Saturday, January 26, 2008

The Blue Pen Special

In my career as a professor at Drake, I think I read somewhere between 8 and 10 gazillion student-generated words. Maybe more. Still, I am amazed at how many student articles are still lodged in my mind. They pop up in my consciousness every now and then. Lately, for example, I have been thinking about Kaelin’s profile on Keno Davis, which she wrote before he was formally considered his dad’s heir. At the time she wrote it, I was snarky about the idea of the son automatically inheriting a cool job. Obviously, Keno earned the position, and as I told Kaelin recently, she was ahead of her time.

Why are these things still in my head? Possibly because weird things like to hang on between my ears. Possibly because students’ writing is a part of them and therefore part of the overall memory package they left behind with me. In sharing their writing, students shared something quite personal with me.

In my editing, I tried to respect that personal connection. When I first started teaching, I edited student papers with a purple pen, but then that seemed too girly and opened me up to “purple prose” comments. I moved to green and finally ended up with Drake blue. I purposely chose anything but red because I wrote a lot of comments and did not want students to panic when they got a paper back that looked like something from ER. Ultimately, I learned, the color did not matter. Comments are comments, no matter if they’re in puce or chartreuse.

I always tried to be careful to write positive as well as critical comments and the positive were often easy. Occasionally, I had trouble coming up with something, so I resorted to “nice idea,” but I at least made the effort, knowing that writing, like all art, can be painful to create. (I must admit that I think I made more of an effort than some students, but those are not the ones I remember.)

Now I am on the other end of the pen, as a writer. And I am often surprised by how often I get no comments at all when I hand in an article. My articles often run much the way I wrote them, so the editors must like them. And they ask me to write more.

My son and I talked about this the other day. He’s also a writer, and he said he seldom gets comments from editors either. They use his pieces, also as he wrote them, and hire him to write more, so they obviously like them as well.

Do editors just assume we know the pieces are good? Didn’t anybody ever tell them what happens when you assume?

Then, yesterday, I handed in a piece, and the editor emailed me immediately. “This looks terrific…it’s in excellent shape…a pleasure to read,” she wrote. This perked me up so much I felt totally pitiful. Another editor recently told me she appreciated all my hard work, and that was good as well; that article--on chemobrain--was hard. And, in saying that, the editor gave me a nod while still not committing herself to any evaluation.

This isn't insecurity or an overactive ego. It's just that writing is largely a solitary profession, and hearing something from an editor is often our only feedback.

At least in the classroom, I knew students got my jokes if they laughed at the right times, and I knew I was losing them if they were looking off wistfully toward Olmsted.

My son and I have taken to sending one another our articles for comments. That’s pretty cool—sort of like Tom and Keno Davis without ESPN. (Drake should hire Josh to replace me—and move Drake to Bulgaria.) I just sent him a piece I wasn’t happy with. He made great comments, and he started with a positive: “This has good information.” And, while that seems forced, I had been worried about how substantive it was, so his note was a step above “nice idea.”

I understand that editors have too little time to get the job done, and that means rushing to get the piece edited and off their desk. In the process, they don’t always think of sending off a simple “good job” or "thanks for doing this" note. Those who do have happy little writers. Pitiful, but happy.

How Does LinkedIn Know That?

LinkedIn continues to be a perplexing little electronic doodad. The LinkedIn folks give me a list of people they think I should know. Most are Drake magazine or graphic design grads, so I see that connection.

Why is my son on this list, though? He has a different last name, he’s not a Drake grad, and as far as I can tell he does not list me as his mother anywhere. What is that all about? How does LinkedIn link us?

More confusing is why the son of my daughter’s Dutch parents is also there. Yes, I’ll back up. Ellen was an exchange student in the Netherlands and was treated quite nicely, so I consider those people her Dutch parents—at least for that year. And they had a son. How and why would Arnoud be on LinkedIn’s list of people I should know?

Anybody have any answers?