W is for Winter
Illustration: Amanda Woodward
W is for winter. You're reading this in early spring, so you may not remember, but I'm writing it in winter and can assure you that winter is a cold hell for academics. Our first-term glow is gone, we're no longer ahead in our class preps, we've stopped eating in the faculty lounge in case there are faculty there. We dream of summer, when we will finally finish that overdue article, develop that new course, or simply read. Winter is no time to do any of these. Or, it would appear, to write anything - even 800 words - on a single subject. Or on deadline.
W is also for Writing. No undergraduate reads University Affairs, so I can speak freely about "Howlers," Canadian faculty's annual August bacchanalia celebrating bad student writing from the previous year. (See you in Thunder Bay!) For nine days, we laze in lawn chairs clutching single malts, reading out the worst of the worst, laughing ourselves silly. And when the sun goes down we head into the giant tent to enter the students' personal information on a nationwide database that ensures they will have a hard time getting their transcripts. Some attendees focus on grammatical mistakes, berating those idiots who use prepositions to end sentences with. I prefer instances of accidental humour. Like the clearly distracted young fellow whose essay spoke to me of "the awkward backing-and-forthing of social intercourse." Or the timeless eloquence of "God's archenemy Stan."
There's been talk about opening Howlers to bad faculty writing, if we can find sufficient examples. I welcome it. Recently, I was reading a book from an academic press that in passing introduced Darwin "and his widely read treatise on evolution, entitled The Origin of Species (1859)." I couldn't finish the book. I couldn't get past this sentence. It wasn't that On the Origin of Species was the original title, that's an easy mistake. It was the superfluous "entitled." How can an academic writing for an academic press and a largely academic audience not know that he or she has to race through a sentence introducing a universally well-known author and book as quickly as possible? The sentence's very existence is borderline insulting, but to dally is outright offensive. You're not entitled to "entitled"!
One should be able to put a number value on bad writing, with an error's severity based on the speed of the reader's deceleration. If the reader smirks at the dangling modifier in the rearview mirror, that's a 10 on the Strunkometer. If the reader has to shift down to figure out what the author means, that's a 50. If the reader comes to a full stop, and reverses either in bewilderment, to rubberneck, or to jot it down for the next Howlers, that's a 100. A writer's goal is to help the reader open it up. Or if not, to purposely lay down speed bumps that regulate speed.
W is for Western. Shameless product placement.
W is for Weapons. Last year, all employees at my university took Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System training. While learning to recognize the labels for compressed gas, bio-hazardous infectious materials and the like, I got to wondering how I would react during a school shooting. Not whether or not I would be a hero, but simply what was expected of me. Was I to direct others, or just get myself outside as fast as possible? Where was I to go? What was the protocol? Isn't it statistically more likely that my history department will face a gunman than a methanol leak? But I got my certificate.
W is for Words. A scholar at a conference speaks eloquently on her research for 20 minutes. The first question afterward is, "Would you flesh out ... ?" Why can't we just reply: "No. It took me a long time to figure out how to say it. If there's more to be said, you'll have to start. Then maybe - maybe - I'll respond." If we were poets, no one would ask us to flesh out our sonnets.
W is for Work. A friend believes there are two types of professors: those who call university "school" and those who call it "work." She may be onto something. I have always been a school person, but have been drifting toward work in the past few years. The difference, I think, has been increased administrative responsibilities. It's not that such work is fundamentally more work-y than teaching is, but rather that the seasonality of the teaching year lets you pretend you're not working at all, whereas administration is more unremitting, making (in my case) History seem like one damn thing after another.
In that sense, maybe feeling irritable about winter is a blessing: it signals that I still see my life in terms of school, am still looking to the possibility of rejuvenation in spring.
Alan MacEachern is a professor of history at the University of Western Ontario.