Monday, April 14, 2014

Stradivarius and Shakespeare

For centuries, classical musical lovers and violin aficionados agreed that no violin sounded better than a Stradivarius. There was just something about that old-wood sound.

These 18th century instruments are extremely valuable. In January, a man shot an orchestra performer in Milwaukee with a stun gun and stole his Stradivarius. The reward for returning the violin unharmed? $100,000.

However, according to this article over at Livescience, Stradivarius has lost its reign as King of the Violins. In a blind test in which some of the world's greatest violinists played new and old violins, "The older violins ranked lower in all five categories of the ratings, though new and old violins came out equivalent in the 'overall quality' category. Notably, the soloists couldn't tell an old violin from a new one: Their guesses were no more accurate than the flip of a coin."

So, what explains all this fuss over the Stradivarius sound for hundreds of years? How have we all been fooled into thinking that no other violin has a better quality? Joseph Curtin, the man behind the study comparing new violins to their Stradivarius counterparts, says, "The idea that you can't make a better sound than a Strad has been a pervasive one, and it doesn't really rest on anything except people saying it."

That statement from Curtin reminded me of a comment made by a certain graduate student, I'll name him Tyler, who claimed that Shakespeare was a little overrated. Needless to say, a rousing debate followed. At one point, Tyler said, "If we were not always talking about Shakespeare, we would not consider him the best ever." 

Tyler's point was that no one approaches Shakespeare without a huge amount of bias. We are told Shakespeare is the best ever and we in some way want to believe that Shakespeare is the best ever in order to fit in with cultural predispositions. Lo and behold, we read Hamlet and join the "Shakespeare is the Best Ever Club." 

I originally felt that Tyler's argument was baseless, but after reading the article on Stradivarius violins I am beginning to reconsider my position. Do I love Shakespeare because of what is actually in the text, or do I love Shakespeare because everyone has told me that I love Shakespeare?

Almost all Americans are introduced to Shakespeare during high school. This makes Shakespeare literary common ground for much of the nation. The fact that many Americans are able to argue intelligently about Shakespeare's work speaks to his pervasiveness, and therefore his greatness, as a writer. 

Now, I do not want to set up a binary. No one claims that a Stradivarius does not produce an incredible sound. The study simply argues against the idea that a Stradivarius produces the best sound ever. In a similar way, Tyler admits that Shakespeare is one of the greats. His point is that perhaps Shakespeare is not the greatest writer in the history of the English language.

What other "bests" might bare closer examination in our different disciplines? Are John Lennon and Paul McCartney the greatest pop song writers? Should Warren Buffet go down as the greatest investor of all time? Has someone out-painted Picasso?

Friday, April 11, 2014

Shakespeare's Black Lady

We have all read Shakespeare, in high school or college, with varying degrees of enthusiasm. Everyone knows who he was and remembers what Romeo and Juliet is about. Most people when they hear or read Sonnet 130 will be able to tell you, "Yep, that's Shakespeare alright." Sonnet 130 is probably the most studied of his sonnets and also likely the most misinterpreted. The sonnet is about Shakespeare's mysterious muse known only as the Dark Lady, who, for the longest time, was thought to be some married noble woman.

In a Shakespeare class last semester, I learned that increasing evidence points not to the Dark Lady being some tragic confined noble-woman, but to a free woman with her own agenda, who quite literally was Black (Sonnet 132: "Then will I swear beauty herself is black/And all they foul that thy complexion lack.")In addition to my professor (John Kunat, a Shakespeare scholar), Dr.Dunken Salkeld argues that she was a woman named Black Luce, who was in charge of a brothel near Shakespeare's playhouse. If this is the case, then we might read Shakespeare with different eyes.

We don't have to think, "Man, Shakespeare, you are so deep. You only care about personality; you don't care that your lady is unattractive. So romantic." Instead, we can read Sonnet 130 and say, "Alright, so what you considered beauty was not standard, but certainly still beautiful. You're just a dude with preferences, Willy."

All this is important because it lets us know that we aren't so changed from the past. Shakespeare was a genius, but he was still a man. Right now, I am reading the oldest epic of literature, written even before the Odyssey, and even before the Hebrew Bible: Gilgamesh, and it is more accessible than either the Bible or the Odyssey, and the friendship between Gilgamesh and Enkidu is the most poignant bromance I have read in literature or seen in on film--they fight, they hug it out as equals, comfort each other, and Enkidu dies for Gilgamesh. The human condition was not alien 4,000 years ago, and it will not be so different 4,000 years from now, if we can survive.


My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips' red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damask'd, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks; 
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:
   And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
   As any she belied with false compare. 

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Fix Your Grammar

I love puppets. And I love fuzzy animals with large teeth (Look at these capybaras. How can you not love these capybaras?). And I love internet videos. And I love grammar.

So, imagine all the love I felt when I came across this video by Glove and Boots on YouTube. It's everything. A bunch of puppets (including a puppet version of a fuzzy animal with large teeth) give directions on fixing common grammar problems.

Hearts popped out of my eyeballs.

So, without further ado, I'll share the love. Here it is: "Fix Your Grammar" by Glove and Boots.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Memorize with a Memory Palace

In a bizarre turn of events, my incredibly awkward younger brother was cast as Romeo in his high school's production of Romeo and Juliet. Interestingly, his teacher told all of the students not to try to memorize the lines; he had a special technique that would help them remember their lines better than reading the poetry over and over.

That technique is the memory palace. A memory palace is an imaginary space you build in your mind and fill with objects. You attach images to the objects in order to aid with information recall. It helps people complete amazing feats of memorization. For example, people with advanced memory palaces can memorize the order of a deck of cards after only seeing the cards once.

So, if you want to learn how to astound your friends or woo your significant other by memorizing a poem, check out the technique here. Also, the memory palace could help you with more practical things, like schoolwork.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

The Silver Dollar Method

I spent this past weekend at the Eastern Conference Writing Centers Association (ECWCA) with Dr. Kory and three of my fantastic colleagues. Miami University hosted the conference, and let me tell you, MU is jaw-droppingly gorgeous. It's unbelievable. I want to pull a Percy Bysshe Shelley right now and see how many metaphors and similes I can come up with re-Miami University's beauty, but no one wants to read my poetry. Instead, here is MU's virtual tour. 

Although I attended several informative and interesting sessions, I found Victoria Willson's and Megan Ward's presentation on the connection between reading and writing  particularly compelling. They provided strategies to aid (mainly first-year) students with critical reading. One of their primary claims is that struggling writers often struggle with reading, a claim I agree with. Of the two methods Willson and Ward walked us through, I think The Silver Dollar Method could be easily employed in a classroom setting and would have immediate positive results.

Also, a guy I grew up with plays in a band called Silver Dollars, and they're pretty sweet, if you're into alt-country. Check 'em out.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Dear Professor: Emailing in The Academy

When you think of college writing, what genres come to mind? Essays? Lab Reports? Proposals? Whatever popped into your head, it probably wasn't email. That's unfortunate because emails are one of the most commonly used forms of writing in the academy (and beyond). Most studies on the subject focus on emails in the corporate world (where workers spend a whopping 28% of their work time managing emails), but a quick, wholly non-scientific survey of my own inbox shows that I wrote 41 school-related emails last week.

Unfortunately, few students learn how to craft an appropriate email--even though lots of students could stand a lesson in netiquette (a blog post on the subject by EIU English professor Dr. Michael Leddy has drawn more than 400,000 readers from Azerbaijan to Zimbabwe!).

I have my own thoughts about how to email professors (don't use emoticons. because: obvious), but I thought I'd ask a few experts. To that end, I chatted with Dr. Tim Taylor, Associate Professor of English and Director of Composition at EIU, Dr. Sandra E. Weissinger, Assistant Professor of Sociology at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville and  Dr. Natalie T. J. Tindall, Associate Professor and Co-Graduate Director in the Department of Communication at Georgia State University (whose twitter feed, incidentally, is all types of interesting). Here's some of their advice:

Use appropriate titles.

Many professors bemoan the epic of informality among today's students. All three of the academics I interviewed touched on this issue: Dr. Weissinger included "when students misspell my name or call me 'Miss', 'Ms.' or 'Mrs.'" on her list of top 3 email pet peeves; Dr. Tindall explained that she asks for the "extra formality" of being called Professor or Doctor because she is not much older than many of her students; Dr. Taylor's email policy, which he includes with his syllabus and course policy for all courses he teaches, asks that all messages begin with a formal address.

OMFG, y'all. Stop with the textspeak. Ur teacherz don't LOL.

There is a tendency for students to include casual internet abbreviations in messages to teachers. Perhaps it's rooted in the same informality that leads students to write emails without a formal address or salutation or maybe it's, as Dr. Taylor argues, related to the tendency of some people to "think of email as the same as texting their friends." Either way, it's a problem. Dr. Tindall's advice? "Emails are professional communication tools, and you should spell out everything you write." Kthnxbai.

And while you're at it, check your address.

Your email address reflects on your image as a student (arguably a type of semi-professional), so be sure to keep that in mind when you communicate with professors. I mean, do you really think your comm teacher is going to seriously consider a request for extra credit when it comes from (Dr. Tindall's example, not mine)? Dr. Leddy explains that using your university email, in addition to ensuring the expected amount of professionalism, "immediately lets your professor see that your email is legitimate and not spam."

Be specific!

All three of the professors I interviewed also noted that they expect students' emails to provide all the specific information that is necessary for the message to be read, understood and, if appropriate, responded to. This means wisely using the subject line and giving your full name, course number and section and, if applicable, the name or page numbers of any assignment or reading you're asking about. This isn't just about etiquette; it's about efficiency. As Dr. Weissinger explained "I have many students. So, when students do not note which class their email concerns (in combination with non-specific questions), I am lost - and often do not have time to figure out what class they are in, as I am often five minutes ahead of my students in terms of class preps and grading."

And while you're crafting that specific question, stop for a minute to decide if you need to ask it at all. As a TA for a first-year writing course this semester, I've become pretty salty about how many emails I get asking me questions that students should be able to answer on their own (when's the assignment due? How 'bout you look at the schedule posted on D2L... on the internet... that you're using right now to send me this email). And for the record, I'm not the only teacher who doesn't want to answer these types of questions; Dr. Weissinger included when students ask "a question that is answered in class documents (for example, the syllabus)" as her #1 pet peeve.

Keep it simple, stupid.

The best emails are short and to the point. "Emails are more inviting and easier to read when they are 'chunked,' meaning that in an online platform, strong communication is likely to have shorter paragraphs than academic essays," Dr. Taylor explains. "The medium affects the arrangement and form of the message." Dr. Tindall, who follows this website's advice for 90% of the emails she writes, agrees: "I hate long emails. HATE THEM." If a longer message is absolutely necessary, Tindall recommends using white space and bullets as tools for chunking.

The pudding's in the proofing.

As with any good writing, emails require proofreading. Consistently incorrect spelling and punctuation make messages harder to read--and can make readers quite cross. Save yourself (and your audience) some frustration and give your words a quick once-over before pressing send.

Feeling a little overwhelmed? Don't worry. More responsibly using electronic communication, while it might appear daunting at first, doesn't really take all that much work. Plus, it adds to your own efficiency. Including course numbers in your subject lines, for example, makes searching your own inbox much easier. And there's the bonus of knowing that your professors will be better able to answer whatever questions you have (and in a better mood when they do) if your messages are clear and concise. And don't feel like you're alone; Dr. Leddy and each of the professors I spoke with all pointed out that, just like their students, they work to follow their own advice.

It's a jungle out there; write accordingly.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Coming Soon: Authors Anonymous

An important part of my writing process is procrastination. Basically, I need to be totally and completely distracted to transition from thinking about any given topic to, like, actually writing about that topic. Usually, my procrastination involves television (and now that Scandal is back, it more specifically involves Olivia Pope).

This week, as Ms. Pope's white-hatted gladiators helped me work on not working on an essay about potential connections between fictional narratives about birth and current debates on abortion and personhood, I came across another potential distraction: a movie about, you guessed it, writing!

Authors Anonymous, set to hit American theaters on April 18, stars the oh-so-adorable Kelly Cuoco as a member of a group of struggling writers that lands an agent, book deal and lucrative screen writing contract.

You can check out the trailer here. In a couple of weeks, you can incorporate the film into your own procrastination process.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

About Your Irish Great-Grandmother from Cork

Last week, the world celebrated St. Patrick's Day. Across the globe, people wore ridiculous green costumes, drank green beer, and posted photos on Facebook of their babies in super-cute "Kiss Me I'm Irish" onesies. One day per annum, we celebrate an island that has graced the English-speaking world with hoards of immigrants.

(Before I get into what this has to do with writing and communication, let me be clear on the following point. The day commemorating the patron saint of Ireland is never under any circumstances called St. Patty's Day or Patty's Day. St. Paddy drove the snakes away from Ireland. Patty is someone you had a crush on in middle school.)

When I mention to someone that my father grew up in Ireland, that I was born in the United States but lived in Dublin from ages one to four, and that my little brother was born in Dublin, the majority of people feel the need to communicate to me their Irish heritage. I am not alone in this situation; my Irish friends and relatives have also experienced this strange American desire to share genealogical information with strangers. Without a doubt, the person has a relative from either Cork or Galway, but it's usually Cork. Most of the time, that relative is a great-grandmother. I hear this Irish-great-grandmother-from-Cork thing so often I am shocked that there are any people currently living in Cork. One would suspect County Cork to be nothing but abandoned thatched-roof cottages, what with all the women who left its emerald shores for America one-hundred years ago.

Each time I listen to someone's incredibly interesting story about the effort they have put into investigating their family tree, how they vacationed to Ellis Island to see their forbear's signature, how they plan on visiting Ireland and staying in the ancestral cottage, I think about identity formation. Many Americans, especially white Americans, have a strange need to attach their identity to something not-American, but not too un-American. And basically nothing is patriotically safer than an Irish immigrant great-grandmother. The person with an Irish great-grandmother from Cork has several distinct privileges, but most importantly the person gets to 1) affiliate himself with world-renowned writers, fun drinkers, and fist-fighting talent while 2) distance himself from the more socially awkward parts of Irish culture, such as terrorism and alcoholism. It is telling that movies like The Boondock Saints and The Quiet Man celebrate vigilante justice and not car bombs. 

So here's how this relates to writing. In a world rife with social media, the written text has increasingly become about identity formation. What we write on our Facebook profiles, what we tweet, the people we know on LinkedIn, all work to create a virtual persona. It ties our lives to something other than the here and now.

Perhaps the "here and now" connects the Irish great-grandmother from Cork motif and writing as identity-formation. If we remember the people that came before us, surely our own descendents will remember us. Social media accounts can survive death. Maybe social media is less about communication and more about legacy. We want people to remember us by our perfect, funny virtual selves, just like we want all the green beer without any of the IRA executions.

As a graduate student colleague opined in class the other day, social media allows us the opportunity to "perform our identity" like never before. Similarly, the internet allows us to "connect" to our ancestors in a new way. What's interesting is that the American love-affair with genealogical investigations is also performative. Prior to the internet, we heard about our ancestors through stories told by someone else--parents, cousins, newspaper clippings, etc. In today's world, we do not listen quietly to the stories of our ancestors, we go and discover the stories of our ancestors. Ancestry is something we do in the contemporary world, not something we receive.

My generation is often referred to as both the most "connected" and the most "narcissistic." The oxymoron at play between these two adjectives informs how we should understand the writing that takes place in our virtual, social media saturated world. We create perfect virtual selves out of self-indulgence, but also out of a deep desire to connect to others and to something greater than ourselves. I do not believe that my generation posts constantly about their great food, great partners, great jobs, great haircuts, and great pets solely out of narcissism. Maybe it's also because we're afraid that no one will want to connect to us if our lives are anything other than great.