An American Editor

April 4, 2011

Characterization: How Important is Reader Emotional Involvement?

In past book reviews of fiction (my On Books series), I have noted whether the author’s characterizations, particularly of the lead character, have emotionally involved me as a reader. Did it really matter to me what happened to a character? Was I moved to react to a character’s fortune or misfortune?

Those who read my most recent review (On Books: Murder Down Under), will recall that I distinguished the 5-star ratings I gave to the murder mysteries written by Vicki Tyley from the historical fiction novels written by Shayne Parkinson by this very criterion. The result was that although both authors deserved a 5-star rating, Parkinson actually deserved a higher 5-star rating (what I called “plus a smidgen more”) because of how Parkinson got me (and my wife and friends of ours who read the books on our recommendation) emotionally involved.

Consequently, the questions are: How important is reader involvement, and if important, how do you rate for it or for the lack of it?

At a personal level, I think how well an author creates a link between the reader and the author’s characters is an indication of the craftsmanship of the author. An indifferent character leads to an indifferent book. It may still be a good read, but it won’t be a memorable read. If you are in my age bracket (old and getting older by the minute), you are likely to have read thousands of novels in your lifetime, and it is novels on which we are focused. Of those thousands, how many characters can you remember? How many can you identify by name, description, and traits?

Storylines and plots are much easier to remember, largely, I think, because there seems to be a finite number of storylines and plots. Authors simply recycle them using different environments. For example, how many novels, when stripped to their core, are really remakes of Homer’s Iliad or Odyssey? How many are variations on the theme of My Fair Lady? How many romance novels don’t have bodice ripping, girl meets boy and heart thumps, boy meets girl and becomes an Arthurian knight, and similar plots? How many murder mysteries don’t have at least one dead body and a nonpolice officer as the hero or a police officer as a hero but with a civilian sidekick? Familiarity with the broad scenario makes remembering a book on a broad basis relatively easy compared to remembering a character.

Think about characterization. How many of us remember Scout and Atticus Finch, but not the specifics of the plot of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird? How many of us remember the characters in Leon Uris’s Exodus or who the lawyer-heroes were in John Grisham’s The Firm?

To me, feeling empathy/sympathy for the lead characters is important – because it keeps my interest in future books and makes me remember the author. I see that as the single characteristic that distinguishes between an average writer and an exceptional writer. It is not that the average/mediocre book cannot be a great read; it is that the average/mediocre book is an enjoy-today-then-throwaway-and-forget book, whereas books that involve my emotions compel me to read every book written by the author, especially those that include the characters that have moved me. In contrast, when an author’s characters do not move me, I may well buy and read everything by the author that is currently available because they are good read-once-and-toss buys, but am likely to forget about the author when I have to wait a year or two for the author’s next book to come out.

Two good examples of why I think creation of a link between the reader and the author’s characters is important — especially for the author — are traditionally published David Weber’s science fiction books, which are built around the character Honor Harrington and her universe of family and friends, and indie author Richard S. Tuttle’s fantasy books.

My discovery of the first Harrington book (On Basilisk Station, free at the Baen Library) hooked me. Honor Harrington became a character I cared about. I not only have bought and read every book in the series (12 so far that directly involve Harrington and more than 6 others that are from her universe) and preordered those to come, but Weber got me to spend money on buying books that I have never bought before because I do not like the genre: short story anthologies. I studiously avoid short stories, whether as part of an anthology or standalone, except those that relate to the Harrington universe and Shayne Parkinson’s Promises to Keep world (she has one free short story available, All I Want). In addition, because of the Harrington books, I also bought and became hooked on Weber’s newer Safehold series (which began with Off Armageddon Reef).

Perhaps more important for authors in today’s indie age, is my experience with the fantasy books of Richard Tuttle. He has authored 27 ebooks and I have purchased and read every one because his characters involved me. (His Young Lord of Khadora, Book 1 of Forgotten Legacy is a free ebook.) I admit that the characterizations did not remain equally compelling over 27 books, but they remained compelling enough to induce me to look for and buy every fantasy ebook Tuttle has written. Isn’t this what every author wants — readers who make a special effort to look for and buy their books?

Importantly, unlike the average/mediocre books that are good reads but not compelling enough to remember, for those authors who entwine me with their characters, every couple of months I search to see if there is another book scheduled for publication that I can preorder. If I can’t preorder it, I make a note in my calendar to remind me to check again for preorder availability. Shayne Parkinson’s Promises to Keep series is a good example. Parkinson was supposed to have another book available in her Promises to Keep series but it is still being worked on. Yet I keep looking for it, a good year after I finished the quartet and the short story. Similarly, it took 1.5 years before I found new ebooks by Richard Tuttle, but I kept looking, and I have calendared to preorder forthcoming Weber books. 

Even more importantly to the authors, these are the books that I keep recommending to other readers. Which novels that you have read do you keep recommending months, if not years, after you have read them? Think about why.

The more I think about it, the more convinced I am that crafting characters that make readers react to them, to events that occur in their fictional lives, and to the world around them is profoundly important to both readers and authors. I am also increasingly convinced that the ability to craft such characters and worlds is what distinguishes the memorable author from the average/mediocre author. And, finally, with the single exception of editorial quality (i.e., few grammar and spelling errors to distract the reader), whether the author crafted characters and worlds that involve the reader at the emotional level is the most important criterion a reader can apply when evaluating and rating a novel.

What do you think?

March 22, 2011

What’s Wrong with this Sentence? The Editor’s Eye

I was reading some fiction recently, when I came across this sentence (and it is the complete sentence as it appeared in the story):

“As well ask Beelzebub to rein in Belial.”

The sentence brought me to a halt. What is wrong with the sentence? Nothing? Something? I’ll wait for your editorial eye to tell me the answer, and how foolish I was to be stopped by a perfectly good sentence.

(Waiting for time to pass and your editorial eye to grapple with the question and come to a resolution.)

Okay, enough time has passed. Either you are ready to tell me how foolish I am or how magnificent an editor I must be. Which is it?

Grammatically, the sentence is fine. It has everything one could hope for in a succinct bit of prose. The problem, if there is one, lies with Beelzebub and Belial. Beelzebub is a name for the Devil, as is Belial. To the average reader, the sentence reads, “As well ask [the Devil] to rein in [the Devil].” To distinguish between Beelzebub and Belial requires a sophistication that the average reader of the type of fiction in which the sentence is found is unlikely to have. To make the distinction requires some familiarity with Milton’s Paradise Lost, a work few of us have mastery of, and perhaps knowledge of Late Latin translations of Biblical Hebrew.

A confused reader is likely to turn to a handy dictionary, such as The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.), in which the primary definition of Beelzebub is “The Devil; Satan” and that of Belial is “A personification of wickedness and ungodliness alluded to in the Bible.” It seems to me that the former includes the latter and the latter includes the former; that is, they are one and the same.

But when we get to Paradise Lost, we learn that although both Beelzebub and Belial are evil incarnate, each is a different fallen angel. Milton uses Beelzebub as the name for the fallen angel who is the Devil and Belial as the name of the fallen angel who represents impurity. With Paradise Lost in mind, the sentence becomes clear (or at least clearer); without Paradise Lost in mind, the sentence is muddy. How many of us have Paradise Lost in our hip pocket?

I ask the question because it raises an editorial question. If the book I was reading had been a book about etymology or language or Paradise Lost or any number of nonfiction topics, the sentence should pass without hesitation, assuming there was explanatory context for it or a reader would be expected to know the allusion. But the book was fiction, which means it was addressed to a different audience with a different expected level of literary sophistication. Consequently, the editorial question becomes: Should the editor have flagged this sentence, questioning whether it would be understood by the expected readership?

I view the role of a professional editor as more than just making sure that a book is devoid of homonym and spelling errors. I think a professional editor needs to tackle with the author issues such as allusions that the author’s expected readers are unlikely to grasp without help but that are important to the story. This is particularly the case in fiction, which is intended to be entertaining, not scholarly (in the sense of a nonfiction academic work). Entertainment is rarely having to research the meaning of a sentence in a novel.

I grant that with some of the new electronic reading devices learning the difference between Beelzebub and Belial is pretty easy. On my Sony 950, for example, I can double-tap on the names and the Oxford American Dictionary pops up with definitions/explanations. But as quick and easy as that is, doing so interrupts the flow of the story. Alternatively, I can just ignore the sentence and assume it has some deep meaning that is of little relevance to me or the story, but isn’t that accusing the author of wasting my time with irrelevancies? Is that the reputation an author wants to develop? Being a time-waster?

Presumably an author has chosen words carefully to convey a particular meaning. In fiction, an author wants that meaning conveyed immediately, with as little fuss on the reader’s part as is possible. A good author includes in his or her story only those words and phrases that are relevant for conveying the tale the author wants to tell. Consequently, in the fiction I was reading, the sentence, “As well ask Beelzebub to rein in Belial,” had great importance — it was important to convey in a compact way the difficulty of getting a character to do/not do something. Which means, does it not, that the sentence needs to be understandable so that the meaning is conveyed?

Which brings me back to my original question: What is wrong with this sentence in light of who the expected reader is? Is this the best way to convey the information to be conveyed to the reader? Will using two names that are often identified with the same “thing” be helpful or confusing? What should the professional editor do when faced with this type of sentence?

Although there is no definitive answer to any of the questions, how an editor answers them and what the editor does can speak volumes.

March 14, 2011

Symbiosis: The Authorial and Editorial Process

Although not usually thought of in these terms, there is a symbiotic relationship between the authorial and the editorial processes. In many ways, it is like the relationship between a composer and librettist. How well the relationship works can determine how good the end product is.

A well-written book is analogous to Maurice Ravel’s Bolero. It begins softly, builds to a crescendo, and adds new characters and plot twists and turns (i.e., new instruments and sounds) until that climactic moment.

To bring off this well-written book successfully, not only must the author have great skills, but the editor must be skilled. To use another music analogy, consider opera. The role of the author is that of the composer; the role of the editor is that of the librettist. In the case of opera, the person credited with the opera is the composer; the librettist, although noted in an acknowledgment, is publicly forgotten. Yet what makes an opera great is the symbiotic relationship between the composer and the librettist.

Consider Léo Delibes’s opera Lakme. It happens to be one of my favorite operas. I especially love the “The Flower Duet,” sung as Lakme and her servant Mallika gather flowers, which was written by the librettists Edmond Gondinet and Philippe Gille, who are essentially unknown in the opera world. It is the combination of the music and the duet between Lakme and Mallika that makes “The Flower Duet” so extraordinary:

Just as this combination of the known (composer) and unknown (librettist) can combine to create great, memorable music, so the relationship between an author (visible) and editor (invisible) can combine to create a great book.

Unfortunately, with the changes that are occurring in publishing and with the rise of ebooks this symbiosis between author and editor is being strained to the point of near-breaking. Publishers are trying to cut production costs as finely as they can, and too many see editorial work — in the sense of editing and proofreading — as being of ephemeral value. It is no longer uncommon to hear a publisher say that readers don’t complain about poor editing, so they obviously must not notice when editing is missing.

Authors, who with the rise of ebooks are increasingly taking on the role of the publisher, take the same tack but more often emphasize the expense. One author boasted on the copyright page of his meganovel that the ebook hadn’t been copyedited because no one cared and he wasn’t going to spend the money. That might have been okay if the ebook were being given away for free, but the ebook was $8.99! (I read enough of the ebook via a sample to realize it was in desperate need of an editor, so I passed on buying it.)

The authorial and editorial processes are really a single process; different phases of a single process, but a single process nonetheless. We tend to divide the phases of manuscript preparation into separate stages and processes, but that is really more for convenience that a reflection of the reality of the process. The two processes are so intertwined that they should be inseparable and authors should not fear an editor’s input. A manuscript doesn’t become less the author’s work because of editing, but it may become more of the author’s vision as a result of editing. Consider Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald and their editor, Maxwell Perkins.

Although Perkins is considered to be perhaps the greatest editor of the 20th century, it is not Perkins who is remembered and revered (except by a few of us editors who know of him), but Hemingway and Fitzgerald. Yet both acknowledged that their books would not have been the masterpieces they were if it hadn’t been for Perkins’s contributions.

Ultimately, my point is that, like great music, great books are collaborative enterprises and when part of the collaborative team is missing, the book suffers, the author suffers, and the reader suffers. Authors need to rethink their stance when they decline to spend money to hire a professional editor, and there is a world of difference between a professional editor and a friend whose job is maintaining a computer network who thinks he/she can edit a book because they have read a lot of books. These differences have been discussed in prior articles; see, for example, The Missing Ingredient: Grammar Skills; Finding a Professional Editor: The Needle in the Haystack Problem; In the Face: eBook Errors; I Published My Book But Readers Keep Finding Errors; The WYSIWYG Conundrum: The Solid Cloud; On Words: Is the Correct Word Important?; and On Words & eBooks: Give Me a Brake! These articles are well worth reading if not previously read, and rereading if it has been a while. Because the author wants to be viewed as a skilled writer, the author needs the help of a professional editor whose skills transcend those of the neighbor who dabbles because he/she reads.

The authorial and editorial process can help a book follow the path of Lakme — from beginning to finale — in creating another memorable “Flower” duet.

November 30, 2010

When Will We Ever Learn?

As has been made clear in recent months, distance learning and learning at for-profit institutions are on the rise. In and of themselves, neither bothers me much; I’m a firm believer that being a Harvard graduate only means you are a Harvard graduate, not that you learned or know anything or even that you are particularly well educated. We make assumptions that are not necessarily true when spread over the whole.

Yet what does dismay me is what I read in a recent article in The Economist regarding student tutoring. Apparently, tutoring in mathematics of elementary and secondary school students is now being outsourced and offshored, just like editorial work and manufacturing work. Again, India appears to be the winner.

Students in Britain and the United States aren’t doing well in math (along with any number of other academic subjects). This doesn’t say much for either our educators or our educational systems. To combat this struggle with math, which many community activists think is one root or many that causes an increase in social disorder, tutoring is being tried — and with apparently great success.

The tutoring is done long distance — very long distance, in fact — via the Internet with the students in Britain and the United States and the tutor being in India. The tutoring is one-on-one and the tutors are college professors from Indian universities who are paid $19 an hour for the tutoring services. Can you imagine a professor/instructor at an American university being willing to work for that price!

It wasn’t so long ago that Britain and the United States had a learn-to-get-ahead ethic that compelled students, especially middle class students, to work hard at their academics. But that ethic has changed and moved; that is now the ethic we find in developing countries rather than in developed countries. I often think that this attitudinal change was a by-product of the cultural revolution of the 1960s as I noted the decline beginning then.

Of course, the outsourcing and offshoring of our education shouldn’t be much of a surprise. We see declining standards and abilities in our educators who are responsible for imparting skills and knowledge to upcoming generations on a regular basis. The question really is, When will we learn that reversing this trend of declining work ethic is necessary to ensuring our societal survival? And, once we have recognized the need to reverse the trend, What will we do to accomplish that reversal?

As tough as times are now, they will only get worse if we do not address declining education.

November 4, 2010

A Musical Interlude: Odes to Editors

Editors receive a lot of abuse these days and often get blamed for errors that are inflicted by others in the production chain. That is not to say that we editors aren’t often the causes of errors, either from a failure to catch the error or because we introduced the error in our zeal to demonstrate our editorial prowess.

But, as the following video demonstrates, there are some who still prize our skills:

Yet the question is whether our profession is in decline. Gus is a new entrant to our profession:

As Carmela demonstrates, we aren’t sitting still and letting the world pass us by. We constantly seek new and better ways to improve the work of our clients:

The importance of proofreading cannot be overstated. Taylor Mali illustrates the problem of editing by homonym:

Knowing how difficult things can be in the editing world, it was only a matter of time until we had our own lament:

November 1, 2010

How Much Is That Job Worth?

I read the other day that Meg Whitman has spent $143 million of her own money in her quest to become governor of California. Today I read that midterm campaign spending will set a new record — nearly $4 billion, approximately 50% more than the last midterm election spending, and the article didn’t make it clear whether this was spending on just federal races or on all races (my bet is just federal races). These numbers started me thinking, primarily about how far down the wrong path we seem to be going.

How much is the job of governor of California really worth? Or United States senator or representative? To the office seekers, apparently a lot, but I don’t understand the return, unless it is sheer naked power or being able to say “I am 1 of 50!” Does Meg Whitman really need to be governor to influence policy? As the various pressure groups demonstrate daily, one can buy a lot of lobby power and influence for a lot less than $143 million.

But consider the other ramifications. A lot of Americans go to bed hungry, and with no health insurance. If it costs $12,000 a year to buy a family health insurance plan in the private marketplace, Whitman’s $143 million could insure nearly 12 million families for a year. Or it could give more than 12 million families $200 a week for a year to buy groceries.

And after the election has been bought, what will we citizens get in return? If the past few years are any guide, not much.

Contrast the value placed on elective office to the value placed on editing. I’m not sure we are even talking same dimension, let alone same planet. Isn’t it interesting that corporate America keeps pressuring editors to lower their fees yet corporate America keeps raising the expense of obtaining elected office. One would think if it were good enough for editors, it would be good enough for politicians, too. (I wonder when the day will arrive when we outsource/offshore our political offices because the candidates cost less?)

Okay, I’ll concede that any politician has a greater influence on most people’s daily lives than does any editor, but that may well be because we value editorial skills so lowly. Grammar skills don’t seem to matter; spelling skills don’t seem to matter; only cost seems to matter. Yet the future of corporations lies in the communication skills of the generations of leaders yet to come, which would make, to my way of thinking, editorial skills more important than they currently are viewed. Imagine the chaos that will ensue when the corporate CEO gives instruction (or the politician drafts a bill) and those whose job it is to follow those instructions do it incorrectly for the lack of clarity. (Think of simple things like: “Johnny Depp’s wife, Brad Pitt and Matt Damon.”)

Of course, the other sad thing about the cost of buying political office is that voters’ choice is generally among those who were failures but pocketed a large fortune while failing. Carly Fiorina wants to bring jobs back to America yet fired a third of her American workforce in order to make her company more profitable and thus pocket more in bonuses. Is there a disconnect? Yet she can afford to dig into her own money to run a political campaign, whereas the successful small business owner who has created American jobs in each of the last 10 years cannot afford to run for political office against a Fiorina or Whitman.

This is much like the argument against health insurance mandates. I admit that I do not like being told what I have to spend my hard-earned money on, but I also realize that sometimes you need to spend some to make some, and these mandates are like that. Consider the person who has no health insurance and becomes ill. Where do they go for treatment? To the hospital. If they cannot afford to pay the hospital bill, what happens? The cost gets spread to those of us who either have insurance or are able to pay the bill, as well as to the government (or the taxpayer). Strikes me that opposing a mandate to carry insurance is like insisting that the government raise my taxes or that my insurance carrier raise my premium rates. Someone has to pay, and it generally falls on the taxpayer to do so, which is what gets lost in the argument.

All of which brings me full circle to the original matter: Is spending $143 million to become governor of California what we citizens want to see? Wouldn’t it be better to take that same sum of money and provide health insurance or food to 12 million American families? How did we, as a society, come to be so disconnected from what is right and good? I don’t know, but I sure don’t think spending billions of dollars on politicians is such a great idea.

October 29, 2010

The Missing Ingredient: Grammar Skills

Over the past several weeks, I have had opportunities to speak with the heads of production at several of my clients. After our direct business discussion, we sort of wandered off topic to discuss the current state of copyediting and copyeditors.

What I found interesting was that each of the persons I spoke with had the same lament: There is a dearth of copyeditors with good grammar skills. What they have noticed is the wide gap in skill level between those who are nearing retirement (high on the skill scale) and those now entering the field or who have been in the field for only a few years (low on the skill scale).

Grammar and spelling skills appear to be declining among editors, or so I was told. These clients believe that editors increasingly are relying on software programs to tell them when there is a grammar or spelling error, and taking the software’s suggested correction without exercising the independent judgement that is required to determine whether or not the software is correct.

What brought this up was my mentioning that I occasionally speak at gatherings of freelancers about the business of freelance editing. In each instance, the client suggested that it would be significantly more beneficial — for both the client and the copyeditors seeking business — if grammar was addressed. One client said that of 100 editing tests administered, they were lucky if 1 got a passing grade and that it was rare for testees to get very high passing grades.

Another problem they all cited was the obvious reliance on spell-checker. One client wondered if the editors even owned printed dictionaries and usage guides, or if they did, if the editor knew how to use them. Two examples were cited: The first was there and their. The client remarked that it was not unusual, anymore, to receive a copyedited manuscript with the incorrect term left as presented by the author. The second was that and who. Apparently people have become objects and many copyeditors do not correct a sentence such as “The students and teachers that became…” or “The patients that were tested….” Other examples given were that and which and since and because.

I don’t know if the full cause of the problem can be laid at the feet of the education system, but certainly a significant portion of it can. I know that when my children were in school, grammar was barely touched on as a subject. I also know that when I look at the writing of many educators, there is a clear lack of facility with grammar. This is not to say that the best of us don’t make grammar mistakes; rather the problem is that what was once occasional error has become commonplace.

Yet, the question is this: How many copyeditors recognize that their grammar skills are less than stellar and would be willing to pay to attend a conference devoted to improving grammar skills? I suspect, based on conversations that I have had with colleagues, that most think the problem is not their problem but is that of someone else. It is the state of humanness that lets us readily perceive the faults of others but not our own.

I expect the problem to get worse long before it gets better. Unless how teachers are taught/educated undergoes significant reform and a new emphasis is placed on communication skills that include grammar, spelling, and writing, I do not think improvement will occur. As the transmitters of knowledge, teachers have to be the first to gain it.

It also may symptomatic of today’s culture. In my youth, one way grammar skills were picked up was by osmosis — reading well-edited books, magazines, and newspapers could only lead to absorption of some of the “rules.” But today, reading overall is in decline. Interestingly, what is on the incline are those tasks that reward brevity and substitution — all that matters is that the general message be sent and understood, the twittering of grammar.

It doesn’t help that we are in an age of anyone who wants can publish. It means that a lot of grammatically and spelling-poor material is available for reading, which only acts to reinforce poor habits. Is there an easy solution? No. But based on the discussions I had with clients, there is a definite need for copyeditors to recognize their limitations and voluntarily undertake the effort to improve their skills.

What do you think? Would you pay for grammar-focused class or do you think you already have a high skill level?

September 17, 2010

A Reminder: The Finding Your Niche Conference

Just a reminder for those interested in attending the “Finding Your Niche/Expanding Your Horizons” conference October 1 and 2, 2010, in Rochester, NY (see A Gathering of Freelance Editorial Professionals) that time is running out to register — the conference is 2 weeks from today!

Lots of knowledgable people will be attending — both speakers and conference goers — so it will be a great opportunity to learn what you can do to enhance your freelance career. It will also be an opportunity to speak — one-on-one — to some of the people from whom you have sought advice in other forums. This conference will give you an opportunity to discuss some of your concerns about the future with some of the most successful freelancers around and people who are experts in using the tools of editorial freelancing to get the most bang for the buck.

For example, 3 gurus of Word macros for editors will be available to answer your macro questions. Plus there will be giveaways that are worth coming for in their own right.

Registration information for the conference, which includes a complete schedule, is available here.

If you are on the fence about attending, don’t be — this conference could be the event that opens new opportunities and worlds for you. I look forward to meeting readers of An American Editor at the conference.

(Note: Although I am a speaker at the conference, I have no financial interest in the conference or in the sponsor of the conference, Communication Central, other than that, as a speaker, I will be reimbursed for my expenses.)

September 8, 2010

We Can Do Better! We Must Do Better!

My earlier articles on literacy (Education, Teachers, Literacy, & the Future and Changing Educational Norms to Address Literacy) provoked some comments and the following guest article by Levi Montgomery. Levi wrote an earlier guest article (Books and Buggy Whips: Publishing in the New World). He is a novelist and blogger. His books are available at multiple places, including via his website.

______________________________

We Can Do Better!
We Must Do Better!

by Levi Montgomery

Compulsory Education is Undermining the Acquisition of Knowledge

The concept of compulsory education, intended to benefit society by ensuring an educated public, is failing because it has perverted the meaning of the word education. To educate someone should mean only to give them a certain body of knowledge and to take what steps are needed to ensure they have learned what was taught. Instead, education has become a social rubber stamp.

Every student shall go to school, the laws say, until that student has passed a certain grade or age. In addition, we have the social expectation that a student will be in a new grade each year, and that the student will have that magic piece of paper in hand when he or she goes stumping for a job. A student can’t fail; the student’s life is over if he or she does.

The solution, masterfully executed by the American educational system in the past thirty years, is to remove all actual dissemination of knowledge from the system.

Kids can’t get the hang of diagramming sentences? Toss it. They won’t read Moby-Dick? Give them graphic novels. They have trouble with the difference between nouns and verbs? Stop talking about nouns and verbs. Tell them that grammar doesn’t matter. Tell them that spelling “correctly” is a figment of the imagination of a bunch of dead white guys, that “getting your ideas down on paper” is more important than “hypertechnical adherence to outmoded rules.”

Because otherwise they might fail. The herd might break up as it progresses through the years of school. Some of the little sheep might not even get out the other end, if we allow failure.

Here’s an Idea:
Teach the Student, not the Herd

Every student can excel at something. Every student has some secret passion that he or she wants to learn more and more and even more about. Find that passion, and feed it.

Before my oldest son was two, he learned how to take his crib apart and get out. He couldn’t climb the rails, but he could unscrew the back and get out. When he was eight, he was repairing alarm clocks. But in school, his spelling, punctuation, and grammar were atrocious. Rather than do anything about it, the teachers told me that his way of writing and spelling was as valid as any other, and I should just leave him alone on it. They refused to try to teach him the basics that he would need to communicate in the world he inhabited.

In a perfect world, in elementary school he would have been given hand tools and alarm clocks and small mechanisms of various sorts. He would have been encouraged to explore that passion he had. Then they would have wanted written reports of what he’d found, and they’d require the correct spelling and punctuation and grammar, and when he needed to know the difference between nouns and verbs, they would have taught him. If he got it wrong, they would have been free to say “No, that’s wrong,” because they wouldn’t need to feed his “self-esteem.” Pursuing his passion, excelling at that, would be all the fuel his pride would need, and if he was bad at spelling or grammar, so what? He’d learn what he needed to know, in order to talk about his passion. To speak on the fine points of gear trains, he’d need math. To explore the history of clocks or typewriters or cotton gins, well, that’s history, right? And poof — he’s learning!

Compulsory Education is No Education at All

By saying “These things must be learned by all,” we ensure that the list of “these things” cannot include anything that cannot be learned by the least educable among us. If everyone has to graduate from high school, but not everyone can master calculus, then calculus can’t be required in high school. It’s still there, as an elective, but if you need time in your schedule to fit in the required course in “Consumer Economics” (how to balance a checkbook, which you’d know if you’d passed fourth-grade arithmetic), guess which one gets tossed? If not everyone can master the difference between the parts of speech, but everyone has to pass, then you can’t teach the different parts of speech.

Make education free, but optional. Or, better yet, free and compulsory, but only until you stop learning and start to fail the tests — the “standardized” tests. Give every student extensive testing on aptitudes and desires, and mold each education to the student. Because we learn best when we teach, give every first-grade student a third-grade tutor, and every second-grade student a fourth-grade tutor, and so forth. From third grade on, you would have a tutee two grades behind you. A teacher, then, is simply someone who is so valuable to the school that he or she stays on and keeps teaching. And keeps learning.

Because we need math and science skills for almost anything, and because no matter what your passion is, math and science are (or should be) part of it, we’d all learn math and science, and there would be no whining about “Why do I need to learn this? I’ll never use it!” You’re using it every day, because you need it now. We all want to talk about our passions, and in this world every student would be a blogger and a writer, and would need the skills of language.

If your passion is engines, why do you need the history of the Civil War? You’ll know everything you need to know about cannons and caissons, and the rest you google. Let someone else learn that part. It’s there when you need it, because they’re talking about it.

There would be no need for compulsion. The first time I outlined this to a friend of mine, I asked him “What would you have said, in third grade, if the teacher had brought in an alarm clock, and said ‘Let’s take this apart.’?” His face lit up, and he related the story of how, when he was nine, he had carefully broken all the glass off of a light bulb without disturbing the element, screwed it into a lamp, and turned on the lamp. Just to see what would happen. He spent the first twenty-two years of his life getting a chemical engineering degree he never uses. The system failed him. The system never saw that gleam in his eyes when the element flared out in one brilliant flash. The system never saw his passion.

We can do better! We must do better!

______________________________

One problem I see if education is not compulsory, is that it will be parents making the decision whether a child should get an education rather than the child. And we would likely see a resurgence of the attitude that “what was good enough for me (the parent) is good enough for him/her (the student).” In the parent-child relationship, it is the parent who wields the power, especially over the very young.

Another problem is that noncompulsory education would do away with one of the better things about America, the blurring of the classes. This is not to say that we are a classless society, but that there is greater mobility between classes in America than probably in any other society. It is this mobility, brought about by education, that has been the foundation of American greatness. Education is the great leveler in America.

A final thought: The one great strength, I think, of American education has been the recognition that there is a core set of knowledge that every student should master. In recent decades, education has drifted away from that concept, which has resulted in America’s academic decline. Perhaps we should work to strengthen that core knowledge while teaching to the student.

Do you agree or disagree? Do you have a different solution to or perspective of the problem? Or do you think there is no problem at all? Let us know.

August 31, 2010

Education, Teachers, Literacy, & the Future

Yesterday, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan visited New York to publicize its winning of $700 million in the second round of the Race to the Top, which brought literacy to my mind yet again.

As readers of this blog know, literacy of the younger generations concerns me. I grew up in a time when reading comprehension was a valued skill. I remember taking an employment test after graduating college that tested my comprehension skills. I can’t pinpoint the precise reason why I am a reader and why I have what I consider to be decent comprehension skills. As with most things, I expect that there isn’t a single reason but rather a convergence of multiple reasons into a spot that is called comprehension skills.

But I think there are some obvious reasons why comprehension skills appear to be in the decline today, and many of them revolve around the role education plays in the lives of the young.

Teacher acquaintances complain that the problem fundamentally lies in the student’s home; parents fail to encourage their children to read and understand, in fact, devalue such skills to the point that teachers cannot overcome the student attitudes. As with all things, I expect there is a grain of truth in this, but not much more than a grain. I look back at my own childhood and recall that my parents were neutral about reading, neither encouraging nor discouraging. All they wanted was better school performance.

(Before proceeding further, because this has arisen before, let me define literacy as I mean it: the ability to read and comprehend what is being read. The measure of one’s literacy is dependent on age, school grade, and profession (or professional aspirations). There is a minimum level of literacy that I believe is needed from all adult citizens, regardless of profession, in order for our society to continue to function as a democracy (or republic if you prefer). That level of literacy is not satisfied by the ability to read and comprehend Superman comics.)

One impediment to stoking interest in literacy accomplishments are the teachers themselves. This impediment is built on several fronts, not least of which are the declining literacy of teachers as they mimic their own generational trends and the union insistence that all teachers must be treated equally with the standard being something other than the highest-performing teachers.

This latter insistence tends to reward the drive to the lowest common denominator and discourage rising above the average. Unlike athletes who compete as individuals and thus strive to outdo their colleagues, teachers too often see no reward in standing out: can you imagine the complaints — from fellow teachers, from students, and from parents — if one teacher were to assign and require in-depth analysis of the original Uncle Tom’s Cabin and that teacher’s other two grade-level colleagues assigned instead a Classics Illustrated/Cliff Notes version of the book? Most people, regardless of their profession, do not want to stand out from the crowd. Today’s socialization demands less individualization and more groupness.

This translates to the generational mimicking trend; that is, younger generations increasingly believe that one can successfully multitask and absorb tidbits of knowledge rather than concentrating on a task and giving it in-depth analysis. Teachers who grew up in the midst of that trend also think and teach in terms of tidbits of knowledge. Lost is the idea that if one learns how to analyze, one can then successfully analyze and learn most anything. Analysis is the foundation of comprehension and as analytical skills decline, so does comprehension.

We can see this shift in emphasis just by looking at the university degrees teachers earn. My teachers had advanced degrees in the subject area they taught; many — not all, but many —  teachers today have advanced degrees in education and other general concept areas, or if they have it in their area of specialization, the degree requirements often are less specialty rigorous and more general education concept focused than that of a nonteacher in the same specialty area. There is a disconnect and the focus is wrong.

We can also see this shift when we analyze what is being taught. I look at education books today and see lots of factoids. Students are expected to learn dates and events, for example, but not to analyze the events and the times in which they occurred. Do we no longer need to know why the Inquisition came about and how it was sustained into the late 19th century, or is it enough to know simply that it existed? Is it enough to discuss the Spanish Inquisition, or should students understand the effect it had on, say, the Aztecs and Incas?

Sadly, this trend is also reflected in the writing skills of educators. Those of us who edit books written by educators for educators can see the evidence of the literacy decline in the quality of the manuscripts submitted. Instead of all manuscripts being relatively equal in terms of quality and veering toward the high-quality level, one sees manuscripts that are all over the place with most veering toward the low-quality level. And the schism between older and younger teachers is quite apparent. (I am constantly amused by author insistence that it is not enough to write “create a sign that reads ‘Quiet,'” there must also be an illustration of a sign that says “QUIET,” the reasoning being that readers may not understand what is needed absent the illustration. Does this not reflect on the readers’ comprehension skills and the author’s mistrust of them?)

We need to view comprehension skills in light of much more than school years. We need to view it in the light of the future workplace; after all, most of us spend more years of our lives in the workplace than in the sheltered halls of academia. If students lack top-notch comprehension skills, who will make the breakthroughs of tomorrow? One needs to be able to identify a problem, analyze it, and then try to solve it; and when the resolution doesn’t work, repeat the process, perhaps innumerable times. But when we lose critical analysis skills, we also lose the necessary patience to find solutions to problems — we demand and expect instant solution (or gratification) and our attention span is very limited.

Comprehension begins with learning — and mastering — the skills of patience and analyzation. Unfortunately, it seems that our current schooling system is ill-equipped to foster those skills, and our society will suffer the consequences of the decline in comprehension for years to come. Tomorrow, one suggestion for changing our education system.

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