Spring Break at Virginia Tech

IMG_2492My first spring living in Baltimore, late 80s, I had no friends in town, but I did have a record collection, a television set, and a Mazda 323. In my third-floor walkup near Mount Vernon Square, I’d collected every gourmet spaghetti sauce on the grocery store shelves, but I rarely invited others to share in my bounty. And although my parents lived about an hour away in Virginia, I didn’t have much desire to visit there. It was time, I thought, to get started on a life of my own.

In the mornings, after rolling off my futon and walking one block north to my job, I’d say hello to my employers. They were a middle-aged couple, both with glasses, one with hair, one without, her a rail, him a bell, husband and wife architects, and I was their only employee. We had about two or three projects on the boards: a university gymnasium that had been in the design stage for ten years, a work-release prison for women, and renovations to city government buildings that required accessibility ramps. As was my unfortunate habit, I had strong feelings that my employers, like most people, didn’t like or trust me.

I couldn’t blame them. I was not someone to be trusted. I enjoyed reading and often brought paperback books to work: Black Boy, Madam Bovary, or The Fixer. Throughout the day, as I got bored drawing accessibility ramps, I’d get up from my drafting table, go to the bathroom, and pick a book from my back pocket. Sitting on the john, I’d read three or four pages. When I re-emerged, thankfully, neither employer mentioned my extended bathroom break. Gastrointestinal disorders are not uncommon, and I suppose it’s an area that few people care to discuss openly.

Not only did my architect employers and I never talk much about health issues or books, we rarely talked about accessibility ramps either. Most of their comments to me were in the form of red lines on a drawing. As a result, I considered our shared reticence and their apparent suspiciousness of me as the reasons they refused to give me an office key. I could have used one because they seldom arrived at work at a consistent hour, and I was frequently forced to sit on the marble front stoop of their row house office until they did show.

In keeping with our strained employer-employee relations, that spring, my bosses decided to take a spring break, and about a week before doing so, they told me they were locking up the office. “Don’t you need a break as well?” the male half of the partnership asked me, and although I said, “Not really,” he suggested I take one anyhow, unpaid, of course.

I hadn’t made any plans, didn’t have much money, but that Friday evening, when the office closed, I got in my Mazda and drove west across Maryland on I-70 until I reached the Blue Ridge Mountains. Somewhere around Front Royal, Virginia, it occurred to me that I was about to turn south and drive an additional five hours to visit my alma mater, Virginia Tech.

When I arrived on the Tech campus, around 10 PM, I gave myself a tour of one of my old hang outs, Cowgill Hall, the university’s architecture building. The design studios didn’t look much different from two years before, a few late night designers bending their backs over their drafting boards. The studio had always been an exciting place full of ideas and energy. Models on desks and drawings pinned on walls featured visions of dystopias and utopias. I had penciled and inked similar drawings in my student days.

IMG_2468 labs

The architecture studios at Cowgill Hall are an excellent environment in which to study comparative literature, but it should be noted that the architecture program offers no degree in literature.

When I finished touring the building, I could think of nothing better than to go downtown to Gillie’s ice cream store and order a cone. I liked hanging out there when I lived in an apartment above the store. I’d often descend from the apartment that I shared with my roommate, get a cone or a coffee, and sit reading the newspaper. Many times I’d meet other students and gossip or talk about architecture or philosophy or the philosophy of architecture. Mine was a serious crowd, or at least I thought so. Those friends had moved on, to Richmond, New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, or Boston.

On the night of my spring break, I didn’t take up a chair at Gillie’s but ordered an ice cream cone and walked back out into the night. On a grassy hill across the street and behind a wrought iron and brick fence, I had a favorite spot where I used to sit and watch people. As I sat in the damp grass to eat my cone, barely tasting the vanilla, I wondered if the students who passed on the sidewalk knew that these were their glory days. If not, I wanted to jump up and shout it out to them.

I couldn’t do it though, because I wasn’t sure if these were their glory days or not. Maybe the days I was longing for really hadn’t been my best days either. I had liked architecture in the first couple of years at school, but after my third, it became clear that I didn’t want to learn how to design and build, but I did want to learn how to write. I’d been spending way too much time in the library reading literature instead of spending time in the studio designing buildings. Writing hadn’t sounded like a very promising future though, so I didn’t have the courage to transfer from the architecture to the English program.

After finishing my ice cream cone, I laid back on the hill. Blacksburg had always had Creamsicle sunsets and starry nights. I’d missed the day’s sunset but the stars were flickering overhead. The air was getting chilled too, and when I considered my next move, as usual, I wasn’t sure what to do. Should I spend the night on the hill? If so it wasn’t going to be a comfortable rest. It did not escape me that my every decision required major effort, and a waterworks between my facial skin and bones verged on erupting. I managed to keep things dammed up.

Maybe the days I was longing for really hadn’t been my best days…

Back in my car, I drove up the highway and searched for a hotel room. Maybe I could spend the night, wake up the next day and look around town some more. As I stopped here and there to check for rooms, it turned out that all the hotels were booked. The college students, I learned, were most definitely not on spring break. “You aren’t going to find anything tonight,” the hotel managers kept saying. “All the schools up and down I-81 are having parent weekends, not just Virginia Tech but also Roanoke College and The Virginia Military Institute.”

“Hollins University and Washington and Lee University too,” I might have added after another hour in my car.

Several times I considered pulling over into a rest area and sleeping in the car, but I have difficulty sleeping anywhere other than my bed. I kept driving and soon it was four in the morning, By then I was so far up I-81, it didn’t make any sense to stop until I got home. Arriving at my third-floor walkup near Mount Vernon Square at about 8 AM, I fell onto my futon and don’t remember anything until my spring break ended and I was back to sitting on the stoop of my employer’s row house ten days later.

More than 25 years have passed since that spring break. Sometime after I got back to Baltimore, I switched jobs to a different firm and moved from one apartment to another. I also started flirting with writing classes. But the best thing that happened was that I met someone. One Christmas she bought me a poetry anthology and encouraged me to stick with writing, so I went back to school and earned a master’s degree on our shared Master’s Card. We also got a house, got married, and had two girls.

Despite having a degree in writing and doing some teaching at Towson University, I continue thinking of myself primarily as a Virginia Tech Hokie. I never earned an undergraduate writing or English degree from Tech, but the architecture school was a great place to study world literature. The professors never told me what to read so I read widely, nor did they require me to write any papers, so I never got discouraged about my lack of writing talent. I maintained a true love for literature until I had completely backed myself into a corner and had no other choice but to return to school.

Since the night of my spring break vacation, I’d been avoiding a return trip to Virginia Tech, but it so happens that such a trip is not difficult for me. My wife has a sister who lives about an hour and a half from the Tech campus, across the border in North Carolina. We visit her and her family several times a year, and whenever we do, there is always a moment when I see signs for Blacksburg and Virginia Tech. One right turn and a 30-minute drive, and I could be on campus, my heart swelling once more with that old combination of regret and nostalgia.

A week ago I finally did take that turn. Both my daughters had spring break and as my oldest, CiCi, is about two years from attending college, she’s been expressing an interest in studying architecture: I don’t judge and I don’t dissuade. She’s much smarter than either her mother or me, draws better, and could probably breeze through the structures courses that I always found an inconvenience. Having architecture on her short list of possible careers seems a good fit, and my alma mater is on her list of potential colleges. Virginia Tech, according to DesignIntelligence, is currently rated number four in architecture for undergraduates behind Cornell University; California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo; and Rice.

Once on campus, I took CiCi to Cowgill Hall, the architecture building. Except for the addition of laptop computers on this or that desk and additional studio spaces, not much had changed. Inside the studios, I spied the familiar creative drawings and models and many serious student faces. CiCi and I talked with one bright male student from Baton Rouge who had designed a fishing retreat with huts hovering over a swamp. Then a gray bearded professor happened by and offered us a tour of the pottery and print making studios. CiCi was impressed, and I found myself having a good time.

Wood Table

The wood tables at Gillie’s have always been a highlight of the Virginia Tech college experience.

Beforehand, I have to admit to being worried, remembering my last spring break visit. I didn’t know if this one would make me bitter, nostalgic, or split between those feelings like I was on that night those many years ago. Obviously I was in a much better place. I wasn’t rich and successful, didn’t have a bookshelf with my titles on it, but I was clearly more emotionally stable.

After the professor’s tour, our family walked downtown. I wanted to take everyone to Gillie’s, the ice cream store. Skirting by the breezy green campus, we arrived in the town of Blacksburg where I was slightly upset to see that the university had built a theater on the hill where I used to sit and watch people. When we got to Gillie’s, I was also somewhat shocked to note that the store didn’t sell ice cream anymore, just fish, vegetarian, and vegan meals. Okay, that’s too bad, I said to myself, but my emotions weren’t overwhelmed.

Instead of ice cream, we stayed to order lunch: a salmon burger for my wife, a tofu burrito for CiCi, a bean burger with Swiss for Corinne, and a bean burger with provolone for me. We waited for our food at the same thick round oak tables at which I once sat drinking coffee, and with my cell phone, I shot pictures of my three favorite girls silently reading their social media posts.

Mostly I was pleased not to feel nostalgic for another time, not to carry the emotional weight that I felt on my last spring break in Blacksburg. I was much less inclined to want to escape to another place and another me. And in some ways, it even occurred to me that I had been less interested in showing my daughter the campus, than I had been in showing myself how far I had traveled.

Posted in Baltimore, Food and Drink, Satire, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

How I Rate on ratemyprofessors.com

IMG_2433I teach writing to college students, and I’m always searching for ways to improve my teaching technique. I go out of my way to read articles about pedagogy, watch movies about good and bad teachers, and listen to my fellow professors talk about what makes a great teacher. When I’m giving instruction, I also keep tabs on the facial expressions and body language of my students to see if they are paying attention. When students lean forward over their desks, pens in hand to take notes, I assume that my lessons are engaging. When students fling their heads back, close their eyes, and snore, I assume that it’s time to switch things up.

Occasionally I pause during lessons and ask students if the instruction is getting through, then I listen to what they have to say. Students are not always forthcoming about their true thoughts and feelings. They avert their eyes when I ask questions about my teaching effectiveness, but I don’t know why. They are paying good money to sit in their chairs, but they appear to be fearful of providing input. Thankfully, I recently taught one student who was willing to take me aside and inform me about the website ratemyprofessors.com and how it offers professors input on their teaching styles and effectiveness.

What a great idea. No doubt the computer programming geniuses who came up with this site are now kicking back in Boca Raton drinking Mai Tais beneath a shady veranda. Good for them. I wish I could do the same, but without the required computer programming skills or creative ideas, I can only stick to my teaching gig and hope to take advantage of the information on their site. To do so, I figure that all that’s required is to read through the tabulated data, digest it, and recalibrate my methods. No longer will I need to spend time trying to interpret student body language and facial expressions, the site will give me the feedback I need to make the necessary teaching adjustments.

As I’ve been teaching for six years, and I’ve engaged maybe 1400 students over that time, I expected that a visit to the site would contain a wealth of data to draw from. And sure, the students might be critical of me, but I determined that if I went to the site and considered the feedback carefully, I couldn’t help but learn and improve. So, despite possessing what I would consider a healthy attitude toward criticism, I cannot tell a lie. I was disappointed when I visited ratemyprofessors.com, and instead of the happy avatar that so many professors receive next to their names, my name was accompanied by a sarcastic smirk. Appropriate I guess, considering my personality, but not the desired outcome for a professor who hopes to provide useful instruction in writing and composition. Next to my sarcastic smirk was my rating, 2.6, an average of the two qualities that ratemyprofessor.com and students find essential in a good teacher: “helpfulness,” for which I earned a 2.9, and “clarity,” for which I gained a lowly 2.4.

As I see it, on a scale of 4.0, this 2.6 would be a slightly respectable C plus or B minus, but ratemyprofessor.com ranks professors on a scale of 0 to 5. By my calculations, this would give me the grade of a solid C or C minus at best. A C minus, according to my university’s grading system is not even passing. Should a student earn a C minus or lower in one of my courses, they would have to repeat the class. As my grade was a C minus, I wondered if I should be offering students a second attempt at my course on my own time and my own dime.

John Swapceinski, founder of ratemyprofessor.com, is a creative entrepreneur but for some reason has yet to found a ratemycomputerprogrammer.com site.

John Swapceinski, founder of ratemyprofessor.com, is a creative entrepreneur but for some reason has yet to found a ratemycomputerprogrammer.com site.

“Okay fine,” I said to myself after seeing the site and my score. I did not visit ratemyprofessor.com just to find out my grade. I am not much of a believer in grades anyhow. I enjoy learning and grades simply indicate that there is room for improvement. My enthusiasm for the site began to return when I saw that some of my former students had left comments, and this is exactly the kind of information I was hoping for. In the comment section, I anticipated finding suggestions on how to bring up my low scores. And so I read. A few of the words that stood out included the descriptors “monotone,” “boring,” “disorganized,” and “Nice man but don’t take this professor!”

How disappointed I was once again to discover more negative information but to gain no advice on how to improve my instruction. Why not? Wasn’t that what the site was for? Isn’t that what evaluations are all about? Not just to provide a score to measure achievement but to offer suggestions on how to improve. I didn’t feel like the comments were offering me much help, so I stepped away from the site for a while and began to take an inventory of both myself and how my students perceive me. After some reflection, I settled on a few ways that the site and its student contributors could be of more aid, not only to me, but to the thousands of other professors who come searching for ways to advance their teaching.

To begin with, if I were on the staff of ratemyprofessor.com, I would ask student contributors to make their comments more specific. It’s difficult to know what to do with a comment like “boring.” Could my students please recount the circumstances of their boredom? Maybe students could tell me what I was talking about during these dull moments. I am often amazed that an entire classroom of students prefers to subject themselves to a boring lecture rather than rise up and revolt or at least demonstrate that they already understand the material and then request that more advanced topics be addressed.

As regards the comment that I am “monotone,” if students are suggesting I take a drama course to become more animated, I wish they would just come out and say so. They might even recommend one or two drama courses that they think would be useful. As to the comment “disorganized,” if they would like me to enroll in a management course or even work toward an MBA, I wish they would say that. Students should know, however, that I am an adjunct professor on a low salary and my university does not offer stipends for adjunct career enrichment.

Considering my circumstances, students would help me more if they could use their experience with successful professors, describe the techniques of those professors, compare those techniques to mine, and make suggestions on how I should revise my methods. As I spend many hours in class asking students to sharpen their persuasive skills, why couldn’t students jot down a few notes, schedule conferences after class, and use our conferences to persuade me to not only become a more effective teacher but show me how this might be accomplished.

As it stands, it’s difficult to tell from the ratemyprofessor.com comments what students believe makes a good professor. I agree that the goal of every teacher should be to get a 5 rating, so I took a look at a few teachers who won this coveted score. As I read through their reviews, I notice that those teachers with scores of 5 are often said to be interesting storytellers and easy graders. They don’t assign homework, rarely take role, and let students turn papers in at any time they please.

Already I am at a disadvantage here. Maybe I’m just making excuses, but I’m a slow grader, and if I didn’t give deadlines, I don’t think I could survive the rush of papers sure to come all at once at the end of a semester. I also don’t think there’s much advantage to students never attending class. What if they don’t know the material before they write the papers? This would make writing the papers very hard.

On the matter of homework, I have to assign it on occasion. Otherwise I wouldn’t have anything to talk about in the next class session. Consistently planning classes and doing all the talking is hard. Assigning homework gives me something to fall back on. If requiring students to come to class and assigning homework are the things preventing me from getting a high score on ratemyprofessor.com, I’m afraid that I’ll never be much more than a C professor.

“amazing class,” reads a review for one top-rated professor, “i dont think there was 1 class that he didnt let us out early. he cancelled the last 8 classes or so of the year. in total he probably cancelled about 14 classes, including individual meeting times. there are 4 papers which he clearly outlines the criteria for. best teacher at towson.”

Should the ratemyprofessor.com site deign to take any suggestions to help me improve as a teacher, one suggestion that I believe could raise the quality of student comments would be requiring students to provide a name and email address when they make their ratings. This way, if I don’t understand their comments, I could prepare follow-up questions about how I failed in my teaching and email the student. The student could then provide additional feedback and much-appreciated insight on how I should teach.

In my experience as a grader, whenever I know that I might have to face a student who will ask follow-up questions, I tend to be more thorough in my initial comments. Rather than making snap judgments like telling students that a paper “sucks” or “stinks,” I will often attempt to point out how a problem might be fixed. If the problems in the paper are too many, I might even ask a student to rewrite the paper or come and talk with me. As the student knows my name and how to get in touch, gaining clarification to make the necessary adjustments is much easier.

Aside from the advantages of providing contact info and allowing me to be on a first name basis with my student raters, another area where ratemyprofessor.com could be more helpful is in offering some rigorous statistical information. As it stands, all the statistics for the various courses I teach are compiled into a single score. Since I usually teach two courses, Business Writing and Freshman English Composition, why should this be?

I’m certain that I teach one of these courses better than the other, but the site does not make any distinction. Instead, ratings for both of my courses are lumped together. It would be far more useful to know which course I should be working harder at. For professors who teach up to four different courses, I don’t see how an aggregate rating for all four could be helpful.

Another instructive statistic would be an average rating for all teachers at my university who teach the same course as I do. While I understand that we all share the 0 to 5 rating scale, it’s still hard to know how I stack up to other professors teaching the same course. Having an average or mean score would more accurately tell me where I fit in among my colleagues.

Let’s say the mean for the Freshman English Composition course at my university is 2.5 and I rate a 2.6, then I would know that I don’t need to work on that course as much as my Business Writing course where the mean is 4.2 but my score is 2.9. And should the ratemyprofessor.com programmers decide to calculate these means, it would also be helpful to have mean scores for the categories of “helpfulness,” “clarity,” and “hotness.”

In its current incarnation, ratemyprofessor.com does contain a lot of raw data, but it doesn’t offer many useful ways of looking at it. Unless I take time to import all of the site’s numbers into my own Excel spreadsheet—not only my personal numbers but the numbers for all professors teaching the same courses as me—the benefits of the site are minimal. And yet, compiling and differentiating numbers in just this manner, I should think, is the sought after thrill of every computer programmer. And isn’t compiling big data the main advantage of sites such as this? Why can’t the exacting scientific researchers at mtvU, who own ratemyprofessor.com, employ a couple of computer science majors to expand their code and do higher education a solid?

Speaking of how much effort goes into the site, why does ratemyprofessor.com include no category for a teacher’s effort? Effort could be added to each of the categories: for instance, effort in clarity, effort in helpfulness, and effort in attempting to be hot. Or effort might even comprise a separate category. If a teacher is not very good or very hot, which sometimes happens, but he does put in a lot of effort, why shouldn’t he get credit for trying?

“All I can say,” says one 5-point professor review, “is SMOKIN'!”

“All I can say,” says one 5-point professor review, “is SMOKIN’!”

I can understand a low rating for teachers who never come to class or who sit at their desks for fifty minutes checking their cell phones or who even fall asleep during lessons. But teachers who seem to have made an attempt to comprehend the material they are teaching, who attempt to relay that material, clearly or otherwise, and who sweat over student questions even though they are unable to answer, shouldn’t those teachers get some special consideration?

Which brings me to the all-important “hotness” category. I understand that I am not hot and that I rate no chili peppers on ratemyprofessors.com, but I do what I can. I have been told by my wife that I do look good in a certain purple pullover, so I wear my purple pullover to class as much as I can. Students don’t seem to notice, or if they do, I still don’t rate. Other items I have less control over. Sadly, I am not cut, and my features are not very symmetrical, one side of my face drooping more than the other. And who could not fail to notice, and be somewhat put off by, my baldness. Okay, no excuses. But some baldies have been considered hot: for instance, Samuel L. Jackson, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, Larry David, Bernie Sanders, Ben Bernanke, Roscoe Orman, Charlie Brown, Sinead O’Conner, and Shrek. If only I looked more like Shrek.

Setting aside the issue of hotness, mostly it would help to have a larger sample size of students reviewing me. Out of the 1400 students I estimate having taught over these last six years, I have gained only a paltry 14 ratings on ratemyprofessors.com. A low number to say the least, but on this site, a low number is not unusual. Observe, if you will, the rating for the head of my department, a PhD with almost 45 years of experience. His ratings top out at only 111 or about 2.5 ratings per year. Better than my 2.33 ratings per year, but I should remind you that he gets to teach English majors English courses that they enjoy taking. As an adjunct, I teach non-English majors courses that they don’t enjoy taking. How do I know? This is one topic upon which my students freely offer information. In any case, assuming that ratemyprofessors.com has been around for half of his career, it seems that my department chair should have accumulated more than 111 reviews.

Perhaps the students that didn’t enjoy my class didn’t post their ratings because they don’t want to embarrass or irritate me with more low ratings, or maybe the ones that liked my class didn’t know that ratemyprofessor.com even existed, so they didn’t take the time to contribute to the site. For this reason, I’ve decided to share my knowledge of the website with my future classes. It could be that there are many students who would complete an evaluation if they knew the site existed and if they knew how helpful it could be for me and my colleagues.

That’s why from now on, I will be having all of my students log onto ratemyprofessor.com in class, either on their cell phones or computers. Providing me with a detailed evaluation will be part of their class participation grade, and as with all such in-class assignments, I will be checking over their shoulders and marking down this participation in my grade book. The more students I am able to enlist in giving me ratings, the greater the raw data I will have to draw from. As I place this data in my Excel spreadsheet and crunch the numbers, I will better identify ways to improve my methods, and my future students will be well served.

Posted in Business Communication, Satire, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

The Manipulation of Man

rubics cubeShe approaches with a shy smile, a tender heart, and requests that her feelings be reciprocated. For whatever reason, you can’t do this, but you do enjoy the control that you have over her, and you worry that acknowledging her feelings will relinquish your power, maybe even lower you in her estimation.

As you don’t want to present any of the real reasons why she should quit you, maybe because you have none, your pleasure is not in submitting to her affection, rolling about in the mud of real human relations, but in frustrating and controlling her.

The first step you can take toward fully manipulating her is pretending that her declaration of love is ridiculous. If she’s undaunted and convinces you otherwise, then you need to assert that you are not as handsome or as smart as she claims, that your future is not as bright as she believes, and that you are not a person of generosity or kindness.

Forget that you gave money to the Save the Polar Bear Foundation. Tell her that you only did it for the tax write off. Admit to owning the opposite qualities that she suggests you have and fabricate stories that defend your assertions. “There are too many people on the planet,” snap with contempt, “and if some starve to death, so what?”

If she still doesn’t give up on you, you can enjoy more exquisite tortures. For instance, you might just want to pretend that her initial declaration of love never took place, or you might start explaining the advantages of steam heat over water. Jump from one topic to another until her eyes glaze over or spin like pinwheels.

As she persists in her love, you might have to further up your game. Forget her shows of affection and attack her person by remarking on the small size of her breasts, the emotion in her voice, the tear in her eye, or the paleness of her complexion. Make fun of her for being too smart, too stupid, or too plain. Here it would help to add a chuckle to your ridicule and then deny any accusation that your laughter is directed at her.

If she withstands all of your abuses and still requires reciprocated feelings, put her off longer by asking for time to think about things. Make it hard for her to get in touch, and when she does, blame your delayed response on issues of apparent miscommunication.

Holding a woman’s attention hostage can be fun and make you feel like a god. So take advantage. When you’ve got the upper hand, you are well placed to be worshipped, and if you enjoy being worshipped more than being loved, there’s no reason to submit to love. That is unless she becomes so frustrated that she walks away and you don’t hear from her again.

…if you enjoy being worshipped more than being loved, there’s no reason to submit to love.

Should this happen, you will probably miss those old feelings of supremacy. Not to worry. There will be other women, women who compliment your looks, admire your brilliance, and praise your generosity. There will be women willing to step in and take her place. You’ll just have to be patient until they show up.

Conversely, maybe you did develop a soft spot for this woman, and having her leave causes you sorrow. You thought you had no feelings for her, but now you recognize, there are feelings, compassionate feelings. You want her back. If this is the case, then get in touch, but plan your approach carefully.

Signal that she may indeed have a chance at winning your love. String her along. Admit that you might have feelings, you’re just not sure. Thank her for some kindnesses but criticize her for others. Follow her conversations up to a point, then allow for interruptions and occasionally claim that you don’t know what she’s talking about. This will confuse matters and likely keep her coming back. It will also fertilize your inflated ego.

One technique that will keep her hanging on is to never give her the last word. No matter what she says, say something else, even if it’s just “yeah, okay,” or “I hear you,” or “sure, whatever you say.” If she tries to pull away, follow her and keep talking, even if what you say is nonsense. Whatever the conversation, don’t “drop it.” Having the last word will help you maintain your superiority, drive her nuts, and signal that you don’t ever want to let her go.

Posted in Satire, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Pidgins Take Flight: Campaign against Plain Language

IMG_2378The British Empire has been decaying for decades, but in 1979, English woman Chrissie Maher attempted to rally the troops and lead a resurgence. In that year, Maher stood in London’s Parliament Square and shredded hundreds of public documents in protest of bureaucrats who used jargon-filled language. A noble act on its face, but then Maher followed this up by initiating the Plain English Campaign, a movement to standardize English into plain-speak, claiming that a simplified form of her mother tongue should be practiced by all English-speaking peoples. Many of her fellow islanders bought into the idea, but let’s be plain: wasn’t this just the desperate act by a withering empire, one more attempt to lord it over the rest of the English-speaking globe?

As you might expect, Maher’s campaign has journeyed across the pond. For American teachers of English, promoting a lingua franca would seem a wise choice. Every profession has its jargon, and the Plain English Campaign would like to do away with all of them. Whatever your professional vernacular—economese, federalese, legalese, bureaucratese, academese, officialese, initialese, or restarauntese—Maher wants us to zap its pretentions. Doctors should be able to communicate with bankers, bankers with politicians, politicians with horse jockeys, horse jockeys with cyber security experts, husbands with wives, parents with teenagers. Should Maher have her way, even “so ons” should be able to communicate with “so forths.”

For those who collect words, there are an infinite number to describe jargon; here’s the short list: circumlocution, clichés, clutter, doublespeak, double-talk, euphemisms, mystification, platitudes, slang, soft language, tripe, vagaries, verbosity, vogue words, and text-speak. More colorful terms include bafflegab, Bugbear style, bullshit, buzzwords, deadwood, doggerel, flapdoodle, flotsam phrases, gibberish, gobbledygook, jive talking, puffery, rigmarole, skotison, weasel words, and word salad. Idioms, upon my word, are also a form of jargon, but for some reason, English teachers encourage their use, especially English teachers who teach second-language learners, as though mastery of clichéd metaphors like “roll out the red carpet” demonstrates English fluency.

Written jargon, as anyone knows who has suffered under its spell, presents to the reader like a growing cancer, from words to phrases, phrases to paragraphs, and paragraphs to chapters. As it metastasizes, every healthy cell of knowledge that a manuscript might contain gets sabotaged by an organ-killing tumor. Single buzzwords like “synergy” or “implementation” yield to clichéd and quaint phrases like “capturing the low hanging fruit” or “trying to herd cats.” But from there, the complexities grow exponentially. Some sentences show creativity unparalleled and meaning indecipherable: “Let’s cascade this down to the team,” reads one thought manager’s email, “so they can synthesize about it when their bandwidth is high.” “It is inescapable,” pens another company’s chief cook and bottle washer, “that the numbers of staff employed in lower skilled transaction processing activities will decline as functions get disintermediated by technology.”

From my experience teaching, recognizing jargon, much like recognizing clichés, has much to do with the reader’s level of exposure. To novice readers and listeners, jargon such as, “the view from 30,000 feet,” can sound fresh and fascinating, even conjuring the breezy image of birds in flight. Seasoned employees who have sat through a few dozen office meetings, however, will be familiar with this high-altitude phrase and may want to narrow their field of view to “the big picture” or even return to solid ground and ask the simple question, “what’s the point?”

For those who enjoy poking fun at puffery like the phrase “transaction processing activities,” several organizations, including the Plain English Campaign award trophies designed to call out the masters of the obtuse. Awards presented by The Plain Englishers include the Kick in the Pants, given for companies that need to communicate better; the Golden Bull Award, presented for people who write tripe; and the Foot in Mouth Award, given for individual achievement in doubletalk, and which was once awarded to U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.  In response to a reporter’s question about why the U.S. military did not find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, Rumsfeld famously clarified with the following:

“As we know,” the secretary deftly explained, “there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.”

But Rumsfeld can count himself among good company. Aside from the Plain English Campaign awards, Literary Review, a British journal of writing, once awarded their Bad Sex Award to famed prose stylist Tom Wolfe for impotent discourse about intercourse. Philosophy and Literature, a publication from Johns Hopkins University, annually holds a Bad Writing Contest to recognize achievement in academic puffery.  And the Bulwer-Lytton award uses the phrase “It was a dark and stormy night” as a barometer to measure the high quality of clichés in literary fiction.

No professional or unprofessional realm, I suppose, not even the blogosphere, is immune to the language constabularies. But the adjudicators of good grammar do generally like to pick on famous politicians, actors, athletes, supermodels, artists, comedians, literary writers, technocrats, and business people. Great fun is had at their expense. Rather than be embarrassed by their gaffs and shameful honors, many of these transgressors relish their notoriety and embrace their award statues as though the statues were cuddly ferrets. So while the award panels raise awareness, they seem to be fighting a losing battle. What good is it to make fun of people when they just laugh along with the joke and continue with their brazen bafflegab?

Many a night I have shed tears for the state of dear old Chrissie Maher and her Plain-Lady-Jane-English. I’ve lamented how shaming and embarrassing abusers of the mother tongue does nothing to make those abusers mend their ways. Okay, I concede. Many of these elder speakers may be too far gone, brains wired with the circuitry of circumlocution. But what about the ways of the young, those who I might expect to carry on a simpler form of English, still innocent to the ways of professionalese: my students for instance?  Maybe there is hope for the next generation of communicants.

Chrissie Maher

The Plain English Campaign has done great things for Chrissie Mahar OBE, but not much for English majors.

Still, no matter how many weeks I spend having students read and talk about George Orwell’s essay, Politics in the English Language, no matter how many YouTube videos and examples of political and business gobbledygook I play, no matter how I might snicker into my shirt sleeve to demonstrate disapproval, my classes rarely stare gape-mouthed when doublespeak gets spoken. Displays of doublespeak don’t make students angry. Rather than scorn periphrasis, they aspire to it. It is not unusual for a nineteen-year-old who has spent many years listening to country, pop, rap, and hip-hop music hand a paper to me containing sentences that plant the seeds for their future careers as speakers of corporatese:

“Work preparedness levels of new employees at The Red Robin,” one student paper begins, “are at an unsatisfactory level. Therefore, implementation of a full range of testing of front-of-house employees to ensure that guests are receiving an unrivaled dining experience is of uttermost necessity.”

I am not sure where fans of Taylor Swift and Kendrick Lamar learn to speak like this, but they are unfazed when this human form of white noise gets pumped into the classroom. Perhaps it serves as a gentle sleep aid, playing until the clock strikes ten of the hour. So what, they seem to be telling me, if business folk and politicians stick out their chests and engage in a little word thumping, they are making money aren’t they? And they are much more successful than you Mr. Charney. I don’t see any bankers wearing shoes with holes in their soles. Take a lesson from them. And anyway, when are you going to have our last papers graded and returned to us?

Can I say that my students don’t have the right perspective? They are big picture people and keep their eyes on the prize while I dwell in the minutia of symbolic sound. The occasional five-syllable implementation of a Latinization given a modern spin by a bureaucrat is of no affront to them. On the contrary, they are the first to defend the specialized languages of their chosen professions. They can’t wait to learn such languages and before even entering my class, I’m not sure they don’t believe that this is my true purpose, to teach them businessese, technocratese, bureaucratese, and/or academese. How disappointed they must be to hear me stand before them and say I’m a disciple of Chrissie Maher, interested in stripping down today’s wordage to a simpler form of Anglo-Saxon verbiage, sending as many Latinized and Frenchified corruptions to the gallows as I can.

When I talk about my students, I should clarify, I am not just talking about my U.S. students from New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delmarva, I’m also talking about my international students, those from Saudi Arabia, Iran, the Ukraine, Nepal, China, South Korea, India, and Nigeria. While several may be second language learners, they still come to class already able and willing to drop in the specialized phrases of their chosen professions. Before I can instruct them to “terminally discontinue their proactive initializations of gobbledygook,” they have begun littering their papers with a language they must have heard from a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services officer.

Those new to our shores can’t seem to wait to pepper their papers with professionalese. Instead of the word “use” used as a verb, they already know to utilize the word “utilize” for those same purposes. To get things done, they want to make things not only more “efficient” but also more “effective.” Not just each of them but “each and every one of them” is an independent personage, a “thought leader,” capable of “thinking outside the box,” “taking a proactive approach,” and “running things up the flagpole” before arriving at “actionable intel.” Many would call their attempts to sprinkle such phrases into their papers a “value-added” benefit for me, the reader.

And so I must ask myself. Am I, a lover of language—one who has at different points in my life checked out various disks and tapes from the library in hopes of learning Russian, French, Hebrew, Cantonese, Spanish, Polish, and Portuguese—a hypocrite? Am I wrong to immerse myself in these great cultures while making no attempt to immerse myself in the equally estimable and necessary cultures of business, technology, academics, and bureaucracy? Aren’t these languages as valid and valued as those with national borders? By choosing the language of Plain English over those of work jargon, wasn’t I, in the worst way, a cultural or language tyrant, an English-speaking imperialist of contemptible stripe.

What [is] the Plain English movement anyway other than an attempt to create a very large club, a Universalist Church, with English teachers as the primary ministers?

Teaching the virtues of plain-speak over and over, attempting to expunge and excise jargon from the Mid-Atlantic American vocabulary, when my student’s would rather listen to prestigious Beats by Dre, doesn’t this qualify me as insane, or at least a chump? And so I have come to a new outlook about conformity to Plain English. I renounce it. I henceforth abandon my heretofore notion that the application of a common language is of some utilization, and I encourage all peoples to use and allow the clash and diversity of multiple professional and recreational languages for the purpose of promoting the organic and/or forced growth of hokum.

I welcome them all: business jargon, slang, legalese, Klingon, salad speech, tech talk, Esperanto, Spanglish, and Ebonics. Let them flourish. Why should I be the one to take the spice out of the sauce? Why should any English teacher? Have you ever tasted English foodstuffs? Fish and chips get old quick. Why should Americans work so hard to welcome cuisines of all sorts to our shores and then embrace culinary paucity by insisting on one tongue only? Just because the English have an abhorrence for flavor, we American-English speakers don’t have to follow their trend.

I am now of the opinion that English teachers, especially business writing teachers, should take a Q-tip from the law of Capitalism. Let the laissiz-faire approach reign. With the rise of technology and computers, redefining businesses as people and clarifying money as speech, it’s clear that the corporations and techies have won the battle for our linguistic souls. Isn’t it time we remove the remaining constraints of Plain English and let words and phrases compete freely in the marketplace. No more should English teachers talk about the evils of legalese, bureaucratese, technocratese, or even gibberish. Whatever is is good, and with so many forms of language waiting to emerge and evolve, the best and most useful ones will win out, fluffed atop the scones and jam of Plain-Old-English like clotted cream.

With such an approach, life for all of us will be much more vibrant and interesting. Current specialized languages would not be relegated to subservient status. Those who use a business vernacular would be rallying around a flashpoint of pride, not shame. As is shown in most cultures, having a language to call your own imbues the speaker with a sense of identity. Speaking a specialized lingo, even mumbo jumbo, signals your membership into an organization, perhaps an elite one, and as everybody knows, it’s fun to belong to tightly knit groups, or at least to feel as though you belong. What was the Plain English movement anyway other than an attempt to create a very large club, a Universalist Church, with English teachers as the primary ministers?

As fledgling business languages gain ascendance, national languages and perhaps even their nation states will no longer serve much purpose, decomposing, their root word nutrients recycled into the new professional lingos.  But will anyone mourn the loss of nation states and nationalist languages, remnants of outmoded imperialism? When countries begin to give way to big business, the truth about what really makes the world go round will be better recognized. Already, many businesses such as Walmart, Exxon, and Shell Oil have gross national products larger than sovereign countries. Don’t these companies deserve most favored megacorporation status? If Apple were a country, it would be the 55th largest in the world, on par with countries like New Zealand, Vietnam, Slovakia, Morocco, and Ecuador.


With the increased need for jargon-to-English translation services, the ill fortunes of hundreds of aspiring liberal arts majors may finally be reversed.

A world organized by diplomatic cooperation among corporations is not far from reach or speech. The individual’s role in such a world would be as a citizen of their corporation rather than citizen of a country. Business culture and the languages those businesses foster would be the only cultures required. And why should this not be the case? Without businesses occupying our American shores, the U.S. Government, both Federal and state, would produce little more than tariffs and taxes. Clearly, national governments across the globe would go the way of the Greek City States.

But for liberal arts majors, primarily English language despots like me, the rise of various professional languages and the decline of Plain English, as well as all nationalist languages, would not mean the loss of one more job opportunity. English majors should understand that for years, they have been cutting off their incomes to spite their careers. It’s time they woke up to the possibilities. It’s time that English teachers gave up their adopted role as Plain English martinets and started taking on the new role of professionalese translators. By taking off the reigns of Plain English, and allowing the many professionaleses to blossom, the number of new languages fermenting within each megacorporation boggles the mind.

What better way to revive the dying liberal arts degree. No longer will liberal arts graduates be forced to move in with mom and dad once college ends, no more guarantee of unemployment, no need to apply for graduate school and add a more practical degree to the resume. Liberal arts majors can be trained in professionalese translation and can work not only as translators but also as linguists and scribes. The demand for interpreters with knowledge of how one specialized-speak translates to another will surpass supply. For example, when a French businessperson speaking French corporate jargon needs to talk to an American airplane engineer in Seattle who speaks English techno-jargon, the liberal arts linguist will come to the rescue.

With so many options for the study of living languages, linguists would no longer have time to mourn the loss of dying ones, holding out their digital recorders and chasing down the last living speaker of Wichita or Kusunda, Livonian or Amurdag. New syntactical and semantical constructions will require investigation, categorization, and classification. Liberal arts colleges won’t be able to keep up with corporate requests for educated polyglots, linguists, lexicologists, and philologist. I daresay that even a few Latin scholars might be tempted to abandon their musty, exsanguinated Cicero to study the hot-blooded vocalizations of vernacular bureaucratese in the Somerset County, Pennsylvania, Court House.

But I’ve created enough liberal arts jobs for the moment. Here’s the view from 30,000 feet. In this new world of corporate states, none of us should be worried about sharing a lingua franca. Where there’s a will to do business, but no translator, inventiveness will take over. Aside from organizational languages that develop internally, there will be an exponential expansion of pidgin languages, languages that crop up between trading cultures. One such Pidgin language that we all know is Swahili. This cultural construct required no social engineering, but developed out of necessity and has served the people of the African Great Lakes region and other parts of Southeast Africa, including Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Mozambique, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The creation of Swahili provides a good lesson: where there are goods to be traded, money to be made, humans find a way. So, whether you’re a lover of language or a practical tradesperson, a world full of corporate-speak promises a future of lucre.

The only people that may be left out of this new world order of professionalism are the government bureaucrats who will suffer the loss of their jobs as national governments start to crumble. With companies working things out between one another, I see a very limited role for these bureaucrats, if any role at all. Should we mourn their deaths and their special lingos? Megacorporations can certainly sponsor a monastery or two, and assign liberal arts monks to record and preserve agency dialects. Over time, because of its widespread use in history, bureaucratese might well become a sacred language: the Ancient Greek, Latin, or Old Church Slavonic of our era. Like those languages and like Klingon and Dothraki, a stream of dedicated followers will gather, hold conventions, and generate a niche economy, honoring Robert Moses and Donald Rumsfeld with monuments and toy dolls.

The only drawback I can foresee for this new corporate world order is the lack of a defense system or policing force acting to protect individuals from their employers or one corporation from another. Private defense contractors will certainly emerge to offer their services, megacorporations may train and employ their own armies, and small businesses will need to form cooperative militias to have any chance to compete against the big dogs of industry. But will these privatized defense forces ever have to battle it out in the marketplace? Even with the help of linguists to smooth over miscommunications, who’s to say that a few skirmishes over intellectual and real property might not break out? From my perspective, such brush-ups are a small price to pay in pursuit of a world rich in economic freedoms and one constantly renewing its cultures and languages. For my money, it’s time we all stepped into the thought Jacuzzi to see if this is a plan worthy of real-time actualization.

Posted in Business Communication, Politics, Satire, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Absolutely Unbiased Algorithmic Job Interview

Interview sketchSome large enterprises like Fannie Mae, Bank of America, General Motors, or A.I.G. might occasionally be lax in their hiring processes. With such unwieldy organizations, a mistake or two in hiring can happen and isn’t always of much concern, especially knowing that a government bailout is only a phone call away. But smaller companies don’t have the luxury of making hiring mistakes. Unlike a too-big-to-be infallible company that can absorb the impact of a bad hire, smaller companies can’t afford to bleed money hiring employees who aren’t expert in their trade, don’t take their responsibilities seriously, or don’t know how to schmooze clients.

Before they are about to hire, the leaders and hiring managers at these small companies comb through applications carefully, and by the time they are ready to interview job candidates, they may have lost a few night’s rest. Can you blame them? They are about to bring someone they don’t know into a company that they’ve fanned into a robust flame from kindling and dedicated their life’s breath to. Will this new person help the company or extinguish all profit? Will he or she treat the client and fellow employees with respect or make everyone’s lives an icy hell? There’s no way of knowing, but the company needs to expand, and there’s not much choice but to bring on a new recruit.

To make sure the employer gets the right person, recruits must participate in a rigorous hiring process, a most dangerous game in which hunter and prey are not always sure which one is being hunted and which one is being preyed upon. From the employer’s perspective, candidates should be tested like Army Rangers, running through obstacle courses and forced to dive to great depths with short supply of oxygen. By this, I mean that candidates should submit an application, undergo a pre-interview screening, and then attend a structured interview. Before the employer conducts this structured interview, she has chosen five or six applicants, made insensible judgements about the status of their secondary schools and colleges, and checked their social media accounts for embarrassing photos.

As the interview is a complex process, taking into account not only a potential hire’s job history and skills but also his personality and attitude, and as the resulting hire may have to be lived with for many months or years afterwards, it’s best if hiring managers don’t take on all of the evaluation responsibilities. Employers should encourage other company employees to sit in on the interview, say nothing, and make their own evaluations. Whenever there’s a chance that a bad decision might be made, as many people as possible should be present so that later on, when it comes time to place blame, blame can be shared.

In the traditional structured interview, the employer picks a process by which each candidate is evaluated in a uniform manner. The candidate arrives at the office at a scheduled time, and after a brief hour spent in the lobby filling out a fresh application and waiting, he is invited into a conference room. Sitting across from a panel of evaluators, the recruit receives a detailed explanation of job responsibilities, including applicable regulations and nomenclature with which he is expected to already be familiar. In the meantime, the interviewer pays attention to whether the recruit exhibits active listening skills, paraphrasing what the interviewer has just said before expounding on it. Hearing interviewees repeat back what has just been said is a sign that the candidate has been paying attention and this can boost the interviewer’s ego, increasing a candidate’s chances of getting the job.

Job responsibilities explained, a round of behavioral questions follow. These questions are designed to test the candidate’s skills in leadership, teamwork, interpersonal relations, problem solving, and ability to handle stress. Sample questions include “Tell me about yourself?” “Why should we hire you?” “What is your greatest strength and greatest weakness?” “Where do you see yourself in five years?” “And why do you want to work for this company?”

Questions not to be asked include those about the candidate’s race, age, sex, sexual identity, or sexual preference. If the candidate comes in wearing six necklaces—Christian cross, Islamic crescent, Jewish star, Hindu Om, Buddha lotus flower, and Chinese Ying Yang amulet—the recruiter should not give in to temptation and ask about the candidate’s preferred necklace and thus religion. If the candidate drops his wallet and family photos fall out, the employer should not make the mistake of commenting that the candidate must be married and have children, eh? Such questions, when reported to the government’s Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, have been known to cost companies $200,000 on average with a few settlements spiking into the millions.

Setting the many fears of interviewing aside, as the panel of evaluators listens to candidate answers, they should take note of the style of answering as much as the answer. Does the candidate keep everything positive? Does he stumble over words? Does he veer off on tangents unrelated to the position? Does the candidate know why he is applying to this company outside of needing money to pay for cable?

Not all job candidates are whom they appear to be.

Not all job candidates are who they appear to be.

At the conclusion of the interview, the evaluator asks the candidate if he has any questions, and the candidate should have prepared a few. This is a good time for the interviewer to be alert for a last minute lapse in judgement. Some candidates may ask questions like “Remind me, how do you do this job again?” “When will I get my first promotion?” “What sort of flextime arrangements can we work out?” And “does your company’s insurance include mental health benefits?” These are all inappropriate questions and suggest selfish, ulterior motives.

Instead, recruiters should look for recruits who ask one or two of the following: “When do you expect to be calling candidates in for a second interview?” “When do you expect to make a hiring decision?” “Would you like a copy of my references?” Or “if I don’t hear from you, do you mind if I follow up in a week?” These questions signal candidate interest in the job and are good enough reasons to present the recruit with a business card and end the interview with a brisk declaration such as “We’ll be in touch.”

When the candidate returns home, he should immediately get to work on the thank you note he will write by hand and snail mail it to the hiring manager. Meanwhile, the hiring manager and recruiting panel will evaluate the candidate pool one last time, spreading the five or six resumes out on the conference room table, consulting interview notes and photographs culled from the Internet by implicit search, and calling the other members of the interview panel into the conference room for counsel.

Once the selection is made, references can be called, but this is often a useless step if you are expecting an honest evaluation. Past employers rarely say anything bad about a former employee. If things didn’t work out at a past job, the former employer is likely to stick with the facts and make a comment such as, “yes, he or she worked here.” In recent years, defamation lawsuits have been filed based on job candidates receiving bad references, so when honesty becomes a costly policy, pure positivity and sticking to the facts serve as a good substitute.

References checked or unchecked, the good news is delivered by phone call, and the person believed to be the best candidate for the job and the best fit for the company culture is hired. On Monday, the new hire shows up for work and everything seems great until Tuesday when the employer discovers that the newbie doesn’t have all the skills he claimed during the interview. Nor does he like to show up on time for meetings. Nor does he work on his assigned projects but prefers to spend the first half of the day switching out players on his fantasy football team.

Giving the new employee a warning or two but observing no change, by Wednesday, the employer knows it’s time to call the new hire into the conference room and tell him things aren’t working out. This may lead to tears and threats and leave the employer swearing never to make another hire or at least wondering, “How could I have done better?” “How could I have saved my company time and money and chosen the right candidate?” “Where did I go wrong?”

The result of answering hundreds of multiple-choice questions has almost always led to a selection of highly talented, creative, and diverse peoples.

Although news to some, employers nationwide should be happy to know that once again, ever-inventive science has come up with a solution to avoid the many pitfalls encountered in the structural interview that I’ve described above, and these days, short-term hires can be avoided. In recent years, researchers at Harvard have developed a system that combines the benefits of big data with a carefully constructed hiring algorithm.

Using the power of math along with yottabytes, the researchers have been able to create profiles of ideal employees for particular jobs. Simultaneously, researchers also developed a list of multiple-choice questions that could be administered to prospective candidates for similar jobs. Once the questions, covering both hard and soft skills, are answered, answers are compared to the profiles already developed, and the choicest candidates fall readily from the trees.

Thus far Google, Xerox, and a few other high-tech companies have used such hiring methods and report that their hiring successes are up by 25%. These companies tell us that the tests have proven more accurate in predicting a successful hire than the standard structured interview with all of its behavioral questions and collective evaluations. Researchers say that one benefit to the algorithmic hiring method is that it is color and sex blind. It doesn’t make judgments about those issues because the multiple-choice questions have been tailored to avoid them.

Everyone knows that this is also one of the benefits of the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) given to students in high school. Rather than relying on a student’s entire educational record, grades, and extracurricular activities—all of which can reveal too many of the specifics of character—most colleges prefer to place greater emphasis on the unbiased SAT score. The result of answering hundreds of multiple-choice questions has almost always led to a selection of highly talented, creative, and diverse peoples.

With such past triumphs in the use of standardized testing, it’s understandable that employers would defer to an algorithm. No longer will they have to sit in an interview and worry about saying the wrong thing, blatantly revealing their prejudices against minority races, women, old people, transgender people, or people with disabilities. Such a test would even eliminate the possibility of exhibiting microaggressions, ticks that signal unconscious prejudices that the interviewer didn’t believe she had until the interviewee pointed them out. Having a test that eliminates all prejudicial possibilities, the employer would not risk a lawsuit from the EEOC and could save on liability insurance, investing that money in morale-boosting office-pool Powerball tickets.

Using algorithms, employers could also rejoice that they will never have to ask another behavioral question and listen to a long-winded answer, such as the following response to the strengths and weaknesses’ question: “I like to make sure that my work is perfect,” the candidate will say, “so I tend to spend a little too much time checking it. However, I’ve come to a good balance by setting up a system to ensure everything is done correctly the first time. For example, I was once working at a warehouse facility when the files where stored in brown corrugated boxes, and I thought it would be better to use gray filing cabinets…” and so on and so forth.

What recruiter really wants to take the time to listen to stories about corrugated verses metal filing systems, following up with questions like, “so what made you go with the 24-gauge instead of the 32-gauge metal file?” and writing down all of this information. If such detail is attended to, when it comes to making the evaluation, the employer will have to sift through several legal sheets of notes, and I am speaking here of pages not only for a single candidate but for five or six? The time it takes to analyze those notes could be much better spent attending a Rhianna concert or visiting the cigar store and that humidor that has lately gone unattended.

But most of all, the great advantage of such a standardized test is that the employer will never again have to rely on her own judgement or the competencies of fellow employees to make a hiring decision. The algorithm will do all the work for her, and if anything goes wrong with the employee, then the algorithm, not the employer or human resources department, can take the blame.

Algorithms and big data could mean the end of flawed ancient wisdom, the practitioners of which have often selected and trained corrupt job candidates.

Algorithms and big data could mean the end of flawed ancient wisdom, the practitioners of which have often selected and trained corrupt job candidates.

A few old-school human resources managers might object that a big part of an interview is about evaluating the applicant’s interpersonal skills. “Is it possible,” they might ask, “to determine from multiple-choice testing how a candidate will interact with others?” The Xerox Corporation insists that the standardized test and algorithm makes hiring for interpersonal skills possible, having used the method to hire customer service representatives. But if the old-fashioned hiring manager is not convinced and still wants to conduct a personal interview, she should at least admit that during the interview process, many biases can emerge and every effort should be made to eliminate them.

As a way to eliminate bias in the structured interview, I’d suggest taking a tip from the new algorithmic method and keep candidate identities anonymous. Interviewers should never actually meet the candidates. Interviews should be conducted behind curtains like violin auditions for the local symphony. A voice-masking device could be used to disguise the sex and possible dialectical ticks of a candidate so that ethnicity and social status could also be obscured. Alternatively, a voice recognition computer might serve as an intermediary, taking the candidate’s answers and repeating them to the interviewee through headphones in an isolation booth. In general, when computers are incorporated into the hiring process, or any process, like political elections for instance, the results are always increased proficiency and fairness.

The more evidence gathered from big data, the more we are beginning to understand that interpersonal skills are highly overrated. Despite the lip service that many employers pay to the concepts of people skills and teamwork, in my experience, most offices are organized from the top down. Employers would much rather tell an employee what they want and have them do it rather than define parameters and then assemble a brainstorming group to talk things over before making a decision. What would happen if the military operated in this touchy-feely, groupthink fashion? Too much time would be spent arriving at consensus, and the seamless efficiency of conducting warfare would suffer.

Those who worry about the repercussion of hiring by tests that are tailored to a specific profession should stop living in the past. With the rise of computer technology and the development of sophisticated algorithms, more and more human decisions can be avoided and many would agree that this is a good thing—as humans aren’t very good at making decisions. Increasingly, activities that used to be handled by people, such as surgery, making art, or even writing blogs can be adapted to robots or computers and accomplished with better effect.

Isn’t it comforting to know that all workplace problems of an interpersonal nature will soon be handled by algorithms and big data, leaving humans to carry on only relationships of a recreational nature? However, if you happen to be one of those people who are not interested in pursuing human relationships of a recreational nature, then I’m sure the scientists at Harvard will soon come up with an algorithm by which you can find people who share that same interest.

Note: This article was written with the assistance of Rhonda Serendip, a marketing and management consultant at “Serendip Business Marketing and Management Consulting.” Ms. Serendip has over 25 years of experience helping businesses deliver valued and scalable products and services to an elite clientele while actualizing their business profit potential with forward thinking actionable strategies. Ms. Serendip is also a valued employee at Macy’s.

Posted in Business Communication, Satire, Science and Technology, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Undercover Cover Letter

Puzzle PeiceLike so many things related to the job search, cover letters are inconvenient formalities that should be done away with. I predict that someday, a business with enough clout will have the courage to stop asking for them and other businesses will follow suit. But until that day, cover letters must be written, and they will remain clichéd boiler-plate documents that conscientious job applicants will attempt to reinvent while the less conscientious ones poach theirs from friends, making a few necessary alterations.

Business owners and hiring managers that I have spoken with tell me that if they read cover letters, they read the first two or three lines, those lines that tell the prospective employer how the candidate will fit into the organization. Otherwise, the hiring manager will skip the bulky cover letter paragraphs composed by some youthful braggadocio and dive right into the easy-to-read bulleted resume. What hiring manager wouldn’t rather zero in on bullet points and graze over abundant white space, giving their eyes and brain a rest before the lunch hour?

The uselessness of cover letters can be further defended by the idea that nobody of any importance writes letters anymore: not for business, not for friendship, and rarely for love. For business people on the go, making things happen and making money, new ways of communications substitute easily for the old. Texting and short emails with frequent use of bullet points can be used for in-house and client communication. Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn for business marketing. And regardless of message, the most effective communications will be those formatted like a tweet, 140 characters or less. The classic business letter, should one ever be required, can be handled by freelance writers hired at the maximum wage of $7.25 per hour, or one dollar per correspondence, whichever the client prefers.

A close and honest evaluation of a single mail sack full of traditional cover letters reveal that most cover letters do exactly what business-writing instructors tell job candidates not to do. They rehash the information already presented in the resume, only this time in paragraph form. Rehashing information in the business environment is a skill used often to drill points into employee’s and client’s heads, but it can also take time away from analysis and innovative thinking.

Still, despite the anachronistic nature of a cover letter in today’s workplace, employers, through hiring managers, feel compelled to do whatever has been done before, and the dated rituals of the job seeking process carry on like useless body parts: I am thinking here of the tailbone, male nipples, tonsils, and the appendix: human body features that should be extracted before they cause harm.

Not only do job candidates waste hours writing cover letters, printing them, taking up computer memory with their bytes, but publishers continue to commission authors to write books about these letters. Such books again rehash the standard list of composition instructions, and libraries that still contain books continue to stack the results. Those who write blogs on the internet also waste time rehashing the cover letter topic. Believe me, type the words “cover letter” into your browser and you’ll soon find, it’s all been covered.

Some covers are clearly better than others.

Some covers are clearly better than others.

In my business writing classes, I have wasted many an hour and student’s time reviewing the standard cover letter criteria. I do so mainly out of sympathy. Students are anxious about getting jobs after graduating, and they know employers want covers. To keep everyone happy, each semester I insist that students purchase a scholastic text such as The Business Writer’s Companion (BWC) and commit the cover letter pages to memory.

The un-invigorating BWC covers all of the elements of the classic cover. It gives advice about format, white space, serif and sans-serif fonts, enthusiastic and plain language, and the avoidance of personally designed logos. While I never promise employment to any student who designs and writes such a letter, I do promise that if students follow BWC instructions, there’s little doubt but they will produce a competent-sounding letter, one highly similar to a thousand and one other covers, and one which gets the job done, if not the job.

To review cover letter composition according to BWC rules, once the desired employer is found, the candidate calls attention to themselves by providing their contact information, although NOT their name, in the top left hand corner of the page. Then follows the date of composition and beneath the date, candidates should have obtained the name and address of “the person who has the power to hire them.” Acquiring employer information shows some initiative on the candidate’s part; however, as most cover letters and resumes are sent via email and the internet, the only address the candidate really needs is the employer’s email. The computer will do the hard work of dating the correspondence.

If I might be allowed a short digression here, I would add that many years ago, in the age of snail mail, resumes and cover letters were typed onto high-quality bond paper and sent to prospective employers in large envelopes left unfolded like slim and semi-sacred Advent calendars. Today the resume is a file attached to an email, and the cover letter copied into the body of the email.

Alternatively, some employers like to take applications over their websites, and here the cover letter takes more of the old-fashioned form. Addresses and dates are retained in the top left corner and the letter is uploaded as an attachment. Meanwhile the candidates’ original resume serves as a reference document. The information contained in the original resume provides a resource while candidates spend several hours attempting to figure out how the company’s online application works. Information must be transferred from the resume to the electronic form. Additionally, the prospective employer will ask several questions concerning military status and sexual and racial identity, the last two questions being illegal to ask in an interview but apparently perfectly fine to ask on an application.

So back to the cover. If we keep with the old-fashioned methods of composition, a salutation should follow the addresses and date. Most job candidates begin with “Dear Sir or Madam” or “Dear Human Resources Manager,” or variations on those themes. “Dear Hiring Manager” works too but the main point is to avoid any suggestion of sexism. The advice most emphasized by the BWC and the many books with titles like “What Color is Your Parachute” or “Getting A Job for Dummies” suggest that you set yourself apart from the competition, meaning that you should do here as you did above the company’s address, write out the “name of the person who has the power to hire you.”

This is an excellent idea and I encourage it. Finding a specific name may also be impossible as companies like Monsanto or government agencies like the NSA prefer to keep secrets and so keep their hiring managers anonymous. Another complication occurs when the candidate finds the given name of the hiring manager but that person has a unisex name like Alex, Jamie, or Blair and Alex, Jamie, or Blair refuse to post photos on LinkedIn or Facebook. Searching for hours on the internet and clicking on the “images” option may not be any more productive. Some brave job candidates may take the extra step and call the business, asking if Cassidy Smith is male or female. The not-so-brave will attempt to fudge the address line with an opening such as “Dear Smith,” but this sounds cold and stilted, and it often helps to warm the oven before inserting the pizza.

After the salutation, the job seeker will often make an attempt to connect to the prospective employer based on their perusal of the job advertisement. Many candidates start their letters as follows: “I saw your advertisement for a Project Manager on Career Builder.com, and I noticed that your company has done many projects that I admire, including X , Y, and Z. In my studies at Impressive University and in my relevant past work experience, I have developed skills necessary to be successful doing similar work, and I would like to be considered for this position.”

With his wicked hook, the Otter (aka Greg Olson) holds the Oriole record with 160 closes. He was a favorite among Baltimore fans until he lost his hook and subsequently his job.

With his wicked hook, the Otter (aka Greg Olson) holds the Oriole record with 160 closes. He was a favorite among Baltimore fans until he lost his hook and subsequently his job.

Following the connection, which might be enhanced by mentioning the name of a mutual acquaintance, the candidate will place the meat of the cover, which is really more ground beef than flank steak or filet mignon. I say ground beef because as I mentioned above, the candidate has already presented the prime cut information in the resume. In the letter, a few of the more select cut bullet points are emphasized in paragraph form, and much emphasis is placed on drawing out the candidate’s hard and soft skills, and distributing these skills among two or three blood-rich paragraphs.

Soft skills may be introduced as follows: “I am a flexible, communicative, driven, hardworking individual who likes to participate in teams and meet deadlines.” Meanwhile, statements that incorporate hard skills take on more concrete characteristics as follows: “Working as an intern in the university’s administrative offices, my knowledge of C++ allowed me to develop a program that streamlined accounting processes, thus saving the university 14 hours per week per employee and giving those employees more time to concentrate on other tasks.” Notice the use of the first person, “I,” in these statements, a luxury not permitted in the resume. In a cover letter you are allowed to be yourself, or I should say, you are allowed to be “me.”

Once the hard and soft skills have been placed in narrative form, the candidate finishes up with a closer. This is the shutdown sales pitch, designed to end the game, seal the deal, and get the call for an interview. There are several approaches to the closer: passive, aggressive, and diplomatic. The passive approach will sound a little like this: “Please contact me if you would like to schedule an interview and further discuss how I might be of value to your company.” The more aggressive tactic is to take the initiative: “I will call you within the next week to see whether you have reviewed my application, and we can schedule a time to discuss your position.” The diplomatic candidate will attempt to finesse the situation as follows: “I look forward to hearing from you, but I understand the many demands on your time, and will call you in a few days to see if you’ve received my resume. And at your convenience, I hope that we might schedule an interview, and I look forward to our conversation.”

Sincerely. Using the word “Sincerely” is a nice way to say goodbye, but a few candidates prefer “Yours Truly” or “Best Regards.” More creative sign-offs like “Cheers,” “So Long,” and “Check You Later” are discouraged. Following the sign-off, your signature is not optional. Sign a paper, scan the signature, and import it into your text and email. Whether or not your signature is decipherable, type your name beneath this signature.

“…type the words “cover letter” into your browser and you’ll soon find, it’s all been covered.”

And so you have a cover letter, one not unlike the cover letters that have gone before and that will be submitted simultaneously with yours. As so many look alike and have similar sounding information, employers will likely set yours aside, toss it in the trashcan, or file it under the categories “Possibly,” “Maybe,” or “How About Later.” Then they will call up their friends at neighboring consulting companies and ask if they know anyone who needs a job or is looking to make a move and would that person be a good fit? Or maybe the employer will strike up a conversation in a bar with a stranger who turns out to have all the right hard and soft skills desired. This candidate will be hired on the spot, on an impulse. People purchase products in this manner all the time, why not choose employees in the same way?

And so, having devolved into something that almost anyone can write if provided proper instruction, the immortality of the cover letter continues unabated like new episodes of The Simpsons. But shouldn’t such covers be put to bed? Or if not put to bed than at least revamped to serve a better purpose. To that end, I would like to suggest a new type of cover that I believe will be far more useful to both candidate and employer. This new letter would expand on the only two lines of the cover’s current incarnation that the employer pays attention to, the first two or three, those in which job candidates state how they will fit into the organization.

We might call this new letter the “undercover cover letter,” as it would require the candidate to do some investigative work and analysis before the writing. It would represent research into the employer’s business and include such items as: 1) The purpose of the company, its goals, and its mission statement. 2) How the company goes about its work, paying attention to processes. And 3) the key players, not only the company clients but also those people who work in the department in which the candidate will be made useful. It should be noted that while the company literature and spokespeople may state explicitly what the leadership believes the company is about, the candidate should not settle for simple answers. What the company says about itself is not always how the public or clients see it, and the candidate should be open to all perspectives.

The ways in which candidates gather this information will be up to them, but their creativity in research technique and how much information they can collect are the main points of the exercise. Some candidates may choose to do simple searches on the internet or in library databases. More innovative applicants may invent other methods. For example, I envision a candidate for an accounting position attempting an in-person investigation. This could involve pasting on a fake beard and mustache, posturing as a plumber or HVAC contractor and gaining access to the business’s facility.

To illustrate: The prospective job applicant and current researcher arrives at the employer’s office door and explains how the monitoring systems in the facilities department are indicating a mechanical failure. The applicant enters the accounting department and sets up a ladder and toolbox near her future coworkers. Then she climbs the ladder, removes ceiling tiles, and makes a show of checking the pipes and ductwork. From such a perch, she will be free to scan the office cubicles below.

At this elevated perspective, careful note could be taken of all elements of the accounting department. What computers and computer programs are used? How does the workflow progress? Who are the key players? Can employee names be found on plaques mounted to desks? Are all work competencies accounted for or does the candidate possess one that will fill a gap? If the candidate hears one of the accounting team shout out in frustration, “I hate Microsoft Access!” this should be scratched on a notepad so the candidate can emphasize having this skill when she writes her cover letter. A word of caution however, any financial information discovered about the company during these investigations should be kept secret. It may come in handy during salary negotiations.

The Boston, not Baltimore, Strangler, played here by Tony Curtis, was once known to make his way into unwelcoming facilities by posing as a maintenance man, a tactic that might be tried by today’s job seekers.

The Boston, not Baltimore, Strangler, played here by Tony Curtis, was once known to make his way into unwelcoming facilities by posing as a maintenance man, a tactic that might be tried by today’s job seekers.

I have an additional suggestion on investigative methods as well. Some investigators might like to work as a team. For instance, the prospective accountant may want to form an alliance with her friend the prospective engineer, and they might accompany one another on office visits. Tag teams of two or three applicants for different positions in different companies can quadruple the amount of information gathered and provide diversions so that informative documents can be scooped up and carried off, the data contained obliquely referenced in the cover letter.

Once all of the information has been gathered, the candidate should synthesize it and produce a cover that presents findings and analysis in clear and simple prose, keeping all of this at less than a page. While this new form of investigative cover letter will begin the same way as the traditional one, with candidates relating how they might fit into the company, the body of the undercover cover letter will be a review and analysis of the current company situation. The letter will cover company goals, processes, culture, and personnel, each element evaluated with attention to their effectiveness.

Throughout the letter, candidates should be careful to use positive language, complimenting effective aspects of the business, but also taking a surgical approach to what the company does wrong. Analysis complete, one final step is critical. After identifying problems, the candidate should hint at possible solutions but not provide any. This will generate employer curiosity and bait the employer to make a pre-interview phone call. Should an interview be won, the candidate can offer solutions to the problems identified, the employer evaluate those solutions, and then the employer can hire the best creative thinker or the dullest worker robot, whichever is preferred.

I can understand that most job candidates and employers will not embrace this new method of cover letter research, analysis, and writing. It’s possible that such a method would make the job search process more time consuming and invade the privacy of companies handling sensitive projects and documentation. But searching for a job or good employee is already as hard as catching a vampire with a mousetrap. Why not at least make it a productive learning experience?

Such an investigative process would be most useful. Job candidates would have to demonstrate perseverance and ingenuity that may later prove valuable once hired. They would sharpen their analytic and synthesizing skills while learning things about company methods, goals, and fellow employees, saving the company time and money in the first weeks of their hire. Most candidates, we all know, spend those first weeks fumbling about anyway, not knowing who is who, let alone being able to perform their job responsibilities. Eliminating this adjustment period would mean that the candidate can get right to work being productive.

Using candidates to do what marketing and management firms usually do would especially benefit small businesses, as mom and pop shops can rarely afford the behemoth fees charged by these firms. Not only do marketing and management consultants charge exorbitant rates, once they depart the businesses they’ve evaluated, nine months later, those businesses are frequently more dysfunctional than ever. I am sure that marketing and management consultants will object to this new hiring practice, but I suggest that those consultants do what we all have to do eventually, get real jobs.

Looking beyond the needs of a small contingent of business consultants, we should not fail to do what our U.S. Constitution demands. As the fourteenth amendment has been interpreted, business life is equivalent to human life, and the investigative process I suggest would contribute to the health, welfare, and fair treatment of all business-hyphen-humans. Therefore, this program should be considered a moral imperative, protecting and securing the sanctity of business-hyphen-human life.

And considering the overall benefits it will provide these business-hyphen-humans, I recommend that a small stipend be paid to job search candidates who conduct these investigations, similar to how unemployment insurance currently works. Yes, many object to entitlements like this, but it all depends on how you look at it. This entitlement would not be so much for the job seeker as for the business, and in general, the good of our capitalist system.

For candidates, of course, the stipend would give them time for the search and investigation. Why should high school and college students be forced to rush around looking for a job, compromising schoolwork and grades, while they continue to attend school? Under the revised undercover cover letter program, the candidate would be able to wait until they’d graduated and then conduct a fully dedicated job search.

In this context, the program would also provide a psychological advantage to American families, as it would help to avoid that awkward time when a young person graduates from school and is forced to return home to live with mom and dad. This extended phase of adolescence can be a traumatic experience for both parent and child, especially when the child starts coming home at all hours of the morning after partying with friends. With such a stipend, the wise and frugal graduate could use the money to get set up in an apartment and pay for groceries. They might also be able to cover costs incurred for the investigations: for example, the price of tools, ladders, and fake beards.

Note: This article was not written with the assistance of Rhonda Serendip, a marketing and management consultant at “Serendip Business Marketing and Management Consulting.”

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The Many Delusions of C. Auguste Dupin

IMG_2357aOther cities would like to claim him, but Baltimore has Poe. There is a society of scholars and devotees who meet to discuss Poe works and a special Poe room in the main branch of our library. There are Poe artifacts, a Poe House, a Poe-inspired football team, but more than anything, there are Poe bones, or at least phantom Poe bones. For many years, since the mid-nineteenth century, according to newspaper accounts, high schoolers have honored those bones, and illustrious scholars have visited the bones at Westminster Hall, made speeches, and laid wreaths. Mayors and Prefects have dispensed proclamations on Poe’s immortality in literature. And in 1875, people even invested to have the poet’s lonely grave moved to a more prominent location and erect a monument in his honor because a simple grave marker would be too small for his growing stature.

In accordance with the many mysteries of Poe—his life, his death, and his marriage to a 13-year-old cousin—newspaper articles from the 1970s on began referring regularly to a mysterious stranger who appeared in the dead of night on Poe’s birthday, January 19. This stranger, like so many other folk, also had great reverence for the Poe bones. Later dubbed the “Poe Toaster” by the press, the stranger would arrive at Westminster burial ground and place three roses at Poe’s tomb: one for Poe; a second for Poe’s wife and cousin, Virginia Eliza Clemm; and a third for Poe’s aunt and mother-in-law, Maria Clemm. Aside from the roses, the Toaster also brought along a bottle of Martell cognac, toasted Edgar Allen, left the bottle, and exited the yard for a netherworld into which we have no privy.

While the other annual tributes to Poe were considerate, scholars and their speeches can be kind, the gesture of this anonymous citizen captured the imagination, not only of Baltimoreans but of Poe appreciators international. In 1990, a Life magazine photographer took an interest, staked out the Westminster graveyard, and emulsified a man in black with wide-brimmed hat and white scarf. In this image, the Toaster appears much like a ‘40s noir detective, more a character out of a Dashiell Hammett story then a tale of Edgar Allen Poe. But who was this stranger? What were his true intentions? How did he hop that spikey iron churchyard fence without tangling his scarf and suffering strangulation? These mysteries stirred a great many souls, brought interest to Baltimore, and broadened Poe’s fame from scholarly geeks to ordinary peeps.

As a result, the churchyard where Poe is buried gained some much-needed attention. It was in disarray before, but money for improvements materialized in mesmeric fashion. The small parish of barely 500, disbanded in 1977, had never had enough money to pay for the upkeep, but now the church, under new ownership, had enough florin to restore some of the luster to its grounds. The mysterious stranger and his ritual brought benefits to the city as well. Poe celebrants came in from all around the world to sing Happy Birthday Edgar Allan Poe. And on that evening, many began all-night vigils outside the Westminster churchyard, braving bitter temperatures. A few select watchers were even invited to wait inside the church, gaining a bird’s eye view should the Poe Toaster materialize.

One nice thing, while so many wanted to witness the toasting act and many did, no one ever interfered with the toasts, not even the Life photographer who imprinted the mysterious man’s grainy profile on silver gelatin. No one called the Toaster out, exposed him, and asked for his driver’s license. All onlookers seemed to agree, this was a private, respectful ritual, a solemn tribute to Poe, and the Toaster’s humble appreciation should be left to glow in isolation like an electric coil. What had Poe done to deserve such reverence from this anonymous citizen? Perhaps Poe’s stories had helped the Toaster through a life crisis. Perhaps Poe’s personal tragedies provided the Toaster an example of how not to live. Perhaps the Toaster lamented how Poe had provided so much to so many but had failed to achieve celebrity status and financial security during his lifetime.

Not only did the public somehow manage to restrain themselves from discovering the identity of the Toaster, not even the local newspaper bothered to do any investigations. Everyone enjoyed the mystery of the Toaster and beyond that, why expose him? Citizen observers were quoted as saying things to the effect of, “There isn’t enough mystery in the world, not enough heartwarming Santa Claus stories, so when one is discovered, why spoil it?”

Well, as you might imagine, there is always one killjoy who doesn’t like secrets being kept. One curmudgeon who can’t stand when he’s left out in the rain, or cold. Such a one I met recently on a January walk about the city, and I have resolved to paint his portrait. While somewhat known in his own country, the man is not well known here but no doubt would like to be. His name is C. Auguste Dupin, an amateur but efficacious sleuth who hails from the un-American city of Paris, France.

The Toaster might have to be practiced at the art of high jump to scale the iron-spiked fence at Westminster Hall. High intensity discharge lamps also make it difficult to remain incognito.

The Toaster might have to be practiced at the art of high jump to scale the iron-spiked fence at Westminster Hall. High intensity discharge lamps also make it difficult to remain incognito.

I bumped into Monsieur Dupin while passing by our hometown Poe House. He stood there holding a silver-tipped cane, puffing on a meerschaum pipe, and sporting a royal blue velvet coat, top hat, and cashmere scarf. From the sidewalk, his neck craned to spy through the Poe House windows. Inferring his interest, I informed him that the building was closed for the season. He responded with a terse, “J’aurais dû m’en douter!”

“Excuse me?” I asked.

He recovered his disappointment and elaborated, telling me he had arrived from France to celebrate the famed author’s birthday, but had missed the previous weekend’s celebrations. Hoping to recoup his losses, he had in mind to visit the poet’s home, but in accordance with his luck, he was not surprised to find the building sealed up. I told him about our Inner Harbor, Science Center, and Visionary Art Museum, all pleasant activities to fill an afternoon.

“I am currently preoccupied with other diversions,” he said, “and will return to my lodgings, en toute hâte.”

Upon my inquiry about those diversions, he lifted his chin to inspect my frosty eyebrows and related that since arriving and finding himself with little to do, he had been investigating an old cold case: the mystery of the Poe Toaster. Imagine my surprise! This was the very legend that I had become enamored with since hearing about and writing about the American Idol-style Poe Toaster contest held at the Maryland Historical Society weeks before.

I inquired further about our common Toaster interests, and Dupin explained that he did not like it when there are people who know more than he does, no matter if these people do nice deeds and wish to remain anonymous. “And as such,” he said, “this is the case with your city’s Toaster.”

In keeping with his sympathies for the ideas of Mr. Darwin, Dupin informed me that he detected selfish motives in all creatures, and he surmised that the only reason that our Toaster would have ever wanted to remain anonymous was so he could either promote something or revel in the private knowledge of his anonymous celebrity. “The only thing of any great importance in this life,” Dupin said, “is in knowing and revealing the sources of ‘Selfish Truths.’”

Being curious and finding the afternoon air chill, I asked Monsieur Dupin if he wouldn’t mind retiring to one of our city’s finer cafes, and in exchange for buying him an Americano, I might hear more about his philosophies and investigations. After some bickering about how he preferred espresso to Americano, Monsieur accompanied me to the Bun Shop, a wide-open and welcoming spot that I frequent whenever having my car fixed at a nearby garage.

Upon entering the shop, Dupin pocketed his meerschaum, and we placed our coffee orders. While we waited, Monsieur removed his blue velvet overcoat and revealed a finely tailored suit. He informed me that with the aid of his eidetic memory, laptop, and a simple search engine, he had begun looking into the legend of the Poe Toaster and found that back in 2007, a 92-year old man named P– admitted that he had started the tradition.

“Your newspapers,” said Dupin, “say that P– had been a member of the Westminster parish. A former adman, Poe fan, amateur historian, and noted tour guide at the catacombs, P– confessed to having the idea for a Toaster and started the tradition as a way to raise attention to the poor condition of the church and tombs. He’d hoped the attention would garner cash for repairs. In this 2007 article, P– mentioned that he had backdated the tradition to around 1949, perhaps to make the tradition appear more traditional. The year 1949, coincidently, would have been the 100-year anniversary of Poe’s death.”

Our drinks arrived and Dupin and I each took up some well-used but cozy stuffed chairs in the cafe. As I leaned forward to sip my latte, Dupin reclined and crossed his legs at the knees. “When P– came clean,” Dupin continued, taking the temperature of his espresso with a pinky finger, “there was some willingness to acknowledge his case, but there were also many who felt that the man had committed metaphorical vivisections on his friends. People wanted to find holes in P–’s story and drive Mack trucks through them, one hole being that the 92-year-old P– had dated his toasts to 1967, but newspapers did not heighten their coverage of the mystery until about 1976.

“Imagine,” Dupin clucked, “a man of 92 confusing the years 1967 and 1976? Il est impossible de comprendre ce qui se passe!” Here Dupin paused to adjust his cravat. “Thankfully,” Monsieur continued, “the curator of the Poe House, a man with scruffy red beard and solemn respect for Poe, a man named J–, came to the rescue, citing an old Baltimore Evening Sun newspaper article from 1950 that mentioned how some ‘jokester’ had brought a bottle ‘of excellent label’ to Poe’s gravesite.”

With a proven Poe Toaster stashed in the Evening Sun archives, Dupin remarked that Baltimoreans and Poe fans were pleased. The phenomenon had been saved and P– discredited. But here Dupin wants to share with me a fact that he finds most interesting. “When I went looking for other reports of this mysterious citizen,” he said, “I could find no reference to the Toaster other than the one in 1950. As I said, frequent references did not begin until 1977, about the time that P—, along with the help of fellow tour guides, claims to have begun the tradition. Had someone, I must ask, purloined the Toaster in those intervening years?

“With no other evidence than the Evening Sun article of September 1950, P– seems to have made an adequate case for himself. My subsequent searches of P–’s name in the Sun ProQuest newspaper files reveal that even before his admission, P–’s interest in the tombs was well known. For that interest, Baltimore Mayor William Donald Schaefer had presented P– a commendation for bringing attention to Poe and the city through his innovative tomb tours.

“Another interesting note, I might add, is that during these years, P– lived in a house on Diamond Street, a chicken’s walk from Westminster Hall, making cemetery visits as convenient as a roll out of bed. Having died at 97, however, the discredited P– will not enjoy his vindication, but by all accounts, he might not have minded alternate spins on his Toaster tale. It appears that P– had been somewhat of a trickster and enjoyed a good yarn. I doubt he would object to later convolutions. Legend, not truth, always seemed to be his preference.”

Dupin leaned an elbow on his chair’s tattered armrest and continued. “Even while still alive, P– said that the tradition had kept going long after he had abandoned it. For him, it was a ‘one-time thing.’ But other copycat Toasters may have popped up. One man who falls under suspicion was a famed Baltimore writer and performance artist, F–, but I have my doubts. Many past investigators have singled out F– because he had a flair for the dramatic, once organizing ‘tugboats in Baltimore harbor to toot their horns in a sequence that spelled out one of his poems.’ On another occasion, F– dropped in at the Social Security building at Woodlawn, undressed, mounted a Xerox machine, and photocopied his various appendages. Many surmise that F– might have taken to toasting as well. But as I said, I have my doubts. Toasting would be almost too tame for F–’s tastes.

Possible Poe or possible Toaster? This Hollywood star who lives in Malibu would require only four and a half short plane flight hours to arrive in Baltimore and his whereabouts on January 19th before 2009 cannot always been accounted for.

Possible Poe or possible Toaster? This Hollywood star who lives in Malibu would require only four and a half short plane flight hours to arrive in Baltimore. His whereabouts on January 19th before 2009 have not always been accounted for.

“With politics veering toward the liberal, if not the radical, it’s unlikely that in 2004, F– would have written the note found tomb-side stating that the French cognac was being left begrudgingly in protest of France’s refusing to join in America’s Iraq war. No, only two pieces of evidence point to F–’s probable participation. One, in keeping with his reputation as prankster, F—, in 2001, may have left the note predicting that the New York Giants football team would defeat your Ravens in the super bowl. But one might also postulate that note as having been left by a copycat. The second, and far better evidence pointing to F–, would be how the Toaster tradition ended in 2009, shortly before F– died of cancer. I, however, have other ideas.”

Monsieur Dupin informed me that he did not confine himself to research into newspaper articles. He also visited the scene of the crime, the Westminster burial ground, and he made an outside inspection, walking the length of the eight-foot-high iron fence and brick walls. He described how the iron gates have ancient padlocks on them, and how it would have been difficult for a Toaster to breach the fence without making a spectacle of himself, or at least ripping his trousers.

“Additionally,” said Dupin, “since 1977, when the church disbanded, Westminster Hall became a showpiece for the University of Maryland Law School, a space to be rented out for wedding celebrations and corporate symposiums. Millions in monies were invested, and by 1983, the churchyard had seen many improvements, not the least of which are high intensity spotlights that shine upon almost every exterior wall, mortar joint, and marble tomb.”

Dupin pointed out that with such high fences, bright lights, and growing crowds, no matter where the Toaster might enter the burial ground, visiting either Poe monument or cenotaph, it would be almost impossible for him not to be seen. “It would seem,” Monsieur explained, “that the most likely Toaster would have to be someone with access to the church and the graveyard, an inside actor per se, someone in the know, or a small circle of non-profit co-conspirators, either within the church or the Poe community or both. “You see,” Dupin clarified, “several insiders may have worn the Toaster cloak.”

“According to my investigations and aided by ratiocination,” Dupin related, “there is but one candidate who might have led such a conspiracy or at least inherited it from P–. This man has always been close to the Toaster, began volunteering at Westminster Hall and the Poe House in 1977, then became the Poe House curator in 1979. This man dedicated 33 years of his life in public employ to all things Poe. Yes, the man I am speaking of, of course, is P–’s old friend J–. J– has always been the gatekeeper of the church and guardian of the Toaster tradition. He has led nighttime vigils at Westminster Hall on Poe’s birthday. He’s aware of how important Toaster attention is to the city and how much revenue can be gained from repeated Toaster visits.

“There are too many coincidences not to indict J–,” Dupin reflected. “J– was not only a close friend of Monsieur P–, in one newspaper account, it’s clear that he shared P–’s understanding as an adman that scholars appearing at a grave site with somber speeches and depressing funeral wreaths are less likely to gather attention than a mysterious stranger who arrives in the dead of night with roses and cognac.

“Also it is J– who collects the bottles and the roses on the morning after. J– who is familiar with the Toaster’s secret signals and precise pattern of rose configuration. J– who distinguishes the real Toaster from his copycats. J– who, in 1993, reported that the torch had been passed to a new generation of Toaster, J– who used his own powers of ratiocination to put forth the idea that the original Toaster might have two or three sons now engaged in sharing Toaster responsibilities, J– who shared the idea that the original Toaster had likely died in 1998.”

“But what of the 1950 article?” I asked in haste, feeling as though the very ground beneath me was giving way. “That article is proof of an age-old Toaster tradition.”

“An interesting supposition,” Dupin agreed, “and I don’t deny the existence of a 1940’s Toaster. But there is only one mention in the news accounts, no description of the man other than he was a ‘jokester.’ For all we know, he might have been an orangutan. My guess is that this jokester was imitating Madame Flame, the woman in black, who deposited roses at Rudolph Valentino’s Hollywood crypt, and whose story became widely known in 1947 when she revealed herself. Certainly, some male mimic of the Madame in Baltimore may have tried a similar trick for fun, but as the accounts of his act go unreported for the next 27 years, he must have taken ‘de vacances.’

“More importantly I think,” Dupin said, assuming a serious tone, “P–, a man of 32 in 1947, would have been aware of the woman in black. Later, as self-appointed historian of the church, clearer of cobwebs from the catacombs, and collector and confabulator of stories, P– could have recalled the 1940’s Toaster and used the story in 1977 to begin his own Toaster tradition. In one 1976 Sun article, a reporter visited P– at Westminster and quotes him as saying that an anonymous visitor ‘used to visit the tomb.’ I repeat, ‘used to visit.’ And the quote continues, ‘on the anniversary of Poe’s birth and prop an empty bottle of scotch whisky….’

“And so I ask you?” Dupin sighed, as though all his suppositions should now be considered as fact. “Who better to start a Toaster tribute than a storyteller so intimately familiar with so many old legends? The choice of spirits in P–’s accounting, however, scotch whiskey, escapes me, as does the latter choice of cognac. Poe liked Jamaican rum, port wine, champagne, whiskey, absinth, but I have read nothing about cognac in the literature. Perhaps P– himself enjoyed a tumbler of Martell now and then, or selected it as a tip of the hat to my people, the French. We French, as you know, were early champions of Poe’s talent. I find it unfortunate though that P– did not select apple cider instead. Alcoholics, we all know, even dead ones, should not be encouraged.

“But back to my case for J–. Let me point out that of course it was J– who collected and curated the Toaster notes and cognac bottles. Those bottles, I suggest, should have been dusted for fingerprints and compared to the prints of all Baltimore City employees. I might also suggest that the Toaster notes be produced, handwriting experts hired, and analysis conducted. I am certain that the clever J—, and his handful of co-conspirators, have shared in their composition. Finally, I might add that it was J—, in 2012, after three years of no shows, who declared the Toaster tradition dead. How could he have known? Perhaps because in that year, J– suffered the loss of his job as curator of the Poe House when the city cut its $85,000 budget.”

“I do hope,” I interjected, “that J– was eligible for retirement.”

“The only thing of any great importance in this life,” Dupin said, “is in knowing and revealing the sources of ‘Selfish Truths.’”

Dupin frowned. “It could only be J–, not F–,” Dupin said, “who ended the Toaster tradition in 2009, knowing by then that the Westminster Hall lights had begun shining much too bright for either him or his co-conspirators to remain undetected. And it would be J– who might have seen the charm in ending the tradition in the bicentenary year of Poe’s birth. As to your point about J–’s retirement, he is hardly retired. He continues to participate in all things Poe, privately raising money for the Poe celebrations. Once a Poe Toaster, always a Poe Toaster.”

“But when he worked for the city,” I counter, “J– said that if he were the Toaster and kept the secret, he would be guilty of fraud.”

“Tu plaisantes ou quoi?” Dupin chortles, “I must applaud J– for this deception. No, no, J– might be guilty of a fib but not a fraud. I see no record of money changing hands. And considering the claims on Poe among Boston, Philadelphia, New York, Richmond, and Baltimore, I’d say that Baltimore, with its Poe tributes and celebrations, may be leading the competition. The publicity and subsequent financial benefit to your city surrounding these events cannot be dismissed. No, by my calculations, it is in the best interest of your Baltimore ministry that J– not be caught. Had he been, I’m sure your city fathers and mothers would have been most merciful in their prosecution, perhaps awarding him a key to the city. In such circumstances, what city wouldn’t trade a harmless con for a bulging pot of coin?”

As Dupin finished making his circumstantial case for Toaster J–, I couldn’t help but think back to my recent visit to the Maryland Historical Society when the Society held a contest to inaugurate a new Poe Toaster. This new one would be less mysterious than the previous perpetrator, but he would still perform a ritual at Poe’s memorial. The contest had been sponsored not only by the Society but also Poe Baltimore Inc. and a troupe of performers from a play called “The Mesmeric Revelations of Edgar Allan Poe.” As I recalled sitting in the audience that night, I felt that it had indeed been J–, serving on the three-person jury, who guided the audience’s selection of the American Idol-styled Toaster? How difficult it was not to notice J– struggling hard to make the audience understand what type of Toaster we should all be looking for.

“You make some good points Monsieur Dupin,” I said, keeping the tale of the talent competition to myself, “but where does that leave us? Two possible Toaster coordinators, P– and later J–, and perhaps a small circle of helpers. Why, might I ask, have you spent so much time making your investigations? Your case remains circumstantial. Other than identifying a few sources and casting doubt upon many past Toaster accounts, you have proven nothing. The former Toaster tradition was nice while it lasted. If it’s over, why not leave it alone?”

J--, not shown in this picture, might easily be called a Doctor of Deceit.

J–, not shown in this picture, might easily be called a Doctor of Deceit.

Dupin only shifted his shoulders beneath his suit and lifted his cane from where it had been leaning on the chair, resettling it in the same place.

“What’s more, Monsieur Dupin,” I said with growing resentment, “I feel sorry for you. Why is it that you cannot take pleasure in the act of someone who wants to do a nice thing and do it anonymously? Would you expose an unknown benefactor who gives money to a hospital that treats cancer patients because such an act makes him feel good? You don’t seem to understand the pleasures that an anonymous citizen Toaster, not P– not J–, must have felt doing something kind for a dead poet. Does everything have to be about raising attention, raising money? Would you have me think that no one acts out of pure appreciation, but only for promotional purposes?”

“Monsieur C–,” Dupin said, “I am not about to send J– to the Baltimore gaol!”

“No Monsieur, but I understand your amateur status among detectives, and as the poet says, ‘To vilify a great man is the readiest way in which a little man can himself attain greatness.’ Therefore, Monsieur Dupin, I suggest that you direct your fustian ratiocinations to other subjects. Why not, for example, put your dogged investigative skills to work catching real anonymous bad guys who do bad things? Why spend so much energy on revealing the identities of people who are trying to do good ones?”

“My dear C–,” countered Dupin. “I have no bones to pick with you. Perhaps I have overreacted, but I seek only the truth, and I’ve had a good deal of time on my hands since arriving in your city. My preoccupations would not have been necessary had I been better informed by news accounts of this year’s Poe birthday celebrations. You see, when checking my internet back home in Paris, I was led to believe that a city-wide ‘Edgar Allan Poe Appreciation Day’ would be held on the poet’s birthday, January 19th. Instead, I arrived in your country and your city to find that the celebration had occurred on the 16th. Imagine my frustration and disappointment when I showed up at Westminster Hall on the evening of the 19th but no one else was there. Imagine my braving those cold temperatures, waiting and waiting for some sign of even a fake Toaster but finding none.”

“Monsieur Dupin!” I said. “I am sorry for your confusion. But I don’t see why you have to be so adamant in your investigations and why you keep insisting that the Toaster tradition has always been more about advertising, promotion, and fundraising than about an anonymous stranger paying earnest tribute to a dead poet. You are nothing but un homme cynique and your interests sont erronées. You are…so…so typically French, and everyone, or almost everyone, should understand that even the most flamboyant promoter can still maintain a quiet affection for the thing he promotes!”

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