The Ethics of Blogging

Back in March I wrote a post on whether it is dangerous to relax our writing standards when blogging.  I argued that, even while blogging we still have an obligation to use skills we have learned in school to fact check ourselves and others on the Internet.  Many commenters responded by arguing that blogging is not academic writing–i.e. no one wants to read jargon-laden prose geared towards an expert audience on the blog and we should be allowed to write colloquially or with contractions.  These comments did not surprise me because they align with the understanding of writing that is propagated in American high schools (and perhaps other schools, though I am not qualified to speak on that).

Note the disparity in the argument and the response above.  I argued that we should do research, provide evidence, and fact check ourselves and others.  That is, I was speaking about the overall strength of the argument and the need to be able to discern true claims from false claims.  The responses spoke about grammar and word choice–stylistic features of the writing rather than the content of the writing.  The implication is that one can distinguish academic writing from other writing because it looks or sounds a certain way.  You could theoretically write about the totally made-up group of blue aliens living in Kansas, but if your grammar is correct, you’ve written a “good” essay.

Of course, when I put things that way, it sounds ridiculous and probably most people would argue that they are not in favor of writing about imaginary aliens and calling it nonfiction.  But this exactly what students in American high schools tend to learn writing is.   It’s called “writing for correctness” and it happens when teachers spend most of their time marking small stylistic features such as punctuation, word choice, and MLA citations instead of focusing on the content of the paper–the strength of the argument, the strength of the evidence, the structure and logic of the paper.  It’s much easier and less time-consuming to circle a misspelled word than it is to explain to someone why the structure of the paper is not a logical trajectory and how they can revise it.  So overworked teachers lean on these stylistic features in their rubrics and their grading and students learn that they can write whatever they want as long as the grammar is in keeping with Standard English.  The same attitude prevails on standardized tests, where the ability of a student to write in a five-paragraph essay is prioritized over what they actually say in that essay.

However, an essay can be written in nonstandard English and still be lively and intelligent, just as an essay can be written with excellent grammar but offer no new or complex thoughts.  And schools increasingly are reconsidering the attitude that good grammar equals good writing, especially as a result of the increased numbers of international students being accepted into American universities (and sometimes private high schools as well).  There are ethical questions being raised about attempts to change “accented” writing to fit a standardized mold.

But if I did not mean to say good writing is determined by stylistic features, what did I mean to say?  Quite simply, I was talking about the ethical stakes of blogging.  We may conceive of blogging as a hobby, but we have real audiences and can create real effects in the world. If we do not do our research, we may inadvertently spread misinformation or harm another person.  If we do not check the sources or evaluate the evidence of what we read, we may inadvertently believe false claims.

When we think about how we can use the tools and skills we have learned in school, we should be thinking about how we can use them in an ethical manner.  How can we ensure that we are advancing true claims, that we are doing our research, and that we are assessing the credibility of sources and the potential bias of evidence?  How can we ensure that we are helping others rather than harming them?  Words matter.  How we use words matters.  Our responsibility to the truth does not end when we leave school.

The One Thing I Want to See in Blogging Advice Posts

Discussion Post

Last July I wrote about why you might actually want to read posts about blogging advice.  Today I want to talk about what makes a blogging advice post compelling and useful to me.  There are characteristics that makes strong posts in general: clean prose, a strong structure, helpful diagrams and other visuals.  But the one thing I want to see in every blogging advice article?  Evidence that the blogger used the strategies in question and that they actually worked.

Very often, bloggers put together advice on some topic (say, “How to get more blog traffic using Pinterest” or “How to get more blog followers”) and then list some strategies…with no numbers and no explanation of how they used the advice themselves.  But these very general advice posts can give the impression that the author simply collected the advice from elsewhere on the Internet and has not necessarily used it or seen success from using it themselves.  In contrast, then, the most convincing blog advice articles include the step-by-step strategy that the author used and what results came from it.

For instance, did they log onto Pinterest once a day? Twice a day? Did they repin hundreds of pins each day, or just dozens?  Did they comment on pins, follow people, or ask people to follow them?  How often did they do any of these things?  And, after they did these things, how much did their traffic increase? By just a couple hits a day? Or hundreds?  What types of results can I expect if I follow the same course of action?

I’ve read a lot of blogging advice that simply  hasn’t worked for me.  For instance,  a lot of people suggest doing guest posts to get more visibility for your blog and find new readers…but that hasn’t worked for me and doesn’t seem to work for the book blogging community in general.  When I read blogging advice, I want to know that it actually worked for the person who’s suggesting it.

What do you like to see in blogging advice posts?

Briana

Maleficent Surprised Me with Its Thoughtful Look at a Character’s Fall and Redemption

Discussion Post

When I first heard of Maleficent, I determined not to watch it.  Sleeping Beauty is my favorite Disney princess film (though I suppose Moana will have to be a close contender now) and I felt no need to see a remake when I value the film so much for its artistic beauty.  Furthermore, I was troubled by what I read of the decision to make Maleficent a sympathetic character.   Maleficent’s character in the animated film represents pure evil.  She explicitly announces that she has aligned herself with the powers of hell.  And Prince Philip defeats her with the Sword of Truth and the Shield of Virtue.  It is an allegory about the way in which virtue triumphs over sin.  I felt that giving Maleficent a sympathetic backstory would ruin the simplistic beauty of this message.  However, the other day I found myself watching Maleficent anyway.  I was immediately interested in the story the film has to tell.

Before I go father, it is important to note that Maleficent is not an attempt to rewrite Sleeping Beauty or to get viewers to sympathize with the villain of the animated film.  It does not say that what Maleficent does in Sleeping Beauty is right,  justified, or understandable.  Maleficent is its own version of the story, with its own characters (though they share names with the characters of the animated version), and its own world.  It stands next to Sleeping Beauty just as any number of other retellings stand beside it without asking their audiences to change their understanding of what happens in Disney’s animated film.  So I judge it on its own merits without comparing it to Sleeping Beauty.

Maleficent is, as its title suggests, not a story about Sleeping Beauty at all.  Rather, it is the story of how Maleficent’s innocence is shattered through betrayal and suffering, how she seeks revenge, and how she finally learns to love again.  It is the story of a fall and then a story of redemption.  In a way, it is the story of Cinderella, if Cinderella were not perpetually industrious, cheerful, and good, but instead turned bitter and vengeful as a result of her pain.  Cinderella turns outward and chooses love; Maleficent turns inward and chooses hate.  That hate takes her on dark paths that she is not sure how to escape.  In the end, Maleficent’s story teaches her that sin has consequences that are far-reaching and sometimes difficult to mend, even if you are truly sorry for the actions you have performed.

Despite this thoughtful exploration of the power of love, I have seen and heard  many criticisms about the decision of the film to have Maleficent wake Aurora rather than Prince Philip.  However, I think it is important to remember that a story that celebrates types of love other than the romantic does not by nature say that romantic love is therefore meaningless or somehow the same as other types of loves.  Rather, Maleficent reminds viewers that not only erotic love has the power to heal, to unite, or to seek forgiveness.  Maleficent might be read as the story of a mother’s love  and a celebration of the ways in which mothers sacrifice for their children to try to keep them safe.  A mother’s love does not replace the love between a man and a woman.  It is different and separate.  But that does not mean it is not worth honoring.

Although I remain a little skeptical of Disney’s plans to remake seemingly all of their animated films, I have to admit that the remakes I have seen so far seem very thoughtful.  They are not the same stories but in live-action, but rather expansions of the old stories that ask viewers to consider other types of relationships.  Perhaps this will bother some viewers.  But we always have the animated films to enjoy, as well.

Do We Value the Work of Professors?

Discussion Post

Read any article about higher education and you will quickly see that the comments section is typically filled with the complaints of citizens irate that professors have such a cushy job with tenure and yet dare to be unionized or to ask for more recognition or appreciation for their work.  However, though working in a university certainly comes with its perks (perhaps a more flexible schedule, for instance, which can help with child care, or the existence of snow days so instructors don’t have to drive on icy roads), teaching in higher education comes with many costs that often go unrecognized, especially by students.  Much of these costs can be seen even in the hierarchy of universities, which are typically invisible to students, who have no real reason to see a difference  between a visiting professor, a lecturer, or an associate professor.  After all, each comes into the classroom and, as far as the students are aware, performs the same job.

The College Hierarchy No ONe Told You About

However, let’s take a look at what a typical hierarchy might look like for a university.  Hierarchies will vary from university to university, but a general scheme will look like this:

  • full professor
  • associate professor
  • assistant professor
  • lecturer/instructor
  • adjuncts/visiting professor
  • grad students/GAs/TAs.

Only associate and full professors have tenure, which, incidentally, is not a guarantee of employment for life, but rather the expectation that the professor cannot be fired without a good reason (professional misconduct, for instance).  It does not necessarily protect incompetent professors but rather is meant to guarantee them the space to speak freely and to prevent anyone from being fired from publishing certain ideas or holding certain political beliefs.  Assistant professors (and sometimes associate professors, as well) are tenure-track, meaning that they will be reviewed periodically to see if they will be awarded tenure.  They will be judged based on their service to the school, their publications, their contributions to their field, and their teaching evaluations.

Lecturers/instructors  and adjuncts and visiting professors are not tenure-track, but rather hired for by contract for certain amounts of time.  They typically receive low pay and no benefits.  They may not have office space or may be required to share office space or have undesirable office space.  They may also have limited access to other university resources and may not be given a voice in department meetings or policies.  Many teach lower-level courses tenured faculty do not want and often they may not even have control over what they teach or how they teach it.  The department might even order the textbook for them.

Graduate assistants are typically grad students who are going to school while also juggling a teaching load.  They usually receive a small stipend for teaching and waived tuition.  They may have little say in the department and are often seen as nothing more than cheap labor by the university.  Some schools have seen graduate students unionize in attempt to protect themselves from increasing workloads or pay changes.

How to Achieve Tenure

The dream for individuals working in higher education is, of course, to work their way up to a tenured position.  However, tenured positions are regularly being cut as a way to save the university money.  And tenure is not easy to achieve.  NEA reports that the review process to get tenure is three years at a community college and seven years at a four-year school.  If someone fails to achieve tenure, they typically have to leave the school and hope to find employment elsewhere (and thus begin the process all over again).  To achieve tenure, individuals usually have to research and publish, demonstrate that they have contributed to their field, serve the college by working on committees and attending meetings, and show teaching proficiency.  Karen Kelsky elaborates on the research expectations based on the type of institution an individual teaches at.  R1 and R2 schools typically want more publications than a liberal arts school or a community college.  Expectations may range from a few articles to a book or two.

So what does this all mean?  A good deal of what higher ed instructors do goes unnoticed by students.  The time they spend researching, writing, publishing, serving on committees, etc. is work students do not see and often may not value as what they need from instructors is a constant presence in office hours or over email, without regard to the other obligations their instructors may have.  At the same time, a good deal of what higher ed instructors do goes unrecognized by their institutions. Many institutions, especially R1 and R2 schools, value research over teaching.  Instructors may feel they have to sacrifice teaching or mentoring in order to achieve tenure.  NEA reports that instructors often work 52 hours a week (though this seems low to me, especially during busy times like finals week).  They are struggling to keep up with their many professional commitments even as many of them face increased teaching loads as a way for universities to handle budget cuts or otherwise cut costs.

The Real Costs of Higher Education

However, despite the high cost of college, most of that money is not going to instructors but rather to administrative costs such as athletics, counseling services, etc.  Individuals working in administration also often receive high salaries and large bonuses.  But the faculty that most people assume are receiving large pay from the tuition money seldom are.  In fact, adjuncts in particular receive a scandalously low amount of money for their work.  And yet, the American public continues to complain that higher ed instructors do very little work in return for astronomical benefits and to suggest that college tuition can be cut by taking away pay from these overrated and over-valued instructors.  Few voices have pointed out that, to lower tuition costs, American students might have to choose to give up many of the services and resources they have become used to, which were not offered by colleges in years past–if that’s even possible anymore.  Alternatively, the administration would have to cut their pay and bonuses.  But this is something few people call for.  When budget cuts roll around, it’s usually the faculty who are expected to do more for less.

Academics are not over-valued, but rather under-valued by the people they serve, and it’s a taking a toll.  Study after study in various countries reveals high levels of mental illness and stress in academia as a result of the high workload expected from those working in higher ed.  The Guardian argues that mental illness has become accepted in academia and the numbers suggest that this might be true.  A 2005 study showed that 10% of grad students at UC Berkeley had thought about suicide and a 2015 study showed that 47% of them are depressed.   A 2013 study from UCU in the U.K. reported that three quarters of the staff in higher ed said their job was stressful.  In 2014, Christie Wilcox for the New Scientist noted that a 2003 survey in Australia showed that academic staff experience mental illnesses at a rate that is three to four times higher than the general population and that the rate of mental illness among academics in the U.K. might be as high as 53%.  Wilcox noted that there are no similar studies available for mental health incidences among academics in the U.S.

Conclusion

Instructors in higher ed do not simply teach a course or two each year and then go home to enjoy free time, nor do they typically have summer or vacations off.  Rather, they are constantly researching, attending conferences, writing and publishing, doing peer review, teaching, grading, mentoring, serving on committees, attending meetings, and filling out paperwork.  Most of this work goes unacknowledged both by their institutions and by their students, even as institutions continue to increase the workloads and professional expectations of their employees.  As a result, higher education seems to be heading towards a crisis moment where institutions may have to reassess what an individual can realistically be expected to achieve and whether they will decide to pay more of their employees a living wage.  In the meantime–try to be kind to those who work in academia.  They are struggling more than they may feel able to admit.

Do You Use Library Books for Bookstagram? (Discussion Post)

Discussion Post

I have seen a number of book bloggers lament that they feel they cannot fully participate on Instagram because they don’t own bookshelves full of the latest hardcover releases.  Some have even expressed discomfort or reluctance to use library books because it’s just not the same.  I admit that library books do present obstacles in photographs, but I use the library a lot, and library books make up at least half of my Instagram feed.

I do own a decent number of books, and I don’t want to give the false impression that I don’t.  (See below.)  However, many of these are gifts or books purchased for classes or used books from various sources.  I don’t spend hundreds of dollars on books each year, and I don’t own a lot of the latest releases.  I go to the library a couple times each month, and the library books I read are often the books I feature on Instagram.

Shelfie

Shiny Covers

Library books, of course, usually have those clear book covers to protect the jackets, and they are extremely reflective of light.  This is inconvenient if you’re using a flash or if you’re photographing in bright sunlight.  There’s also the awkward issue that sometimes the book cover reflects back your face and the image of you holding your camera.

To solve some of these issues, I try to use bright surrounding lighting and turn off the flash on my camera; the photo can always be edited later to make it a little brighter if necessary.

Stalking Jack the Ripper

I also take pictures from various angles and try to make sure my face isn’t positioned directly above the book.

The Crystal Ribbon

Sometimes, the light is difficult to deal with completely.  Since I’m not trying to cultivate a perfect Instagram feed, sometimes I just accept it.  For instance, there’s a strong glare on this image, but a lot of people still like the photograph because of the beautiful colors of the leaves.

The Reader

 

Stickers

There are only two approaches to the stickers on the spine: embrace them or attempt to hide them.  In the best-case scenario, the sticker is only on the spine and isn’t so large that it wraps around to the front cover.  In that case, if you don’t want to show the sticker, you can take photos that only show the front of the book.

Traitor to the Throne

If the sticker does extend past the spine, you can crop the photo to remove the bottom portion of the book.

Avatar The Search

However, in my personal opinion, library stickers aren’t a problem, and they don’t get in the way of the “perfect” photo.  I think you can take a photo of the book from any angle and show off the book with pride.

April Library Haul

 

What about you?  Do you routinely photograph library books for Instagram?  Do you notice when others do?  Do the stickers on the side ruin the photos for you?

Briana

Why I’ve Never Liked Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree

Discussion Post

When I was in elementary school, my teachers used to read Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree aloud to my class.  I understood that my teachers thought that the story depicted selfless giving on the part of the tree.  Year after year as the boy and then the man come to her asking her to give of herself to him, she happily obliges, allowing him to take her apples, her branches, and, finally, her trunk.  But, despite my teachers’ apparent love for this story, it never enchanted me.  To me, it was a dark and twisted tale, one in which a man unthinkingly kills someone who was kind to him, because he thinks only of his own needs.

My teachers would have seen the tree as a example to us all.  The tree loves her Boy unconditionally and does everything in her power to provide for him and to make him happy, even though he is grateful for none of it.  I appreciate this interpretation and can only hope that I can become a little more like the tree myself–generous, cheerful, and willing to sacrifice for the good of others.  However, I cannot help but feel that the interpretation is missing something–a recognition that, even though the tree is generous and loving, that does not excuse the actions of the Boy.

As a child, I possessed the sense of justice that many children possess.  I knew instinctively that the boy was wrong and selfish, even though this is not something any adult would have said.  The focus was all on the positive–how kind and giving is the tree!  No one mentioned that the tree was capable of such sacrificial lengths only because the Boy she served was willing to chop her down without a second thought.  A more well-rounded interpretation of the story would, I think, acknowledge that it is not okay for someone to keep taking, taking, taking with nary a thank you.  Nor is it acceptable for someone to ask another person to hurt themselves so that they can attain more wealth or material possessions.

Am I being too literal?  Well, that is what elementary school me thought when my teachers read this story aloud.  I never liked The Giving Tree.  I found it disturbing and I found it even more disturbing that the adults seemed unperturbed by the ending, in which an old man sits down on the stump of the tree he has killed.  The tree is happy because she can keep on giving and the man rests content, still oblivious to his selfishness throughout his life.  (Yes, technically the tree is still happy so I guess she is not really dead, but surely the man who chopped her down didn’t expect her to somehow go on living?  That is not  how trees work!)  To me, the story was more about the depredations of the selfish Boy than it was about the abused love of the tree.

Years later, I still cannot stand The Giving Tree.  I cannot help but think that readers too easily dismiss the actions of the Boy in order to praise the sacrifices of the tree.  I am pleased to learn that some criticism has been leveled at the work, with some readers interpreting the work more along the lines that I do–as a story about the selfishness of the boy or the ways in which humanity destroys nature.  But I suspect that many elementary school teachers go on reading the work, happily untroubled by its darker undertones.

How do you interpret The Giving Tree?

Five Things that Make Me Want to Read Your Book Blog

Discussion Post

Original Content

I read blogs primarily to find interesting content, whether it’s discussion posts, original reviews, book recommendations, or something else. I’m less interested in content that’s not directly from the owner or the blog, and I don’t read blogs with lots of copy and paste content like book blitzes. I want to read blogs that have content I can read nowhere else.

Thoughtful Book Reviews

I wrote a discussion post a while ago about whether it’s possible to run a book blog without reviews, and I do think it is; however, if a blog has no reviews, I want to see unique content like discussions, helpful advice, long lists, etc. instead of memes and tags taking up the blog. If a blog does have reviews (which I love reading), I want those to be decently long and thoughtful, as well. I want pros and cons, explanations and evidence, a well-expressed opinion that will help me decide whether I should pick up the book.

Solid Structure

I love blogs where the posts have a clear argument and solid structure supporting it. I like to see a main point at the beginning rather than having to guess where the post is going. Subheadings can be useful for longer posts as well, though I don’t really choose which blogs to follow based on their subheading skills.

Strong Prose

Grammar is not a huge deal for me, as I explain below, but I do enjoy nice prose—clear sentences with a strong voice.

A Welcoming Personality

I don’t think bloggers necessarily have to be bubbly or gregarious, but I do want to read blogs where the owners are welcoming to readers and invested in the community. I love when the blogger responds to comments on their own blog and takes time to engage with their readers. Commenting back on blogs, sharing others’ posts on social media, etc. are nice but not obligatory for me.

Things I Don’t Really Care about

Design

I see a lot of other people say that a gorgeous design will inspire them to follow a blog, but while I like pretty things as much as anyone else, design won’t make me follow. Blogging is about writing and content; design is pointless if the post themselves are not interesting and well-written. Of course I want the blog to be designed in such a way that’s easy to read, and legibility is a factor for me. However, it’s 2017, and it is extremely, extremely rare that I run across a blog that has something wild going on like neon green font on a black background or all the posts written in a hard-to-read script.

Grammar

Krysta wrote a while ago about why she doesn’t care about your grammar, and for the most part I agree. Of course, if your grammar is so bad that it’s actually difficult to figure out what you’re saying, that’s going to drive me away from your blog. I also might not read a blog that has many mistakes. However, I get that book blogging is a fun hobby for most people, and typos here and there are going to happen. There are also lots of bloggers who are writing in English as their second (or third, or whatever) language, so their grammar might not always be perfect either, and that’s fine.

What do you think? What factors determine whether you follow a book blog?

Briana