In Present Like A Pro, their book on professional public speaking, Cyndi Maxey and Kevin E. O'Connor suggest that teachers sometimes let their expertise stand in the way of good teaching:

  • Too often when we present we think of ourselves as experts. We are experts, of course, but we should not believe our own advertising. That wrongheaded approach often befalls other experts; it’s an attitude that says, “The audience should come to me.” We then rely on lecture as the only means of communicating.

  • In the scientific community, for example, this is widespread, accepted, and unfortunate. Often, we have heard scientists come out of a meeting lauding the expert for her knowledge, but shaking their heads out of boredom or frustration. Experts tend to rely on superior knowledge. Many experts are teachers with superior knowledge. They just aren’t master teachers. (227-228)

02/12/14; 10:30AM

In the evening, baby when the sun goes down

Ain't it lonely when you're not around

02/06/14; 17:35PM

I'm reading early drafts of short essays written for an English class. They are fine and will grow in revision, so I'm not worried. But they bring to mind the contrast between school essays and the great tradition of the essay as a literary form.

School essays show a teacher that a student was paying attention lately in class and often enough over the years to cough up a credible account of something. The credibility comes from obeying the formal school rules and proving you know the basics about the assigned topic. Nothing new is required. No fresh contact with the world of experience, no new ripples in the ocean of ideas. The product is fabricated in familiar ways out of pre-approved materials. If you succeed, you have gone a step further in earning your journeyman card in whatever trade you will someday pursue.

Essays in the literary tradition invent their own organization on a case-by-case basis. They count as evidence whatever the writer can persuade us counts as evidence. They generally take a closer look at an experience we tend to take for granted, and they see something new there that has implications in the ocean of ideas. They don't have the last word about anything, though, because they aren't pulling rank. They do persuade, however, because their sentences cut through common sense, cliché, and preconception to something fresh. It's almost impossible to write this kind of essay without giving a reader a sense of who you are and how you think and feel, and so these essays are full of personality when they are done, as a side effect of doing the real work of the essay.

The two kinds of essays are profoundly different from each other. Nobody expects a school essay to be read again after the teacher has graded it. A literary essay, however, can remain alive for centuries.

02/02/14; 10:30AM

In a key paragraph of a brief Guardian article, Dan Gillmor implies that academics and other kinds of experts should have not an option but a professional obligation to write regularly and clearly for a wider audience than their workplace peers:

  • Another is the value blogging brings to the creators when done right. Blogging has helped liberate academics from the publishing racket that does as much, in my view, to hide useful information as surface it. Its informal tone is readable, as opposed to way too much academic prose. Blogs can make sometime abstruse topics understandable for the rest of us who don't know the jargon; we just want to learn something. Lawyers and scientists are great examples of people whose blogging demystifies their worlds. If we could only read their writings in journals and the occasional op-ed column, we'd know much less.
02/01/14; 18:10PM

In 1973, Pete Seeger seemed to predict the early 21st century, but he was just looking around his society when he wrote: "Americans are drowned in words. . . . We're also drowned in pictures". . .more information than we can use, more than we can make sense of, more than we can protect ourselves against. His brief essay turns immediately to a special case, "the independent graphic artist," a painter, say, who would have provided the wealthy with something to hang on the wall. The figure of this artist serves to sharpen a hopeful contrast.

For Seeger, there was underway a contrasting revival of traditional open-air murals, by which artists great and modest communicate directly with the people who live around them. Not hidden away in the houses of the rich, not guarded by museum and university experts, street murals "fill a need for communication between all people." There is an opportunity for honesty and independence that can break the silence with "ideas which will not be said by our politicians--ideas which need to be explored in public." Something real is at stake, then.

For one thing, by painting in public spaces, artists remind fellow citizens that "we are not 100 percent at the mercy of the media." Communicating on their own, independent from the houses of commerce, freed of those venues' predictable formulations, and more free in general to speak, people will begin to remake the world according to their own needs and values, Seeger said. For him, the people's values are fundamental and far-reaching: "We are going to unite for peace, freedom, jobs for all, and a clean, unpolluted world to share." No narrow focus on commerce there.

As the tiny essay closes, Seeger anticipates a doubting reader's question: "How will this come about? The murals will tell the story. You don't believe me? Keep your eyes open."

That last little bit matters, because he means that the process of social change is exploratory. It involves clarifying basic values together, in public, and it includes affiliation and action. It's a process that has a better chance using public media of wide circulation and participation. The painting on the wall of the millionaire's study won't do it; media broadcast to the passive millions won't do it either. Murals aren't just records of the time or bursts of expression, then. They are part of the process of social change. The same must be true of social media today.

Pete Seeger's small essay is the forward for a 1973 book called Mural Manual, which had chapters on every aspect of producing street art formed the body of the manual. Citizens need comparable skills--perhaps a comparable manual?--for the speaking and writing tools of active citizenship today, for all the reasons which Seeger mentioned when he spoke about art.

Republished from a June 2013 blog entry.

01/28/14; 08:30AM

Historian Stephen E. Ambrose may have accidentally put his finger on one of the great flaws of American schools. He took a history class that required each student to do some original research with primary sources, and this insight came to him in the process:

  • "And that just hit me like a sledgehammer," Ambrose later said. "It had never before occurred to me that I could add to the sum of the world's knowledge." (Writer's Almanac, 1/10/14)

In other words, he was deep into his college education before he understood that a person can help create knowledge, rather than simply receiving it from the pages of the past or the lips of a few experts.

In other words, a smart, talented young person reached adulthood with the most passive understanding of the way meaning-making might be handled by society.

In other words, the schools and colleges are often just fine with that. Take this in, endlessly, is the basic philosophy of our schools. Create nothing. Listen and learn.

01/10/14; 10:59AM

The word "art" does not appear in my job description, and not the words "gallery" or "exhibit" either. But somehow I ended up helping put together an art show. This has been quite a journey, and the exhibit that came of it, now open at the big new gallery at Indiana University South Bend, is full of astonishing objects created by sixty of the most interesting artists who have lived and worked in our area. Along the way I've learned how many hundreds of details and arrangements go into a big art exhibit. I have become acquainted with smart, friendly people committed to their work at area archives and museums and art departments. I've spoken with artists who always love having a chance to share their work. And almost accidentally I've had a small, free education in the fine arts. What a great ride this has been.

There were phone calls and letters and emails by the bucket. There were permission forms to be signed and delivery appointments to be made and people we wanted to reach but couldn't. I cannot remember the last time I worked on a project so drenched in details. If you are a big thinker who enjoys delegating the details to others, and someone says to you, "Wanna help with our big art exhibit," I suggest you smile and turn and run far, far away.

But then there is the art itself. If you go to the show at IU South Bend, which is free and open to the public, you'll find your own favorites. In this snowy season I keep thinking about a particular springtime painting of an artist's country cottage, with sunlight washing over the roof and walls. The trees are heavy with white blossoms and leaves just emerging. In the gaps between the branches, the sky is richly blue and the whole scene heralds both a beautiful day and a fresh season unfolding. The world feels full 0f possibility when you stand in front of a painting like that. In the show there are vivid portraits, playful, mind-bending abstractions, and sweeping landscapes. There are big, beautiful tributes to big, beautiful architecture. There are completely unpredictable ceramic pieces that give the impression that artists who work in clay may be the strangest dreamers of us all.

And there are quiet moments of human experience, distilled in a few simple strokes--I'm thinking here of a drawing of one man leaning over and ministering to another man on his sickbed, selflessly tending to a fellow human being who is in peril for his life.

People who love art make big claims for it. One of our country's finest poets, Adrienne Rich, once said, “I don’t think we can separate art from overall human dignity and hope.” That seems right. I like the extravagance of these works, too. Our area artists thrive on great big challenges, and it's good for my morale to see people tasking themselves with the making of something grand. These artists worked really hard, and they claim the freedom to create whatever they can imagine, which is inspiring all by itself, and along the way these fabulous objects are left behind for us to feel and enjoy. Maybe I'll see you at the show, which continues at IU South Bend until January 25th.

01/09/14; 07:52AM

President Lyndon Johnson shared a small theory of how poverty works in his state of the union address in 1964. A key passage:

  • Very often a lack of jobs and money is not the cause of poverty, but the symptom. The cause may lie deeper -- in our failure to give our fellow citizens a fair chance to develop their own capacities, in a lack of education and training, in a lack of medical care and housing, in a lack of decent communities in which to live and bring up their children.

Later in the spring he sent a message to Congress which elaborated:

  • What does this poverty mean to those who endure it ?

  • It means a daily struggle to secure the necessities for even a meager existence. It means that the abundance, the comforts, the opportunities they see all around them are beyond their grasp.

  • Worst of all, it means hopelessness for the young.

  • The young man or woman who grows up without a decent education, in a broken home, in a hostile and squalid environment, in ill health or in the face of racial injustice-that young man or woman is often trapped in a life of poverty.

  • He does not have the skills demanded by a complex society. He does not know how to acquire those skills. He faces a mounting sense of despair which drains initiative and ambition and energy.

This basic understanding still states the case, I believe.

01/08/14; 10:00AM

I'm grateful today for the complex, deeply functioning bond between companies that make such things as snow plows, the employees with the right expertise at those companies, the city and county governments that plan for predictable emergencies, buy necessary equipment, keep a skilled team to maintain and operate the equipment, and my neighbors who believe in their community and share the cost of public services. Well done all around....

01/07/14; 10:32AM

The remote thermometer on the north side of the garage now registers 84 degrees colder than the thermometer here in the room where I sit typing.

01/06/14; 18:38PM

Pretty nice set of backup singers on this one. What is it, two stripped-to-the-core verses, maybe three chords that a novice could reach for, a melody anyone sing, and a bare emotion of world weariness that sooner or later comes around.

01/05/14; 22:59PM

Fourteen inches of snow on the roof of the bird feeder, I'd say. The board that forms the seat of the old-fashioned tree swing is just a few inches above the snow. Most area public facilities are closed tomorrow, when the temperature will drop to zero by sunrise and continue dropping for the rest of the day, perhaps to -14 or lower by the next morning. There is homemade soup in the fridge, and staples enough for the duration. We don't usually see the weather push us around like this, but here goes.


The gallery is filling day by day for the big art show that runs most of January. Nearly sixty works, I think. One that I wish we could have in the show I saw in the chapel of a men's dormitory not far from here. The stations of the cross, the narrative in most Catholic churches set out in numbered images around the sides of the sanctuary, tracing the path of Christ from trial to crucifixion, burial, and resurrection. In one frame in the dormitory chapel, Simon leaned over to begin taking the weight of the cross from a struggling Christ, while a broad-shouldered soldier looked on impassively. Nothing else in the scene. The simple, quiet contrast was remarkable, communicating instantaneously the two paths in life: service informed by empathy, or judgment at arm's length simplified by discipline and authority.

01/04/14; 16:53PM

Digging the in-browser notepad that uses the browser's memory, loads in a snap, and is happy to live in the toolbar below the address box if you drag it there just once. Nicely done, Jason Cooper (@jasecoop).

01/03/14; 09:01AM

Conversation in the check-out aisle, two white-haired women each with a cart and a modest number of items. Chatting about nothing, then about Downton Abbey, then about the beloved old movies on the cable. "My husband taped those," one said. "My husband taped them too," the other said. "How long were you married?" "Fifty-six years. And you?" "Fifty-nine. When did you lose your husband?" "Three years ago. And you?" "Three weeks ago." "Oh, my dear," she said, gently placing a hand on the other woman's arm. Knowing enough about what another person might have endured, a deepening...

01/02/14; 10:33AM

Having no voice, or no voice that extends very far beyond the hedges at the boundaries of our private lives. That is the topic. But the question is whether we start there or end up there--whether through the shaping forces of the society or our own choices or a combination of the two. In a postscript to an old posting, I summarized a friend's view that people end up there, but until he said so I had been thinking that our position as citizens starts out with not much of a say beyond the private life.

Maybe there is some truth to both positions--starting there, ending up there--as well as both mechanisms--limits shaped by society, shaped by our own choices.

Maybe there is another element to consider. I remember the mothers of young people in South America who had been kidnapped and killed by government death squads--"disappeared" was the term. They lived private lives until they couldn't take it any longer, and they began to stand in a public square and ask where their children were. They formed up into groups, so that was political, and they gathered in public places, and that was also political--actions they claimed for themselves. But a society with death squads is all about silencing voices like theirs, and yet day after day they could gather. Why is that? Jean Franco, a scholar who studied these events, suggests that the position of being someone's mother entitles a person to care about her child, and this entitlement is so basic and so deeply ingrained that only the most grotesque of governments could refuse it. Ask the dictator: can a mother ask after her child? The answer seemed to be yes.

So there is some potential for public speech in our positions as family members, parents, siblings, children, or as friends. The web of social life was not so bastardized as to break down those bonds or stifle the expectation of caring and seeking answers about a loved one. To me that means that civil society has woven into it some degree of public right to speak, even though the powerful do their best to ignore and silence on many levels. So if you are human, we feel in our guts somewhere that you are entitled to speak about certain things. If a society forgets that gut-level right, that's a shame, but it seems to be there a pretty far distance down the road into dictatorship. Not all the way down that road, though.

We're not guaranteed the chance to ask a question of El Presidente at a press conference, say. But our common humanity grants us something of a place to speak from. As we see in many an episode from Nazi history, a brutal and passionate enough dictatorship will slash away at those who try to assert the right. But the less extreme cases suggest that speaking and asking go with being human in even a damaged society. People have to claim the rights or they will drift away.

01/01/14; 11:41AM

The most provocative paragraph I read in 2013:

  • What's more, war is obsolete. Most nations don't make war anymore, except when coerced by the United States to join some spurious "coalition." The earth is so small, and our time here so short. No other nation on the planet makes war as often, as long, as forcefully, as expensively, as destructively, as wastefully, or as unsuccessfully as the United States. No other nation makes war its business.

That's from the introduction to They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return from America's Wars--The Untold Story, by Ann Jones. I push back at a couple of the descriptions here, but overall I can't say that the author is wrong.

[It would be interesting to see if people would contribute to a collection of monthly "Most Provocative Paragraph" collections online somewhere, by the way.]

12/31/13; 11:57AM

"What bloggers are guilty of -- always -- is telling their story imperfectly," writes Dave Winer in "Blogging matters," a new post. The idea stands out for me because it means that a blogger probably won't claim the right to have the last say on something, knowing as he or she should know that the blog is a collection of views and experiences, not a pronouncement from authority. That leaves room for talking with other people, trading ideas, letting thoughts improve and grow. It invites readers not to play power games, even though some might do so anyway. It feels human because it is about the unfinished business of making sense of our lives. We all need help in that area, if we can get it, although some people believe or pretend otherwise.

12/30/13; 09:58AM

We're working on a book design, a fairly complex book with details to attend to, many illustrations to place, and some expectation, due to the subject matter, that the result be attractive rather than merely utilitarian. If we can handle all the details, we will have accomplished one thing, but shaping the book into an attractive set of patterns will take us to another level. Beyond mere accuracy we can try for a sense of design.

Do the two pages we see as a spread on the InDesign screen feel as though they were designed rather than just assembled? And does the design for this spread blend well with the designs of the other spreads? Does the book's design cohere? And before we get carried away with making a pretty package, are the details all in place? Does the design serve the subject matter and its many details? We'll see. But that's what we are reaching for.

12/29/13; 10:50AM

The end-of-year newspaper columns looking back at the big stories of 2013 are starting to roll out; the new year's resolution columns are popping up as well. Looking back, looking ahead--both of these bring to mind a familiar weakness of blogging, the fact that for most of us the posts slowly scroll down the screen into the archive never to be read or used again. Categories or tags sometimes help bring a good piece back into view, and links, of course, do the same. Some bloggers are very careful to keep their best work in view on the site--see the sidebar at Pressthink, for example. Some bloggers make a point of writing about older pieces from time to time. A handful of bloggers mine their posts to make up the first draft of a book. Sometimes a post turns out to be a draft for a piece published elsewhere--I have built radio pieces from blog posts, for example.

I am persuaded from personal experience as both a reader and writer that blogging has its own virtues and is completely worth doing on its own, but I feel like we're leaving money on the table if we stop there, letting most of the work slide down the screen into oblivion. I don't have a solution, just a long-lingering feeling that something is not being used to its full advantage. The content is spread out in dozens of entries, not easily reworked, but tempting. There are still useful sentences in there, in the e-dark, waiting.

Blogmath: 250 words a day, say, adds up to 90,000 words a year, enough for a book or a few ebooks.

12/28/13; 12:47PM

Calling artists to invite them to participate in a celebratory exhibit at the university, I notice the pleasure in their voices -- they love being asked and they often give the impression that it is an honor to be invited. Some of them are elders, sometimes not all that steady at their advanced age, and in their voices I hear this: "Somebody believes that part of my life's work is still of value."

Hearing a beautiful, modest gratitude in some of their voices, I find myself wondering: "How could people in many other walks of life have their work set up in such a way that they too could feel in retirement that they had done something valuable that we still honored?"

Part of the answer would be in the way the work is set up--the chance for meaning there, and dignity--and part of it is up to the person. Maybe too, part of it is in the way the society talks about work--talks about more than just its financial value. When and where could we hope to sustain that kind of change in the culture? It seems unlikely.

12/27/13; 10:26AM

Edward Snowden spoke with the Washington Post for 14 hours, over 2 days, the article by Barton Gellman says. The piece itself is about 4300 words long, and close to 900 of the words are presented inside quotation marks as being Snowden's words. It takes 7 or 8 minutes to read aloud 900 words, so the Post shares only a tiny portion of what was said in those 14 hours. So, it is fine to publish this contextualizing article, but where are the other 13 1/2 hours of the conversation? Why aren't big passages of the conversation being published for people to consider? Snowden is one of the count-on-one-hand most important figures of the year. Let him speak.

[Based on a conversation with Andrew Wimmer.]

12/26/13; 22:52PM

I'd like a little button on Twitter that would allow me to designate up to a dozen of my tweets to serve as an introduction to my main concerns, producing something like this: What's @KenSmith about? It's about these dozen tweets, the issues they raise, the small points they begin to make, the fuller resources they point to elsewhere.*

As it is, Twitter sort of relentlessly says, "You will not shape anything but the endless, ever-vanishing flow of tweets in our space. On our terms, not yours. With our goals in mind, not yours."

*A grander version would allow a writer to link old and new tweets in a chain at any time--not just one of these, but any number of theme groups of tweets or tweets that add up to a story.

12/25/13; 08:52AM

When I was quite young, my grandparents would travel from house to house on Christmas day, seeing their children and grandchildren at all the houses near enough to their St. Louis home to be visited in a long, full, jolly day. Later, this became pretty tiring for them and a few family members tried to persuade them to take it easy. But they were big big-family people (more than 30 grandchildren in the end) and they resisted. Finally, an idea was proposed that was satisfying:

On the morning of Christmas eve, they'd have open house at their house, and many of us would stop by. A couple of their daughters would make casseroles to serve as the core of the offering, and others would drop by with pastries or cookies or other potluck contributions. People would come when they could, stay for however long, and so the cast of folks around the big kitchen table changed all through the morning and into the early afternoon. Much coffee was poured, conversations shifted here and there around the table, and a suitable big-family tradition established itself in place of the previous one. By the time I was nearing adulthood, breakfast into brunch at my grandparents was as strong a family tradition as any other one we had.

More formally, the invention of tradition is a concept from the research of E. J. Hobsbawm, T. O. Ranger, Stephen Vlastos, and others. It appears that people reshape traditions all the time, sometimes then going on to assert that the new or updated traditions are as old as the hills.

See also, Fiddler on the Roof, "Tradition."

12/24/13; 09:22AM

During the brief but highly formal ceremony at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery, my mother sat in the seat nearest the road, as we were instructed, and accordingly, the honor guard presented her with the elaborately folded flag in the final moments. The soldier leaned forward and spoke of the gratitude of the nation for those who have served in the armed forces, and he slowly handed over the flag. Later she reported that he had fully kept eye contact with her during the entirety of this exchange. This was just one of the formalities--the slow-motion salutes, the bugle's slow notes, the three riflemen discharging their weapons in unison three times. Part of the meaning is in the formality, part of the respect and the assertion of significance, all of which is a counterweight to the loss we were all feeling moment by moment there among the rows of perfectly aligned white stones.

12/23/13; 08:15AM

Last built: Sun, Feb 23, 2014 at 10:54 AM

By Ken Smith, Sunday, February 23, 2014 at 10:53 AM.