Monday, March 31, 2014

Learning How to Do Something and Tacit Knowledge

In order to learn how to do something, do you actually have to do it? Can you learn something by simply reading about it?

The answer is, quite simply, no.

If you went and read several dozen grammar books, would that make you a good writer? Absolutely not. You will learn the rules, but in such a way that you will know what the critic means when he points out that you are missing a gerund. But you still failed to include your gerund.

Could you learn to code by only reading books about code, but not actually coding? No, you have to actually try your hand at it, to find out how things in fact interact. You can learn a great deal of conscious knowledge by reading, but in order to gain tacit knowledge, you have to actually do it.

This is true of everything you learn. What you hear in a class, what you hear from a teacher, what you read in your textbook, what you read in a writing handbook, those are all ways we consciously learn. Yet, the tacit knowledge that comes with experience and expertise can only be derived from doing the thing, and doing it often, and doing it well.

For example, I read a great deal of poetry -- mostly formalist verse -- before I tried my hand at writing formal poetry. My earliest attempts at writing in a regular rhythm were failures. As I wrote more and more poems with regular rhythms, it became easier and easier to do so. Now I can write in a regular rhythm without even thinking about it. I had to develop how I understood how to write that way. It did not come with instruction per se, and it did not come with reading formalist verse. No, it came with practice. Now, the other elements are necessary; however, they are hardly sufficient.

If you want your employees to learn how to write well, you have to provide them with good instruction, but you even more importantly have to provide them with time to write.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Arts Venues and Social Values

While we are mostly focusing on writing consulting here at Camplin Creative Consulting, there are also opportunities for arts organizations to receive our help. My Ph.D. is in the Humanities, and, more, I have published on the sociology of artistic and literary production and on the difficulties inherent in running a theater.

The latter article on how theaters have to negotiate the different values of different social orders -- with an emphasis on the conflicts among economic pressures, artistic needs, and political pressures -- in particular shows how well I understand the pressures on theaters. Negotiating these values makes it difficult for theaters to succeed. I believe I can help theaters and other artistic venues improve their odds of success.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Johnny Can't Write, and Employers Ought to be Mad

Back in November, CNBC had a piece discussing the complaints companies had about their employees' lack of writing ability. The easy thing to blame is "technology," but in the rise of technology and the rise of bad writing habits is a mere positive correlation. The real cause of bad writing habits is the lack of real writing education.

More, our technologies are increasingly text-based. We ironically write each other on our phones more than we call each other. We write emails, we write each other on Facebook, we write blogs -- we write all the time. And we read all the time online as well. That would suggest that we should see improved writing skills. If writing well requires more writing, and people are writing more than ever, we should see writing skills improving.

This mystery can be uncovered if we realize that most of the reading done online is skimming rather than close reading. People skim to get the main points, read only a little bit of a piece to get the gist of things, etc. These are not the reading habits that will lead anyone to writing well. To learn to write well, you have to read good writing, and you need to read it carefully. And it needs to be higher than the 5th grade reading level we find in American periodicals (including online periodicals).

More, much of what we read are the posts of friends, who are themselves often bad writers. If you read bad writing, you will turn into a bad writer. A common complaint among university professors is that their own writing gets worse from having to read students' writing. Now imagine what will happen if your writing is already bad. Bad habits get reinforced. This isn't to say that you should defriend all the bad writers you know on Facebook; rather, this means you need to supplement their writing with Herman Melville, Ernest Hemingway, and Shakespeare.

You have to encounter good sentences to learn how to write good sentences. And, if you want to become a truly professional writer, you then have to learn why those good sentences are good sentences -- you have to learn the rules of the game explicitly and not just tacitly. You have to have people explain to you why the good sentences are good sentences. Learning postmodern theory in the university isn't going to do that.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Ambiguity or Literalism in Language?

What do you want your words to say? Do you want your words to be ambiguous, so they can be interpreted in a variety of ways? Or do you want your words to be clear and unambiguous, so they can be understood in only one way?

This matters a great deal. For example, if you say that you are going to assess an employee in an annual review, what do you mean by "annual"? What is a "year"? That may seem obvious, but is it? Does the year begin on January 1? Or do you mean a year from when the person was hired? Then there is the fiscal year. When does your fiscal year start? And for schools the "year" begins on the day school begins. You had better be clear what you mean by "year."

Now, there may be areas in which you intend there to be some ambiguity in order to ensure that people can have some freedom to make their own decisions. Here one has to be careful. If you use the same terms in two places, one where you intend ambiguity, another where you intend clarity, you can create confusion. For example, if you have that employees need to demonstrate "effectiveness," and you intend for it to be sufficiently vague as to capture a variety of ways your employees are effective, you cannot then later use the term to be specific unless you specify that -- for example, including the phrase:
here "effective" means...

You must also keep In mind the fact that you are bound to have some employees who take language more literally than do others. In fact, if you keep these employees in mind, you can avoid any number of problems not just with them, but with the rest of your employees.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Hierarchy and Competition to Create Successful Groups/Businesses

Here is a little something I found that business owners should find of interest. In evolution there is a concept known as "group selection," which should be of interest to anyone who runs a business. If you understand your business to be a "group" competing in the market environment, you definitely want your group to have the traits that will allow for positive selection and not negative selection.

So what makes for the most successful social groups? Hierarchical structures and inequality among members. Strong competition within the organization at the top benefits the group by reducing the number of free riders who benefit from collective action, but do not contribute to that action. The worst thing that can happen to a for-profit business is for free riders to take over.

Certainly sometimes you need people to work together in groups. However, you also need to create the conditions such that people will neither free ride nor succumb to group-think. Both are anathema to creativity and health. Competitive groups would be a good way to encourage creativity and healthy growth in your company. The key there is to only reward the winner and to not in any way punish the loser. Desperation results in bad ideas -- scandal-creating ideas. Good-natured competition where there are only winners and there are not losers, where people are not concerned about losing their jobs if they don't come up with the best ideas, is how you keep the good ideas coming. Even if you have two groups and only one group (A) ever succeeds, that group will be kept sharp by the very presence of the other group (B). It is probably worth the money to pay B to keep A sharp.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Monday, March 24, 2014

Unless You Know You Don't Know How to Write, You Can't Learn How to Write

I know I have recently argued that colleges don't know how to teach people how to write, but when students come into college with the attitude that they have mastered writing, we have to admit that the odds are against teaching them much of anything.

You simply cannot teach anyone anything if they think they are already a master. I have experienced this problem myself as a college composition professor. Students think they know how to write, and they often cite their teachers' praise for their writing as evidence. The students who have done so demonstrate with their writing skills that our high school teachers have no earthly idea what good writing looks like. So the problems go deeper than college. But colleges don't improve the situation by then offering writing classes designed for advanced writers who need other advanced writers to help them fine-tune their work.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

A Time for Creativity, a Time for Focus, A Time for...

When is the best time to be creative? According to Kevan Lee, there is an answer, and that answer has scientific backing.

Of course, with anything involving the brain, the real answer is "it depends." There are those who are morning people and there are those who are evening people. And morning people are -- and this may at first seem odd -- most creative later in the day than they are in the morning, while the reverse is true of evening people. Why is that? Sharp minds are not always the most creative; creativity is always a bit on the fuzzy side, and if your thinking is a bit on the fuzzy side, you'll be more creative. Your brain is making associations without the censor working all that well, and that's when creativity happens.

Lee also notes that will power decreases over the day. This is well established. So if there is something you want your employees to do that requires a great deal of will power and focus to do, have them do it early in the morning. Have them be creative once you've worn them out, toward the end of the day.

There are optimal times for everything -- creativity, analytical abilities, and focus. If you maximize the times when those are most optimal for most of your employees (of course, ideally one would differentiate for groups of employees with similar tendencies), you will get the most out of them.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

The Economist on Grammar

You know if The Economist has a piece on grammar, there is a problem.

Indeed, the piece points at many of the problems with teaching English in general, and teaching writing in particular. But it also misses several points.

The author is right to point out that the separation of linguistic off from English has in no small part been a problem for teaching English. The result is that grammar has gone off to live in linguistics departments. Worse, the way linguists understand grammar is not how it needs to be understood in order to learn how to write well. I have had discussions with linguists before, and they are universally perplexed by my argument that to write well you need to learn grammar. They think of grammar as linguists, not as practitioners of the language, and that makes a huge difference. The writing teacher wants to teach style, using the rules of grammar and syntax as they have emerged in the English language. More, they want to teach a particular style of English, which is different from the spoken Englishes which have emerged in different places around the world. The linguists understand that using language is impossible without grammar, that you literally cannot create ungrammatical sentences, so they are perplexed that we want to teach the rules. The English composition teacher needs something different from teaching grammar and syntax than the linguists provide -- they talk past each other, meaning different things.

So the solution is not to talk to the linguists. Strangely, they are not the best way to learn grammar -- from the point of view of writing well.

What people need to do to learn how to write well is, again, to read. They need to read a great deal, and they need to be taught how to read well. That means close reading. Once people are familiar with sentences, teach them the rules of those sentences. Show them how meaning emerges in a sentence -- and how if they do not word things just right, their meaning may be unclear, or even the opposite of what they intended. Learning the rules of grammar and syntax allow one to fine-tune one's writing; it does not allow one to learn how to write well in the first place.

Let me give an analogy.

Suppose we have three children, A, B, and C. Children A and B have watched basketball all their lives. Child C has never seen a basketball game, but has been taught the rules. Child A is taught the rules of basketball, but child B has not. Which child do you think will play basketball better? My guess is that child A will play it best, then child B, then child C. Knowing the rules of something are almost useless if you are otherwise unfamiliar with the game itself. Watch enough games being played, and the rules start to become evident. But then make those rules explicit, and your play will become more fine-tuned, much more improved.

The same is true of writing. The reader will do better than the non-reader, even if we teach the non-reader the rules. And the reader who knows the rules will be a much superior writer.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Want Better Writers? Don't Send Them to College

Once, when I was an adjunct English professor, the assistant dean of the college at which I worked told me I needed to dumb down my classes. Well, to be honest, she said, "Now I don’t want you to dumb down your classes, but . . ." and then she proceeded to tell me I needed to dumb down my classes. The reason? Because she did not want students coming to her to complain that they did not get an "A", though they had not done the work to get an "A". She told me that since community college students typically did not come to community college to learn anything, but rather to receive an "A" and credit for the class, that I should teach in such a way that the students would not have to learn anything, but could rather just be granted their "A" and their credit. Further, she proposed that I attend a workshop the community college offered that would teach me the best way to provide my students with this kind of contentless education.

Here is the crisis in education. It is taking place in not just community colleges, but in practically every university across the United States. Administrators do not want students to fail, because if they do fail (or if they do not get an "A" even), the school loses money. So students get passed, even though they learn nothing. In community colleges, the threat is more direct, since if students fail, they will not want to come back to that community college, complaining that "it’s too hard there." And fewer students also equates to fewer government dollars as well. Government dollars are attached to the number of students in each class, so there are incentives to not just retain students, but to create large classes -- wherein students are less likely to learn anything.

Ideally, teachers should be using grammar, rhetoric, poetics, and logic to teach students how to read, write, and think, but most professors use textbooks that downplay or even ignore all of these things, except very superficial discussions of rhetoric. But then, how deeply can you cover rhetoric if you do not cover grammar, poetics, and logic? For example, I have used the book, The Aims of Argument, which only teaches students about different kinds of arguments. You do not have to learn how to construct good sentences, you do not have to know logic, you do not have to write it well at all. All you have to do is be persuasive. Though the protagonist of "Thank You For Smoking" is a rhetorician’s rhetorician, he does at least know what the truth is. The community college I taught at wanted me to make my students unable to be able to do even that. I am not to challenge my students’ opinions, but only consider whether or not they have an argument. It is no wonder that one of my students told me that she loved my class because I did something the teacher in the English class she had before mine had never done: critique her writing for errors in grammar, facts, and reasoning.

If your employees are bad writers, this is why. When they went to college, this is the education they were receiving. Even when professors want to teach their students well, the bureaucrats won't let them. The choice is to conform and pass every student no matter what, to keep them in school, paying their tuition, or to get fired. One can imagine what most professors do.

Only if you understand what is going on at our colleges can you understand the problems you are having with your employees' skills you rightly think they should have. More, it shows that sending them back to college is hardly the solution.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Advertising, Creating False Memories, and Rhythmic Language

Did you know that advertising can create false memories?  False memories have gotten mostly a lot of bad press from their association with accusations of child abuse. More, false memories are seen as some sort of "defect." However, the fact of the matter is that false memories are not a defect; rather, false memories are an artifact of how our memories work. And, as the article notes, the smarter you are, the more likely you are to have false memories.

We often mistakenly think of memories as video recorders, recording everything exactly. In fact, when we remember things, we are putting things together from fragments -- and sometimes our brains "grab" something close by, that is perhaps associated with another, similar memory. Thus, we misremember what happened when. This is a false memory.

In the context of advertisement, one can place one's own product into the memory of viewers by exploiting how false memories are created through association.

How many times have you been outside in the summer, in the heat, feeling refreshed by a drink. Do you remember what drink that was, exactly? Probably not. Now let me show you an advertisement of people outside in the summer holding a nice, cold beer. Do you remember that it was beer, now? If you are a beer drinker, probably. Make that beer a specific brand, and that brand will be put into the memory. And the next time you plan to get some drinks because you're going to be outside... well, the odds those drinks will be beer -- and, specifically, your brand -- has increased somewhat.

A slight increase in the chance that someone will buy your brand of a particular product multiplied by millions of viewers equals an increase in sales.

But are there ways to increase those odds a bit more? Yes. Rhythms and rhymes -- songs and poetry -- help people remember even better. Rhythms act as a carrier wave -- much like radio waves -- that carries information more efficiently into the brain. The brain is itself rhythmic, and can sync with the rhythms of your song or jingle. If you can get your product into the audience's heads more easily, you can rely on their memories to do the rest and associate your particular brand with memories involving those kinds of products.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Learning vs. Aquiring -- Speaking vs. Reading and Writing

More and more businesses are needing good writers, and more and more businesses are finding college graduates cannot write well. Is it the fault of the universities? In truth, yes. But the reason the universities are failing to teach writing is because most of the writing professors themselves don't understand the first thing about how different writing is from speaking.

One of the reasons humans can learn so much so quickly is because of the presence of adaptive modules -- really, instincts -- that both result in the creation of social knowledge and are developed from that social knowledge. Language is a good example of this. Without an instinct to language, humans could not use or make language. The notion that someone came along and decided, one day, to create language is utterly ridiculous. You cannot create language without a notion of language. It is thus an evolved instinct. However, the details of any given language are learned.

I say, "learned," but in fact the details of any given native language are actually acquired, not learned. There is a huge difference between acquiring something and learning it. You acquire your native language and any other language you encounter pre-puberty, but you learn any second language you have learned post-puberty. You can only learn how to read and write -- they are not acquired. But morals are acquired, not learned.

What, then, is the difference between something learned and something acquired? You acquire something for which you have the neural modules. You thus acquire the language you speak, the morals you practice, the aesthetics with which you judge works as beautiful. On the other hand, when you learn something, there are no naturally evolved modules to speed things along; more, the modules available in the brain have to be adapted to the task. For example, parts of the brain modules for recognizing shapes and for recognizing faces, which are right next to each other, are used for reading and writing in the creation and recognition of letters. Other modules are no doubt adapted for other uses as well. For example, we acquire music, but we learn to play a musical instrument.

Unfortunately, we use the same term -- learn -- when we talk about language acquisition and learning to read and write. However, the former is natural and acquired, while the latter two are learned technologies. The fact that reading and writing are learned technologies explains how it is that a person can speak more eloquently than they write, or write more eloquently than they speak. Yet, there is this expectation that, because someone can speak, that they should be able to learn how to read and write just as easily. However, our brains are not designed to read and write -- our brains merely adapt to learn to read and write. And that adaptation comes at a cost: literate peoples are less able to recognize faces than are illiterate peoples. Educators need to recognize these facts in teaching students how to read and write, and in our expectations about our students' willingness to read and write.

Think about it. We may think such a person impractical given contemporary circumstances, but we wouldn't wail and gnash our teeth if someone were to say they didn't like using computers and/or the Internet. There are people who don't like cars and don't like to drive, and drive as little as possible. Yet, too many of us (overeducated elites) are appalled when we come across people who (horror of horrors!) hate to read and are happy going through life not doing so.

At the same time, communication is increasingly written. We write tweets and emails and on Facebook and on blogs and send memos and have to write reports. How much more reading do people do because of the existence of the Internet? Of course, much of that reading is the tweets, emails, etc. of their friends, meaning common errors in composition make their rounds and build within textual communities. But I would venture to guess that even this is not the real problem with college students' writing.

The real problem is that the percentage of people attending college has been steadily increasing over time. Once, universities were primarily full of people who loved to read and had read a great deal. Those same people are going to college, but they are being joined by an increasing number of people who not only do not read, but actually hate to read. You simply cannot teach adult students who do not like to read, and thus have not been exposed to literally thousands of hours of good sentences, how to write well. The hours of reading and writing (and corrected writing) have to be put in well before college. There is no getting around this fact. Student writing is getting worse not just because our high schools, middle schools, and elementary schools are complete disasters at teaching these two technologies -- but because most of the students attending college are now non-readers.

So the first thing a business needs to do is to create a reader culture within the business. Actively encourage book clubs and reading groups. It could be literary fiction -- if you want your employees to write very, very well -- but it does not have to be. Well-written business and economics books will work as well. We can help set up such groups, and even facilitate them. This is the best way to begin to develop your employees' writing skills. Once they learn what good sentences look like, we can work on helping them to create good sentences themselves.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Want to Move Your Audience/Customer? Use Repetition

In Aeon Magazine there is a fascinating article on repetition and music. In it the author notes that people consider repeated sounds as more musical. More, repeated words become more like songs.  And by extension, more like poetry.

If you want to move your customer, use repetition. The writer who wants to successfully move his audience is one who will use repetition. If you want to make memorable works, you have to use repetition. If you want your work -- poem, prose, play -- to embed itself in the minds of your readers, you have to use repetition. With repetition, your reader, viewer, listener will go away with you forever in their minds.

Think of all of the most memorable commercials. What is repeated in them? Most of them have some sort of memorable jingle. A jingle is, of course, a small song -- usually quite simple, and usually using repetition.

Sonnets, for example, have repeated sounds in the end rhymes and in the iambic pentameter rhythms.

With ghazals there is the repetition of the end phrase.

Then there is the villanelle, in which we have entire lines repeated.

But if we take a poem like In the Multiverse, one may wonder how it is any different from prose simply cut up into lines. Well, first, the poem is in iambic pentameter lines, so there is that level of repetition. But it is blank verse, so sound repetition seems gone. But note that there are in fact several repetitions of sentence patterns:

"If there are..." is repeated. "In some," is repeated. And "And, [gerund]," is repeated. Parallelism such as this is a kind of repetition, and is not uncommon in poetry -- see for example the Psalms.

Poetry is repetition. It is repeated sounds, repeated rhythms, repeated words, repeated structures. This would also explain why some forms of poetry involve repeated lines.

The story, poem, song, jingle for your product will need repetition. Even if your story is told in prose and not using a song or jingle, you will need repetition. If you want people to remember your product, you will need repetition.

Repetition is how you keep your product or service in the minds of the consumers. And that's what you want when they are in the market for your kind of product.