Monday, October 28, 2013


6. Papers
Fire in each eye, and papers in each hand,
They rave, recite, and madden round the
—Alexander Pope (Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot, 1734)
Students write papers, period. Depending on where you end up going to college, you may write a whole lot of papers. The first thing to remember about a paper is that for the student, it’s often a massive job, especially if done legitimately (more on this subject below), but for profs, papers are documents that take up a bunch of the profs’ time, time they would rather be spending writing their own papers. So paper assignments can be quite unpleasant at both ends—the writing (student) and the reading (prof).
Any activity that is assumed to be unpleasant by all participants is an opportunity simply asking for some outwitting behavior, especially when one of the participants is in the power position. Papers therefore offer one of the most effective and powerful media for outwitting your prof. All you have to do is think of this as a game, one that is set up for you to win. In fact, this is a game that your prof is just begging you to win.
If your classmates don’t have a copy of this book, then the advice you’ll pick up in the next few pages will make you stand out from your peers in a very positive way. But there is one matter that we have to agree upon right up front before I tell you how to outwit people like me, at least as far as papers are concerned. We need to agree that my advice is going to sound reasonably serious. Some of you may even be suspicious that it’s “teacherly” advice, in the sense that I’m telling you to do what profs want you to do in order to get a good college education. Well, that may be the case, but the advice is still good. In fact, the more your classmates ignore the obvious, the easier it is to outwit your prof and make you look like a million dollars in his or her eyes.
Therefore, I suggest that as you read this chapter, you maintain the outwitting mentality. You’re not following my suggestions because they will turn you into a good college student and a well educated individual (which they are likely to do by default). You’re following them because your prof is frustrated as hell with all those students who can’t seem to remember that books are printed on paper and that “Internet” is a synonym for “shallow convenience.”
I’ll quickly dispose of my opinions about the Internet; then we can get down to the serious matter of converting you from a B student into an A student. First, the Internet is here to stay, at least until the end of the civilized world. It’s now as much a part of human biology as toenails, hair, and sex, so needs to be accepted as such. Second, there are a whole lot of truly great things to be said about the Internet, and some of the information on it is quite valid, or at least close to being valid, e.g., airline schedules. Third, Google is one of the most remarkable innovations of all human history. In fact, Google is such a powerful innovation that the word “Google” has become a verb in the vernacular in addition to its role as a proper noun.
Finally, and this is my most important comment, the Internet usually teaches expedience and shallowness, especially expedience, but your prof wants you to learn discipline and to explore subjects in depth. Your prof has this desire because he or she knows that discipline and depth are acquired traits that will carry you far in life, whereas expedience and shallowness will always get you in trouble and bring you discouragement out there in the real world. You wouldn’t be particularly enamored of a significant other who was shallow and expedient, so why should you tolerate these traits in a boss or employee? You shouldn’t, and most of you won’t.  So we need to get beyond the Internet.
Getting beyond the Internet:
In college, there are generally two kinds of assigned papers, (1) those in which the prof actually tolerates, asks for, or even requires, you to use the Internet as a resource, and then (2) all the others. I’ll deal with (2), all the others, first. The reason I’m dealing with all the others first is be-cause they cause profs the most frustration. That frustration stems not only from student behavior, but also from things over which students have no control, for example slashed library budgets, lost books, and cancelled journal subscriptions.
Let’s assume the worst, namely that your prof has required you to use resources other than Wikipedia. In other words, you can’t, or at least are not supposed to, simply go to Google, do a quick search on your key word then copy text from some online page and paste the material into your paper. The first step in outwitting this prof is to ask specifically what sources are allowed. I’m guessing you will be the only student in class who actually asks for this information then pays attention to the prof when he or she answers your question.
So either raise your hand to ask what sources are allowed, or better yet, go to that prof’s office, or, as a last resort, e-mail the prof with the same question. E-mail is the last resort because you want this prof to see you in person, see your curious, attentive, expression as you ask a serious question to which your classmates are oblivious.
The next piece of advice is so straightforward I’m almost embarrassed to tell you about it, and wouldn’t even mention it if I had not had literally hundreds, maybe thousands, of college students totally ignore information delivered directly into their faces. So here is the advice I’m embarrassed to tell you: when your prof takes the time to answer this question about allowed sources, then follow that prof’s suggestions to the letter.
As a minimum, try that prof’s advice and help before seeking additional help, so that you can at least tell this person you’ve tried to find the right sources. From your real efforts you’ll have the original experience to make those efforts sound legitimate. At this point, you’re probably already noticing a difference between your classmates and yourself. Your classmates probably are still hitting on Google and copying and pasting text that any half-witted prof can recognize instantly for what it is, namely, shallow, plagiarized, and expedient.
What are these non-Internet “right” sources? They range from newspaper reports and magazine stories, to serious scholarly books (= monographs), to original journal articles. These sources vary significantly in terms of their underlying accuracy, but journal articles are at least reviewed anonymously; usually. Scholarly journal articles are often called “primary literature” because they usually contain detailed methods of research, actual data, statistical analysis, and a professional scholar’s interpretation of the data. Profs love students who are able to deal with the primary literature, regardless of the subject.
I apologize for the fact that learning to recognize primary literature is the first step toward actually becoming a better scholar. I’d prefer to keep this discussion going in terms of outwitting someone, inspiring this prof to give you a higher grade than you deserve to get. Unfortunately, just by trying to outwit the prof, you might well end up actually deserving the better grade. Again, I apologize for this problem. Certain things are inextricably linked, such as, in this case, outwitting someone and actually learning something by doing it. Back to the subject of primary literature.
You have access to primary literature from two places: your institution’s library and some full text online sites. The number of electronic full text resources is increasing, and using them is generally not the same as googling a subject then cutting and pasting from somebody’s web page. By “full text” I mean a real journal article, just as it appeared in the paper version, but available online. Sometimes you get actual full text articles by doing a web search, but not very often. In general, your library has to subscribe to an electronic full text service before you can easily get this kind of material, or much of a diversity of it, and these subscriptions can cost several thousand dollars a year. I suggest you go to the library, actually handle some real paper issues of journals in your major, and learn what a full primary literature article looks like so you can recognize one when you see it on the web.
If you use one of these sources, be sure to have the entire article in your possession—from title page through the bibliography—either as a paper printout or as a file. Routinely I ask students to see the articles they’re using as sources. When a student is able to instantly produce photocopies or full text printouts, especially with sections highlighted, then that student has made a major positive impression. In fact, the first time you actually photocopy a journal article or print out a full text primary source and read it carefully, using a highlighter, then you’ve acquired a transferable skill that will serve you well no matter what the course.
If your library subscribes to full text sources, then obtaining these primary literature papers is not the same as getting them off a Google search. Instead, getting such papers is the equivalent of finding them in the published journal and making a photocopy. The only difference—and it’s a reasonably important one—is that you don’t end up spending quiet and reflective time by yourself back in the library stacks surrounded by real books printed on acid-free paper. Instead, you might well have obtained this scholarly publication at three in the morning with your iPod stuck into your ears blasting some Pissing Razors heavy metal into your frontal lobes. There is a real difference between the two experiences, and this difference is not only in the convenience of obtaining primary literature when the library is closed. Try the real library once and you’ll see what I mean.
Now that you’ve mastered the primary literature trick, here’s one for advanced outwitting: if you can find out how your prof highlights sections of photocopied papers, and do yours the same way, then you’ve stepped up a notch in this prof’s eyes. If you see him or her using a copy of something with a lot of pencil marks on it, then use a pencil on yours. If he or she uses a yellow highlighter, then use a yellow highlighter yourself. But make sure this prof actually sees your photocopy with your marks on it. A visit to his or her office, with a cooked-up question, is a good way to accomplish this task. 
Caving in to the Internet:
The first and absolutely nonnegotiable rule for use of the Internet is: if you use Internet sources, always document them carefully and evaluate them critically, even if not required to do so. And cite your URL sources for everything. Everything. Be totally candid about and completely up front and open with whatever you get off the web. We are assuming that your prof either allows or requires Internet sources. The outwitting trick is subtle but important and effective; make sure your prof can easily distinguish between what you’ve taken off the Internet and what you’ve done all by yourself.
In order to perform this trick you need to read carefully what your prof has actually asked you to do. This advice seems rather obvious, but at least 60% of my students in the beginning courses either don’t read the assignment or don’t do it.  So do what you’ve been asked to do. The fact that so many of your classmates won’t actually do the assignment means that just by doing it, you’re outwitting your prof a little bit. That is, you’re doing something unexpected and getting him or her to react positively toward such behavior.
Your college library may have its own web pages, and somewhere on those pages may be advice for evaluating Internet sources and for citing them in your papers, or listing them in your bibliographies if used. Again, the outwitting trick is pretty simple: follow the advice. Many of your classmates are not going to follow it, and if you do, then immediately you’ve created a positive impression. The one thing I cannot tell you exactly how to do is actually demonstrate that you’ve done what the library staff advises you to do in order to evaluate Internet sources. You’ll have to figure out the phraseology for your own paper. But if there are examples provided by the library staff, make your paper read exactly, exactly, like those examples.
Physical appearance: 
The physical appearance of your paper is important. The trick here is to make it look as close as you can to the kind of thing your prof has to write for his or her own scholarly work. All profs must obey certain rules for pre-paring their manuscripts, and usually those rules are written in the journals (primary literature) to which they submit papers. On the other hand, professors’ papers are not always written in a format that is common, or even looks like most students think a paper should look. So the outwitting trick is to get close to something that looks familiar to a prof, but without necessarily having to follow his or her scholarly journal’s editorial policies to the letter.
Here are some simple rules that if followed will make your paper look reasonably similar to whatever your prof is writing himself or herself. Like all rules in this book, these are subject to modification by your prof. But in the absence of very specific instructions about format, these rules will produce a paper that’s at least visually pleasing. I’ve provided them as a checklist just to make them easier to follow.
____Headers and footers:  Avoid them, but if you must use them, make them a single word in a small font, with the page number incorporated.
____Your name: On every page.
____Page numbers: Use them, and place them on the bottom right of the sheet unless told otherwise.
____Fonts: 12 point Times New Roman, period.  Italics are okay in special cases, e.g., scientific names (genus and species only), certain foreign words, and an occasional emphasis.
____Printer ink: Black and dark.
____Margins: One inch, although an inch and a quarter is okay on the left.
____Right justification: Don’t do it.
____Line spacing: Double.
____Paragraphs: Two to three a page (one and a half if you’re an accomplished writer).
____Bibliography: Essential, usually, especially in a research paper. If you are not given a style, then pick one from the primary literature and use it habitually for everything.
____Title page: Nice but usually not necessary.
____Staple or paper clip: Staple at upper left unless informed otherwise.
____Pictures: Nice if appropriate and in context, but never try to substitute a picture for text and always credit your picture sources.
____Due date: Turn it in or ask for an extension a couple of days in advance. Be sure to have a valid reason if you ask for an extension (waiting for interlibrary loan, etc.).
____Revisions: If allowed or requested, do them immediately and return the next draft in a timely manner.
____Grade check:  It’s always a good idea to go through your paper with your prof after it is graded, especially if there are extensive comments on it. But be sure to deal with those comments before you ask for an explanation.
____Final suck-up:  Choose this activity carefully. Only you can judge whether this prof is the kind of person who not only is vulnerable to final suck-up outwitting, whether you are interested enough in your own writing skills to carry it off, and whether trying it might actually help you in other classes. By final suck-up I mean asking the prof about subtle issues of style, sentence and paragraph construction, and narrative sequence. Not all profs will be able to respond to such questions, and some may be outright threatened by them, especially if these folks are not good writers themselves.
E-mail and text messages:
We all use e-mail, and if we don’t then we’re both extraordinarily liberated and extraordinarily out of touch with the reality of day-to-day life in the 21st Century, at least as that life is lived through much of the world. Text messages on your cell phone are a different issue, and one that can be dealt with very easily: quit. You’ll be a better communicator in general within a couple of days.
Why will this transformation occur? The answer is simple: text messaging trains you to habitually do all the wrong things in writing, and probably in general use of the language, period. So if you’ll simply quit participating in that training activity, your communication skills will begin growing immediately. Or at least they’ll stop deteriorating. You’ll also gain about two or three hours a day. Alternatively, take the time and effort to make your text messages grammatically perfect, with real words, punctuation, etc. You’ll be surprised what a positive impression that makes on older folks (like profs).
The e-mail rules are very simple, and in fact there is only one: Always (always!) use correct grammar in your e-mail messages, capitalizing any words that would normally be capitalized in a typical college textbook, inserting punctuation where it should be, using complete sentences, and checking your spelling. If you follow this rule, even when writing to your best friends, your communication skills will slowly increase over time. But if you’re writing to a prof, then by following this one simple rule you will immediately stand out from the crowd, and in a very positive way.
Why will you stand out? Again, the answer is simple: because when using e-mail, so many of your friends act like they are totally oblivious to basic grammatical conventions and correct spelling. Your prof notices grammar and spelling in every communication, no matter what the medium. That trait does not make him or her an ivory tower nerd. Instead, it’s a characteristic he or she shares with successful people in the business community, people who will be interviewing you for a real job in a few short years and care more about your writing ability than your burger-flipping manual dexterity.
Some excessive outwitting advice:
This advice is well above and beyond what is necessary to outwit profs who assign papers, but I’m inclined to pass it along anyway just because some of you might be unusual students, not necessarily unusually good students, but just unusual in some ill-defined way. My final piece of advice is to practice writing, especially if you are at an institution in which profs tend to assign a lot of papers or give essay exams. Write about anything—personal letters, opinions, stuff just to get something off your chest but would never send. But write in complete sentences—subject, verb, object, and prepositional phrases. Something in one sentence needs to remind a reader of what has been said in the previous sentence. About two or three times a page, your string of sentences ought to bring some idea to closure. Then you’re ready to start a new paragraph.
Practice paragraphing, deciding when there is a natural break between sentences. The first sentence of one paragraph should remind a reader of what has been said in the previous paragraph, although each paragraph should be a piece of “stand alone” literature. In other words, if you lift that paragraph out of your paper and print it on a blank sheet, then all by itself it should tell a small and complete story. This requirement means that the opening sentence needs to establish the subject of that paragraph, and the closing sentence ought to finish a short discussion of that subject. A reader who finishes the paragraph ought to think “that makes sense” and thus be prepared for your next idea or assertion.
The above two paragraphs are quite self-referential in the sense that they illustrate these writing techniques.
My closing piece of advice is to give some thought to how much of yourself you want to write into a paper. From a reader’s (prof’s) perspective, the ideal amount is some, and hopefully a recognizable fraction. Remember that this paper is just that—a paper—not some summary of your self image, some accounting sheet of net intellectual or emotional worth, or a key to your soul. At least it need not be. If you are determined to turn in papers that fulfill those criteria, make sure they are in English class instead of Physics, and make sure the assigned subject is something like “ME AND WHO I REALLY AM” and not “Analysis of the Character Role of Weaponry in Vietnam War Era American Fiction.”
On the other hand, your prof will be reading so much dry, formulaic, college student here’s-what-I-believe-this-prof-wants type prose that a little bit of originality will make your paper stand out like your great grandmother at a hip-hop concert. It’s okay to say things in your own phraseology. Just make sure you say them in a way that’s grammatically correct and avoids slang.
Final take-home message:
Papers may be the most important product of your college career, and provide an excellent opportunity for you to acquire skills that will serve you well in the years after graduation. Students who treat papers as a throwaway pain in the neck are missing a terrific chance to improve their lives after college, mainly because people in general, including employees in all kinds of occupations, are simply terrible writers.

OUTWITTING COLLEGE PROFESSORS, 4th Ed., is available from various sources, including createspace, smashwords, kindle, nook, etc.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Multiple choice tests, from OUTWITTING COLLEGE PROFESSORS

What follows is an excerpt from OUTWITTING COLLEGE PROFESSORS. The whole book is equally useful, and insightful, and available from amazon, smashwords, kindle, and nook.

The Multiple Choice Test:

(1) Remember why profs give multiple choice tests.
These kinds of exams are easy to grade, so if you’re in a large class, chances are you’re in for a large number of multiple choice questions. If you walk into a large lecture hall the first day of class, then you can almost be assured that your exams will be multiple choice or some version of it, using a bubble sheet for the answers. Remember also that these exams can be a real pain in the neck to make out, so your prof is probably not particularly happy about the exam either, except to the extent that he or she doesn’t have to prepare a show just to keep you entertained and hopefully make you educated for 50 minutes. So the main objective is ease of grading and not necessarily evaluating your knowledge or understanding. A second objective is to separate students into groups based on class performance. That is, the prof needs some written evidence to support a decision to award some grade. Again, this second objective has little or nothing to do with your learning, but everything to do with your formal record in college.

(2) Remember that multiple choice tests are actually more exercises in reading than in whatever subject the class concerns.
Students tend to forget this principle, and as a result, end up losing points unnecessarily. So whatever course you’re taking, study it the same way you would a foreign language first, then deal with the subject matter itself. In other words, you have to know the words in order to understand the language. To illustrate this point, here are a couple of multiple choice questions from one of my recent exams. The subject is embryological development.

1. In Protostomia, you would expect (a) the blastopore to become the anus (b) the anus to become the blastopore (c) the mouth to become the blastopore (d) the blastopore to become the mouth (e) the mouth to develop from mesoderm.

2. In radially cleaving embryos (a) the fate of blastomeres is established in the first cell division (b) the fate of the blastopore is established by the 4-cell stage (c) the fate of blastomeres is not determined until at least after the first few cell divisions (d) the archenteron develops from mesoderm (e) none of these.

Now, here are the same questions but with the vocabulary words (foreign language of biology) replaced with gibberish:

1. In wnitlnlcy, you would expect (a) the xclapic to become the ipxhp (b) the nmnm to become the xclapic (c) the trtrtz to become the xclapic (d) the xclapic blastopore to become the trtrtz (e) the trtrtz to ghjklnm from cvbzoupwty.

2. In prritzx rucbwyx eicvbasms (a) the ewrt of hklwuciths is plknytxcvb in the first pgksl rycbnqtzx (b) the ewrt of the xclapic is plknytxcvb by the 4-pgksl wtxvnqm (c) the ewrt of hklwuciths is not etdsytpmlk until at least after the first few pgksl rycbnqtzxs (d) the tcbnsxuiqb ghjklnms from cvbzoupwty (e) none of these.

Obviously there is no way you’re going to be able to answer such questions, or even to guess intelligently, until you learn what those words mean and can use them in sentences in the same manner as does the writer of such questions.
There will be some classes in which multiple choice questions actually require that you solve a problem of some other kind in order to find the correct answer. Chemistry and physics courses are notorious for these kinds of questions. Depending on how long the exam is, such tests, and multiple choice tests in general, may place a real premium on the speed with which you work, regardless of your intelligence or preparation. This premium on speed is especially evident in large classes.

(3) Remember that often, if not usually, multiple choice questions are simply complete sentences that are either true or false.
In the above examples all you have to do is look at the introductory phrase and the answers to realize that each of the five answers, when combined with the introductory phrase, makes a complete sentence. Then all you have to decide is whether each complete sentence is either true or false (typically easier said than done). When introductory phrase + answer make a false sentence that fact is usually revealed by a key word or two.

(4) Key words are the key to answering multiple choice questions.
In the first of the above questions, “Prostomia” is the key word because the very definition of that term is choice (a). In the second of those questions, “radially” and “fate” are the two key words, leading immediately to choice (c). Even though the subject is biology in this case, the principles apply to almost every course in which multiple choice questions are given on exams. If you visit your prof after performing poorly on a multiple choice exam, chances are that he or she will pull out a copy of the exam and start through a few questions, circling key words in the process. Looking for key words is a way of learning to read such exams the same way your prof does.

(5) Try not to change correct answers to incorrect ones.
Every time I get a bubble sheet back from the graders, I see questions that students have changed from right to wrong. I’m not really sure why this change happens, but when I talk to these students, it seems like they’re trying to outguess me instead of dealing with the question itself. So my advice is to always read the question literally, and not try to guess what the prof might or might not have intended.
Only the most bored and sadistic profs try to devise trick questions or demand that you read their minds in order to answer correctly. The vast majority of profs are busy as hell, irritated because they have to make out an exam, and eager to get the test over so they can get back to this major ego trip called “lecturing.” So they’re not likely to waste time trying to make questions ambiguous and obscure psychic exercises, at least on purpose; most of them, however, are quite capable of writing such questions by accident or out of self-delusion, thinking they are perfectly clear.

(6) If you’re allowed to comment on questions, do it.
If you’re unsure about a particular answer or feel like a question is not a good one, then always (always!) make the comment in writing, using the phrase “I answered question with choice ___ because . . .” In most cases, you’ll get the question correct anyway because thinking through your reasons helps you with the rationale for choosing between options.

(7) Make sure you answer all the questions.
Again, this is a very simple rule, although some profs are very devious and try to design multiple choice tests that either penalize you for guessing or give you choices that specify two or more other choices. My advice is to avoid these profs if at all possible.

(8) Always, ALWAYS, keep your exams if allowed to, record the correct answers, and use these old exams to study for the final.
You’d be surprised at how many students ignore this obvious rule. Profs can be quite lazy and therefore use the same questions over and over again. I’ve often used the same test questions multiple times and even given students the questions in advance. Statistically, this behavior on my part makes little or no difference in class averages because so many students ignore my advice to study the questions before the test.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

In response to a Facebook post regarding Halloween ghost stories on campus, here is an excerpt from BE CAREFUL, DR. RENNER!

GEOL 322, Micropaleontology, is a hoot this morning. Half a dozen of these really bright young people are dressed up as fossils. One has built an ameba shell; her arms and legs exit where pseudopods would be located. One of the guys is a Permian ostracod, with spiny clam-like valves and some kind of a head gear that looks like jointed antennae. There are a couple of worms, again with antenna hats and rows of spike-like feet down their sides. These kids have put a lot of work into this one day of fun. So I say to hell with whatever pontifications I’ve prepared this morning. Let the animals speak!
“Okay, Chrysalidina, tell us about yourself!”
Chrysalidina if not, of course, her real name; it’s her Halloween costume. She stands up, and with her arms moving slowly, drifts as on a gentle ocean current to the front of the room. Her audience is silent with admiration.
“My name is Chrysalidina gradata,” she proclaims; “and I come to you from the Cretaceous.” She’s eighty million years old. “I was discovered by d’Orbigny, Alcide Charles Victor Marie Dessalines d'Orbigny, that is, and I now live in Paris!” She pronounces it Pah-ree and does a runway twirl. “Never been to the Musé National d'Histoire Naturelle? Non? Then I give you a tour!”
For the next ten minutes she gives us a verbal tour of the fossil collections, in French. We are spellbound. And so it goes for the rest of the class period. One by one, these incredible young scientists regale their classmates, and their teacher, with similar performances. Fossils speak. There is simply no way to describe this experience unless you’ve lived it. At the end, I’m tempted to say a prayer, a prayer of thanks for having ended up here, in semi-rural Iowa, in this profession, with these people, doing their thing. Reality, however, is sitting upstairs, in my office, and its name is detective Leonard Branch.
“Morning, Dr. Marshall.”
“Good morning, detective Branch.” I honor him with that title, although we both know it’s as much of an act as Chrysalidina’s trip through the Musé Histoire Naturelle was forty-five minutes ago. “Evidently we’re meeting at the Renner house this morning, although to be really honest, I don’t know why I’m supposed to be there.”
Like hell I don’t know why I’m supposed to be at Renner’s place on Cherry Lane; I need to take notes and pass the information along to Elizabeth if there is college property in that house, part of the official Geology Department inventory. Also, after finding those cards to Renner, from Mary and Elizabeth, wishing him well in his travels but warning him of potential health problems, I’m a little less dismissive of Branch’s speculations about Renner’s demise. Somehow the combination of staff concern, given those blistering, insulting, and probably illegal letters from Renner about those ladies’ job performance, simply doesn’t seem logical. If someone—a supervisor—wrote me those kinds of letters, and I knew they were absolutely incorrect, I’d tell that person to go to hell and start figuring out a way to get even.

(BE CAREFUL, DR. RENNER! was the NaNoWriMo project for 2012, the perfect murder at a small liberal arts college in Iowa. It's available on smashwords, kindle, and nook.)

Wednesday, October 9, 2013


6. The Firm
A good reputation is more valuable than money.
—Publilius Syrus, from Maxim (first century B.C.)
An instructor says, “My worry is that you’ll become educated beyond your obedience.”
—John Rolfe Gardiner, in his review of Kevin Roose’s The Unlikely Disciple.
For Educational Purposes, every Employé should be taken into the Firm.
—George Ade (from The Fable of the Subordinate Who Saw a Great Light)

            Back in the late 1970s, a year went by during which I repeatedly photocopied 230 pages of a manuscript, took them down to the post office, and mailed them off to some publisher. I trusted, completely, in the wisdom of Writer’s Market, a book that I’d bought, believing with total naïveté what various publishers said about their commercial interests and feeling equally confident that the next one would snap up this piece of non-fiction literature I’d entitled The Fundulus Chronicles. After twenty-two rejections, a young man named Dennis Holler from St. Martin’s Press called and asked if the book had been sold. I said no, it was still available, and he replied that they were interested in publishing it. I was alert enough to not say something about the previous rejections, one of which had been with a letter asking “why do you waste your postage sending us things that don’t turn us on?” and tried to act calm, as he said that someone would call me back the next day. When Tom Dunne, the St. Martin’s editor who accepted the book, called later, he made the verbal offer, $5000 in advance royalties, but also indicated that St. Martin’s Press didn’t want to get into a bidding war. I told him to send me the contract and I’d sign it. That book eventually became Keith County Journal. A few weeks after it was published, I got a late afternoon phone call from someone at Time Magazine.
            “We’re reviewing Keith County Journal,” the caller said; “could you provide a photograph?”
            “Sure,” I replied; “what’s the address?  I can mail it.”
            “No need to mail it,” she said; “just put it in an envelope somewhere that we can pick it up.”
            I put the picture in an envelope, wrote TIME MAGAZINE in big capital letters on the outside, and put it on the floor outside my office door, leaning up against the wall. When I came to work the following morning the envelope was gone. The next time I saw that photograph it was in Time.  A few days later I was walking back from Bennett Martin Library, in downtown Lincoln, into the teeth of a bitter February north wind, when a colleague from another department yelled at me from across the street.
            “Hey, John!! What’s _______ saying about you now?!? Huh? What’s _______ saying about you now?!?”
            The individual referred to as _______ was my department chair. I tend to think about this particular set of events fairly often, mainly because they seem to characterize my business, namely, that of American higher education. In this business, reputation is currency, and it can be earned, spent, created, or destroyed, just like other kinds of currency, but the worst thing you can do with it is leave it in that metaphorical bank where it earns no interest, i.e., the files of your department chairman’s office. No, in this business, reputation needs to be put to work—invested—sometimes to bring you pleasure, like a deep intellectual conversation during a quiet meal with good friends, or to recruit a student with exactly the right kind of personality into your research lab. At other times it needs to serve as a weapon, like when you use it on purpose to make another university employee uncomfortable if not downright psychologically stressed out of his or her mind. Usually, but not always, your immediate supervisor is the target. And when you need such a weapon, your picture in Time is the rough equivalent of a nuclear warhead.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Excerpt from a WIP

Here, below, is an excerpt from a work that's been in progress for some time. I may have posted other excerpts from this particular project, and indeed may have posted this one before. But in my opinion, it's worth putting up again.

I am also writing this book because of a conversation I had not long ago with an African gentleman. He was a scientist at one of the nation’s premier universities and his wife, also of African descent, was a local physician. We were at a social gathering held in the home of a university scientist and his wife, a couple of staunch conservatives hosting a houseful of liberals, but surviving, as well as catering, the evening beautifully. Because only at the most mindless of social occasions does conversation not eventually turn to politics, before long we began to discuss the nation’s leadership and global current events.
“In my country,” said the African gentleman, “the politicians do not want you to talk about them. They do not want your attention focused on the misery in your own nation. Instead, they want you to spend your time thinking about the rest of the world so that they can be corrupt, and build their own wealth by stealing from the people, and carry out their own personal vendettas, often destroying their nation in the process, and the population will not be paying any attention.”  His deep resonant and slightly accented voice added to the authority of his words. He paused. “That is what they want.”  He smiled in a very patient, tolerant, way. “So we grow up knowing quite a bit about the rest of the world, not because we are so interested in global affairs, but by default.”
Based on my experience with educated foreigners, I would say he was correct about his own worldliness. I have been in social settings with scientists from at least twenty different nations—including some now considered terrorist states—over the past several decades. All of these scientists are more cosmopolitan than my American colleagues; most of them speak and read at least two languages comfortably and are rarely if ever constrained by having Fox News as their only sources of information. In fact, many of them get on the Internet and listen to newscasts in German, French, and Chinese. I can promise you they’re not listening to Bill O’Reilly.
“But in your country,” my African acquaintance continued, “the politicians want you to be concerned with what they are doing to make you happy and safe and rich, and with local problems that seem very dramatic.”  By “local problems” he could easily have been talking about everything from the O. J. Simpson, Michael Jackson, Scott Peterson, and Casey Anthony trials to the disappearance of a teenage girl in Aruba, the murder of children by their mother, the Christmas murder of a child beauty queen, or a lawsuit over display of The Ten Commandments—that is, the substance, the heart and soul, of American public discourse, cable news, and, arguably, Americans’ vision of our legal and social systems.
“So you grow up ignorant of the rest of the world.” He took a sip of his vodka. “You are happy because your leaders tell that they are not going to raise your taxes,” he continued, “but your indebtedness grows daily.” He smiled. “And you are losing your economic competitiveness because you are afraid of science.” He shook his head, looked over at his wife, then turned back to me. “Why does this happen?” I couldn’t answer; I was still stuck on his “ignorant of the rest of the world.”