Thursday, March 31, 2011

Invisible Errors

If you heard what sounded like a clap of thunder earlier this week, it might have been the sound of self-published author Jacqueline Howett's intended career imploding.

In response to this review by BigAl's Books, Ms. Howett appears to have had something of a public meltdown. She rained hostility on Big Al, and became an Internet sensation -- and not in a good way. She started the day with a review that said her book, The Greek Seaman, had a good story but needed to be better edited. Her day ended ... well, it was a train wreck. If you want to see it, click the previous link and read the discussion thread below the review. It's ghastly.

As a teacher of writing, I have email conversations similar to that discussion thread at least once a term, but they're private. (If they ever went public, the students involved would almost certainly become unfortunate celebrities like Howett.) Most students are great. But a few students every year react to my evaluations of their work almost exactly as Ms. Howett reacted to that review.

It's easy to pick on Howett and those rare explosive students for their manners, or their lack of self-control.

But there's another issue, and it's one that affects even the well-behaved, mature students: It's called the Dunning-Kruger Effect. Simply put, people who have difficulty putting sentences together often think their sentences are just fine. Like Ms. Howett, they simply don't see what the problems are. They may react politely and professionally to reviews or grades, but they're still mystified and quietly suspect that the reviewer/grader is being unfair. This is a tough situation to be in: To recognize that the feedback is accurate, they first need to be competent, but to become competent, they need to take the feedback seriously. It can prove to be a nasty Catch-22.

Ms. Howett's sentences -- the ones that the reviewer quotes and that Ms. Howett says are fine -- have serious articulation problems. The reviewer isn't just being picky. The sentences don't make sense. We can guess (maybe) about what she intended to say, but we have to do a bit of thinking to puzzle it out. Writing teachers see a lot of those sentences in student papers -- sentences that make only the vaguest or fuzziest sense, or which fall apart as soon as one starts trying to decipher them. When the sentences are truly riddled with problems, we'll mark them as "awkward" or "unclear" or we'll scribble a question mark in the margins, or we'll diagnose them more specifically as mixed constructions or as word-choice errors. But for most students, these remarks are themselves unclear. Students look at them, scratch their heads, and figure, "Well, the prof is just a grammar Nazi, I guess."

Bridging that communication gap is insanely difficult. It's like trying to explain to a person who was born blind how to adjust the color on a high-definition television so that Avatar looks right. There's a right or wrong answer, and it matters, but the person on the other end can't see the difference. The only way I've seen to explain articulation is to provide comparisons.

For instance, here's a sentence from Ms. Howett's novel:

Don and Katy watched hypnotically Gino place more coffees out at another table with supreme balance.

Here's a revised version of that sentence:

Mesmerized by Gino's ability to balance coffee cups on a platter, Don and Katy silently watched him put cups at a nearby table.

Neither sentence is very good. But which one is better? Most people will pick the second one. It's much more clear. The first sentence is a disorganized jumble, with adverbs badly misplaced. In order to spot the problems in the first version, you need to be capable of coming up with something like the second sentence. That's the challenge for editors, reviewers, and teachers who are working with new writers. How do you tell a person what's wrong with a sentence without doing all the rewriting yourself? I still don't have very good answers to that question.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Counting Swans

A juicy argument has emerged among the cast and crew of Black Swan over who did most of the dancing that we see from the protagonist on screen: Natalie Portman, or her dancing double Sarah Lane.

According to Contra Costa Times, director Darren Aronofsky has counted.

He declares Portman the clear victor. The article in question borrows the following Aronofsky quote from Entertainment Weekly: "I had my editor count [...] There are 139 dance shots in the film. One hundred eleven are Natalie untouched. 28 are her dance double Sarah Lane. If you do the math, that's 80 percent Natalie Portman."

Sarah Lane, meanwhile, has maintained that "95%" of the time you think you see Portman dancing on screen, it's really Lane.

Those appear to be very different numbers.

So one of them must be lying, right?

Mmmm, not necessarily.

If I had to guess, I'd say both numbers are accurate. I know that seems strange, but if you pay close attention, you'll notice they're counting different things: Aronofsky is counting shots, but Lane is counting total screen time.

If you've watched much film, you will have noticed that shots -- the length of time the film goes before there's a cut -- vary a bit in length. You might get a long take of 1 minute, as a camera bounces back and forth between two actors, or as it lingers on a dancer's movements, followed by a 1-second shot of a facial expression.

If it's true, as Aronofsky himself has stated, that digital images of Portman's face were dubbed over Lane's performance for "two complicated longer dance sequences," then it's entirely possible that Lane is the dancer for 95% of the on-screen dancing time, while Portman is the dancer is the vast majority of shots.

I'm not saying that's in fact what happened -- merely pointing out that the two apparently-contradictory statements aren't necessarily in conflict with each other. It's possible for both to be true.

Scholars call this behavior -- making Portman look like she did no dancing by focusing on screen time, or like she did lots of dancing by focusing on shots -- framing. Depending on how you frame information, you can change the way your audience perceives it.

One great example I like to use is from the California gubernatorial debates between Schwarzenegger and Angelides. The challenger, Angelides, argues that Schwarzenegger has raised tuition at UCs and Cal States so much that a four-year education now costs thousands of dollars more. The Governator replies that he only increased tuition by less than something like 10% a year, on average. Anyone doing the math would find that they were both right -- it's just that one of them used scary dollar figure totals, while the other one used an average yearly percentage.

I'm used to seeing these framing and reframing moves in politics, but it's quite refreshing to see them among artists who once worked together. Fascinating, even.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Oh, Those Little Trivial Details

Faculty often have a lot of rules they expect students to follow.

Most students look at the long lists and figure, "Rather than read this, I'll use my common sense, and hope for the best."

This is understandable. However, there were reasons for the rules.

A colleague, Jenn, also a teacher, recently had an experience that illustrates this perfectly.

I'll warn you that this is a dizzying (if amusing) story -- pay attention.

In the last week before final exams for one of her classes, a student (whom we'll call Courtney) told Jenn that she didn't think she could make the final exam -- Courtney was pretty sure it was scheduled at the same time as one of her other finals. This shouldn't happen, unless a student has enrolled in two classes that meet at the same time, so Jenn was puzzled. Jenn asked Courtney to doublecheck and to email her the specifics.

Later, Jenn got an email from Courtney, who was using a personal (off-campus) email account, apparently restating that Courtney had a schedule conflict for the final exam. Courtney asked if she could take an Incomplete in the class.

Jenn said it would depend on the reasons for the absence, and asked what the other class was. After the final exam had taken place, and Courtney had missed it, Courtney emailed again, providing Jenn the name of another professor (let's call him Smith) and another class. Sure enough, Smith's class had been scheduled at the same time as Jenn's class -- not just for the final, but for regular class sessions as well.

Had Courtney, like Hermione Granger, somehow been attending two classes at once? Jenn emailed Dr. Smith, who confirmed an interesting fact: Courtney had missed four of his classes, while she had only attended four of Jenn's classes. That seemed to settle it: Courtney appeared to have been concurrently enrolled in two classes at the same time, without permission. Jenn talked to the department chair (let's call him Dr. Jones), who said to stop looking into the matter and simply fail the student. Jenn, following Jones's instructions, emailed Courtney to say she had talked to Dr. Smith, and based on what he'd said, that Courtney couldn't make up the final or have an Incomplete.

Courtney showed up at the department, demanding to speak to "the department chair," saying Jenn had unfairly denied her a chance to make up her work, without giving her a chance. Departments are used to this sort of thing, so they nearly blew it off. However, Courtney thought the department chair was named "Smith," and when she was told that Smith wasn't the department chair, she asked who the heck he was -- an odd question for someone enrolled in his class.

Something was amiss. (Are you with me so far? I know: It's dizzying.)

Here's why it's dizzying: Jenn and the department secretary started looking through files to try to figure out exactly what classes Courtney was in. They discovered there were two Courtneys -- Jenn had been talking to two different girls, each one in a different class. Both Courtneys were using personal email accounts, and signing only with their first names. Both were saying they couldn't make the final exam (though they were talking about different finals). Both spelled their first names exactly the same.

One Courtney had, after talking to Jenn, figured out she was wrong about the schedule conflict, and without saying another word, had shown up and taken her exam with Jenn (in a class that Jenn didn't think they were talking about). The other Courtney had then started emailing Jenn about a different schedule conflict, having nothing to do with Smith's class. Eventually, that Courtney missed her final exam, for reasons we still don't know anything about.

Jenn had no reason to imagine these were two different students taking turns making very similar requests. The freaky coincidences -- including the bizarre fact that one Courtney had missed four of Smith's classes while attending four of Jenn's -- simply hammered in the impression that the two women were one person.

So, what's this have to do with nit-picky faculty rules?

Well, we frequently insist that students email us from their campus email accounts (not personal accounts), that students put their full names (not just first names) on any communication meant for the professor, and that students indicate which class they're enrolled in. Both Courtneys ignored these customs, figuring they were the only Courtney, that Jenn was only teaching one course (the course for that particular Courtney), and that it didn't really matter which email account was being used. But if either one of them had done any of these things, there would have been no confusion.

So how common is this kind of event?

To be frank, this particular story is unique.

However, incidents like it are common: students often use off-campus email accounts and fail to sign with their full names, leading to confusion and bewilderment.

Some, shockingly, sign with no name at all, like so:

Subj: im so confussed

what r we suppose to do for this assignment im cnfused thx
That leaves us wondering who SexxxyHottPrincess6969 is, what class she's in, what assignment she's talking about, and (let's be honest) whether she should really be in college.

So when we say we need these kinds of details, we have reasons, even if they aren't quite as extreme as Jenn's. And every once in a while, other things -- not the same as Jenn's, but just as weird and preventable -- happen that drive the point home.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Why Rebecca Black's "Friday" Is Better than You Think

The past week or so has produced two universal conclusions:
  • Now is not a good time for that trip to coastal Japan you've been planning.
  • The Rebecca Black song, "Friday," isn't very good.
That said, it's not the "worst song ever."

In fact, you can pretty much count on it that any song ever nominated or selected for title of "Worst Song Ever" ... isn't. If tomorrow, another song comes out, everyone watches it, and everyone agrees "it's even worse than 'Friday,'" that song will also not be the worst song ever.

To draw this kind of hatred, a song has to be at least a little good.

Think about it this way: You don't spend a lot of energy telling people how much you hate things that no one likes. You reserve your energy for the stuff that you think people might like, but shouldn't. You don't go on and on about how you hate the taste of feces. You don't even bother with it. But lots of people will rail about mayonnaise. Similarly, I like to beat up on movies like Armageddon -- movies that could have been brilliant, should have been better, and even have cool little moments in them. (Despite myself, I still get misty eyed at the end of Armageddon, when Liv Tyler gets saluted.) Because they're almost good, I find their weaknesses and flaws all the more painful, and I'm acutely aware other viewers will like the movies. Maybe they didn't notice the flaws? Or they didn't care? I'll fix that!

The same thing happens with any other kind of argument. As I've noted before, no one spends a lot of energy explaining why murder is wrong. They don't expect any opposition. Instead, they argue about things like abortion or the death penalty or torture -- subjects that are guaranteed to trigger divided opinions.

We don't hate the really bad stuff. We're apathetic about it.

What we really hate is the almost good.

That's what's happening with "Friday." Those of us who dislike the song nevertheless see the potential for a runaway pop hit (however slim) and feel the need to weigh in. Sure, the lyrics are bad, but the idea to create an age-appropriate pop song about spending time with friends has some real marketability. And the tune is kind of catchy, even if we don't want to catch it. Plenty of one-hit wonders have that characteristic. Ms. Black may be young and her talent may not be fully developed, and the auto-tuning may be annoying, but we've seen auto-tuned talent at her level succeed before -- she's not bad enough to guarantee failure. If all of this stuff were truly, truly terrible, we wouldn't bother to watch, comment, or think about it. We discuss it because we can imagine someone liking it. (As, in fact, some people have admitted to.) We imagine that five years from now, we'll be in an elevator, listening to a muzak version of "Friday." That's why there are so many comments about it.

And, ironically, if her critics continue, they'll almost guarantee that result -- something that Ms. Black seems to understand better than her haters. Indeed, I think this event could spark a whole career for Ms. Black, not necessarily in music, but in public relations. She has handled the unexpected hate brilliantly. People in business and public relations courses will be using her experience as a case study in five years, regardless of what happens with her song. She'll be the new Odwalla.