in Duke's M.B.A. program were suspected of cheating on a take-home examination. The collective laughter would have been greater only if the accused students were in one of Duke's ethics courses.

Still we should be careful not to infer too much from the Duke cheating scandal. A successful ethics component within a business program does not guarantee that its participants will never behave immorally. [No one claims that it does.] Not even churches or prisons boast that kind of effectiveness. So why should we expect it of an ethics class? [This is getting muddy. We have a category problem. Prisons exist to punish people, not educate them in the finer points of personal morality. Churches are physical settings for worship. Sermons happen in both places, I guess, but they're not formal, graduate level, ethics lessons taught by highly paid experts.] What we expect is that when students complete the ethics component, they will approach moral problems with greater thoughtfulness and intellectual sophistication, as well as be more likely to resolve these problems in the right way. [The very phrase "the right way" suggests a lack of sophistication, at least in terms of the notorious complexity of most serious ethical dilemmas.] The goal is improvement, not perfection. [If that's the goal, ditch the courses. Instead of required courses full of bad faith platitudes, do this: Take that load of money you're spending on business school professors -- Look... why should a person teaching ethics in a business school make $150,000, and a person teaching the very same ethics in an Intro Philosophy course in a liberal arts school make -- let's make this person a part-timer... part-timers tend to get these things... make $3,500 for the course? That's not very ethical. If you're going to hire these guys in MBA settings to convey the same basic moral concepts and anecdotes the other guys are teaching, at least give them a shitty salary.]

The behavior of the Duke M.B.A. students nevertheless gives us reason to pause. How much thoughtfulness and intellectual sophistication are necessary to know that cheating is wrong? [Dat's right. The problem isn't one of content. It's one, UD will argue, of rhetoric.] Surely these young professionals did not need an ethics class to garner this important piece of moral knowledge. But if the students were aware of the wrongness of cheating all along, what kind of knowledge were they missing? What, exactly, could they have been taught in business ethics? [They've got all the knowledge they need, including the knowledge that Enron happens. It doesn't make any difference, because, as Myles Brand recently put it in an interview about university coaches slutting from job to job in search of higher salaries, "Coaches have to be free to move. We call it capitalism. We can't take away the opportunity to earn a living to the best of their ability... " Earn a living to the best... ain't that beautiful? Five million dollars a year, and then lying to everybody about how you're not going anywhere, and then getting the hell out because you got a better offer... fuck the team... These guys are MBA gods.]

There is something more for business students to learn in ethics classes, and throughout their business programs. Ethics is not just about the what of morality; it is also about the whom of morality.

In ethics, the general requirements — the what of morality — are often quite straightforward. Indeed we would be hard pressed to find anyone in our society, let alone a university-level student, who was unaware of the general prohibition on cheating. However, the application of these requirements to individuals — the whom of morality — can be significantly murkier. I dare say it would not be difficult at all to find students who genuinely believe that their circumstances justify them in violating the prohibition on cheating. [I don't see this guy's diction going over well in American MBA classrooms. He sounds like a pastor. A British pastor. Slow, pleasant, deliberative, have some tea? You can hear his students' thoughts as they sit politely in front of him pretending to take notes: Outta my way! Out-of-my-way!]

Doing the right thing in the Duke case therefore required two things. First, the M.B.A. students needed to know that cheating is generally morally wrong. Second, they needed to know that it was wrong for them to cheat in their particular circumstances. [We're getting perilously close to Barney the Dinosaur here, and no smart-as-a-whip MBA student is going to stand for it. It's obvious that the realm of ethics is about personal behavior -- the whom, as the writer calls it. You're not telling anyone anything he or she doesn't know.]

Why do people sometimes believe that moral requirements do not apply to them in the situations they face? The most compelling answer appeals to consequences. People predict that breaking the rules will have high payoffs. And where are the opposing costs? After all, rule-breaking really doesn't seem to hurt anyone else, especially in environments in which others similarly break the rules. Of course the rules of morality generally ought to be followed. But only as long as the costs aren't too high.

The consequentialist logic of business education may encourage this kind of thinking. [Encourage? It enshrines it. As one university trustee notes, "[I]n his book Moral Dimension, Amitai Etzioni equates the neoclassical economic paradigm with disregard for ethics. Sumantra Ghoshal's article "Bad Management Theories are Destroying Good Management Practices," in Academy of Management Learning and Education Journal, blames ethical decay on the compensation and management practices that evolved from economic theory's emphasis on incentives."] There is no mistaking the fact that profit maximization is the chief value within many business curriculums. As a result, brief surveys of business law, discussions of company codes of conduct, or even introductions to ethical theory — the what of morality — are very likely to buckle under the comparative weight given to considerations of profit, goal achievement, cost-benefit analysis, and shareholder satisfaction.

Does this mean that business ethics really is an oxymoron? Not if business schools are willing to take the whom of morality seriously and educate students throughout the curriculum about the application of ethical requirements to all business actors. [I'm sorry. This won't do. Again, the whom is implicit in all discussions of morality.] Among other things, this kind of education would draw on traditional academic disciplines such as philosophy, psychology, and politics to help students understand their place in the world and the role of business in society. [These lame phrases - understand their place in the world... role of business in society... tell you that when taught from this angle, these courses will go absolutely nowhere, or will make matters worse.]

Ultimately, business ethics requires that we rethink the business curriculum. Business is not a closed system with its own set of values, motivations, and rules. The curriculum should reflect this fact. First, students must be able to think deeply and critically about conflicts between wealth and other values. Second, students should know more about ordinary human psychology, especially the tendency to overestimate our own importance and the importance [of] our goals. Third, students need a greater awareness of the interdependence of business and the rest of civil society. Unfortunately, students cannot get this kind of education from a curriculum that focuses only on the business "fundamentals." [Well, here we're at another impasse. The writer is calling for business schools to become peace studies centers. If the writer objects to the essential immorality of MBA-ideology -- what Myles Brand rightly identifies as capitalism pure and simple -- he should teach in a divinity school.]

So it is not enough for business students to hear yet again that certain behaviors are generally prohibited by morality. They must also come to see that these prohibitions apply to them even when morality conflicts with self-interest, the bottom line, and the interests of investors.

When business schools start taking ethics seriously, maybe people will stop laughing.

Okay, here's a suggestion for how business schools can take ethics seriously. First, they can stop offering not very good courses in ethics. These courses are an insult to their students' intelligence. Next, they should fire all their business ethics professors. They should take the money they've now freed up and use it to institute a three-times-a-year debate series to which students are invited. They do not have to attend. These debates would be between luminaries in the world of business and business regulation (Bill Gates, Rupert Murdoch, Carly Fiorina, Elliot Spitzer, Andrew Cuomo, Richard Grasso, plus a few high-profile douchebags on prison furlough), and their topic would be somewhat open, but would probably naturally evolve, given the participants, into a useful and honest give and take on the complexities of corporate behavior.

Alan Greenspan, in a recent speech at a business school, acknowledged the high levels of corporate dishonesty in America and pleaded with the graduates:

A generation from now, as you watch your children graduate, you will want to be able to say that whatever success you achieved was the result of honest and productive work, and that you dealt with people the way you would want them to deal with you. … I do not deny that many appear to have succeeded in a material way by cutting corners and manipulating associates, both in their professional and in their personal lives. But material success is possible in this world, and far more satisfying, when it comes without exploiting others. The true measure of a career is to be able to be content, even proud, that you succeeded through your own endeavors without leaving a trail of casualties in your wake.

Very pretty, but rhetorically hopeless. As if the eager twenty-somethings in his audience are thinking in generational terms... As if they don't know that the modest term "material success" now means making forty million dollars a year as a fund manager... This is just an old guy operating outside the corporate realm gassing on in the way of many business ethics professors. Franchement, UD doesn't think universities can do much about this at all. But if they want to try something that might have some teeny utility, they might try her idea.


Monday, May 28, 2007

Scathing Online Schoolmarm

The local paper takes Berkeley's professors to task for refusing to take a stupid, unnecessary, mandated ethics quiz (background here).


Much eye-rolling probably took place from the earliest announcement that the University of California would require that an online ethics course be completed by all employees on all campuses. As elementary as it may be, basic reminders of right and wrong can refresh one's ethical synapses. [From rolled eyes to stale synapses is a little awkward, but okay.... Isn't it more likely, though, that very elementary forms of moral didacticism, whose black-and-whiteness insults one's intelligence, will shut down your synapses?]

Although most UC system employees had little problem taking this course -- which doesn't appear to be the case with the state-mandated sexual harassment training that many employees have been blowing off for a year and a half [If I were writing about sex training, I'd avoid most forms of the word "blow"] -- Berkeley employees, professors in particular, have rebelled against these ethics lessons.

This is how they've acquired the reputation as being pompous. [And... we're off! Time to replace arguments about the exam with populist poopoo.... Oh, and he means to write a reputation for pomposity. ]

The old "no time to take it" excuse is bogus because apparently the course can take as little as 15 minutes and seldom longer than 30. [No one's made this excuse. And yes, the exam is so pitifully primitive that fifteen minutes does it, voila, moral clarity... ] It is true that the program has not been completely geared to university settings, therefore every situation is not one every person is likely to face. [Time to introduce this writer to the semi-colon.] Surely people as smart as these can cull applicable information regardless of the perfection of the example. [I haven't a clue what this sentence means, though the writer's class resentment comes through clearly.]

Certain standards and morals are expected of everyone, regardless of position. The multiple-choice quiz is designed for every employee to relate to on some level; [proper use of semi-colon here] its lessons attempt to be widely relevant. And as UC President Robert Dynes says in the introduction, a common course gives a common frame of reference on ethics and expectations.

For most people the ethical answers are obvious in each situation. For some, however, the examples may provide reminders that keep them from falling on the wrong side of the thin line between right and wrong. [This writer actually believes that taking a fifteen-minute multiple choice test can make people more ethical.]

Many UC faculty members act as if this is all so trivial, so beneath them. [Fucking Marie Antoinettes.] Yet the reminders are obviously necessary. Last year UC officials violated university policies in awarding hidden compensation and special perks, involving millions of dollars, to some top executives, sometimes without telling the regents and certainly not considering the increased tuition students were paying. Maybe all Berkeley faculty were above this fray. [Yeah, they were. So the administrators, and not the faculty, should take the test.]

Regardless, it most assuredly isn't going to hurt these deep-thinkers [Hit me again baby.] to take 15 to 30 minutes. They've wasted more time complaining and pouting than it would have taken to complete the thing. [They're not complaining. You are. They're ignoring, laughing, shredding.] They should pick their fights carefully. This is not a good one to pick.


Sunday, May 20, 2007

SOS Stays on the
Quotation Marks

Mark Stivers


Saturday, May 19, 2007

Scathing Online Schoolmarm

Here, a blogger for the Oregon Statesman Journal complains that employers unfairly judge graduates of Oregon's schools to be inferior to job applicants who come from systems outside the state.

Yet this man -- himself a product of Oregon's education system -- writes so badly that he makes the opposite case: The employers are probably right.

Oregon finds itself last or lowest among all the states in its public support of higher education. Every obvious indication would lead the observer to believe that Oregon's legislators ignore the relationship between paying for what you get. ['Relationship' needs to be between two things: Paying for what you get and...?]

One Oregon newspaper's editorialist wrote, "Even now, there are legislators who pretend there's no connection between Oregon's lowest-in-the-nation corporate income tax, and being last in public support of universities." The editorialist goes on to say, "You know there's something wrong with a state's finance system -- and its leadership -- when even during good times like this it still can't bring itself to make a basic investment in higher education."

I disagree. [As you read the rest of this paragraph, it's hard to figure out what this "I disagree" means.] Having been born and grown up in Oregon, I remember back when I was in high school here, along the way of going [slightly awkward formulation] from preschool through graduate school to a Ph.D., realizing that anyone from an Oregon school, no matter how many degrees he or she got and achieved at whatever the highest level this state had to offer, the person involved was going to be overlooked by someone with similar or even lower achievement from somewhere else. [Meandering and confusing sentence.] That somewhere else, incidentally, could be another state in this country or overseas. The bottom line is that, unfortunately, Oregon has a pronounced inferiority complex about its higher education graduates. [This is the man's basic argument. For clarity's sake, he should have put it somewhere in his first paragraph.]

That's the real reason corporations and others who could make a difference in academic standing in this state won't come forward to support higher education at any more than to the ['any more than to' is awkward] $10 minimum corporate tax to pay for a proper investment in higher education [Note the redundancy of 'higher education,' which gives the sentence a circular feel. We're getting a sense that this writer is trying to push forth with some real emotion, but that the emotion, which at this point looks unpleasantly like free-floating resentment, has compromised his lucidity.]. They don't need to do so in order to get the candidates they seek to do the jobs they want done. Oh, they'll support the kicker because that puts more money in their pocket to the level of $1 billion and they'll quietly (sometimes even with great noise) support K-12 at the proposed $6.245 billion. [Again, the tone is snide, which is rarely a winner; and the writing is just awkward.]

Do you know why they support the kicker and more money for K-12? The first is obvious because it means they can stuff more bucks into their already bulging pockets. [Stuffing more bucks in bulging pockets is nineteenth century populist boilerplate. It has absolutely no impact.]

The second, however, is a bit more obscure. Your see, if the state does well at educating students to the twelve grade level (even with an alarming number of some dropouts), then corporation[s], of course, have no recourse but to bring their pals in from elsewhere to fill the big buck jobs. [Pals, big buck...] The high school grads, GED holders, and dropouts can have the scraps; you know, the jobs they fight over with the illegal immigrant for the lowest, [most] menial, [most] poorly paid chores possible.

Look around at a few examples: every time there's need of a big-district superintendent, someone from another state is brought in and then he or she brings in his or her pals for the top positions or as exorbitantly-paid consultants. Where does Chemeketa Community College's new president come from? Somewhere in Oregon? Look again. She can absolutely be depended upon to bring her pals with her into all the top jobs. Did the new president and publisher of the Statesman Journal come from Oregon? Not this time! Just look around: Even Oregon's governor is not a native Oregonian. [The writer's getting uncomfortably close here to nativist rhetoric.]

I've lived in this state all my life. [Note the negatives I'm about to highlight in the next sentence.] Every person I know who attended an Oregon college who has not been able to earn more than a modest income has not been able to do so unless his or her family owned a business and he or she has been able to inherit it. [See how confusing they are? The writer doesn't know how to tighten his prose, to avoid confusing redundancy; the result is that readers need to scan many of his sentences twice to make sense of them.] It doesn't matter whether they went to school and earned a high degree, they'll never pull down other than a mediocre salary unless unless [Delete one "unless" -- in a prose style full of redundancy, it plays as just more of the same.] it’s as a self-employed professional, like a doctor, dentist, or attorney (often from a family that had the means to pay their way), but to head an organization, private or public, no way! [We expect guys at bars nursing vodkas to talk like this -- in rambling, emotional sentences that have trouble getting to the point.] That individual just has to be hired from elsewhere, out of state. They cannot claim any Oregon school or higher education as their alma mater because my experience tells me that is the kiss of death here.

As long as Oregon has an inferiority complex about it [its] own higher education graduates there won't be more than "peanuts" [Why quotation marks around peanuts?] thrown higher education's way in this state. We can expect more of current same [current same is awkward] from the Legislature regarding the support of higher education because any Oregonian with an ounce of insight knows that our legislators are in the firm grasp of Oregon's corporations and organizations and those folks want their bread and butter spread just the way it always has been. [Peanuts, bread, and butter: The writer has failed to make an argument, but has succeeded in making a sandwich.]


Wednesday, May 16, 2007

UD's Becoming Quite the Fan...

... of Patricia McGuire, president of Trinity University here in Washington. Not only was she scathing on the subject of ex-American University president Benjamin Ladner's outrageous compensation, but she also has her own blog.

And maybe it's all that blogging she's doing, but she's also a very good writer:

Rip it up and throw it away. [Glance down to the end of her opinion piece. She returns to the rip it up bit. This circular approach to structure is almost always a good bet.] That’s the advice I’m giving my fellow college and university presidents this month as the “reputation survey” from U.S. News & World Report lands on our desks. [You guessed it. I'd take "reputation survey" out of quotation marks.] I am one of 12 presidents who wrote a letter urging colleagues to take a stand for greater integrity in college rankings — starting by boycotting the magazine’s equivalent of the “American Idol” voting process. [Everyone in the country except for tv-less UD knows what American Idol is -- again, no need for quotation marks.]

All presidents receive versions of the reputation survey organized by region. Mine lists 181 Northern universities, including schools as different as the behemoth City University of New York’s Hunter College, with more than 20,000 students, and my Trinity, a historically Catholic women’s college that’s now a 1,600-student university.

The survey asks me to “rate the academic quality of undergraduate programs,” assigning each school a single score using a 1-to-5 scale from “marginal” to “distinguished.” [Quotation marks here are fine, since this is direct quotation.] That I have little real information about these 181 institutions does not seem to matter to the U.S. News editors. The tabulated survey results will account for 25 percent of the total score they use to rank colleges and universities in the “Best Colleges” issue.

Survey concerns

In a cover letter reminiscent of a sweepstakes mailing, U.S. News informs me that I am “one of a select group of people” with “the broad experience and expertise needed to assess the academic quality of your peer institutions.” Most of what I know about these schools is through anecdotes, news stories and rumors. Should I score an institution poorly because I’ve heard that it has money woes? Should faculty unrest influence my vote?

This reputation survey is just part of the larger problem with “Best Colleges,” a misnomer that feeds into the American obsession with celebrity, prestige and list making. [A misnomer that feeds sounds awkward to me. One of those two words should be changed.] What’s “best” educationally for an aspiring physicist is quite different from what’s “best” for a future reading teacher. [Liberate "best" from the rabbit ears.] But in the strange alchemy of U.S. News, the rich diversity of American higher education boils down to a few points about fame and wealth.
[I love "strange alchemy," but would change "diversity" to "brew" in order to keep the boiling alchemic metaphor going.]

Crunching the numbers

In addition to the reputation survey, U.S. News collects lots of institutional data that it churns through its own formulas to score each school; those scores drive the rankings. Colleges that have high faculty salaries and strong “selectivity” — meaning that they reject a lot of applicants — fare much better than those that are more efficient with resources or that accept more students.
[Liberate "selectivity."]

Universities that want to move up in the rankings dare not admit more low-income students from urban public schools who might lower the retention and completion rates.

U.S. News also provides an incentive for colleges to raise tuition because that means higher “educational expenditures per student” and more “faculty resources,” which together account for 30 percent of the score. The very consumers whom U.S. News allegedly serves are paying a hefty price for what its rankings have done to higher education. [Drop "allegedly."]

Privately, some presidential colleagues have said they agree with my position but are afraid to act publicly for fear of upsetting trustees or alumni. But one of the essential tasks of leadership is to risk speaking the hard truth.

U.S. News and others in the college-ranking business claim that they promote accountability in higher education. But what truly betrays public trust is permitting surrogate measures of academic quality to replace real information about what students learn on our campuses. Colleges need to take back the responsibility for communicating educational results, starting with posting accreditation reports on Web sites.

We also need to teach prospective students and families to assess what really counts in higher education — not a magazine ranking but how well a college meets a student’s learning style and academic interests, how available the faculty are outside the classroom, whether students can get the courses they need to graduate in a timely way and what professional schools and employers welcome its graduates. [Note that McGuire's style is elegantly simple and straightforward.] The best way to assess a school’s quality is to visit the campus, stay overnight in residence halls with other students, meet the faculty, sit in on classes and try on the “feel” of the place. [Liberate "feel."]

PR campaigns

Some of the actual best colleges in this nation do not fare well in the U.S. News survey because they do not have the wealth, big-time sports notoriety or public relations clout to influence the peer voting system.

Every March and April, in anticipation of the reputation survey, some university PR machines go into overdrive and crowd my desk with glossy brochures touting their accomplishments. A few presidents go so far as to appeal for my vote directly, sending personalized form letters extolling the virtues of their colleges. I rip those up and throw them away, where they commingle in the trash can with the U.S. News survey. ["Commingle" is an odd choice -- a little too poetic for this trashy conclusion... But that odd, high/low tonal mix somehow works. Not sure why. Maybe because it's kind of funny.]


Tuesday, May 01, 2007


Excellent Writer.
Bad Logician.

Barbara Ehrenreich argues here that the Marilee Jones story (she's the longstanding admissions person at MIT who was just fired for having lied about all of her higher education credentials) proves that most people probably don't need a college degree, and that their expensive BA's are really about making them poor and desperate (all those student loans to repay) and therefore meek employees. Since meek employees are exactly what corporate overlords are looking for, college grads will be hired before non-college grads.

SOS usually features crappy writers making crappy arguments. Here, for a bit of a change, we have a fine writer making a crappy argument. Let's take a look.

Can you be fired for doing a great job, year after year, and in fact becoming nationally known for your insight and performance? Yes, as in the case of Marilee Jones, who was the dean of admissions at MIT until her dismissal last week, when it was discovered that she had lied about her academic credentials twenty-eight years ago. [Cast your eye to the end of the piece. She begins and she ends with Marilee Jones -- an elegant way to structure your essay.] She had claimed three degrees, although she had none. If she had done a miserable job as dean, MIT might have been more forgiving, but her very success has to be threatening to an institution of higher learning: What good are educational credentials anyway? [Already we're getting a little funky. If she hadn't been good at what she did, MIT might not have fired her? Ehrenreich wrongly assumes MIT had something in mind about the inherent worth of a college degree when it dismissed Jones. There's no reason to assume this. MIT had the trustworthiness of highly responsible administrators in mind.]

Jones is hardly the only academic fraud. The outplacement firm Challenger, Gray and Christmas estimates that 10-30 percent of resumes include distortions if not outright lies. [There's a huge difference between the mild fudging most of this represents and lying about your entire educational history.] In the last couple of weeks, for example, "Dr. Denis Waitley Ph.D." --as he is redundantly listed in the bestselling self-help book The Secret, where he appears as a spiritual teacher--has confessed to not having his claimed master's degree, and the multi-level vitamin marketing firm he worked for admits that it can't confirm the PhD either. [Ehrenreich does herself no favors by hauling into this argument an obvious conman.]

All right, lying is a grievous sin, as everyone outside of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue knows. And we wouldn't want a lot of fake MIT engineering graduates designing our bridges. But there are ways in which the higher education industry is becoming a racket: Buy our product or be condemned to life of penury, and our product can easily cost well over $100,000.

The pundits keep chanting that we need a more highly skilled workforce, by which they mean more college graduates, although the connection between college and skills is not always crystal clear. [College isn't about workplace skills. It's about general cultural acquisition, becoming an educated person.] Jones, for example, was performing a complex job requiring considerable judgment, experience and sensitivity without the benefit of any college degree. And how about all those business majors--business being the most popular undergraduate major in America? It seems to me that a two-year course in math and writing skills should be more than sufficient to prepare someone for a career in banking, marketing, or management. Most of what you need to know you're going to learn on the job anyway. [Why doesn't Ehrenreich take this opportunity to express opposition to bogus undergraduate majors like business?]

But in the last three decades the percentage of jobs requiring at least some college has doubled, which means that employers are going along with the college racket. A resume without a college degree is never going to get past the computer programs that screen applications. Why? Certainly it's not because most corporate employers possess a deep affinity for the life of the mind. [No one claims corporate settings want intellectuals. But they do want people with certain mental and cultural attributes, and one of the best places to get those attributes is a good college.] In fact in his book Executive Blues, G. J. Meyers warned of the "academic stench" that can sink a career: That master's degree in English? Better not mention it.

My theory is that employers prefer college grads because they see a college degree chiefly as mark of one's ability to obey and conform. Whatever else you learn in college, you learn to sit still for long periods while appearing to be awake. [This is funny. Her claim that America's go-go corporate sector wants somnambulists is dumb, but the way she puts it is funny.] And whatever else you do in a white-collar job, most of the time you'll be sitting and feigning attention. Sitting still for hours on end--whether in library carrels or office cubicles--does not come naturally to humans. It must be learned--although no college has yet been honest enough to offer a degree in seat-warming. [There's a charming nonchalance of tone and confidence of manner in this writing. Unfortunately, it's not describing American corporate life very well.]

Or maybe what attracts employers to college grads is the scent of desperation. Unless your parents are rich and doting, you will walk away from commencement with a debt averaging $20,000 and no health insurance. Employers can safely bet that you will not be a trouble-maker, a whistle-blower or any other form of non-"team-player." You will do anything. You will grovel. [I think we're talking Japan here.]

College can be the most amazingly enlightening experience of a lifetime. I loved almost every minute of it, from St. Augustine to organic chemistry, from Chaucer to electricity and magnetism. [Touch of snobbery here.] But we need a distinguished blue ribbon commission to investigate its role as a toll booth on the road to employment, and the obvious person to head up this commission is Marilee Jones. [Why is a cynical liar the best person for the job?]

I actually agree with Ehrenreich that too many Americans feel compelled to go to college. But I think she's got the reasons all wrong.


Monday, April 30, 2007

Scathing Online Schoolmarm:
Somebody Help Me Care!

David Whitley writes for a Florida newspaper. He wishes to convince us that multimillion dollar college coach salaries, escalating by the minute toward the tens of millions, are an excellent idea -- nay, an historical inevitability. But SOS is not sure Whitley really cares whether he convinces us of this or not. He is confused. He is not performing well.

Let's check his progress, a few paragraphs into his piece:

The point is that if anyone still is looking at this in the context of college sports, they hopelessly are blind to reality. [Come again? The context is college sports, surely? Given that this is about college sports? And that lame hopelessly is out of place: If you're going to use it, which you shouldn't, but if you are, put it in front of blind. And blind to reality is a cliche.]

The reality is that college sports is an increasingly gargantuan business. [Whitley's overfond of adverbs. The sentence has no need of increasingly. I mean, think about it, David: If something's already gargantuan, is it particularly impressive for it to be increasingly so? I'm impressed already with gargantuan, see? ... And yeah, that's the reality; but there's nothing wrong with disliking a reality and wanting it changed.] The economics require coaches to be paid as much as backup NBA point guards. But if we condone that, we basically admit that we value entertainment more than education. [Note that the writer has done nothing to convince us that the economics require a certain level of salary. Again, he has merely told us what the current situation is. Ask the president of Vanderbilt if he feels compelled by this economics lesson.]

Call me shallow, but I'll admit that.

Who wouldn't rather sit through a football game than a geology lecture? The fact we'll pay to watch Gators quarterback Tim Tebow does not signal the decline of civilization. It signals we are human, and humans always have yearned to be entertained. [Hm. How shall SOS go about SOSing this flaccid little paragraph? Should she explain that limp rhetorical questions do not turn her on? That a not very well-endowed writer offering UD enlightenment about her human essence makes her giggle rather than say yes I will Yes...]

Yes, academics and athletics often make an awkward fit. It can lead to bad publicity. There's the perpetual pay-for-play debate.

But aren't those reasonable prices to pay? [No.]

Florida's athletic teams (read: football) generated $82 million last year. What's a university supposed to do, walk away from that kind of business opportunity? [Yes.]

At $2 million a year, Florida State's Bobby Bowden makes 50 times more than when he arrived in Tallahassee. Heck, he still makes 15 times more than fellow state employee Charlie Crist.

But what has Bowden been worth to Florida State over the past three decades? In terms of donations, memories, prestige and pride, the school never will be able to repay him. [Yup. Florida State's in great shape.]

What has C. Vivian Stringer been worth to Rutgers in just the past two weeks? Her team's dignified reaction to the Don Imus controversy made it a national sweetheart. Now Stringer stands to make $900,000 a year with incentives.

Most of the big-salary money comes from outside sources. That will be worth remembering in a few weeks when Donovan and football coach Urban Meyer get their raises.

Lumped together, two coaches will be pulling down at least $5 million. It could be $8 million if Imus says Tebow has nappy hair. That would pay for approximately 12 anthropology professors, three microbiology labs and four more Starbucks in the student union.

So you think Florida should let Donovan and Meyer just walk away? [Have you got hold of this guy's argument in any way? I'm trying. My job depends on my ability to make sense of garbled writing and garbled argument. But I can't do it.]

Ask Gainesville's merchants, or at least those who depend on fans showing up on football weekends. If Jeremy Foley hadn't fired former football coach Ron Zook, the Gainesville Chamber of Commerce would have.

If Meyer gets a bump to the $3 million range, he'll still be a bargain. He'll also still be making less than Saban, whose contract triggered the latest round of wailing.

Then 92,138 people show up to cheer his first scrimmage.

The hard question of why coaches make so much has a very easy answer.

They're worth it.


Sunday, April 22, 2007

Scathing Online Schoolmarm

Sometimes the writing's okay, but the argument is bad. Here's an example. I don't claim the style of writing here is without flaw, but the writing's not the problem. The problem is lack of logic and an appeal to sentiment.

Over the past few days we [The opinion piece writers are a former president of Texas Southern University -- a criminally mismanaged school about to have a conservator assigned to it -- and a local politician. They're going to argue against the governor's plan to appoint the conservator.] have been asked by many of our friends why we fight so hard to preserve an institution that most people in this state believe to be dysfunctional. [Here's their first problem: It is indeed dysfunctional. Very few students graduate. Its president and financial officers were thieves. It's no longer a question of belief. Rational people know the place needs radical overhaul. I doubt even the authors of this opinion piece believe differently. It's their feelings that are leading them astray.]

They ask whether it's because of Mickey Leland, Barbara Jordan or Harold Dutton. Our answer is always no. We fight for Clifford Varner, Thomas Jones and Betty Berry.

You see, Mickey, Barbara and Harold could probably have gone to a number of other universities. But the same is not true for Cliff, Thomas and Betty. [Cliff, Thomas, and Betty are unlikely to be able to perform in college. Their going to TSU, drifting for years, and then flunking out, makes no sense financially, morally, or intellectually.]

Texas Southern University stands as a beacon for excellence and opportunity. [Resounding cliche. And, for most of TSU's students, not really true.] We have some of the brightest students in the state, who could have attended another university but who chose to attend Texas Southern. [TSU has very few of the state's brightest students.] But unlike other Texas universities, we also open our doors to those students who could not gain admission to any other university. We believe that is a laudable mission and we fight to retain it. [It's not laudable when the leadership of the school is ripping off those students.]

That fight is different from the one against gross fiscal mismanagement at the university. [No, actually it's the same.]

For years, there have been charges of shoddy recordkeeping and poor bookkeeping at Texas Southern. But in 1999 the state auditors, after careful review, found that the university had resolved those accounting system problems. Since that time they have found no significant accounting system problems at TSU.

It was in part the strength of the university's accounting system that provided such clear paper trails that lead to the indictment of the school's former president and chief financial officer. The judicial system will determine whether these managers are guilty of any criminal wrongdoing. But even if they are guilty, they are gone. [This is confused reasoning. Exposure of the criminality at the school had much more to do with a trio of intrepid students than it did with any systemic strengths. And those strengths couldn't have amounted to much if it was so easy for the president and her money people to loot the school.]

Moreover, the board of regents that was obligated to provide oversight also may have been derelict. They, too, are gone. What remains is an accounting system that works and vacancies in the presidency and board offices. These should be filled immediately with competent professionals. [This overlooks the reputational damage the school has suffered. The authors want to target a couple of people as the cause of the school's downfall, but there are indeed scandalous systematic problems at TSU, and it will have lost all credibility with the world if they aren't fixed.]

Conservatorship is not the answer. First, it is not the governance structure at TSU that is broken; it is the system of selecting the board of regents. For the past 60 years, it has been the governor, with the advice and consent of the Texas Senate, that [who would be better] has appointed the regents who hire the president. Thus, the problem of university governance lies on the doorsteps of the Texas governor and Senate. If they are dissatisfied with the caliber of their appointments, then perhaps it is time that they establish better criteria for filling these positions. [Sure, but this is about the distant future. It's the present the governor's dealing with.]

Second, if the same criteria that the appointing bodies used in the past are used to select a conservator, then Texas Southern would again be ineffectively led by someone who likely would lack the necessary knowledge and experience to lead an institution of higher education, let alone one in such dire need of strong leadership.

Third and most important, conservatorship would result in the destruction of the university. According to the school's accrediting agency, conservatorship would destroy the university's accreditation and eliminate all federal financial aid programs. These programs provide necessary funding that more than 70 percent of the TSU student body relies on to fund their education. [This would be temporary, if it happens at all. A school can survive losing and regaining accreditation. As for federal funding, the American taxpayer shouldn't be asked to subsidize ill-run schools that don't graduate their students.]

The effect is obvious. The Barbaras and Mickeys and Harolds would simply go to another university. But for the Cliffords, the Thomases and the Bettys, their opportunities for a college education may be irretrievably lost. [As it stands, Clifford, Thomas, and Betty are likely to get at TSU a simulacral education. It will end up costing them and other Americans a good deal of money.]

... We applaud Gov. Perry's commitment to decisive leadership at Texas Southern University but fervently disagree that the path he has chosen is a wise one for Texas Southern, its students and the state of Texas, generally. [Not bad writing, but it has its share of cliches, and it has ended this particular sentence awkwardly, on a weak word.]

Texas Southern continues its proud tradition of welcoming students the Texas public schools have failed. And while these nontraditional students tend not to graduate within the traditional four or even six years, there is a strong indication they eventually do graduate, have increased earning capacity and contribute largely to the Texas economy. [Tend... strong indication... Here the writers must weasel their way around the profound fact of wretched graduation rates at TSU.] ...


Thursday, April 19, 2007

Scathing Online Schoolmarm

SOS is developing something of a sideline in the parsing of official I Fucked Up statements. Here, for instance, is a post about Patrick Kennedy, Mel Gibson, and Russell Crowe.

This morning we have the just-installed, multiply DUI'd president of the University of Mary Washington addressing the world. Let's take a look.

On April 10 and 11, I was involved in two widely reported driving incidents. [Starts with simple narration. Good. We need to be reminded of the events. Yet where is the word arrested? Alcohol? Police? The word involved is no good at all. Involved could mean anything. And note the passive formulation: was involved. Direct statement is important right up front: On April 10 and 11, under the influence of alcohol, I drove erratically and was arrested as a result.] On Monday, I was released from the hospital, after five and a half days of examination for and treatment of possible injuries and for correction of a heretofore undetected, and potentially very serious, heart disorder. [Whoa Nellie. Not only have we leapt cleanly over the stupendous fact that this was about a two-day bender; we have -- in the second sentence -- made a play for sympathy by alluding to a heart thing. SOS is already prepared to say that it does not look good for this man.] It is only at the present time that I am able to return to other tasks and to communicate fully. [That's not because of your heart. It's because of the booze.]

My family and I want to express our gratitude to everyone in the Mary Washington community for their responsiveness at this trying time for UMW. We continue to be overwhelmed by the understanding and steadfastness of the people who comprise the larger UMW family.

I must stress that the events of April 10 and 11 are highly unusual and totally out of character for me. I deeply apologize for any difficulties caused for the institution, the Board of Visitors, or for the people and friends of UMW. [The apology is good, but he might again have made the statement more active: I deeply apologize for the difficulties I caused... We shouldn't have the sense, as we do throughout here, that the man is separating himself from his deeds -- that he is blaming them on medical conditions, or on a freaky break with the person he is. He is the person who did what he did.]

At this time, I am at home with my family, and I would ask that our privacy be respected, particularly for the sake of the children. I must concentrate on my doctors' treatment recommendations, and in that respect, I express great appreciation to the Mary Washington Hospital medical staff for their insights, skills, and personal approach to medicine. [Yick. This series of platitudes thanking the staff is totally out of place. The rhetoric is that of the university president of old, somewhat condescendingly promoting a community institution. This is a broken man whose future is seriously in doubt, not a grandee thanking the local folks for their personal approach to his heart condition. While he shouldn't sound outright pathetic in this statement, it's important that he be honest about the fact that he has, for some time at least, shattered his own life.] I again thank the University and the larger community of Fredericksburg for their kind and extensive support.


More: Melissa, a reader, links to this charming discussion of the language of the non-apology.


Sunday, April 15, 2007

Scathing Online Schoolmarm

UD saw Kinky Friedman perform decades ago at a club in Chicago. She's been singing his song Get Your Biscuits in the Oven and Your Buns in the Bed ever since.

You uppity women I don't understand
Why you gotta go and try to act like a man,
But before you make your weekly visit to the shrink
You'd better occupy the kitchen, liberate the sink.

Get your biscuits in the oven and your buns in the bed
That's what I to my baby said,
Women's liberation is a-going to your head,
Get your biscuits in the oven and your buns in the bed...

Turns out she's been singing one of the lines wrong: She thought it was "Women's liberation is a-makin' me mad." She checked the lyrics because she wanted to get up to date a bit on Friedman. He's written a little essay in the New York Sun that attracted the attention of SOS.


[We've already got a problem. Souls aren't strewn along the ground like rocks to be kicked away. It's an odd metaphor, and it doesn't work.]


April 15, 2007 --

I MET Imus on the gangplank of Noah's Ark. [Confiding, cool, this is writing that assumes a lot -- No need to give a first name -- you know who I mean, and the two of us have that special cool intimacy which has us calling each other by our last names... Friedman's attempt to find a clever way of saying he's known Imus forever doesn't work -- the Noah's Ark thing is hokey.] He was then and remains today a truth-seeking missile with the best bull-meter in the business. ["Truth-seeking missile" is clunky, somehow cliched, not funny. "Bull-meter" wants to do something innovative with the cliche bullshit meter, but, again, it doesn't come off. A large part of Friedman's problem in this essay is precisely this spew of metaphors. No metaphor's going to work if it's lost in a hundred other metaphors. What's created is just a mess, and readers read verbal messes as out of control emotionality. Friedman can't defend Imus and get us on his side if his essay is merely an airing of Friedman's personal feelings. So far he hasn't even tried to reach out to us; he has merely displayed his sense of his own brave cool.]

Far from being a bully, he was a spiritual chop-buster never afraid to go after the big guys with nothing but the slingshot of ragged integrity. [UD's heart breaks at this horrible writing. So Imus was a David against ... exactly which Goliaths? Judging by press coverage, Imus was a Goliath. Slingshots aren't ragged, and Imus isn't ragged. None of the images seem to have anything to do with reality.] I watched him over the years as he struggled with his demons and conquered them. [But he didn't conquer them. Not all of them. That's why he's roasting in hell at the moment.] This was not surprising to me.

Imus came from the Great Southwest, where the men are men and the emus are nervous. And he did it all with something that seems, indeed, to be a rather scarce commodity these days. A sense of humor. [I have no trouble with the Dadaist absurdity of the emu thing. That's fine. But to try that hard to be an original writer, and then to come right back with a cliche -- scarce commodity -- is to communicate a sort of schizy confusion, which serves you not at all when you're trying to write a persuasive piece.]

There's no excusing Imus' recent ridiculous remark, but there's something not kosher in America when one guy gets a Grammy and one gets fired for the same line.

The Matt Lauers and Al Rokers of this world live by the cue-card and die by the cue-card [live and die is a cliche; so is of this world]; Imus is a rare bird, indeed - he works without a net. [A bird that works without a net? Don't all birds work without a net? Our sense that this piece was dashed off in a self-righteous rage is deepening.] When you work without a net as long as Imus has, sometimes you make mistakes.

Wavy Gravy says he salutes mistakes. They're what makes us human, he claims. And humanity beyond doubt, is what appears to be missing from this equation. If we've lost the ability to laugh at ourselves, to laugh at each other, to laugh together, then the PC world has succeeded in diminishing us all.

Political correctness, a term first used by Joseph Stalin, has trivialized, sanitized and homogenized America, transforming us into a nation of chain establishments and chain people. [Just wild gesticulation here, with bizarre generalizations and massive logical gaps.]

Take heart, Imus. You're merely joining a long and legendary laundry list of individuals who were summarily sacrificed in the name of society's sanctimonious soul: Socrates, Jesus, Galileo, Joan of Arc, Mozart and Mark Twain, who was decried as a racist until the day he died for using the N-word rather prolifically in "Huckleberry Finn." [Losing touch with reality...]

Speaking of which, there will always be plenty of Al Sharptons and Jesse Jacksons around. There will be plenty of cowardly executives, plenty of fair-weather friends, and plenty of Jehovah's Bystanders, people who believe in God but just don't want to get involved. In this crowd, it could be argued that we need a Don Imus just to wake us up once in a while. [Sputtering.]

There probably isn't a single one of Imus' vocal critics who come anywhere close to matching his record of philanthropy or good acts on this earth. [Irrelevant.]

Judge a man by the size of his enemies, my father used to say. A man who, year after year, has raised countless millions of dollars and has fought hand-to-hand to combat against childhood cancer, autism, and SIDS - well, you've got a rodeo clown who not only rescues the cowboy, but saves the children as well. [Did he say sanctimonious somewhere up there?]

I believe New York will miss its crazy cowboy and America will miss the voice of a free-thinking independent-minded, rugged individualist. [Cliche.] I believe MSNBC will lose many viewers and CBS radio many listeners. [After all that hot language, he gives us this sentence.]

Too bad for them. That's what happens when you get rid of the only guy you've got who knows how to ride, shoot straight and tell the truth. [Ronald Reagan School of Writing.]


Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Scathing Online Schoolmarm

A biology professor complains in the Chronicle of Higher Education about the fragmented, quickly forgotten, nature of college learning, comparing students' intellectual behavior - scoring a grade in one course, quickly forgetting its content, scoring a grade in another course - to that of athletes trained simply to win one game and then another.

It's a reasonable enough thing to worry about, but his essay doesn't worry about it properly, and so has the feel of a futile gesture -- about as futile as taking one course after another and not learning anything. Scathing Online Schoolmarm examines a few paragraphs:

From an educational standpoint, rather than an economic one, college is a waste of time for most students, and teaching is a waste of effort for most professors. It is a waste of national resources on a colossal and increasing scale. [The problem with vast, vast statements like these is their vastness. Over-generalizing, as all Intro Comp students learn, is a mistake, because of a well-known paradox in writing: The more you inflate your rhetoric, the likelier that sucker is to burst right into shreds. Less is more, especially when, like this guy, you write guy-style -- see this earlier post -- and as a result cannot lend your Spenglerian doom the heavy breathing it demands. Note, for instance, the pairing of the words "colossal" and "increasing." The word that comes after colossal should be bigger than colossal. Increasing's a puny little thing. ]

The students flooding into most state universities are increasingly [repeating this word so soon makes the writing boring] being subsidized by tax revenues. In my state of Florida, the great majority of students get a free ride through the Bright Futures Scholarship Program. They have to pay for room and board, but they would have to do that whether or not they were in college. All they have to do to keep the free ride going is to win enough matches (pass enough exams) to place (receive a sufficient grade) at the end of the season (semester). [Not a bad paragraph, though instead of the rather cliched "flooding," he might have come up with a sports-related metaphor -- rushing? racing? For "great majority," just write "most." And there's something clunky - something that jams the flow of his prose - about the way the writer duly appends a little parenthesis after each of of his sports metaphors, translating them for us into the terms of his argument. We don't need this translation, having understood the sports analogy, and so feel we have a bit of a pedant on our hands.]

What is to be done? To begin with, don't expect me, a hard-working professor in the trenches [cliche], to be able to work miracles [cliche]. I insist on more long-term learning [cliche] and more integration across subjects than my students face in most of their other courses. But I am only one person [cliche] fighting a social phenomenon that is national in scope and many years in the making.

However, there are steps that universities could take to begin changing students' learning metaphors. One is to recognize that the lecture format evolved to serve students who are highly motivated to learn; it is excellent for them, but the average student gets little out of lectures. What could economically replace them in the auditoriums at large state universities is not clear. But whatever it is, it needs to engage students as active participants, or they will not learn.

A second step is to replace multiple-choice exams, now used by almost every professor, with essays. Sure, it takes much more work to grade essays, let alone to give constructive feedback on them, but that is one of the few ways to find out what students really know. It is also an important way to improve their writing, which often is truly pitiful. [I like this bit about essays. UD is a major essay-giver.]

A third is to increase the integration of the curriculum. Each course should reinforce, at a higher level, the foundation that students ought to have acquired earlier and should demonstrate how the material from previous courses is relevant in the new context. [Again, the problem here is that he's absolutely right, but that the tossed-off feel of his generalities seems somehow not to acknowledge the reality of just how intricate and conflictual a business authentic curricular integration is.] The Romans had a saying that rings true [cliche]: Repetition is the mother of learning.

... Truly educating our students would require serious reforms and a great deal of coherent effort by a lot of people. But in the interests of duty and self-respect, we had better get to work. [See how this final burst of rhetoric in the context of a pretty limp essay is kind of pathetic? It's empty language; and, worse, it's empty emphatic language. Hell, even worse, it's empty commanding language: Get to work! I don't see many readers rolling up their sleeves.]


Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Another Strong Opinion Piece...

... in the Oregon Register-Guard. Faculty members at the University of Oregon are keeping the pressure on that university's benighted administration as it turns a fine university into Oklahoma State.

This piece, by an art history professor, is written guy-style. Guy-style is fine; UD likes guy-style. Guy-style writing is unadorned, functional, gets you there.

One nice thing about guy-style is that if you rev its engine just a bit toward the end it can have a strong impact, because people assume it'll keep cruising along, and when it doesn't, it hits rather hard. Let me show you what I mean.

'The current price for a new University of Oregon basketball arena is $213.5 million, a significant increase over the recent estimate of $160 million. [Starts with numbers, and dramatic ones at that. As with the Univesity of Minnesota, everyone knows these university stadium projects will almost certainly be obscenely over budget.] Hasn't the time come for soul searching by those who are so avidly promoting this project? [See, this isn't the most stylish writing -- The rhetorical question's a little clunky, and prescribing soul searching for the soulless tends to make the whole effort feel futile just as the essay begins...] The enormous challenge of raising these many millions is taking a heavy toll on the university's good name. [Too many adjectives: enormous, many, heavy, good... You only want a couple of these. If you overdo it, the paradoxical result is a weakening of impact.]

The architects dubbed their design a "theater of basketball," but the arena's scale and amenities bring to mind a palace. [Pretty good. Ends with his strongest word: palace... Yet one can imagine a spiffier writer making something amusingly satirical out of this observation.] Is it not possible to erect a basic arena just large enough to provide the revenue necessary for making Duck athletics "self-sustaining"? [Why quotation marks around self-sustaining?]

Allan Price, vice president for advancement, states that the UO doesn't have to make excuses for wanting to erect the best possible facility, and that the institution carries this "philosophy" to all its projects. [Don't overuse the word 'erect.' Reason obvious. And again, no need for those quotation marks around philosophy.] Yet a few years ago, a properly equipped auditorium was cut early from designs for the UO art museum's renovation. [Excellent. Shows up their hypocrisy with a strong example.]

The first casualty of the arena initiative was longtime Athletic Director Bill Moos. The reasons behind his resignation probably lie in a report presented orally to the UO President Dave Frohnmayer. A written report, belatedly released at The Register-Guard's insistence, is uninformative and incompletely researched. Moos' removal thus served only to undermine faculty confidence in the administration.

Pat Kilkenny's appointment as athletic director may well be the right one, but the result of the job search may have been preordained. [Confusing formulation here.] Many indications support the perception [Translate this into English: A lot of people think.] that the hire was driven by only one agenda - to build the arena. The position description is unusual: It doesn't list even the most standard academic qualifications for the job, although the person hired is expected to "function as a senior official of the university."

The administration has defended Kilkenny's lack of a university degree by citing the University of Wisconsin, the University of Michigan and Purdue University as places where "boosters" have been hired as athletic directors. [Take booster out of quotation marks.] The comparison is spurious. [Good. Spurious is a nasty little word, and when used properly has quite a bite.] All three have college degrees and cannot be characterized as "boosters" in the vein of Kilkenny. Prior to becoming athletic directors, Barry Alvarez was Wisconsin's head football coach and Michigan's Bill Martin was a member of the U.S. Olympic Committee and taught courses at Michigan.

The pressure to raise funds for the arena has caused the UO to issue other problematic statements. Frohnmayer and others have argued that since the arena and Moos' buyout are donor-financed, academics are unaffected by the cost of these ventures.

This is fanciful. [Again, good. Simple, declarative, ending with a strong word.] A portion of the proceeds of the sale of Westmoreland student housing is being diverted to purchase property that may eventually play some role in the arena project. That even a penny of this money could go for athletics is hurtful to the UO's academic mission, which for years has struggled with frightfully strained conditions: For lack of space, music students have had to practice in bathrooms. Departments have had to convert not only bathrooms but also storage closets into faculty offices. [Frightfully strained is the wrong tone -- a little too Anglo teaparty. The writer should have found one powerhouse word for those two. And the bathroom thing is incredibly strong ammunition for his case: He should have begun the essay with it. His very first line should have been about music students practicing in bathrooms. And he should have ended his essay by returning to those students.]

The earmarking of Westmoreland money for possible use on the arena makes everyone stakeholders in the project. This arena venture should not, therefore, be allowed to stay in the hands of two or three UO administrators and a couple of donors.

Truth is a casualty of the pressure to keep big-time sports on track. [The writer doesn't need this sentence. The following sentence is much stronger all by itself at the beginning of this paragraph.] Frohnmayer wrote in The Register-Guard this year, "We take great pride in such measures of our academic success as the graduation rates of our student-athletes. Those rates have risen steadily in recent years. ..."

What kind of snow job is this? [Good use of the rhetorical question here.] The NCAA's findings indicate that the graduation rate of UO athletes has fallen from 79 percent to 47 percent in five years. Obvious strategies for boosting academic performance, such as making sure all students attend classes and have time to focus on exams, are routinely ignored. This year we saw an increase in the number of football games, and we have again scheduled a Civil War game during final exams - despite a University Senate resolution against this practice. The culprit is, of course, the vast sums required to finance UO's sports machine. [It's clear from his guy-style style that this guy is far from a hothead. He's deliberative. Professorial. So as he ups the rhetoric and reveals real anger it's quite effective... as in, things must really be scandalous if people like this guy are so upset.]

Those who believe a massive, commercialized sports enterprise is "higher education" should find a way to sustain it without undermining the UO's integrity by causing administrators to shift priorities from academics to athletics. [I tell you - and I know you're tired of hearing it - quotation marks are almost always a bad idea... Just dump them.]

I urge everyone to write Frohnmayer ([email protected]). If people want sports in a big way, I encourage them to work toward an athletic program that respects and promotes the UO's educational mission.' [...not one that moves our musicians into the men's room...Something like that would've been nice... Could even have picked up on his "palace" thing up there and contrasted the sports palace to the academic toilet...]

Yes. Write to Dave. I just did.


Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Scathing Online Schoolmarm

Pope Urges World Peace has become a paradigm-headline for UD, a headline whose emptiness expresses the emptiness of all empty headlines.

You don't always see UD's paradigm-headline in just those words. Sometimes it's Pope Cautions World Leaders, or Pope Notes Rising Youth Drug Use... A non-papal example UD remembers from her Medill School of Journalism days was a huge banner headline on the front page of the Chicago Tribune, which every day blared out with a huge banner headline:


Another variant of the empty headline -- which almost always accompanies an empty article -- is the Small Town Back to Normal After formulation. This is the piece about how, despite last Thursday's storm, Postmistress Pam is back to stamping letters.

Here's a recent addition to the empty headline stock, from

Easier College Admission for Athletes Sparks a Review by NCAA

As with all of the earlier empty headlines I've mentioned, nothing has happened. There isn't any news. To be sure, the rolly-poly NCAA has had its forward motion impeded a bit by some recent reminders (the Costas show; Antoine Wright's comments) that, as Boyce Watkins notes, it's a whorehouse on wheels. Subsequent to this embarrassment, a certain amount of wink-wink nod-nod has taken place:

The longstanding practice at U.S. colleges of admitting athletes with substandard academic credentials is coming under fresh scrutiny.

The National Collegiate Athletic Association has launched a review that might limit the number of these so-called special admits. At the University of Oklahoma, which just completed a four-year review of admissions, Athletic Director Joe Castiglione says some students read only at a fifth-grade level.

For years, football and basketball players have lagged other students in graduation rates. Coaches, administrators and faculty have wrestled with the sometimes conflicting goals of creating winning teams and well-educated students. Now, special admits may become the focus of efforts to reconcile the two.

..."Sports are an important part of the psyche of our institution," says Castiglione. "It's not to be made fun of or laughed at, it's to be embraced. But we have to work on some things."

[Strange comment from the AD at one of the most shameless abusers of athletes in the country. We're not making fun of his charges; he is. They're entirely used for their entertainment value.]

... Such policies risk eroding the reputations of the nation's top universities, says Larry Faulkner, president emeritus at the University of Texas at Austin.

"It goes to the heart of what is the intercollegiate model and what business we are in," Faulkner says. "Our institutions don't exist principally to provide entertainment to the public." [Certainly Castiglione's, and many other institutions, exist precisely for that principal purpose.]

... Faulkner is a member of an NCAA task force on admissions that called in October for a review of the special-admit system. NCAA officials might recommend changes within 18 to 24 months, says Myles Brand, president of the Indianapolis-based sports governing body. Rules changes would require the assent of the body's 18-member board of directors.

Among the possible steps, according to the task force: setting a maximum number of special admits per team or athletic department, adding programs to monitor and assist students, and collecting information on the progress of special admits who are athletes so the data can be submitted to faculty boards. [Blahblah.]

Brand, 64, says he doesn't support limiting special admits [Quelle surprise], so long as athletes have a chance to graduate once they're given assistance. Yet Brand says the NCAA doesn't track graduation rates for specially admitted athletes and doesn't know of any school that does so. [Rollin' along, singin' a song!]

`A Student First'

University administrators agree with Faulkner, in principle, when he says the athlete is a student first." [Sure, sure!] Even so, they say schools must meet the needs of the communities they serve. [It's a matter of needs, not entertainment, man!] Fans, alumni and financial supporters care about sports, says Tom Reason, associate director of admissions at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.

"Athletes are a group that has been identified as important to the institution and to society," Reason says. "You can't deny the reality of it." [Longtime readers know the thrill UD always feels on being lectured to by a Reality Instructor...]

... Administrators argue that without special admits, it would be difficult to compete in sports against schools that have lower academic standards. [It's a race to the bottom... as Oscar Wilde might put it...]

... Oklahoma has been increasing the number of special admits given to its football, baseball and women's track and field teams, according to admissions records. Castiglione says the athletic department is trying to improve its 60 percent graduation rate. [This is like balancing the budget and lowering taxes.]

..." In an ideal world, you might wonder if we wouldn't be better off getting rid of athletic scholarships, then it would really just be about going to school," Wisconsin's Reason says. "But things have evolved in a way that's dramatically different. You have to accept the reality of it and help the kids the best you can." [This is by far the slimiest bit of university sports rhetoric out there. We're here to help the kids.]


Thursday, March 15, 2007

Scathing Online Schoolmarm
Looks at a Madison Wisconsin
Newspaper Article

'University of Wisconsin graduate Mary Gilbertson is outraged by the prospect that the tiny Department of Comparative Literature will be closed, despite strong protests from faculty, students and alumni.

Gilbertson, a New York City resident who graduated in 1962, described herself as "an enraged alumnus" speaking for some in the department who are afraid to speak out. [Why be afraid to speak out?]

"As a graduate of the University of Wisconsin, this is disgusting. It has been one of the most famous departments, with a tremendous reputation," she said in a phone interview. [Weak argument. What matters is what it's been in the last twenty years or so.]

"I have some sense of how much the university is raising. What is happening to that money that they have to treat people this way?" [Again, badly argued. Emotionality and personalizing -- she's disgusted; they're treating people badly -- are non-starters. As long as defenders of the program sputter like this, the university has nothing to worry about.]

Gary Sandefur, dean of the College of Letters and Science, said there are no plans to close the 90-year-old department at this time, but he added that no new money will be invested in it. After current faculty members leave or retire, the department will come to an end, though the major will not, he said.

Comparative literature is the study of literature in its original languages from a cross-cultural perspective. [The writer might have mentioned that the field is imperiled everywhere, as interdisciplinary work comes to characterize virtually all literary study.]

Budget constraints mean that the university cannot afford to rebuild the department, Sandefur said. Comparative Literature has lost faculty for various reasons, including the dismissal of Professor Keith Cohen by the Board of Regents last year after he was convicted of a felony count of exposing a child to harmful materials. He admitted to sending naked pictures of himself and others to a 14-year-old boy he had communicated with in an Internet chatroom. [Perishing field + perv dept chair = problems.]

Though set procedures including a self-study, a review and recommendations to two planning councils must be followed before a department closes, Sandefur said Comparative Literature has been troubled for some time....

[A] former department chairwoman who is now on sabbatical conducted a spirited campaign to maintain the department after Sandefur asked her in April 2006 to voluntarily close it down over the next year or two. She declined, publicized the proposal on the department Web site and notified faculty, students and alumni.

About a dozen alumni responded with letters to Sandefur in support of the department, and faculty and students attended meetings of the Academic Planning Council, which advises the dean, to express support. The council recommended that Sandefur work with Saiz to get faculty from other departments involved in teaching courses in comparative literature, an effort that so far has not met much success, the dean said.

"The number of full-time faculty has decreased and workload has increased. Trying to keep the department afloat by drawing from diminished faculty numbers in other departments is a Promethean endeavor, pushing the stone up the hill," [the former chairwoman] said in an interview, adding that other short-staffed departments would not likely be willing to share staff. [Confusing Sisyphus and Prometheus wouldn't be that big a deal if this woman weren't former chair of a Comp Lit department.]

[She] said comparative literature is especially important considering the world situation at this time.

"We work to train people to work fluently in other languages and know other cultures and histories and then engage in comparative analysis," Layoun said. "Given the fiasco of some of our international policies, this is crucial training. Kuwait is supporting comparative literature, but Wisconsin isn't."' [Huh?]


Friday, March 09, 2007

'I Got Lost in His Arms
and I Had to Stay,"

...Annie Oakley in Annie Get Your Gun.

Here's that kind of writing, the kind of writing where you get lost in its arms and have to stay. Color Scathing Online Schoolmarm impressed.


Thursday, March 08, 2007

Scathing Online Schoolmarm

Dim is the word for the low wattage writing UD features below.

Dim prose generates so little light that it's hard to make out any meaning. Reading it's like being underwater in a slimy murky world...

Or rather, since this is an editorial about the University of Southern Mississippi, appearing in a Mississippi newspaper, reading this writing is like moving very very slowly under a brooding canopy of Spanish moss...

In the big scheme of things, a 3,700-seat addition to a Division I university's football stadium is not that big of a deal. [Repetition of "big" already gumming things up. Writer should have dropped the first "big."] Considering it raises the total capacity to 37,000, it's something larger universities do with great regularity. [Logic of this sentence escapes me.] And some of those are already seating 80,000 or more.

The immediate reaction could be to ask why the money being spent on the stadium expansion [at USM] isn't going toward academic programs or higher salaries for professors.

The planned expansion of M.M. Roberts Stadium, scheduled to begin next month and completed Aug. 1, 2008, [See how there's nothing dramatically objectionable in this writing, yet in lots of little ways -- the redundancy of "planned" and "scheduled," the dropping of "to be" before "completed" -- it irritates?] is generating plenty of buzz, the most common being why add on to a stadium where sellouts aren't that common to start. ["Common" -- another lazy redundancy. And all mushy on the crucial fact of there being more than enough seats in the stadium for existing low fan interest. Of course, he wants to mush this point up, since it utterly undoes whatever case he thinks he has.]

It's a fair question but it's also one that doesn't address the larger issues, such as potential growth of the University of Southern Mississippi. ["Potential growth" is not an "issue" but a wish fulfillment.] The additional seats will include 34 suites, 320 club-level seats and 1,900 bleacher seats. A new scoreboard is also part of the plan. [Um... what'll I say now? Oh. I'll list the cool shit this thing'll have...]

The total cost will be $31,893,420. It will be paid for by $21 million in bonds and $9 million borrowed from BancorpSouth. The bonds will be retired and borrowed dollars paid from revenue from the leases of the already sold suites. None of the expansion will cost taxpayers. [It'll cost taxpayers. And it'll cost students. Both groups know this. It's eerie to read an argument like this, written as it were by a prose autistic, for himself alone, with no awareness of a world outside himself...]

It is no secret that college football - especially on the Division I level - has become as much about business as blocking and tackling. Major corporate sponsors often showcase their brand name at college football games, and are usually provided seats for their support. [So? Is this a good thing? Do you think reminding us that this has happened strengthens your argument?]

M.M. Roberts - more affectionately known as "The Rock" - is small by most standards, yet probably right in the ballpark of campuses with an almost 15,000-student enrollment. [Note the lack of any organization in this piece. It helps, by way of organizing an argument, to have an argument.]

What opponents of any expansion fail to realize is that it is often revenue generated from televised football games, regularly played on Tuesday and Thursday nights, that funds other programs across the university. [This almost never happens. Usually football drains revenue from universities.]

The challenge for Southern Miss is to go after those USM students who enjoy the fruits of the college experience but who don't attend the games. Attendance at both the men's and women's basketball teams, for example, has been far less than what two quality programs should enjoy. [La... la... la... what should I say next? Oh yeah. The kids don't go to the games. Clearly the only sane response to this is to add expensive new seats to the stadium and flush the little buggers out of their hiding places... ]

The argument that expansion is a waste loses validity when the students share in the benefits. [Believe it or not, this is the last sentence of an editorial in a newspaper. For this writer, life is but a dream. Someday, USM will expand... someday, its students will attend its games... Come dream along with me! The best is yet to be!]

---Hattiesburg American---


Saturday, March 03, 2007

Scathing Online Schoolmarm

No Noun Left Behind

SOS has already, on this blog, looked at the "Signed, Disgusted" genre of letter writing.

Nothing wrong with the genre. Nothing wrong with wanting in a public forum to express your disgust with an event or a person or an argument. But it has to be done right.

Let us see how it looks when it's done wrong.

Here's a man all het up about the death of the University of Illinois mascot, a dancing Indian chief.

Since it's stupid to keen over the demise of a mascot, the letter writer has several challenges in getting this missive off the ground. He might begin, for instance, by acknowledging that what's upsetting him isn't, of course, the most important subject in the world... But he doesn't do that. Let us take a closer look.

I know you [The letter is addressed to the president of the university] do not need any negative letters: However, I feel [In general, and especially in polemical writing, avoid "I feel." It's girly and emotive - it weakens your voice immediately.] this story needs to be told [Chief Illinewhatever: The Greatest Story Ever Told. We are already a bit out of our sphere, rhetoric-wise.].

I hold you, the Board of Trustees, your complete staff, and the Alumni Association responsible as the decision makers for the University of Illinois. ["Complete staff" begins to suggest a problem that will recur in what follows. This writer has never seen a noun he doesn't think deserves an adjective. Why "complete" staff? It's his vehemence, of course -- he's full of feeling. Yet the effect of this phrase - your complete staff - is, given the multiple meanings of staff, and the personal mode of address, just amusing.]

You have meekly surrendered [not just surrendered, but meekly] the pride of the university to a tiny group (perhaps a half dozen) of activists (with no apparent motive other than a desire for publicity) in opposition to the expressed feelings of hundreds of thousands of loyal alumni [tiny group, loyal alumni].

Where is the old Illini fighting spirit? [Cliche.] This abject capitulation [abject] to this minuscule [miniscule] minority and to the NCAA, a dictatorial organization that needs to be cut down to size [Much as UD enjoys NCAA-bashing, this latest adjective -- dictatorial -- won't do.], is ridiculous and totally unrepresentative of [a] great institution.

As I understand it, other universities have fought the NCAA decisions successfully. If we need to go to court, let’s go!

I am convinced this type of subservient wind blowing [A subservient wind's a blowin' -- You knew we'd get into mixed metaphor territory eventually.] throughout the country is a major contributor to our falling cultural and family values [Off the rails here.]. Our majorities are overly anxious to bow to minorities, whether justified or not. [?]

In your case, as the decision-makers, whatever your legacy might have been to date [Bit of a brain twister: Your legacy to date...], hereafter, you will be remembered as the ones who spinelessly gave away the Illini’s richest and most cherished tradition, Chief Illiniwek. [Tone all over the place. Bitter Teaparty: hereafter, legacy. Onfield heckler: spineless...]

As for myself? Raised in Champaign, I have been an Illini fan all my life back to the days of Red Grange and Bob Zuppke when we used to crawl under the fence to see the ball game -- and the Chief! Later of course came Dike Eddleman and all the other great Illini. We attend all home football and basketball games. [Fine old American boilerplate. I have no problem with this.]

Including my brothers and my children, my immediate family holds eight degrees from the University of Illinois. Now it is disheartening that just as the university and the Alumni Association are widely soliciting funds -- and just at the time I and other old alumni are considering preparations for a, perhaps, longer journey [Is this a reference to his impending death?], you pull this trick.

My wife, Pauline, suggests the University might get a chicken for a mascot.


Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Scathing Online Schoolmarm

Here's a charming article about grad school in the humanities, in the Yale Daily News, by a graduate student there. Excerpts follow, with occasional style suggestions by SOS in parenthesis.

It was around this time last year when I got the “Magic Words” [drop quotation marks] from Yale telling me that I had been admitted. I was studying with my best friend at Amer’s café in Ann Arbor when I saw a “203" [drop quotation marks] number call my cell phone. I then peed on myself — just a little. [Drop 'just a little.'] I don’t know if you know this or not, but most schools (in the humanities) call if you’ve been admitted — not to add to your anxiety or anything. [Put "not to add" phrase in the middle of the sentence. Remember: You want to end sentences with your strongest stuff, which in this case is "call if you've been admitted."] And you’ll think I’m a total dork when I tell you that I actually [drop "you'll think I'm a total dork when I tell you that I actually"] memorized the area codes for the 11 schools I applied to: When Yale called, I knew before I even picked up the phone [drop "the phone."] . And the congratulations conversation went a little something like this: [Drop "And." Drop "a little something." Getting the idea? Less is more. Trust me.]

YALE: Madison, I’m calling to tell you the good news that we are admitting you to our program.

ME: That’s so hot!

And then [Drop "And then"] I ran around in my hot pink American Apparel underwear.

It’s that time of the year again, and some of you are biting your toenails ["biting your toenails" is excellent] waiting, wondering whether or not [drop "or not"] you’ve been admitted to graduate school [drop "to graduate school.']. You are going to be wined, dined and flown about the country to visit the various schools you’ve applied to. [Again: Rewrite the sentence to end with "flown about the country." "Applied to" is a pathetic end to the sentence.] Your cohort will include fabulous, ambitious people. You might hook up with, and then seriously avoid, one of the people in your cohort. You are the star as professors seduce you to study at their school. You lose interest in your last term at Yale because, well, you’re going to Berkeley in the fall. You pick the school with the best location, the best faculty, the cheapest places to live — you’ll be there six years! [These sentences are great - no problem. The repetition of "you" at the beginning of the sentences works nicely.]

But before you take The Plunge [drop capitalization - You think it's cute, but no one else does.], there are a few things you should know about what types of grad students you can expect to meet in the Ivory Tower [same deal]. The Grad Student is a rare breed — a teaspoon of social awkwardness and three cups of ego [nice image]. After all, it takes a hell of a lot of ego to be able to survive six years of not-so-nice criticism. [Not sure I agree with this -- If that were true, professors as a class would be bolder than they are...]

So let’s start with the most basic:

— The Theory Machine

You better watch out for the Theory Machine! [Drop this sentence altogether.] He’ll slap you with a big fat stick of Foucault/Derrida/Althusser/Barthes/Insert-famous-critic-here [Drop "insert famous critic here"] without a moment’s notice. Also known as Name Dropper. Most likely to never have read any theory at all, or to excoriate you for not having read “Of Grammatology” in the original language. Probably talks about Benjamin on a first date — i.e. doesn’t get laid.

— The Seminar Hog

A usual suspect. [Drop this sentence altogether.] The Seminar Hog is the one who [Drop "is the one who"] turns the class into a one and a half hour monologue. The SHog is his own class: The other seven students in the seminar are just [Drop "just"] ornamentation. The SHog cuts people off, is competitive and probably does not get laid a lot — I mean, could you imagine a SHog in bed? Sex is not a time to chat.

— The @^#&!**

The @^#&!** is the one everybody hates. Most likely to verify everything the professor says with his [pronoun reference?] laptop during class. He’s the one who tells everybody they’re wrong — including the professor — and who reads every major critical figure and says, “I don’t understand why we read this! If he were my student, I’d give him a D+.” What The @^#&!** doesn’t realize is that, like, he is not yet a major critical figure, so, um, nobody cares about his ideas. Most likely to sit at home on Friday nights playing with voodoo dolls, the names of other graduate students on each of them.

— The Quiet One

Be very wary of The Quiet One. The Quiet One is the one who [Drop "is the one who"] never talks aloud in class because she spends the first half of the class period trying to plot out exactly what she wants to say. But without a moments notice, her inner “Sasha!” — the alter ego of shy singer Beyoncé — busts out with brilliant commentary. Most likely to avoid classes with The @^#&!**.

— Your T.A.

You hate your T.A. Either you don’t really understand them, or you resent being taught by somebody 2 or 3 years older than you. Secret: You don’t want a T.A. and your T.A. doesn’t want to T.A. you. Probably laughs at your papers as they grade them while reading your Facebook profiles, lowering the grade a notch for every drunken photo and “red cup.” Probably the same outfit every class.

— The Obsessed With My Career

Probably belongs to a country club. The OWMC thinks he or she is the hottest *&%!# on the job market. Will likely not take a job at a “lower” institution because, after all, the OWMC’s from “Yale.” [Drop quotation marks.] Usually has a bad attitude, and is probably still jobless.

— The Hip Ones

The Hip Ones are the ones who [Drop "are the ones who"] do their work, come to class, make a comment or two and still manage to have a life outside of the classroom. Probably reads Gawker and is still connected to the real world. The Hip Ones seem calm and cool, and it’s never obvious how much they slave over Kristeva. They have not yet realized that they probably have to sell their soul (to The @^#&!**) to make it.

— The Undergrads

Many of you have done it, some of you are even doing it right now. The undergrad is the hot-pants smart tart who’s too good for regular courses. She takes graduate classes, and just loves to talk, talk, talk. After class, the grad students make fun of the undergrad because she said a lot but didn’t really say anything. The undergrad hasn’t yet [Drop "yet"] realized that in grad school, less is more [True of writing too, as I've been suggesting.]. The Undergrad is very [Drop "very"] likely to be The SHog in her first year of graduate school. Likely to show up 25 minutes early.

So now that you’ve gotten to know some of the types of “intellectuals” [Drop quotation marks.] you might meet in grad school, if you find yourself in a less than desirable category, you’ve got eight months to switch! [Drop exclamation mark.] Best of luck with your applications. A word to the humanities folk: when your lawyer friends are working 1,000 hours per week and you’re making 1,000 times less than they are, gently [Drop "gently."] remind them that you work 15 hours per week and have summers off.

I know some of my editorial suggestions seem to take a lot of the fun out of this, but read it my way and see whether it's not snappier.


Sunday, January 28, 2007

Scathing Online Schoolmarm...

...admires the extended use of metaphor in this excerpted Louisville Courier-Journal article. The author is Rick Bozich. A nice piece of writing.

The beast needs to eat. It always needs to eat.

There are expectations to meet. A stadium to expand. Championships to chase. TV viewers to entertain. College football poll voters to impress. A state rivalry to control.

The beast needs to eat. It always needs to eat. Sometimes it eats things that could embarrass the beast. Sometimes it eats things that make me wonder if the beast considers itself bulletproof. [All these choppy, choppy little sentences... Usually, of course, this is a bad idea. But there's a primitive something about the whole beast thing that seems appropriate for this me-Tarzan approach...]

It appears that Willie Williams is going to enroll at the University of Louisville and help the Cardinals chase a national title next fall. He is a linebacker who can run like Reggie Bush, hit like Brian Urlacher, fly like Superman. He can feed the beast.

He is also a linebacker who symbolizes good tackling skills will always be more important than good citizen skills in big-time football. You take a guy who can outrun a halfback, even if he has trouble outrunning the law. ["Outrun a halfback...outrunning the law." Clever.]

Williams enrolled at the University of Miami in 2004 with a record that included a reported 11 arrests, including a felony charge of setting off three fire extinguishers during a recruiting visit to Florida as well as a misdemeanor battery charge for hugging a woman without her consent. [Funny stuff, and the writer knows enough to leave it alone and simply report. The message that this dude is seriously fucked comes through all by itself.]

Williams played one uninspiring season for the Hurricanes. Word is he left Miami because of playing time issues. There have not been more arrests.

There were reports he would enroll elsewhere. Never happened. Tennessee reportedly balked. As did West Virginia. Other Top 20 programs balked, too.

So Williams spent last season at a Los Angeles-area junior college. Now, after a recruiting visit here last weekend, he appears prepared to bring his 6-foot-3, 235-pound body to U of L.

It makes you wonder if the Cardinals are taking this idea of becoming the next Miami in the Big East Conference too far. [His readers don't need elaboration of the reference to Miami, and UD's readers shouldn't either. Less is more.]

U of L wouldn’t consider hiring a coach or a dean with this guy’s resume. That would be embarrassing. This should be embarrassing. Williams will be a storyline wherever the Cards go. [What would blogs like mine do without recruits like Williams?]

Bryant Northern was booted from the basketball program with a shorter rap sheet. But Northern wasn’t the prospect Williams is. Standards are different if you can feed the beast.

This will be sold as a story of redemption, another Father Flanagan moment. Everybody deserves a second chance. Some deserve a dozen - especially if they run the 40-yard dash in a time that makes pro scouts hyperventilate. [This is absolutely wonderful. Father Flanagan is a marvelous touch.]

...This is a risky walk across a high wire. Some guys reward schools for taking chances. Some fall -- and flatten coaches, administrations and teams on the way down.

Ohio State took Maurice Clarett - and won before things got ugly. But remember what renegades did to Miami, Oklahoma and Colorado.

It happens a lot in football, a sport where an Illinois judge just cleared Tank Johnson, a Bears lineman with a rap sheet, to travel to the Super Bowl, a sport where the Bengals’ 2006 season imploded to the sound of police sirens.

But the beast has to eat. Now, it’s going to eat at Louisville. [Brings his theme to a nice, neat end. Well done.]


Tuesday, January 16, 2007

SOS: Scathing Online Schoolmarm:
Dave Frohnmayer Thinks You're Stupid

I've wrestled with my conscience over subjecting this morning's prose from the University of Oregon's president - an opinion piece in response to a faculty piece in the same paper which pointed out that the president's sports-obsession is destroying the school - to SOS scrutiny.

The president's love of sports has taken a toll not merely on his prose style (assuming he, rather than a staff member, wrote the piece) but on his ability to reason. What purpose is served in close analysis of the efforts of such a person to express himself? Isn't it a species of cruelty to play with this person's words, as a cat plays with a mouse?

Yes. Let's go to it.

President Frohnmayer takes a peaceful, non-conflictual approach to the subject:

In my 12 years as president of the University of Oregon, I have watched debates that pit the various elements of higher education against one another.

These debates assume that the success of one comes at the expense of the other - research or teaching, undergraduate education or graduate, in-state students or out of state.

These are false dichotomies.

Equally spurious is the debate that pits athletics against academics. To argue that one must choose academic excellence or athletic excellence is an oversimplification.

These are actually very true dichtomies, as the president knows, or ought to know, and there's no dichotomy more spectacular than that between sport and educational seriousness. I wonder whether Frohnmayer has asked himself why the Congress is bearing down on the NCAA's tax exemptions for university sports activities. Certainly the government understands that the dichotomy not only exists but has become so sharp that little to no discernable educational activity for many of their students exists at more and more big sports schools. Why should taxpayers support highly profitable sports programs that don't educate their athletes?

The president next falls into the saying-it-makes-it-so trap. Just as Donna Shalala thinks that saying her university is a serious academic institution makes it one, so President Frohnmayer thinks that repeating boilerplate from UO public relations materials makes their content true.

Another way of saying this is that President Frohnmayer thinks you're dumb. He figures he doesn't have to make a case for his claims, the way the faculty, in their piece, did (scroll down).

Academic quality is the cornerstone of our identity as a public research university. It is defined in our mission statement, "a community of scholars committed to the highest standards of academic inquiry, learning and service."

Duck athletics is an integral part of this university, and we should demand and expect the same degree of excellence on the athletic field as we do in the classroom.

The relationship between sports and academics is kept in proper perspective by basing every decision related to athletics on the fundamental principle that athletes are students first.

We take great pride in such measures of our academic success as the graduation rates of our student- athletes.

Cornerstone, mission statement, community of scholars, integral part, excellence, athletes are students first, take great pride... This is hollow language.

The president will note, irrelevantly, that the sports program pays for itself...

I mean, not only is it irrelevant to whether it's destroying the university that the sports program pays for itself; stressing this meaningless fact enables the president to avoid taking up the big story everyone's talking about in regard to college sports: The possibility that - precisely because of indifference to educational values and hot aching passion for games among administrations like Frohnmayer's, the government might withdraw education-based tax exemptions.

Final paragraph:

Our mission is to achieve excellence in all areas of the university - the classroom, the laboratory and the athletic field. From Bill Bowerman to our prize-winning faculty to our 19 Rhodes Scholars, the UO legacy for academic and athletic distinction can and will continue side by side.

Side by side we'll stride into the dawn of academic and athletic excellence! Take my hand and go with me there!


Friday, January 12, 2007

Scathing Online Schoolmarm...

... can only take her hat off to this English major at the University of Alabama, a woman who can write one mean letter.

Let's see how she does it, in an open letter to the university's president, published in the school newspaper.

Nick Saban, the new head football coach at the University of Alabama, is receiving a salary of $4 million per year, as I'm sure you're aware. You're probably not aware of who I am or how much your University is supposed to be paying me a year. [Starts with the obvious: Massa Saban, as one of UD's readers calls him. Hasn't really said anything nasty yet, but you just know it's coming. Cast your eyes to the letter's last paragraph, where she returns to Saban. She knows how to structure a good essay, giving it a nice rounded feel by invoking the massa at the beginning and at the end.]

My name is Sara Penrod. I am a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. I am a member of the University Honors Program and the Blount Undergraduate Initiative. As a National Merit Finalist, I was offered a full academic scholarship to UA and accepted despite great offers from other colleges. My family has a legacy at this university, and I wanted to continue it. [Simple straightforward unemotional writing. Good way to start. Notice that her sentences will become more complex as she moves along and chronicles the complex screw-ups to which she's been subjected by the university's administrators.]

The bureaucratic idiocy I've had to endure at this university makes me wish I had accepted some other college's offer. [Coming in for the kill here, with the word "idiocy."] Before I even started the fall 2006 semester, I've dealt with administrative mistakes. I understand that mistakes are inevitable, especially at a university the size of UA. The main problem is denial of problems and lack of responsibility. [A basic rule from English Comp 101 being followed nicely here: Always concede stuff at various points in your polemic. Makes you look generous, rational, level-headed.]

During the fall semester, my housing, class registration and even my meal plan were messed up. I made many, many visits to the offices of scholarships, admissions, financial aid, student receivables and dining services. I still lived in a study room in Julia Tutwiler Hall for the first month of the semester and had no working meal plan for the whole semester, despite having the money for all of this taken out of my scholarship money.

This semester, I returned from Christmas vacation to find a notice from the University stating that my spring 2007 registration has been canceled for nonpayment. I never received any prior notification, so I didn't know there was an error that needed to be straightened out.

Now I have been booted out of all of the classes I registered for several months ago. This will set me back for the rest of my undergraduate career; since enrollment is limited, I won't be able to get back in the classes I need and will effectively waste an entire semester. [Now we get to narration. Note that she chronicles her woes calmly, but does not avoid strong language, like "booted out."]

No one on this campus seems to know what the problem is. I once again have talked to people in the offices of Student Receivables, Scholarship and even Admissions. The best I can piece together is the problem, it seems, is that my scholarship has been "lost" again [ The two uses of "is" are awkward. A little rewriting needed.], but no one in your administration seems capable of finding it. [The "your" is very good. Reminds us that this is a letter to the president.] No one will take responsibility for fixing the error, and meanwhile my academic career is being ruined. [Ending the paragraph with the word "ruined" is excellent.]

As I said earlier, you don't know me, and you could probably care less. I'm just one more campus-wide ID number. [This late in the game, she can let it all out. Her anger is palpable. Fine. I'd, though, have written just "campus ID number," rather than campus-wide.] If I leave in total frustration at this university's unwillingness to deal with errors, it won't matter to you. I'm just collateral damage, as long as you get your 28,000 students by 2010.

[Here comes UD's favorite part!] As long as you have a winning football team to keep the alumni donors happy, you can pay a football coach $4 million a year and not think a thing about "losing" an $8,000-a-year scholarship for one more National Merit Finalist. [See what a gift Massa Saban is? Rhetorically, he's given the university the equivalent of the Elgin Marbles.]

Perhaps the problem is that I've been working under the assumption that the University of Alabama is an institute of higher learning. I appear to have been mistaken. It is a temple for the worship of dead pigskin wrapped around cotton. [Ouch ouch ouch ouch ouch. Lovely.]

What's one bright, talented National Merit Finalist and honor student, more or less? I see clearly now where this illustrious university's priorities lie.


Sunday, December 03, 2006

Scathing Online Schoolmarm...

...simmers down this morning and shows you what a fine piece of prose looks like. And it's from an English professor! Enjoy.

Robert Thorson calls the design of the University of Connecticut's new Fine Arts Building a "metal monstrosity" and agrees with U.S. News and World Report that its architect, Frank Gehry, is "showy, self-indulgent and egotistical," the right choice perhaps for Bilbao or Los Angeles but not Storrs. My colleague feels that Gehry's "cosmic design" would fatally compromise the university's "earthy visual aesthetic." He prefers the "red brick" of the Nafe Katter Theater and the Benton Museum addition to "phallic, fecal, Nazi or crucifix designs" that he free-associates with the Gehry building.

Professor Thorson concedes that he has no artistic or architectural credentials; none are really required when you are the self-appointed guardian of "public sensibility." For him the enemy is not Frank Gehry but "artistic freedom" in general. He doesn't like architecture that is emotionally "arousing" because it militates against society's goal of keeping itself happily glued together. Professor Thorson would take the "bland" over "public arousal" every time.

I suppose this is something of a concession for a teacher who has spent his career working in buildings that aren't really architecture at all. What he describes as "red brick" is essentially cinderblock construction. With the exception of the fine Works Progress Administration-style buildings from the 1930s, the University of Connecticut was built entirely on the cheap.

Typical of Storrs architecture are the twin eyesores of Arjona and Monteith. Set in a prominent location across from Mirror Lake, these two dilapidated buildings are as much the public face of UConn as the Conn Dome or the new chemistry and business administration buildings. Yet, the architecture of the new and old UConn has a lot in common. It aspires to nothing. Let Louis Kahn, Paul Rudolph and Eero Saarinen, among other "egotistical" modernists, build Yale. Cinder-block boxes are good enough for a state institution.

UConn's most recent architecture includes an overscaled chemistry building meant to conjure up happy images of a New England textile mill and a hulking business administration building in a retro German Gothic. These structures added chockablock to the campus' familiar hodgepodge of nondescript crapola can only inspire dread. It is a campus better suited to the South Bronx than to pastoral eastern Connecticut.

President Philip E. Austin and Fine Arts Dean David G. Woods have the audacity to question the complacency of this "good-enough" UConn aesthetic and dare to imagine a campus worthy of a $2.3 billion facelift. The university received a large grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to run an architectural competition to choose a designer for a new School of Fine Arts facility.

Over a hundred architects from all over the world were invited to submit their credentials to the Fine Arts faculty. A small group of award-winning designers was invited to campus to present their work in a public lecture to help the faculty narrow down the list to three finalists. Mack Scogin Merrill Elam Architects, Zaha Hadid and Frank Gehry were asked to prepare plans and models for the building and return to present them publicly. The work was judged by an independent jury that included professional architects, a high-ranking administrator, and a faculty member chosen from outside the School of Fine Arts. I was the lone UConn faculty member on the jury.

Frank Gehry won the commission over strong competition. Among other considerations, the jury took public comments into account. I can assure Dr. Thorson that the jurors were not part of a "Gehry cult." Our decision was based on the technical merits of the design and suitability for the site. Gehry's scheme was chosen in large part because it was more than just a proposal for a single stand-alone building. He and his Connecticut partners (Herbert S. Newman and Partners) took into consideration the entire campus as well as the current plans for Storrs' new "downtown."

Dr. Thorson's position has dominated public discussion for over 60 years. As a result, Storrs is currently a town without an identifiable core and a university without a single example of quality architecture. The university community (town and gown) has finally begun to address this sorry state of affairs. There is more than enough "wooded rural ambience" around here to accommodate even a few idiosyncratic works of man. Philip Johnson's now-beloved "glass house" and Frank Lloyd Wright's Guggenheim Museum, among many acknowledged architectural masterpieces, were first met with derision. A University that aspires to greatness must be open to excellence in every form.

---ross miller---


Thursday, November 30, 2006

Scathing Online Schoolmarm

A Regular University Diaries Feature

Mike Lopresti, sports writer for USA Today, is pissed. Disgusted.

SOS reminds you that when you write from strong emotions, you want to control your tone. No one's interested in your particular tantrum on any particular day.

Moreover, some issues are worthier of intense feeling than others. Most people would agree that victims of genocide, let's say, are more important than spectacularly compensated American university football coaches who have recently been dismissed from their jobs. When you reserve your righteousness for soon-to-be-rehired coaches, readers wonder about your priorities.

You don't want people wondering about your priorities. You want them focused on your argument.

No more college football coaches sacked since sundown, but the day is young. We can use this temporary ceasefire to count the bodies being carried away, in a landscape where patience is spent even quicker than money. [We know that sportswriters as a group are metaphor-mad, with the metaphors changing from paragraph to paragraph, and Mike is no different. The scene of battlefield carnage with which he's begun, where multiple million dollar a year coaches with massive buyouts are compared to dead soldiers, will shift in the next paragraph.]

There goes Alabama's Mike Shula. He went 10-2 in 2005, nursing a sick program back from NCAA probation. That spared him the pain about as long as two Tylenol. The Tide went 6-6 this season. Goodbye. [Coach Schweitzer cures the team of probation only to be struck down himself.]

There's Miami's Larry Coker. His record is 59-15 with a national championship. And while it was easy to dump on his program after the brawl with Florida International, here's a tidbit that rarely gets included in the portrayal of the Hurricanes as Animal House: He graduated 100% of his class last year and played eight graduate students this season, with nine more to get their degrees next month. A lot of good that did him when Miami lost to Virginia. [No one besides Lopresti has portrayed the Hurricanes as Animal House, because everyone knows the Hurricanes are far worse than Animal House. There's a credibility problem here, deepened by Lopresti's faux-naivete about the nature of the degrees the players have earned.]

There's Arizona State's Dirk Koetter. This will be the third straight year the Sun Devils are in a bowl and he is 4-2 against state rival Arizona. The last guy to coach Arizona State to three straight bowls was John Cooper, and Ohio State came knocking at the door. This time, Koetter was shown the door.

There's Darrell Dickey of North Texas. His team won four straight Sun Belt titles from 2001-2004. Then the Mean Green turned meek. Gone.

There's Chris Scelfo. He might have had the toughest coaching job in college football in 2005, trying to regroup a Tulane team made homeless by Hurricane Katrina, playing 11 games in 11 cities. The administration was very understanding when the Green Wave went 2-9. This season, Tulane went 4-8. No more sympathy. [Good move rhetorically to leave the homeless group for last. You want the biggest sob story at the end of the list, for maximum impact.]

The heads are rolling so frequently, this is starting to look like a bowling alley. [At least he's shifted from metaphor to simile. But the simile's a lame one -- heads rolling is a cliche; and drawing your metaphor from another sport has a muddying effect.] The regular season is not completed, and already 10 coaches — more than eight percent of the head-coaching workforce in Division I-A — have been fired. And the motives are nearly always the same.

The administration and the boosters want to be like Ohio State and USC. They want big bowls, big exposure, big dollars. Lusting for something many of them will never have.

"He has put us on a wonderful stage and has done some wonderful work," the Arizona State athletic director said of Koetter as she canned him. "But we're looking for a higher platform."

"He personally has displayed impeccable character," the Alabama athletic director said of Shula. But what is character when you go 0-4 against Auburn? So Alabama, poster child for the frantically unstable, looks for its fifth football coach in seven years. [Lopresti's writing is frantically unstable, staggering from lust to the theater to poster children.]

It is absurd to hear presidents talk of integrity when they swiftly pull the trigger if they are not in the Fiesta Bowl. [Back to the battlefield... or the firing squad...] It is laughable to hear voices in the media decry the hypocrisy of college athletics, and then eagerly rip into an honest man because he only goes 7-5. [Rip into an honest man is John Wayne talk. "Hell, Judge, I don't know much about the law, but I know when someone's rippin' into an honest man..." And "eagerly" does Lopresti no good at all. Instead of the awkwardness of "eagerly rip," you're supposed to come up with one word that captures the idea. It's the same problem Lopresti had above, with "frantically unstable." In this case, "savage" would do.]

But there are seats to fill and bills to pay, boosters to seduce and talk shows to placate. In some ways, college coaches have it even worse than their cousins in the NFL, who are not held accountable for graduation rates, or if the quarterback ends up in a bar fight. [Again, note Lopresti's example of violence -- the relatively innocuous bar fight, rather than the actual shit everyone's been reading about. And of course NFL coaches are held accountable for the disgusting things their players sometimes do.]

"I realize now this is a business," Alabama center Antoine Caldwell of Shula's fate. "A dirty business, unfortunately."

It is a sport drenched with inflated expectation [This is Lopresti's first mixed metaphor, and it's a stinker. Remember another SOS rule: The more metaphors you use, the more you risk producing mixed ones.], which will be the ugly side of any playoff. That'd bring one champion, but even more hysteria from those left out. Show me an eight-team playoff, and I'll show you a world where only eight jobs are safe. [Lopresti's pretty much off the rails here.]

The BCS comes with high casualties. With a playoff system, it'd be a bloodbath. [Structurally, it's nice that Lopresti returns in this conclusion to his original battlefield metaphor. But polemically it makes zero sense for him to scream bloody murder about cash-happy coaches.]

Grade: D+. The plus is for the homeless bit.


Thursday, November 09, 2006

Scathing Online Schoolmarm

[A Regular University Diaries Feature]

Two Formulaic Writers:
Which is Better?


[thanks to]

Here we have a passage from a Wild West romance novel.

When judging prose that means to be formulaic, prose that wants to follow the conventions of an established and popular genre, we need to ask about its adequacy to our generic expectations.

The writing, judged in this way, has certain strengths. The antediluvial cliche, "wave of revulsion," is excellent, as is the Snidely Whiplash dialogue: "feisty, ain't she... that kind's the most fun..." We get our money's worth here.

But there are problems, in particular with the scab.

The convention, in scenes like this one, is that the woman is repelled not really by the grossness of the man, but by his overpowering masculinity, with which, as a mincing little belle, she's unfamiliar (see Rhett, Scarlet). Thus she initially, defensively, proudly, hypocritically, reads this authentic rough maleness as grossness and pushes it away; but the man's insistence that she take sex on his terms changes her from Miss Prissy to Natural Woman.

The scab, however, really is gross, so none of this works.

It can only work if this novel means truly to depart from romance conventions and be, as Lynne Cheney's novel, Sisters, seems to want to be, a lesbian Wild West romance. Then it makes sense to make men scab-ridden dogs who deserve to be dumped for women.

Yet in making its case for homoeroticism, the novel shifts genres, from bodice-ripper to Louisa May Alcott. Here, it evokes the utopia that awaits:

"Let us go away together, away from the anger and the imperatives of men. We shall find ourselves a secluded bower where they dare not venture. There will be only the two of us, and we shall linger through long afternoons of sweet retirement. In the evenings I shall read to you while you do your cross-stitch in the firelight. And then we shall go to bed, our bed, my dearest girl. . . ."

This formulaic novel fails not only because it wavers between formulae, but because it fails to make lesbianism competitive even with scabby heterosexuality. Cross-stitching in retirement is an unattractive option for someone who has bought a book that presents itself -- as Cheney's does -- as a hard-breathing romance novel.


"[He] could see Jawbone and Ashley Asthmatic [two guards at a Vietnamese prison camp] napping together in the grass. They faced inward, their arms entwined. It looked like they were masturbating each other. It didn't surprise him. … It was common to see men holding hands, embracing, playing with each other. Some of them [the guards] had wanted him. He could tell in those evanescent moments between his bao cao bow, the obligatory deference when a guard entered his cell, and the first word or blow that followed it… Quick, grinding voices, turgid with repressed passion. An exploratory reaching of the hand near his groin…”

This second formulaic novel lies squarely in the rigors-of-war genre. Its rough, tell-all disposition is directly opposed to the oblique and sweet romance. We expect -- I think the cliche is "searing honesty" -- as such novels place young men in bloody and bizarre settings and follow them as they survive, changed forever.

In the scene above, we have, instead of female eroticism, male, in the context of a Vietnamese prison. In order to fulfill our expectations, this scene must ring true; it must feature exoticism; and it must convey a lack of fear on the part of our hero. And this it all does, quite nicely.

My only complaint is the use of the word "turgid." Turgid, an absurd-sounding word, is used to name the insane superstud in Dr. Strangelove (General Buck Turgidson). Along with satire, pornography is turgid's natural habitat, and it is best to leave it there.

"[Fogarty] has been thinking of the firm, springy skin and the sweet smells of a young Filipina woman named Maria in whose bed he had spent three nights almost twenty years ago. . . . She was a deliciously bad young woman. . . . On the second night, he had brought her a box of Godiva chocolates . . . . he had awakened to find her in the bathroom, sitting on the toilet with her knees underneath her chin, eating chocolates and counting her rosary beads as she prayed."

This is actually quite good, although "deliciously bad" sounds suspiciously like G.B. Shaw's "deliciously low" in Pygmalion. Again, it's got what we went to the book for: exoticism, reality... And even a little bit more, for that final image of the girl on the toilet eating chocolates is spectacular. I've never imagined a scene like that before, so it's got a provocative freshness about it... the sort of thing we go to far more ambitious novels for. I'd rewrite the last sentence, though, by taking out "as she prayed." We know that's what the beads are for, and the sentence is punchier without those final words -- ending on "rosary beads" is stronger.

These, of course, are among the scenes from James Webb's novels that George Allen revealed to Virginians, in order to prompt their moral disgust and get them to vote for him. Now that that shabby trick has failed, UD considers the passages as writing, pure and simple, and finds them really not bad. Not good... But as formulaic fiction goes, better than respectable.

In the contest, then, between the Vice-President's wife and Senator Webb, it's Webb by a longshot.


Monday, September 25, 2006

"We Pay for This School,
and Then We Piss on It."

First-rate writing from Travis Andrews at LSU. For once, Scathing Online Schoolmarm finds nothing to criticize.

So LSU is tired of being a third-tier university.

Somehow, I just do not believe that we are really tired of having at least 126 schools rank higher than us. [Yeah, yeah, this should be "we." But Travis isn't writing for people like UD.]

As I walked the soggy grounds of our campus Saturday through the debauchery of tailgating, I was not hit with the aroma of academic excellence. It smelled more like Keystone Light. ["Aroma of academic excellence." See the alliteration? Very nice. "Soggy... debauchery" is also poetic.]

On game days the University lacks the responsibility needed to be respected by the rest of the country.

I am proud to be a University student most of the time. I think our school has made great advances as a state university; I think Sean O'Keefe has done a good job as chancellor. I feel that the Manship School is an incredible institution.

But on game days I am disgusted by what I see.

There is nothing wrong with tailgating. I enjoy it. But when we begin to ignore our responsibilities as a community, it is no longer innocent fun.

Saturday before our Homecoming game, I walked around all the campsites looking for friends.

As I was walking, I noticed a girl no more than 4 years old playing in the middle of the street with a pick-up truck speeding toward her, the driver distracted by the rows of tents.

The girl's parents were beneath a tent set up next to the street, both apparently drunk.

Two police officers were on the sidewalk, staring at the plate of boiled shrimp between them as they munched away. [The plate of boiled shrimp is a terrific regional detail.]

It was a horrible sight.

I managed to get the girl out of the street before any real damage was done, but after that moment I began to look around with a different perspective.

I saw open fires underneath paper tents in order to stay out of the rain, obscenely drunken adults who probably never attended our University, students climbing into the driver's seats of cars with beers in hand, fans urinating on our buildings and trash strewn everywhere.

What is wrong with us?

How does the University expect to be a pinnacle of higher education and a well-respected institution when every Saturday for a few months we act like drunken animals with reckless abandon with the excuse of supporting our football team?

I do not think there is anything wrong with hanging out, listening to music while grilling burgers with some beer in the ice chest. Tailgating is and hopefully always will be an essential part of the LSU experience. It sets us apart from many other universities across the country.

But I am sure we can manage to do it in a way that does not involve a little girl almost being hit by a truck. I am sure we can manage to do it in a way that does not involve urinating on the institution that we pay for. That I will never understand. We pay for this school, and then we piss on it.

So LSU is tired of being a third-tier university?

Then we better grow up.


Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Scathing Online Schoolmarm

UD considers her fellow 'thesdan Robert Samuelson's recent opinion piece in the Washington Post.

'Call it the ExhibitioNet. [Samuelson wants to start with a bang, so he contrives this clever name for the exhibitionistic internet: ExhibitioNet. Only the name's not clever. Result: Inauspicious first sentence.] It turns out that the Internet has unleashed the greatest outburst of mass exhibitionism in human history. [The word - the concept - exhibitionism - is too broad for the use Samuelson seems to want to make of it here. As a writer who has written for decades about private as well as public matters in tons of different media, Samuelson is, by the vague measure he's about to offer, much more exhibitionistic than the people he attacks.] Everyone may not be entitled, as Andy Warhol once suggested, to 15 minutes of fame. [Lazy writer. The Warhol quotation is dead in the water, having been cited everywhere by everyone. And cast your eye to the end of Samuelson's essay: He'll also quote Thoreau on quiet desperation. Surpassing writerly sloth.] But everyone is entitled to strive for 15 minutes -- or 30, 90 or much more. We have blogs, "social networking" sites (, Facebook), YouTube and all their rivals. Everything about these sites is a scream for attention. Look at me. Listen to me. Laugh with me -- or at me. [Again, as a tireless promoter of his own experiences through decades of writing, Samuelson is hardly in a position to complain about other people. Unless, of course, he thinks he's better than other people, more deserving of air time. I'd be willing to consider his case for himself on this score, but he doesn't make it in this tossed-off plaint. Further, at no point in this opinion piece will Samuelson note that his traditional media -- judging by his bio, I'd guess he's in his sixties -- which are newspapers and magazines, are struggling to keep up with the new media he's describing as worthless and narcissistic. It would be more honest of him to mention the threat these new forms pose to writers like him rather than attacking them all as primal screams.]

This is no longer fringe behavior. MySpace has 56 million American "members." Facebook -- which started as a site for college students and has expanded to high school students and others -- has 9 million members. (For the unsavvy: MySpace and Facebook allow members to post personal pages with pictures and text.) About 12 million American adults (8 percent of Internet users) blog, estimates the Pew Internet & American Life Project. YouTube -- a site where anyone can post home videos -- says 100 million videos are watched daily.

Exhibitionism is now a big business. In 2005 Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. bought MySpace for a reported $580 million. [Newspapers like the ones Samuelson writes for are shrinking businesses. Why?] All these sites aim to make money, mainly through ads and fees. [This describes very few blogs. But then Samuelson is bundling all of these very different online forms of writing into one big nasty.] What's interesting culturally and politically is that their popularity contradicts the belief that people fear the Internet will violate their right to privacy. In reality, millions of Americans are gleefully discarding -- or at least cheerfully compromising -- their right to privacy. They're posting personal and intimate stuff in places where thousands or millions can see it. [Samuelson's details about his kids' college choices, which he recently wrote about in Newsweek, are in some way different from this.]

People seem to crave popularity or celebrity more than they fear the loss of privacy. Some of this extroversion is crass self-promotion. The Internet is a cheap way to advertise ideas and projects. Anyone can post a video on YouTube, free; you can start a blog free (some companies don't charge for "hosting" a site). Last week a popular series of videos -- Lonelygirl15 -- on YouTube was revealed to be a scripted drama, written by three aspiring filmmakers, and not a teenager's random meditations.

But the ExhibitioNet is more than a marketing tool. The same impulse that inspires people to spill their guts on "Jerry Springer" or to participate in "reality TV" shows (MTV's "The Real World" and its kin) has now found a mass outlet. MySpace aims at an 18-to-34-year-old audience; many of the pages are proudly raunchy. U.S. News & World Report recently described MySpace as "Lake Wobegon gone horribly wrong: a place where all the women are fast [and] the men are hard-drinking."

The blogosphere is often seen as mainly a political arena. That's a myth. According to the Pew estimates, most bloggers (37 percent) focus on "my life and personal experiences." Politics and government are a very distant second (11 percent), followed by entertainment (7 percent) and sports (6 percent). Even these figures may exaggerate the importance of politics. Half of bloggers say they're mainly interested in expressing themselves "creatively." [At this point in his piece, Samuelson looks like a resentful codger, anxiously dissing a new technology putting real political writers like himself out of business.]

Self-revelation and attitude are what seem to appeal. Heather Armstrong maintains one of the most popular personal blogs ( "I never had a cup of coffee until I was 23-years-old," she writes. "I had premarital sex for the first time at age 22, but BY GOD I waited an extra year for the coffee." She started her blog in 2001, got fired from her job as a Web designer in Los Angeles for writing about work ("My advice to you is BE YE NOT SO STUPID."), became "an unemployed drunk," got married and moved to Salt Lake City, where she had a child.

Armstrong is a graceful and often funny writer. ("I am no longer a practicing Mormon or someone who believes that Rush Limbaugh speaks to God. My family is understandably disappointed.") The popular site now has so many ads that her husband quit his job. Recent postings include an ode to her 2-year-old daughter, a story about her dog and a plug for her friend Maggie's book, "No One Cares What You Had for Lunch: 100 Ideas for Your Blog." Idea No. 32: breaking up. Naturally, Armstrong expounds on her busted relationships.

Up to a point, the blogs and "social networking" sites represent new forms of electronic schmoozing -- extensions of e-mail and instant messaging. What's different is the undiluted passion for self-publicity. [Again, there's no way around the compromising position a writer like Samuelson, himself a self-promoter, has now put himself in.] But even among the devoted, there are occasional doubts about whether this is all upside. Facebook recently announced a new service. Its computers would regularly scan the pages of its members and flash news of the latest postings as headlines to their friends' pages. There was an uproar. Suppose your girlfriend decides she's had enough. The potential headline to your pals: "Susan dumps George." Countless students regarded the relentless electronic snooping and automatic messaging as threatening -- "stalking," as many put it. Facebook modified the service by allowing members to opt out.

The larger reality is that today's exhibitionism may last a lifetime. What goes on the Internet often stays on the Internet. Something that seems harmless, silly or merely impetuous today may seem offensive, stupid or reckless in two weeks, two years or two decades. Still, we are clearly at a special moment. Thoreau famously remarked that "the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation." Thanks to technology, that's no longer necessary. People can now lead lives of noisy and ostentatious desperation. Or at least they can try.' [All reasonable people agree that much of what goes on online is crude, self-serving, idiotic, and sometimes dangerous. But by throwing all screen activity into one smelly pot, and by assuming a condescending point of view, Samuelson has repelled readers looking for nuanced appraisals of new technologies and forms of expression.]


Sunday, August 27, 2006

SOS: Scathing Online Schoolmarm
A Regular University Diaries Feature

An opinion piece from a South Carolina newspaper:

"The task of the modern educator," wrote C.S. Lewis more than half a century ago, "is not to cut down jungles, but to irrigate deserts." [Warning light: Lewis is a very condescending writer. I've never been able to stand his simplistic, hectoring style. I know, I know -- a lot of wonderful, smart people love him. And he's written some wonderful stuff. But when I read his essays on Christianity, for instance, I really feel talked down to. And this quotation from him is typical of his elliptical, rather silly style: Isn't the task of education to do both? To brush away destructive overgrowth and to put something sustaining in its place?] The Oxford don [This is supposed to impress us, and I suppose it does. But the writer of this piece should also disclose that Lewis was often writing in defense of a specifically Christian world view.] suggests by this statement that the college classroom is at its best when it is a place where unformed minds confront a lofty standard, in the hope that students will rise and follow the exalted example. At its worst, college educators enter the academic arena determined to "cut down jungles" of prejudice and replace them with their own beliefs.

The Clemson committee selection of the book "Truth and Beauty" by Ann Patchett shows education at its "cutting down jungles" worst.

For those who haven't read the book, the summary provides a glimpse into its purpose. "This memoir of (Ann) Patchett's friendship with ... Lucy Grealy shows many insights into the nature of devotion ... moving from the unfolding of their deep connection in graduate school into the more turbulent waters beyond." Patchett describes their attempts to be writers, while Grealy endures continuous rounds of operations as a result of cancer, as well as "heartbreak and drug use."

The moral theme of friendship in the book is lost in mind-numbing descriptions of reckless sexual liaisons, affairs with married men and students, financial irresponsibility and abortion. In the words of a local pastor in his letter to President James Barker, "Lucy eventually pays the price ... not for these mistakes, but for her false sense of invincibility. Little is done to dissipate the moral fog, even by the book's end." [The reader's suspicion that this opinion piece is about Christian morality rather than education in itself is now heightened.]

This is where the selection committee failed the incoming freshmen at Clemson by making this universally assigned reading. They did not consider that, in the words of John Gardner in his book "On Moral Fiction," "art is essentially and primarily moral -- that is, life-giving -- in its process of creation and moral in what it says." In the end, Patchett's book doesn't succeed for the same reason her friend didn't survive: because she has no moral standard to offer to pull her back from the brink. [This may be true; but even if it is, this writer has given us no reason not to be interested in this failure, to find it enlightening.]

At one point Ann Patchett says to Lucy, "I'm not going to try to solve your problems, I just want to make you happy." The author's work is supposed to be about love, but it reads more like manipulation and dependency. Ann leaves her friend in a self-destructive lifestyle [Never use the word "lifestyle." Drop "style" to get to the word you mean.], which ends in death [All lives do.]. She violates one of the sacred responsibilities of what college students call a "relationship" [Why "what college students call"?]: the obligation to help.

Cicero said in 44 B.C. that "friendship lightens adversity by dividing and sharing it." The Bible says in the book of Proverbs, "faithful are the wounds of a friend." Both understand that friendship involves uncomfortable commitments to confront and intervene.

Whenever possible, good literature should do the same thing. Good art should hold up models of decent behavior in contrast to destructive ones. [Yikes. That would be no fun at all. And what does "whenever possible" mean??] One need only think of the lasting literary works: "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey," the tragedies of Aeschylus and Sophocles; Virgil's "Aenid," the plays of Shakespeare; the novels of Tolstoy and Melville. These works have a civilizing effect century after century, long after he cultures that produced them have decayed. [Talk about a selective list. And Melville doesn't belong on it.]

Characters in good fiction -- who struggle against confusion, error and evil both in themselves and in others -- can offer us firm intellectual and emotional examples in our own struggles. Scout's defense of Atticus, and her recognition of Mr. Cunningham at the jailhouse door, in the book and movie "To Kill a Mockingbird" may have done more to dissipate racial prejudice in the South than a dozen laws. Storytelling has great power in a culture, and that is why we must be careful which ones we endorse. [I wondered when the twentieth century would rear its head. Note that the choice is a high school favorite because of its heavy-handed morality and undemanding style.]

Compare the freshman reading at Clemson with that at the University of South Carolina. The book being read in Columbia is by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Tracy Kidder, and is titled "Mountains Beyond Mountains." Again, the description tells you all you need to know. "The title ... is a metaphor for life -- once you have scaled one mountain there are more to come ... this is especially true for Paul Farmer, MD, who has devoted his life to what he calls the 'impossible' task of trying to cure infectious diseases worldwide." At the center of the book is a doctor who is selfless in solving one problem after another, far different from Lucy's self-absorption. [If college literature courses do anything, they inculcate a loathing for Climb Every Mountain moral uplift metaphors.]

Clemson University is justifiably proud of its new ranking as a top 30 public university, and of its more than 100 new faculty members. But in the selection of its freshman reading project, Clemson is a poor second to USC. The former adopted the "cut down" approach to education, while the latter chose to "irrigate" the minds of its incoming students.

I have my own problems, by the way, with Clemson's choice. But moralistic and simplistic literary criticism ain't the way to go.


Sunday, August 13, 2006


(Scathing Online Schoolmarm)

(A University Diaries Feature)

Here's an article in the Arizona Republic, with UD's bracketed commentary.

For many students, college is an intellectual rite of passage. [Let's not go overboard. For some students.]

The beliefs that students bring to the classroom often collide with what they learn. [Rather awkwardly phrased. And "collide," while a good enough metaphor, will soon start colliding with the writer's many other metaphors.] Professors push students to think critically.

But some Arizona lawmakers think that push has gone too far. They want to tame what they see as left-leaning professors at state universities who they contend wield an unhealthful influence over Arizona's younger minds. [Clunky writing. Very clunky writing. Mixed metaphors, first off. Professors are not merely pushers now, but beasts that must be tamed. "Arizona's younger minds" is somehow both a cliche and bizarre.]

Their response is a string of proposals that opponents fear could quash academic freedom. [It's the rare string that's tough enough to quash anything.] The efforts reflect a nationwide trend being fueled by conservative activists. [Fueled... See the problem? Any one of these many metaphors might be okay, but when you throw all sorts of them at us, it makes a mess.]

In Arizona, the moves include:

• A bill enabling students to refuse assignments they find sexually offensive. It failed in March but compelled Arizona's Board of Regents to pass a resolution supporting academic freedom and advance notice to students of a course's content.[This writing is fine, and UD certainly finds the idea of advance notice to her students of offensive sexual course content intriguing. As someone who teaches Molly Bloom's soliloquy and things like it virtually every semester, she thinks the most pragmatic path for her would be a large sign on her office door:


The following sex acts will be performed in the written material assigned in Professor Soltan's literature classes:


• An "Academic Bill of Rights," which Rep. Russell Pearce, R-Mesa, plans to introduce next year. Pearce and other legislators hope to meet with David Horowitz, a national activist who lives in Los Angeles, for help in drawing up the bill, which they say would keep liberal bias out of the classroom.

• A law passed in the spring that requires schools to display the U.S. flag and Constitution in every classroom. It puts patriotic symbols in front of every professor and student. [This ought to keep the mind off prurient matters.]

The proposals reflect a distrust of professors among some ranking legislators on higher-education committees.

"University professors lean liberal and not conservative," said Sen. Linda Gray, R-Phoenix, chairwoman of the Senate's Higher Education Committee. "They contribute to society accepting immoral behavior. (The classroom) is where they get to the mind."

Gray said public universities typically do not provide examples of "what a good, normal family life is." [A+ for honesty.]

Student complaints

Last school year, no student at Arizona's three major universities filed a complaint saying professors imposed their views and values in class. [Clearly a problem demanding legislative response.]

Still, allegations have come to light, one of which led to the bill on offensive coursework.

At Chandler-Gilbert Community College, a student was so offended last year by a book in Professor Bill Mullaney's literature and film class that he asked for an alternative assignment.

The 1994 book, The Ice Storm by Rick Moody, deals with two suburban families in the 1970s that engage in sexual experimentation.

Mullaney refused to offer another assignment, saying he presented the syllabus on the first day of class. He told students some of the material might be offensive and that they could drop the class.

The student filed a grievance with the school. School officials rejected the student's request, instead offering him another class. The student refused and took the matter to Sen. Thayer Verschoor, R-Gilbert.

Verschoor sponsored a bill that would have allowed university and community college students to refuse any assignment that depicts or describes sexual activity in a "patently offensive way." The Senate defeated it 17-12. Public debate led the Board of Regents to pass its resolution. [What a lot of trouble! UD already proposed a simpler solution.]

'Bill of Rights'

The most controversial attempt to influence college classrooms is Horowitz's Academic Bill of Rights.

Lawmakers in 18 states have weighed resolutions supporting some form of the document. Georgia was the only state that approved one, although the university systems of Tennessee, Ohio and Colorado adopted policies that espoused its tenets.

Rep. Laura Knaperek, R-Tempe, who heads two higher-education committees, said the bill to be proposed here next year will be based on Horowitz's version.

"I have heard more and more over the years that there is less and less tolerance for conservative opinions," she said.

Faculty members widely view the bill as an attempt to subvert academic freedom, the opposite of what Horowitz claims.

Wanda Howell, a University of Arizona professor and faculty chair, argues that the bill would put state government and university administration in charge of the classroom. Professors no longer would be in control of what or how they taught, or how they graded.

In the name of "academic diversity," professors say, professors could be forced to censor certain materials.

Horowitz insists his Academic Bill of Rights is "viewpoint neutral." [Tell Senator Gray.]

"It is to ensure that professors take a scholarly, academic approach in the classroom, so professors teach students how to think, not what to think," Horowitz said. "It goes for right-wingers (too). It goes for anyone."

Surveys support the common belief: Most professors are liberal.

Liberal professors

A 2005 study by American and Canadian professors indicated that 72 percent of those teaching at U.S. colleges and universities identified themselves as liberal. Only 15 percent called themselves conservative.

Several students said professors' liberal views tend to spill out [Okay. You want to go with "spill out." Fine. Stay with it for just a paragraph!] in classrooms in subtle and overt ways. It [What does "it" refer to here? "Views" is plural...] can trigger [Spills out and triggers.] lively debates but also intimidate some students.

Blake Rebling, 19, president of the UA College Republicans, said he typically doesn't challenge his liberal professors' opinions because they control his grades.

[NOTICE: OBSCENE MATERIAL.] "I don't want to risk going to law school over that," the political science major said.

Several professors said instructors should present issues without personal bias and allow for a variety of viewpoints. Teachers should not impose their personal beliefs, and a grade should never depend on a student's political opinion.

UA political science Professor John Willerton, who specializes in Russia and the former Soviet Union, sees that as the responsibility of the teacher. He grades students on the coherence of their work.

"I want people to think carefully about stereotypical thinking, conventional wisdom. Is the essay well-reasoned with a good introduction and conclusion, and does it have an argument I can find?"

But when Willerton does take a stance, he loves a good debate.

"I really respect a student who will challenge me," he said. "I don't want a toady. I don't want someone who will mimic me."

Ruth Jones, vice provost for academic programs and a political science professor at Arizona State University, said some professors may cross the line but she doesn't think it's widespread.

She sits on a standards committee that would handle the types of cases that conservatives say are rampant in today's college classrooms. She has never had one.

"The question is: Are we dealing with reality or perception?" Jones said. "Is there a common denominator among students complaining? Sometimes, students are used (by others) to promote an agenda. We need to look at that."


Saturday, June 24, 2006

Saturday’s Scathing Online Schoolmarm…

….shows you how it’s supposed to be done.

Yes, today our regular Saturday scathe-fest, in which UD, an English professor, analyzes in detail a bad piece of writing she has found ‘pon the web, will be a little different. Today UD, courtesy of a link from her blogpal Ralph Luker at Cliopatria, will show you how a great writer produces great writing.

The blog barista is run by David Tiley, an Australian writer… or, it was run by Tiley, until he got very seriously ill - almost dead ill - and had to have lots of operations and be in the hospital for ages and generally go through hell.

Let us see how Tiley writes his first post after having to be away from his blog’s readers for a long time:

I’ve been home from hospital for a few days, and I can focus on fine print. I’ve cut my fingernails so I can type again. Bread tastes funny and I can’t tolerate coffee. I’ve been away a lot longer than we expected.

Notice that he’s chosen to start with very brief, very simple, declarative sentences. This makes sense because it conveys his still being in something of a state of shock, knocked back intellectually by what’s happened to him. The style all by itself tells you Tiley’s not himself. The detail about the fingernails makes graphically clear how extended his absence has been.

My first conscious memory after my bowel resection is one of the worst things you can confront in a hospital – an apologetic surgeon. I’d been hit by a medical emergency which was fifty years in the making.

Tiley knows a rule of good writing UD has talked about more than once on this blog: Try to end each sentence with your strongest word or phrase. The apologetic surgeon shows up at the end of the sentence. It’s more dramatic this way - especially introduced with the dashing dash.

When I was very small I had some kind of unidentified infection, which stopped one kidney from growing. Instead, the bowel had occupied the space, which meant the spleen had moved too. Reorganising my unexpected gut design, the doctors nicked my spleen, which collapsed and had to be removed, while I bled badly.

Now, as Tiley settles into his writing task with more clarity and focus, his sentences begin to look more complex, with transitional phrases and subordination and all of that. He’s coming back to the world with greater force.

Two days later, I responded to the trauma with a small heart attack.

Tiley has also learned that it’s extremely effective to alternate between longish paragraphs with longish sentences in them and very short paragraphs of perhaps only one simple sentence. And again, he doesn’t write, “I had a small heart attack two days later.” He ends the sentence with “heart attack.” And he gives this horrendous event its own paragraph because it is horrendous and deserves its own paragraph.

The next ten days became a blur of disconnected vignettes, my bed a nest, pushed from scan to scan and ward to ward.

I’d have taken the word “disconnected” out of this sentence, since “blur” already does the job, and the sentence scans better without it. The metaphor of the bed as a nest is wonderful, conveying all at once the smallness, vulnerability, fragility, and perhaps also the growing sordidness, of Tiley’s suddenly constrained and frightening world.

With all that morphine I made friends with a huge bear in the corner. I lost control of my visual cortex and lay for days in a muddle of spontaneous images, some viciously ugly, most collaged from shattered pieces of coloured Perspex cut with frozen, scanned memories. In my own naturally verbal sensorium, I suppose this was the pictorial equivalent of voices in my head. I puzzled for hours over the way that could happen but still be under control, which I guess is the way visual artists function, in a parallel to the stream of words coming from my fingers to this screen.

Note, first of all, that we’re now fully recovered from that first-paragraph primitivism -- this is a complex, beautiful paragraph. It starts with humor, which shows up in this chronicle of misery just on time. You want to vary the tone in a piece like this one and not stay on “what a vile nightmare” throughout. I laughed when I read the huge bear line. The successful part of that sentence -- what makes it funny -- is the phrase “made friends with.” Notice too that, whether he’s aware he’s doing it or not, the writer is treating us to some pretty smooth alliteration:


The second part of the paragraph, where he puzzles over his responses, is extremely moving. He is sharing with us the intimate business of the mind struggling hard against muddle, asserting self-consciousness in the battle for mental and physical survival.

I twisted back and forth on a mobius strip of recursive identity, trying to work out who I was if the drugs had seized my brain. The “I” that I needed being a creature which could ask questions, organise my bedclothes and work out whether to put my hearing aids in or not.

Spectacular. The writer also knows that we crave new and even weird forms of writing, original writing. And here we’re treated to writing appropriate to this man’s particular experience of real extremity. Hence the great “mobius strip of recursive identity,” which is a strange phrase I don’t entirely understand -- but I don’t care, because its baroque intricacy is somehow exactly right for the elaborately askew mentality of the sufferer as he tries to put himself back together again.

I remember a man across the ward who was 86 years old, stone deaf, who shouted very loudly and was mentally flitting through the twilight zone. The doctors seemed to think he might have had a stroke in his fall at home; his family simply ignored his ravings, as if they had known his behaviour for a long time.

Next to him was a young man of Islander background who had been in some sort of fight. His mates came and he swanked around, making moves and swaying his hips, laughing about the violence. His big sister was on the mobile talking about someone else who had been arrested over the incident. But that night, when everyone else had gone home, I heard him sobbing in his mother’s arms.

Beyond the curtain at my side was a Czech chippie, who got away from the Russians in the fifties. Eighty years old, still smooth skinned and strongly built, he lives with his wife who is five years older on a piece of land somewhere in the hills. His eyes lit up when he talked of his two ponies. Lying there patiently, waiting for his heart to calm, I felt like he was an inspiration, a direction for a life well lived.

These three character sketches are excellent, but probably were the easiest part of this post to write. I like the way he begins with the old man mentally flitting through the twilight zone, since it allows the reader perhaps to see this as a kind of panicked projection of the younger writer’s own condition -- being sick threatens to make him old before his time. As far as the Islander is concerned, ending the paragraph with what in other contexts would be a cliché - “sobbing in his mother’s arms” - works gloriously here because of the writer’s powerful prior account of the man’s toughness -- “swanking around” and all. More broadly, these sketches of other people reassure us that the writer is not dully concentrated on his own being and his own suffering -- he has the capacity to look compassionately at his world. Indeed, in his penultimate paragraph he’ll tell us that “I know something more of mortality, of compassion, of friendship and love” for having gone through all this. These sketches have already conveyed that to us.

I’m not going to go on to analyze Tiley’s entire post -- it’s quite long -- but I want to end with the following paragraph:

I rowed on through the hospital, my bed a dinghy, across rivers of knowledge. Bowels. Spleen. Hearts. I saw slices of my own heart beating, which were slowed down and repeated with their own sound track. ‘Beat’ is not the right word – the thing flutters, endlessly precise, fabulously fragile, each dancing move identical for every second from the womb to the grave.

I’m fascinated by this metaphor of the dinghy, in part because I’ve seen it used in a very similar way in Harold Brodkey’s stupendously written account of his decline and death from AIDS, This Wild Darkness. Toward the end of his chronicle, Brodkey writes:

My identity is as a raft skidding or gliding, borne on a flux of feelings and frights, including the morning’s delusion (which lasts ten minutes sometimes) of being young and whole.

Brodkey comes back to the raft in his book’s very last paragraph:

I am standing on an unmoored raft, a punt moving on the flexing, flowing face of a river. It is precarious. The unknowing, the taut balance, the jolts and the instability spread in widening ripples through all my thoughts. Peace? There was never any in the world. But in the pliable water, under the sky, unmoored, I am traveling now and hearing myself laugh, at first with nerves and then genuine amazement. It is all around me.

Even in the last days of his life, Brodkey finds the word “pliable” -- rare, lovely, apt. The pathos of a powerful writer struggling to assert verbal power even at the end resides in “pliable.”

One can no doubt find other great writers, along with Brodkey and Tiley, locating themselves upon rafts and dinghies as they attempt to convey identity suddenly made to float and maneuver in a new world. I suppose the cliché lying behind this utterly fresh writing about rafts is “clinging to a liferaft,” but that cliché has developed precisely because this floaty singular bobbing thing is in fact what losing your physical and mental moorings feels like. Tiley and Brodkey haven’t discovered a new metaphor; they’ve hit on one that was always there and set it skimming again.


Tuesday, June 20, 2006

A Haze of Praising

A sociology professor at UD’s alma mahler, Northwestern, defends hazing in an opinion piece in the Chicago Tribune. UD comments parenthetically.

'Hazing is good for America. Those of us who have been through fraternity (and some sorority) initiations, at one time a hallowed part of campus life, know that they develop shared feelings of honor and pride. [Warning light. “Shared feelings of honor and pride” is major blahblah. Let us see if the writer can be more precise.] But such rituals have been toned down in today's no-risk, litigious, surveillance society. [The surveillance that brought the recent hazing cases to light was the students’ own Face Book activities. The writer seems to want us to think that the FBI’s been filming our kids.] Where once we accepted the rough-and-tumble of youth culture, now everything is examined through the thorny eyes of lawyers. [Thorny?]

Recently, Northwestern University suspended some members of the women's soccer team from some 2006-07 regular-season games for hazing. Some players also received probation and others unspecified "additional disciplinary action." The men's swim team and the Northwestern Wildcat mascot squad also were punished in separate incidents.

The truth is that in almost all instances hazing is not harmful. Girls will be girls (and boys, boys) and any punishment will be ineffective. [These happy vapid cliches tell you that the writer thinks you‘re really dumb.] And hazing rituals have real benefits.

Initiations require mutual support and bonding [I think he means bondage] among members. The initiates give up some of their dignity, smudge their reputations [This professor is keen, by the way, on the subject of “reputation.” “My research focuses on negative or difficult reputations, and at the moment my attention deals with the reputation of Adolf Hitler,” he tells us on his research page.], because they know that others in the group will have done the same. [Logic seems lacking here. Why would you debase yourself because other people debase themselves? Isn’t this simply the most pathetic conformism?] They gain a confidence that their mates will support them through college and after. [Why? Because their mates have humiliated them?] Those more senior know that the initiates wish to join with such intensity that they are willing to let themselves be humiliated. [“Wish to join with such intensity.“ More and more pathetic.] You agree to become the butt of a collective joke, shrouded in secrecy. No one will ever know, so one's public self is preserved. [Particular fraternities’ hazing procedures are broadly known on most campuses.]

Being told that you're going to eat worms, strip to your skivvies, or chug a few beers while being paddled is not everyone's idea of fun. But it is precisely the willingness to put up with these uncomfortable (and sometimes painful) antics that indicates you care deeply about membership. [Wish to join with such intensity. Care deeply about membership. If debasing yourself in order to join a group is so attractive to you, why not become a Moonie?] The group matters. Initiates give up part of their personal reputation to acquire the benefits of the reputation of the team. And this strengthens the group and the person. [Straight out of the Hitler Youth training manual.]

Indeed, what is striking about the women's soccer initiation at Northwestern is that all reports suggest the women participated voluntarily and considered it fun. [Right.]

Granted, initiations can go too far. Some rules are essential (no sexual contact, reasonable boundaries on physical punishment, and, most significantly, demands that the organizers refrain from alcohol). Excessive practices often occur when authorities prohibit initiations. [Note that “excessive practices” -- lovely phrase -- do not originate with students who come up with the idea of adding alcohol or sadism to the proceedings all by themselves. They originate with the authorities.] When we do not teach teenagers how to drink responsibly, they learn to drink rapidly and to excess. When initiations are pushed underground, they are re-created without tradition [I think we’ve all been moved by the traditions we've seen represented in the recent photographs of hazing.] and sometimes without boundaries. When universities do not learn that bonding rituals are valid and valuable, they respond with fear and create foolish rules that encourage violations.

Initiations were once tied mostly to the doings of college men. Perhaps the sexist idea that this rough sport was acceptable for boys led to a greater acceptance of these rituals. However, female athletes and sorority members are now quite as wild as their male counterparts. And good for them. Bonding used to be a male activity, but now female bonding serves the same valid purposes as they did for their brothers.

However, one rule should be inviolable. No Internet pictures. Today the tut-tut images of young adults romping in their panties, downing brews, being bound with tape or giving lap dances on Web sites such as combine smarmy voyeurism with unctuous morality, the worst of both worlds. [I don’t understand this sentence. The fellow’s a bad writer, yes; so bad that reading him feels like a sorority initiation. But I’ve at least understood his words up to this point.] For hazing to have its positive effects, it must separate the group from those outside to create a powerful connection among members.

College administrators may want to punish students for their violations, but these are rules that no one needs or wants.

Left alone, these students will create connections that will serve them for life. Just ask President Bush and Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and their Skull and Bones brothers.' [Reread this piece’s first sentence. The writer turns out to be a keen George Bush fan.]


Monday, June 05, 2006

Speaking of Drinking…

…the story of a nineteen year old Cornell freshman, visiting friends at U Va and drinking himself to death at a fraternity party, inspired some good, thoughtful writing in the Cornell newspaper. Occasionally the writer is sort of pompous; but his basic honesty, directness, and careful style come through (I've made a few parenthetical suggestions).

Adventures with Campus Ghosts

In truth, I know nothing of Matthew Pearlstone. I never saw him. I never met him. If we crossed paths, he was nothing more than one of the hundreds of anonymous faces I pass on this campus every day, blurring together like leaves viewed through the window of a moving car. I have no memory of him. He was nothing to me.

And then, suddenly, on Monday morning, he was something.

Of course, he was not himself. What I and every other reader of The [Cornell] Sun Monday morning came across was little more than a vague approximation of a human being. If Matthew Pearlstone was once perceptible or real, by the time I had been introduced to him, his presence was nothing more than its own simulacrum.

A 500-word effigy [the writer means elegy or eulogy, I think] was the only trace of an entire being that I could glean, the only intimation of who Matthew Pearlstone was before he died in a University of Virginia dorm room on March 17. And sadly, for most of us at Cornell, this is how he will remain, the only index of his persona being the indeterminate outline offered through newsprint.

Newspapers have an almost Orphic propensity for awakening the dead. They are the place where the specter of what is passing is posited, recorded in blocks of text and still images, as if time could be compressed and suspended. And whenever we need to revive what is past and what is dead, we need only turn to newspapers to find these snapshots so that our imaginations can animate them. That is their remarkable capacity, that with only minimal detail they can formulate a resurrection, no matter how temporary it may be.

Many of us learned early on that Cornell was a place where more than GPAs go to die. For whatever reason, Cornell has the pejorative [I’d drop this adjective] reputation of being a school with a high suicide rate, even though, by comparison, [drop “in comparison”] it hardly leads the nation in such a morbid category [drop this last phrase - end with “the nation.”] Perhaps it is because we have the bridges that span themselves over the depths of the gorges, those ominous signifiers of a liminal point between life and death. [Getting a bit wordy and pompous here.] Perhaps it's because our prelims are so maniacally stressful. Either way, death is part of the culture at Cornell. In any student's time here, several of his classmates will die. Nevertheless, that knowledge still fails to blunt the impact of hearing about a fellow student's passing.

The Sun, by turn, has the rather dubious distinction of reporting on student death whenever it occurs. As a paper, The Sun isn't exactly well-equipped for recording death - it doesn't have an obituary section and no staff writer specializes in such writing, so the eulogizing of a student must unfortunately be incorporated into the bare-bones, objectified reporting of their death. But when such a death is reported, The Sun becomes the grotesquely fetishized object of our collective curiosity (in fact, it might be the only time that some people read The Sun). I don't think that anyone can deny that their interest in the paper is piqued ten-fold when they see a headline pronouncing the passing of another - we need to know who, what happened, where it was, when and most importantly, how. And so those essential aims of news writing, the five Ws, become synonymous with our voyeuristic desires. But where in this process is the image of that person elucidated?

There is certainly something to be said of the effect that such an article has on those who read it. I don't honestly think that anyone here is so cynical so [drop the second “so”] as not be troubled and saddened by such news, and I think that it gives us all the most uncomfortable of pauses. But how ephemeral is that impact? I think that, as a campus, we are all unified in a feeling of pathos, both for a life lost and for the family and friends who must carry on with only the void of that life. But how long does that sympathy persist before it becomes transient? A week? A day? Until we realize that its time for our next class, or our friend turns to us and changes the subject?

And more importantly, how long does our process of remembrance endure? If our sense of that person exists only so long as we have the paper open, then it vastly too short. But at the same time, can we expect anything more? Is it really in our nature to care more deeply about those we have never encountered, or have never even heard of until we glossed through the paper on our way to class? Sometimes I wonder where the ghosts of this campus go when everyone turns back to their daily routines. [Lovely sentence.] Do they disappear, vanishing just soon as they arose? Or does this campus open itself, pulling them up inside of it and holding them there in a great repository of past history? [Past history is redundant.] At The Sun's office there are bound volumes of every issue of the paper that has ever been published. Every single issue, even the most mundane and inconsequential, from the 125 years of its existence, is held there, some of them torn, some of them crumbling like rotted fibers. Paging through these bound volumes is like experiencing a temporal suspension - a backward movement through time becomes possible, and we can access, at least in our imaginations, all that was.

The problem is that, outside of whatever bureaucratic, administrative records exist in Day Hall, The Sun may be the only actual archive of Cornell's dead, recording and reporting each one as they pass. I don't know if there is a better way, if it is possible for this institution to remember its dead in a format that won't be discarded to the trash can at the end of the day. But if The Sun is to be the only record, then I hope it can be cherished as that.

I will never know anything more of Matthew Pearlstone, or any other student that has died during my time here, than what I read in this very paper. And while that may be horribly inadequate, I am still thankful that, at the very least, I had that one textual incarnation of them allowing me to approach some level of familiarity, even [if] it was only in my imagination.

Zach Jones


Pearlstone, another newpaper reports:

[L]eft behind dozens of online messages that delved into his drinking habits, providing a rare glimpse into the thinking of a boy on the cusp of being a man. He was well-versed in the dangers of alcohol. He clearly did not drink thoughtlessly. He intellectualized it. He defended and defined it with the same brilliance he brought to academics.

…One of his Cornell housemates, Philip Chow, recalled how impressed he was by Pearlstone's intelligence and his dedication to following a strict marathon-training diet of protein shakes, energy bars and pasta.

"The whole thing feels really weird, but we still miss Matt here," Chow said in an e-mail interview. "He was a nice kid, who livened up parties and always had stories to tell, but loved drinking a little too much."

The students who apparently gave him alcohol -- he was underage -- have been arrested.


Saturday, May 20, 2006

Saturday SOS
[Scathing Online Schoolmarm]


[This is not a very good title. It comes from today’s Mobile Register, and it’s settin’ way up top a regular column by a regular guy whose writing UD will now examine with a fine tooth comb. Examine with a fine tooth comb is a cliché. Avoid cliches.]

[Why is this a bad title? It’s a YOU SUCK title. It doesn’t carry any information, and as a broad sweeping indictment (Broad sweeping indictment is a cliché. Avoid.) it is untrue.]

'At times like these [Cliché], we need William Shakespeare more than ever [The writer is probably about to quote Shakespeare. This will almost certainly be a cliché.]

Something tells me the renowned playwright [You might say the cliché ‘renowned playwright’ is necessary here because without this identifier your audience wouldn’t know who Shakespeare was. But then you’d be insulting your audience.] might amend one of his most famous (if often misunderstood) lines from Henry VI: "The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers." [Cliché.]

If Shakespeare were writing a sports column today instead of being intently studied across the world [Failed attempts at whimsical humor depress your readers and make them reluctant to continue reading. Dropping the ‘instead of‘ clause would help, but only a little.] , he would likely add to his great line, "and college presidents, as well."

Someone needs to help these poor people in the bowties [Virtually no college presidents wear bow ties, and the one he’s about to attack certainly doesn’t. This is a class cliché -- the author will attempt here and elsewhere to play on the populist prejudices of his readers.] before they seriously injure someone with their clumsiness and utter pomposity. [The writer has failed to heed the renowned poet Yeats’s great line about casting a cold eye. From his angry title on, he has chosen heat over cold. Having done that, he’s making things worse by using intensifiers like “utter.” Cold writing -- especially when you want to arouse the wrath of your reader -- always works better than hot.]

The latest case in point comes from the president of the University of Georgia, Michael Adams. To meet him is to immediately dislike him. He is supercilious and self-righteous, haughty and highbrow. [UD has seen Adams in action and she can confirm all of this. Yet it’s a mistake to include it in this piece. It’s ad hominem -- pointlessly cutting. Tends to make your reader want to rush to his defense. Nothing wrong with being highbrow, by the way. Notice how the writer tacks it on at the end of a list of traits that are in fact offensive. Again the writer plays on his ostensibly lowbrow audience‘s prejudices, thereby implicitly putting down his audience.] And those are some of his better traits.

Adams, who committed one of the single dumbest acts in recent SEC history by running Vince Dooley out of his office as athletics director, said this week he wants the television networks to quit referring to the annual Georgia-Florida football game as "the world's largest outdoor cocktail party." [This paragraph’s fine.]

Sends the wrong message, he declares. [Ditto.]

Adams isn't alone. The good folks at [Cliché.] Florida joined the PC parade [Cliché.]. The actions come after a Florida student apparently was beaten to death during the game weekend. Police said the death had no direct correlation [Tone’s off here. Why not just say “connection”? Direct correlation makes you sound highbrow.] to the game. However, considering it was the second year in a row a student died in Jacksonville, the site of the game, the administrators decided to be proactive to try to deflect attention away from the annual drunkfest [“Annual drunkfest“ is fine. But again there‘s a weird wavering in tone in this paragraph between highbrow jargon like proactive and correlation and nice downhome stuff like drunkfest.].

SEC commissioner Mike Slive, a man who usually governs by common sense and compassion, also has gone along with this gibberish. How disappointing. Perhaps he had no choice.

So tell me this: How is CBS' or ESPN's failure to mention the game's name going to save lives in Jacksonville during the last weekend in October? It has nothing to do with it. The administrators are doing it for the same reason that beer commercials often end with the admonition to "drink responsibly." Know when to say when, huh? And while you're at, would you like another Bud?

Ever seen a beer commercial during a college sporting event? I have. If the president at Georgia or any of these people are so concerned about drinking or the image of college sports, then why do they allow their teams to compete in between beer commercials -- usually portraying scantily clad women mud-wrestling -- while the young and impressionable youth of America are watching? [In this section our writer’s getting to the point, and he’s not doing too badly. Still, the youth are the young, so he should probably have found a different word for one of those two words.]

Simple: They want to have it both ways.

Have any of you ever seen anyone drinking alcohol in one of the almighty private luxury boxes [Populist button flashing.] during an Alabama or Auburn football game? I have. Those are the suites that, by the way, go for enormous sums of money to support the football program, and there's enough drinking going on in those places to permanently destroy a breathalyzer machine. [I like “destroy a breathalyzer machine.” But again, the writer doesn’t need the intensifier “permanently,” and in fact this awkward word takes some of the punch out of an otherwise good phrase. One good way to have written it would be “and there‘s enough drinking going down in them to destroy a breathalyzer.” Everyone knows a breathalyzer is a machine, and it‘s better to end your sentence on your strongest word.] It's a like fraternity rush party at the "AARP House." [I like this too, but I’d remove the quotation marks from AARP House.]

Take away the booze in those places if you want to send a message. Of course, it might be tough to sell them if the fat-cat [Yikes. Not merely a cliché, but a circa 1900 cliché. Again he’s after the populist vote.] alums had to watch the game cold sober [Cliché.].

Does anyone really think there would be college sports without beer commercials or gambling? Take away the beer money. Take away the point spread. Then let's talk turkey. [Gevalt.] These administrators want to have their cake and eat it, too. [GeVALT.] They want to talk out of both sides of their mouths. [GEVALT.]

They don't mind holding fat cats [So nice he uses it twice.] hostage with premium sums of money attached to selling season tickets or priority seating. They don't mind bowing down to networks to start games at 10 a.m. on New Year's Day or allowing some Saturday night games to go on until midnight. It's a nice drive home from Auburn or Tuscaloosa to Mobile or anywhere at that time of night.

These folks are phony and fraudulent but apparently think society is being served when a moniker attached to a football game is removed.

Perhaps we should be more understanding of today's breed of college presidents. [Ten ton sarcasm never works well.] These individuals didn't rise to a position of authority and importance because they were great teachers or researchers or leaders. That is the way things used to be. Instead, to become a college president nowadays, you have to be a politician. You have to be able to talk out of both sides of your mouth. [In case you missed it the first time.]

Instead of straight talk from our college leaders, we get drivel. [Yick.] We get presidents trying to talk down to us instead of directly to us. [Populist vote-getter at it again. By painstakingly identifying Shakespeare for your readers you‘ve talked down to them too.] We get people who all speak from a particular manual. It's a basic course called Hypocrisy 101. [Cliché.] It's being taught on almost every big-time college campus these days by the person sitting in the president's office.'


Thursday, April 13, 2006

Scathing Online Schoolmarm
Strikes Again

'Breast-Feeding Display On Campus To Raise Awareness

Breast-feeding in public is what six women did Wednesday in a very public arena at the [University of Texas] campus.

They say, whether you squirm or not, they have the right to feed their children wherever they are. [Pronoun reference?]

Forget the argument: is breast-feeding good or bad for a baby? The issue many women have is a baby can get hungry anytime, and if they're breast-feeding, they may just be in a coffee shop or restaurant when they feel the need to feed. [Overuse of the “to be” verb. And again pronoun confusion.]

The women who were breast-feeding on campus Wednesday say they shouldn't be made to feel ashamed.

Does the site of breast-feeding make you uncomfortable? [Spelling? Do you mean to ask me whether the place of b-f makes me uncomfortable, or the “sight” of b-f?]

A public feed [This phrase is new to me and conjures images of pigs in a trough. I don’t think this association is what you want.] on UT campus with moms and babies was both a public art demonstration and a very public statement. [Whoa. Was this installation art and a protest? You need to clarify that earlier in the piece.]

"In our society, breasts are conceived of in a sexual manner in advertising, in magazines and what not," art student Brooke Gassiot said. [Is this the most intelligent comment you were able to elicit?]

Gassiot is an artist, a student and a mother.

"It's nothing to do with sex. It's completely normal. It's feeding. It's eating. That's why I wanted to have a dinner with these mothers, so it re-enforces the idea that we're just eating. We're just feeding our children," Gassiot said. [Again, were you able only to find someone who believes that the sight of breasts has nothing to do with sex? Who believes that people think breast-feeding is abnormal?]

Public breast-feeding has been an issue for years. Some think it ought to be kept in the home. The moms who were on campus have a different opinion.

"Breast-feeding in public is sort of, I guess, taboo. So, I got a lot of stares. But, it hasn't stopped me in any way from breast-feeding," mother Virla Jameson said.

"I'm kind of shy, and that's the reason I decided to do this. Just to kind of show how important it is and to help me also get over my shyness of breast-feeding in public," mother Charlotte Bergdorf said.

It is still an issue, one that has prompted some businesses to post signs that breast-feeding is welcomed. [Example, please. Better yet, a photo. I have never seen a BREAST-FEEDING WELCOME sign, and am having trouble imagining what sort of business -- outside of a sex shop -- would hang one.]'


Update: Okay, okay.

But - does this seem weird to you? Why doesn't the mother in the image have any hair? Are we trying to be gender-neutral?


Monday, April 03, 2006

While the Duke Story's Cooling Its Heels,
There's Always Bad Writing to Keep Us Occupied

An opinion piece at College Sports TV, graded by an English professor.


Looking at the ramifications of the
Duke situation on Division I Lacrosse

As I mentioned in my column last week, I am not in a position to editorialize [about?] the legal ramifications of the Duke Lacrosse scandal. We will all have to wait until the facts circumvent [circumvent? Do you mean surface?] before we can really pass judgment. In the meantime, it is not fair to burry [bury?] any person, or group of people for that matter before the facts are revealed. After dissecting this situation (on the field), I would like to shed some light [you've gone from burial to dissection to illumination -- a rather awkward set of metaphors] on how this adversely affects the Division I season and Duke Lacrosse. I have come up with the following thoughts. [Drop this sentence.]


Is it fair to the opponents of Duke to have to continue with their season without knowing the permanent status of the team's (Duke) season? [Awkward sentence in terms of pronoun reference and redundancy.] Game planning and routines for teams is critical in a sport that has a season as short as lacrosse. If you are a coach that has a date scheduled with Duke this season, when will you find out the status of the game? Or, in the event the game is cancelled, how do you feel about having potentially fourteen days between games (many teams play Saturday games only at this point in the season [close parenthesis needed here] ? Some teams handle time off well, while others play their best ball when they are on the field as much as possible. I know if I coached a young team that had a date with Duke ["date with Duke" is good -- alliteration, etc.] , I would not be happy with the time off, as I would want my team with less experience to be able to play ball, and gain valuable game experience before playoff time. Many people have brought up the fact [you are referring to a claim, not a fact] that common opponents that Duke has had to cancel should schedule games against one another if they do not have scheduled date[s?] already. Negative. The NCAA ruled a few years back when teams would pick-up late season games with cupcake competition [cute] to pad (getting wins to become playoff eligible) its season record. Games are limited to begin with, and yes, one contest can make or break a season. Why should a team that had Duke on its schedule suffer?

C Pretty weak writing overall (see my parenthetical comments); and a major spelling error in a title is a real no-no.


UPDATE: It's all been fixed! Editorial second thoughts or scathing online schoolmarm? Who knows...