Ragged Claws

Friday, February 27, 2009

Gail Trimble illustrates the concept of "reframing"

Having, um, something of a personal interest in weirdly judgmental public reactions to women who answer trivia questions, I loved watching Gail Trimble deftly take ownership of the above interview. Trimble was the captain of her college's University Challenge team, and got hit with the firehose of public attention after leading her squad to victory in the finals. (The team was later disqualified after it turned out that one member had graduated several months previously, a development which exposed Trimble to further media nattering.)

The entire interview is great, as Trimble emphasizes the contributions of her teammates, distinguishes between recall of facts and other types of intelligence, and forthrightly says that sexism conditioned much of the public kerfuffle over her performance. The best part, though, comes around 7:08. In response to a vapid suggestion from the male interviewer that she might enjoy being "celebrated" in a "tasteful photo shoot" for a lad magazine called Nuts, Trimble politely disembowls the entire premise of the question. She notes that while positive comments on one's appearance are better than negative comments, ideally no one would feel obligated to remark on her appearance at all. It's a beautiful pivot, and it leaves the interviewer scrambling to eat his previous words and agree with her. And it can't be said too often: The decision to present oneself in public, even on tv, is not a request for feedback on one's appearance. Thank you Gail Trimble for articulating that point with so much clarity and dignity.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

It's what the people want

I'm loving how the entire goal of Volkswagen's current advertising campaign is to emphasize that Volkswagen is not an American car company. "Let's have our mascot be an old-timey Beetle that speaks with a thick German accent! Let's have Brooke Shields obsess about the lure of 'German engineering'! Let's end every commercial with the slogan 'Das Auto'! PLEASE FOR THE LOVE OF GOD DON'T LINK US TO DETROIT WE'RE NOT THEM WE'RE FOREIGN LOOK sauerbraten Wagner Oktoberfest Bismarck techno music." Meanwhile, GM's advertising message seems to be "Please baby, we know we've let you down before, but this time it'll be different, we swear...aww, come on baby, why you gotta be that way."

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Rhetorical tropes that need to go on hiatus

1) "If you type {subject of essay} into Google, you get {some monstrously large number of hits! So many that if every hit was a penny, and you stacked them all on top of each other, the stack would reach the moon! And you'd be a billionaire with a bridge to the moon! That many!}. Therefore, {subject of essay} is clearly a {potent cultural force/hot new trend/growing cause of concern}, requiring a few thousand more words of exposition!" While number of Google hits probably does provide some general measure of societal interest in a topic, any results are going to be seriously skewed by how common the individual words in the search string are, whether the search string is associated with an obsessive subculture, and whether the search string relates to a phenomenon recent enough to have left a noticeable internet footprint. Moreover, the deeper reaches of Google's results can be bizarrely tangential to the original query. Searching for "starting a small business in mobile alabama," for instance, returns 275,000 results - but result #23 is about an Al Jazeera public relations effort, #56 is information about using Red Hat Linux, #57 describes a summit on Cuba, #75 is a newspaper obituary page, #84 a list of poker tips and #95 an article on "kick-starting the mobile Internet." Citing the number of Google hits for a given term is the lifestyle essay equivalent of starting a school paper with a dictionary definition: it makes a feint at gravitas without actually achieving it.

2) And speaking of student papers, my current bugbears are the "Since the dawn of time..." or "It is human nature to..." openings. God knows I've used these plenty of times myself, but part of my current mission as a teacher is to convince students that it's okay to write about some period or event without drawing conclusions that are equally valid for all places, times and people. Really, it's fine to just make an argument about the causes of the first world war, or the social consequences of the Industrial Revolution - you don't need to shoulder the burden of proving that man has always participated in unstable networks of overlapping alliances, or that one of the eternal struggles of human existence is the conflict between cottage industry and mechanized production. As with references to numbers of Google hits, claims of timelessness are attractive because they seem to create a requisite atmosphere of "seriousness" - my hope is to convince students that real seriousness in historical writing starts with humility about what can be known and demonstrated. (Of course, in grad school you also find out that it's possible to swing too far in that direction, until you reach the point where writing a simple declarative sentence becomes an agonizing and almost impossible task...but one step at a time, one step at a time.)