Monday, October 23, 2006

an post

While in Halifax this weekend, after giving a talk at Dalhousie U, I snuck out to see a movie. Just before the trailers, there was an onscreen advertisement for renting the screen space itself. It read,

Do you want to advertise your business to a intelligent audience?

Sigh. There oughta be something like a "Strunk scale", measuring the severity of a writing error, probably based on the speed of the reader's deceleration. If the reader smirks at the dangling modifier out his rear-view mirror, that's a 10. If the reader has to shift down, realizes what the author meant, and moves on, that's a 50. If the reader comes to a full stop, either in bewilderment or to write that down to share with his sister the teacher, that's a 100. "A intelligent audience" is at least in the 80s. A writer's goal is to let the reader open it up. Or if not, to purposely set down pylons that regulate speed. (I swear, I'll close this analogy now.)

It amazes me how many people don't think the little things in writing make a big difference. In preparing my pre-circulating paper for my Halifax talk, I debated how to write the following. My paper was on the 1825 Miramichi Fire, the largest (?) forest fire in Canadian history, and I was writing about the only source of the day that said it wasn't a big deal, a letter from Thomas Baillie, New Brunswick's Commissioner of Crown Lands, to the Colonial Office in London. I was also trying to get across my reaction to that source: here am I, writing on the great fire, only to have it pooh-poohed by the person responsible for New Brunswick forests, just three weeks after the event. I thought my reaction was strongest if underplayed, so I wrote this:

"The great body of Pine remains yet untouched ...." He ends the letter, "The fire has appeared in different parts of the Province, but the injury done to the Timber is so trifling that I will not trouble your Lordship with a further detail." Trifling.


"The great body of Pine remains yet untouched ...." He ends the letter, "The fire has appeared in different parts of the Province, but the injury done to the Timber is so trifling that I will not trouble your Lordship with a further detail."


I moved "trifling" back and forth 10 or 20 times. If it was its own paragraph, the point seemed overmade, the subtlety lost. But if it closed the previous paragraph, I was worried that it disappeared into the quote, that it would be lost. All this for a word that, in this incarnation, might be read by 20 people.

But how can we avoid it? When can we stop caring about how we write, & if so, how would we start up again? In Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen, Larry McMurty writes, "For a novelist to take the work out of work is profoundly self-defeating: keeping the work in work is all-important."

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

secret syllabus

A student in my Public History class asked several weeks ago if our course had a "secret syllabus" -- the concept has been running around a few courses in our grad program. It's worth noting that I think the student meant it in terms of "What (or how) are you secretly trying to teach us?" but the original meaning -- at least as I understand it -- is "What books, articles, life, etc. are informing you at the moment, beyond the ones that you've put on the syllabus?"

To answer the latter question: good question. I think we're terribly informed by the sometimes happenstance things we're reading, watching, listening to. (My brother was heavily into John Prine one summer, & I can't help but feel that hearing a chorus of one of his songs repeatedly in the car contributed to me asking my wife to marry me. For aficionados, no, the song wasn't "Quit Hollerin' at Me.")

But to answer the former question: good question. No, I wouldn't like to think I'm hiding the important stuff from students, if for no other reason than that the hard-copy syllabus is likely to have more staying power: if the student turns to any syllabus in the future (for instance, in composing their own), it'll be a real one. I guess my secret is how intrinsic I feel the syllabus to be in setting up a course, the care that goes into imagining, "Ok, they'll read this, & we'll discuss that, and the following week we'll take things down the road a little more." My real syllabus secret is that I get impatient; I want students to read everything at once.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

on the road

I'm in Ottawa this week, scaring up interest in possible public history internships and NiCHE, a network of environmental historians. I'm history's Willy Loman. (Hey Arthur Miller, what's with the transparent symbolism of calling your downtrodden protagonist Lo-man? That's as cheap as calling your cannibal character Hannibal. Meet my son, Max Murderer.)

The people I've been meeting tend to be historians, either working as such in the public history field or as policy specialists who have drifted away from historical work but are interested in bringing a historical perspective to their field. What's been most noticeable is that everyone I've met wants to be more broadly involved in history: the public historians want to bridge the public/academic divide, for one thing, and the policy specialists still go to history conferences, still save up potential historical topics to work on in retirement. As a director of a public history program, as someone trying to bring his own work to a more public audience and encourage others to do the same, as someone in Ottawa for the express purpose of networking and promoting more networking, I've found that very encouraging.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

post in lieu of a post

I promised myself I would never post about why I'm not posting. Yet here I am. "My name is Alan, and it's been a month since my last post." But there's a valid reason. I haven't had a single. interesting. thought. Or at least no thought that didn't need to be streamed into a column, a class, a grant I've been busy working on, a manuscript review, or an email, or didn't involve distracting my 2-year-old from eating rocks.

It's bad timing for such thoughtlessness. William Osler said that "the effective, moving, vitalizing work of the world is done between the ages of twenty-five and forty" ... and I turn 40 soon. Is this the end for my days of whines & proses? Is this the beginning of a slow decline towards nostalgia, forgetfulness, and, finally, administration?

It's not really as bad as all that. I am being inspired by such posts as Kevin Marshall on the past, or Carling Marshall's comment, at least as quoted by Bryan Andrachuk, that if it's not on the web, it's almost as if it doesn't exist. Now, just to decide how to respond to them.

Stay away from the rocks!