Sunday, June 23, 2024

Thoughts on an Invitation to Apply to Johns Hopkins University's Police Force

Campus is crawling with undergraduates, half of them scurrying to the Eisenhower Library, the other half sashaying off to Charles Village bars. Scattered among them are union goons from the Ph.D. program. I have my eye on them, all of them.

My name is McIntyre. I carry a badge. And an espantoon. 

When Hopkins invited me in LinkedIn to apply for their new police force, they knew that they were getting more than an arthritic septuagenarian.

They knew I'd walked a beat for six and a half years in Cincy, patrolling the dark underbelly of Gannett.

They knew I'd done serve-and-correct duty in Baltimore for thirty-four years, even though the mossbacks in management refused to allow me to issue sidearms to copy editors. 

They knew I'd never had a complaint that was sustained: never Tasered a reporter over lie/lay, never told a copy editor to assume the position for calling something "iconic" in a headline. They said I once edited a man in Reno just to watch him cry, but the D.A. dropped all charges. 

So now I walk these mean groves, collaring kids who have not read the syllabus, watching for graduate students using AI to generate impenetrable academic lingo, pretending that deans do something important. 

And I tell you, it's a soft berth after the paragraph game.  

Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Learning how to talk

I was a graduate student fifty years ago when I first heard a faculty member speak of being "politically correct," a little self-consciously, a little ironically, a little redolent of liberal smugness. And it was not long before "politically correct" became a slur in our endless culture wars. 

Acceptance of changes in language, particularly changes in the way that people are identified, comes slowly. I remember the resistance in newspapers to using Ms. as an honorific for women, and the bewailing when gay became acceptable for homosexual over "the loss of that fine old word." 

And yet the world is as it is, and so are the people in it, particularly those who have long been marginalized or ignored and who have come to insist on their place in the sun, even if some are not comfortable with acknowledging them.

Charting a course to navigate in such a world makes Karen Yin's The Conscious Style Guide (Little, Brown Spark, $32) a book for our times. Ms. Yin, an experienced writer and editor, maintains the website, from which some of the material in her book is taken, and that website has been a forum for exploring how we should talk to and about other people. 

The key to conscious style is paying attention. Language keeps changing, as do the preferences of individuals and groups. Gender identity is complex and fluid, so sussing out people's personal pronouns becomes advisable. The terms Native, Native American, American Indian, and Indigenous American are all current, so the person's or group's preference should be consulted. Offensive terms for Blacks, Asians, women, gays, and people with disabilities are to be avoided, but some words previously thought to be slurs can become acceptable. (Ms. Yin writes, "As someone named, Karen, I fully support the use of the Karen archetype" of bigot. It is a slur, but "right now, it does more good than harm." 

So this is not a rule book. It is a book asking you to think and make informed judgments. She says you must consider the content of a word or sentence or article, its basic meaning; its context, the surrounding historical and cultural circumstances that influence meaning; its consequence, how it will be understood; its complexity, the possibility that, like Karen, it can be both insulting and useful; its compassion, its recognition of the humanity of a marginalized group. 

The core of the book is the section called "Practice," which considers dozens of categories for conscious language. You will find material on the thorny issues of sex and gender, racial identity and ethnicity, and all the other hot-button issues, shunning dogmatism and exploring nuances and sensitivities. 

One section rises from the casual and inappropriate use of medical terminology to suggest that serious mental illnesses are routine: Instead of OCD, consider exacting or meticulous. Instead of ADHD, consider distracted. instead of have PTSD, consider am distressed. ... Instead of crazy, nuts, hysterical, bonkers, psychotic, consider wild, unpredictable, confusing, scary." 

And she offers alternatives to climate change denier and anti-vaxxer, terms that just get people's backs up. There is a section on how to persuade people to adopt conscious language. 

But let me get to the heart of it. 

To adopt conscious style when we speak and write is to work to accord everyone, everyone, the dignity and respect that white men have considered their due. 

Sunday, June 9, 2024

Tell me about your worst undergraduate course

It was half a century ago, at Michigan State University, and I had disregarded Jean Nicholas's advice to pick courses by the best professors rather than by subject. It was a Shakespeare course.* 

The professor, whose name mercifully fades from memory, was young. At the last time that nearly all male faculty wore suits and ties, he wore an open-collar shirt to class. 

His pedagogy included acting out scenes from the Bard in class, and you will perhaps not be surprised that when he took the role of Hamlet he chose a young blond woman in the class to be his Ophelia. 

In talking about the play, he said that he didn't mean to suggest that he followed a strict Freud-Jones interpretation of the play, to which a classmate murmured to me, "No, he means to dance around it for fifty minutes." 

I wrote a couple of papers for this class, the revelation of which would brand me with enduring shame, and the grades on which maintained my membership in the Honors College. 

In my defense, when I had to submit my transcript to my advisor for approval for graduation, he ran a practiced eye down the page and said, "You appear to have gotten yourself a liberal education. How did you do that here?"

*To be fair, the other other Shakespeare courses in the English department at that time were taught by the dullest professor in the department and the most notorious antisemite on campus, but I digress.