Monday, May 22, 2023

Bettering Ourselves

How can we make ourselves better people? Not better in terms of our health, or our physical or mental powers, but better morally?

Aristotle argued that friendships (particularly disinterested friendships—friendships in which we are not looking to gain anything for ourselves) constitute one path through which we may become more virtuous. Others have suggested that prayer and meditation can and do make us more virtuous. In the nineteenth century proponents of certain strands of Christianity argued that cultivating our physical health helps us to cultivate virtue as well. A number of twentieth- and twenty-first century psychologists and literacy advocates have argued that reading prose fiction tends to make us more empathetic.

In a 1942 article that has remains influential in some quarters, Simone Weil asserts that cultivating attentiveness—the sort of attentiveness that, in her view, comes from academic study undertaken with the proper attitude (“le bon usage des études scolaires”)—is an important way of cultivating virtue in ourselves. Weil was by the time she wrote the piece a fervent Christian, and her chief concern in advocating the cultivation of attentiveness is that humans do everything possible “to orient themselves towards God with the greatest possible degree of attentiveness of which the soul is capable” (“l'orientation vers Dieu de toute l'attention dont l'âme est capable”). But Weil argues as well that attentiveness tends to foster love for our neighbors as much as it does love towards God:
It's not only the love of God that has attentiveness as its substance. The love of one’s neighbor, which we know is the same love, is made of the same substance. … The capacity to pay attention to one who is suffering is a rare and difficult thing. … Almost all those who believe they have this capacity do not. Warmth of emotion, heart-felt impulsiveness, pity—these are insufficient.

[Ce n'est pas seulement l'amour de Dieu qui a pour substance l'attention. L'amour du prochain, dont nous savons que c'est le même amour, est fait de la même substance. … La capacité de faire attention à un malheureux est chose très rare, très difficile…. Presque tous ceux qui croient avoir cette capacité ne l'ont pas. La chaleur, l'élan du cœur, la pitié n'y suffisent pas.] (“Réflexions sur le bon usage des études scolaires en vue de l'amour de Dieu”)
Weil is surely right that much of the time we humans tend, even when we are expressing sympathy and warm feeling towards a fellow human being, not to truly pay attention to what they are feeling; too often we do not truly listen to what they say to us. And perhaps she is right that one way to cultivate this form of attentiveness is to cultivate attentiveness in academic study. But she does not make entirely clear through what mechanism a spirit of attentiveness to physics or geometry or grammar lessons (even a pure spirit of attentiveness that floats free of any self-oriented goals) might be readily transferrable to a spirit of attentiveness towards other people.

Are there other sorts of attentiveness that might just as plausibly—or more plausibly—possess the potential to add moral value to human life? Yes, is surely the short answer—and I would argue that some of them come from unexpected sources. More specifically, I’d argue that the pursuit of one type of work that has been reviled perhaps more than any other may offer surprising potential. I want to suggest that working in sales can help make us better people.

In the spring of 1975, when I was about to graduate with an English degree and was considering applying for jobs in book publishing, I had the good fortune to speak with two senior people in book publishing (Hugh Kane of Macmillan of Canada and Barney Sandwell of Burns and MacEachern). I had assumed—as countless English grads do—that the natural progression for someone like me would be into editorial. Both Kane and Sandwell suggested to me that the sales side was worth considering—that conversing with a variety of interesting people outside one’s company could be a good deal more interesting than poring over manuscripts all day, watching out for dangling modifiers and comma errors. They suggested too that the sales side could provide a broader and deeper understanding of the publishing business than could editorial (or Distribution, or Accounts, for that matter). They certainly did not suggest that a career in sales might have the potential to make someone a better human being. But I’m quite confident that it’s had that effect on me; that’s part of the reason why, even long after I started a new publishing company, I have continued to devote a certain amount of time to maintaining my own sales territory, and to knocking on the doors of the professors who I hope will assign our company’s books for their students.*

Discussions of sales and ethics have often focused on sleazy sales tactics—on the unethical practices that too many companies and sales representatives engage in. More than one wag has suggested that both “sales ethics” and “business ethics” are oxymoronic. If anything resembling “virtue ethics” or character formation enters the conversation, the typical assumption is that sales work tends inevitably to coarsen one’s character, encouraging one to become more competitive, more aggressive, more materialistic, and more self-interested—pumping up a variety of unattractive character traits, and doing damage to virtually all forms of higher mental activity. The image of sales as a soul-destroyer permeates twentieth-century American literature, from Arthur Miller’s The Death of a Salesman to John Updike’s Rabbit books to David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross. All are great works of literature, but all portray sales as a process of misleading or cheating one’s customers as one pursues exhausting but empty goals for oneself.** As Miller’s Biff Loman puts it,
… it's a measly manner of existence. … To devote your whole life to keeping stock, or making phone calls, or selling or buying. To suffer fifty weeks of the year for the sake of a two-week vacation…. And always to have to get ahead of the next fella. And still—that’s how you build a future.

No doubt a career in sales can have all these deleterious effects. But sales work can also affect a person’s character in ways that are almost diametrically opposed to these stereotypes—and that are almost entirely positive.

A great deal depends, of course, on what you are selling. It’s impossible to imagine that anyone’s character is going to be improved by trying to sell shoddy merchandise or dodgy mining stocks. If you’re selling something that you can truly be proud of, on the other hand, that’s one good reason to be proud of what you are doing in life.

Arguably even more depends, though, on the approach one takes to selling. When most people think of what’s involved in selling, they think of the sales representative talking rather than listening—spinning a line, using every possible power of persuasion. A better approach to selling many sorts of things—and certainly a better approach when it comes to human values—involves the sales representative doing more listening than talking. Asking questions rather than giving a spiel. And then truly listening to the answers. Being curious about what the person they are speaking to may say—and truly interested in what they do say.

If you’re not trying to sell someone something that they don’t really want, you’ll have a better chance of long-term success, purely in terms of sales. But you’ll also have a better chance of making yourself into a better person. Part of becoming a better person (and it’s a lifelong struggle for most of us) is to overcome our egos enough to be truly interested in and to truly care about other people. Not just our children and our parents and our close friends—about strangers as well. To care to some degree at least about any other human being. How can sales help us to develop those sorts of feelings? Crucially, it can help us to develop a habit of asking questions of other people—which in turn can help develop a habit of genuine curiosity about other people. And the more curious we are about other people, the more we are likely to care about them too.

If you work as a sales representative for a long time—going back to the same people, in the spring sales season, in the fall sales season, year after year—that sales season structure in itself offers a strong inducement to behave ethically. If sales is a one-time encounter, the economic incentives arguably work the other way; you may well do better if you cheat or mislead the customer. But not if you know you’re going to be coming back again and again in the future. In that case there’s a very strong incentive to “build a relationship,” as the saying goes. But it’s not just a saying. Inevitably, one develops a habit of being curious about what the people you are speaking with are thinking, about what they might think, about what they might need or want. One develops habits of being genuinely interested in the people you are interacting with. One develops habits of truly listening to what is being said to you—and making an effort to understand the situation of the person who is saying it. One develops a habit of genuinely trying to help that other person—not as a matter of making more sales revenue for the company one is with, but for its own sake. (It’s not uncommon for sales representatives to recommend to their customers products from another company when they can see that whatever they are offering that season is not a good fit—and I can attest that it’s a deeply satisfying feeling for the sales rep if such suggestions turn out to be helpful.) Inevitably too, such habits seep into the rest of life. One develops a habit of asking questions of one’s spouse or partner, of one’s relatives, of one’s friends. And I think one becomes more likely to be curious about the lives of strangers too—and more likely to care about them.

None of this is to suggest that working in sales has a unique ethical status. I imagine that for some people academic study may indeed have the capacity to build habits of attentiveness that can result in an increased tendency to care for others, much as Weil suggests. (So too, I'm sure, may a career on the editorial side of the publishing business, provided that it entails serious engagement with texts and ideas rather than merely with commas and dangling modifiers!) I’m sure that, for many, simply making a decision to help others in a practical way—to volunteer for a charity helping the poor or the homeless, for example—can result both in real benefit to those others and in building habits within oneself of being attentive and caring to others. And no doubt the habit of reading can, in some circumstances at least, increase one’s capacity for empathy—though it’s surely more likely to do so if one is reading Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton (a novel offering a deeply sympathetic depiction of the life of a poor family), than it is if one is reading Thomas Dixon’s The Clansmen (a novel offering a deeply sympathetic treatment of the activities of the Ku Klux Klan). And I’m sure that building habits of disinterested friendship can help to make one a better person, just as Aristotle maintained. But a career in sales—so often denigrated as being at best a path merely to “bettering oneself” materially—also deserves consideration as a path to bettering oneself in ethical terms, and in bettering the lives of others.

Yes, sales at its worst can indeed be soul destroying. It’s persuading someone to buy something that they don’t really need and don’t even really want—telling them that color looks lovely on you! when in reality it looks hideous, or appealing to their worst instincts (What I hear from everyone who’s bought this car is that they can’t believe how many admiring looks they get). But sales at its best involves making people aware of products or services that will genuinely help them, that will make their work easier or their lives better and more enjoyable, that will genuinely offer better value, that will be better for the environment or better for the planet in myriad other ways. And by leading us to think of other people and their needs and wants, sales work can indeed help to make us better people. “Attention must be paid,” the famous line from Death of a Salesman, is a plea for caring about the life of Willy Loman, whose sales career has resulted in great damage to him and his family; “he’s a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him.” But people who work in sales are not Willy Lomans; it’s worth paying attention too to the ways in which and the degree to which attentiveness and caring on the part of those engaged in sales very often contribute to much happier outcomes, and make a real contribution to making the world a better and more caring place.
*Next January I’ll turn 70; this coming fall will be my 88th and final sales season.

**It might also be observed that all are by male writers, and focus on male sales people. The ways in which sales has been gendered is not my subject here, but it’s a subject that deserves attention.

A selfie taken during my 87th sales season--this past February in New Orleans, outside Xavier University of Louisiana. For the past several years I've stayed when visiting New Orleans at Bed and Breakfast places in the Bywater neighborhood; there are no nearby car rental places, but there's a U-Haul that's both handy and reasonably priced (so long as one doesn't mind looking silly driving from university to university with "Only $19.95 a day" on your vehicle).

Saturday, April 29, 2023

Women and Men, Writers and Prizes, Progress

Earlier today I sent this Letter to the Editor to the Globe and Mail:
Re. We need writing prizes for women authors (April 29): You’d never guess from Susan Swan’s piece that, these days, women win more literary prizes than men. She mentions 7 prizes, and provides numbers going back decades—and she’s absolutely right that for far too long there were far too few women winners. But the past 5 years? Women have won 5 of 5 Governor General’s fiction awards, 3 Giller, 3 Writers’ Trust, and 3 PEN/Faulkner fiction prizes, as well as 3 Nobel Prizes for Literature. Of the 7 awards she mentions, only the Leacock and Pulitzer have skewed male. The total since 2018 for the prizes cited for their “discouraging” statistics is 20 women winners, 15 men. We all owe Swan a debt for being part of a monumental effort to bring about a much-needed change. But that effort is achieving more success than she seems prepared to acknowledge.
There are one or two things touched on in that letter—and in Susan Swan’s opinion piece—that I’d like to say a bit more about.

When I write that Swan is “absolutely right that for far too long there were far too few women winners” of literary prizes, I know whereof I speak. To some in my family (certainly to me), a continuing source of family shame is my father’s winning of the 1964 Governor General’s Award for English language fiction. At his best, Dad was to my mind an extremely good poet; I think “Haystack” and “Below Monte Casino” as good as any poems written about the horrors that ordinary troops experienced during the Second World War. But his one work of prose fiction, The Deserter, is an interesting novel rather than a great one; that it won the Governor General’s Award in 1964 over Margaret Laurence’s wonderfully well written and deeply moving The Stone Angel—felt by many to be the finest Canadian novel ever written—was a travesty, and a travesty hard to explain without acknowledging that Douglas LePan was, in 1964, very well connected and very male,* and that Margaret Laurence was neither of those things.

Thank God for progress! If, off the top of my head, I try to think of extraordinarily good works of new fiction I’ve read in the past few years, the names of women authors come to mind slightly more frequently than do those of males. I think immediately of seven authors: of Claire Keegan and Emma Donoghue and Sally Rooney and Elizabeth Strout, and also of Andre Alexis and Michael Crummey and Kazuo Ishiguro. That’s seven authors who come immediately to mind, four of them women.** Interestingly, the ratio of prizes touched on in that letter to the Globe (20 women, 15 men) is precisely the same, 4 to 3. I suppose my intuition, then, is that the ratio of prize winners these days is—so far as gender is concerned—very much as it should be!

* * *

In her highly engaging (if unfortunately titled) new book Left is Not Woke Susan Nieman, who is herself very much a thinker of the left, takes issue with three aspects of what she sees as “woke” leftist thought today. Perhaps the most interesting of the three is her discussion of the great irony that many today who style themselves “progressive” have a deep suspicion of any argument suggesting that progress may be occurring—sometimes even of any argument suggesting that progress is possible. Many on the left, Nieman suggests, suffer from a suspicion of the notion of progress so profound that they recoil from acknowledging progress when it does occur—including when it occurs in large part as a result of “progressive” efforts that they themselves have been associated with. I cannot think of anything I’ve read recently that is a better example of this tendency that Susan Swan’s piece in this weekend’s Globe and Mail. To the extent that it acknowledges that any progress at all has been made, it does so grudgingly; the emphasis is entirely on the degree to which males have dominated over the past 119 years, with barely a nod to the extraordinary degree to which women have nevertheless triumphed in the face of all odds.

The Governor General’s Award for English language fiction was awarded in only eight years in the 1960s--in two years the jury decided against presenting any award--but there were nine winners (in 1968 there were two winners, Alice Munro and Mordecai Richler). Of the nine winners, seven were men; Laurence won in 1966 for A Jest of God, an award that many thought was informed by the failure of the 1964 jury to recognize Laurence’s achievement with A Stone Angel. Even those who argue (and I am very much among them) that women are still discriminated against in many walks of life, and that more remains to be done in order to achieve full gender equality, should surely acknowledge that there has been progress. And if there has been progress over the past half century, that should surely give us confidence that more progress is possible in the years to come.
*He was also, even by most who knew him in those days, thought to be mainstream in terms of his sexual orientation; Dad did not come out as gay until the 1980s.
**One thing to note: this list is focused only on English-language fiction writing of recent years. If other genres are to be considered, I might add three other writers--Lynn Nottage (whose excellent play Sweat I read not too long ago), Margaret Atwood (for her very fine poetry volume The Door), and Ta Nahesi Coates (for his superb long essay "The Case for Reparations")--the addition of which would make the overall ratio 3-2 rather than 4-3.

Monday, April 24, 2023


[I wrote this essay in 2018, but for some reason never posted it on this blog. I'll do so now.]
For the last year of her life my mother had, as they say, lost it. Anything she picked up, she would lose in a minute. Any thought that she had, she would lose in a second. She was in the nursing home’s double-doored lock ward, so the one thing she couldn’t lose was herself. She’d been dead for several years before I managed to lose her. No, not “lose.” Misplace.

My mother’s ashes came in a lacquered box, about 10 inches long, 6 inches wide, and a couple of inches deep. Inside, what was left of her was in a plastic bag. Thick plastic, the open end folded over twice. There was no twist-tie—no extra precautionary measure to prevent her escaping.

Anyone who has ever seen the ashes of a loved one—but why do I write “seen”? We are all so conditioned to think that what we see is what is most important, when what we hear and taste and smell and feel can matter just as much. What we feel, in this case. The seeing is ordinary, unremarkable. But the feel of a human’s ashes? Anyone who has ever experienced that feeling will tell you that they’re heavy—a lot heavier than you’d expect. For their volume, they must weigh three or four times more than the ashes from a wood fire. And they are gritty, with little chunks all through—not soft like wood ashes. The bones, I guess.

My mother could never decide what she wanted done with her after she died. She knew she wanted to be cremated—that much was clear. But after that?

She’d said at one point that maybe it would make sense to have her ashes buried next to her own mother’s grave. But that was in Pennsylvania, nowhere near where any of the family lived now—and besides, she’d said herself that she didn’t feel any real connection to Pennsylvania.

Perhaps I should bury the ashes in the city I was living in—or the city my brother lived in, where our mother had lived herself for more than twenty years. But it was so cold there; she’d never been very fond of the place.

Maybe scatter the ashes? That would be fine—but where? A few of her favorite places, I supposed; I could think of two of three spots that might qualify. I equivocated. More than once I wished that mother had been more definite as to what she wanted to happen, after she died. So it was that, for years, I kept the box that held her ashes, not sure what to do with it. With them. With her? For a while they were on the top shelf of a cupboard, for a while in a bureau drawer. But at least I knew where they were—and some day I would decide what to do with them.

Then I moved. Then I moved again a year later. And then that place was turned upside down by renovations, and everything had to be moved from one room to another and back again.

So it was that early last year, when for some reason I started to think seriously about doing something about my mother’s ashes, I couldn’t find them. I looked in the bureau drawer where I was sure they had been for a while at one point. I looked on the top shelf of the renovated cupboards. The basement? A lot of things had ended up in a jumble in the basement during that renovation. I looked in each place more than once. She was nowhere to be found. A few days later I looked again, and a few weeks after that I looked once more. She had not reappeared.

My mother had died of Alzheimer’s, and now I couldn’t remember where I had put her.

I tried to laugh, as people do about things that have to do with death. If it hadn’t been me who was responsible, maybe I would have found it funny. I tried to tell myself it didn’t matter, that she really hadn’t cared about what would happen to her after she died. And she hadn’t. She hadn’t been religious in any way—other than having liked the sound of a choir. She had believed that we die, and that’s it; what lives on is whatever we have done in the world, and our children and others who remember us.

At odd moments over the course of almost a year I found myself looking for her again. Might I have put her in that forgotten space behind the furnace? Might I have stored her in that closet upstairs that’s never used? I looked behind everything. Twice.

To be reminded of the death of a loved one is to be reminded of one’s own mortality—many people will tell you that. But it’s not true for everyone; certainly it’s not true for me. I may sometimes be reminded of my own mortality by the death of someone I’ve known much more distantly—an acquaintance from high school days, for example, who I was never close to then and have rarely seen since. But if I’m reminded of the death of a loved one, what I’m reminded of is for the most part simply the loved one—nothing and no one else. This was about my mother, and I had lost her.

She always had a tendency to make her children feel guilty about one thing or another. She was doing it still.

I found her last week. The box that held her ashes was in a dark corner of the basement, behind four things and underneath two others; somehow I had missed her all those times when I thought I’d looked everywhere.

What to do now? Finding my mother means I no longer have to tussle with that twinge of guilt that no one who loses their mother can avoid. But it also means coming up hard against the fact of her never coming back.

I’ll be travelling to Pennsylvania for a conference in the spring. Maybe I’ll take her with me.

[Postcript, 2023: My brother and I finally decided last year what we would do. Ashes have gone as ashes will always eventually go, into earth or air, and a memorial stone honors our mother's memory:

Sarah Catherine Chambers LePan


We had a small gathering when the stone was placed; we wept, and we said things in remembrance of her.]

Saturday, April 22, 2023

Meat and Milk, Children and Mothers

Nicholas Kristof had an excellent column in the New York Times of April 15; "What a Girl’s Goat Teaches Us About Our Food" tells the story of how a nine-year-old girl in Shasta County, California, grew very fond of Cedar, a goat she was taking care of as a 4H member--so fond that, when it came time to give Cedar up for slaughter at the end of the County Fair, as was usual practice, she couldn't do it. Instead, she and her mother took the goat to a place they thought would be safe. The County Fair authorities argued that the girl and her mother were legally obliged to have the goat killed. The authorities were so determined to have what they saw as a four-legged piece of personal property killed that they liaised with the County Sherriff's office and persuaded the Sherriff to send law enforement officers some 500 miles to capture the goat and return it to County Fair authorities. Cedar was found, and Cedar was duly slaughtered, just as the authorities had wanted.

Kristof treats the incident as a reminder that "the bright line we draw between farm animals and our pet dogs and cats is an arbitrary one." He takes aim at the cruelties of factory farming and the unreasonableness of ag gag laws, and recounts how he himself has given up eating meat.

The piece inspired many comments, a number of which Kristof responded to with comments of his own, including one in which he contrasted the cruelties of today's dairy farming with the practices of earlier generations of dairy farmers. It was in response to that Kristof comment that I ssent the following letter to the Times:
Nicholas Kristof’s moving column on the horrors of the meat industry is superb. But he forgets the fundamental facts of the dairy industry when he writes that "it used to be that dairy cows were mostly pastured and had a decent life." No mother has a decent life if her newborn children are taken away from her soon after birth so that the members of another species can take her milk. And when the mother stops providing large amounts of milk, she is killed (rather than being allowed to live out her 20-year natural lifespan). Even in the old days, the dairy industry inflicted horrible cruelty on the mothers and daughters as well as on the sons who were killed to become veal. Unlike in the old days, substitutes for both dairy and meat products have become readily available; there need be no real sacrifice on the part of humans in moving towards a plant-based diet.
"What a Girl's Goat Teaches Us about Our Food" truly is an excellent column. I urge you to read it:

Sunday, April 16, 2023

The Message of Ben Affleck's Air: Courting a Legend

In contemplating the popular new Ben Affleck movie Air: Courting a Legend, it may be best to begin with some numbers. The financial net worth of an American senior citizen is typically in the range of $250,000. For the poorest quintile, of course, median net worth is much lower—at the low end, it’s common for a senior to have a net worth of $15,000, or even less.

Legendary shoe and logo designer Peter Moore, who died in 2022 at the age of 78, was estimated by Celebrity Net Worth to have had a net worth of almost $10 million not long before he died. He was, in other words, almost 40 times richer than the average American of the same age, and more than 650 times richer than a typical senior citizen in the poorest quintile.

Michael Jordan is also now by some measures a senior citizen; he recently turned 60. His 2022 net worth has been estimated to be in the range of $2 billion. Last year, then, he was 200 times richer than Peter Moore, roughly 8,000 times richer than the average American senior, and more than 5,000,000 times richer than the average American senior in the poorest quintile of the population.

Unbelievably, the perniciously charming Air invites us to root for Jordan as a financial underdog. In a key scene near the end of the movie, Jordan’s mother Deloris (played by Viola Davis) tells Nike’s Sonny Vaccaro (played by Matt Damon) that fairness demands that Jordan, who will, it’s claimed, be responsible for generating most of the money that will come from Air Jordan sales, receive not only the $250,000 that Nike has offered, but also a royalty on every pair of shoes sold. Vaccaro says he agrees with her that such a deal would be fair, but tells her as well that it’s never been done in the industry, and that he doesn’t think Nike CEO Phil Knight would ever go for a royalty deal. Of course Knight (played by Affleck) finally sees the light, the deal gets done, and it’s hugs and fist pumps and a happy ending all round.

The movie seems to embrace values we all share: how it can pay to take risks, to truly believe in something or someone against all the odds: how oppressed athletes deserve to be empowered against faceless corporate boards; how mothers deserve to be empowered as they struggle on their children’s behalf; how the struggles of black mothers and black women in particular deserve to be acknowledged and celebrated.

Doesn’t it? Well, no. Not unless we take a blinkered view of the movie, and of modern America. Air is such a well-directed, well-acted, well-scripted, enjoyably entertaining film that’s it’s hard not to come out of the theater with blinkers on as to the values that it is promoting. But it’s worth giving the matter more thought.

First of all, let’s remember that Michael Jordan has nothing to do with designing the shoe; it’s Peter Moore who designs the shoe, gives it the name “Air Jordan,” and designs the iconic logo. What Jordan provides is a vehicle for hyping the shoe, not anything that makes it a better product. (A parallel example: if a novel is hyped by Oprah Winfrey, we expect sales revenues for the publisher and royalties for the author to soar—but we don’t think Winfrey deserves millions of dollars for recommending the book.)

Remove the blinkers, and we can see that what Air celebrates is an America in which a tiny minority become fabulously wealthy while ordinary people pay inflated prices for goods whose “value” rests on marketing hype rather than quality. An America in which we are too often tricked into rooting for “underdogs” who are nothing of the kind. (Interestingly, the film chooses to tell the story as one in which Nike offers Jordan $250,000, instead of the amount they actually offered in 1984, $2,500,000—$500,000 per year for five years, not counting the royalties.)

Here’s another take on how the Air story really ends. Michael Jordan’s net worth grows to over $2 billion. Phil Knight’s net worth grows to over $40 billion. Jordan’s agent David Falk sells his business for $100 million. Workers in Vietnam and Cambodia who make Air Jordan shoes are paid 25 cents per hour. And parents who often can’t really afford it are pressured into paying $185 for a pair of Air Jordan shoes that cost $5 to produce. Fist pumps, anyone?

Saturday, April 15, 2023

In Remembrance: Vance Benjamin Elliott

Some obituaries can convey a good deal even when they tell almost nothing. In mid-February of this year my partner Maureen and I realized that Vance—a friendly but frail old fellow who had for years been stopping round pretty regularly to take away our empties—hadn’t been by for at least a couple of weeks. We thought that perhaps something might have happened to him—more than once before he’d not been round for long periods when (as we would discover later) he’d been hospitalized. But he had been getting more and more frail over the past year, and of course another thought occurred to us.

We knew his first and last names and we knew he had family down the road a ways in Duncan. When Maureen googled, the search engine quickly brought up “Vance Elliott Obituary - Duncan, BC” and this notice on the Dignity Memorial site:
Obituary Vance Benjamin Elliott August 12, 1960 – January 29, 2023 In the care of First Memorial Funeral Services Vance Benjamin Elliott, age 62, of Nanaimo, British Columbia passed away on Sunday, January 29, 2023.
That was all. The notice said that “fond memories and expressions of sympathy” could be posted and shared “for the Elliott family,” but there was nothing posted, from the family or from any friends.

How had Vance died? Had there been any funeral service? Or any “celebration of life,” as such things have for the most part come to be called? (There is a dreary inevitability to this sort of twenty-first century positivism, with its insistence on “passed away” or “passed” in place of the plain truth of “died,” and its implicit refusal to acknowledge the reality of grief, of loss, of death itself.)

Maureen and I worked out the dates; we must have last seen Vance on Saturday, January 28, the day before he died. He would usually show up at some point on a Saturday morning, his loud “Bam, Ba Ba Bam; Bam Bam” on the door always seeming to belie his seeming frailty. I would usually answer the door, say hi, and ask him how he was doing—though that was generally fairly evident from his appearance. Even at 11am on a Saturday morning, Vance would sometimes be swaying a little and slurring a little; occasionally he would be swaying and slurring a great deal, but more often than not, particularly in his last few years, he was comparatively sober when he called. The last few years too, he usually bore no signs of having been in a scrap; when he had started calling round—perhaps in 2014 or 2015—it wasn’t uncommon for him to look a bit beaten up, and to say, laconically, “yeah, I got into a bit of a fight the other night.”

Other things changed as well. At first Vance had come round with a small shopping cart, and showed obvious pleasure if we had a large bag of empties for him. But then he broke his hip. After that he could only get about shuffling quite slowly, with the help of a walker; the most he could manage at any one time was a pretty small bag of empties, tied to one of the handles. (If there were a larger bag, we’d leave it at the side of the house; “I’ll come back later,” he would assure us, and he always did, though it sometimes took a few days. The odd time he would enlist the help of a relative who would bring him round in her car to pick up the empties; she never looked too happy about that arrangement.)

His spirits held up remarkably well despite everything; his smile was almost always lopsided but genuinely warm. If it was me answering the door he would always say “How’s Maureen?” or, more frequently, “How’s the missus?” I would tell him, and often Maureen would join us and she and Vance would chat for a short time about the weather or about life in general while I fetched the empties. I would always fetch a bit of cash as well—"a small thank you,” I would call it as I pressed it into his hand, assuring him that he was doing us a favor by taking away the cans and bottles—as he truly was.

As time went by and Vance’s condition was obviously deteriorating, the small thank-yous became a little larger; instead of a couple of dollars or a five-dollar bill it would be a ten, or, for the last couple of years, a twenty. (That was no big deal; as things appeared to have gotten steadily tougher for Vance financially, they had gotten slowly but steadily better for Maureen and me.)

Vance never said thank you for the “small thank-yous”—not directly, at least. What he did instead was to begin bringing us gifts. One time he showed up, looking triumphant, with a couple of large ornamental planters, made of some light plastic in an odd shade of faded yellow. “They’re for you and the missus!” He announced with a big smile. And it was with a big smile too that he brought us six months or so ago a set of forty-year-old medical reference books, published I think by Reader’s Digest. One gift I will treasure is a poster mounted on a sturdy wood backing. It’s one of those British Columbia tourist posters with the old slogan “Super. Natural. British Columbia.” But instead of the usual mountains and ocean, the photo on the poster is of faces on a totem pole—faces that look far more realistic than most Pacific Coast totem pole faces, far more human. “I got it from a friend,” Vance reported; “he only wanted twenty bucks for it.” I assured him that we would give it a place of honor on our walls—and we have.

He kept offering to give more. He would often comment on the flowers in front of the house—clearly he liked flowers. And then he would look at the grass and say “I could cut that for you; why don’t I cut your grass for you?” One look at how his frail body tottered was enough to make clear that Vance could never have pushed a lawnmower. But I think he still believed that he could; I don’t believe it was an empty offer.

With his shopping cart or walker festooned with bags of empties, Vance could easily have passed for a homeless person, but he was not homeless. He lived in a small apartment, I believe, though Maureen and I never did find out in what building it was. For a while he had a companion—like my partner, named Maureen, though she kept separate quarters in the same building; “my old lady,” he would call her. But his old lady died a year or so ago; Vance had been alone since then.

Had he ever been married? Did he have children? We never knew. But some months ago we did find out something about his early life. When the horror of Canada’s residential schools had been much in the news for some time, I asked him one Saturday morning if he’d been in one of those schools. His voice dropped and deepened, and his lips tightened. “Oh yeah. We were cold. We were always hungry. I was beaten. We were all beaten. I was raped. The priests…” That was about all he could say.

Though Maureen and I were never on the receiving end of his anger, it was clear that Vance could get into a vicious temper. I remember one day when he stood on the sidewalk, trying to tell me about something he clearly saw as an outrage in the building he lived in. “Those bastards!” he growled, “they won’t keep the stairway clean. It’s filthy!” he spat out the word, and I thought that I wouldn’t want to meet him in that mood on that stairway.

Had he often instigated the fights he sometimes got into? Had his anger led to Vance becoming estranged from some members of his family? (He had an aunt living nearby who he saw frequently and who helped him out, he would tell us, but he also had relatives in Duncan and in Port Alberni, and he didn’t seem to see much of them.) There was a great deal about Vance that we never knew. I had thought I might gradually find out more as our chats became more frequent; as he had become older and frailer, he had started coming round more and more frequently to the houses where he could reliably find empties. Now that won’t happen.

A month ago Maureen and I posted a comment on the funeral home’s site:
We were so very sorry to learn today of Vance's death. For several years now Vance has been dropping by every week or so and helping us out by taking our empties; we have always enjoyed chatting with him. He clearly did not have the easiest life, but he managed to persevere. We will greatly miss his good humor and his generous spirit.
I checked in at the site once more today. It’s the only comment posted. Yet his was a life that had real meaning to it, that had real warmth to it, that even in its odd way had some richness to it. He made something with some richness to it out of very, very little. And, despite everything, he kept real kindness alive in his soul. I will miss his slow shuffle and his smile and his “How’s the missus?” I will miss him.

There’s one other gift I haven’t mentioned—a horseshoe that Vance presented us with about eighteen months ago. It’s a horseshoe for throwing, not for shoeing horses with. But, according to Vance, it will bring good luck if we nail it up above our front door. It’s been sitting on a shelf in the front hall ever since he gave it to us; this weekend Maureen and I are resolved to finally nail it up above our front door. We won’t ever take it down.

Friday, March 24, 2023

Painting New Orleans, and Painting the Interior of America: The Art of Mitchell Long

The first time I saw Mitchell Long’s paintings displayed was at an exhibition held in a private home in 2008. I was immediately struck by the quality of his brushwork—by the way in which he could suggest so much with so few strokes of color. I was struck as well by his sense of line, and of depth; again and again he is able to configure the streets and the buildings of New Orleans in ways that I find my eye can’t help but keep coming back to. I was struck by the subtlety with which his layered oils capture the soft light of New Orleans. And I was struck by the utter absence of that touristy showiness that characterizes so many paintings of New Orleans by less distinguished artists.

In the years since then I’ve kept up with Long’s work—with the many paintings he’s done of the old industrial building that for many years provided studio space for him and for a dozen or more other artists; with the many luminous paintings he’s done of the French Quarter; with the paintings he’s done of churches; with the great series of paintings he’s done from the roof of a hotel in the Quarter, looking down and out over the roofs of Marigny and Bywater. Commercially, Long has had his ups and downs over that time—including more than a few lean years when he was able to get by only by selling small works for $50 to the tourists at Jackson Square. But to my mind he has always remained the finest living painter of New Orleans—and one of America’s finest living painters of city life.

Long has been enjoying greater success in recent years, but it’s been as much the result of new themes in his painting as it has been of people recognizing the talent he brings to his paintings of street scenes on Royal or Chartres or Decatur; a new Mitchell Long painting these days is as likely to be of a checkout counter at Costco or Walmart or IKEA as it is of a scene in the French Quarter or Bywater.

What’s behind these Mitchell Long paintings of the interiors of big box stores? In one sense, what’s behind them is thirty years of painting experience—the years in which Long developed his extraordinary techniques of brushwork and of building color and of painting light in depicting New Orleans street scenes. But New Orleans (and Miami) street scenes were never the entirety of what Long’s work was about. For years Long has also occasionally painted interiors with other foci—most frequently, kitchen scenes. It was during the pandemic that Long turned his gaze in a further direction and began to paint interior scenes in some of America’s largest big box retail stores—Walmart, IKEA, and, especially, Costco.

Long’s images of these ‘landscapes’ are arresting visually, and have to them a strange and quite original beauty. To some viewers they also hint at deeper themes—indeed, at some of the deepest themes of modern American life. They can be read as depicting worlds in which humans are dwarfed by their surroundings; worlds in which all light is artificial light; worlds in which little stands out against the steel gray except a few bright splashes of color. They can be read as worlds in which the wide aisles of capitalism and the ‘checking-out’ conveyor belts of consumerism are at the center of the life experience. Row upon row, the lines and the colors Long has chosen can be taken to suggest the shine and the blur of consumerism, and of capitalism itself. And, regardless of how much much one reads into them, Long’s Costco paintings give us a sense of reflected light—light reflected off the Costco floors, light reflected off the ceilings, light reflected off the COVID plastic barriers at the checkout counters. In these reflections it’s possible to read as well the suggestion that these are worlds from which we can never completely emerge; it’s possible to read into them worlds in which America itself is reflected, and (perhaps less comfortably) a part of the viewer is reflected too.

I’ll accompany this post with images of a few of the Mitchell Long works that Maureen and I have purchased over the years. You can check out many more Mitchell Long works on his website— .

Wednesday, March 22, 2023

Grammar, Punctuation, and Gun Violence: A Short History of the Second Amendment to the American Constitution

The Second Amendment to the American Constitution is a striking example of the eighteenth-century habit of placing punctuation marks almost at random—as a way of suggesting where one might pause in reading a long sentence rather than as a way of indicating grammatical structure. Here is the Second Amendment as it was commonly punctuated in early versions:
A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.
To punctuate the sentence in that way is to give it two more commas than it should have should be done according to the rules of grammar and punctuation that have prevailed now for the past roughly two hundred years. According to those rules of grammar and punctuation, the structure of the sentence calls for just one comma:
A well-regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.
When there is just one comma, the meaning between the two parts of the sentence becomes far more clear. Grammatically, the first part of the sentence (“A well-regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state”) is a participial phrase. The phrase as a whole acts to modify or restrict the meaning of the entire main clause (“the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed”). The participial phrase provides the rationale for the principle set out in the main clause—and implicitly, limits its application. A more straightforward way of conveying the same idea would be to use a word such aslike “because”:
Because a well-regulated militia is necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.
The historical context here was one in which a new nation had recently defeated the British army. The American states fought for the most part not with a standing army of their own (though the newly-formed Continental Army certainly played an important role) but with the militias of the various former colonies that had now become the states of the union. These militias were formed of ordinary citizens (most of them farmers) with limited training; they were assembled only when the security of the colony (or state) was threatened. The members of the militia were expected to provide their own arms and ammunition, as well as other supplies, and they were not paid a salary.

As is now acknowledged by the vast majority of military historians, these militias played a vital role in defeating the British. But what about after the war? What if America were under threat of attack by the British in the future? Given that the maintenance of a standing army of any size was an expensive proposition for a new nation, and that many Americans still worried at war’s end about their future security, it is not surprising that most states did not permanently disband their militias at the end of the Revolutionary War. (The worries were not all over the possibility of a renewed conflict with the British; many in some states worried that the federal gGovernment and its standing army might constitute a future threat to one or more of the individual states.)

The historical record here is complicated in several respects (for one, state militias after the Revolutionary War were supposed to be largely subject to control by the federal government). But some things are clear; one of these is that the phrases “keep arms” and “bear arms” were at the time used almost exclusively with regard to this sort of military context. University of Chicago professor Alison LaCroix and three linguists concluded in 2019, after a review of the entire database of texts from the era, that uses of the phrases “keep arms” and “bear arms” to refer “to hunting or [to] personal self-defence” were so rare in the late eighteenth century as to be “almost nonexistent.” Such phrases were used “almost exclusively in a military context.”

Until the 1980s, the American Supreme Court paid attention both to the grammar and to the history; the Court , and was of the view that the Second Amendment conferred at most quite limited rights so far as firearms were concerned. Then the National Rifle Association lobbying effort kicked into high gear. Nowadays, many Americans are unaware either of the grammatical issues at stake or of the historical context in which the Second Amendment was enacted; tens of millions take the NRA at its word when it argues that the Second Amendment to the Constitution should be interpreted as giving any individual the right to carry a gun of any sort, anywhere, at any time.

Saturday, February 18, 2023

The Cost of Free

At many colleges and universities there has for years now been a push to encourage the use of free OER materials as course texts. At not a few institutions, faculty are being not just encouraged to consider free OER materials, but pressured to go this route. This post looks at the background, and assesses the degree to which the push for academics and students to rely on free online learning materials may be harmful to learning.
The Price of Textbooks: It’s not hard to see why the idea of providing college and university course text materials free-of-charge became very attractive in the late twentieth- and early twenty-first centuries; many textbook publishers were setting absurdly high prices for their publications. Even in the late 1980s and early 1990s not a few textbook prices seemed to be driven purely by greed on the part of the publisher. Here’s one example: a bestselling textbook from that era, which was published in modest sized paperback format (providing an overview of its subject in fewer than 300 pages, with no color illustrations or “bells and whistles” that might add to the production cost), was priced for many years at roughly $100. The subject, ironically enough, was moral philosophy. Because the author was well-known and the book well-regarded, the publisher got away with it; a considerable number of academics kept adopting the book year after year, no matter the price, because they regarded it as the best book of its kind. But many other academics (and certainly many students) were outraged—and rightly so.

By the turn of the century, it was not uncommon to find many of the large multinational publishers pricing large, hardcover textbooks at $200 or $300. And in the 2010s the prices of the bound book versions of many university textbooks published by those large multinational publishers went even higher, as those publishers began to realign their approach so as to encourage book rentals and all-electronic delivery models. (As a byproduct, of course, the used-book market for course texts went into a steep decline.)

The Call for OER: It’s no wonder that more and more academics began to look for alternatives to traditional textbooks. One popular choice, as a sensible alternative to course text compilations that had done little more than bring together a selection of academic articles between two covers, was to abandon such textbooks in favor of posting the instructor’s own choice of articles (the rights for which are typically already cleared for university-wide use through the university library) on the institution’s learning management system. That’s an approach that continues to work well for many instructors in many courses. But there were and are a wide range of courses for which no collection of academic articles could possibly be an adequate stand-in for a textbook. Many people thus began to call for free textbooks to be developed—and that call began to be answered. The move towards OER (Open Educational Resources, as these free materials came to be known), steadily gathered steam. A number of state and provincial governments offered support, as did many foundations, and hundreds of academics began to make learning materials that they had developed available online, for free.

In some cases, these materials were electronic textbooks that professors had developed for their own courses but had been unable to find a commercial publisher for; in other cases, they were electronic textbooks by academics who had no desire to deal with a commercial publisher. And many bore little resemblance to the traditional textbook; some instructors posted point-form lecture notes to OER sites, and some developed sets of student exercises for use either with or without an accompanying textbook.

It should be emphasized that some OER resources were and are highly innovative in nature and absolutely first rate in quality. A high percentage of the best ones seem to be in the Pure and Applied Sciences, but there are numerous examples in the Humanities and Social Sciences too. In Philosophy, the for all X textbook, for example, is very highly thought of, as are some other OER resources in logic and critical thinking. OpenStax textbooks appear to be developed through a professional process of review and editing that resembles that of traditional publishers, and to be generally of fairly high quality. In English Studies, a good example of a high quality free online educational resource is surely the For Better for Verse prosody site developed by Herbert Tucker, a University of Virginia professor who has long been one of the world’s leading authorities on poetry of the Victorian period. The site accurately describes itself as providing
an interactive on-line tutorial that can train you to scan traditionally metered English poetry. Here you can get practice and instant feedback in one important way of analyzing, and developing an ear and a feel for, accentual-syllabic verse.
In other words, students can use the site to improve their skill at scanning poetry—a talent that has become relatively rare, but one that remains one of real value in understanding and appreciating the vast majority of all poems written in English between 1550 and 1900.

Not All Publishers Are Alike: The policies of the large multinational publishers that charge hundreds of dollars for a few months’ access to a single textbook get a good deal more attention than do the policies of smaller publishers such as Broadview Press. But Broadview is far from alone in its commitment to providing books and other learning materials of high quality at very reasonable prices. Other leading publishers in the Humanities and Social Sciences—among them Hackett Publishing (which for decades has been renowned for its commitment to fair pricing), W.W. Norton, and Oxford University Press—have similar principles. The prices charged by many large multinationals have risen far faster than inflation over the past several decades (as, it might be added, have post-secondary tuition costs for students—at least in the United States). But the trend has been in the other direction with publishers such as Norton and Hackett and Broadview and Oxford; the prices of books from those presses have typically lagged inflation over the past several decades; in real terms, they have typically edged downwards.

Professors and students still sometimes complain that the price of a large anthology from Norton or Hackett or Broadview is, at $60 or $70 or $80, too high. But these volumes typically run to over 1,000 pages and cost hundreds of thousands, even millions of dollars to develop. If Norton or Hackett or Broadview were to demand the sorts of profit margins that many larger publishing and media corporations look for, those anthology volumes would be priced at $200 or more. By comparison, prices of $60 or $70 or $80 for such large volumes represent extraordinary value.

But that’s $60 to $80 more than zero. Why should students pay $70 for, say, an anthology of American literature when they can get an American literature anthology for free?

The Example of American Literature: Let’s look at some examples of what you get for the price you pay. Compare, for example, the ways in which some of the ideas of Henry David Thoreau are summed up in The Norton Anthology of American Literature, The Broadview Anthology of American Literature, and a leading OER anthology of American literature:

By the middle of the twentieth century, Thoreau’s literary reputation equaled or surpassed Emerson’s with Walden regarded as one of the masterpieces of American literature. It is a work that powerfully affected environmentalists like John Muir and Aldo Leopold, who greatly admired Thoreau for his concerns about the natural habitat; contemporary writers like Edward Abbey and Annie Dillard also cite him frequently. As crucial as environmental concerns, and even anti-slavery, were to Thoreau, however, he always insisted that all principled action had to be undertaken by the individual rather than through groups. …

from the author introduction to Henry David Thoreau, The Norton Anthology of American Literature (edited by Robert S. Levine et al.)


Thoreau remains a vitally important reference point in discussions of the place of individual humans in human society as a whole, and of the place of humans (both individually and collectively) in the natural world. Walden—its status now secure as a foundational text of American nature writing and of twentieth- and twenty-first century environmental movements—continues to strike a sympathetic chord among a wide range of readers. Thoreau at one and the same time posits Nature as a magnet attracting all that is best in humanity and presents a compelling vision of Nature as standing apart from humanity—even in opposition to human society. “I love Nature partly because she is not man, but a retreat from him,” wrote Thoreau. “None of his institutions control or pervade her.”

from the author introduction to Henry David Thoreau, The Broadview Anthology of American Literature (edited by Derrick R. Spires et al.)

American Literature I (a leading OER American literature anthology):

Henry David Thoreau sought to live an essentialist life, one devoid of the unnatural excrescences loaded upon individuals by society and societal institutions. By realizing self-unity and being true to his individual self, he sought to realize his true selfhood as an organically-rendered microcosm of the macrocosm that is the world in nature. For Thoreau, nature has subjective value and meaning and shapes not only the body but also the mind and spirit. When such external institutions as the church and the government divert the individual from the overarching unity of themselves and nature, then Thoreau thought the individual should prefer integrity over conformity. Thoreau distills philosophical thought—such as Transcendentalism—and objective, sensory, scientific collection of concrete facts—such as Darwin claimed as his methodology—into a unique expression of integration: of self with nature, of self with culture, of culture with nature.

from the author introduction to Henry David Thoreau in American Literature I: An Anthology of Texts From Early America Through the Civil War, edited by Jenifer Kurtz), a free online anthology published with support from Affordable Learning Louisiana
It’s hard to know how to begin to unpack the muddle that we are offered in this passage from an OER textbook. And this is not a particularly egregious example; if anything, the introductions in the American Literature I text may be rather above average among the various OER anthologies of American literature.

If texts such as these become the norm, we will as a society have paid a very steep price. When one makes direct comparisons of this sort between the available OER learning materials and the learning materials that are so often denigrated by OER advocates—the learning materials provided by established publishers—the costs of free start to become clear. If academics are pressured into choosing OER with no concern for issues of quality—as happens with distressing frequency nowadays at many North American colleges and universities—the result will frequently be that students and faculty are denied access to high quality course texts. And when that happens there must surely be a domino effect; those who have had to make do with substandard learning materials in university courses in such subjects as English, History, and Philosophy will inevitably be at least to some extent less likely to achieve high levels of reading and writing skill themselves, less able to contribute at a high intellectual level in the world of work, less able to draw upon a large and well-constructed body of general knowledge, and less able to contribute intelligently and coherently to society as citizens.

There is no reason to be too hard on the authors of American Literature I, or on any of the other authors of the introductory material in this and other OER anthologies. As those at Broadview, Norton, Hackett, and other reputable Humanities publishers are aware, it is extraordinarily difficult to create a comprehensive anthology of consistently high quality that meets the pedagogical needs of students and professors. To do so requires years of work by a large team of academics and editors, and it requires a very large financial commitment as well; budgets for developing multi-volume anthology projects typically run will into the millions of dollars (investments that are typically not recouped for many years). Extensive editorial and market research is required. To ensure accuracy, introductory materials and annotations need to be rigorously reviewed not only by one or more of the main editorial team, but also by specialists in particular areas where the main editorial team may not have expertise. To ensure readability and consistency of style, everything needs to be carefully copy-edited and proofed repeatedly—by professional editors and proofreaders. There must be a substantial budget as well to pay copyright permission costs; even for anthologies focused on earlier periods, there are always materials that deserve to be included but that for one reason or another are still under copyright protection. With the best will in the world, it is almost impossible for a small group of academics, working on their own (without the many decades of experience that any professional publisher brings to the table, and without the help of professional researchers, editors, proofreaders, and designers) to create an anthology of high quality covering a subject as vast as all of American literature. With a project of much more limited focus, or with supplemental resources, leading academics such as Herbert Tucker have shown that it is possible to create truly outstanding learning materials that can be made available for free. But, as the example above illustrates all too well, it’s a tall order to replicate that sort of success with a textbook covering a topic as vast as all of American literature.

The Example of American History: A considerable number of OER options are available in History, but the quality of the material is for the most part highly suspect. Here, for example, is how slavery in early America is described in American History I: Colonial Period to Civil War, a college-level OER textbook by J. Franklin Williamson and Thomas Aiello, both of Gordon State College in Barnesville, Georgia:
...[A]s the profit motive for the colony was being borne increasingly by tobacco farming, settlers intensively sought after increasing amounts of farmland. By the late 1600s, “free” land in Virginia was becoming less and less available to these English colonists. Consequently, England attracted fewer indentured servants. At this point, slavery became more attractive and more desirable to the larger and wealthier tobacco planters. This was partly due to the need to grant land to emancipated indentured servants; it was also due to tensions between poor former indentured servants-turned-farmers and their wealthier former masters. With the increasing presence of Africans and African-Americans in the late 1600s, Virginia began passing laws that made hereditary slavery binding on all African-Americans in the colony. Those who had once served as indentured servants alongside whites, and could own land and even their own slaves once their contracts were up, gradually found themselves discriminated against. Increasingly, the African-American population in Virginia became slave-based.
Though the writing here is in need of a good editor (the authors presumably mean to say that the economy became “slave-based,” not that the population became “slave-based”), it’s certainly not as obviously muddled as that of the OER American Literature text discussed above. In this case, the more serious problem is the way in which the writing disguises agency. Slavery “became more attractive.” People “found themselves discriminated against.” The population “became slave based.” It’s written as if no actual human beings ever made a decision to enslave other human beings.

It's important here to note that the best American history survey textbooks are not exorbitantly priced. The options for buying an ebook of the first volume of the leading commercial American history textbook, Give Me Liberty, start at $30, and you can purchase a copy of the bound book for $62. For the full, two-volume set prices start at $45 for the two e-books, and just $75 for the two bound book volumes—this for large format, heavily illustrated volumes that total over 1,400 pages. Published by W.W. Norton, Give Me Liberty is written by Eric Foner of Columbia University, who has for decades remained one of the most distinguished of America’s historians and also one of its most lucid prose stylists. And the Foner is not the only option of extraordinarily high quality; it’s not even the only option of extraordinarily high quality from Norton, which also publishes Jill Lepore’s These Truths, a 960-page overview of American history that’s as lively as it is insightful, and that retails for just $19.95. That university administrators would be pressuring faculty to assign a free OER American history textbook for their students in order to save them the $19.95 they would spend for a copy of the Lepore, or the $30.00 they would spend for a copy of the relevant Foner volume, flies in the face of all the educational values that a university is supposed to stand for.

The Issue of Quality, and the Money Behind OER: In Williamson and Aiello’s defence, it’s worth pointing out that quite a number of students at Gordon State University may indeed find it hard to afford $20 or $30 for a high-quality American history textbook. Williamson and Aiello may well have been acting with the best intentions in the world towards their students; the average household income in Barnesville, Georgia is just $37,688. Their text, though, was subsidized by the Georgia government; the website was “created under an Affordable Learning Georgia G2C Pilot Grant.” The site does not say how much money was provided to the authors, but it’s public knowledge that numerous state and provincial governments in the Unites States and Canada have been encouraging such projects with large subsidies. Surely in this case the money would have been better spent on providing book vouchers to hard-up students (so that they could purchase the high quality $20 or $30 textbook) than on subsidizing the creation of free but substandard learning materials.

Where no learning materials of high quality exist, or where publishers are charging truly exorbitant prices, it no doubt makes good sense for governments to encourage the creation of OER learning resources through subsidies. But in the Humanities generally—and certainly in areas such as the American history survey course, where established publishers offer learning materials of outstanding quality at reasonable prices—governments would surely be far better off spending taxpayers’ money by providing students with book allowances—or by simply buying a copy of the Foner or of the Lepore for every student.

It’s also worth paying attention to the funding sources through which instructional resources are developed, and the potentially pervasive effects those sources may have on content. For traditional publishers such as Broadview, Hackett, and Norton, funding comes directly through sales: ultimately, a textbook is viable only if it fits the needs and preferences of the instructors who assign it and the students who buy it. With OER texts, on the other hand, funding is allocated up-front, without any accountability to the instructors or students for whom those works are intended. As a result, many OER texts are transparently lacking in fitness for the classroom, with little to no research done to structure content and no mechanism for tracking effectiveness or usage (and no incentive to do so). Some OER projects exhibit strong biases of a sort that is clearly aligned with the ideological orientation of their funders. The content of Business Ethics in a Box, for example (a recently-released OER website of resource materials for business ethics courses) shows a strong partiality toward free markets and against unions—biases that seem to align with those of the Templeton Foundation, which provided funding for the project.

Many proponents of OER use language that suggests that OER products, unlike the publications of commercial publishers, are free of the grubby taint of money. The Power Point presentation that Creative Commons provides in its efforts to make “The Case for OER” enthuses that “open licensing is the critical lever between modern education and the collaborative culture of the Internet.” And it’s true that the authors of many OER projects have prepared full course texts and made available online entirely without financial compensation; indeed, some OER advocates seem to recommend a “work for free” model of textbook creation (which may not have much appeal to instructors burdened with a 4/4 teaching load, or for academics whose teaching load may be lighter but may face onerous demands to produce research). The reality of OER nowadays, though, is that it’s often far from free of the taint of money—whether the money be grants from large foundations driven by political ideology or, in not a few cases, intrusive advertising. As an example of the latter, it’s worth looking at one more example: the OER site most often recommended by writing instructors in English Departments—the Purdue Online Writing Lab (universally known as “Purdue Owl”), on which it has become impossible to avoid the “partner content” inviting students to purchase Grammarly, or to “get a real writing expert to proofread your paper before you turn it in,” or to subscribe to “Citation Machine, a Chegg service.”

The Example of English Grammar and Usage Learning Materials: If you ask English instructors what they recommend as a reference guide to grammar and usage, the most frequent answer nowadays is “I send them to Purdue Owl.” And Purdue Owl is—despite the intrusive advertising—almost certainly the best of the free grammar and usage resources. But it’s very far from being one of the best grammar and usage resources. Compare the way in which Purdue Owl treats any given topic in grammar and usage that gives students real trouble (dangling modifiers, say, or the complicated issue of what makes a sentence grammatically complete) with the way in which the same topic is treated in any of the leading writing handbooks from respected Humanities publishers (A Writer’s Reference, say, or The Broadview Guide to Writing, or The Norton Field Guide to Writing). The treatment accorded each topic in the texts from the respected publishers is in every case more thorough and more accurate than that provided in Purdue Owl.

One might as well be blunt: Purdue Owl is often simply incorrect in what it tells students. “In English sentences,” it tells us as it tries to explain the issue of dangling modifiers, “the doer must be the subject of the main clause that follows.” The site’s authors are trying to explain what has gone wrong with hypothetical examples such as this one: “Having finished the assignment, the TV was turned on.” But neither the examples nor the advice is of much use in helping students recognize and avoid this sort of error in longer, more complex sentences of the sort in which such errors are usually made. And what Purdue Owl tells the student is also flat-out wrong as a generalization about the English language—as is demonstrated, ironically enough, in one of the examples of a correct sentence that’s provided by Purdue Owl itself a few lines further down:
They failed the experiment, not having studied the lab manual carefully.
Here the “doer” of the participle “not having studied” is “they”—the subject not of “the main clause that follows” (as Purdue Owl has told us must be the case in English sentences) but of the main clause that precedes the participle.

If all the good guides to grammar and usage from respected publishers were priced at $200 or $300—or even at $100—recommending Purdue Owl to students would arguably be the best way to go. But that’s simply not the case. A new paperback copy of The Norton Field Guide to Writing, purchased from the publisher, costs $58.43; ebook options start at $35.00. A new paperback copy of The Broadview Guide to Writing, purchased from the publisher, costs $44.95; ebook options start at $31.56. These are both reliable, comprehensive reference texts that run to roughly 800 pages.

The Research: What about the research? Sites that promote OER are awash with claims that “the research” has shown OER learning materials to be equal to or even superior to “traditional course materials.” Those who use Open Educational Resources, it is claimed, are likely to actually improve student performance compared with those who use textbooks from established publishers.

Dig a little deeper.

First of all, such research is overwhelmingly focused on courses in the pure and applied sciences—areas where the problem of exorbitantly priced textbooks has always been most acute, and areas in which (no doubt not by coincidence) available OER learning materials tend to be of far higher quality than they are in the Humanities and Social Sciences.

Second, much of the research is based on subjective reports—on students and instructors self-reporting, saying that they felt the OER learning materials were at least as good as learning materials that the students would have had to pay for.

Third, where the research uses objective criteria, those criteria are often strangely limited. Studies will conclude, for example, that OER learning outcomes were just as good on the basis of a similar percentage of students having achieved a passing grade, or a grade of C- or better. But what was the average grade? In most cases we are not told.

Fourth, the available research in almost all cases has been conducted by those already committed to the cause of promoting OER (and, in many cases, has been published in journals such as Open Praxis, the Journal of the International Council for Open and Distance Education, which are as devoted to the cause as are the authors). Given the degree to which educational administrators seem eager to find reasons to expand OER, it is perhaps surprising that there have been any truly open-minded studies published. But there have been some; one example is Regan E.R. Guring’s review article, “Open Educational Resources: What We Don't Know,” which concludes that “free, accessible curricular materials may have many benefits for students. But the research conducted so far hasn’t delivered the required proof.” Here’s an example of the sorts of observations Guring makes:
One of the first reviews of OER efficacy tests included 16 studies (Hilton, 2016). The abstract stated that “ … students generally achieve the same learning outcomes when OER are utilized.” If you stopped there you would be remiss. By the time you get to the results section, you note only nine of the 16 articles that made it into the review analyzed student learning outcomes. The other seven focused only on self-reported perceptions of the material.

All nine studies had major confounds such as method of instruction (e.g., comparing OER sections that were taught online or blended versus traditional texts used in a face-to-face class). Some studies switched exams between comparisons and some changed course design (e.g., went to a flipped model). Most study authors acknowledged that the type of textbook was not the only factor that changed. One study of the 16 minimized confounds by using a common pretest and exams and showed no statistically significant differences in use of an OER for chemistry (Allen, Guzman-Alvarez, Molinaro, & Larsen, 2015).

Astoundingly to the critical reader in me, many studies did not conduct statistical tests on differences (Hilton, 2016)…. Perhaps the biggest issue is that many large-scale studies of educational innovations do not use comparable exams.… In the one national multisite study using a common exam across classes, OER users did worse than traditional book users (Gurung, 2017).
It’s simply not true, then, to claim that “research” comparing free OER resources with textbooks from established publishers has conclusively shown OER textbooks to be of equal or better quality—shown (to use the language of the researchers) that OER textbooks “enable equal or improved learning outcomes.” No doubt more research is needed—particularly if it is conducted by researchers not already committed to promoting one side of the OER debate. But it does not take more research for an English professor to know that a textbook made up of sentences such as By realizing self-unity and being true to his individual self, he sought to realize his true selfhood as an organically-rendered microcosm of the macrocosm that is the world in nature is not conducive to learning. It does not take more research for a History professor to know that a textbook made up of sentences such as Increasingly, the African-American population in Virginia became slave-based is not conducive to learning. Academics should never be pressured by university administrators to choose such textbooks as learning materials for their students. At the post-secondary level in particular, the quality of textbooks and other learning materials is a matter of vital importance to learning itself; students will typically spend at least as much time reading their course texts as they spend in class. If textbooks and other learning materials are substandard, it makes it extraordinarily difficult for instructors to make up the difference.

The Future: Let me again make plain that I have no desire to demonize OER. Like Guring, I fully accept that free, accessible curricular materials may have many benefits for students. And there can be no doubt that many large multinational publishers have long made a practice of charging exorbitant prices for their products. But no one has demonstrated that free materials are inherently of higher quality than learning materials made available by traditional publishers. And—particularly in the Humanities and Social Sciences—there is abundant evidence that available OER materials are very often of far, far lower quality than are the course texts published by established publishing houses. There is abundant evidence too that—again, in the case of the Humanities and Social Sciences in particular—many of the course texts from established publishing houses are very reasonably priced. To spend large amounts of government funding in order to subsidize the creation and widespread use of inferior OER alternatives to these high quality, reasonably priced Humanities and Social Sciences course texts is, in effect, to waste taxpayers’ money, and to do a real disservice to students. A world in which governments and administrators continue to push for OER to replace traditional course texts, and in which the advocates of OER continue to ignore or downplay the issue of quality in Humanities and Social Sciences learning materials, will before too long become a world without the course texts that publishers such as W.W. Norton, Hackett Publishing, and Broadview Press have for many decades been proud to issue. That may seem like no great loss to those who persist in ignoring the cost of free. But the loss will be a very real one on several fronts. It will surely be a loss for scholars and for future scholars; the outstanding Humanities and Social Science scholars of today became outstanding scholars in part at least because they had access to outstanding learning materials. It will be an ongoing loss to instructors forced in course after course to cobble together learning materials from a range of deeply flawed free options. Most importantly, it will be a loss for students; a world in which students have far less access to high quality learning materials is a world in which educational opportunities are very substantially diminished.

What should be done to address these issues? Clearly, governments and university administrators should be taking into account the cost of free when they are shaping policies regarding OER. If the creation of OER learning materials is to continue to be encouraged, and subsidized, focus that encouragement and those subsidies on subject areas where the leading texts are priced exorbitantly, and/or on subject areas where there is a lack of high-quality learning materials—not on areas where high-quality options at reasonable cost are readily available. Take quality into account in all decisions as to the authors and projects that qualify for subsidies. Allow qualified publishers (those with a long track record of publishing high quality learning materials at reasonable prices) to become part of the process of creating, updating, and revising subsidized OER materials, lending their expertise in editorial and market research, copy editing, and design to the process. Apply mechanisms of assessment and accountability to government-funded OER projects, so as to ensure that such projects are of high quality and well-suited to course instruction.

Above all, stop encouraging academics to use inferior learning materials simply because those materials are free; don’t make students suffer by being forced to use inferior learning materials when much higher quality ones are readily available.

Full disclosure: Some of those who follow this blog are no doubt aware that I am the CEO and Company Founder of Broadview Press. I want to make very clear that this post expresses only my personal views, and not those of the company as a whole. I do not know how widely or how deeply the concerns I express about OER may be shared by others at Broadview; I do know, however, that all those in Broadview’s management group are persuaded that if any change on this front is be brought about, it is far more likely to be brought about by individuals (and in particular, by individual academics) drawing the attention of governments and of university administrators to the matter than it is by public statements issued under the imprimatur of publishing companies.

Saturday, February 11, 2023

Crediting the Creators of Public Art

Maureen (my partner) and I have often noticed in our various travels that it’s very unusual for cities and towns to acknowledge the artist(s) in any way when statues or other artistic works are erected in public places. There is usually a plaque (often two or three plaques) crediting the city and whichever companies may have contributed to help fund the creation of a work of art, but almost invariably there is nothing to identify the creator. During the holidays we came across examples both in Victoria and in New Westminster of statues whose creators were entirely unacknowledged, despite the presence of various plaques noting when the statues had been erected and which local bodies or organizations had provided financial support. Back home in Nanaimo, we then noticed that the wonderful totem pole that the city put up not long ago in Maffeo Sutton Park by the waterfront was also unaccompanied by any information as to its creator. To be sure, information as to the creator has been available on the city’s website: “the Welcome Pole is a 49 foot tall carving by Snuneymuxw Master Carver Noel Brown, located in Spirit Square at Maffeo Sutton Park / Sway'a'Lana.” But it would be great to see credit given onsite to the person who actually designed and carved the pole.

This one has a happy ending. When I emailed the mayor and the city councilors a few days ago to raise this issue, the Mayor (Leonard Krog) responded promptly with word that in this case a plaque crediting Noel Brown was already in the works.

Here’s hoping that city officials elsewhere can be similarly responsive--and that the creators of works of public art in cities everywhere can be similarly credited in the future!

[Update, 4 April 2023: Interestingly, even the most renowned creators can still go uncredited when it comes to art in public places. Maureen and I were in Seattle last weekend, and were struck by a three-piece sculpture in front of a building at 1001 4th Ave. We thought the work was probably a Henry Moore, but there was nothing at all identifying the artist; only by googling afterwards did we find out that it is indeed a Henry Moore (one of eight casts made of a 1968-69 work entitled "Vertebrae").]