Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen

Graduate school changes reading habits. I went through a lull in the middle of my program while preparing for my comprehensive exams and then emerged effectively incapable of reading non-fiction. I could still get lost in a story; reading for the sake of learning just put me to sleep. Emerging from this place has come slowly, but I cleared ten non-fiction books in 2018, and I am on pace this year to easily overtop my mark from last year. One of the reasons for this change is a shift in the genres of non-fiction I read in step with changing career goals. In particular, I find myself increasingly drawn to books, including memoirs, about writing.

Mary Norris, a longtime employee in The New Yorker‘s copy department, and her Between You and Me, fit squarely in these interests.

Between You and Me is a a cross between memoir and discussion of grammar and punctuation. Norris write on topics that range from her short career delivering milk to arriving at The New Yorker to the finer points of dashes to her preference for pencils with number one graphite, deploying a touch so light that it borders on frivolous. On the whole, I found Between You and Me uneven.

As the title implies, the governing principle in Between You and Me is the confession. Here, confessions include both the personal of a traditional memoir and the professional––that is notes on usage. I liked the personal because I am fascinated how people come to work at an institution like The New Yorker, even when those reflections feel like reminiscing about halcyon days. Norris presents her path as serendipitous, but, beneath her bubbly prose, she is also clear about her luck.

My response to the professional was more muted. There are parts I liked: memorable explanations (commas, like nuns, travel in pairs) and a discussion of The New Yorker’s house style in conjunction with the changing currents of American usage (for instance, pronouns and gender). Other parts dragged. The passages discussing where the hyphen in Moby-Dick entered or why Dickens and Melville use so many commas got a bit tedious for my tastes, but were largely okay. But when Norris veers toward discussion of grammar and punctuation for their own sake I found most of the explanations unsatisfactory, with humor seeming to mask this weakness, but the humor landing weakly because it lacked substance.

In part, my problem here was Norris’ philosophical position on the prescriptivist/descriptivist debate––whether there grammar ought to change with usage or adhere to the set rules. Norris’ position is somewhat at odds with itself: although never explicitly stated, she came across as a descriptivist (language changes, for good or for ill)…except when a style guide at, say, The New Yorker, trumps voice. I’ve published articles under style guides that I wouldn’t otherwise follow, so I am sympathetic, but Norris also sets about undercutting that same style guide by locating its genesis in the preferences (i.e. the usage) of legendary editors. These passages were on their own fine, but that presentation, in turn, undermined the importance of the subsequent advice about writing.

In sum, Between You and Me is an easy read written by someone who clearly loves words and a book that has its moments. There are even individual chapters that I could see assigning to students, but for a book I opened really wanting to like, I closed it feeling disappointed.

ΔΔΔ

I finished reading Black Leopard Red Wolf last weekend and am still trying to decide what I have to say about it. In short: the prose is beautifully and grotesquely hallucinatory, but I’m not totally sure I know what was always happening. Next up, I just started reading Lian Hearn’s Across the Nightengale Floor, a fantastical epic set in a world inspired by Medieval Japan. I am a little wary of cultural appropriation (Hearn is a British woman living in Australia), but I am quite enjoying the story nevertheless.

Thesis or unThesis

The days are getting longer and pollen is in the air, which means the end of the spring semester approaches. As usual, I find myself reflecting on my courses and thinking about ways that I can improve my practice.

Some of these reflections are mundane––post readings earlier, move content around, allot more time for a particular reading; others are more foundational and abstract.

I have written before about how I design my to require students to write and to think. In some courses I think this backfires, such as when students may believe I am violating an unspoken contract about the expectations of a gen-ed course, but I generally get good results and see marked improvement in my students over the course of the semester.

Going into these writing assignments, I tell my students that every piece of writing has an argument, whether implicit or explicit, and that their writing needs one, too.

In practice, this means that everything they write needs to have a thesis. The problem is that the moment I invoke the T-word, they fall back on the rote lessons about thesis-writing: that it needs to be a single sentence and end in a tri-colon set of points that will make up the three body paragraphs of their five paragraph essay.

Students can do these exercises blindfolded and in their sleep. While working in the US History surveys as a graduate student, I used to run my class through exercises on this after receiving rounds of papers that lacked an argument. The theses developed in these exercises were more functional than earth-shattering, but the problems started to crop up the moment students were asked to start using evidence to build a paper, as though the two practices were totally disconnected and the thesis only existed to receive its mandatory check-mark.

Recently I have tried to address this disconnect by having my students write a lot of theses, just without telling them that is what they are doing. In surveys of any sort, I assign weekly quizzes online that ask questions from lecture and readings and allow retakes. Most of the questions are multiple choice, fill in the blank, true/false, etc, and are designed for accountability and recall.

Every quiz also has at least one essay-style question, asking students to respond to a prompt in two or three sentences using evidence from the readings to support that answer.

In other words, write a thesis with a little bit of the evidence you would use to support that argument, but don’t finish writing the essay.

In lower-level classes, I keep this format through the semester, while in upper-level surveys, I start with one question (20% of the grade) and gradually expand until they make up the majority of the quiz (60–70%).

From my side of the desk, this format gives me ample opportunity to get a feel for what the class is picking up from lecture and the readings and, without committing to hours of grading, head off issues like casual sexism that they pick up from their sources.

(A class of 35 with two essay-style questions takes well under an hour to grade since it is a total of about six sentences per student.)

Equally important, though, it offers rewards for student writing. From these assignments alone, students in an intro survey will write at least 12 theses with evidence, on top of their other written assignments. In upper-level classes those numbers climb toward 30 or 40, with greater expectations for the use of sources.

Usually these written responses are good––thoughtful, careful, and creative–– all without ever mentioning the T-word.

This semester, though, I struggled with how to convey my expectations in longer assignments. The reason: in an effort to bypass problematic “rules” my students had learned regarded theses, I wrote my assignments without invoking the T-word.

The result was confusion and frustration all around. The students seemed to look at an assignment unmoored from their previous writing experiences and I had to belatedly explain that when I said their papers had to have an argument it indeed meant that they had to have a thesis, followed, inevitably, with a discussion of what a thesis is beyond the scope of the rigid formula.

Realistically these exchanges only took a few minutes before we were all on the same page again, but neither were they my finest moment in the classroom. And so I sit here at the end of April thinking about whether there is a way to forge new connections about the T-word, connections that break ingrained habits and help students conceptualize the thesis not as a check-box waiting to be ticked, but as a tool that encapsulates the point that the author wants to convey.

A CAMWS teaser: “Tell Me About the Bakeshops”

I have hemmed here before about how I consider this space adjacent to, but not properly part of my academic persona, so while a number of posts butt up against my teaching and research about the ancient world, I don’t often dedicate entire posts to my scholarship.

I want to change that a little bit, so, taking a page from a blogger of ancient history I respect, Bill Caraher, I’ve decided to share the introduction to an upcoming conference presentation. Later this week I will attend the Classical Association of the Middle West and South (CAMWS) in Lincoln, NE, and presenting on what I hope will become a future research project that combines scholarly interests with my bread-baking hobby. This paper, “Tell Me About the Bake Shops: Toward a Social History of Public Bread Baking in Ancient Greece,” examines the evidence for bakers in the public foodscape of the Greek city.

I. The Pate Fermteé

Bread was the dietary staple in ancient Greece. In turn, this meant that grain was the lifeblood of the ancient city. Its ubiquity manifests in a number of ways. There is mundane evidence for bread’s importance––Clazomenae’s government requisitioned its oil production to import grain in times of sitodeia ([Arist.] Oec. 1348B 17–23), honors for ship captains delivering grain, and Athenian regulations regarding its import and sale, including making it a capital crime to interfere with the trade––and there are outlandish sayings, such as when Herodotus includes a story about how “Periander threw his loaves in a cold oven” (ἐπὶ ψυχρὸν τὸν ἰπνὸν Περίανδρος τοὺς ἄρτους ἐπέβαλε, 5.92) as a euphemism for necrophilia.

It is of little surprise that scholars have written extensively on the mechanisms of the grain trade. And yet, despite the general acknowledgement that bread was important, contemporary scholarship includes an interpretive lacuna between the resilience of the Greek domestic ideal and the public face of bread baking. While there has been brilliant work on public feasting in the Greek city, including a paper at this conference in Williamsburg on the Bomolochos–– a fool who crashes parties for a bit of BBQ––and Flint Dibble’s recent Twitter thread describing Homeric feasts as ancient Food Porn, and unlike studies of bread in the Roman world where institutions like the Cura Annonnae and bake shops at Pompeii and Ostia are accepted features of the public sphere, little of the same can be said for bread in ancient Greece.

In this paper I ask a simple question: in the physical and imaginary foodscapes of the Greek city alongside fresh-pressed oil, crackling fat of cooking meat, and potentially homicidal fishmongers (if Lynceus of Samos an be believed), where do bread and bread baking fit? Far from being just a boring domestic staple, I believe it was a fundamental part of the public foodscape, as well as a point of interaction between citizens and non-citizens.