Public Education as a Last Bastion of Class Equality

I will never forget the furore in the English faculty when the Executive Team at UNSW decided that the only way to make room for renovations in the campus Library was to throw away books that had not been borrowed in the past two years.  The alleged directive was to discard books that were mostly arts and humanities-based texts…

Seeing these books discarded in the dumpster, was a tragic metaphor of how our culture tends to equate higher values on knowledge that drives monetary outcomes, rather than humanities-based outcomes. It is a vulgar view of knowledge, and it is a narrow interpretation of what it means to be an educated person.

This narrowness is on display again, with the release of the 2016 Federal Budget – whereby teachers’ salaries are tied to student outcomes. Glenn Savage, Senior lecturer in education policy at the University of Melbourne says, “The Coalition has said it will ensure spending is ‘tied to evidence-based initiatives’ that improve student performance, suggesting conditions will be placed on the funding, such as introducing standardised literacy and numeracy testing for students in year 1, and linking the salaries of teachers to the national teaching standards”.

What this really means is that teachers will focus primarily on content to help students pass literacy and numeracy tests and any other knowledge that falls outside of this scope will fall by the wayside.

There is no Governmental incentive for educational institutions to uphold egalitarian ideals on education – and the dominant discourse around public education (which is often derisive) is a witness to this. When citizens acquiesce and adopt this kind of ‘corporatised’ world view of education (and this acquiescence is no more obvious when the middle-classes aspire to send their children to private schooling) – what they are really doing is supporting a system that is designed to keep their offspring in the same social strata.

If we look to our Western European heritage, history teaches us that 150 years ago, public education was non-existent. Government did not fund or support public education – it was at the auspices of a few generous-hearted philanthropists and well-intended religious institutions that opened schools for poor children.

When we fight for public education today, what we are really fighting for is to stop regression to a period in time where only the rich and privileged classes receive quality education.  If we believe in equal opportunities for our children, then adequate funding of public education should be a moral imperative – not an election impetus.

Till next time,

WordSmith Jo

Irony the Master of all Tropes

Whether we experience irony as suggestive, or blatantly, there is something delicious about observing, or exposing irony. We tend to feel particularly clever when we identify it, or understand it, and of course, if we are fully-functional rational beings, we are generally horrified when irony is used to expose personal hypocrisy.

Irony is a powerful tool in narratives because so much of it can be used implicitly – which is a far more effective way to position an audience without having to tell them what to think explicitly – after all, grown-ups avoid didactic narratives – we don’t like be told what to think directly. Irony, executed well, is really about persuading the audience to believe that they have arrived at a conclusion on their terms.

There are different types of irony, and for the writer, knowing these differences will be a great addition to your story-telling toolbox –

Irony – In the modern sense, it is used to dissemble a position, to expose what is actually, the case. It can be used to achieve rhetorical or narrative effects.

Verbal Irony – The ironic statement is the explicit expression of a position, but it relies upon a shared knowledge of the audience, to understand that the speaker intends a very different, or opposite position to what was stated.

Structural irony – Rather than employing verbal irony, the writer introduces a structural feature, which sustains a duplex meaning throughout the work.

Stable Irony – The writer makes available to the reader an assertion or position, either implied or explicit, as a way to qualify or subvert the surface meaning. Unstable Irony, has no fixed position – think of absurdist narratives such as the Monty Python sketches – which constantly juxtapose and use intertextual references to subvert and or expose ironies – but the narrative has no political or otherwise fixed meaning, rather its absurd for the sake being absurd.

Sarcasm – often described as the poor cousin of irony, its usually restricted to verbal parlance – with the intention to undermine or taunt – here, verbal expression, emphasis on how the words are delivered, is the hallmark of sarcasm.

Socratic irony – a clever tool, most famously used in modern times by the lovable, and ash-ridden detective, Colombo (I miss that guy) whereby the character assumes a position of ignorance, and eagerness to be instructed, seeking opinions and asking many questions to arrive at a truth – or to disprove a position. In cultural criticism its sometimes referred to as imminent critique – exposing a position by exploring inherent contradictions within the statement itself – such ironies, once exposed, tend to weaken the authority of a said position.

Dramatic irony – this is where the writer has shared information with the audience – yet the central character is ignorant of the information. Shakespeare was a master at using this technique.

Tragic irony – is where the intended assailant, or schemer, is encompassed by the very same ill-fate they had planned for another. Sometimes, this may also be referred to as poetic justice – or in Aussie vernacular, ‘serves yer right’.

Cosmic irony – is a narrative device where the writer engages an omnipotent-type figure, is used to manipulate a character to lead them on with hope, only to mock them and frustrate their cause.

Romantic irony – is where the author creates the illusion of representing reality, only to dismantle that illusion by revealing that the author is the creator or manipulator of the characters. This was achieved brilliantly in the 2014 Lego Movie with Jack Black.

There we go folks, irony in a nutshell. Use it with the gravitas it deserves. It’s powerful stuff.

Till next time,

WordSmith Jo

 

The Leading Hook: Engaging Reader Interest

Most writers will agree that summarising the theme of your story, whether you’re writing a feature article, or an executive summary in a proposal, is central to orientating the reader, and creating great expectations on what’s to follow…

You’ve jotted down your main points. Check.

You’ve ordered your points into a coherent, and logical structure. Check.

You’ve reviewed your main points to see if any are ‘off message’ or irrelevant to your story. Check.

I have always said, that getting the structure of your story in place first, is the most time consuming and often frustrating part. Once this is well-ordered, the writing should flow.

Now, how to get started? Once your structure is in place, it’s always important to introduce your theme to the reader to set the expectation. Most people are time poor, or easily lose interest, so getting the summary right, will determine whether your audience will stay the course.

The easiest way to write a great summary is to write it as you would speak it first. Listen to the words in your head, write it down and then say it out loud, as if you were speaking to your audience.  Writing your summary in a conversational-style will help illustrate your story – which allows the audience to think in pictures.

Prose that sounds human, especially in the English language, gives sentences a natural rhythm. The sense that there is a distinctive human voice behind the words, creates intimacy – which is the key to engaging your reader’s interest. Avoid abstract nouns and passive voice. Always write in an active voice, to keep the story moving past the summary to the juicy bits of your story. A way to do this is to use active verbs with objects.

Once you’ve written your summary, go back over it to check for any words that may jar the reader’s ear. Remove any awkward words. The best way to make your summary sound like honey, is to use narrative devices such as consonance and assonance – subtle rhyming sounds, keep the reader in the dream – which is what the writer wants – particularly if the intention of your story is to persuade your audience.

Till next time,

WordSmith Jo

The Corporate Circus: Walking the Tightrope between Private and Public Consequence

Given the recent ethical and moral quagmire the VW Scandal and 7-Eleven companies have been embroiled in, an old colleague wrote an excellent article on encouraging collaborative leadership internally, as well as partnering with external NGO or Public Sector organisations’ dealing with congruent issues – to seek new perspectives on ethically problematic situations.

My colleague’s article reminded me of a situation, a couple of years ago, when I developed and delivered Probity and Ethics training over a few months for a major utility company – as part of good governance for its community relations program. What struck me during this process, was how little – across a very diagonal chain of command – colleagues knew how to methodically work through a process of moral reasoning – to arrive at a morally, and ethically, acceptable outcome both personally, and on an organisational level.

Regardless of who we are, or what our position, everyone, at some point in their career, will be confronted with a Moral Quandary.

In essence, a Moral Quandary is when we are faced with two or more competing right things to choose from.

What arises from a quandary, are Moral Dilemmas.

At this point, it can be very easy to knee-jerk into a foetal position and understandably, react the way most people do – which is to protect and defend oneself, and one’s position – especially when a situation threatens a person’s livelihood or standing – regardless of the public consequence.

Taking time to methodically work through different Moral Dilemmas – as a process of elimination to arrive at a decision to take action or take no action (deciding to do nothing is also an action!) means that when an organisation or an individual is called to account – they should be able to adequately demonstrate, and most importantly, be accountable, for the decision which they arrived at.

Broadly, Moral Dilemmas may include –

  • Truth vs loyalty
  • Individual vs community
  • Short-term vs long-term
  • Justice vs mercy

By considering all the facts at hand, and holding our moral quandary under every potential, competing dilemma, we can work through a dialectic process to arrive at a decision that we can personally live with.  In doing so, we are forced to ask ourselves hard questions such as:

  • Am I compromising too easily or too soon to avoid trouble?
  • Is my integrity threatened? Where do I draw the line?
  • Am I being hypocritical?
  • Have I reached a balance between my personal convictions and the facts at hand?

Unfortunately, most corporates think posting a Code of Conduct on the Noticeboard, and handing it out at inductions should absolve them of future gross misconduct by employees.

The reality however, is that a Code of Conduct is really just a set of agreed rules for a group of individuals to defer to when all else fails. It is a necessarily minimal requirement, which is prescriptive and without compromise. It we are truthful, we must acknowledge that this is not really a true reflection of how we live and interact with the world.

Indeed, in the case of 7-Eleven and VW, their leaders, who are meant to endorse and disseminate their company’s Code of Conduct, miserably failed in its application.

Corporations that genuinely desire innovation and personal accountability must invest in proper ethical training, whereby individuals are encouraged to exercise professional judgement and to never just defer to minimal requirements.  Paradoxically, by taking applied ethics seriously, an organisation is protected from a culture of compliance, whereby colleagues (across all levels) just follow instructions, regardless of common sense or personal discretion – which inevitably always leads to disastrous outcomes, and the VW and 7-Eleven scandals are sober examples of this.

Till next time,

WordSmith Jo

 

 

 

Twitter: A Cautionary Tale for Ambitious Executives

With the dismissal of SBS Sports Presenter and Journalist Scott McIntyre in April 2015 over a series of controversial tweets regarding ANZAC Day veterans and its traditions, we are reminded, in a very sobering way, of the perils of social media and, how contextualising opinion, whether welcomed or repugnant, is crucial to being understood.

When it comes to Twitter, I have often told clients and colleagues that just because we can, doesn’t mean we should.

The benefits of Twitter are self-explanatory.  The pitfalls are many. For executives who are interested in an upward career projectory, my advice is to give Twitter a wide berth for the following reasons –

Firstly, never underestimate the power of ‘intrigue’.  Sharing constant minutiae, no matter how funny you think your observations are, shows a lack of personal restraint, which suggests that you may not be leadership material.  No one wants to sit at a dinner party next to someone who won’t stop talking pedestrian – why would this be different in a virtual space?

Secondly, twittering may give the impression that you’re not very busy. Shouldn’t you be engaged in more pressing matters instead of lower order commentary?

Most importantly, and the McIntyre case is a solid example, that no man living, can give context to his comments in 140 characters.  Also, no situation, or human being, should ever be confined, or defined, by a selection of soundbites, particularly on subjects that you’re not a direct witness to. Doing so, may show a profound lack of respect for persons, and truth.

What punctuates the McIntyre fall so tragically is that he was no novice – he was an established and educated, media professional.  This leads me to my final point, which is demonstrating good judgement. Every successful, and well-respected executive that I have ever worked with, all share a common thread – they possessed good judgement.

Twitter is not a platform to exercise good judgement. Period.

Remember, there is no such thing as a throw away line when communicating in real time, in the public sphere.

WordSmith Jo

A Lively Solution to a Tired Debate: Literary vs Cultural Criticism

Most humanities’ graduates who paid attention during lectures, will roll their eyes over the constant public debate between literary and cultural criticism when discussing and accessing the merits of literature. To define great literature, while seeking fair and equal representation across cultural expressions in literature in an increasingly pluralistic world is not a simple open and shut book case…

I was recently reminded by this debate when listening to a very articulate and thought-provoking presentation by academic and Director of SWEATSHOP, Michael Mohammed Ahmad, on the politics of race and class in Western Sydney – particularly around exploring perceptions of identity and inclusion in literature produced by Australians from ‘non-white’ backgrounds.

For those who don’t know, SWEATSHOP describes itself as ‘a literacy movement devoted to empowering marginalised communities in Western Sydney and broader Australia through creative and critical writing initiatives’.

At the moment, there is a lot of public discussion around increasing Australian content on our bookshelves, and, of course, this gives rise to the problematics of who then gets to define what ‘Australian content’ looks like.

It would take a thesis to explore this question, and for the purpose of today’s ditty – I’m just not going there. What I am interested in though, is how often times, in our pursuit for inclusion – which is important – the merits of the actual work being debated, is overlooked.

Tension between public perception, authorial intention and cultural criticism often casts too long a shadow over genuine literary criticism. Surely, when assessing a work for publication, the most important consideration must be in the actual assessment of the writer’s technical and artistic achievement within the work itself.

When Key Decision Makers in publishing circles, appropriate a kind of ‘affirmative action’ to meet arbitrary cultural, racial or gender quotas when deciding on what content to publish, it seems to me that the whole pursuit of literary excellence is in a way, ironically, pushed aside.

Dividing and choosing works based on periphery criteria, rather than making the selection criteria first and foremost about actual literary merit, may potentially mean that very good works are put aside because of current political and/or dominant cultural agendas.

One way to strike a balance between this tension is to ensure that there is equal cultural, racial and gender representation on actual selection panel committees – so all great literary works, from every group, have a chance to be heard – and mostly importantly – weighted by merit alone.

Books that become a part of our cultural Canon do so because they transcend cultural and political climates.  The reader doesn’t need to understand the period or historical context, authorial intention or ethnicity to appreciate the work. Certainly, we may be fascinated by all these things, but ultimately the hallmark of great literature will always affect and move us in ways that translates across time and space – no matter who we are.

Till next time, crack a queer whid!

WordSmithJo

State of the Artless: Politics and Self Promotion among Literati Australia

As a general rule, I avoid writing about politics. After attending the Australian Society of Authors (ASA) 2015 National Writers’ Congress in Sydney over the weekend, I felt compelled to dip my ink into the ongoing political debate about the value of writers and their ongoing contribution to the Australian cultural and economic currency and climate.

At the Congress, ASA’s Chairman David Day expressed his “serious reservations” about $6million federal funding being reallocated from the Australia Council for the Arts to the recently formed Book Council of Australia headed by Chief Executive of Melbourne University Publishing Louise Adler.  Attorney-General and Arts Minister Senator Brandis acknowledged ASA’s discontent by attending the Writers’ Congress to reassure writers in a 15 minutes speech that he loves books, the Abbott Government loves books, and past Liberal Leaders’ love books.  Senator Brandis offered no detailed information about the Book Council, or how the Abbott Government will demonstrate their ‘love of books’ in terms of monetary incentive or support, but his speech reaffirmed that he is, simply, a very good politician.

Not to be outdone, Labor’s Shadow Attorney General and Minister for the Arts Mark Dreyfus predictably asserted Labor’s opposition to the Government’s decision to cut a total of $100 million from the Australia Council for the Arts and also expressed his love of books, his Leader’s love of books, and past Labor Leaders’ love of books… but again, offered no real policy position except a reversal of someone else’s policy position.

The Greens Federal Member for Melbourne Adam Bandt, offered a somewhat tepid push for changes to the criteria of claiming unemployment benefits for writers who are engaged in writing projects, but are not receiving current remuneration for their efforts (i.e. reducing compulsory job interviews for writers who claim unemployment benefits).  On the surface, this seems like a practical solution for many Australian writers whom ASA allegedly claims to make less than $11,000 a year from their writing endeavours, however, the message that this sends to the broader community about the value of writers’ contributions is grim – even if you’re a full-time freelance writer, you are still perceived to be unemployed – i.e. you don’t have a ‘real job’.

What is interesting about Political Leaders’ active engagement with writers at a less than 200 delegate Congress is that by their very presence, they acknowledge the importance of writers’ contributions to Australian politics, industry and intellectual capital in our country.  Indeed, the Book industry alone generates nearly two billion dollars per annum and we are told that due to new market opportunities in online environments, the future for writers’ earning opportunities is looking bright in Australia.

Understandably, income generation through writing dominated discussion, and, ASA’s choice of panelists at the Congress, reflected this very real and perpetual preoccupation of writers.  However, there was a very heavy bias of market opportunities only being available through print and online journalism, which is just untrue.  When I raised the point that ASA had excluded significant market opportunities for writers in the corporate sector, I was told that I belong to the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance, not ASA. I found this response by the Executive Director of ASA Angelo Loukakis as extraordinary, given the majority of panelists identified as online and print journalists, next to authors and illustrators.  Indeed, the MC for the Congress was respected and veteran journalist Anne Maria Nicholson.

I want to make it clear that this article is not intended to detract from the wonderful contributions and support ASA provides to the writing community, but rather, it is a caution for organisations to not forget what is at the heart of their cause – and in this case, it’s about writers – many of whom work across multiple sectors – not just print and online journalism.

To this end, this article is written by a writer for all writers, because sometimes the people we look to to champion our causes can sometimes get lost in their own rhetoric or vested interests to survive as an entity in itself.

Organisations like ASA rely on Government funding and they are needed and valuable – genuine, lasting cultural capital and change is often created and effected by the very people who don’t have access to funding, outside of Government grants.  What I am saying is that it’s really important for writers to be aware that there other avenues for writers to carve out a livelihood as a writer, instead of scrapping by on $11,000 in online and print journalism environments and agencies like ASA need to let writers know that there other, very lucrative options in the corporate sector.  There is plenty of work for writers in business development roles (writing bids and tenders), marketing communications (corporate magazines, press releases, white papers, speeches, feature articles) and corporate communications (content development for internal campaigns, collateral, magazines etc). Sometimes the role is not advertised as a writer, usually it falls under titles such as Communications Specialist, Tender Writer, and Internal Communications etc. Primarily, all of these roles are content development roles where you are being paid to write and edit – everyday.

To give you a general comparison, a tertiary qualified Feature Editor with ten years’ experience at a major print title will be paid approximately $80-$90,000 per year. These roles are highly competitive and few and far between in Australia.  A tertiary qualified Bid Writer, with ten years’ experience can earn up to $150,000 per year, and there is so much more stable employment opportunities in the corporate sector for writers than in print and online journalism.

Author and Journalist David Marr suggested at the Congress that if you can’t get funding to write your great novel then consider stacking shelves to support your creative writing projects. This is extreme advice and highly unhelpful for emerging writers.  Writers write for the love of writing. Every writer will tell you that it is a compulsion to write. It doesn’t matter what we write, we want opportunities that enable us to write. Like any craft, writing is no exception and the more you do it, the better you become in your craft.  You will never become a great writer by stacking shelves. Greatness comes from practise – and lots of it – in every discipline.

It seems that if ASA has deliberately excluded market opportunities for writers in the corporate sector because of its own politics around securing grants and government funding (i.e. statistics on writers’ incomes) then it is a sad day indeed for writers in Australia.

There are two other important considerations for writers to help elevate our standing and cause to be valued as professionals offering professional services. One, the standard practise of journalists charging out writing services at ten cents a word is antiquated and impacts future potential for greater earning. If we are valuing each word by decimal, instead of hourly, half-day or full day blocks, we will never be valued as professionals.  Fellow writers, if you are tertiary qualified and have five or more years proven experience, you can charge between $80 – $120 per hour for copywriting services, and corporates who require bid writers for major strategic tenders will not blink to pay between $600 – $1,000 per day for writers who sit at the sharp end of our profession.

Secondly, on the subject of professional standards, I was personally dismayed by ASA’s decision to host a particular panelist as an ‘aspirational’ example for writers wanting to crack the online environment at the Writers’ Congress. Without naming names, it doesn’t help the cause of writers to be valued as professionals, and therefore being remunerated as professionals when organisations like ASA elevate people in our industry who make a career out of slandering public figures and then complain about being slandered themselves. That is not an aspirational career pathway for writers.  When major publications employ ‘columnists’ whom have no formal qualifications as a writer and do not practice basic professional standards, but offer ‘shock value’ instead, it sends the wrong message to the marketplace and, ultimately undermines the cause of all writers – which is to be valued and respected as true professionals, with something meaningful to say.

Till next time, crack a queer whid!

WordSmith Jo

Love in Narratives and the Pervasiveness of Longing

If ever there was a superstar of linguistics and literary and cultural criticism in the 1960s, surely Roland Barthes would share a stand on that podium. I was introduced to Barthes work during my undergraduate studies, and, like all people who make an impression on us, I was quick to devour his books and loved his contribution to semiotics and sociology, particularly Image Music Text, being a favourite of mine.

This weekend past, during pre-wedding celebrations with my soon-to-be sister in law, there were lots of discussions about ‘what love is’ and I was reminded of one of my favourite books by Barthes – A Lover’s Discourse.

A Lover’s Discourse is Barthes exquisite observation and speculation on all the heady and wretched states of falling, and being, in love. Last night, I came home and ferreted it out from my bookshelf and had a lovely time reacquainting myself with Barthes genius.

What struck me, after diving into Barthes passionate and melancholic prose, was a beautiful, underlying thread in all our states of love and loving- that love is, in essence, an intractable, irrepressible and pervasive longing.

It seems to me, that all our narratives of love are underpinned by this enormous reservoir of longing – and for a writer, surely the joy in creating narratives about love, is in drip feeding the audience with pleasure as being forever deferred – in other words, a sense of longing that perpetually lurks in the periphery of our imagination.

Till next time, crack a whid!

Wordsmith Jo

The Novel – a Middle Class Spectacle

When you’re rich, you’re busy living the life people dream about, and when you’re poor, you’re busting your guts to put a meal on the table. It could be argued then, that the success of the novel as one of the most prolific of English literary forms is that it is a site of middle class experiences and sensibilities, aspirations and of course, consumption.

The novel, if nothing else, is a mirror of class consciousness with imagined (and real) narratives that often reflect its audience’ perception of self. And why not – who doesn’t like to read and write stories about themselves to a sympathetic crowd?

While the term bourgeois is pejorative in origin, no one can argue the cultural significance and contribution of the middle classes to what the literati would consider ‘high art’.

Most novels in the western canon reflect characters’ struggles in their rise and fall of moral, social and financial status – of which the middle class experience is mostly about. So in this sense, while the middle class is often derided in popular discourse as being a rich wannabe that lacks social grace or compunction, take a minute to consider that entire industries, socio / political economies and indeed our own cultural identities are being supported, informed and shaped not by ephemeral heroes – but by the very real aspirations of people who live in three bedroom houses with a backyard and a gas burner barbie. Awesome!

Till next time, crack a queer whid!

WordSmith Jo

Psst! What we would consider a complex and well-structured novel today, is a result from the combination of Defoe’s sensitive understanding of social and material reality with Samuel Richardson’s (1689-1761) awareness of human complexities in personalities that struggle against private and public social forces. Love your work gentlemen!