Tagged: notre dame

Great minds think alike, Pt. 2

If you recall, a few weeks ago I lamented Notre Dame Magazine arriving in my mailbox with this coloring book cover:

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The basis of my lament was that Johns Hopkins Magazine, which I edit, was in the midst of a theme issue on fun—stop that chortling right now—and our art director, Pam Li, had been mocking up a similar concept:

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Okay. Now you’re brought up to date. Which brings me to this, new in my mailbox from Denison:

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Open this one up and you find six more pages of Denison scenes for your coloring pleasure. Who’s next?

Oh, just so you know, after she abandoned the coloring book idea, Pam Li cooked up something way different for the Johns Hopkins Magazine summer issue. A click on the image will make the cover lines legible.

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Make Mine Print, Please!

lists_bookstores_grumpy_listKerry Temple has been at the helm of the estimable Notre Dame Magazine for quite a while now. Two weeks ago he published a column titled “Out of the Office: The Science of Print.” I commend it to your attention.

Temple deftly weaves notes on how he reads print and pixels differently, is preferences, and neuroscience that has demonstrated the different outcomes of reading text on paper versus text on a screen.

I am more likely to skim online content — not fully engaged, cruising over text looking for highlights, bullet points, the pertinent “take-aways,” while also trying to ignore pop-ups, ads and other distractions. Some call this “information foraging,” not reading. I do a lot of foraging in a day.

So here at the magazine, when I read a manuscript sent to us for potential publication, I print it out. I make sure I read the hard copy, not the screen version. That helps me really read the words, pay closer attention, fully engage the story being told, be with it as I read it.

I do this because my job as an editor asks me to care about the depth and quality and nuance and substance of the stories we tell on our pages. I also do this because, as a writer, I know the labor put into crafting prose. The writer deserves my attention to detail; I honor the transaction with my thoughtful focus, by being fully present during the encounter.

I would not mind a bit an editor who brought that sensibility to a story of mine. Regarding some of the science:

“People understand and remember what they read on paper better than what they read on screen,” says Ferris Jabr, writing in Scientific American. “Researchers think the physicality of paper explains this discrepancy.” And according to the presentation, this applies to “digital natives” as well.

But the next step — that reading actively shapes brain development — deserves equal attention. Citing Proust and the Squid: The Story & Science of the Reading Brain by Maryanne Wolf, a neuroscientist and child development expert, the booklet explains: “The ability to derive meaning from abstract letterforms is not built into our neural circuitry; every generation has to learn it anew, and when we do it rearranges the way our brains are built. Reading and writing only happen when the brain grows the interconnected neural pathways for sharing information. And here it gets really interesting: the media we use to carry our messages have a lot to do with how those neural pathways get developed.”

The medium does not just carry the message; it helps shape the brain.

Temple wraps all of this up with a sentence that gladdens me:

Any enterprise hoping to last depends upon constant adaptation to shifting landscapes. But the qualities of reading still supersede the fast-food snacks gleaned from foraging.

Indeed.

Visitors

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The summer issue of Notre Dame Magazine contains a superb essay by Andrew J. Bacevich titled “Lessons from America’s War for the Greater Middle East.” Bacevich is a retired colonel in the U.S. Army, a Vietnam War combat veteran, a PhD in history, and now on the faculty at Boston University. In the essay, Bacevich explores 10 lessons that he believes should be derived from more than 30 years of warfare in the Middle East, three decades of fighting that he thinks should be regarded as a single long conflict. Here’s one graph that gives you the flavor:

Let me state plainly my own overall assessment of that war. We have not won it. We are not winning it. And simply pressing on is unlikely to produce more positive results next year or the year after—hence, the imperative of absorbing the lessons this ongoing war has to teach. Learning offers a first-step toward devising wiser, more effective and less costly policies.

When I heard that Bacevich was in Notre Dame’s magazine, I perked up. He taught for a time in the 1990s at Johns Hopkins’ international affairs school, and I’ve wanted to get him into my magazine for years. How did he end up in Notre Dame Magazine? He is a former visiting fellow at the school’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies.

For a lot of our magazines that would be too slender a connection. Overseers often want only subjects or writers who are on the faculty now, if they’re not alumni. More rare is the piece written by an author with no connection to the university at all. I see such essays in Portland Magazine, where Brian Doyle is the master at cajoling words out of Pico Iyer, Barry Lopez, and other fine scribblers. But otherwise, almost nothing.

Yet most, if not all, of our campuses feature guest lecturers and speakers and participants in colloquia, several per year. This seems to me like justification for publishing the occasional piece by a guest contributor who is not an alum, not on the faculty, not a former anything at your school. The speaker series brings in interesting people to speak on your campus in the belief that this broadens the discourse and provides something stimulating to students, faculty, and people in the community. Why shouldn’t the magazine follow the same reasoning and bring in guest writers to produce thought-provoking content for your alumni?

A tough sell for the conventional mind of the overseer. But worth a try.

That Notre Dame cover

ndfoodcoverJohns Hopkins Magazine is published by the Johns Hopkins University Office of Communications. That office has a design director, Greg Stanley, and he cannot stop looking at the cover of the winter edition of Notre Dame Magazine. Before he realized that the image was a photograph of a sculpture by Klaus Enrique, Stanley kept turning the cover this way and that, trying to discern if the artwork was an actual food sculpture (it is) or something executed in Photoshop (nuh-uh). What had most arrested his attention, though, was the sheer excellence of the work, the extraordinary pains the artist had taken to create something so striking.

Enrique has done a series of such sculptures, inspired by the work of 16th-century Italian painter Giuseppe ArcimboldoNotre Dame editor Kerry Temple devoted much of his editor’s note to explaining his choice of Enrique’s sculpture to grace the cover:

We thought Enrique’s portrait would make a playful, engaging, creatively cool image to introduce stories about the campus food culture—something fresh and different, like the subject itself.

Of course, we, too, see the incongruity in having a whimsical image pointing to the campus culinary scene as the face of an issue whose feature articles thoughtfully and thoroughly examine poverty, inequality, injustice and the future of the human race—even though this issue’s more serious stories are not laments but compelling prescriptions for hope. We’re all aware of the discrepancies between the haves and the hungry.

We went lighter on the cover for several reasons. One is that we thought those weightier topics—immigration, international development, global health, Catholicism and encounters with cancer—difficult to illustrate with fresh appeal. We also realized—although these subjects are of profound importance and the stories well worthy of your close reading—that the topics may not entice as cover attractions. And we always want readers eager to dive into our pages.

I like how clearly Temple lays out a common editorial dilemma. Should the cover alert readers to the best or most significant story in the issue? Or should it do whatever it can to get readers to pick up the magazine and check out what’s inside? It is easy to say it should do both, but as Temple points out, creating a cover that promises a fresh perspective on immigration or cancer or global health, that entices an audience to read yet another story on those well-worn topics, would not have been easy. The Enrique sculpture, on the other hand, is unlike anything I have seen on the front of any magazine in many a year, and does reflect what’s inside (there’s a 20-page section of stories on campus food culture).

As a writer who has become an editor, I have an instinctive urge to argue for putting the best story on the cover, even if the best story is a heavy examination of a grim topic. But if you don’t get readers to start thumbing through the issue, you have no chance of enticing them to read that heavy feature. We have all been there.

By the way, inside Notre Dame you will find a hilarious bit of memoir from Brian Doyle about his campaign to win the title Napper of the Year in his kindergarten.

On my second day of kindergarten, at a school named for a species of tree, I discovered that our teacher, Miss Appleby, presented a Best Napper Award every week, and that the child who earned the most weekly napping awards was then presented with the Best Napper of the Year Award in June, on the last day of school, in assembly, before the entire school, which went from kindergarten to sixth grade, and contained some two hundred students, none of whom, I determined immediately, would outnap me.

I report with admirable modesty that I won the first week’s Best Napper Award, defeating Michael A., who slept like a rock but flung his feet and fists as he slept (he had six brothers at home). I also won Week Two, in a landslide, but a small, moist boy named Brian F. beat me in Week Three, and the battle was joined.

Big question at Notre Dame

ndcoverThe best university magazines address big questions. But they tend to address big questions that have articulated factual answers. What is the universe like if string theory turns out to be right? Why can’t the global public health apparatus eradicate malaria? How does a new set of fossil bones force a new idea about our early hominid ancestors and change our fundamental picture of how Homo sapiens evolved? 

Notre Dame Magazine has marked out its turf as addressing big questions that do not have straightforward answers. And editor Kerry Temple and his staff do not shy from big, hard-to-address questions that could be troubling to the university. The cover story in the Summer 2013 issue is one more example, posing the hard question in its title: “Is College Worth It?” Alumnus and Assumption College faculty member James Lang comes at the question as a teacher who works to make college a worthwhile experience and a parent staring down massive tuition payments. He also comes at the question as a smart and skilled writer.

Lang opens the piece with an excellent bit of verbal draughtsmanship as he introduces a student of his who seemed not to need college to help secure a good job. Andrew Hadley’s family owns a prosperous fish-processing company, and after high school Hadley had a guaranteed job that he liked. I am a connoisseur of good leads and Lang wrote one:

Andrew Hadley is a fish fixer. As the heir-apparent to the Hadley Company, an international fish-processing and import-export business, he steps in when a New England casino calls on a Thursday and says it needs 600 pounds of whitefish for the weekend. He loads the truck himself, drives it down to the casino and gently reminds the buyers to place their orders a little earlier in the week next time.

This is how you start a long piece on a topic potentially so ponderous—you start with a deft 13-paragraph sketch of a smart kid who prompted one of his teachers, in this case the author, to ask not only “Why are you here?” but “Why is anybody here, especially at these prices?”

Which is really the urgent matter, isn’t it? The list of benefits that accrue from a college education have not changed in 50 years; all that changes is how each benefit is weighted for a given generation. What makes the question urgent now is the heart-stopping cost of four years at most any college or university, and the increasing volume of critics unwilling to be brushed aside by condescending academics who often seem put-upon because someone does not care to accept their “do we really have to explain the value of this again” responses.

It is much to Lang’s, and Notre Dame‘s credit, that “Is College Worth It?” starts its attempt at an answer with the acknowledgement that it is a damned good question. Then it makes clear the answer may not be some sort of institutional sales pitch:

The worst part of the price tag of a college education today, at least according to some authors, stems from the speculation that colleges and universities are driving up prices through outdated hiring and labor practices, financial mismanagement, and arms-race spending on amenities like sushi in the dining halls and rock-climbing walls in the athletic center.

There’s a sentence guaranteed to amp a senior administrator’s blood pressure. So let’s pause here to acknowledge and praise the bosses at Notre Dame the school for allowing Notre Dame the magazine to publish pieces that contain sentences like that. Lang thoughtfully responds to that critique, mainly by citing the explanations and arguments put forth by Robert B. Archibald and David H. Feldman in their book, Why Does College Cost So Much? You may agree with them or not, but Lang does a fine job of taking the reader through their reasoning and conclusions.

At this point in my reading of the story, though, I experienced a twinge of dismay because I felt that what had begun in such a promising fashion as a provocative piece was turning into the same old answer—”Of course it’s worth it!”—only delivered in better prose. But then Lang gives space to the eduhacking movement that has been challenging the idea that the only place to obtain a college education is at a college. He finishes well with some discussion of what makes a good college student, and what makes for a kid who perhaps does not belong in college.

Too many students, by contrast, come into college without any driving questions or interests behind them. They wander from class to class, without any sense of larger purpose, checking off boxes on their degree audits, or they see the whole experience as an expensive means to find friends, earn a degree, and get a job. …These are the kinds of students who, no matter where they choose to matriculate, are probably paying too much for college.

The same issue of the magazine includes a five-page satirical comic by Michael Molinelli about the high cost of tuition that ends with Notre Dame announcing that henceforth tuition will be free but football tickets will cost $5,000 a piece. There’s also a strong, engaging profile by associate editor Tara Hunt of an alumnus chef. Makes for a pretty good issue, don’t you think?

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(Oh, there’s also some funky business with parts of the magazine that play video on your smart phone if you point the phone at the right spot on the page and engage a certain app. The instructions involve six steps. I don’t know how well it works because I’m a grumpy old analogue guy with a dumbphone, plus if you’re a regular reader of UMagazinology you know my lack of regard for enticing readers to leave your magazine for a digital device. But one of you dear readers can give it a spin and report the results in the comments section.)