Friday, March 18, 2016

Opportunities for Injury: a five paragraph essay

[this essay originally appeared at Lava Step Laboratory
It’s been over 10 years since I’ve been on a non-stationary bicycle, and since I moved to a town that’s very bicyclist-friendly, I’ve been considering getting a bike and trying it out. Friends have encouraged me, saying getting back on a bicycle is just like riding a bike.  This is dubiously reassuring, because there are many other activities I’ve heard are as easy to return to “as riding a bike”, that are actually not easy at all. The fact is, you may have been competent, or even good at something 10-20 years ago, but if you try to do it now, after years without practice, there’s a good chance you will hurt yourself, sometimes in a brutal way, but usually in a mortifying reminder of the cost of skill and practice stopped.
During middle school and high school, through laborious practice, I became reasonably acceptable as an ensemble trumpet player.  I peaked, not for the usual reason of lack of practice (though my Dad would disagree), or because of insufficient embouchure (I was able to play for hours, and even hit the vaunted double-high C-- with a 7C mouthpiece no less!), or even because of a hormonal awakening (mostly, I crushed on band girls), but because my severe dysgraphia limited the speed at which I could manipulate the shiny faux-pearl tops of the finger buttons. After high school, I stopped practicing, but for years I played periodically and was even 3rd trumpet emeritus in the prestigious, or play-if-you-have-a-pulse, Amherst Town Band. In a pique of artistic longing, I recently pulled out my trumpet and discovered that playing the notes of a standard Bb scale was at the absolute edge of my ability.  Hitting the middle C of the scale generated the same noise a trumpet would make if it had an asthma attack, more wheeze than music.  After attempting a couple marches, then dropping down to Hot Cross Buns, my lips had devolved to a set of tingling numbness. Once, I was an athlete of the lips, but those days are past.
 The athletic arena is perhaps the most glaring area in which people fall out of practice. My sophomore year of high school, at an alumni reunion lacrosse game, a man celebrating his 10th reunion made a sharp break, totally dekeing out his opponents, and simultaneously, completely tearing the tendon attaching his calf muscle to his ankle. One former teammate of mine (I was on the freshman lacrosse crew for one year, before dropping out for volleyball), who was on the sidelines and got a better view, described it as like seeing a pulled window shade jerk up. The alumna, upon seeing the vein pulse through his now engorged upper calf, vomited, and then, passed out or went into shock. The ambulance took several agonizing minutes to arrive, giving each player, current and alumnus, the opportunity to reflect on how long it had been for each of us since we endured the brutality of two-a-day practices and wind sprints, in full pads, at dusk and dawn: small, repetitive injury that either made us into a team of lacrosse warriors, or in my case, a shin-splinted bench-warmer. Subsequently, there has never been another alumni lacrosse game; the reunion match was as neatly excised from the culture of my alma mater as the alumnus’ Achilles from his heel.
Not only do we lose the things that we don’t practice over many years, but as a culture, it’s possible that in our efforts to make children’s lives as safe and pain-free as we can, American children are missing out on lessons and skills learned through the crucial, bodily negative reinforcement of failure experienced during practice.  Part of the reason that learning to ride a bike is a life skill is because it tests the durability of our body, and also our resolve, on a daily basis.  Few children learn to ride a bike without some spectacular crashes; I fondly remember some of my worst: a slide down a steep driveway and into a gravel pit; breaking too hastily and hurling myself bodily over the handle bars; and, dozens more accidents, even after I’d “learned”, serving as a refresher course in the fragility and resiliency of my growing body and still nascent coordination. Mistakes riding a bike, climbing a tree, or in selecting acceptable sticks for make-believe pirate duel have a cost in blood, and actually, the more serious, the deeper the respect we earn; a sign-able cast is an envied elementary school status symbol [“You broke your arm—how!?!” / “No big deal: I fell down the ravine on Elmwood St.” :::stunned awe:::]. 
Recently I scraped myself and was shocked by the blood, the whitened curls of scraped skin, and what followed: I've forgotten how to scab gracefully, and with pride.  As a child I compared my scabs to those of other children: the breadth, the color, bruising on the edges, and whether it presented as a granule dusting, or as an exciting maroon exoskeleton, but as an adult it becomes a mark of shame (unless you happen to have gotten it saving an actual child from some gory fate); my platelets still do their programmed job, but the result feels like an unnatural hardship, a mark of immature and/or clumsy activity. When we fall out of the practice of failure and recovery, when we stop scabbing with pride, gradually avoiding all opportunities for injury, we lose an essential piece of our childhood: the badge and learning achieved through recklessly experimental motion.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Prolegomena to Any Five-Paragraph Essay

[This essay first appeared in Lava Step. Check Fridays for new personal five paragraph essays!]

Ori Fienberg

One of the first published mentions of a “five paragraph essay” occurs in Charles Sears Baldwin’s Composition, Oral and Written, published in 1909. Through the 60s and 70s it gained momentum, and in the last thirty years it has achieved a stranglehold on high school English and college Composition classes. But this new form has ancient roots in the classical argument. It’s a throwback to a time before the scientific method, when logic was a humanistic pursuit, rather than a mathematical function.  Aristotle’s A Natural History of Animals functions in this way: Aristotle attempts a rudimentary taxonomy, wherein he calls on his powers of deduction to infer, for instance, that fish must sleep, though they can’t close their eyes.  In some cases he’s observed the animal in question, but he also includes unlikely animals that he only knows of by report, such as an animal that never eats, and a species of immortal crabs “that slough off their old-age”. For these, logic falls apart and instead we experience the animal kingdom as Aristotle wants it. By displaying his yearning for deviant animals that make for a stranger world than the one he has seen, his dubious inclusions show another side of Aristotle the man.  But we’re far removed the time of the classical argument, and as a pedagogical tool the modern five-paragraph essay strains out these deviations to reflect industrialized, standardized realities. Still, while it serves a rigidly utilitarian role in high school English and college composition classes, and thus is spurned by the literary set, with nuanced deviation the five-paragraph essay becomes an intriguing personal essay form to explore the permeable nature of arguments, experience, and stories.
It’s easy to see why the five-paragraph essay is resented: it plays a vital role in bureaucratic educational indoctrination. Reproducing the rules of the form results in the reward. There are required components: an introduction that hooks the reader’s attention; a thesis, perhaps containing a concession; then concession, evidence and arguments; finally a conclusion must restate the thesis, but not exactly, while also offering opportunities for further thought. Beyond the required components lies a formidable set of rules and conventions. First-person narration is frowned upon; personal experience may make an appearance in the introduction, but rarely beyond it. Unambiguous language preferred and digression, strongly discouraged. Avoid clich├ęs. Present an unbiased argument, but convince the reader. When written within the arena of standardized testing, not only are forms and convention rewarded, but also puffery: the more multi-syllabic words the better.  It’s no wonder that many students resent having to write them, and many instructors, often technical and/or creative writers themselves, dislike teaching it, and opt for other forms in their own writing.  Whether mastered or not, the form is soon discarded by the majority of writers, but I’ve always been conflicted.  In many ways, I enjoy the rules and feel they have merit; the bevy of restraints calls up a relationship to set forms of poetry, like a sonnet or a sestina, and I even have a fondness for some of its inevitabilities. 
Not only are these rules utilitarian, they’re patterned, combining organic and planned elements.  Early in high school, when I was struggling to make a thesis statement, my Dad once told me “it takes three trees to make a row”. Two trees do not invoke a pattern, but three trees indicate planning for a well-landscaped essay. Aristotle raises a variant when he reminds his readers of Musaeus’ observation about eagles and birds that lay three eggs: “That lays three, hatches two, and cares for one”.  It’s a naturalist observation in a proverbial presentation, and it can be seen at the root of a five-paragraph argument: we must present three points to make a pattern of evidence, and despite our best intentions to love and take care of them equally, often one is weak, included to meet the form, while another is dear, perhaps the impetus for the argument, the central tree, or the story we want the reader to remember.  We must always start with laying our eggs, or the planting of our trees, and by the time we finish they should be hatched/grown, and the form ensures proper mulching, or a good nest.  For a class, to learn a form, perhaps the rules are best.  When we reach beyond that, when we mix metaphor, or deviate from a pattern we risk failure, but risk is necessary to push the five-paragraph essay past its utilitarian roots.
The five-paragraph essay can be fertile ground for more personal and creative writing.  Deviation is also logical. It’s part of our nature.  In the pedagogical five-paragraph essay all restless metaphor must be rounded up and domesticated.  In the personal five-paragraph essay they can be allowed to roam.  Instead of a canned introduction, three pieces of evidence, and a conclusion-paragraph, it’s the form of all stories: a prologue, beginning, middle, and an end, with denouement. A wedding, three stories, and a funeral; trauma, three therapists, and an epiphany; parents, three girlfriends, and a wife; a job, three investments, and retirement: each is a five-paragraph personal essay. In many ways it’s a more honest, a guileless form: the epiphany is brought to the fore, in the first paragraph, the intrinsic argument offered immediately for consideration, rather than buried later in the essay. The real argument is in life, and it’s too hard to live without some structure. There’s too much evidence, too many contradicting stories.  
It’s a delicate balance. There are the weaknesses and trauma that are really our strengths.  The exceptions that are the rule, and the endless concessions we make and remake to ourselves, to those we love, and to those with whom we disagree simply so we can keep going.  In a braided essay, we must hope that the braids unite, but it’s impossible to do justice to all the strands without tangling.  The expository essay brazenly assumes its expertise. Dear Lord, save us from the epistolary. How heavy the crown if life were told in sonnets? What use a couplet when describing an extended period of bachelorhood? There’s nothing to stop a personal essay from going on indefinitely, but a five-paragraph essay must stop eventually.  And whether narrative, descriptive, persuasive, or expository, all it takes is a more whimsical landscaper to combine pattern, personhood, and poetics to bring new purpose to the five-paragraph essay.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Leading with a Soft Hand

Most people know at least one person in their organization that they have difficulty communicating with, but must in order to advance or finish projects: the ability to minimize friction with people we’d rather not interact with is essential to success. Meanwhile, a “director” or “chief” is just a title: the person promoted/hired for that position must tailor their presentation, message, and interactions to accommodate the egos and concerns of those whose work is critical to advancing organizational plans and achieving goals.  Without this self-awareness and social-awareness there’d be no leaders and no teams: instead we’d work in isolated vacuums as petty bureaucrats.
A 2014 McKinsey survey indicated that in the social sector, more than half of those in leadership positions rate team building and collaboration as two of the most important leadership skills, and despite this far less than half of the respondents felt they were proficient in the most important leadership skills. Clearly there’s a gap in particular leadership skills. Forbes magazine’s 2014 Corporate Learning Factbook notes that last year saw a 15% in corporate training, and that “leadership training” makes up 35% of that spending. Increased recognition of the value of relationship building and supporting staff has resulted in a boom in leadership training and the proliferation of academic programs in leadership; however, despite the increased attention these skills are receiving, many persist in referring to them as “soft skills”.
As Steve Wood, the President and CEO of Work Opportunities Unlimited Inc, notes in a post on his blog, most often Soft Skills are associated with Emotional Intelligence While this term was popularized by Daniel Goleman’s 1995 book, its fundamental thesis— that an Emotional Quotient could be a more meaningful predictor of success than the standard Intelligence Quotient— is still largely ignored.  Leaving aside more technical considerations of whether Emotional Intelligence is an intelligence or a skill, it would be hard to ignore the impact of the constructs Goleman lays out in his 1998 book Work With Emotional Intelligence: Self-Awareness, Self-Regulation, Social Skill, Empathy, and Motivation.  Some gifted few know just how to manage and support all their coworkers, while others have taken some sort of leadership training or degree program, and ideally someone in leadership role has demonstrated at least some ability to work well with others, but it seems most people who achieve leadership roles do so on the basis of content knowledge or expertise in some specialty other than their ability to build relationships. 
As a metaphor we live by, and particularly as an operational dichotomy, "soft" is almost always subservient to "hard".  We want "hard facts" and value “hard workers”.  Basically, “Soft” is only good when placed before “serve” or in describing a microfiber comforter. In business “soft ball questions” are the easy ones, having a “soft touch with employees” is seen to be necessary only for the overly sensitive.  A “soft deadline” is an irrelevant deadline, and a “soft launch” is only a precursor to the real thing.  A “softie” lets things slide, while a “hard ass” keeps people in line. Things that are “soft” are easy and usually not important; instead we need to answer the “hard questions” and make the “hard decisions”.  This mindset is intrinsic to our daily operations, so all labeling a vast and highly important skill set as “Soft Skills” does is devalue the associated tools, strategies, and mindset. If anything, the skills associated with “soft” and “hard” should probably be flip-flopped: soft skills are not only not soft, they’re significantly harder to master than the supposed “hard skills”.
Typing, writing, math, reading, and content knowledge (i.e. discrete, teachable content-related constructs) are most often referred to as “hard skills”, and HR managers, such as those surveyed by Millenial Branding, as covered in Entrepreneur Magazine, indicate that content expertise is more important than the “soft skills” which are erroneously lumped together as “personality”.  Let’s be clear: “personality” is not a skill, it’s a construct, and focusing on “personality” is not particularly effective when compared to whether or not, for instance, a programmer knows the coding languages necessary to complete the tasks of the job. But the fact of the matter is that content gaps are far easier to discover and correct through education than social/communication skills, or the so-called “soft” skills, which encompass the disciplines of leadership and communications, and are vital to organizational success.
Meanwhile, it could even be said that the devaluing of “soft” in favor of so-called “hard” skills reinforce prejudiced stereotypes that prevent women from being promoted to leadership roles.  A nurturing nature is more commonly associated with women than with men, and nurturing is essential to the development of staff.  Antithetically, often men are promoted not due to their team-work prowess, or ability to develop staff, but as Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, Professor of Business Psychology at Columbia University, addresses in his controversially titled HBR article, “Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders?”, in many cases “manifestations of hubris — often masked as charisma or charm — are commonly mistaken for leadership potential, and that these occur much more frequently in men than in women”.  Indeed, as he notes later, “women outperform men on emotional intelligence”.
Despite increased attention to employee management and relationship building, surveys indicate that these skills are the hardest to teach, and that when it comes to inter-personal skills, those hired in leadership roles often have a great deal of difficulty connecting with those they are meant to lead. In order to have effective leaders and leadership training, we need to address the hard truth that soft skills usually make the biggest difference.
[Originally published a post on LinkedIn]

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Poetry for Professionals #1

[On Angela Palm's lyric essay in the 15.4 issue of The Diagram, post originally appeared on Linkedin]

Since graduating from my MFA program, leaving behind a reassuring ecosystem in which everyone cared deeply about authors and their craft, and choosing something other than itinerant-poet-lecturer as a profession, I've come across many people who either bemoan the lack of good poetry in the world, or worse, professionals who can't name a single poet or poem they like, and really don't see the point of it.  
This is sad.  First, if anything we are in a golden age of poetry.  Partly due to the rise of creative writing classes in higher education, and the work of places like 826 National to promote the value of both good academic and creative writing, while I've yet to conduct the definitive survey, I'm certain that more people are writing poems and aspiring to write poetry that ever before.  The internet has also provided an amazing avenue for the discussion, publishing, and promotion of poetry.  There are also more literary journals publishing writing worth reading than every-- more than one could reasonably read, unless reading poetry is your profession. And poetry has expanded: it no longer has to rhyme! In fact, it can appear similar to an essay.  Really, there's no accounting for form; still, whatever it's shape, a good poem still functions to illuminate our experience like no other art.  And in few aspects of our lives do we need more illumination than professionally.  
Whether it's a poem that brightens our day by turning our thoughts away from TPS reports, or gives us a new, possibly hilarious way of looking at the work we do, poems and short lyrical writing can surprise, delight, or cause us to think about our day in way that makes those hours pass just a little more manageably.  If I had the power, I would assign everyone on linkedin the introduction of Gregory Orr's Poetry as Survival for homework. Since this is not within my power, I'd like to begin periodically offering up on LinkedIn poems I've read that I think professionals in different fields might enjoy.
Years ago, I had a poem published in The Diagram, an online journal edited by Ander Monsoon, a poet/essayist/writer who you can find on YouTube, wearing a tiger suit, reading a poem into a fridge.
The most recent issue of The Diagram has a arrived in a flurry of red and black text mixed with “schematics” (diagrams) including Nest Profiles and Plans, as well as Relative Seasonal Availability of Nectar (surely the schematic we’ve all been waiting for).
One thing you can never reasonably claim is that you're "too busy" for poetry: nearly every month I read the poems of at least a few of the contributors, usually authors I know or think I’ve read before, and authors whose names strike me in some way.  For instance, today I read Jennifer Wheelock’s amusing poem, Cloven, solely because one of my colleagues on LinkedIn has notched an anniversary at Wheelock College!
But Angela Palm’s lyric essay (which I will refer to as a poem, because that is how I approach every piece in The Diagram, even when they are not necessarily designated as such) I selected due to its title, "Bloom’s Evaluation of Her", on the off-chance that it might by a reference to the Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, more commonly known as just Bloom’s Taxonomy. I’m hard pressed to think of a more dominant instructional paradigm in education, or one that guides more of what I do on a day-to-day basis.  Angela’s poem repurposes the taxonomy as a way of thinking about a somewhat unexpected relationship, from early intimations and knowledge gathering through her final analysis of what they had or did not have together.
At the risk of pedantry (okay fine, to revel in pedantry), I could quibble at the definition for Comprehension, which I think would be more apt for Synthesis, and could be better expressed as “The student communicates the knowledge in their own words”, and I also feel it’s necessary to point out that her poem (or lyric essay) does not strictly follow the taxonomy, since her piece ends with “Synthesis, Analysis”, out of order, and without the capstone piece of “Evaluation”; however I think it could reasonably argued that in relationships it’s far more natural after they’ve ended or tapered off to analyze them, than it is to “Evaluate” them.  While we may have best friends, we rarely rate them against an objective scale.  At least I don’t.
There has been some question as to the validity of the taxonomy, and while over and over again its validity is confirmed, I think most educators would agree that the boundaries between taxa are not always so rigidly defined.  We may think we comprehend a topic, only to find through analysis that we understood far less than we thought.  The same is at play in this lyric essay, and I think is a large part of what makes it successful.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Informed Opinions

By the time I went to college, The Big Lebowski, which had come out just a few years before, was just starting to attain its cult status.  Some were drawn to the bowling, the drugs, the jokes about contemporary art, the various satirical social commentaries.  I often found myself replaying lines in my head during classes, and no line did I repeat to myself more often than "Yeah, well, you know, that's just like your opinion, man".  I went to a small liberal arts college where opinions and so-called "world views" were often challenged, and sometimes it seemed that students debated non-stop, in the dorm rooms, at meals, and even at the gym. If you wanted to have a varied and interesting group of friends, or just not be known as an ignoramus/asshole, you had to be prepared to let some opinions go.
Last week, Jef Rouner had an essay published by Houston Press that I think should be required reading for all college students (and everyone else):
Increasingly, it seems that students do not pursue higher education to learn and expand their understanding of issues, but to reinforce their preconceived world views, or with none of this even in mind, as they seek out a professional degree.  They do not have a solid understanding of rhetoric, and don't necessarily understand the difference between an argument based on facts and an argument based on opinions.  Some students, instructors, and administrators worry less about this, and more about making sure appropriate "trigger warnings" are in place as well as various "safe" places for students.  While I understand the value of these for some situations, my fear is that sometimes this caters to the reinforcement of opinions over facts, and silence over debates and discussion that could help people achieve a better understanding and compassion for the issues that create triggers and create the need for safe spaces. 
The most important thing I learned in college was that sometimes my opinions were at the very least uninformed, and other times, they were just plain wrong.  I left with the pride of understanding that in order to stay well-informed, and keep learning, I would need to continue to interrogate my beliefs, question my dearly held opinions, and most importantly, avoid what I think is an all too common response of indignation and anger when someone attempted to educate me beyond my preconceived notion of something.  This is a hard lesson to learn, and I'm still learning it, but now it's a rare and strange week when at least one of my opinions doesn't change in some way, and I think that the willingness to change ones opinion, including sometimes acknowledging that it's in fact completely wrong is crucial both from an educational and professional standpoint.
Meanwhile, indignation and anger continue to be an all to common response when people's so called opinions and beliefs are challenged.  In part, I think we have a detrimental culture that associates changing of opinion with weakness. For instance, consider what the media says when a political challenge changes their mind about something: we call it "flop-flopping".  Do we want our leaders to change their mind every couple weeks on key issues and beliefs? Of course not. But I also don't think it's productive to attack leaders when they acknowledge that over the course of many years, they've changed their mind about an issue. Without the ability to acknowledge that new facts or experiences have taught us that we need to let an opinion go in favor of fact, there can be no compromise and no progress.
What opinions drive what you do?  When was the last time you allowed someone to change your mind, based on facts you had not seen or sought out?  I think these are good questions to ask ourselves periodically, and also fine questions for teachers, at any level of education, to ask their students.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Police Training and Chain Letters

My future-father-in-law forwarded me the text of this open-letter, ostensibly authored by Retired Sgt. Kenneth Gross (this might be him), and asked me what I think.  What I think, is that this would be best filed under "don't even get me started", but nevertheless, I've decided to post my own open-response.

I think the problem that the former sgt refers to is both "societal" and "training". He raises some good points, in that this is not "all cops", and I suspect our president and many top administrators could use additional "training" to understand the training, challenges, trials, and tribulations of our law enforcement officers who put their lives at risk every day.

The "training" this sergeant initially refers to, i.e. being raised in a supportive and loving environment that includes family, religious institution, sports teams, and schools, is a broad generalization, and assumes a level of privilege that we associate with the American dream, but is in considerably shorter supply than most people think.   He undermines his own argument about the ubiquity of such an upbringing by saying that police officers are the "Thin Blue Line" (I know that to him this means something else, but try an internet search, and one of the first things to come up with the movie by the same name about a man wrongly convicted by a corrupt justice system) separating us from "total anarchy".  Are police what maintain "civilized society"? I think this sort of hyperbole really doesn't do much of a service to service members, who do take real risks, but are not all that stands between us an anarchy: hopefully, as the sgt notes, our societal up-bringing and common values are what keep us from running the streets naked while looting.  Do these things still happen, of course (or something like it), but I think we're still a long way from total anarchy and the need for a strict police state.

Meanwhile, any time someone talks about the guv'rmint "dumping mounds of cash" on anything, you can be relatively certain that argument is going to lack nuance and facts. When it comes to understanding welfare's role in society and its causes, plenty of people have well-intended, but essentially misguided ideas about who benefits (see "welfare queens") and what the rules should be. The fact is, that the Pew Research Center reports that more households and people than you may think receive some sort of government benefit from Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, TANF, Unemployment benefits, or WIC/SNAP (food stamps). I've been on welfare, and benefitted from Massachusetts reduced cost healthcare before ACA was passed.  I used it for a short time, and stopped when I was doing better.  Of course I had a family safety net, and far more extensive education and privilege than most people who need that aid.  And, incidentally, the elderly and children make up probably the two largest groups that receive these benefits.  I assume most people would not advocate for putting Americans aged 70+ back to work, or stripping parents of benefits that would result in children going hungry. 

We need to educate citizens such that they have the skills they need for jobs that will pay them a living wage.  Millions of jobs in this country pay wages so low that even working two supposedly "full-time" jobs puts them below the poverty line.  A job flipping burgers isn't going to support someone the way they need.  If that were my only options for employment, I'd probably turn to crime.  But while a broader discussion if these issues is important to society, it doesn't really have much bearing on whether police need additional training and accountability.

When trying to achieve a particular standard, norming is necessary.  Police departments can't know which officers are not going to uphold the values of their job, whether by choice or ineptitude, but training improves quality and decreases failures, and so by necessity, it makes sense to train ALL police.  Everyone in my workplace undergoes multiple mandatory trainings every year, and the highest responsibility most of us have is protecting sensitive student information. Police have the responsibility of deciding when to wield lethal-force, and making that choice should invite review and followup training every time.  

Having a rigorous and transparent system in place is beneficial to those with and without a badge.  Let's say for the sake of argument that it's "less than 1%" as the former sergeant suggests (which sounds to me like a made-up number), and let's reduce it further to fewer than .25% of all cops. Going by DOJ law enforcement numbers, that's still over 2000 cops with the power of life or death in their hands.  If we cut in half, or even in quarter, I'd still have a problem with that.  Would you say it's okay to have even 500 gun-toting racists, idiots, or just fat guys with anger management issues and a license to kill? That's no Six-Sigma (the management philosophy meant to reduce defects to 3.4 in every million opportunities), and there are things police could do, and even things that we should reasonably expect them to do, that could help a great deal:

1) Undergo regular training on appropriate use of service weapons and physical restraint in the line of duty.  This should include regular physical examinations to be sure that police officers are able to apply the training.

2) Wear cameras and have cameras mounted in their cruisers to maintain a record that holds both them and citizens accountable.

3) Increase communication with the community and solicit feedback and discussion on law and safety issues that are mutually important.

If I were a police officer, I'd want these things: insufficient training is as likely as anything else to get an officer killed or injured in the line of duty (and in fact, far more police officers die due to preventable accidents than due to "felonious" acts), wearing a camera protects officers who are upholding the law in a legal manner from frivolous lawsuits and media scorn, and many urban police departments are undergoing high level PR crises, so having civil and productive conversations with the citizens seems like it'd be in everyone's best interest.

But that's just what I think off the top my head. I don't think this chain letter presents much by way of a solution or an argument against training, so much as it takes offense at government officials' suggestion that more training might be effective in reducing the number of these situations.  This is a complex issue.  Taking any one group or individuals to task for their role isn't particularly productive.  I know that the overwhelming majority of officers serve out of a sense of duty to the greater good, and I respect them for that commitment, just as I respect teachers, firefighters, social workers, and our military; however, that does not mean that police are above reproach, nor that we don't have a responsibility to ensure that our system does as much as possible to protect those they serve, as well as those with the fewest privileges.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Against Inconsistent Typography Pendantry

Several years ago, I participated in an online forum that discussed the topic of spaces after a period.  That the “tradition” of putting two spaces after a period, as befit monotype font on typewriters, had become anachronistic thanks to font-creators for computers factoring in some extra space after the period to make up for it.  I argued that I preferred the two spaces, not because I argued against that, but for aesthetic and philosophical reasons; paragraphs get a break and an indentation, so why not give sentences a little extra breathing room to acknowledge their individuality?

Since then I’ve continued to put two spaces after the period, though a pedantic Slate article ensured that nearly everyone knows the historical basis for putting two spaces after a period, and as a result more and more people are eager to share this with me when I send an email or send a memo.  I’ve always been of the opinion that in this and other formatting peccadilloes, such as citation style, it’s more important to be consistent than to be pedantic.  Still, in more and more pieces of writing, I find myself only using one space. I still don’t feel as though the amount of space that has been allotted after the period automatically by programmers is sufficient, but I bow before the march of progress, and only continue my iconoclastic behavior in my poetry, where really anything goes.

Recently though, I wrote up a memo and sent it my supervisor for suggestions/edits and found that she had corrected another of my consistent punctuation patterns: when I use quotation marks, I put the punctuation outside the marks, unless the punctuation is part of the quote.  For example

I can’t believe that Jeff said, “punctuation always belongs inside quotes”!

It seems to me that by necessity, the exclamation goes outside the quotes: it’s my emphasis and putting it inside the quotes could make it appear that this was Jeff’s emphasis, when Jeff probably said this very casually.  I think that sort of issue makes the best case, but I’d also put the comma after the quotes in more basic grammatical situations, such as:

Americans put punctuation within quotes, according to supposed “rules”, but in fact there’s no reason to do so, and plenty reason not too.

This is a typographical peccadillo that comes up periodically, and appears to be yet another formatting topics where England, and Commonwealth countries such as Canada employ one technique, and the USA tends toward another.  I would have considered this akin to other topics, such as alternate spellings like “labor” and “labour”, where ultimately both are acceptable, and consistency is most important.  Honestly, I don’t know if my choice to put punctuation outside of the quotes is a result of having been raised by Canadian parents, or if, like two-spaces after a period, it just felt right.  To me, it seems obvious that the only thing that belongs inside a quote are the units of punctuation that are a part of that quotation. Partly it’s a philosophical issue, and in many cases it increases clarity, rather than creating confusion, which ought be the role of grammar and proper punctuation.

As to the title, ultimately it’s the inconsistent standards applied to punctuation that gets to me.  The pedants rail again those who use two-spaces after a period, occasionally on a scientific  basis (two spaces slows down reading: I think that’s a good thing and as it should be, but I’m apparently in the minority), and most often by trotting out the explanation about how this is an outdated practice, leftover from the time of typewriters.  

But the fact is that the American convention around placing punctuation within quotation marks is even more outdated than clinging to conventions from the days of typewriters, and instead dates all the way back to type-setting, when according to the CCC Foundation, the “.” and “,” were the most fragile metal-bits of type, and printers were worried that the piece of type may break away from the body of text, and be dented or ruined if they had the wider “”” on their right-hand side.  Therefore, printers began placing the smaller punctuation within the quotation, as means of protecting the type.  

This means that even once we began using typewriters, this convention was outdated, and doubly so in the digital age.  Unfortunately, the alt.english.usage FAQ that the CCC Foundation links to as proof of this historical basis is dead, and I have been unable to find another reference to this origin. Still, even if this story is apocryphal, the logic of not putting punctuation in quotations should win out. Even though the status quo is unlikely to change and I may still have my quotation/punctuation corrected, I will continue my current typographical practice.