Saturday, December 01, 2007

Preparing for a departure

I’ve been preparing for my “Introduction to Writing for the Media” class, which runs for 10 weeks beginning the second week of January. (It’s listed as J-200 in the Portland Community College catalogue.)

I’ve taught the course under various titles for 12 or so years at a couple of campuses. Until now, I’ve stayed in lockstep with the regimented chapters of hefty, slog-it-out textbooks.

For next term, I’ve decided to break free of a text and sprint down a new path.

This time the required reading will be the Associated Press Stylebook (which I have required before), the classic “Elements of Style” by William Strunk and E.B. White (see earlier post), and a recent New York Times best seller “Made to Stick” by Chip and Dan Heath. The subtitle of the latter is “Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die.”

I have two motives for changing. The first has to do with money. My students', not mine. The cost of the standard textbook is pushing $90. The three new required books can be had on-line or at Powell’s, used, for no more than $20 — total.

For community college students, the difference can be huge. I have had students who have waited four weeks into the term before they could scrounge up money to buy the text. By then they were lost.

More important than the stratospheric price of textbooks are several experiments I want to try.

For example, one calls for dissecting news stories. I’ve done some of this before, but this time I want the students to approach the stories almost as mechanical devices to be taken apart and reassembled. Not that I said "almost."

Working alone or in pairs, the students will be assigned their own news story to disassemble into facts and sources, listing them on a fact/source inventory sheet.

Then the students will swap fact sheets from the different stories broken down by other students. From one student or team’s inventory sheet another student or duo will reassemble the story — or a story, their story.

The final step will be comparing the new student-written story to the original, exploring questions that arise from the comparison. Here are just five:

• How do the leads (and hence the news judgment) differ?
• Did you find you wanted information that wasn’t listed on the fact sheet?
• Was that missing information in the original story?
• Are the sources reliable?
• What other sources would improve the story?

I also want to press students to come up with their own exercises. In a way, I want them to work for that $70 they’ve saved and to help create a better "text" and a better course.

Right now I’m trying to figure out exactly where “Made to Stick,” “The AP Stylebook” and “The Elements of Style” will fit in. I have a month to play with that part of the puzzle.

One other thing: I have recommended purchasing the essays of George Orwell, which should add no more than $3.50 to the cost of the “texts,” if that. Our PCC library has Orwell’s essays, which remain the gold standard of journalistic purpose, passion and conscience.

I may come back to my musings about this class on the blog. I want to offer an idea or two for your examination and criticism. If my sharing of ideas only results in self-examination and self-criticism, so be it.

Just knowing you are reading will steel me to the task.

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Revisiting Strunk and White

Re-reading “The Elements of Style” is like visiting with an old friend after a long, long absence.

All the endearing qualities, all the old bonds, come rushing back.

And, with the passage of the years, there’s so much to talk about with authors William Strunk and E.B. White. So much to be reminded of. That includes their assurance that it’s all right to end a sentence with a preposition — especially if it saves you from writing, “So much of which to be reminded.”

The book reminded me of how much I’ve wanted to share with kindred spirits my revulsion for the ubiquitous “robust.” Whom better than Strunk and White?

If there was ever a “Bush-ite” word, it is “robust.” It almost comes branded with the black mark of Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld. The word is all posture and no substance. “Mission Accomplished” was, and is, “robust.”

What kind of bust has Iraq been? A RO-BUST!

So it was that Strunk and White singled out “thrust,” which displays its own phoney muscle-flexing. To quote from page 61 of the third edition: “This showy noun, suggestive of power, hinting of sex, is the darling of executives, politicos and speech writers. Use it sparingly. Save it for specific applications.”

Exactly, and likewise with “robust.”

“The Elements of Style” is one gem after another.

One of my favorite passages explains how Lincoln got away with “Four score and seven years ago.”

I mean, REALLY! Talk about over-written.

And yet he did it, and White in the book’s concluding section, titled “An Approach to Style,” nails down why.

Noting that Lincoln was “flirting with disaster” when he wrote the phrase, White continues:

The president could have got into his sentence with plain “eighty-seven” — a saving of two words and less of a strain on the listeners’ powers of multiplication. But Lincoln’s ear must have told him to go ahead with four score and seven. By doing so, he achieved cadence while skirting the edge of fanciness. Suppose he had blundered over the line and written, “In the year of our Lord seventeen hundred and seventy-six.” His speech would have sustained a heavy blow. Or suppose he had settled on “eighty-seven.” In that case he would have got into his introductory sentence too quickly; the timing would have been bad.”

Lincoln’s choice of a beginning ensured that, contrary to what he said that day, we will long remember his short speech at the hallowed Gettysburg battleground.

Strunk and White’s well-chosen words have the same effect. We will long remember “The Elements of Style.”

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Thursday, November 29, 2007

Enough with the "Civil War"

Each year at this time, I rail against the use of “The Civil War” as the name for the rivalry between the University of Oregon and Oregon State.

The over-the-top appellation was invented by sportswriters back in the ‘20s, a mere 60 years after this nation suffered through a real Civil War.

I won’t go into my litany of reasons for dumping “the Civil War,” except to say that the play on words is stale, obtuse (It hinges on the word “civil.” Get it?) and decidedly unfunny.

Civil Wars, including our own, are blood-drenched, soul-wrenching tragedies. (see Mathew Brady's photograph)

Back in 2001, I actually thought I had some traction on the issue when I wrote the presidents of the two universities following 9/11. You may recall that in that wrenching time of reflection we were allegedly experiencing an “end of irony.”

In the spirit of ending the irony of a mere college rivalry escalating to "war," both presidents responded with moderate interest in my proposal. Nothing came of it. The country was too busy preparing to foment a real civil war in Iraq.

Now, through my Portland Community College teaching and other activities, I have contacts among students at the University of Oregon. I am urging one of them, Daniel Ronan (Wilson High School, ’07), to form “Students, Teachers and Alumni for Ending ‘The Civil War.’” Daniel was one of the organizers of this spring’s Wilson senior prank, the planting of marigolds in the shape of a peace symbol on the school grounds.

He stuck his toe in the war with a recent letter to the editor to UO’s Daily Emerald.

More than getting rid of the name Civil War, I hope this group, if it ever gets off the ground, can come up with a clever alternative name for the rivalry.

I’ve thought of a few over the years. “The Clear Cut,” “The Wet One,” and “Venue in the Valley.”

Don’t like those?

It’s your turn ….

P.S. The Oregonian sports page was in sync with its war metaphor today when it ran a story about injured Duck and Beaver players. The headline read: “The Wounded.” The story tells us that the “wounds” are all part of “a battle of attrition.”

Hey, it’s time for a journalistic armistice.

Peace already.

(To the right: Real Civil War wounded. Photo by Mathew Brady)

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Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Government of the rich, by the rich and for the rich

That we live in a plutocracy is rarely acknowledged in the press, but a front page story in Monday’s New York Times came close to saying it.

Its headline read:

“Short of Money, G.O.P is Enlisting Rich Candidates.”

Rich candidates — and the parties don’t have to be short on cash to enlist them — are only one aspect of the plutocracy. Another is candidates so reliant on wealthy campaign backers and deep-pocket bankrollers that the politicians become hired help.

Or, once elected, the same candidates become members of Congress beholden to wealthy lobbyists and their rich corporate or individual clients who threaten to withhold or redirect campaign funding if lawmakers vote the “wrong” way.

It’s all despicable, but if I had to choose among these forms, I’d go with the rich, self-financed candidates. At least the source of the money is above board and seemingly without strings attached. It’s more likely, but hardly assured, that rich candidates will answer only to themselves.

Whatever form plutocracy takes, expect the rich to get richer and nearly everyone else to get poorer. Which is exactly what we are seeing.


Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Cat on my blanket

Cat on my blanket,

unblinking. His yellow eyes,

windows to another world.

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In the pink

The pink Olympia typewriter has a new owner: Melissa Collins, a young Portland piano tuner.

“This is my dream typewriter!” she exuded at seeing the hefty, yet pretty-in-pink portable displayed on my dining room table.

What better hands to place the Olympia SM7 in than those of a piano tuner?

The typewriter came from the fascinating and bountiful estate of Pearl Rubenstein, who died last January.

Pearl, a friend through her daughter Lisa, had an eye for art and a quick and gracious smile.

Thinking of the Olympia's belonging to the elated Melissa, I can see Pearl's grin.


Monday, November 26, 2007

An Ethereal Tax

You got to love taxation that is angelic.

City Commissioner Sam Adams, our next mayor presumptive, has pulled off the heavenly association with “Halo” local improvement districts (LIDs) to tax residents for new, nearby sidewalks in some Southwest Portland neighborhoods.

In the past you were taxed only if you lived on the newly side-walked street. Now, as long as you are in the broader "halo" (a cleverly nebulous choice of words), you will be asked to be included in the tax "Halo." (We know all about those who don't live under halos; they're the ones who live under horns.)

Somehow The Oregonian's Tom Hallman, Jr. wrote about “Halo” LIDs without blinking this morning. When the media accept your language, you've won half the battle.

It's all about "subtext" as we say in media literacy. Like “The Death Tax” or “Choice” or “Life” or “climate change” (never “global warming”) or the “Defense Department” or the “Central Intelligence Agency” or "pacification" or "co-lateral damage."

Up next: Orwell’s “Ministry of Truth” and “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”

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Sunday, November 25, 2007

Justice — a missing Quaker testimony?

My ruminations in the silence of this morning’s Quaker meeting left me with unfinished business.

I’ve long agreed with those who assert that peace and justice are inextricably linked. You can’t have one without the other.

Peace, or course, is among the five Quaker testimonies, but I have been perplexed that justice — so essential to peace — is not among the other four.

So the question that filled my silent meditation was this: What does justice have in common with the other testimonies — simplicity, community, equality and integrity? Are the four adequate to satisfy peace’s requirement for justice?

I decided to search for an answer by pairing each testimony with justice.

Justice — Simplicity
Of the four testimonies, simplicity bears the least obvious connection. I suppose the simpler our desires are, the easier it is to arrive at justice. My guess is that the simpler our lives, the less likely questions of justice even arise.

Justice — Community
This one is like peace. Injustice is antithetical to community. Successful communities are, by definition, just.

Justice — Equality
Written into law is the idea that we are equal under it. We will be judged equally. To the extent we aren’t, there is injustice. Beyond strict legal considerations, we believe in social justice and social equality, which are closely related. No community can be at peace — can in fact be a true community — without social justice and social equality. By social justice and social equality, I DO mean economic justice, but I DO NOT mean economic equality. Economic justice means economic needs are met. In a world of limited resources, economic needs are dictated by the global requirement for simplicity. The maxim “live simply so that others may simply live” is a statement about justice.

Justice — Integrity
Of the five testimonies, I find “integrity” to be the most illusive. In its most basic it means being trust-worthy and fair. Certainly justice must be that. If we can’t trust our system of justice to be fair, if it lacks integrity, all the other values mentioned disintegrate.

Finally, it helps to look at peace’s relationship to justice. As noted, without justice, there can be no peace; without peace, there can be no justice. War is inherently unjust.

Beyond that, the administration of justice should create peace. Establishing and preserving a lasting peace should be built into any just resolution. Likewise, anyone committed to peace and its maintenance, must establish an accepted, durable conception of justice, one that incorporates equality, simplicity, integrity and community.

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