Tag Archives: writing

Handling Internet Conflict, or, Being the Voice of Reason When Shit Hits the Fan

28th June 2012

Ah, ye olde Internet. Controversy abounds. This post has spent quite a lot of time rattling around in my head, but tonight at nearly two in the morning, I decided it could wait no longer. The Internet is a strange and wonderful thing: it democratizes us. It gives people like me the ability to add my voice to the myriad of voices clamoring to be heard. In that struggle, the voices are inevitably cross sometimes and encouraging at other times.

[Caveat:I don’t like the word drama when it refers to controversy. Drama has taken on connotations of cat fights, women pulling one another’s hair, name calling. In other words, it is distinctly female, and in my opinion, it reduces the very valid conflicts that sometimes arise. Can we all do me and my blood pressure a favor and try to remove this from our vocabulary unless we’re discussing a mode of literature/plays? Ok, thanks.]

Because we [and by we, in this post, I am referring to book bloggers of any stripe] are a very opinionated, well-read, and mostly thoughtful group, we do disagree with one another. Bloggers/authors/publishers/publicists all make statements or post videos or tweet or send emails that we may or may not like. We are quick to find fault. We work hard (most of us) for no pay, and we take pride in our work. We own it. We are professionals, in the sense that we strive to build something worth reading. We build communities. Yet the moment one of the above [insert your choice here] goes against what we think/believe/know, that professionalism breaks down.

Over the last few months, there have been several instances where Twitter and blogs have exploded with opinion posts: a blogger was accused of plagiarism; tonight librarians and bloggers are upset about ALA attendees who amassed huge numbers of books; at other times, authors are the source of the tension. These sorts of conflicts come in cycles, specifically around conference/trade show times.

The reason I decided to address it is that each time conflict happens, I notice very similar, very disturbing patterns of reaction. I would like to address how we respond to those with whom we disagree. Because it will happen, as surely as death and taxes.

First of all, understand the elements of a good argument. Pick up any writing handbook and refresh your memory. But this is my quick-reference guide:

  • Writing a good argument takes work.

First things first, know that if you sit down and write a rant and publish it 20 minutes later, you will regret it. 20 minutes isn’t time enough to review your writing, much less your perspective. Take the time to fully form your ideas and express them well. That way, not only do you sound professional, but you also have less that you have to explain/clarify/apologize for later.

Ask yourself, have I made my claim clearly?

Do I offer enough evidence to support that claim?

Have I explained the relation between claim and evidence and clarified?

If the answer is no, then maybe you need to take some more time before hitting “publish.”

  • Watch your tone.

I know, I know. Part of being a blogger is establishing a voice. And sometimes our voices are bitchy. But save your “voice” for your other posts. If your tone immediately turns the reader off, you aren’t establishing credibility, and you sure as heck aren’t convincing anyone.

For example, I recently saw someone (no clue who now) write a fairly well-worded post before they couldn’t help themselves and added, “Grow up.” That tone is off-putting, at best, insulting, at least. As bloggers, we are also writers. A well-stated argument is much better than relying on a childhood playground phrase.

  • Recognize the other (or multiple other) viewpoint(s).

Unfortunately, very often these conflicts grow and grow until the original issue is unrecognizable. Partially this goes back to the statement above about different voices, but it also has to do with the various and many sources of information. Acknowledging someone else’s perspective is helpful in that if someone comes to your site looking to argue, that recognition is disarming. It shows that you are willing to view other possibilities or at least put yourself in another’s position.

Exploring other viewpoints also has the benefit of promoting conversation, wherein many posts do the very opposite. They encourage only those who agree with the writer to join in the conversation.

  • If you plan to use support/evidence to back up your claims, be prepared for the backlash.

Nothing is more frustrating than visiting a blog and seeing a post that references multiple specific websites without linking to them. Especially for those readers who aren’t especially tech savvy, you have just excluded them from the conversation. Plus, all this does is promote your “in-the-know” readers’ ability to track down and vilify the unsuspecting person/persons.

If you want to have a discussion/argument, have it, but don’t be naive enough to think that it will stop with you (and yes, I’m telling myself to look in the mirror here).

  • Be aware of the gaps or errors in your argument.

Own them. If you simply wait for someone to point them out, you’re discrediting yourself. It’s ok to not necessarily know how to solve a problem, but be up front about it.

In the same way, if you feel unsure about either part of your claim or your evidence, be self aware. Explore that insecurity within the post. Again, someone else will if you won’t.

  • Along the same lines…avoid blatant/oft-used evasions or oversimplifications.

If you were ever on a debate team, you probably know this backward and forward.

Don’t generalize. It’s insulting, and someone will always jump in to point out he or she is the exception.

Don’t exaggerate.

Don’t name call. (Please, for the love of all that is good, don’t do this – not in your post, not on Twitter.)

  • Finally, and perhaps most importantly, consider addressing some issues offline.

I understand the need to go public, I do. But one of the smallest things said at Book Blog Uncon stuck with me the most: Lori from TNBBC talked about how she takes the time to educate authors who send her blatantly self-promotional emails. Instead of deleting or badmouthing the author, she sends an email and tells them how to do it better. I know many of us shake our heads saying, no time, no time, but I think there is something fundamentally *right* about doing this. So often, people are utterly unaware that what they have done is wrong or incorrect or unethical. For the ones of us lucky enough to have been taught better or to have learned better, it’s simple to say that there’s no way a person *couldn’t* know, but again, go back up there to the start of this post and the “myriad of voices.” We’ve all got different backgrounds, different experiences, and some of us even different languages.

I’m not saying not to post if you have something to say. But be the voice of reason when shit hits the fan.

What do you think? Anything to add to this quick-reference guide?

ESL: One Semester Gone

7th December 2011

16 weeks. 16 weeks have gone by since I frantically began a new semester teaching a totally new class/subject: ESL Reading and Writing. The program at my university was undergoing changes, and I was hired to a full-time position right as the semester began. I am a super-organized teacher, so the last-minute prep was really taxing. Books didn’t come in until several weeks into the semester. The other teacher and I were at our wit’s end trying to be prepared for these students.

But let me tell you, once I calmed down and realized that teaching writing is teaching writing, and hello! Teaching reading? Heck yeah. I took it in stride. It was an incredibly challenging semester, but it was also extremely rewarding, and for the first time in many years, I can honestly tell you that I love my job.

The students? They came from China, Vietnam, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Peru, Venezuela, Colombia, Mexico, Thailand, and Brazil. They are a variety of ages and cover a whole spectrum of jobs – doctors, attorneys, accountant, architects, radio hosts, entrepreneurs. The relationship I had with these students was so different from the traditional instructor-student connection. I had each student for 10 hours a week and also spent time with some of them outside of class. Almost every student was dedicated and prepared to work intensely toward their goals. I have never been more impressed and so grateful for a group of students.

Even with the rough start, we quickly settled into a routine, working on reading Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays and writing on Tuesdays and Thursdays. We read several books together and had some really great discussions. In fact, even though most students claimed to hate reading, several asked when we could continue when we were in the middle of a book. 🙂

As for me, I also learned quite a lot, as an individual and a teacher. It was difficult, at first, to slow my speech and search for synonyms and antonyms spontaneously. Seriously. Try it sometime on the spot. Your mind goes blank. Having to search for words and new ways to explain words was a challenge. As a teacher, I was a bit overwhelmed at first. I thought I would have to approach instruction in a totally new way. No. I simply had to modify. These students are so intelligent and were very eager (for the most part) to soak up every lesson. What I had to realize is that confidence is the most important skill for a teacher. I know how to teach students to write and read. I just needed to trust myself to do that.

One of the most fun parts of teaching ESL? Halloween. As a college instructor, holidays come and go without comment. These students had so many questions, specifically about Halloween. Do I have to give out candy? What if I don’t have candy? Why do the kids say “trick or treat”? I had a ball creating articles about the history of Halloween in the States. I brought in treats and got more into the holiday than I ever have in the past.

The Latin students were amazed when I could pick up on what they were saying and sometimes (roughly) answer them. The Arabic students were so generous and patient in teaching me parts of their language as well.

So…thank you guys. Thank you so much for such an amazing semester. I care for each of you so much and will miss those of you returning to your home countries. I appreciate you trusting me and encouraging me as your teacher. Be safe, and be well.

Hasta luego.

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Maps and Legends by Michael Chabon

14th July 2010

Image from The Fire Wire

Is the cover of this book not amazing? I’m always inspired by Frances at Nonsuch Book; she posts the most intriguing books and book design. When I started blogging, I knew I would have to feature this book’s art first and foremost. The photos above really do not do it justice. This is one of the most intricate, beautiful books I’ve ever owned. If you’re lucky enough to land one somewhere, hang on to it. Jordan Crane did the cover art, and it truly is art. [Maps and Legends is a collection of essays published by Michael Chabon in 2008.]

Ah, the essay. I think about essays constantly. I teach essay writing. I write essays. I enjoy reading essays. However, over the last few years, I have noticed that essay writers can be the most pretentious, self-important writers out there. A well-crafted essay is probably one of the most difficult things to write. The writer must be succinct but engaging. Very often, the essay topic is interesting to only a small subset of the population. Most importantly, there is just enough space to diverge from the main topic to explore other tangents, but the writer must once again come back to his or her main point.

My most recent brush with Michael Chabon was in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. The experience was mixed as I really liked the story and some of the characters but felt Chabon’s voice was very present in the text, distractingly so. Of course, in this book of his essays, Chabon’s voice is ever present. While there were many points on which we agreed, that pretentious voice still irked the hell out of me. Overall, though, the essays did everything I require – they were entertaining, well written (although a bit wordy), and varied.

I almost wholly agree with his essay “Trickster in a Suit of Lights: Thoughts on the Modern Short Story,” wherein he explores genre, saying:

And so as with our idea of entertainment, our idea of genre …. is of a thing fundamentally, perhaps inherently debased, infantile, commercialized, unworthy of the serious person’s attention. The undoubted satisfactions that come from reading science fiction or mystery stories are to be enjoyed only in childhood or youth, or by the adult reader only as “guilty pleasures” (a phrase I loathe). A genre implies a set of conventions – a formula – and conventions imply limitations (the argument goes), and therefore no genre work can ever rise to the masterful heights of true literature, free (it is to be supposed) of all formulas and templates.

Bang on, Chabon. I’m right there with you, but wait…

Like most people who worry about whether it’s better to be wrong or pretentious when pronouncing the word “genre,” I’m always on the lookout for a chance to drop the name of Walter Benjamin. I had planned to do so here. I intended to refer to Benjamin’s bottomless essay “The Storyteller,” and to try to employ the famous distinction he makes…

Yeah – see, I did not even have to call him pretentious; he knows he is. And, he goes on to talk about Walter Benjamin… namedropper. Of course, before you think me moronic and incapable of reading his sardonic voice, let me skip to another section of the same essay:

I’d like to believe that, because I read for entertainment, and I write to entertain. Period. Oh, I could decoct a brew of other, more impressive motivations and explanations. I could uncork some stuff about reader response theory, or the Lacanian parole. I could go on about the storytelling impulse and the need to make sense of experience through story. A spritz of Jung might scent the air. I could adduce Kafka’s formula…

Aaand, we’re back to pompous ass. His voice, particularly in this passage, reminds me of oh-so-many insecure graduate students, just learning theory. No longer is a story a story. Suddenly, it takes on so many theoretical contexts that not even they are capable of finding their way out of the rabbit hole.

This is not to say that each essay is unfulfilling. The first, already referenced essay regarding the short story is wonderful. There are also several essays devoted to the writing process and Chabon’s first and second novels.He discusses Sherlock Holmes, Cormac McCarthy, and Will Eisner, while also exploring his fascination with Golems in an essay entitled, “Golems I Have Known, or Why My Elder Son’s Middle Name is Napoleon.” The Eisner essay is short but fantastic, and Chabon’s love of anything comic book related definitely comes through.

One of my favorite passages discusses a popular topic, the inevitability of lies in fiction.

There is a contract between the writer of fiction and the readers he or she lies to, as there is between a magician and the audience he hoodwinks; they are in it together. They are helping each other to bring a story to apparent life or an edible orange to grow from the branch of a clockwork tree.

And, in “The Recipe for Life,” he expands on this idea:

Literature, like magic, has always been about the handling of secrets, about the pain, the destruction, and the marvelous liberation that can result when they are revealed…. If a writer doesn’t give away secrets, his own or those of the people he loves…if the writer submits his work to an internal censor … the result is pallid, inanimate, a lump of earth….[T]he writer shapes his story, flecked like river clay with the grit of experience and rank with the smell of human life, heedless of the danger to himself, eager to show his powers, to celebrate his mastery, to bring into being a little world that, like God’s is at once terribly imperfect and filled with astonishing life.

I know there are many readers out there who steer clear of essay collections. However, I have enjoyed them for years. Similar to a collection of short stories, you can pick the book up for one essay before bed or on a lunch break, without losing the flow of the story, as in a novel. This book has been on my bedside table for weeks, and I have picked through it, skimming the ones that I couldn’t relate to (I’ve never read The Golden Compass, so his essay about it was not for me) and relishing the ones that piqued my interest. This particular collection was coherent and enjoyable, and I am curious if anyone else out there has read it. If so, what were your thoughts?