Monday, July 16, 2012

How to Cultivate Style and Substance

Penelope Trunk has an interesting post about why the publishing industry sucks. I have to admit I merely skimmed it. Though her writing, informal, assured, and confessional, is mostly entertaining, I wasn't in the mood for her digressive lists today. The main point of the blog post is that the publishing industry has no idea how to promote books, mostly because Amazon is withholding their demographic information of book buyers. Also, again, publishing is dying. The exception may be fiction writing, of which the acceptance by a publishing house is still considered a measure of quality.

This may change though. After all, although Shades of Grey, a self-published novel, is almost universally derided as an example of bad writing, it's still a best seller. In addition, the Twilight series, published by Little, Brown and Company (of the Little Brown Handbook?!) is also a best seller, a major movie franchise, and also generally derided as an example of bad writing (among other things). Therefore, publishing companies may be willing to publish more and more best-selling trash in order to stay afloat.

My boyfriend wrote a post about why writing is hard. Writing well is difficult and writing something worth saying is almost impossible. I think those are two separate things though. Writing well is about style and is a skill that must be honed. Writing something worth saying is about content and critical thinking. I'm not sure where this comes from. Probably from one of the following a) inspiration b) a unique perspective of the world c) research d) experience e) all of the above.

When teaching writing, we do try to have students come up with unique theses and then make them support them with logical and convincing topic sentences, concrete detail, and commentary. The other half is to get them to write well.

Unfortunately, these two things do not always overlap. I am fond of reading The New York Times, but I often read the "Style" section, where articles with subjects as insipid as New York socialites holding viewing parties of Downton  Abbey (sometimes dressing up in tiaras). I have to admit, though, that New York Times articles are invariably well-written.

On the other hand, I also like reading Psychology Today. The articles are not always brimming with content, but the main problem is the inconsistency of the writing. Some articles are very short; so much so that they can hardly be called articles. Some articles are overly long; one article was 3 webpages long, getting to its main point in the last page. The extra padding did nothing to illuminate the idea. Some articles are weighed down by gimmicky terms in a bid for unique branding. They are all written by people with advanced degrees in psychology. Many of them spend their careers in pursuit of unique ideas in psychology.

Here's the rub. To be a skilled writer, according to a book by Malcolm Gladwell, one of those writers who has mastered both being skilled and being interesting, one should have 10,000 hours of practice. Writers probably develop that skill by writing for hours a day, sometimes about insipid subjects. To be an interesting idea, you need to . . . do things other than write.

After all, it is the job of lots of PhDs in the world to think of interesting ideas, which they then try to prove them true (at least some of the time). Most of them then proceed to write badly* about them because they were too busy researching to develop writing skills.

Let's just say that having something worth saying has to do with creativity, something as ambiguous as inspiration. People have endeavored to study it though. Research implies that creativity comes from having time to think alone, but also exposure to different opinions. Supposedly, one discovers one's unique perspective of the world through opposition to others. Ways to discover this opposition could occur through research or experience.

In which case the best way to write something with both style and substance would be to read a lot of well-written texts on a variety of interesting ideas, or at the very least a lot of texts on a variety of interesting ideas, at least some of which are well-written. We can then do what Buzzfeed does and just take popular ideas and then rewrite them in a more coherent, more developed way. But the most important thing is to read; read like we breathe.

*as stated by my social psychology professor, Matthew Lieberman.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Overentertaining Engagement

American students are spoiled.* There, I said it. This New Yorker article assumes that people already know that American children are spoiled, its thesis mostly couched in the "why?" But if American children are spoiled, doesn't if follow that American students are spoiled as well?

*While I am focusing on American students, this does not necessarily mean other nations' students are not spoiled.

To clarify, spoiled doesn't necessarily mean well-equipped. Far from it. More often children/students are spoiled in direct proportion to how neglected they are, not the other way around. You can picture the child with the latest DSL, PSP, X-box, what have you, but no discipline, but also picture students whose classes have been dumbed down to the point of having coloring for homework in high school. Of course students won't perform such token homework; it doesn't teach them anything. Both of these children are lacking in responsibility, giving them the impression that they cannot handle responsibility.

I think there's too much emphasis on teachers being "engaging." If engaging means meaningful and interactive, then school should of course be engaging. However, more often than not engaging means entertaining. The best teachers would be entertaining as well as engaging, but even they can't keep it up 100% of the time. Not even academy award winning movies entertain everyone all the time.

I and many of my friends were(are) good students, which means we learned the material regardless of the teacher. I'm not one of those people who claims to have learned nothing in college, in part because I actually put effort into my classes and found them engaging. Chicken or egg?

But I was a terrible student in Chinese school. The worst. While I had one of the highest reading levels and was doing extra math from a textbook a grade level up in regular elementary, in Chinese school I was one of those kids who stares at the wall the entire time, doesn't do homework, and writes nothing on tests. Chinese school was volunteer run by parents, not teachers, so . . . they weren't necessarily the best teachers. I certainly don't remember any of them being engaging. Would I have paid attention if my teachers had been? Maybe, but what would have helped me a lot more was if I had had adequate training and materials.

I was not properly placed at Chinese school. All of my classmates knew bo po mo fo (ㄈ) ABCs of Mandarin Chinese. To this day I still don't know this system. Therefore, unless I memorized what sound went with each character in class, I had no reference. My spoken Chinese was also subpar, and we were using Taiwanese elementary textbooks (most 2nd language Chinese textbooks are designed for adults; Chinese elementary textbooks would use simplified characters). That mean there was no English. At all. Which meant that even if I had known the sound for the character, I wouldn't have known the meaning.

These obstacles wouldn't necessarily have made it impossible for me to learn Chinese, but they did decrease my motivation to the point that I made it impossible. Engaging should mean meaningful, not necessarily fun.

No offense to Sir Ken Robinson or anything, but sometimes you need a factory-type system. While unfortunately schools are becoming more and more factory-like, often what you get in schools is a system that fosters neither creativity nor competence (as in literacy). Prepping for standardized tests is definitely not creative, but neither is it meaningful. Students are not taught self-discipline for the sake of accomplishment; they're taught to eat up SAT classes and their tips and tricks to game the system (I kid you know; my students take an SAT class that for the essay portion teaches them to write large, fill up the page, and even tells them how many lines per paragraph to write. Then my students talk about how they like to end a paragraph at the beginning of a line, so that it looks like the essay takes up more space--see?).

I have issues with unschooling, a movement that has hijacked Ken Robinson the way Fundamentalist Christians have hijacked Jesus. They propose no schooling at all, focusing instead on pure, self-directed exploration.

Bad idea. There's a time and place for unschooling. It's not during school time. It's probably not during dinner time or chore time or bedtime either (but I'm not focusing on the degradation of children in general). Just because a system has swung too far to one side doesn't mean the solution is to swing to the other extreme. Ken Robinson said that creativity is as important as literacy, not that it should supersede it. Students need to take some time to know something so that they can deconstruct and reconstruct it. And hey, MATCH schools and Asian test scores agree with me (please see Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell).

MATCH schools serves underpriviledged kids. Un/Homeschooling is only viable for the middle class and above. Either one parent has to take time off work or the family needs money for a private teacher or the family has to pay for multiple non-public school classes. Let's face it. People who attempt this have college degrees. Their children will have the cultural capital to go to college. Children of well-heeled parents come back to school in the fall knowing more than they did in the spring. Good for them and their summer camps and private tutoring. Low-income children, however, come back to school in the fall knowing less than they did in the spring, because they spent a majority of their summer in front of the TV.

MATCH works as a socioeconomic equalizer partially by keeping kids in school longer by extending the school day, the school week, and the school year. Time spent learning is as important as method of learning. I would like to digress for a moment now and argue that schools dramatically reduce summer vacation (who can afford the childcare, anyway?). That way, we can teach slower, but better. We can even reduce homework, the way Race to Nowhere wants us to. This would also benefit teachers because 1) We wouldn't be called lazy for not working in the summer (although my boyfriend has scheduled 5 hours a day for prepping for his classes) 2) we can work less overtime doing prepping and grading. After all, a larger than 40 hour workweek has increasingly diminishing returns on productivity.

Asian National children really outperform American children, including that 2% of Asian Americans, at math. This has nothing to do with genetics and everything with culture. There is a direct correlation between percentage of test finished and percentage score, which means that Asian children don't necessarily get a bigger percentage of math questions right; they just do more of the test. Of course, it's unreasonable for ask a 3rd grader to sit and take a test for several hours. Unless you're Asian. In Taiwan, these kids start schooling at age 2, including for English. When they're old enough to go to real school, they go to class after class.

This is not necessarily a good thing. The pressure for kids in Asia (or at least in Taiwan) is too high. For one thing, there is rampant cheating (i.e. copying of homework) in schools. For another thing, there isn't much room for creativity, discovery, and experimentation. Americans don't want to be like Asia. We are arguably more creative and definitely more independent. That means we're more likely to be entrepreneurial. However, if you do work at a start-up, you have to be prepared to work a lot. Mature a couple of hours at a time for a 3rd grader to an adult standard.

Furthermore, all of this work? It ain't gonna be all fun and games, even if you love the field and the work is really meaningful to you (as it should be), it won't necessarily be entertaining all the time. It may not even be engaging. There's always the red tape bureaucracy and persnickety details you don't have the money to pay someone else to take care of.

For example, my Chinese is now good enough that I'm learning fairly complex Chinese characters (i.e. 幫, which means help). My teacher has taught us all sorts of semantic tricks using the radicals (those individual shapes) involving sound and meaning. It helps a lot (I remember the previous character by remembering that if they are two dirt clods on a white cloth, even an inch would be a lot of help).

However, at the end of the day, the only way to know 1500+ characters instantly (2000 is barely enough to read a newspaper; 8000 characters is considered fluent) is to write them over and over again, repeating the word whilst writing it. So I don't mind if my students don't find their homework interesting. It's not supposed to be. It's practice, which by definition is repetition. That doesn't mean it's not engaging.

Writing goals

Writing Prompt #4: Acknowledge that writing is hard. Write it down. Then write about how
you are going to make writing happen. How will you find the balance in
yourself to combine willpower with relaxation, stubbornness with joy?
Write about how you've struck this balance in the past with writing, a
sport, playing an instrument--anything you've done.

Writing is hard (even if it's typing). I am going to make writing happen by
1) following these writing prompts
2) jotting down whatever ideas come into my head
3) taking the time to revisit and actually write about ideas I've written down, even if I'm not inspired by them at the moment.
4) setting aside time every morning to write

Willpower means sitting down to write every day. I might need more willpower to wake up at an earlier time that makes this feasible. Relaxation can be achieved by allowing myself to stop writing after an hour if I'm stuck, but also allowing me to continue writing until I am done. I should also get up at least once an hour to walk around (sitting down for 2 hours hurts). I'm seldom stubborn about writing, except when I should really be doing something else. I suppose I'm stubborn about changing my writing sometimes. I can cut stuff out of my writing if I really think it will make it better though. I like to interject extraneous anecdotes and interesting digressions, but if I can develop them into separate pieces of writing, then I'll feel better about letting them go. Joy is when I'm inspired and have the time to write.

I don't tink I've ever struck a balance with writing. I tend to write in spurts, whether it be a 3 hour blog post when I should be doing something else, or an all-nighter for a paper. I have to admit, I do sometimes let ideas marinate in my head for awhile before recording them; a product of having nothing to do on long commutes. My approach to homework in general wasn't that great: put it off until completion is only barely assured at a reasonable hour, then work on it with a perfectionist's mindset until done. Sometimes I would also do homework in class instead of socializing with classmates or giving my teacher my full attention.

The closest I've gotten to having a balance was with karate.  Karate was a class, so it was always at 7:30pm twice a week, and I would go to extra practice Sunday morning. Classes would last at least an hour. Sunday practice would last at least two hours. You could practice more if you arrived early or left late. There were many days that I didn't feel like going to karate, but I would force myself, telling myself that if I skipped one day, I would skip another, or that I'd gone to karate in worse condition, or that it was just an hour, and that I would feel better afterwards. I always did, although once or twice I had to sit down from anemia. Most of the time though, one would walk out of the dojo with a sense of accomplishment, relaxation, joy, and a rush of endorphins.

Writing is an art, but I find most artists far too indulgent with themselves; always seeking inspiration for their poetry or painting. I think a better model would be a classical musician. Classical musicians practice several hours a day. They are critical enough of themselves so that they find something to practice, something meaningful to work on and improve. They may not be inspired all of the time, but the hone their skills every day. All of that private practice and group rehearsal for a couple of performances.

I was not always a diligent piano player, but when I was I was methodical about my practice. I started out with nearly 20 minutes of just scales, as my teacher wanted. Then I would practice each piece I had for a certain amount of time. The first couple of times as a warm-up. Then I would choose something such as tempo or expression. If I had a problem spot, I would practice that until it was right. At these points, my daily practice time would exceed an hour and still not seem adequate.

If I apply that to writing, then I need to hone my skills every day. I need to set goals for how I want my writing to become. To do that, I get to spend more time reading to figure out what I admire in writing, even if it doesn't necessarily apply to mine. To practice my basics, I could write poetry, emphasizing rhyme or rhythm. I could do vignettes for plot or mood. For longer pieces, I would tackle any problem spots. Every once in awhile, I can work on something I truly find inspiring. If I do that enough times, maybe something will stick.

Writing goals:
  1. Apt alliteration, perhaps assonance and consonance
  2. Figure out if I want to keep writing sentence fragments. Or use dashes.
  3. Figure out what makes a good plot. Try to write more plot-oriented fiction.
  4. Mood sketches
  5. Character sketches
  6. Write a piece from 3 different points of view
  7. Increase humor with imaginative analogies and appropriate randomness (figure out when my writing is funny and why)

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Compliments and Creativity (and Analysis and Social Skills)

After an extended writing hiatus, boyfriend and I have decided to supplement our semi-long distance communication this summer with writing prompts. After all, we both have authorly aspirations. If we write for 3 hours a day for the next 10 years, we might actually get somewhere (I don't have time to write for 3 hours a day, but I'm guessing I've written a fair amount in the last two decades of my life--after I figured out how to write, I mean). I won't necessariliy be following the prompt directly. The goal is to get us to write more, even if we just end up sitting at the computer for an hour a day (in my case, I'll be reading articles).

Writing prompt: List positive messages you have received about your writing or other creative pursuits. What memories do you have of feeling satisfied or pleased with how a piece of writing came out?

In reverse chronological order:
"Your writing, it flows like water."
"You are an excellent writer."
"You're really articulate."
"You are very smart."
"You received almost no negative comments in your evaluations, which is unusual for a new tutor."
"You used to be really crative."

Well, that was a short list, and I'm not sure if tutoring is a creative pursuit. Nevertheless, I will try and go through them.

"Your writing, it flows like water." and "You are an excellent writer."The first comment comes from one of my best friends, the second from my special education professor on a paper I wrote for class. Number of drafts? 1. If I can get started on a topic, words pretty much do flow out like water, sometimes superfluously. The second comment was not necessarily surprising (as an English major, I did my share of writing essays, and invariably got good grades), but it was ego-enhancing in its emphatic nature. Ultimately though, these compliments are non-constructive. I know my writing flows (most of the time). I know I'm a good writer. Other than simultaneously smoothing my ego (like you smooth a cat's fur) and making me uncomfortable*, they don't serve much purpose.

*I suppose my hesitancy to accept compliments graciously comes from my Chinese background. I was told recently in class that the default answer to any compliment is "nali, nali," which basically means, "that's not true" or "you're exaggerating." This is the default answer even when it's hard to argue with the compliment, such as "you are tall." Technically it's an opinion, but it's hard to argue with someone four inches shorter than you. I guess you're supposed to say stuff life, "I'm average for an American," or, "I have friends even taller than I am!"

I don't remember much constructive criticism from college either. It was more like, "You could have done better on this and this and that, but overall good job!" Maybe I don't remember the comments because they were either telling me things I already knew (yeah, but I didn't know how to fix it) or because I knew my writing, how it worked, and how to produce it. The process mostly got me As, so why change it?

What memories do you have of feeling satisfied or pleased with how a piece of writing came out?

Because the best paper I ever wrote did not come from the default process of start-the-paper-the-night-before-it's-due-and-work-on-it-all-night, but from a thorough rereading of the book (The Bell Jar) where I took note of all the parts which would later form my concrete detail. I didn't even have a clear thesis, I was rereading the book to form my thesis, and when it came it seemed to coalesce organically. Granted, though I started writing this paper a bit earlier than the others (maybe two days before it was due), a lot of the work came from before I even started free-typing, when I was bookmarking passages. This is why I like to tell my students that 80% of the work of the paper is coming up with a (good) thesis.

"You're really articulate." and "You are very smart."
Both of these stem from my Asian-American literature class. A class I was actually effortlessly interested in. The first was from a classmate (I was honestly and graciously able to say, "Oh, so are you" in return) and from my professor, who was encouraging me to go to graduate school.

The Secret Life of Pronouns talks about how students who write with an analytical style tend to get better grades in college. It's uncertain whether this is because analytical people are smarter or because American universities prefer analytical skills. Probably the latter. Sir Ken Robinson talks about how schools emphasize analysis (along with memorization), but not creativity/divergent thinking. Hey, why analyze things when you could be creating new things? Lastly, in Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell talked about a genius who couldn't graduate from college. He had analytical skills up the wazoo, but he didn't have the requisite social skills.

I'm perhaps overly analytical. My boyfriend says I analyze everything, but can't observe what's in front of me. This is true. When we're walking around, instead of paying attention to where I'm going for future reference (luckily my following skills are well-honed), I'm asking my boyfriend if his gay friend who sometimes talks in a "fem-y" way started talking that way before or after he discovered he was gay and joined the gay community, because if so then maybe it was more of a product of social transference rather than an inherent genetic trait. His response was, "I don't know. I wasn't paying attention. I guess I should have been, but I didn't know that in the future I would be with someone who analyzes everything."

In conclusion, being analytical isn't everything, although it does get me compliments and was probably a key factor in getting good grades for my English papers. After all, English majors don't usually write their own literature; they just analyze the bejezus out of existing literature. (Although I do believe you should be able to read well before you can write well.)

"You received almost no negative comments, which is unusual for a new tutor."
I was a pretty damn good tutor. When I first started teaching, I lamented that my tutoring skills apparently did not apply at all to my teaching skills, but in a way they did. Skills tutors need are listening skills, questioning skills, and the patience to let the tutee figure out what he or she thinks oneself. Though lecture skills, lesson-planning skills, and classroom management are essential for a teacher, tutor skills are what I believe really foster critical thinking (if you can somehow squeeze it into a class of 25+ students).

I am not a socially skilled person. I used to say I was socially retarded. Now I say I'm borderline Asperger's (or on the spectrum, as my boyfriend likes to say). Also, I am highly introverted. After reading Susan Cain's introvert manifesto Quiet, I'm more accepting of myself, and am glad to know that there are others out there who need time to themselves (because they get overwhelmed by too much socializing) and don't like small talk. I guess introverts are kind of Aspergey.

Introverts are branded as shy and, let's face it, socially unskilled. The socially skilled introverts are the ones who can (and are willing to) fake it. I was always told I was quiet as a child, but only my child-disliking grandmother who lived in Taiwan liked me for it.

However, Susan Cain's arguement is that introverts are skilled at certain tasks. They tend to be more thoughtful (they spend time by themselves thinking), are more detail-oriented (on the things they pay attention to), tend to be more conscientious, and are better listeners. I kind of think of teaching as an extrovert's job. One has to be more or less constantly interacting with a large group of people; favorite teachers tend to be ones who can be funny and "perform" for their class. Tutoring taps into more introvert skills. Those skills seem to be coming into vogue now that there is more emphasis on guides on the sides instead of sages on stages and student-centered, constructivist teaching. (Ironically, introvert students like sage-on-stage, lecture-type teaching, probably because the focus is not on them.)

I guess my point is that I am socially skilled in certain contexts, such as tutoring. And in traditional Asian communities.

My other point is that the introvert way of brainstorming seems to be more effective. A new yorker article denouncing groupthink argued that better and more bountiful ideas came when people first brainstormed alone. This makes sense to me, although perhaps it's introverts who brainstorm best alone, while extroverts may like the competition (even though it's not supposed to be a competition) of groupthink. Let's move on to creativity then.

"You used to be really creative."
Said my sister, lamenting my lost creativity the way my mother laments how my academic success peaked in middle school (I got Bs in high school). I guess Ken Robinson is onto something. When I was younger and my homework was scanty, before the age of the internet, I spent a lot of time with my sister building forts, planning impromptu luaus, starting plays, and even choreographing a dance celebrating the Fourth of July (Happy Birthday, U.S.A.). Then I started going to sleep after midnight because of homework and procrastination.

Actually, I think procrastination is very important to creativity. When I have nothing to do, I do nothing. When I have a ton of stuff to do, such as clean my apartment, I decide to make homemade mayonnaise, homemade yogurt, and clothes made out of old sheets (sorry boyfriend). Of course if I get too busy (with actual deadlines), then I buckle down and do only work. Just as a recent article in Salon talked about how coffee houses are great for creativity because of a moderate amount of noise (whether or not that amount of noise corresponds to the music coming out of my ipod remains to be discovered), I believe a moderate amount of business is essential to productivity, even creative productivity. If I have nothing to do, I want to do nothing. I may be restless, but my yearnings for activity are vague and inchoate. Give me something to do, and that inchoatness quickly takes shape. Give me something to do and limitations on my movement and I can find even more ways to waste my time.

There are two factors to creativity. First: having time and space to yourself. Second: why is everyone hating on Starbuck's green tea with red bean drink? It's not appealing to me either, but it's a fairly traditional and very popular flavor combination in Taiwan, so Starbucks is not being stupid; it's catering to the local population. In other words, random interactions with other people or ideas, especially if the differ from your own. That's why in Pixar (and many other companies now as well), you have your own desk, but you can wander off to play fuseball or ping pong or get coffee. Of course, I hate water-cooler talk, and don't like people wandering into my classroom to talk about the weather, but a 30-second interaction can get you off track enough to gain a new perspective (not that this is useful if you're just collating data, which is a big part of teaching).

Now I'm going to go off topic and talk about Google (and it wasn't even Google who really started it) and 20% time. I did a final project for one of my educational classes where I designed a school where students and teachers had 20% time (Fridays were devoted to whatever they wanted to work on). It seemed like a good compromise between the need for some factory-type structures and unschooling. Another article in the Salon wants to bring back the 40 hour work week, because overtime doesn't really increase productivity (I mean, you produce more, but at a far less efficient rate). For intellectual jobs, supposedly the sweet spot of productivity is even lower than 40 hours a week.

All of this seems like it would keep workers happy, healthy, wealthy (or at least employed), and wise--especially in terms of creativity.