Don’t Piss Off the Professor

For 4 years I taught part-time at my alma mater. For every assignment — and there were several each term — I would write for each student a detailed concluding remark in addition to commenting extensively in the paper itself for content and writing.

One time almost 3 years ago, I got a batch of particularly bad papers, and the students heard my disappointment (disgust, really) loud and clear. In fact, even though I continued teaching for another year, I consider this class the turning point that brought me to quit. At any rate, the assignment consisted of taking an existing organizational newsletter and critiquing its presentation and content.

Re. a newsletter for WWF enthusiasts

Joe:*
First, I apologize for not reading carefully the last page of your essay, but I knew by that point that the changes you would recommend would be superficial at best, and that the tone of your recommendations would merely applaud and celebrate a mediocre status quo.
Second, please do not confuse a “captive audience” with success of a publication. As surprising as it may seem to you, academics are, with regard to print media, not unlike WWF fans. Both groups will read anything that falls within their area of interest, regardless of how badly that publication is presented.
Third, the position that poor or sloppy writing underscores the writers’ passion is practically indefensible. Passionate writers usually wax poetic.
Fourth, I’m appalled that you would submit such a badly written paper in ANY university course, let alone a third-year university course.
Fifth, I submit to you that a substantial raising of standards for this publication might lead to even greater success. Why resist change? Moreover, why this callous disrespect of the audience?
Enough said …but it you want to talk to me about this paper after class, please do so.

Re. a newsletter for a “worthwhile cause”

Danielle:*
This paper is deficient in the three areas I am evaluating for this assignment.
1. Discussion (or analysis) or the publication: An analysis is not the place to opine. You were to use the literature to back up each of your claims of why some of the editors’ current practices in content development AND layout are good or bad. Yet you did not even present a list of references.
2. HTML: In HTML, paragraphs are not the same thing as headings. The template I provided gave explicit instructions on what to type, and where. You merely presented a series of headings with no paragraphs. This wasn’t supposed to be a slide presentation.
3. Writing: A quick glance at the scribbles I made throughout your paper should impress on you that it is not up to the standard of a third-year university course. Thus I urge you to:

  1. study the writing tips from the course website, and
  2. visit the fine folks at the Writing Resource Centre

Add some hard work and a lot of will, and I assure you that you will do much better in future papers for this and other courses.

Re. a newsletter for …heck! I forget by now!

Marcia:*
Most if not all the points you raise in this critique are valid, although perfunctory. But more unfortunate, however, is the manner in which you have written about these points, for your writing effort (or lack thereof) in this paper is not up to the standard that ANY instructor would expect in an undergraduate course. Choppy passages, unnecessary passive voice sentences, run-on sentences and comma splices, unorthodox letter casing, and poor grammar characterize (and diminish) this essay.

I still don’t think my comments were as biting as those of my former American lit prof, who started his comment on my friend’s paper with “This is clearly not a successful essay.” Still, students probably have no idea how soul-crushing it is to wade through a batch of bad essays.

* All names changed to protect the guilty.

On Home Improvements

This coming February 1st, I’ll be celebrating 8 years in the same apartment. I really like my pad:

  1. It’s in an historic part of town — Richmond/Fort Needham — which was essentially blown off the map in 1917 following the largest “man-made” explosion prior to the nuclear age.
  2. The neighbourhood that emerged following the explosion, known as The Hydrostone, has become a very comfortable place to live.
  3. I live on the top floor of a 3-storey building on top of Fort Needham hill, looking towards the harbour and the Macdonald Bridge.
  4. Can’t beat the cheap rent: just over $600 for a large two-bedroom apartment.

In short, it’s a perfect setup.

Except that the building and my pad in particular have fallen into shameful disrepair in the last decade. There’s even been a fire in late 1995. But what was getting to me lately was the paint peeling off the ceiling; the fact the place hadn’t been painted properly when I moved in; the white enamel kitchen sink was worn beyond repair; so were the counter tops and the tiles in the kitchen and dining room; the toilet would only flush once every 30 minutes; the heat couldn’t be turned off, even in the summer when it was 30+C outside; high humidity and mold attracted mice, especially in the summer and fall… It reached the point where I was too embarrassed to have anyone over. At the same time, I would be damned before I would put a penny to improve a rental, especially after paying over $50K in rent over the years. I felt I had paid for the needed repairs, labour included.

Finally after several requests, the squeeky wheel got the grease. But that has meant turning the apartment upside down to accommodate the workers. I dreaded that part because I knew it would bring me to go through all the junk — mostly paper — I’ve been accumulating. I’ve been pitching a lot, but I also found a few gems, namely stuff I wrote for various reasons and that I can’t bring myself to pitch because I get a kick from this past work.

I’ll share a sampling with you shortly…

Impressions of MT…

…from a PHP developer’s point of view …for I did have another motive when I downloaded and installed MT last night.

For over a year, I’ve been working on my own Web content management system. I looked at some of the programs out there — in particular the “Nuke” family for those of you in the know — but I wasn’t entirely satisfied. For one thing, to me they all seemed to work well provided one were to accept a predetermined (and a bit limited) data architecture. And for another thing, for someone like myself who works in a milieu with two official languages, I felt I had to come up with my own program that could be operated and could “publish” in two languages simultaneously. Plus I knew that my clients wouldn’t stand for having to learn even the most elementary HTML/XML tags.

I’m happy to report that my program is coming along very well and that it’s been getting a very good reception from my clients, who claim that the system is “dummy proof.” But after focussing for so long on my own work and not trying other people’s scripts, I was beginning to worry that maybe I’m making my program more complicated than it needs to be — either for myself or the ultimate end users. Hence the time had come to take a look at MT, but from the angle of a client rather than a developer.

Looking at MT was a safe choice, really, given that’s it’s written in Perl. I’m very happy in my little world of PHP and have no intention of “getting into” Perl, at least not for a while. So it’s not like studying the script would get me very far.

I must commend Ben & Mena Trott for coming up with an excellent interface. And the documentation that goes along with MT is, for the most part, exemplary. However, I must admit that the reasoning behind and the role played by the whole “Rebuild Site” sequences in MT still eludes me. Another quibble (in terms of usability) is that the “Rebuild” and “Cancel” buttons really ought to be transposed so that the Rebuild would be directly under the pulldown menu. (How many times already have I closed the dialogue box by accident!?)

But what makes me really happy is that my own program operates very much like MT with MySQL support. In other words, I seem to have managed to figure out some key principles — mostly on my own, but also with much help and advice from the Hosting Matters community. How I intended to deploy and license my program is completely different, however, but that might be the topic of another post.

I Blog, Therefore I Am?

In my first post — I know I’m going overboard with postings since this is all new to me — I mentioned that a documentary on CBC is what finally made me decide to blog. But numerous are the other reasons that have accumulated and finally brought me to doing it myself.

Perhaps one of the most determining moments occurred on Aug. 2, 2002, when xkot posted this brief entry titled “A Sad Loss,” which was about a guy who blogged under the name “Skattieboy” but died very suddenly. Skattieboy was essentially my age and, as I commented in xkot’s blog, he just “woke up dead” one day in late July.

At least that’s what seems to have happened. Neither xkot nor I had even met the guy. In fact, I hadn’t even heard of him until xkot mentioned him. Still, the sudden death of an until-then unknown-to-me Ph.D. candidate in psychology — my age and living in Colorado — just hit a chord in me.

Granted, my headspace in 2002 has been one where the need for change has featured prominently, a situation I attribute in good part to my slightly premature but (I think) well under control midlife crisis. As such, I was perhaps more prone to be touched.

Somehow, and perhaps paradoxically, this event tied into other thoughts I had been having as we were approaching the first anniversary of 9/11. Never one to suffer fools gladly, I was realizing that, for me, 9/11 had eroded any shred of tolerance I ever had towards pettiness and stupidity. On the one hand, I would think about what people quibble about and, on the other, I would reflect on 3,000+ people dead because they were simply reporting to work but happened to be on the wrong side of so much hatred. Why go looking for trouble with squabbles that will do nothing but generate bad feelings? There are enough of those already.

But other factors or occurrences made me think about this whole blogging thing. Back in June, there was this really nasty exchange of comments in a blog, to which I won’t link because I don’t want to bring back a bitchfest that’s thankfully over. That event in particular made me think about responsible blogging, responsible commenting in blogs, the respect bloggers and readers should have towards one another, and the blurring of the distinction between personal and professional relationships. And while I’m not giving you the context of the discussion at the time, I was compelled to make this comment:

I think we’re starting to hit on the notion of freedom itself, in the sense of having real as opposed to illusionary choices. We’re surrounded by so many illusionary choices — a gazillion TV channels, computer terminals that come in different colours, etc. — which are little more than cosmetic variations of the same thing. Could it be that, as a consequence, our sense of what real choices are, hence our understanding of what having the freedom to select and respect different approaches should be, has become numbed to the point that admitting an array of real choices is too destablizing?

A few months earlier, I had had a very intense e-mail exchange with an aspiring local Web designer who had a blog and made some inappropriate comments therein about her client, who just so happened to be a friend of mine. I’ve been around the ‘Net long enough to know that situations can very easily get emotionally charged online. The editor in me always knew that words are very powerful but, somehow, the medium seems to have the ability to alter (corrupt?) that power they hold.

Juxtaposed, these disparate experiences of blogs pushed me to think about whether or not I wanted to do the blogging thing. What are the benefits? What are the risks? And to what extent is it an exercise in communicating with friends and acquaintances, or in creative expression? Or simple exhibitionism or narcissism?

Perhaps it’s a bit of all of those things to a varying degree for various people. I still don’t know what the combination is for me.

The Sending of Good Vibes

Can’t help but be concerned about Kevin. He’s still able to make light of what ails him. But he’s really not well …no pun intended. And all I can do right now is send good vibes his way and hope that, indeed, “they’ll” get to the bottom of it and end his suffering.

Anyone who knows me might think that Kevin is the most unlikely person I’d consider a friend. We “met” when we were both with a horrible Web host and eventually moved to our current host at about the same time. He’s been an employee of our host for over a year now, and an ultra-competent one at that. He’s just a great guy and one of the last persons you’d want something horrible to happen to him.