July 14, 2008

What I’m working On

No doubt you’ve noticed the dearth of blog posts this month. A big part of the reason is that I’m attending the International Society for the Study of European Ideas conference in Helsinki later this month. I’m part of the workshop entitled “Kings, Presidents and Ministers: Language and its Effects on the Executive in Biography and Imaginative Literature.” My paper will deal with the log-cabin myth in recent presidential autobiography.

The log-cabin myth could be thought of as one of the building blocks of the American dream myth. It’s the myth that many or most of our presidents rose from poor and/or obscure circumstances to earn the highest position in government. The log-cabin myth–a place of common birth–began in the early 19th century as way to prove common roots. Politicians believed, with much justification, that voters would respond better to a “man of the people.” It remains true to this day. Only three presidents, however, can claim, truthfully, to have risen from the common people (and only one of those was actually poor). Only one was born in a real log cabin.

My paper will examine the use of this mythology–not literal birth in a log cabin–in recent presidential autobiographies.

I’m looking forward to the chance to blog from another country. While I’ve traveled overseas before, this will be a Rhetorica first (assuming I can find a free wifi, but all indications are that I’ll have no trouble).

July 8, 2008

Moving on the Cheap

Four years ago I made a personal commitment to use a bicycle as basic transportation. It’s time to write a little something about that decision and what I’ve learned.

(Off-topic alert: Yes, this is off topic for Rhetorica. But I reserve the right to go off topic for those issues I think are important. I don’t do this often.)

Springfield, Mo. is a small city or, perhaps, a suburb in search of a city. I’ve even heard some folks hereabouts refer to it as a small town. What it surely is is flat. And that makes for good riding. I decided use a bicycle as basic transportation largely because it appeared to me that it would be easy to do in Springfield (easier than in a hilly urban environment such as Kansas City whence I came).

By basic transportation I mean this: For trips around town I always choose the bicycle first unless circumstances make it impossible. For example, if I’m going to the lawn & garden store to buy an ornamental tree, I’m far more likely to drive my Ford Explorer. It’s just easier to haul such things in an SUV. Another example, I do not ride in ice or snow. Rain? No problem. Cold? I laugh at cold. All it takes is good equipment.

Consequently, I’ve cut my driving back to almost nothing. I often go two or three weeks without driving my car. My personal record is six weeks. That’s a whole lot of gas (and money) I’m not burning.

I consider myself a pure commuter. I do not ride for fun. I do not ride for exercise. I ride to get from point A to point B and back again. I’ve developed a few attitudes and positions about bicycle riding. And I’m now fixin’ to share them with you largely because I’m noticing a lot more riders on the streets these days. That’s a good thing, but…

There appear to me to be three types of riders on the road (bracketing out those who ride occasionally for recreation or those who ride for sport):

1. The “thin-tire” crowd: These are the wannabe bicycle athletes who mostly rule bicycle culture. Much of the commercial apparatus is set up to serve them. These folks like to ride fast and look good doing it in brightly-colored bicycle apparel. For the most part, this crowd integrates with traffic (a good thing), although I see some of them blowing through stop signs and red lights. Yes, I’m needling them a bit about their costumes, but, really, more power to them. They are having fun and are usually having fun safely.

2. The noobs: These are the folks who have recently chosen to ride because (I assume) gas has reached $4 per gallon. You can spot them easily because they are doing such things as: riding without a helmet, riding against traffic, riding on sidewalks in business districts–generally riding as if the entire planet is a surface for them to use and all of us should make way.

3. Pure commuters. These folks care nothing about speed and nothing about looking good. They just want to get from point A to point B and be visible doing it. They ride commuter bikes (or mountain bike hybrids) with thick tires (OK, call us the “thick-tire” crowd). They have baskets and racks and panniers to carry things. They have white lights up front and red lights in the back. They ride in traffic and obey traffic laws. When riding on sidewalks (usually only along busy, multi-lane roads) they follow pedestrian rules while always yielding the right of way to walkers.

The noobs have a lot to learn from the thin-tire crowd and the thick-tire crowd. And I hope they pay attention before any of them get killed. Here’s a good place to start: Ozark Greenways.

I ride a Marin Pioneer Trails mountain bike that I’ve modified for commuting. Actually, this bike isn’t a very good mountain bike. It’s much better suited for commuting. All I had to do was add fenders, lights, and a rack.

This bike is not built to go fast. That’s good. Speed kills. In fact, speed, IMO, causes many of the problems associated with biking. Let’s take a look at some objections to commuting by bicycle:

1. Takes too long. We’re talking quality time here.

2. You get all sweaty. On a humid day in the 90s, yes. You’ll sweat doing just about anything. Otherwise, there’s no reason at all to sweat on a bike. Under normal conditions, if you’re sweating then you’re riding too fast/hard. (This is why I object to the idea that employers should provide showers for bicycle commuters. It’s a thin-tire attitude. Those thin-tire guys ARE sweating. Pure commuters don’t have that problem most of the time.)

3. It’s dangerous. If you go fast and fail to follow the rules, you bet it is.

4. It’s too far to work. I commute about 2 miles now that my office is downtown (MSU is taking over downtown–a good thing IMO). Two miles is easy. Even five miles is no big deal; at a comfortable rate of 10 miles per hour, your morning commute is about 30 minutes. You get the added benefit of some modest, non-sweaty exercise.

I am not morally superior because I ride a bicycle. I do not propose to force/shame anyone into doing it. I do, however, wish to encourage you–Rhetorica readers–to give it a try. There is a bike route system around town and bike racks on city buses. And there are many local groups that do a good job promoting safe riding and greenways. Since most Rhetorica readers live elsewhere, here’s a search string to get you started.

July 7, 2008

Why Quote Sources

I’m in the middle of revamping my JRN270 Introduction to Journalism class. I’ll be using a new book this semester called News Reporting and Writing. And I’ll no longer have my students write for the Bang It Out! blog. Instead, I’ll require all students in all of my classes to have their own media blogs. More on this later.

Today I’m interested in quotes. What prompts my interest is chapter 4 “In Their Own words.” I have a question: Why do journalists use direct quotations from sources?

I’m not at all satisfied with many of the answers to that question from the chapter. For example:

“Crisp, succinct, meaningful quotes spice up any story.”

“Direct quotes add color and credibility to your story.”

“Direct quotes provide a story with a change of pace, a breath of air. They also loosen up a clump of dense type.”

“Be on the lookout for the clever, the colorful, the colloquial.”

“A story with no quotes often lacks life and substance.”


I’m bracketing feature writing out of this discussion. I’m concerned here instead with something usually identified as news (although the definition is certainly problematic). The quote above that mentions credibility comes closest to my understanding of why journalists should use quotes (not necessarily why they do use them). It’s then easy to understand why I completely reject the idea in the last quote that (news) stories without them lack “life and substance.” I think credibility should be the primary reason to use a direct quote in a news story. Spice and color and crispness and succictitude and cleverness and colloquialicity etc. etc. should play no role at all.

(That is unless the quote itself is news, e.g. some presidential candidate says something particularly ________.)

This might be a good time to re-visit my 3-part series on the topic of what quotes mean: Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

There’s good advice in this chapter, too. I’m not dissing the whole thing. For example, this needs to be tattooed on the forehead of every journalist in America (pro and citizen alike): “When someone important says something important but perhaps false, putting the material in quotes does not relieve you of the responsibility for the inaccuracies.” Exactly. That’s part of the discipline of verification.

This chapter also offers one of the best discussions that I have ever read in a textbook about changing/editing quotes to conform to “standard” English. The authors present the subject in (something like) all its complication. And they come down (mostly) on the side of editing to conform.

I’m long ago on the record for editing quotes to conform to “standard” English because we still teach people in this country that speaking and writing “errors” are a black mark on one’s soul and a sure indication of utter stupidity. This is a convenient way to marginalize people by dialect (race and class)–you don’t have to actually think about what they are saying!

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July 4, 2008

Remember What It’s All About

I like this part:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. –That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

I especially like the part about abolishing government that’s “destructive of these ends.”

Have a safe and happy Independence Day.

July 1, 2008

Rhetorica Update

Just FYI: I’ve entered a bit of a blogging slow-down. Not on purpose. It’s just working out that way as I 1) write my conference paper (more on this soon) and 2) work on this whole journalistic intention thing.

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