Friday, November 29, 2013

Interview with Nick Shaw, of the EIU Theatre Department

Could you explain how we might approach and understand the role of set design in a play?

Set design creates an environment within which a play can occur. It can act as a frame, but that really depends on the production. Black box theatre space surrounds the audience with the set design. A proscenium production has the stage in front, and everyone sees the play from the same direction or angle. Here we create the world that the audience looks at.

The theatre is different from any other art or endeavor in that it's alive, it's a collaboration between the actors and the audience.

Can you address the role of writing in your field?

There are three aspects of writing when it comes to set design:

1. Personal writings, almost like a journal – about the design. This is usually informal. Depending on the production, it can be almost stream-of-conscious writing, my thoughts about the script.

2. At other times the writing may be more formal – a concept may have been created, to which I respond.  In this case, the writing is not only about the play itself, but includes the vision, how it feels and sounds; this writing will emphasize a specific mood or feeling. It's up to me which kind of writing is called for.

The decision is influenced by the play and the nature of the collaboration on that particular production. A more visual approach [to set design] is sometimes called for, or the demand may be more theoretical. It all depends on the director. I use photoshop – set design is, in the end, a visual medium. The final result will always be visual. Writing supports that journey as a form of communication.

3. There's also writing as a form of communication with the other members of the team. However, if all the designers & the director are on site, typically we don't write.

With the advent of email, long distance design is more prevalent. For instance, I did a show in Chicago and did not meet with the rest of the team until a couple of weeks before the show. A lot of my work goes on-line because it allows me to work at home or on the road.

What sorts of writing do you do? What types of documents do you produce?

Sometimes, depending on the production, I may create a design statement for advertisement and dramaturgy (the research component of the production). In that case, I condense the writing into a 2-3 paragraph statement. That writing may be posted in the lobby or in the playbill. Set design, like all art, speaks for itself. Writing in this instance is an educational tool.

How important is it for actors to write well as members of a community that uses performance to communicate ideas?

Writing is extremely important as part of the communicative process because our work is collaborative. Those notes & emails we send act as an archive of the production. The team includes the director, the actors and the scene designers. It takes so many people to get that production on stage. However, the director is the captain of the ship. Ideally, the collaboration follows the director's vision of the production.

Writing is also important because we are concerned with the playwright's intentions, with the play itself, with layers of the production's vision of that play, and with integrating all of these ideas into an authentic production of that work. The playwright had an intention in writing that play. We respect that intentionality. Arthur Miller, for example, stopped the production of versions of his play because he did not feel they were serving his vision.

Directors weigh the playwright's intentions differently. Sometimes the words are simply a scaffolding. Others feel that the play is gospel. It all depends on the intent of the production. If the playwright is living, they can object. However, I've had an experience where the playwright allowed for a different ending. We pay to use the works, but we always respect the intentions of the playwright.

Do you see written responses to plays and performances by students as beneficial? If so, how?

Yes, for every class that I teach, whether it's Intro to Theatre, Stagecraft, or Scenic Design, my students always write responses to the production they are required to see. I want personal reflection, but the response also needs to be objective: what was successful and what was not? It is important to be critically analytical, to look at the play and consider its scale or scope. We don't judge what we do here at EIU against what they can do at U of I, for instance, or against local theatre. The intent and scale or scope of the production has to be considered.

What are the characteristics of “good writing” within and about the theatre?

Literature in the theatre is performed. The writing serves that end. The play, though written, is designed to be seen and not read. However, it is also true that if it reads well, the reader gets a sense of what that play is. There are plays that are challenging to read that also play very well. The plays of George Bernard Shaw, for example, read as dry, but are good in production because, when added to the human element, they take on a new life. The same is true for Shakespeare. In the end plays are written to be performed.

[O]n paper, a comedic scene in a play...usually reads as boring. However, when it is played, it comes to life. Noises Off is an example of that kind of play. We did it here three years ago. It's a farce. It contains a lot of site gags. The script itself is not really funny and in this sense it's only a technical description. Reading it can be funny but it's in the action that the comedy takes off.

How does one describe, through writing, acting methods, means, movements and ideologies?

The N.Y. Times is a best archive of the American Theatre. Not criticism, but reviews, taken at a yearly basis, allow one to see the shape and evolution of the theatre. The genre of theatre criticism tells us where we've been and where we're going. One of our faculty members, Dr. Mitchell, has a doctorate in theatre criticism – it's a separate genre. It's very theoretical. Practical application is different.

That's where dramaturge is important. Critical research looks at past productions, considers the audience and the intent of the production. Costume design must matter to the scope of the production, to the audience, the director and the designers. If we're doing a piece set in the 1940s, for instance, and my budget is only $1000, I make things work. It's about resources.

What are some of the key ways that you might articulate a complicated ideas about the theatre to incoming students?

When I teach Intro. to Theatre my students run the gamut. Some know a bit about the theatre and others have never seen a play. I reduce the amount of jargon I use and speak in ways that are more accessible to them. I also find common experiences to help build on an idea. Although it may not be correct to use cinema as an example, it may be the only way to get across an idea about theatre.

That's one reason why I require all students to see the productions here on campus. Once they do, we are able to get on the same page more quickly. This is because the theatre is a one-time, live performance medium. It is meant to be experienced. Moreover, even if we all see the same play, if we go on different nights, or sit in different parts of the theatre, we do not all see the same show. The play changes with every performance. There's no way to record that experience for “play back.”

There is an intimacy and an immediacy to the performance that cannot be relived. How do we talk about something so ethereal? The only way I know is to rely on personal reflection. Each person has to answer the question for themselves. What was your experience? It will always be individual. The immediate feedback loop is a magical part of theatre.

What can we do to become more informed about the role of theatre in the community, and about the preforming arts in general, and better able to understand and appreciate the work that goes into theatrical productions?

The most important thing is to see a production. As theatre artists, we are challenged to keep theatre relevant. It is a different experience from other mediums, different than watching TV or seeing a movie. Theatre investigates the human condition and it will touch something different in each of us. The audience has an influence on the production.

The theatre works hard to keep current in those topics that we, as Americans, and the world, are facing. A full theatrical release is an event. It takes so much work to comment on, write a script for, create a set, and still keep the play current. Susan Lori Parks, for instance, writes about the African American experience. Her work is both visceral and gut wrenching. The theatre is a very diverse culture. Plays are written from all perspectives: feminist, gay, gender identity – each is a genre within the theatre.

Looking ahead, Macbeth will play February 26 through March 2, 2014.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Is There Really No I in Technical Writing?

Well okay, there are three I’s.  However, the principle holds true.  If you ask your Little Brown Handbook, it will tell you that scientists “rarely use I in their reports and evaluations.”  But if this particular authority does not satisfy or if you cannot locate it—check beneath the dirty clothes beneath the pizza boxes—then let us reason it out. Why do instructors require a tone of objectivity in technical assignments?

The beginning of an answer to this question lies is in the distinction between objectivity and subjectivity.  Wiping away the common suffixes, we get the words object and subject.  Going back to sentence basics, we remember that the subject “verbs” the object: the panther (subject) eats the redbird (object).  While writers in the humanities highlight the subject and its actions or perceptions, writers in the sciences try to keep the reader's focus on the object. Why?

In the applied sciences the scientific method reigns.  This means that only data, raw information, is allowed to speak the truth.  In the example below, we will see why it can be useful to use a passive construction that puts the focus on what happened, not who did it. 

Though you may be an Eastern Illinois Panther, you do not want to be accused of bias when reporting the consumption of the Illinois State Redbird.  So instead of the truthful claim “I ate the Redbird,”  you will state that "The Redbird was eaten by the Panther."  By this phrasing (technically a "passive" construction), you distance yourself from the intrastate mauling, reporting on it as an objective observer, and preserving your scientific integrity. You cannot be accused of tampering with the natural food chain.  The result presents itself as a fact.

Of course, when you snap back to the classroom, you remember why I was bugging you in the first place.  November wanes, and your research paper remains unwritten.  It remains unwritten because it is no fun to write a paper when you and your perspective have to stay outside.  And it is cold outside.

But there is hope!  You may have to avoid being subjective, but you can still write with style. 

For help with the objectivity blues, we will look to the journalists.  Journalistic writing is an unusual blend of scientific objectivity and creative storytelling.  Even the driest of research paper topics can, with a touch of journalistic flair, be composed in a compelling manner. 

The Migration Habits of Mealworms

The consensus remained uncontested until intrepid zoologist Timothy J. Vanderwinkle introduced his findings on the Tenebrio Molitor.  “This is big.  I mean really big,” stated Vanderwinkle.  While scholarship previously held that mealworms strictly navigate by consecutive bilateral scuttles, the new data suggests that motility is infrequently interrupted by oscillating mandible scampers.  The debate sparked by this new data is certain to divide Entomologists until further information is unearthed.

-do not ever use the above excerpt for any scientific, academic, or other purposes

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Full-Court Press: Interview with Jay Spoonhour, EIU Men's Basketball Head Coach

What first impressed me about Coach Spoonhour was his coolness. He wore a EIU track suit, and several times during the interview he leaned way back in his chair and placed his hands firmly behind his head. Athletes tend to have a way more comfortable relationship with physical objects than, say, English graduate students. Navigating the actual world is an anxiety-fraught activity for us. As I write this, I have noticed that one of my bookshelves leans forward at a dangerous angle. It could easily fall and crush me. Come to think of it, that's probably how I will die; I will be bludgeoned to death by books. Maybe that's why athletes strike me as being really cool; they're not subconsciously terrified of the objects that surround them.

Anyway, I was surprised to learn that Coach Spoonhour is both an athlete and one of us literary folk. Not only was he an English major before switching to Physical Education, but Coach Spoonhour is also working on a novel, which he hopes to finish someday, probably when he's not the head coach at a Division 1 basketball program.

Much of our discussion focused on reading. During his undergraduate days, Coach Spoonhour enjoyed Yeats and Shelley. He remains an avid reader, although the subject matter has changed over the years. He proved his point by removing a Bill O'Reilly book from his bag.

"If you read a lot, it helps with your writing," said Coach Spoonhour. "Each generation that comes along, they read a little bit less."

Coach Spoonhour made an interesting connection between sports and reading. Famous NBA coach Phil Jackson (Bulls and Lakers fans should be familiar with the name) used to give players books to read on long trips. According to Coach Spoonhour, Phil Jackson gave players books that he knew they would enjoy, as well as books from which they could learn.

"It never hurts to tell a guy reading can actually be fun," said Coach Spoonhour. In light of Phil Jackson's career, it might not be a bad idea for all coaches to provide their players with books (I'm looking at you, Saint Louis University. I want a Sweet Sixteen appearance this year).

Beyond reading, Coach Spoonhour and I also talked about the place of writing in contemporary culture. Like a lot of humans above the age of twenty, Coach Spoonhour has some reservations about the influence of social media on the literacy of today's youth: "I think the social media stuff is going to make it so that writing loses it's importance. Being able to write properly will be lost a little bit. Everything is abbreviated. It worries me that kids aren't going to know what proper writing is supposed to look like."

I pointed out that people back in the day had similar fears about television. TV was not only going to change writing and reading, it was going to replace them. Obviously, that didn't happen.

"Yeah, but people read less," said Coach Spoonhour. "Libraries used to be a place where people spent a lot of time, and now not so much."

Furthering this point, Coach Spoonhour mentioned that he does little writing in his own job. The team communicates with players either verbally or through text messages. The writing in scouting reports is sparse and generally in bullet-points. However, Coach Spoonhour believes writing remains an important skill.

"I could go an entire week and not write anything of substance," said Coach Spoonhour. "But it's like anything; if you can do it, it helps. The job is coaching, but it is also fundraising, dealing with boosters and fundraisers." Although I didn't ask, I wonder if Coach Spoonhour has ever quoted a little Yeats or Shelley in a room full of donors; talk about literature classes paying off.

When I asked Coach Spoonhour what he remembered about his own literacy formation, he immediately mentioned reading notes and thank you cards written by his father. Coach Spoonhour's father was also a college basketball coach. Charlie Spoonhour spent several years at my alma mater, Saint Louis University. "Spoonball" is still a term thrown around Saint Louis area sports bars.

"All of my dad's stuff was really funny," he said. "So, my whole idea about writing was to make people laugh. And, everything my dad wrote sounded like him speaking, which I recognized was the way you were supposed to write. Even if grammatically it didn't match, or the syntax wasn't perfect, as long as it read like you were speaking it, it would get its point across. That was how I started writing."

However, Coach Spoonhour has moved past copying speech in his writing. He noted that he enjoys using semicolons and dashes. "Not hyphens, but a dash, an actual dash," he said, his finger jabbing at the air for emphasis. It kind of felt like a pep talk. I immediately started thinking about how to incorporate more dashes into my writing. 

Monday, November 11, 2013

Show & Tell

This is the second in a series about the rules of good writing.

The Second Basic Principle: Show, don't tell.

What does “show, don’t just tell” really mean? To answer that question, I'll ask another one by way of an example. Can you remember being in elementary school on show-n-tell day? Imagine the kid who gets up in front of you and your classmates, empty-handed, and then claims to have a baseball signed by Hank Aaron that’s in perfect condition, only she can’t bring it to school. You can see the eye rolls, can't you?

Even though you’re only eight years old, you know that the story has a few problems. Not only can you not see the ball to know exactly what “perfect condition” looks like, but you can't eyeball the signature, sniff the leather or count the stitches. In other words, you have no reason to believe this kid even if she describes the ball perfectly.

If you tell without showing, your readers might not believe you. In other words, you have to show what you mean. Good writing tends to draw an image in the readers’ mind.

Here's an example of a sentence that tells:

Mr. Schlopenferker is a gangly, ungrateful, and untidy old codger.

There’s a better way to create a stronger image of Mr. Schlopenferker in the reader's mind's eye -- by showing, rather than telling:

Mr. Schlopenferker heaved himself out of the filthy, dilapidated armchair. He struggled to get to his feet and to support his ample length with his cane. The chair groaned in protest. Mr. Schlopenferker's swollen, misshapen knees popped and cracked in objection. The old man pounded the floor with his cane, cursing because the coffee in his cup was cold again.

In the second example, I didn’t just tell you that Mr. Schlopenferker is tall. I showed it by writing that he struggled to get to his feet, and by describing his ample height. I also didn’t just tell you that Mr. Schlopenferker is old. I showed it by mentioning his swollen, misshapen knees popping and cracking, and his cane. I also didn’t tell you that he's ungrateful, but the impatience of a pounding cane has you thinking that he may not be a very appreciative man.

Showing, not telling, gives the reader a clearer picture of what's happening. Whenever possible, offer vivid and specific descriptions to offset mind-numbing statistics about the ingratitude of the old, and endless bar charts and graphs proving this improbable statistic. Showing, and not telling, gives the reader close-up details. The lens of the camera comes in nice and tight on your subject. 

Remember: whenever possible, show don't just tell.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Repetitio est Mater Studiorum

Repetition is the Mother of Learning. Repetition is the Mother of Learning. Repetition is the...

If you are among the rank and file of those educated in Catholic schools, it is probably safe to assume that you are familiar with the phrase Repetitio est Mater Studiorm, along with a (heavenly?) host of other Latin slogans (Ad Majorem Dei Glorium! Ave Maria! Salve Regina! Carpe Diem!). But whether or not you attended one, it's probably true that when you think of Catholic schools, you thinks of iron-clad rules enforced by iron-clad nuns. Or maybe you think of elderly priests smacking smart-talking boys. (Let the record show that this particular Catholic schoolboy was desperately well-behaved, never once talked back to any priests, and definitely never missed so many 8:00 am classes one semester during his senior year that his poor religion teacher thought he had been thrown out of school.) Basically, you might think about restrictions.

Repetitio est Mater Studiorm beautifully captures that stereotypically rigid Catholic world. As I type the phrase, I can hear hippies spinning in their graves. In a quick Google search, I saw several web sites that claimed repetition is the mother of brainwashing, not learning. That the only way to learn is through  a complete lack of constraints, through total and utter freedom. Whatever that means.

This is essentially the same issue that haunts writing centers and freshman composition classrooms: how much time should a teacher or tutor devote to "skills and drills"-style work on grammar and punctuation? The underlying problem is that many of the rules of English grammar and punctuation more or less need to be memorized, even by native English speakers. (Fun fact courtesy of Dr. Jad Smith: English has more irregular verbs than any other language.)

Let me be clear what I mean by "grammar and punctuation." I'm talking about comma splices, dangling modifiers, misplaced modifiers, as well as the litany of other errors English professors love to circle in red pen. My point is that these types of errors are habits. We all have good and bad habits. And we all know that breaking bad habits takes a lot of time. And, from a pedagogical perspective, the time spent helping writers break bad lexical habits could be spent freeing student writers from all constraints and restrictions. (By the by, isn't freedom always a brainwasher's proclaimed goal? If I planned on brainwashing a group of people, it's not like I would come out and say that I wanted to brainwash them. I would say that I wanted to give them something. Something like the freedom to express themselves more fully.)

But here's another way to look at it.  Lynne Truss, whom I have already cited several times in the blog, equates good grammar with good manners. Both grammar and manners serve to aid human interactions, which are frequently fraught with complications.

Take, for example, a recent experience I had while waiting tables. I have worked as a waiter at a fancy Bosnian restaurant in St. Louis for about six months. In August, a young man who planned on running for public office (maybe alderman?) came into the restaurant for dinner. He met with the restaurant's owner because he needed the Bosnian community's support for his campaign. There are about 75,000 Bosnians in St. Louis, by the way, and the city would be in some seriously dire straights if the Bosnians had not emigrated to St. Louis en masse during and after the horrific war that occurred in the 1990s. The guy running for public office seemed nice enough. Unfortunately, when I watched him eat, he put his left elbow on the table, held his fork like it was a spear, leaned over his plate, and proceeded to shovel delicious Bosnian food into his mouth. It was like he had not eaten in days. I have never seen anything quite like it, and I used to teach at an all-boys middle school.

Shoveling food into your mouth is not a crime. And, function-wise, it totally works. It's not like your gastrointestinal system cares too much about table manners. Bad grammar, also, is not a crime. If the reader is still able to understand what you want to say, everything's gravy. Grammatical and punctuation mistakes often obscure a sentence's meaning, but generally do not make the sentence unintelligible.

However, here's the thing. Grammatical mistakes make the reader work a little harder. In some rare cases, grammatical mistakes will make the reader want to vomit and never ever support your campaign for public office.

This is why teaching the habits of good grammar and punctuation is very important, despite being both time-consuming and reminiscent of rote-learning at the hands of nuns packing wooden rulers. Like good manners, good grammar must be practiced for it to stick. And it is worth it. Perhaps no one told our potential alderman that it is totally rude to cram food into your mouth at the dinner table. Or, maybe, in whatever culture our potential alderman is from, inhaling one's food is a sign of respect. But, in the restaurant's kitchen, the owner did not wonder about our potential alderman's cultural background. Instead, the owner went on at length about how he would never support the campaign of someone who could not follow basic dining etiquette.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Adverbs: The Spanx of Lazy Verbs

I am dead to adverbs; they cannot excite me. To misplace an adverb is a thing which I am able to do with frozen indifference; it can never give me a pang… There are subtleties which I cannot master at all, --they confuse me, they mean absolutely nothing to me, --and this adverb plague is one of them.   ( Mark Twain's "Reply to a Boston Girl" in the Atlantic Monthly, June 1880)

In the past I have snickered at Mark Twain’s quick wit, but no quote has troubled me like the above indictment of adverbs.  Digging deeper, I was surprised to find that a number of respected writers and thinkers agree with Twain, including Stephen King, Graham Greene, and Theodore Roethke.   So, I wonder.  What is the big deal with adverbs?  How is it that an entire category of English words “mean absolutely nothing” to Twain? 

Let’s consider the simple verb-adverb pair of run quickly.  If run is our verb and quickly our modifying adverb, then we will make sprint the pair's alternative.  

When we think of the verb sprint, we gain access to a narrow but specific set of memories, which help it to produce evocative images.  Perhaps you recall a photo finish at a high school track meet or a midnight dash away from a toilet-papered residence. 

 Run, on the other hand, contains under its umbrella a multitude of acts of self-propulsion.  It is non-specific.  The adverb quickly is intended to narrow the many ways a person can run, to emphasize speed.  However, quickly, like many adverbs, describes only relative magnitude.  When I say relative magnitude, I mean that an ant travels quickly when compared to a slug, but not when compared to a rabbit.  So, even with an extra adverb, we are left with only a vague sense of what is going on.  How quickly, we wonder?

We begin to understand Twain’s frustration with this part of speech.   What is the point of adding an extra word if it doesn’t get your full meaning across?  This brings us to my peculiar assertion that adverbs are like thigh-squeezing, butt-molding Spanx.  The idea is that if you are going to go to the trouble of adding on adverbial modification garments, why not instead spend that time exercising your flabby verb, run, turning it into a toned sprint?

A note before you go forth and purge all adverbs from your lexicon:

Adverbs have a time and a place.  Mark Twain’s opinion is just that, an opinion.  It is undeniable that adverbs have been successfully implemented in a variety of contexts.  Consider the hilarious use of adverbs in Joseph Heller’s Catch 22 during a conversation between the psychiatrist, Major Sanderson, and Captain Yossarian...

“You have deep-seated survival anxieties.  And you don’t like bigots, bullies, snobs, or hypocrites.  Subconsciously there are many people you hate.”

Consciously, sir, consciously,” Yossarian corrected in an effort to help.  “I hate them consciously.”

Monday, October 21, 2013

Write Your Passions

This is the start of a series about the rules of good writing. In the weeks ahead, we'll discuss these rules, one general rule at a time.

The First Basic Principle: 

Writing is hard work. That much we already know, yes?  The rules can sometimes overwhelm us as we sit down to write. Happily, according to E. Shelley Reid, who wrote the essay "Ten Ways To Think About Writing,"  these rules can be reduced to basic principles. 

#1  Write what you know, are passionate about, are curious to find out about...

  • Writing what one knows, loves, or wants to know more about covers a lot of territory, doesn't it? Yet, we can do this even if we've been assigned a topic because there are multiple sides to every topic. We begin by choosing the side that most interests us. It's simply a matter of brainstorming to get at the angle from which to write. What's the importance of writing our passions?  When we're interested in a topic, we usually invest more time, more energy, and we care enough to write with that all important quality "voice," also known as tone. This makes for a better experience for the reader, who can tell if the writer is bored or disinterested. If we're bored as we write the paper, we can be sure that the reader will also be bored as s/he reads. 
  • What we think and feel ultimately influences the direction that the paper will take. Through writing, we become aware of our own biases. Routinely, many of us know what we think and feel only after the words land on the page. In good writing, we revise in order to temper those ideas. Our passion is necessary to write an interesting paper. However, passion and reason go hand-in-hand. Ultimately, passion must give way to reason. That's what academic writing is all about. We use both our hearts and our intellect to get at that all important point. 
  • We not only pay attention to our own voice, but also to the voices of opposing viewpoints. So research to discover the broader landscape of the topic under discussion.  When we research, we go looking for naysayers. If we think and feel one way, we purposely look for opinions that oppose our views because this balances out the paper. This is the place where reason leads us to scholarly investigation. Opposing viewpoints help us to be more credible writers by offering more than a one-sided paper. Readers tend to believe writers who offer opposing perspectives.
Thus papers, fueled by both passion and reason, written and revised, using good research, communicate with readers in meaningful ways. 
In the weeks ahead, we'll be adding more principles of good writing to this list, one tip at a time.

*Ten Ways To Think About Writing by E. Shelley Reid can be found at

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Ye Olde Historie of Quotations II

Two weeks ago, I published a post regarding a certain traumatic childhood experience. The sheer weight of that memory upon my consciousness encouraged, nay, forced me to explore the different punctuation systems between the United States and Great Britain, especially concerning quotation marks. The following is the battle's first volley.

First, we delve into the history. Interestingly, punctuation started in order to help people read out loud. Originally, punctuation marks informed the reader when to breathe. This helped to avoid the reader passing out and leaving his audience hopelessly uninformed. Here is a date that every person in the Western world should know by heart: 1452. What happened in 1452, you ask? Johannes Gutenberg began printing the Gutenberg Bible on his printing press, which promptly changed the course of history. All of a sudden, a lot more people were reading.

According to Lynne Truss in her fantastic book Eats, Shoots & Leaves, in 1566, just one hundred years after the Gutenberg Bible, Aldus the Younger "was able to state that the main object of punctuation was the clarification of syntax" (78). A bold statement indeed. Instead of punctuation primarily informing the reader when to take a breath, like a rest in music, punctuation functioned to aid the reader in understanding the meaning of the sentence. Aldus the Younger was well-qualified to make such a claim. His father, Aldus the Elder, invented both the semicolon and italics, which means every English major in the world should have a serious crush on Aldus the Elder. Without him, however would we explicate our most complicated points?

If you don't believe me about the relationship between punctuation and understanding the meaning of a sentence, let's take a pretty common punctuation example. A teacher asked his class to punctuate the sentence "woman without her man is nothing." Half the class wrote "Woman: without her, man is nothing." The other half wrote, "Woman, without her man, is nothing."

Okay so anyway, back to quotation marks. According to M.B. Parkes in his book Pause and Effect: An Introduction to the History of Punctuation in the West (which is a pretty long, complicated book for an introduction, although it does contain a lot of pretty pictures), the most ancient form of the quotation mark, which Parkes calls a "diple," looked like this > and indicated quotations from the Bible (27). Eventually, the mark shifted to the " we are familiar with today, and was placed in the text's margins somewhere close to the Scriptural citation. This system still confused people, because it was not always clear where citations started and ended. Thus, Parkes says, "Towards the end of the sixteenth century the comma-marks representing the diple were removed from the margins and set within the page measure" (58).

Hold on, we're not quite done. Somehow, diples started to indicate direct speech, not just Scripture. Although at first quotations were authoritative in nature, like quoting Martin Luther or Augustine in a theological treatise, eventually the diples were used to indicate a direct speech from any Joe Sixpack. However, some people employed italics in the same way. Diples and italics waged an epic battle over which one would signal quotations to the reader. By the end of the 18th century, diples had overwhelmingly won the day.

Some more questions to be answered in following posts: where the hell did "air quotes" come from? Why do the British occasionally use single inverted commas to indicate quotations? How did the different punctuation systems emerge?

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Interview with Dr. Peter Liu

In an effort to encourage campus-wide conversation on writing, we have interviewed various faculty members on its importance in their various disciplines.  For the third installment of our interview series, I sat down to discuss the intersection of technology and writing with Dr. Peter Liu of the Graduate Studies in Technology department.  Dr. Liu had excellent insights on both technical writing and the challenges of writing in a second language.

Can you describe the role of writing in your field?

In general in technology we write a lot of reports.  In research there are a lot of required proposals.  Those are the two major, major applications.

What would you say is unique to technical writing?

My personal emphasis is accuracy.  The number two would be something I would call readability, because our purpose is to carry information so that other individuals receive the information and then take action.

What would you say characterizes successful writing?

If it is accurate then you have credibility.  People trust you.  Otherwise no one cares what you write.  As engineers you know we like to speak on behalf of the fact.

Would you mind sharing a personal struggle with writing?

The struggle actually happened when I was a student, because I had to write a big paper, a dissertation.  The main struggle is to choose different vocabulary.  For instance, we must paraphrase other people’s work, but we may not plagiarize.  We understand the ideas, but then if we want to express them in different ways, we must paraphrase.  But the vocabulary is not easy for us to choose.

What are some dangers of poor written communication in technical occupations?

Look at the consequence, the critical nature.  It could be the safety of our customers, of the public.  So that could be the consequence if we do not convey the message in a clear fashion.

What writing skills do you see as lacking in those entering college for technology-based studies?

I came to EIU twenty two years ago.  I was trained in China with my Masters degree, and then spent four years at Iowa State before I came here.  I came as a foreigner, and my native language was not English.  But what I observed was that I was shocked.  The writing skills of students— I should not say the students.  The writing skills of half of the students were not up to par. 

What do you say to the technology major who says, “I am out of high school.  I am in college.  I don’t have to worry about writing anymore”?

Twenty years ago when I started teaching here, there were undergraduate students, and I just had to encourage them this is important.  I have to say to them you may not want to be an (entry level) engineer all your life, so that so can make a bigger impact.  In order to do that, writing is an essential skill.

What roles might a humanities or English major play in a technology-oriented business?

As a university we always want to lead our next generation.  We want the younger generation to lead our society.  In order to do that the university formed CENCERE (Center for Clean Energy Research and Education).  It was an interdisciplinary effort across the entire campus.  As a result we formed a program called the Masters of Science in Sustainable Energy.  This new degree program is a collective effort from ten disciplines across the entire campus, including [the English] department.  EIU is more liberal arts focused, so our niche is not, say, providing bench scientists.  Our students are more well-rounded.  We know the technical aspects as well as the human side.  To be an effective leader or manager, they’ve got to have communication skills. 

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Ye Olde Historie of Quotation Marks

My paternal grandmother (heretofore called "Gran") ran a bookstore in Dalkey, Ireland, for many years. It was called the Exchange. Unfortunately, the Exchange closed down several years ago, but not before becoming an important part of my linguistic development.

Every package I received from Gran contained at least one book. All of these books were published in England and Ireland, which meant they followed the British system of spelling and punctuation. Therefore, as a young reader, the spelling and punctuation I most often encountered was British. Consequently, I spent much of my youth "incorrectly" spelling words and using "incorrect" punctuation as a student in the American system. I was roundly mocked by my fifth grade classmates for spelling "color" C-O-L-O-U-R in a spelling bee. I was favored to win said spelling bee prior to my embarrassing exit. 

It should be noted that the British, in stereotypical arrogance, refer to words like "labor," "color," and "theater" as "American misspells." 

Largely because I have not recovered from the horrific lexical scars of my childhood, I recently delved into the history of quotation marks in order to discover why Americans use a different system from the Brits. How did these systems develop? Why did they develop? Did one, simple standard that could have spared the mortification of a young, confused, Irish-American boy ever exist? 

To set the scope of the study, here are some quotations from Simon Winchester's The Meaning of Everything: A Story of the Oxford English Dictionary. The sentences in bold are found in the book, and the sentences in italics are translations into the American system.

And then came Samuel Johnson, 'the Great Cham of Literature', and with him, the turning point.

And then came Samuel Johnson, "the Great Cham of Literature," and with him, the turning point. 

Or, as another writer has it, 'whoever takes the credit for inspiring the Dictionary as a piece of scholarship, it is he who should receive it for maintaining the book as a business proposition'.

Or, as another writer has it, "whoever takes the credit for inspiring the Dictionary as a piece of scholarship, it is he who should receive it for maintaining the book as a business proposition."

Notice that the British use single quotation marks, and also place the punctuation outside of the quotation marks. It should be noted that I have found examples of the British putting punctuation within the quotation marks. I should also say that I have encountered British books that use double quotation marks. However, these books continue to place the punctuation outside of the quotation marks. 

Thus far, it all seems utterly, hopelessly random. 

As of right now, I have several resources at my disposal: an encyclopedia on the English language, a book titled Eats, Shoots, and Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Lynne Truss, and I recently ordered through Interlibrary Loan a book entitled Pause and Effect: Punctuation in the West by M.B. Parkes. 

This is the project, dear reader: to uncover the hidden history of quotation marks in order to assuage my inner child's bafflement. More to come.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Interview With Professor Jenny Chi

This is the second in our series of interviews across the campus and across disciplines. We take our questions about writing to the Art Department and Professor Jenny Chi.

Can you address the role of writing in your field?

I wrote earlier in life, but at some point, I made a conscious choice to move toward the visual.

For the artist, because the artwork is the point, and it is for the art that their labors should be focused, and have been focused, a written work is, by definition, the creation of yet another piece. It is not the art.

Such a document forces the artist to over-analyze their work, or perhaps, over-represent or over-explain it. Unless writing is part of an artist's personal repertoire, this added piece can be an intense weight on the artist (to create two different works). The written in this case must de-centered in favor of the visual elements.

What kinds of writing do artists do?

99% of artists must create a written thesis as part of their graduate programs. They usually offer the written along with one specially chosen piece of art work, from among the many they have created.

Especially in a graduate program, when there is only so much time, and the demands on one are so overwhelming, something has to give. Writing is that thing for artists. 

I attended the New York Academy of Art. When I proposed my final project to my professors, I said, "I want to do a 72 x 72 painting of Adam & Eve. What do you want me to write?" I was surprised to be told: "You're a painter. You paint." The work one does as an artist must stand on its own merits. 

How important is it for artists to write well as members of a community that uses the visual to communicate ideas?

The most important for me is my artwork. Because of the language barrier, writing in English is not easy for me. The ideas embedded within my art work are complex. I would not choose to express those ideas in writing, either in my native tongue, which is, unfortunately fading, or in English.  I don't speak for all artists when I say this. Some artists incorporate writing into their work, or even write as a creative endeavor. 

Do you see written responses to art works by students as beneficial? If so, how?

I assign a research paper because every student artist must know about the past. If they don't know the art movements that went before, they can't really understand or know the present movements within art. Routinely, I ask for one and a half pages. What I want from students is a broad swath about an art period, one that shows that they understand the particular time or art movement they are investigating. Mostly, however, I want to know how this impacts the student. I want to know their thoughts and feelings about their finds. This is the most important part. Art is centered in the emotions as well as the intellect. It connects with us at a core level. I want students to write about this connection.

How does one describe, through writing, artistic methods, means, movements and ideologies?

Every artist, if they want to enter the professional realm, must create an “Artist's Statement.” This defines one's philosophy and tells what the artist is trying to accomplish in their artwork. However, this statement has no standard format. Every artist approaches this statement differently. Some write 2-3 pages and fill it with quotes from artists of the past. My statement is about 2-3 paragraphs. I get to the point. I tell just enough to entice my readers to view my artwork. 

What are some of the key differences between the way a visual artist articulates a complicated idea and the way a writer would approach the same communicative task?

A writer has an entire book, an essay, a story or a play with which to tell their story. Poetry is perhaps a bit more dense. Generally, writers can divide the work into chapters, or sections, or scenes and acts. Conversely, a painter has only one surface with which to tell the story. They work on a two-dimensional surface to create an entire scene, say for instance, in Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet, I must choose the scene I want to portray, the time of loving or of dying. I must therefore choose carefully the symbols I embed into the painting.

What are the characteristics of “good writing” about art?

Good writing about art holds mystery. It tells just enough to get attention and cause the reader to want to see the artwork, to become a viewer of the art. Good writing doesn't over explain. In fact, it speaks from somewhere other than a descriptive narrative.

What can we do to become more informed about Art and better able to understand and appreciate what artists have to say?

Become literate about the history of Art. Inform yourself about the past. These art movements accompanied social and literary movements of the time. Art is a part of the whole culture. It is a particularly rich form of representation.

Could you demonstrate or explain how we might approach and “read” one of your own works or another work presently on display at EIU?

As a representational artist who focuses on the human body, I ask that viewers respect the beauty of the human form. This is much different from the voyeuristic/ pornographic images in popular media. Take time to talk with artists as well. This is where you will learn most about the art they create. 

*Many thanks to Professor Chi for the use of her work for this interview.  Her work, entitled The Voyage of Odysseus, is copyrighted and cannot be reprinted without her express permission. 

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Interview with Dr. Jay Bickford

The EIU Writes staff has begun a new project. This project will force us to leave the Writing Center's safe confines and venture out from Coleman Hall's maze-like corridors into Panther Country.

Our plan is to interview faculty and staff members from all over Eastern's campus. We will ask them questions about the importance of writing in their field, their own writing, and their teaching of writing. Our goal is to encourage a campus-wide conversation about writing.

The blog's first victim is Dr. Jay Bickford of the School of Education, whom I had the pleasure to interview. Snippets of the conversation are found below.

I've always heard that strong readers make strong writers. What do you like to read? Who are your favorite authors?

Man, I could talk about that all day. As far as my own work goes, I try to read authors that disagree on the same event or historical figure. I try to read all the biographies I can about a historical figure.  

Do you have any personal writing quirks? A certain place to write, time of day, anything like that?

I have all sorts of little quirks. I have to sit so I’m laying way back, almost like I’m in a lawn chair. I try to drink a lot of water so I have to get up and go to the bathroom. I try to get up and take quick breaks. 

What were your best and worst writing experiences?

My worst writing experience was my dissertation. It was very complicated. It started out as a real interest, and then it became a real labor. I burned myself out from it. After I did my dissertation, I did the book, and I was done.

As for my best writing experiences,  I really enjoy stumbling across something that others have not found. It's great to make a significant contribution to the field.

How is writing in the field of education research different from writing in the humanities?

In education you’re looking for precision. You want to be explicit and precise. Also, in education research you want your comments to be empirically grounded.

Do you have any grammatical or syntactical miscues you often make? The kind that you are a little embarrassed to find in your writing?

Writing as an education researcher, all of the writing should be in the active voice. You have to avoid the passive voice, euphemisms, idioms and colloquial expressions. When I edit I find lots of little errors when it comes to subject-verb agreement. But, my biggest mistakes are when I unintentionally choose complexity to impress my readers over clarity to facilitate my readers comprehension. That’s my biggest struggle. 

How important is clarity in writing in your field?

It’s incredibly important and it is very much undervalued. Like in any field, clear writing indicates clear thinking. Something I tell my students all the time is "stupid doesn’t teach." You have to think things through. So if you write something clearly, you show that you have thought it out.