An Appeal

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There are certain emails from students that I don’t like.  In fact, I actually find them rather rude.  Here is one such message in its entirety: “I have misplaced my syllabus and need a new one.”  There is no greeting – no “Hello Eleni” or even just a “Hi.”  There is no sign off at all – no name, no clue who has sent this message to me besides the student email address at the top based on just the initials of my student’s name (so is SZC16 my student Samuel, Sebastian, Sarah, Sean, Siva, Shan or… and which of my courses is this student enrolled in?).

Above all, there is no “thanks” or any kind of acknowledgement that they are making a request of another human being.  It’s an order.  From someone.  For one of my syllabi.

Now I don’t believe those students who write emails such as the one above are in fact inherently rude.  Used to sending text messages hundreds of times a day mainly to their friends all day long, every day, they are unused to the fact that perhaps certain situations require different forms of writing, that perhaps in this case they need something to “open” and “close” an email.

RhetoricalTriangle_image-17njvylWhile I would agree with Matthew Malady’s article that most of us have lost the art of letter writing – the post office’s losses is the economic manifestation of that – I don’t agree that the sign off is over.  Coming from a strong belief in the value of rhetoric, I teach that there is a time and a place for different writing tools and approaches – or strategies as I call them in class – and writing an email to one’s instructor/professor still maintains a level of formality where the sign off is required.  While I may have a more personal, more casual relationship than the school teachers in Dicken’s Hard Times, a relationship where the traditional “sincerely” or “faithfully” would be a little too much, some acknowledgement that there is indeed a human presence at the other end of a digital message (and this would be true not just in one’s final remark but throughout the message as a whole) would be polite and engaging, not a stupid anachronism or a waste of time.

Civilly yours,

Eleni Anastasiou

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To Sign Off or Not To Sign Off (An Email Dilema)

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Sign Off Computer Key

Sign Off Computer Key (Photo credit: Lynn Friedman)

If I’m completely honest with myself, I’d have to say that I lack a certain finesse when it comes to signing off on an email. I usually end with a stilted “Best” or worse “Best Wishes”. I left behind “Sincerely” years ago mainly because I thought it too formal and commonplace among the employment cover letter or business email to be a part of my daily correspondence. But, I didn’t abandon all signoffs. Sometimes I accidentally slip in a “regards” at the end of an email to my mother only realizing it after I hit ‘send’.

Just as I was getting frustrated and self-conscious about my “Respectfully yours” and “Best regards”, I read an article on Slate.com about this very issue. Matthew J.X. Malady’s article, “You Say ‘Best’, I Say No” is a humorous but scathing assault on the email signoff. He claims that we have moved beyond the flowery and overly formal days of letter writing in which the signoff was important. He offers the example of a James Chamberlain writing to his mother in Ireland in 1891. Ending a letter with “I remain your ever fond son in Christ Our Lord J.C.,” was perfectly acceptable then. But we live in a different universe now with instant access to social media, email and other electronic forms of communication. Who signs off on a text? No one, unless you are a time traveler from the 19th century perhaps. Malady leads the charge against the death of the email signoff. He insists that these awkward and sometimes misleading salutations are the past not the future of electronic communication. He asks us, “can’t we all just agree to opt for “none of the above” and finally take comfort in ending our emails with the actual last thing that we want to say?”

Can we?

Best….I mean, nevermind.

–Erin Dougherty

What’s Your Type?

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HelveticaTimes New Roman. Comic Sans. Arial BoldCalibri.

We all know these are the names of fonts and that different choices have particular effects and possible uses, yet, while we have easy access to over 170 varieties, we have our favourites and generally only ever use half a dozen at most – and there are over 100,000 different fonts available worldwide.

Fonts have been getting more attention in recent years, with the documentary Helvetica released in 2007 for that font’s 50th anniversary and many sites popping up to make strong suggestions as to which fonts are best for printed documents (they suggest Times New Roman and Garamond) or documents to be read exclusively online (Lucinda Sans and Trebuchet get the nod although of course nobody agrees and others suggest Arial, Tahoma, Helvetica, or Verdana – the New York Times online uses Georgia).

just my type coverhelvetica-film

Last week on the “Colbert Report,” the writer Simon Garfield was interviewed for his latest book (On the Map) but is well known for last year’s Just My Type that tells us the story behind individual fonts, the rise of some to dominate the market, what font choices say about us, etc. For example, Garfield talks about how the font Gotham had an impact on the Obama Presidential campaign’s success and that the font Garamond is named after Claude Garamond who created it in 16th century Paris – and that this font was used to write the Declaration of Independence.

Some fonts try to mimic the look of typewriter font (Courier) or come from folios and manuscripts (Baskerville and Caslon), while others are considered more stylish (like Bodoni – the typeface of Vogue magazine -, Didot, Book Antiqua) or slightly ridiculous (Herculaneum and Braggadozio).

With all this attention on graphics, we have to consider – and wonder – what a font choice might suggest about us to others.  Verdana, Arial, and TNR, while useful, are considered conservative and a bit boring.  Comic Sans is considered youthful and casual.  Rockwell is manly.  And Gigi.  Gigi?  This one has readers feeling the writing is exciting, elegant, happy, creative, and attractive.  I’ll have to search that one out because my computer obviously doesn’t want me to be desirable!

A few days ago, I checked out The Dinner by Dutch author Herman Koch from the library, and, on the bus ride home, I examined the covers – the front image, the blurb on the back by Gillian Flynn, among others, and the detailed description of the plot on the inside front flap.  Flipping to the back pages, I read a few lines “About the Author.”  Turning the page, I was somewhat surprised to see another “About the” statement – a paragraph on the Bodoni font that the book is printed in.  Bodoni, I found, was created by the court printer of the Duke of Parma in the late 18th century and is considered to be an elegant and modern typeface.  What might this suggest about Koch’s taste?  Is there some significance to Bodoni’s “sharp contrast between thick and thin lines?”  Might the font choice indirectly affect my interpretation of the story itself?  Does it make it easier or harder to read the text?  Opening the book at random and looking at the font, I find that at first it feels a bit repellant – perhaps because I am not used to this font – but then has a strangely comfortable vibe.  Am I seeing the font for what it really is, or does my reading of it say more about me?

What’s my font?  While I am writing this post in Arial and publishing it in Calibri, I do favour Times New Roman – even if it does peg me as uninspired – given that as an instructor, I have to read stacks of student essays and homework weekly.  Yes, I am leaning towards comfort over style….

What’s your type?

– Eleni Anastasiou

Literary Bytes: Applying Algorithms to Austen

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There are times when I ‘m teaching when I think of the perfect poem, novel, TV show, or movie to illustrate a point.  “How many of you have seen Lord of the Rings?” I might ask.  About half the class raise their hands.  Giving a two-sentence summary of a scene for those not familiar with the movie, I then go on to draw out an analogy to our current concept, mainly for the benefit of those who know who Boromir is. And Lord of the Rings is one of the more popular choices.  Just this week I got no response from asking about Bridge Over the River Kwai (to discuss leadership and responsibility in Chestnutt’s “Sheriff’s Children”) or “A Doll’s House” (to add to our discussion of late 19th century texts about marriage, such as “The Yellow Wallpaper”).  When discussing the opera The Geisha mentioned in Chekhov’s “Lady with the Little Dog” and relating it to the experience of listening to Elgar’s “Cello Concerto,” I had two students come up at the end of class wanting to know which composer I’d mentioned as they had not registered a familiar name at the time.

What these and numerous other examples over the years show is that we do not have access to a collective memory.  Perhaps the desire for collective memory is unrealistic, but even in the mid-90s, certain shows like “Seinfeld” were still popular enough to generate that next day water-cooler moment.  As new media are created and existing ones expanded (hulu, Netflix, Redbox, more cable channels, e-magazines and journals, blogs, nooks, kindles, ipads, youtube, pinterest, etc. etc.), each of us becomes more and more cocooned by our discreet cultural (and political) choices – best represented when watching people on the street or those riding buses (almost everyone is either hunched over their phones or listening to digital music) or watching any political commentator. This troublingly means we (those out of college) have the ability to completely disregard or completely exclude any text that challenges our world view.

That’s why, when reading a couple of New York Times articles recently, I was curious to see if perhaps some form of collective culture does exist after all.  While the individual scholar would find it impossible to analyze the amount of data required to discover certain links and connections, new algorithms have lately been able to raise and answer questions about literary influence, language, and culture.

In “Dickens, Austen and Twain, Viewed in a Digital Lens,” Steve Lohr indicates that sometimes common understandings of influence can be incredibly wrong.  While many would believe that the leading 19th century novelists would be Dickens, Hardy, Melville, and Twain, crunching the numbers shows that the most influential writers in the 19th century were Jane Austen and Sir Walter Scott (the writer of the novel Ivanhoe, set in medieval times).  The programme used works with words in a similar way to a biologist examining genes given that words are analogous building blocks.  The fact that Google Books has scanned over 20 million books dating from 1500 (15 million of those in the past 2 years alone) gives a huge database from which to track word usage and related words.  Graphs of word usage are open to the public at this site: http://books.google.com/ngrams.  Putting in the names of favourite or competing authors (such as Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, and George Eliot) can show that Eliot enjoyed greater attention (positive or negative?), but, that since the mid 1990s Austen has become more on trend.  Randomly putting in the words “tickle,” “skipping,” and “wiggle” shows that “skipping” is a more commonly used word. Needless to say, I have bookmarked this site for further investigation!

If literary influence is hard to track, sometimes what seems to be easy to see – a movement from a more ornate literary style to a more colloquial, everyday language (via Twain and Hemingway of course) – proves not to be the case at all. Examining fiction, magazines, academic writing, newspapers, and transcribed speech from the last twenty years, the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) has found that there are certain words and phrases that crop up time and time again in fiction but not in other forms of writing.  “Grimaced,” “grunted,” “gritted,” “scowled,” and “wiggled” were the most common past-tense verbs in fiction compared to academic writing.  And when it comes to “brushing,” every one else is brushing their teeth and not brushing lips or fingers against hair as they are in fiction.  COCA also found that there are stock phrases to describe how a character responds to emotions both in action and facial expression.  One can see the quirks of a favourite author (can you guess which writer likes to have his characters raise their eyebrows?) or the unconscious quotation of others’ writing – as well as direct allusion.  You can access COCA’s site to explore language usage at www.corpus.byu.edu/coca/ and if you’d like to read more about the use of computer technology in the humanities, see Macroanalysis: Digital Methods and Literary History.

macroanalysis               ivanhoe

However, what can these programmes tell us about collective cultural memory?  It seems that besides a handful of memorable movie lines (e.g. even though I never saw the movie even I have heard the phrase “You had me at hello” a hundred times), references to the past fade more and more quickly.  For example, by 1912, references to the year 1880 had halved from their peak in 1880; it only took ten years for references to 1973 to decline that much.

While the specific details are interesting, perhaps we didn’t need a complicated piece of programming to tell us this.  Just discussing events with my students show that 2005 was a long, long time ago and the 1980s ancient history.  I guess I’ll just have to keep reading and viewing as widely as possible to have some common, young adult touchstones to use besides Harry Potter and The Hunger Games as examples given these two are already fading fast from our memory.

– Eleni Anastasiou


Getting Personal

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I hate writing, I love having written–Dorothy Parker

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Memoir writing has become popular in recent years. It is no longer only the domain of the aging celebrity or political figure. Personal narratives dot the shelves of Barnes and Nobles and local libraries. Cheryl Strayed‘s raw and beautifully written memoir, Wild, about hiking the Pacific Coast Trail after the death of her mother made Oprah’s 2.0 book club list. Among the list of the must-read memoirs of 2012 were The Other Side of Suffering by John Ramsey, a story about a father losing his son, Some Assembly Required by Anne Lamott, and Bloom by Kelle Hampton, a story about a mother of a child with Downe’s syndrome. Very few of the authors on this list were famous writers, artists, politicians or actors. Anne Lamott and Anna Quindlen are, of course, well-known and beloved authors, but the list included memoirs written by people who had experienced an incredible event in their lives, one that impacted them enough to put pen to paper and write their story. It seems the market is wide open for anyone with a gripping personal story and an ability to string words together into sentences.

wild

But, according to Debra Gwartney, author of Live Through This: A Mother’s Memoir of Runaway Daughters and Reclaimed Love, many novice memoir writers get stuck in the “episodic ‘what happened’ that they can’t escape the traps of anecdote.” Her article appears in the Jan/Feb. edition of Poets & Writers magazine, one subscription I’ll always renew.

Her advice to avoid the traps of anecdote is to shift our goal for writing a memoir from action and suspense to self-awareness. The dramatic or even traumatic events that may be the reason we want to write a memoir can still be included, but they need to be treated as doorways toward a deeper awareness of self and an understanding of the lessons learned from tragedy. If this sounds daunting, it is, but it is also possible to achieve even for non-professional writers.

Gwartney recommends using the tools of writing mainly used in fiction, but also used in powerful and effective non-fiction writing. These tools inform the basic craft of writing that writers strive to perfect. The way to achieve balance in your writing, especially when writing about situations or events that have an emotional charge to them is to write cool. In Gwartney’s words, “When the action is hot, write cool.” What does that look like? Here is an excerpt from a non-fiction essay by Ann Beard about the murder of her co-workers at a University in Iowa.

Reaches the top of the steps, looks around. Is disoriented suddenly. The ringing and the smoke and the dissatisfaction of not checking all the names off the list. A slamming and the running sound, the shout of police……Checks his watch, twelve minutes since it began. Places the barrel against his right temple. Fires.

Gwartney talks about Beard’s pacing, how she slows down the writing right before the worst is described. She uses varied sentence lengths, creating a tension that keeps the reader reading. “The reader is allowed to step into the moment because the experience, awful as it is, opens up with care and precision.”

I believe the division between the craft of non-fiction and fiction writing is growing smaller. I’ve read some memoirs that read like fiction and some novels that read like memoirs. Writing is writing no matter if the ‘truth’ shouts or whispers to the reader.

For more stories in Poets & Writers, visit: http://www.pw.org/magazine

–Erin Dougherty

Writers on Writing: J. K. Rowling

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 “I always say the same thing, which is to read as much as you possibly can. Nothing will help you as much as reading, and you’ll go through a phase where you will imitate your favourite writers, and that’s fine because that’s a learning experience too, and you’ll also have to accept that you are going to hate a lot of the things you write before you find you like something.”

tales of beedle the bard                  prisoner-of-azkaban-poster

J.K. Rowling perhaps needs no introduction as the best-selling author of the Harry Potter series.  When asked what her favourite book was from those she had written, she said she was torn between her first and last Harry books and her latest, Casual Vacancy (see our blog post on that novel below).  If she could be any character in literature, she’d want to be Austen’s Elizabeth Bennet (even though the character she most identifies with is Jo March from Little Women), and the author she would most like to have meet is Charles Dickens.  For bathroom reading, she has The Diaries of Auberon Waugh, which she says is “always good for a giggle.” For her next book, she plans to write another children’s book.

–       Taken from an interview in the New York Times Book Review, October 12, 2012 and from an interview with Stephen Frye at the Royal Albert Hall, London after the publication of her fifth Harry novel.

Eleni Anastasiou

In the News: 2012, the Year in Words

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Joan Rivers had her end-of-the-year review of celebrity fashion and picked her Fash-ho of the year (Christina Aguilera); “The Soup” devoted two shows to re-cycle the 40 silliest TV clips of 2012.  The New York Times produces its “Year in Pictures.”  All movie critics are compiling lists of the best movies of the past year just a couple of weeks before the Oscar nominations are announced.  Music Choice has put the top 100 songs of 2012 on TV on demand, with Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe” taking top spot.

There’s something about the week between Christmas and New Year’s that calls us all to recollect and reflect not only on our personal achievements – and what, perhaps, we’ve been slack about (fodder for 2013’s New Year’s Resolutions?) but also the achievements of our culture – what had made the news in 2012.

Given our propensity to create new words and concepts, the events of 2012 have produced a great selection of neologisms.

A few have come from politics.  We’ve had Romney’s “binders full of women” and “47 percent,” both causing him a lot of trouble on the campaign trail, and, thanks to the Republican Convention, we can now add “Eastwooding” to our vocabulary.

Some are simple to figure out, like “doga.”

Yes.  That means doing yoga with a dog.

There are some that we wish we had never heard, like “legitimate rape.”  And then there’s the “fiscal cliff.”

And some I am still not sure what on earth they mean – like the “Higgs Boson.”

Disasters, understandably, claim a lot of our attention with “Superstorm,” “Snor’Eastercane,” and “Frankenstorm” all used to refer to the storm that hit the East coast just before Halloween.  That storm also birthed the terms “Sopo” and “N.P.Z.” for “south of power” and “no power zone” respectively.

But many of the new terms are lighthearted and come from entertainment and cultural trends.  Comedy Central’s Stephen Colbert deftly combined comedy and politics by highlighting the significance of “Super PACs” in election campaigns, going over the process of creating one of his own on air and clarifying their use.  He raised just over one million dollars this year, of which almost $800,000 will be going to Hurricane Sandy relief.

One of the goofiest trends of the year – besides pony dancing “Gangnam style” à la the year’s most-watched viral video at over a 1 billion views – has been “pet shaming.”  Dog and cat owners have been posting pictures of their pets with signs around their necks indicating their offenses.

 

chewy_w_note_bostondog-shaming-hid-meat-1

Music has given us the “mike drop” – of which I distinctly remember Beyoncé as one of the pioneers at the VMAs of August 2011 when she “mike dropped” to both dramatically emphasize “an outstanding performance” and her small baby bump.  Yet another music term that was not created this year but which has gained more currency in 2012 is “swag.”

My favourite – and, for this time of year, most fitting – neologism also comes from music.  I had not heard this acronym before last week, perhaps because I have not paid attention to the 2011 Drake song “The Motto” that is the impetus for “Yolo.”  It stands for “You Only Live Once,” and, of all the neologisms, perhaps that’s the best idea to carry forward into the New Year and act conscientiously upon once January 1st rings in at midnight tonight.

Happy New Year.

–  Eleni Anastasiou, December 31st 2012

Writers on Writing: Ian McEwan

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“Perhaps the greatest reading pleasure has an element of self-annihilation.  To be so engrossed that you barely know you exist.”

–       taken from an interview in The New York Times Review of Books, December 9th, 2012

Asweet tooth cover

McEwan is author of Atonementwhich was made into a movie starring Keira Knightley, and Sweet Tooth, his latest, twelfth novel, whose narrator, Serena Frome, describes her work against Communist propaganda at a desk job for MI5 in Cold War 1970’s Britain.  While McEwan would love to talk to Shakespeare about his private life and admires Hamlet – which he calls a “world historical moment” as the protagonist, a fully realized character, exposes his inner self to the audience – McEwan believes Joyce’s “The Dead,” which he has read many times, to be a perfect work of literature.


– Eleni Anastasiou