May 21, 2008

Literary Impressions: Reading Well

About a week ago, I joined friends in New Haven for a Friday night meal. Their daughter was in town, back from college, and over the course of dinner conversation, I asked if she had any professors who were distinctive, who stood out from the others. She immediately described two faculty who were notable for the passion of their presentations and the degree to which they immersed themselves in their subjects. An English major now, just as I had been when I attended the University of Chicago twenty years earlier, she asked after 30 minutes into her own fairly passionate disquisition why I inquired. I admitted that I wanted compare her experience with my own and find the link between what these special professors had accomplished for her and what mine had done for me.

Actually, I will admit that I had one particular professor in mind, a professor whose own presentations liberated me as a reader. That professor was William Veeder, who has apparently produced enough of an impact as a teacher (and secondarily, in my humble opinion, as a scholar) to receive a Wikipedia article. The article, which outlines his theories of literary study, is largely a tribute. I'm especially tickled by the quotes, or "Veederisms," as they're lovingly described.

While some of what appears in that article on Veeder's approach to literature remains familiar from my classes with him, what I recall most is what fails to show up. It centers around the idea he espoused that a literary work's meaning (or more broadly any text's meaning) is the result of the intersection of the words produced by an author and the response of the reader to that concatenation of words. This intersubjective view of literary study is not uncommon and is an eminently practical understanding of how writers, texts, and readers relate to one another in the reading experience. The Wikipedia article certainly captures that idea by underscoring Veeder's pragmatic approach--in the William Jamesian sense--to how we respond to literature. The liberating aspect of that approach, much underplayed by the article and pretty important when you're a mere whipper-snapper of a college student seriously considering a major in English, was his de-emphasis of the authority of the author.

Mind you, in his class, he did not take much stock in some Barthesian "death-of-the-author" view of the matter. Veeder believed in authors and their authority, but it was an authority much limited. To make this point he told a wonderful story that, even if apocryphal, rings true in the only way these things matter. At some point in his education, Veeder had taken a course with mid-twentieth century literary scholar Leo Spitzer. (This is where the apocryphal part comes in--Veeder attended the University of Notre Dame; Spitzer taught nearly all of his life in the United States at Johns Hopkins University. Where they crossed paths remains a mystery to me.) Apparently Spitzer had been teaching Women in Love by D.H. Lawrence, and the classroom conversation had become both incisive and lively. He then distributed criticism by an apparent contemporary of Lawrence's and asked for the students' feedback. They all agreed that the critic had badly misfired in his interpretation of the novel. Spitzer then revealed that the critic was...Lawrence himself. Not a single mind was changed: the class responded--rightly in Veeder's view--that Lawrence had simply failed to understand what he had achieved. As slippery as this slope seemed, Veeder held firmly to the view that literature remains first and foremost a literary experience, and that experience takes at least two to tango--a reader and a text.

It was the follow-up question to this tale and his answer that sealed the deal for me. One of my classmates asked if an author's interpretation has authority in our interpretation of a text. Veeder's response was artful: authors do not have the kind of authority that we (and sometimes authors) imagine. Once the text is born, it is, like a child, sent out into the world to fend for itself; the author may have brought the work to term but her relationship to it thereafter changes forever as she becomes just another reader.

OK, well maybe not just any other reader. Veeder's term of choice was a "privileged" reader, but a reader nonetheless. Privileged here means the author has a special relationship to the text--in the D.H. Lawrence case, as its progenitor. But need I add that if the author's work were about, say, his mother, such as Augusten Burroughs' Running with Scissors, the author's mother would also be something of a privileged reader, one with her own rather unique relationship to the text. But even this "privileged" relationship is problematized by the fact that we all have unique relationships to texts, not only because we are unique in relation to one another but because we are unique even to ourselves over time--at 43, I'm just not the same person reading Heart of Darkness as I was when I struggled with it at 18.

The net effect of Veeder's insight was to empower me as a reader by depriving the author of a kind of mystical authority that he or she simply did not have. True, the author is bound to be frustrated by perceived misreadings of his or her work--think Salman Rushdie, certain Muslim readers, and his Satanic Verses--but there is no getting around the reality of the situation. Readers will make what they will of what they read, which is why though it be a classic I find the Scarlet Letter a dreadful bore while some neighbor of mine no doubt considers it a thrillingly tragic romance. Let me hastily add that this does not make all readings equal in value or cogency. But that is an entirely different issue. The first step in reading well that Veeder taught was not about being right but about being bold. And in order to be bold, a painfully obsequious deference to the author is the first thing to go out the window. It's a mantra by which I still read.

May 2, 2008

Literary Impressions: Why We Should Teach Literary Criticism

Earlier, I had written about the fruitlessness of teaching students how to write literary criticism. And in the two weeks since writing that post, I haven't changed my mind. But not teaching students how to write literary criticism is not the same as refusing to teach them how to do literary criticism.

In fact, when it comes to the art of unraveling a literary work--of dissecting it, if you will--I do believe we should instruct students in this activity. I'm just not convinced this is the most effective way of teaching students how to write better, and too often beginning literature courses are treated as an extension of one's training in academic writing. But, in my view, the experience of writing literary criticism comes too early in the trajectory of a student's college career. Unless the inability to write has burdened them with freshmen remedial composition courses--something of a norm among American college students--writing literary criticism within the first two years of study is too soon to engage in the art of analyzing one of our most complex human artefacts.

If you'll indulge a small digression for context, I've always been amused by the distinction in our culture between the "hard" and "soft" sciences. In academia, hard sciences like physics and chemistry have long been seen as more difficult, more challenging than the "soft" sciences of psychology and sociology. Just look at the adjectives! But this bias is built on a strange insecurity that belies the reality of the situation. The soft sciences are soft not because they're easier but because they're the more complex of the two. And why? Because they have humanity as the object of their analysis, and human beings by nature lie--if not to the scientists who observe them then to themselves. Our capacity for deception and delusion inevitably muddy the stream of reproducible results and controllable variables upon which "good" science depends. Pity the poor psychologist rather than the physicist, for grasping human behavior is enough to give even the keenest of minds a migraine. And narrative is, if anything, a demonstration of this ontological aspect of human nature. It is the instability and unknowability of intentions and responses, causes and effects, writ large. If human beings instantiate in every living moment the Heisenberg principle, stories are little more than extensions of that instantiation. And yet we're sending in students to write coherently about that?

Perhaps I make mountains of molehills here, but sometime I must wonder if compelling nineteen-year-olds to intelligibly and (one hopes) intelligently interrogate literature exemplifies the very irrationality they're asked to expound on. It difficult enough to discern, say, a character's ostensible motivation in a work of fiction; to ask students to peer further over the literary horizon and comment on the unstable source of that representation, which may range from the author's unconscious predilections to the ultimately unknowable historical milieu of the work, seems sheer madness. Here we blithely walk students into literature's hall of mirrors and ask them to look from reflection to reflection in a cascade of narrative instability, uncertainty and ambiguity--which, if you can believe it, is a good thing in a literary work--and expect them to walk out presumably loving the work and the craft of writing literary criticism.

Inevitably we are disappointed. They leave frustrated, and the work is more pedestrian than not. At best, we hope for diamonds of insight in the rough. Some, of course, stick it out, having enjoyed the ride despite the results. In these are our first English majors presumaby born. But was the ride worth it?

In the end, frustrations aside, I believe it was. Uncertainty and ambiguity in a work of literature is a good thing. I'm with the New Critics on that point. But try getting your typical first-year college student to accept that. Not so easy.

Not so easy because eventually they will have to accept the fact that life as lived is rife with uncertainty, and making it through depends on learning how to navigate its shoals. Literature of any real quality demands the abeyance of the Manichaean reality we'd all otherwise prefer. And engaging students in the act (and if they're further interested, the art) of literary criticism is among their first steps in exploring and accommodating the not-so-black-and-white reality in which we live. Literary criticism is essentially a safe space to pick apart reality through the vehicle of narrative. The more robust and thoughtful the picking apart, the better the training the student receives for handling the blows life will inevitably deal. Better to explore earlier in a textual work why a crime was committed than later in a courtroom as a witness, plaintiff or defendant. Literary criticism for this reason, among others, is a species--maybe a subspecies--of ethical behavior. It is the unexamined life being examined, through the lens of someone else's narrative existence.

But, mind you, this is only the act of engaging in literary criticism. It is not necessarily the act of writing it. For when you write literary criticism--not a bad thing in itself, of course--you have now more heavy-handedly codified the flux of possibilities that circulated prior to committing ideas and arguments to paper. Granted, codification will sometimes have the ameliorative effect of pushing you to think through and state more clearly your views of the work at hand. For while uncertainty may characterize the nature of reality, so does certainty, if only temporally. Uncertainty, after all, is not the same as chaos. And the writing of literary criticism, while difficult in the extreme at times, is not impossible. Indeed with time, maturity and the ability to walk the high wire of our quotidian reality, it is even something we may want to teach. But only when it really is worth teaching and not before. A softening up period that concentrates more on discussion and more imaginative forms of engagement would do far more till then.

April 23, 2008

Literary Impressions: Uphill Battles

When I started my doctoral studies in literature at the City University of New York Graduate Center, the English department nestled in the top floors of the gently sloping and thus aptly named Grace Building, which looked benignly down upon Bradley Park behind the New York Public Library. In my first years as a graduate student, I received free tuition and had a stipend that paid some living expenses.

Two years later both tuition grant and stipend were gone, and I had to support myself as an adjunct instructor in the CUNY system. Luckily, the English department offered a course on how to teach college-level composition and literature. I never again--with one exception--had so practical a class during my doctoral years.

Despite how noble the effort, one is never truly ready for the challenges of the first college class you teach. I taught at Baruch College, the "business" college of the CUNY system. Baruch tended to draw greater numbers of foreign nationals than its city university peers, largely because its emphasis on business played to their immigrant ambitions and desire to enter society through that most American act of citizenship--the making of money. As a result, Baruch generally drew a sprinkling of second-language students in all of its beginning courses.

Unfortunately for me, my first class--an introduction to writing course--was less sprinkle than flood. I had several Chineses nationals, a Lebanese Muslim and Christian respectively, an Israeli, an Ivory Coast native, another from Indonesia, a few Spanish speakers, and two Jamaicans, who though English was their first language, offered accents so thick that they proved the most difficult to understand clearly. Roughly two-thirds of my class comprised second-language English speakers. And, mind you, this was not an ESL (English-as-Second-Language) course, nor had any training in that specialized field.

This was a baptism by fire since I never had that many second-language students again. But it was a wake-up call to the difficulties that can confront the unwashed, adjuncting masses. How unusual fifteen years later to read the ruminations of one Professor X on the adjunct teaching of English in the June 2008 issue of The Atlantic Monthly. I read this article in Maine at the end of August and found myself neither bemused nor nostalgic but frightened by the very sameness of our experience: the same corporate motivations that serve as the raison d'etre for the adjunct instructor and the neverending "prerequisite" composition 101 courses that have students paying again and again, no matter how often they fail, just to get a foot in the door to the rest of their academic training.

As the article burbled along, documenting that which I already knew, it pitched back to an Arnoldian sentiment that I have touched upon elsewhere. I quote in full:

There is a sense that our bank tellers should be college educated, and so should our medical-billing techs, and our child-welfare officers, and our sheriffs and federal marshals. We want the police officer who stops the car with the broken taillight to have a nodding acquaintance with great literature. And when all is said and done, my personal economic interest in booming college enrollments aside, I don’t think that’s such a boneheaded idea. Reading literature at the college level is a route to spacious thinking, to an acquaintance with certain profound ideas, that is of value to anyone. Will having read Invisible Man make a police officer less likely to indulge in racial profiling? Will a familiarity with Steinbeck make him more sympathetic to the plight of the poor, so that he might understand the lives of those who simply cannot get their taillights fixed? Will it benefit the correctional officer to have read The Autobiography of Malcolm X? The health-care worker Arrowsmith? Should the child-welfare officer read Plath’s “Daddy”? Such one-to-one correspondences probably don’t hold. But although I may be biased, being an English instructor and all, I can’t shake the sense that reading literature is informative and broadening and ultimately good for you. If I should fall ill, I suppose I would rather the hospital billing staff had read The Pickwick Papers, particularly the parts set in debtors’ prison.

The phenomena Professor X discovers--shortened attention spans leading to truncated reading experiences--is not new. When "reading biographies" were all the rage in the 1980s and 1990s, those I received were rife with my students general dislike for anything longer than a Sports Illustrated feature. In a pre-Web age, magazine and newspaper articles were their preferred, if not sole, reading. To them, reading a Dickens novel was just waterboarding by another name. This failure in the ability to read well became especially apparent when I had made the foolish mistake of assigning Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. Obviously I had not thought through the matter clearly, as I mistook its brevity and reputation as an adventure yarn for a reading pleasure. Heart of Darkness is a pleasure to read...for me. For my students, it was dull, dull, dull. Too much atmosphere, too many conversational ellipses, too much unsaid historical background. Even now, as I reread it, its plodding sensibility weighs the reading experience down, just as Conrad intended, obligating you to wade into a darkness that is more than semifictional Africa but linguistic and moral.

For my students, its vagueness was a bore, and no amount of exegetical cheerleading that transformed the novel's vagueness into its point was going to make a difference to their reading experience. It was a painful lesson in teaching literature to today's American college students, one that continues to trouble me...and no doubt the good Professor X. For it does little more than raise the specter, over and over again, of whether teaching literary criticism to students is a worthwhile endeavor.

April 22, 2008

Literary Impressions: Why Bother Teaching Literary Criticism?

At the home of Mark Oppenheimer, one of the editors of New Haven Review, for which I serve as publisher, we had a conversation about writing literary criticism. Context for the conversation was the course in journalism that he will teach next semester at Yale, which makes sense given his credentials as a journalist. He noted that he much preferred teaching nonfiction writing courses of this sort to literature classes because he neither wrote nor knew all that much about literary criticism. This, too, made sense to me, which explains why I chimed in: "I don't really understand why we teach students how to write literary criticism at all."

So why do we teach students how to write literary criticism? Make no mistake, it is a form of writing that can approach art in the right hands. But even for beginners it is a far more difficult mode of nonfiction writing--in my humble view--than the standard nonfiction forms of narration, description, and argumentation. Technically, literary criticism is a subdivision of the last, but it remains one of the hardest to do well. I attribute this difficulty not only to the inability of students to read well but also to the inherent complications of trying to formulate an argument about something as slippery as a finely crafted story or poem.

In my own experience, the slipperiness of literary fiction derives directly from the story-like nature of this species of discourse. When I taught, my students continuously wrestled with the Herculean (or perhaps Sisyphean) task of unwinding the author from the characters, the storyteller from the story, the telling from the showing. Even I still have difficulty with the boxes-within-boxes, or better yet wall-of-mirrors, nature of this discursive mode--and I have a doctorate in literature, mind you.

I'm currently convinced that high school teachers and professors teach students how to write literary criticism not because it instructs them in how to "think critically" or "formulate an argument" better. These can be done just as easily using another topic. Instead, I believe many teachers in their heart of hearts would rather not teach students how to write literary criticism at all. What they probably do like is reading works of high literary quality and talking about them intelligently--like a book club but with the teacher's authority intact. That certainly was my experience as a college instructor. I loved selecting, teaching, and discussing (or more appropriately discoursing on) the work at hand. What I despised to no end was marking my students' papers, which were poorly written, generally incoherent, and pedestrian in their interpretations. And most literary instructors I speak with echo this same sentiment. It probably explains why I became an editor: I grew tired of marking people's dry runs. If someone is going to write poorly, and I'm going to have to redline it into readable prose, I might as well make sure that the fruits of my labor see light of day in published form.

In some ways, I miss the halcyon days of teaching literature. I even sometimes miss the stress and strain of writing literary criticism myself--no easy task, even for me. But the idea of teaching students to write literary criticism, as if that would constitute training for a profession other than, well, writing literary criticism (which is not even a solid basis for the art of book reviewing) is a misbegotten notion that serves no one other than the instructors who recognize this chore as the price that must be paid for the pleasure of teaching literature.

March 4, 2008

Going Back to Schools and Their Archives

During my tenure as a director business development for a digital conversion vendor specializing in libraries, I was surprised to learn how great the need and interest was among academic institutions to convert selected parts of their school archives. Of particular interest were yearbooks and student newspapers. There was a strong interest as well in school publications, commencement and sports programmes, course catalogs, department newsletters and journals, and trustee and departmental minutes and reports.

The main difficulty for many of the smaller institutions that I approached was digitization ability or capacity. That is where I came into the picture, surveying the various constraints that they operated under and trying to work out solutions. To that end, I often advised on proper shipping and handling of materials (to ensure that nothing untoward happened to them), recommended specifications for the creation of “archival masters” and display files, advised on file naming requirements, and surveyed project size and scheduling. I became, in some ways, an ad hoc project manager on their behalf.

So what did I learn during this time? Well, consider yearbooks. These are important documents to academic institutions. They are a source of information about alumni that are critical to any school’s institutional history as well as its fundraising efforts. But yearbooks are complicated. Their interior layouts are highly variable, making them visually rich but challenging to search textually. As a result, because of the preponderance of photos, imaging must inevitably be done in grayscale or color, creating large image files. Text capture, however, is a bit more difficult since it will comprise names and all sorts of data that require a high degree of accuracy, raising the price of keying the text. (The trade-off is that yearbooks tend to have relatively little text because they are so graphically rich.)

Or take student newspapers. These are affected by problems of irregular issuance, variable trim sizes over time, and fragility (when not properly cared for). Because of their visual richness, they, too, pose imaging challenges with respect to image quality and file size. On the other hand—again depending on your approach—they tend to be short. So a 12-page PDF of an issue of a student newspaper is likely to be a far smaller file than a 150-page PDF of that same school’s yearbook--making it easier to read online or download.

Course catalogs, minutes and even journals, on the other hand, can be some of the easiest material to digitize because their lack of photographs and color more than likely means that they can be imaged “bitonally” (just black and white, like what you got from older copying machines). This reduces the file size tremendously and allows for far easier display of the content in an online environment. It’s cheaper, too, of course.

The trick to addressing these many variables, as I’ve learned, is having access to a variety of quality digital equipment, a staff who know how to handle library materials as well as image them, and a strong “post-production” process (post-production refers to cleaning up the files—straightening and cropping the images, correcting color, capturing the text by OCR or keying, and, of course, QCing the results afterwards to guarantee the quality). My own experience suggests that libraries that have tried to do the work on the cheap (buy equipment and use their own students or hire vendors who generally neither handle library materials nor understand how they work) pay for it in the long term.

February 11, 2008

Doing Public Relations Work

I've also begun to take on some public relations work, assisting another professional in the writing of press releases and, I hope sometime in the future, engaging in "story pitching," which is simply the process of getting journalists to take a closer look at a story for eventual publication. In the course of doing this work, I've been learning quite a bit.

One interesting point that came up during negotiations with a prospect that has never paid for PR work is the return on the investment. PR work is not inexpensive, so how does one contrast it with the value of just paying for advertising (commonly known as "making media buys"). A friend and I did a little preliminary research on the matter and found justification for what our gut instinct was telling us. In brief, there is a very real ROI on good PR, but measuring it it is no easy matter, especially if it is not of the "sales campaign"sort with well-defined tracking methods--such as coupon codes. Professionals tell me that the best way, of course, is for the PR client to also fund an outcomes analysis using the traditional market research methods of survey, in-depth interviews, and focus groups. Unfortunately, too many clients are simply not willing to pay the money, preferring instead to pour the cash into the PR itself.

Alas, because marketing budgets tend to be among the softest during recessionary times--like that which we appear to be entering--the pressure to know the ROI on PR efforts without presumably having to pay as much for that research is likely to grow. Don Bartholomew's blog on the matter is actually not a bad place to start to get a sense of where the future may lie.

On the other hand, as my friend and I thought about how to respond to this prospective client, we decided to see if there were any established metrics on the issue. In this case, we settled on an ad equivalency model: how much would it cost to place an ad in a media outlet that would consume roughly the same space as a placed article (a traditional PR outcome)? Here's what my friend wrote--with all names removed, of course:

In answer to _____'s question about the value of a feature in the [newspaper name]'s, please consider this example. The [newspaper name] has a Sunday circulation of over 300,000 homes and reaches 1.1 million adults on a weekly basis. A half-page color ad in the home and garden section or city & shore magazine costs somewhere between $2,000 and $6,000 per placement. Though it is a rough metric, generally speaking the Media Equivalent for a feature story or editorial is 1.5 to 6 times the advertising value, meaning being featured could be worth as much as $36,000. Companies often reinforce PR efforts with advertising and product placement to build on the name recognition they receive from PR. Another particular advantage to getting stories placed is that people clip and email stories to friends and colleagues.
Not a bad analysis, I thought. Of course, 1.5 to 6 times the advertising costs is an enormous range, and, as mentioned already, PR campaigns are not necessarily cheap. On the other hand, what my friend failed to mention is that this was the equivalence of one placement. Since our proposal envisioned several placements, we figured the value for money would be well worth it, depending on the degree of success in placing stories--and that in itself would depend on the quality (and track record) of the write-up and story pitches.

I should add, however, that the debate about ROI on PR is lively. I picked up a few interesting exchanges from or by professionals here, here, and here.

Of course, need I add that all of this has been problematized most recently by a student of the Institute for Public Relations in a study posted here?

January 29, 2008

Doing a Brochure

I'm in the middle of dealing with a project to develop a brochure on behalf of a summer camp. In preparation for this task, I decided to do a little research. After, all, why reinvent this wheel? I decided to comb the Internet to see samples, using the terms "summer," "camp," and "brochure" on Google and restricting my search to PDF files only.

Oy vey! What a disaster. The majority were homemade affairs with little design quality. Clearly a lot of folks were building these in-house using either Microsoft Word or Microsoft Publisher or some other all-purpose program for amateurs. Typical examples can be seen here, here, and here. There were a few better ones, but none that were especially adventurous in design or layout. That is why I am looking forward to working with a professional designer on this current endeavor.

Still, because the summer camp decided to begin from scratch, the volunteer team devoted to this project needed to make some basic decisions. First was what kind of fold arrangement did we want. We looked a several choices, some of which were nicely illustrated at such sites as, of all places, the Library of Congress and Purdue University. As the discussion proceeded, the course of discussion turned to how brochures are handled by recipients. "Right-Angle Folds," for example, are ideal for creating handout posters, which at 5.5" x 8.5", will unfold into 11" x 17" posters; trifold and quarter-fold brochures, on the other hand, are better suited for personal use by individuals. Quarter folds from 8.5" x 14" (legal size), with their eight panels, will support more information than six-panel trifolds from 8.5" x 11" stocks.

Then there are questions of paper stocks and glosses in order to support the photographs that will need to go into the brochure. One interesting point that came up right away was the fact that most of the photographs taken at the camp during the summer with digital cameras are probably JPG files, and therefore use the RGB (red-green-blue) color space, ideally suited for computer terminal displays of data. Professional rinters, however, require CMYK (cyan-magenta-yellow-black)-based formats, such as TIFF. Conversion, however, does not seem to be a major issue with the right software in hand, although there may be some shifting around in color tones, nicely illustrated here.