Sunday, October 30, 2011

Mud and Fire: the connection

While preparing this week's class on early San Francisco, I wanted to look into the status of the streets in the wild, boom-town early years of the Gold Rush. Not to my surprise, I learned that the streets of San Francisco in the early 1850s were not much better than the streets of other cities of the time. In fact, because of the frequent soggy weather in that part of the world, they were probably worse.

As in all but the most commercially dense areas of the biggest cities, city and town streets were mostly unpaved. A favorite joke of the time told about a man who was up to his neck in mud on a New York street. When an alarmed neighbor ran out to assist him, he cheerily called out, "no worries, I have my horse under me." That this was a popular joke, tells us that many people could clearly identify with this man's predicament.

In San Francisco, "instant city" that it was (I take that phrase from a 1975 book by Gunther Barth), paving of streets was not a major priority until fires moved the issue up the priority list. The streets were so bad that one enterprising person put up a sign at the intersection of Clay and Kearney reading: "This streeet is impassable, not even jackassable."

What connection between muddy streets and fires, you ask? Good question.

It seems that as a stop-gap (something to be expected in an instant city more interested in making money off gold rush miners than quality of life matters), the city fathers put down planks over the mud.

Now, it doesn't take the brilliance and training of an urban planner to know that there are going to be big problems with that--those planks are guaranteed to be slippery when wet and a fire hazard when dry.

And that's exactly what happened. Between 1849 and 1854, San Francisco suffered through six major fires, the flames of which were certainly encouraged by that dry planking on the streets. Only after the sixth disastrous fire did the city begin laying its first pavement.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Short answer exam writing advice

In my classes these days, instead of essay answers, I ask students to write several short answers instead. The questions I ask are designed to be answered in two to five well planned sentences. I insist that before writing anything, students sit and think a while, making a brief list. Only after that list is completed should they think about composing the answer.

Why? Because we live in the age of Twitter, in the age of four-second sound bites. Have you ever seen a long blogpost and groaned? Few people have the time or the inclination to read long essays anymore.

So, am I doing my students a favor by insisting that they think carefully and then write concisely? I think so.

Here is a sample question (taken from my Roosevelt to Reagan course material) with a sample of how I expect students to tackle such a question.

Question: Assume that you are on a debate team. The topic is “Resolved: that the Cold War was not inevitable. You are to argue the positive, that it was not inevitable. What factors would you include in your argument? [no need for lengthy explanations: just list the factors you would use to argue that the Cold War was not necessarily inevitable.]

There’s the question. Now here’s an example of how you might want to do a quick list during your thinking time. [this is by no means a complete list, but shows how you would start doing your thinking and planning before writing your two to five sentence answer.]

A. Had been allies
B. Americans should have understood Soviet need for security
          25 mil dead
          Russia invaded
C. Overwrought intelligence
          Doolittle Report
D. Leaders exaggerated dangers
                Truman, Ike, Kennedy

Hint: While making this list, I thought of item C last. So, it was on my list last. Then, looking over the list, I realized that it would be better to bring this up sooner in my answer, so I moved it up. This is what I mean by thinking and planning out the answer before you start writing.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Expressing ourselves

About thirty years ago, the phrase, "express yourself" was all the rage. While I was never quite sure what that meant, I think it was an attempt to encourage people to voice their individuality....or something.

Whatever it was then, it's still important now. I bring this up because of an email exchange I had with an old friend, Peter Ruscitti. He wrote something to me that expresses far better than I can the essence of why I keep harping on proper grammar, usage, and syntax with my students. Here's what Peter wrote:

"In an information age, it’s not enough just to know something.  You have to know how to express it."  

This may seem obvious, but it's not. Think about it for a second. How many Americans today believe that what you say (or write) is the only thing that matters, ignoring the fact that how you say it (or write it) will determine how well your message gets through.

There's an easy way to learn how to become a better writer, too. It's not hard, and this is not a secret. 

The way to become a better writer--with minimal effort--is to read good books. Yup, you need to read as much as you can and as often as you can. 

But when you read, pay attention to how the author phrases things--pay attention to the rhythm and the clarity. Pay attention to the word choice. And, yes, pay attention to the punctuation. 

If you do, you'll find yourself instinctively developing the same good habits of composition when you sit down to write. 

All you have to do is pay attention. In this information age, isn't that everything?