This is not a headline from “The Onion”

Via elearnspace comes this link/news, “Morality under threat as science debunks our sense of free will.” Isn’t that just swell.

Actually, it seems a little more complicated than that to me. Here’s a passage:

Thirty students answered maths problems on a computer. A feigned technical glitch meant that they had to press the space bar each question to stop the computer from giving the answers away. Crucially, before the test, half the students read a passage from the late Francis Crick’s book about consciousness, in which he argues that free will is an illusion. These students pressed the space bar less often than the students who hadn’t read about free will – in other words, they cheated more.

Okay, but wait– what if the students who read this passage and “cheated” more weren’t so much cheating as they were saying “Oh yeah? I’ll show that Crick dude. I’ll do whatever the hell I want with this and skip the space bar. No free will, my ass!”

Remembering Joseph Williams

I heard via the WPA-L mailing list that Joseph Williams, the author of Style: Toward Clarity and Grace (and a series of textbooks based on this) passed away over the weekend. In never knew the man, but the book is one I’ve been using for a number of years in English 328, the undergraduate course I teach very frequently here. It’s just an excellent book, probably the best academic book I know about how to “write well” in an academic/clear/correct sort of way. Besides just offering really solid advice, I like it because it’s not even remotely simple and because it runs circles around Strunk and White’s famous little book. And that was his purpose, too. Right there on page one, Williams begins with a less than veiled dig at S&W’s “do and don’t” list of a book:

This is a book about writing clearly. I wish it could be short and simple like some others more widely known, but I want to do more than just urge writers to “Omit Needless Words” or “Be Clear.” Telling me to “Be clear” is like telling me to “Hit the ball squarely.” I know that. What I don’t know is how to do it. To explain how to write clearly, I have to go beyond platitudes.

Oh, Snap! Right freakin’ on, Prof. Williams, right on.

And that’s just what he does in 200 rich (and admittedly sometimes difficult) pages, wrapping up in a “grammar” chapter where, to explain supposedly “incorrect” uses of English (e.g., never begin a sentence with “and” or “but,” use “between” with two, “among” with more, split infinitives, etc.), he uses examples from other grammar books and the like where they break the rules. Right on again.

Anyway, I don’t know a whole lot about the man beyond this (and a few other) books and a few posts to the WPA-L mailing list. But if his attitude and wit is anywhere close to what it is in this book, I’ll bet he was a fun guy to know. He apparently died in his sleep from (as of yet) unknown causes, which I think is the way that most of us would like to go out of this world. So Joe, rest in peace, and thanks for helping out both me and my students (or is that my students and I?) learn a lot more about writing, style, clarity, and grace.

It’s more than a book store; it’s a really big book store with gadgets

As a winter break family outing yesterday afternoon, Annette and Will and I went to the new Borders after we picked Will up from school. And yes, our family is such that going to a book store is considered a “family outing.” This new store is a “concept store,” and fairly accurately summarized in this article, “Borders Celebrates Grand Opening…” Borders, which has its headquarters in Ann Arbor and which has been hemorrhaging money for a few years now, sees the store as at least one of the futures of the business. I guess.

Anyway, the store is located in a big-box strip mall over near Ann Arbor-Saline Road in the space that used to be a CompUSA store. One of the reasons why Borders opened this store here is because the Borders suits are here, and when we were there Tuesday, there seemed to be tours of various Borders employees underway, which was a little weird. It’s a big store with snazzy lighting and furnishings and all of that, kind of arranged in a sort of wheel/spoke pattern. In the middle, there were sections of food and wine, travel, exercise and diet, and something else I’m not remembering.

My wife the Children’s Lit professor scholar noticed that a good half of the book space of the story could be included in her classes: besides a big children’s book section, there was a lot of “young adult” and whatever the book category is called for the kind of junior-aged high school kids, and a very large section on Manga, Anime, comic books, and graphic novels. So much for the “kids today” not doing any reading– or I guess the “kids today” just aren’t reading “Literature,” which was sort of shoved off into a corner of the store.

But probably more than half of the store was devoted to the miscellaneous stuff that all big box book stores sell nowadays (stationary, candy, bags, notebooks, etc.), music, and “gadgets.” Over in one corner they had a LongPen station, which was (apparently) invented by Margaret Atwood to do virtual book signings. I couldn’t find a picture on the very bad LongPen web site, but basically, it’s kind of a station sort of thing a bit bigger than an ATM with a camera and a microphone, a screen that would presumably show the author doing the signing, and a surface where you put your book and the mechanical pen thing. I dunno. The argument is that these people are saving the environment by reducing travel. It seems to me though that they’d do a lot more environmental benefit by publishing fewer books on paper and making eBooks compelling and affordable. Really, I think the main reason for the device is that Margaret Atwood (and others like her) must really hate to travel.

And then on the other side of things, somewhere between a half and a third of the store, is a very large technology stuff/gadget section. They had the Sony Reader on display, which makes sense as a book store techno-gadget (and after playing with it for about 10 minutes, my reaction to the grey and $300 price tag was who in the hell would want to buy this thing?), and they also had a display of those frames with the electronic pictures in them and some exercise gadgets, too. They were selling FlipVideo cameras and other digital cameras (I knew way more about the FlipVideo than the sales dude), and there probably were some non-iPod mp3 players in there too. They had some computer kiosks where you could download mp3s to your iPod (or whatever) right there, or you could burn them to a CD, for about a buck apiece, and they had a station where you could print out your digital pictures. And then they also had a station where you could print a customized book (I couldn’t get that thing to work) and a station where you could do family genealogy (??).

Anyway, it was an interesting idea and I’m sure it will evolve, but right now, it had the look and feel of a bunch of stuff thrown against a wall to see if it would stick. eBooks and custom printing of trade books hasn’t quite taken off yet, and it seems to me that the only people who would use an in-store/f2f service to do things like download mp3s to a disk or print digital pictures are folks who aren’t all that comfortable with technology in the first place. And genealogy? Seriously?

So we’ll see what happens over the next couple years. We did all spend some money there. I bought Blogging Heroes more or less as a risky but potential BAWS resource since I have not had any luck so far getting high profile bloggers to participate in my survey or case studies. Though after looking it up on (which is what I link to above), which features some free chapters and a $5.38 price tag, I feel like I’ve been ripped off, which is not a good feeling to have upon reflecting on a new store.

The myth of online predators (and a gramar tangent)

I’m posting this here to remind me that it’s something I need to include in some readings for ENGL 516 about social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook and the like: “Questioning the Notion of Online Predators” from PBS Teachers, though it has been available in a lot of other places too. I heard an interview with the study mentioned in this post; basically, the researchers found (via what I assume was an examination of the records of sex crimes involving the internet and sex crimes prior to it) is that this idea of a bunch of dirty old men posing as teenagers online just isn’t so, that there is a slight decrease in these sorts of pedaphile crimes relative to the past, etc., etc.– in short, that this stuff is basically a media myth.

And yet, it persists, the same as the myth about razor blades in apples and pins in candy bars at Halloween, and the same as static grammar instruction as being the key to the teaching of writing. Why is that? Well, part of it, it seems to me, is one of the potential weaknesses of empirical research over perceptions and fears, especially when those perceptions and fears are red by things like popular media or personal nostalgia, and I guess what people might consider to be a gut feeling or “common sense.” It would make sense, for example, that in order to write well and grammatically, you must have to know the rules, and there is a lot of (largely inaccurate, I suspect) memories among folks of seemingly every generation that they learned grammar and usage rules in school, and, dangit, their kids should too. So often, data loses to perceptions (or hopes or feelings or whatever), and it is very difficult to change ideologies with facts.

But I digress.

The point is that this new and crazy interets are not out to get our kids, much in the same way that the rock n’ roll of my parents’ generation didn’t get them either. It makes me wonder what my bogey man is going to be when Will is a teenager.