Thursday, February 25, 2010

Pee Tram

Pictures are of the view from the 4/6 tram as it passes over Margit Bridge, which is undergoing a major renovation.

The 4/6 tram smelled of urine this morning. While this is not the normal state of affairs, it is not as rare as it should be.

Oddly enough, riding along with that smell was something of a learning experience for me. I like to think that speaks to my career choice - I tend to see everything as a teachable moment. Once upon a time, I thought that was how most people saw the world.

Anyway, the pee smell wasn't overpowering, but there was no doubting its presence. I scanned the tram for drunks and layabouts. That's where you normally find the most urine. I was standing near a guy who might have been homeless, but he seemed well-kept enough. I didn't lean in for a good sniff or anything, but I was pretty sure he wasn't the offender, regardless of his housing situation.

When the tram stopped at Nyugati and the crowd thinned a bit, I moved to another spot.

I could still smell the urine. That was curious.

For a moment, I wondered whether or not I was the one who smelled like pee. Could I have had an accident, forgotten about it, and then decided to wear the soiled garment? That seemed unlikely. Perhaps one of the dogs had peed on me during the morning walk. Stranger things have happened. But I'm in jeans, so the wetness would still be visible.

It was at this point that said to myself, "Maybe I should ask one of my friends at work whether or not I smell of pee."

Then I got mad at Perry LaRoque.

You see, on a spring day back in 1999 Perry decided it would be funny if he could convince me that I was a smelly person. I was rather impressionable that day, and after a while Perry had me believing that everyone I knew thought of me as "Smelly Hogan." In fact, according to Perry, that was the name people called me when I wasn't around. The real killer in Perry's little act was this: He seemed surprised by my reaction. I was not happy, of course, and he said, "Wow, Hogan, we all thought you knew. We thought you just didn't care."

For a bit of time there, I thought I was the smelly friend. I thought the people who I had surrounded myself with were tolerant enough to ignore my odor, and now I had to change. I had to show them that I did care. I had to rid myself of the stink. The problem was I didn't know how. Even when I was an undergrad, I showered, I brushed, I laundered, and so on. Was I going to have to invest in some kind of heavy-duty soap product?

Fortunately, it didn't go that far.

Perry let me off the hook after only a few minutes. That wasn't easy. At first, I though maybe he was just being nice. "Oh, Hogan, don't worry about it. You don't really smell... (that bad)." But he eventually convinced me that it was all a joke.

Still, the fact that I fell so hard for the prank exposed a kind of insecurity in me. I first noticed its existence that day in '99, and the feeling resurfaces every once in a while. It did today for a moment on the tram. I don't think I'm alone in having this insecurity: In my weaker moments I can convince myself that I have failed to notice a weakness or fault in myself that is painfully obvious to the rest of the world.

I should probably have more confidence in myself. I should know that the odor of urine says more about the city of Budapest than it does about me. But I don't like to simply dismiss these moments. You have bad feelings for a reason. So I thought about it for a while, and this is what I came up with: Even if I'm not the one who stinks, I am riding to work in a uric cloud. I should probably do something to change that circumstance.

That got me thinking of the old advice "surround yourself with excellence." If you want to know something about a person, you look at the environment they choose to live in and the people they associate with.

Spring weather is arriving. Maybe I should starting riding my bike to work again... and I should clean my office.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Communication Was on the Radio This Weekend

I’m a bit of a science geek. The hobby rarely results in anything directly related to my area of interest, but this weekend the Science Friday podcast dedicated 45 minutes to a panel discussion on the task of communicating science. The show was a goldmine of practical examples of the concepts I try to teach in first-year composition (FYC). Some examples: what constitutes noise in the rhetorical situation; audience-centered approach versus message-centered approach; the importance of balancing concepts, context, and issues; the barriers to entry for many academic/professional communities; source evaluation; breaking down a complex message into its component parts; and my favorite, most academic and professional communities are meritocracies not democracies.

I hope some of my students will take the time to listen to the panel discussion. It is an interesting discussion on communication, science, and the intersection of the scientific community and the public sphere.

The show was of particular interest to me because of the paper I am working on.

The impetus for one of my paper’s main points is this: FYC occupies a particularly awkward moment in the development of many student writers - before they have dug into the college-level discourse of any specific discipline.

This awkward moment presents an obstacle that we must contend with in FYC. Our goal is to give students the skills they will need to contribute effectively to the communities they eventually join, but we must accomplish this before we know exactly what those communities are going to be.

Let me name just a few of the career paths my undergraduate students have expressed an interest in: manufacturing, consulting, finance, fashion, marketing, automobiles, NGOs, government work, entrepreneurship, and the list goes on. As the students advance into upper-division courses related to their individual interests, they will be expected to learn how increasingly-specialized academics communicate about those industries. Then most of the students will step out into the industries and engage in communication processes unique to each community. On top of that, within those industries there are so many different roles. During a recent seminar on communication, members of the MBA class were quick to point out that even within the same company, different departments use vastly different methods of communication.

So the skill set our students obtain in FYC needs to be a combination of

A) the basic tools of written communication and

B) the analytical skills required to evaluate and meet the needs of a discourse community.

Science Friday’s discussion puts a lot of that into a practical context by flipping the challenge on its head. The discussion participants talk about how the science community is struggling to adjust to the expectations of an outside audience. My hope is that students with a strong understanding of the how discourse communities function can go out into the real world and address the issues that beset both outsiders and insiders of any community.

As a final note, I believe it is easy to show the parallel between the scientific community’s issues and the business community. I’ll offer the most obvious example before signing off:

Climate Change: The scientific community has had tremendous difficulty relating complex ideas that involve uncertainty, probability, and complex computations to a public that is hungry for easy-to-digest practical applications. This has resulted in tremendous confusion about how to use information to make policy decisions.

Derivatives: The finance community has had tremendous difficulty relating complex ideas that involve uncertainty, probability, and complex computations to a public that is hungry for easy-to-digest practical applications. This has resulted in tremendous confusion about how to use information to make policy decisions.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Sorry about the new security

Hey all (three of my readers),
I didn't ever want to add word verification for comments. I didn't want to cut anonymous comments. But the blog spammers have found me, and their bot comments are popping up all over.

It's annoying, I know, but it could be worse.

Monday, February 08, 2010

Great Material From Acephalous

My friend and coworker Eric sent this my way. As the post states, it is aimed a very specific audience, but speaks very directly to my work. Enjoy.