Posts Tagged ‘TED’

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

There is a specter haunting the world of academia, and college professors are wailing with fear and frustration. Every few months, the opinion pages of such diverse publications as The Atlantic, The Wall Street Journal and the Chronicle of Higher Education bemoan this specter.  50 year old college professors fill the pages of these prestigious productions with 6a6151155fbde50cec7b9616661c1448d3374fa7op-eds categorically stating that today’s ‘college students can’t write.’  If you don’t believe me, the weblink attached takes you to 78 million screeds lamenting the lost art of the sentence, the paragraph and the essay. Peruse your pick, and fear for the future.

Personally, I find such concerns to be generally overstated and misplaced. I read thousands of student journals and papers every year, and I have seen very little decline in the standard and quality of student work.(In fact, it has generally been the opposite) Some students are good writers, some are not so good writers. Some are good because they try hard at it, edit furiously and understand how to analyze ideas. For those who are not so good, I find it often comes down to simple laziness.  A proofreading here and there never hurt anyone, but there are some students who can’t take the time.  It doesn’t mean they aren’t good writers. It just means they have no problem turning in mediocre work. That is their prerogative.

Most concerns about the lost art of writing feel there is more to this issue than just laziness. However, these concerns are often based upon misguided notions. For one thing, there seems to be a belief that college students in the past wrote Dickensian prose and essays that would put Virginia Woolf to shame. This is ludicrous.  The conservative linguist John McWhorter illustrated this in his intriguing 2013 TED talk ‘Txting is Killing Language. JK!!’ About halfway through his 13 minute lecture, McWhorter illustrated that our concern about the lost art of writing is by no means novel.  In 6 quick examples, McWhorter quotes professors and educators from the past 2000 years that sound incredibly like the Cassandras of today. See the queued up clip below:

So it seems that  professors have  always complained about their younger charges’ writing skills. As McWhorter displays, this has much to do with the simple fact that language and linguistics change over time.  But, I think there is something more to it. It’s difficult for humans to believe that what they know now, they have not always known. Ask a professor or teacher about their undergrad writing skills. I guarantee most believe their writing ability at 19 compares favorably to their abilities today. After all, if you are a good writer at 40, you must have been a good writer at 19….right?

Just recently, I was reminded of the much messier reality. When I think back on my undergrad writings it is with rose-tinted glasses.  I mean, I got a bunch of A’s on my college papers after-all!  So, imagine how flummoxed I was the other day when I stumbled upon on old box of 20 year old papers I had written as a junior in college.  Woah!  Pretty ugly!  The work was not terrible by any means, but it was not quite as magical as I recalled. In fact, most of the writing looks pretty similar to what my own students produce today.  To be honest, many of the papers I grade are much better than what I did 20 years ago.  There is no shame in this.  As a 20 year old college student,  I was a different person than my present day self. In college I was just starting to develop many skills in life. Writing was just one of those skills.  The college students that I see today are in the same boat.  They’re 20 years old, and still learning.  It is ridiculously inane to profess an absolutist belief about their abilities at this point in their life.  To say they ‘can’t write’ is at best a misplaced prejudice. At worst it is a sign of outrageous egotism.  Unfortunately, those 78 million Google hits fall under both categories.

My suggestion to the writers and readers of that litany of op-eds?  Before getting too concerned about the end of writing as we know it, look back at your own work from college. You may be in for a surprise.

By Paul Gaszak, English Faculty

I was sitting on the end of the fifth row inside the Rubloff Auditorium at the Art Institute of Chicago when someone came up alongside me.

“You’re Paul, right?”

A young woman was standing there smiling at me. I said, “Yes?” as I wondered how she knew me. Debt collector? Friend of a bitter ex-girlfriend? Rabid Turtle fan?

“I don’t know if you remember me, but I’m Anna. I was in your writing class.”

“Ooooooh! Annnnnnaaaaaa! How are you!!!?”

I had no clue.

I assumed she was a student from Robert Morris University where I teach now, but after several minutes and questions, I gradually deduced she was a student from my alma mater Lewis University, where I was an adjunct instructor in 2007.

ITenthn her hands was a copy of “Tenth of December” by George Saunders, the author we were there to see. When our conversation paused, I used that to ask an obvious question, “Are you a Saunders fan?”

My own introduction to George Saunders came along an odd, serendipitous path.

In early 2006, I was working on my M.A. in Writing at DePaul University with a concentration in Creative Writing. Fiction was my passion. My Fiction Professor, after reading some of my stories, told me, “Your writing is similar to George Saunders. Have you read him?”

Eh.

Like all English majors and creative writers, I have been told of a thousand authors I “have to read!” by classmates, professors, friends, baristas, garbagemen, podiatrists….

I ignored the suggestion.

Three years later, I am taking a Fiction class as part of my MFA in Fiction at Roosevelt University. After reading my work, the head of the program tells me, “Your work is reminiscent of George Saunders. Have you read him?”

I confess I have not, but admit that someone has floated that comparison before.

Still, I read nothing by Saunders.

Soon after this recommendation, I am at the Auditorium Theater in Chicago for a sold out show with one of my favorite authors, David Sedaris. At the end of Sedaris’ shows, he always recommends a book that he is reading and enjoying. Take a wild guess which author Sedaris recommended.

“ALRIGHT ALREADY!” I thought.

I was instantly in love with Saunders’ work. It is brilliant, moving, and funny – three things I try to be in my fiction. Thus, the comparisons now made sense.

However, keep in mind what my professors’ comparisons really meant. Saying “You remind me of Saunders” was actually a polite way of saying, “There’s an author who does what you try to do….and he does it WAY better than you’ll EVER do it. Ya, you should probably study up on him.”

So, they were not saying, nor am I saying, that I’m as good a writer as a bestselling, MacArthur Genius Grant winning author. I’m damn sure not. But he was being brought up as someone I might learn from and emulate.

Now, years later, I am in the Rubloff Auditorium. Now, I’m a professor who has read all of his work, and even teaches some of it. I hesitated to attend. Despite being an English professor and a writer, traditional readings don’t excite me much.

Beyond that, I didn’t know if I could tolerate a Q&A session involving a famous author and an audience of young, aspiring writers – exactly the same as me in my early/mid-20s. The Q&As are all the same. All the young writers raise their hands and ask absurdly detailed and nonsensical questions about the craft of writing: “If I were to use a calculated series of semicolons inside a parenthetical statement that is actually a quote that is being said as part of a narrating character’s inner monologue, will this capture the core strife of socioeconomic imbalance between the modern family dynamic and allow the development of thematic qualities that….”

Oh, just shut the hell up.

It’s ridiculous. Not just the question itself, but because all of the questions – at their heart – are asking the exact same question:

“How do I get to be as great a writer as you?”

It’s as if they expect the famous author to spit up knowledge into their mouth like a mama bird, and suddenly they too will now be a bestselling author.

Mostly, the Q&A went exactly that way and I was drifting in and out of the discussion. But then Saunders said something that punched me right in my cynical face.

He talked about how writers should seek to draw from what is deep and familiar within them. He gave the analogy of how we all fall back to what we do best when we’re in a bind. How do we act when we get in trouble, or need one great pickup line, or need to impress and employer. He said his reservoir was and is humor and sentimentality. I would identify the same way. Hence, the comparisons were starting to solidify.

He then went on to advise, “Accept the part of you that you previously considered unliterary.”

Boom. Mind blown.

It was not a ground-breaking point, but it was phrased in a way that struck me particularly hard. In essence, I took it to mean that we need to draw on and accept our strengths even if they are deemed unconventional or wrong for our fields, degrees, or occupations.

For creative writing students like me, we go through writing degrees that attempt to program us into faded copies of our literary forebearers. “Forget about what YOU do well! Here’s what you MUST do; here’s what literature IS!”

In his most famous TED talk, Sir Ken Robinson also talks about this idea of how school educates us out of our creative capacities and devalues and discourages our skills and talents if they do not match those that are most immediately valued by academia and the workforce.

After over 8 years of schooling in creative writing, I had been asked to evolve and emulate so much, that what I grew up loving to do became an absolute chore. As a kid, I loved writing stories and telling stories. By the time I made it halfway through my MFA, I hated even the thought of writing fiction. I had no fun doing it anymore. It’s no fun to spend my time trying to write like and be like other people, and I’ve found no success in writing that way. (Side note: most creative writing programs would ardently argue that they don’t do this – that they are actually encouraging everyone to embrace the writer they are. Complete B.S.)

With writing, like all professions, there is the problem that – for as much as creativity and innovation is lauded – the norm is too often what gets promoted.

And so, here is Anna standing next to me and I don’t recognize her. However, she clearly remembers me. Obviously she knew my name, but then she goes into specifics about what we did in class, what papers we wrote, and what specific topics she wrote about. I now knew which class she had been in.

And then she laughed. It was a distinctive laugh, and suddenly it triggered my memory. I instantly knew what class she was in, what room we had, which desk she sat in – all of it.

As we continued to talk, it hit me: a student I had in class over a half-decade ago remembers me, and was impacted enough in my class to still know my name, to know what we did in class, and to have liked me enough to want to come say hello.

On the drive home, it dawned on me: Saunders’ advice to “accept the part of you that you previously considered unliterary” is not just true of writing, but of life. Find your strengths. Accept them. Use them. Don’t try to reinvent yourself into someone else. It will be disingenuous; it won’t work.

In teaching, I’ve already accepted the parts of me that were previously considered unacademic, and it seems to have worked out. When I get into class, I draw upon my reservoir of humor and sentimentality, and being me has worked. I’ve mostly ignored the pedagogical programming from graduate school that tried to shape me into a factory-made professor, and that run-in with Anna seems to prove I made the right choice.

by Paul Gaszak, English Faculty

“Frank Warren is the creator of The PostSecret Project, a collection of highly personal and artfully decorated postcards mailed anonymously from around the world, displaying the soulful secrets we never voice. Since November 2004, Warren has received more than 500,000 postcards, with secrets that run from sexual taboos and criminal activity to confessions of secret beliefs, hidden acts of kindness, shocking habits and fears. PostSecret is a safe and anonymous ‘place’ where people can hear unheard voices and share untold stories” (Source)

I first heard of PostSecret in 2007 while I was an Adjunct Instructor at another university. A student introduced me to the books, because they fascinated her and she wanted to talk about them. I was instantly fascinated, too, for a number of reasons: the ingeniousness of Warren’s original idea, the secrets themselves that range from funny to sweet to shocking, and the somewhat-voyeuristic pleasure readers get from hearing all the secrets.

My student also tried to convince me to let the class make their own postcards as an assignment, but I wasn’t clever enough to think of a way to give credit to students for anonymous work. “Alright class, remember to put your names in the upper right hand corner of your anonymous secrets and pass them forward!”

Her request, however, spoke to one of the most interesting effects of PostSecret: when looking at the postcards written by others, it’s almost impossible not to question, “What would I write on my own postcard?”

That we stop to ask that question tells me that PostSecret is proof that we all A) carry secrets and B) in some capacity or another, deal daily with self-disclosure and self-censorship. Each person has their own boundaries, but no matter how expansive the boundaries may be or what those boundaries do or don’t contain, they are still there.

Take for example one of my favorite authors, David Sedaris, who is best known for his hilarious and revealing stories about himself and his family. At times, what he is willing to reveal seems so private that it appears he has erased all boundaries in favor of telling a good, funny story. But that’s not the case. During one of his readings that I went to at the Auditorium Theatre in Chicago, he did Q&A to end the show. Someone asked him if his family ever gets mad because of the personal stories he tells about them. To paraphrase, Sedaris said, “No, because I know what stories my family wouldn’t want me to tell, and I don’t tell those.”

All of us have a wealth of stories, experiences, information and even some secrets. In both our personal and professional lives, we have to deal daily with what bits are appropriate or inappropriate, helpful or damaging. We have to make complex choices in a hurry about what to let out into the world and what to keep internalized.

I sometimes give off the appearance that my boundaries aren’t there. If a personal story fits within the context of a discussion – be it with friends, family, students or colleagues – and I think telling the story will do more good than harm, I go for it. As a freshman in college, I gave a speech about my struggles with clinical depression, anxiety disorder, and panic disorder. The feedback from my classmates and professor was that I was brave to be so open and honest about something so personal. I didn’t feel that way at all, because that information didn’t fall outside my boundaries of what is open for public consumption. But, for them, if they were in the same situation, that information would have been outside.

Given that we all have different boundaries, it can sometimes create the illusion that a particular person has no censor, no boundaries. It’s not the spoken – but rather the unsaid – that reveals our boundaries. By that measure, I feel most often like a scene from my favorite movie, Chasing Amy. Silent Bob (Kevin Smith) reveals a secret that surprises his partner-in-crime Jay (Jason Mewes). When Jay asks why he of all people never heard that secret before, Silent Bob responds, “What you don’t know about me I can just about squeeze in the Grand f’n Canyon.”

Whenever I offer up a personal story that seems particularly revealing to my audience, whomever they may be, I think to that “Grand f’n Canyon” of information that few people – or maybe even no one – knows about me. It may seem like I’m revealing “secrets” but my secrets are safely in the canyon.

And PostSecret shows how we all establish our own boundaries and that we all have our own “Grand f’n Canyons,” though they all vary in size and content.

With that said, what would you write on your PostSecret postcard? Leave your name, e-mail address, and response in the comments section.