Try it. Who knows, you may even like it.

Friday, June 20, 2008

About those who study and teach English

By Dick Hirsch

There is no possible way you could have known or even suspected this, but the fact is that while in college I majored in English. Why did I make that choice? It is hard to say, but I had shown little interest in or affinity for math or science, so that narrowed the choices. So it was English.

One of my favorite lines from the movies revolves around the study of English. It is from “Bang the Drum Slowly,” the best baseball movie ever produced, in which Vincent Gardenia received a 1974 Academy Award nomination for his role as Dutch Schnell, the manager of the New York Mammoths.

In the closing weeks of a hot pennant race, Dutch tries to entice one of his retired stars, Red Traphagen, to rejoin the team in order to “steady the catching.” Traphagen, now on a college faculty, explains that he cannot leave since he has classes to teach.

“Teach? Teach what?” Dutch demands.

“English,” replies Red.

“English? What English?” inquires an astonished Dutch, his voice rising. “Everybody already speaks English. Forget the English. I need you here, Red.”

This only happens in the movies: Traphagen relents, takes a leave from his classes, returns to the team, and helps the Mammoths through a very difficult and emotional period. It’s a great film, more about life than about baseball. I watch this movie at least once every year, sometimes during baseball season, sometimes during the winter. Rent it sometime.

During my undergraduate years, I studied Chaucer and Milton, Bacon and Shakespeare, Shelley and Wordsworth, Pope and Byron, Emerson and Thoreau, as well as others, either too numerous to mention or too obscure to remember. Did I learn to write a news story or a column? Not exactly.

What prompts this reverie?

I wanted to say a few words about the teaching of English, having just recently read a survey of the salaries of faculty members at four year colleges and universities. I was shocked to discover that those who teach English rank near the bottom. The survey, conducted by the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources was published in the Chronicle of Higher Education. It reported that professors of English average $76,793, just slightly more than professors of Visual & Performing Arts and professors of Parks, Recreation, Leisure and Fitness Studies. Those specialties were the bottom three on the list.

I would have thought that English professors would have been doing better than that. I was surprised to see that professors of Communications and Journalism made more money, averaging $80,514. I never took a course in journalism, but I did teach one for a semester. Based on that experience, it has always been my opinion that some knowledge of language and literature would be of at least modest assistance for an assignment that involved the dissemination of information or the expression of opinions.

Of course, Communications and Journalism conveys a much more occupational aura than English, giving the impression that a good student would be much in demand in the news or public relations job market. On the other hand, English, although it has many benefits, doesn’t exactly add much sizzle to a resume. As Dutch Schnell has said: “English? What English? Everybody already speaks English!”

Despite the years of exposure to the language from elementary school to college and beyond, many people---some of whom you probably know---do have trouble with English and don’t even realize it. Native born, they believe they are fluent, yet they often stumble around, having trouble with writing intelligibly and speaking directly. Some executives I have known admit they have difficulty writing concise and convincing business letters. Maybe if the English professors were paid more....

Who does get the big money? Law school faculty members have worked their way to the top of the list, far outdistancing their nearest competitors. The full professors in law school average $129,527, and an assistant professor earns an average of $79,084, which is more than a full professor in the English Department.

Trailing the law school faculty are professors of Engineering---$107,134---and professors of Business, Management and Marketing---$102,965.

I had no idea that members of university English departments were being treated in such shabby fashion. It’s no wonder so many people don’t know when to say “I” and when to say “me.”

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Have you read any interesting inserts lately?

By Dick Hirsch

When I was young and unsophisticated I believed that the most important role of the daily newspaper was reporting the news of the day as well as writing about persons and places the editors deemed to be newsworthy.

It was an essential service, I believed, almost a quasi-public function, charged with the responsibility of finding the truth, worldwide and local, and informing the readers. It was a service unavailable from any other source, and when an editor invoked the importance of “The people’s right to know,” it was often portrayed with missionary zeal.

So I signed up. I never gave too much thought to the other aspects of the business of daily publishing. That was relatively colorless and unimportant labor like selling advertising, printing, and delivering the finished product.

I don’t recall how long it took, but one day I woke up and suddenly realized that the men and women who worked in the other departments had important roles to play, too.

“Hey, if we didn’t sell ads, how long do you think we would stay in business?” one of the guys from advertising once asked me. It was a question I had never considered and for which I had no answer. But it prompted a new respect for those sales people who marched out and sold the idea of advertising in the paper as a means for various businesses to increase their customer base, their sales and their profits.

One day, in a hallway conversation, the editor told me: “The ads are news, too.” I nodded as if I agreed, but I didn’t believe him.

I confess this bit of personal history now, at a time when daily newspapers are in decline, struggling to determine their role in an entirely fluid news atmosphere, in which they are no longer regarded as the primary source. They have fewer pages, fewer readers, and, on many days, the saddest and skimpiest collection of advertisements. The story is the same in most places.

But somehow, the newspaper, especially the Sunday edition, has retained its role as a dynamic advertising medium. The newspapers may be getting slimmer, but the total delivered package is bulky with inserts, which have provided a life-sustaining infusion of revenue for the papers. The Free Standing Insert or FSI is an advertising circular, often printed in color on coated paper, that is printed elsewhere and supplied to the paper, inserted, and delivered. The paper has no production costs and charges the advertiser for including the advertising material as part of the paper, inserting the ads and delivering to subscribers and newsstands. This has become an important service for retailers and a major income source for publishers.

On a recent Sunday I decided to examine the inserts with more than the usual care. There were 34 different inserts in my paper, accounting for far more material than was contained in the editorial columns. I was motivated to conduct that kitchen table investigation because I keep reading negative stories explaining that newspapers are an archaic medium, with circulation eroding and most people getting their news from cable TV or the Internet.

That may be true, but if it is, then the advertising managers for some major national retailers don’t agree. They are spending big money to produce inserts and have them distributed to readers. Of the 34 inserts, six were for supermarkets or grocers, 25 were for national advertisers and three---Broad-Elm Tire, Orville’s and Rosa’s---were local companies.

All the usual suspects were represented. I won’t recite the whole list, but it included Kohl’s, Target, Wal-Mart, K-Mart, Sears, J.C. Penney, Circuit City, Best Buy, Office Max, Office Depot, Pep Boys, Dick’s and Lowe’s, as well as the three major national pharmacy chains, to mention a few. Some of those listed are direct competitors.

Those companies and the others I didn’t mention all have statistics indicating they are generating sales and deriving benefits from using the inserts. If the response is poor, the contracts would not be renewed and the money spent with other media. Sunday is the big insert day for the papers, but more inserts are showing up in the daily editions.

Yes, the newspaper equation has changed, but the publishers are maintaining their grip on a substantial share of the shopping audience. If you still like to read, they furnish the material, only now it is the ads that dominate. As the editor once told me, the ads are news, too.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Looking for a solution to a common problem

By Dick Hirsch

I know it isn’t serious but it surely can qualify as bothersome, painful, aggravating and disconcerting, along with any number of other descriptive terms. It doesn’t rank as an illness, an ailment, a disease, a malady or even a condition, but it usually requires immediate attention.

This has been affecting me for years, starting during my boyhood and continuing with some regularity. Here I am, cruising blithely through middle age, yet still dealing with the same situation. It happened again just the other day and I finally decided it was time to seek help.

But it is embarrassing. Who should I ask? At a time when public awareness regarding a whole catalog of health related issues---some familiar and some rare---commands attention, my complaint is so modest it gets no mention. No researchers are seeking a solution. Yes, it is a transitory matter; it comes and it goes, but while it is in full control, it demands curative action.

The problem:

A stone in the shoe.

One of the unanswered questions that has plagued scientists and lay persons is this: How can a minute stone be somehow catapulted from the earth and find its way inside a shoe, eventually working its way past the ankle until it arrives at its ultimate destination, the sole?

You can minimize it if you wish, calling it a pebble, not a stone, but that raises another question: How can a teeny fragment, a micronic geologic specimen, create a feeling like the victim is stepping on a tack? During my career, I’ve had them teeny, tiny, medium, average and immense, and the small ones can be just as painful a distraction as the large ones. In some cases, when the victim removes the affected shoe to eliminate the problem, it can be shocking. The shoe is shaken toward the palm to assess the contents dumped there. Sometimes the object is so small it borders on the invisible, and yet it felt as large as a garbanzo.

I developed considerable experience with stones in the shoes during my formative years. Much of my time was spent in the school yard at PS 22, which had a gravel surface. It was an unforgiving field. During baseball season, few people had the poor judgment to slide into second base. Each day, part of the surface traveled home with the players. The games were far too important to be interrupted by intermittent shoe emptying, so that rite didn’t take place until the players arrived home. Off went the shoes, and out came the school yard residue.

Like the others, I was wearing those high top sneakers that laced up above the ankle, popular at the time, but somehow the stones were able to navigate from top to bottom. I was young, but inquisitive even then, and I always wondered how the stones managed to enter the shoes. I was too shy to ask any adults. I could have asked my parents, or even Mr. Carter, the gym teacher, or Mr. Williams, the shoe store proprietor, but I never did.

I laced those sneakers as tightly as possible in an effort to keep the them free of stones and fragments, yet they not only invaded the interior of the sneaker, they somehow managed to proceed directly south to a location where they could cause the most irritation.

This still qualifies as a problem, an occasional problem, but a problem nonetheless. In recent days, I’ve had two reportable incidents with stones: once while jogging with friends, and once while returning from a walk with my wife, Lynn, who also occasionally is confronted with this problem. Once I was wearing running shoes and once walking shoes. On each occasion, they were securely laced.

The first stone could be described as average, about the size of a cantaloupe seed. I never felt it enter, but I certainly felt it later. It forced me to stop, lean against a utility pole, remove the shoe and toss the stone onto a nearby lawn, where I figured it would cause no more trouble. The second was very minute; some might have said it qualified as more of a speck than a stone, but in the strategic location it found, it made its presence felt.

I wear no sandals or loafers and try not to scuff or shamble. How they manage to invade shoes I have never been able to explain, and, alas, all my attempts at prevention through self improvement have met with failure.