Anti-Ageing Breakthrough’s [sic]

Today’s headline, Anti-Ageing Breakthrough’s,  comes from a subject line on an email I received this week from a major online cosmetics company. It annoyed me so much, I had to write a blog post about it.

Given their subject line, I wasn’t surprised when I read in the body of the email that their products could help “restore your skin to it’s [sic] most youthful state”.

As I’ve often repeated, a relative 20 years my junior retorted when asked why well educated professional people made so many basic grammatical errors these days, “What’s the problem? We know what we mean”.

It’s true. I do know what that cosmetic company’s subject line means. But I’d love to know the rationale behind putting an apostrophe in such a straightforward plural. On this topic, I once queried a student of mine, who did excellent work but who always used apostrophes with simple plural’s (like that). When I asked him why, he said he didn’t know and that he’d never thought about it. Another teenager told me they were taught at school to put apostrophes “with s words”.

Could this be true? It can be the only answer.

I can understand some confusion about its and it’s: the possessive version is an exception to the usual in NOT taking an apostrophe, though it’s easily explained  (use it’s only when you mean “it is” or “it has”). I can understand the coffee-shop blackboard error, cappuccino’s $4, it being a ‘foreign’ word and all (the plural is cappuccini if you want to be strictly correct, but it has become anglicised in Australia to cappuccinos). I can even understand another one I saw recently, holiday’s (the writer knows that words ending in –y often become –ies in plural, but holidaies is clearly impossible, so the writer has become confused).

There’s the old joke about the grocer’s apostrophe, depicted so well in the illustration on this page (thanks to Juliet Fay for allowing me to use her cartoon, and you can read her excellent blog post on such apostrophes here).

But breakthrough’s?

While we all make errors in our writing and informal correspondence, through haste, a casual approach, or the fact that our work isn’t edited by anyone else, I’d expect professional companies to be just that. To me, it looks unprofessional when I see grammatical errors in publicly released advertising or editorial material, and I wonder in what other ways the company is unprofessional. Get a good sub-editor, or just someone who knows basic grammar, to check the work of your copywriter, companies!

Or am I asking too much? Does it even matter?

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The art of science or, the science of art

 

Rainforest Walk at Monash University, Clayton campus, Melbourne. The artful rainforest gardens demonstrate a mix of art and science.

Rainforest Walk at Monash University, Clayton campus, Melbourne. The artful rainforest gardens demonstrate a mix of art and science.

I was walking through the science faculty’s section of my university campus the other day, impressed with a state-of-the-art new building and renovated classrooms with their “collaborative learning hubs”— round tables for tutorials with connections for charging electronic devices, and even laptops provided.

It’s so far away from the arts building, in both distance and facilities, it’s like a separate world.

It seems whenever I hear talk of a “clever country” in Australia or calls for more money for research, they’re talking only about the sciences.

I wonder how we got to this point in which our society so deeply divides arts from sciences, and “arts people” from “science people”, even at school. After all, sciences developed from arts, from those with the imagination and bravery and tenacity to investigate the world and how it works.

It seems to me that investigating the world and how it works is also the work of artists. In great artists, I see scientific qualities, and in great scientists, highly developed artistic qualities, too.

Leonardo Da Vinci, artist AND scientist, had it right. In art he found science, and in science, he found art. He appreciated the qualities in both and understood that the line between them was a blurry one, if it existed at all.

piano-tunerIn reality, beyond stereotyped media and ideology-fuelled governments, there are many artist-scientists. I was reminded of this recently when reading the novel The Piano Tuner, by Daniel Mason (Picador 2002). The novel, inspired by a true story, takes place in the 1880s and is set in the remote highlands of the Shan States of Myanmar (then Burma). A British piano tuner is employed by the War Office to travel there from dreary London to tune the piano of an eccentric British officer. Apart from being a wonderful adventure story, the novel is interesting in that its author, Mason, was a medical student at the time of publication. He had completed a bachelor’s degree in biology at Harvard, and had written much of the novel while working for a year along the Thai-Myanmar border on malaria research . I googled Mason and found that he went on to specialise in psychiatry, but is still writing fiction. He’s combining both careers effectively, as this recent event shows.

Other artist-scientists who come to mind are the Australian writer Colleen McCullough, who studied neurophysiology and worked in research and teaching at Yale University in the US; and the great British crime writer Agatha Christie, who was a qualified apothecary assistant.

And in our cultural life, various practices are a mixture of art and science. Think of gardening and cooking, for example.

When did we start making such strong divisions between science and arts, or even thinking that one field was “cleverer” than the other? In my last year of school, I studied English, German, history, geography and…chemistry. It took me a lot of insistence at school to be allowed to do chemistry, because it didn’t “fit” the rest of my course, but I wanted to have a science in there. When I was doing my bachelor of arts degree in the 1980s, you could still do a BA majoring in mathematics or psychology, interestingly. On the other hand, the engineering faculty was overwhelmingly male, as was the field of higher degrees in any of the sciences.  There’s a photograph of my mother in her PhD graduation day march with the other graduates in medical fields: she is the only female in the photo, yet it was the late 1980s.

In the 1980s, too, some vocational degrees started trying to introduce and acknowledge the validity of arts. For example, engineering students had at least one arts unit as part of their BE, albeit one specially adapted for them. Sadly, these arts units were the subject of scoffing and ridicule among engineering students of the time who had, they thought, more important things to do. I was told bluntly by one engineering student that “anyone” could do an arts degree, whereas an engineering degree was much more difficult.

This attitude remains, particularly in the press and in government circles. I think it’s time to revive the arts, to correct assumptions that arts subjects are easier than sciences, or are for people who aren’t good enough to get into science courses. I’d like to see the arts and science overlap much more.

And while it’s not impossible for an arts major to do a science unit or two, or even to do a double degree in some disciplines, it’s not common. But it should be encouraged. Why not a double-degree in physics and comparative literature, for example? French and chemistry? History and neuroscience? Or just cherry-picked electives for the sake of a rounded education. I don’t think it would hurt student doctors, for example, to do a couple of units of English literature, writing, art history, French or politics, say.

And me? I’d like to revisit high school mathematics and I’d like to learn physics.

That book, that book…what was it?

The other day at work, some of the ESL (English as a Second Language) teachers were trying to think of the title of a great English-teaching text they remembered from the 1990s. It incorporated stick-figure drawings on flash card-like pages that were ring-bound.

There used to be a copy hanging round the old staff room, one said, but we had moved to a new building, and the little flash-card book had been forgotten (and had probably been thrown out). No one could remember the title or author.

It made me think of a book I had as a child to help me learn German. My father had visited Munich in Germany not long after the 1972 Olympics and had brought me back a poster for my wall. I was very young and thus didn’t know anything about the violence that had occurred there. But I had become entranced with teaching myself German (and went on to study it at high school and university).

The book I’m thinking of was a small paperback and it was part of a language series. It has long gone from my library, unfortunately. I also had a hardcover Berlitz book that I loved.

In my final year at school, I won a prize for German speaking from the Goethe Society. The prize was two lovely volumes of German fairy tales and songs. The song book was illustrated, with music, and I had it until recently. Now I can’t find it anywhere. I can only think that I must have given it away with a lot of others, in a fit of needing to make room in my bookcases. Why does it always seem that the book I give away is the very one I want not long after?

Screen Shot 2014-11-08 at 8.20.10 AMThere are websites that can help you identify books whose titles and authors you’ve forgotten. One is What Was that Book? Many of the postings on that are novels people read as children and half-remembered.

And what do you know? Today, I did a search for my German Through Pictures book and found it straight away! It was by I. A. Richards, I. Schmidt Mackey, W. F. Mackey and Christine Gibson. Itwas first published in 1953, though mine was a 1972 edition. Amazingly, I found a blog post  which reproduced some pages from German Through Pictures here. Thanks, Mary Caple from Montreal!

I could also buy the book via Amazon, priced from $7.92-$221.95, depending on quality and collectibility, if I wanted.

I think we should bring back the  series, as it’s so easy to learn from. There was also a French version—and perhaps there were other languages available, too.

Oh, and if anyone remembers the ring-bound English flash-card book with the stick-figure drawings, please let me know!

 

Heigh ho, heigh ho, it’s off to work we go…

The tools of my trade: mobile and casual

The tools of my trade: mobile and casual

Do you have the sort of job that is secure, full-time and that pays you holiday (vacation) leave and sick pay? Is it a job that encourages you to strive to achieve your best and that offers a career path and promotion? Do you feel valued and appreciated, thus making you a more loyal and committed employee?

If you answer yes to these questions, you are in the minority—at least in Australia and, as far as I can tell, in other Western countries such as NZ, the US and the UK. And even if you do have a ‘proper’ job, you’re often treated appallingly as an employee. For example, read about my blogosphere friend Goldfish’s treatment in the US this week: http://fishofgold.net/2014/08/03/when-2-hours-feels-like-5/

The appealing idea of being happy in our work is now only in the realms of Disney films such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, she who whistled while she worked and they who sang merrily as they marched off to work in the mines.

When I first came to Australia in 1988 as a young but experienced journalist, things here were pretty good. Back in NZ, we still got ‘Christmas bonuses’—an extra week’s pay in December. That didn’t happen in Australia, and I had to take a pay cut, but there were other benefits. Rent, food and wine were cheaper in Australia, we got more holiday leave and—I can hardly believe I’m saying this now—we got a “leave loading”, that is, more pay when on leave than not. As a journalist, I worked most public holidays, but I also got six weeks and three days of paid holiday leave a year. We were all full-time employees with permanent positions.

Even in the early 2000s, when I worked for a magazine owned by the media mogul Kerry Packer, we all got enormous holiday hampers in December. These were worth several hundred dollars each, and included pretty much everything you needed for your celebration, including a choice of turkey, ham or salmon in a special fridge pack, wine, luxurious chocolates and much more. All company employees got the same type of hamper, from the lowliest office junior to the CEO.

Mr Packer is dead now, and so is that sort of magnanimity. Nowadays, you’re lucky if you don’t get laid off right before the holiday season.

I changed careers from journalism to tertiary education in 2008. In the tertiary education sector, latest statistics (2012) from the Commonwealth Department of Education paint a disturbing picture: 84% of all academic staff have insecure jobs; 80.3% of people employed in teaching-only positions are casual and a further 10.2% are on short-term contracts; and note that these are full-time equivalent numbers, each of which equates to four actual workers. These figures were reported in the July 2014 edition of Connect, the magazine for casual academic staff run by Australia’s National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU, of which I am a delegate).

In her article ‘University work becoming more precarious’, NTEU president Jeannie Rea says that  there has been no comment on the statistics from any university, and that the NTEU is the only tertiary entity to have published them, apart from the government department.

I have been working as what is euphemistically called a “sessional” (really a casual) since 2008. Luckily, I have had enough work nearly every semester. But there is still that dreadful time from November to March when there is little or no work (I’m trying to rectify that now by working at another institution as well that has a summer trimester). At a time of year when the weather is warm and people in my industry should be relaxing or on vacation, I’m counting pennies and worrying about how much work I will get next semester so I can start paying off the inevitable credit card debt.

It’s not all bad though. I have time to write and to paint, time to recover from 60-hour weeks at the end of the year and so on.

But in my experience, nothing beats a secure full-time job. I believe the country is the poorer for treating many of its most highly educated, smartest and ablest workers, in fields from journalism to education to anything else you might name, as expendable commodities.

It’s a worker’s right to expect security and decent pay and conditions. In return, it is an employer’s right to expect that employee to work hard, to be loyal, honest and committed, to take sick leave only when they are sick, and to be respectful of the company and their co-workers.

Casual employment is a lose-lose situation for both employees and employers. When are they going to realise it? I predict that things will, eventually, change for the better. One day, some bright spark in HR will come up with the amazing idea that employees who feel secure and valued do better work, enabling the company to make more profit.

But I don’t think this will be in my working lifetime. I predict it will take a generation or more for this to happen. Hopefully, it will be in our grandchildren’s lifetimes.

Boys’ toys, girls’ toys: really?

Screen Shot 2014-04-05 at 7.22.57 AMBoys, you are astronauts, pilots, detectives, scientists; girls, you are mothers and baby minders, and you like pretty things for your hair.

Boys, you will build things, go places, blow things up, conduct scientific experiments, see the world; girls, you will stay at home, heating bottles for the baby, doing craftwork, wearing beautiful clothes and dreaming of being a makeup artist, while dressed almost exclusively in pastel pink.

I could hardly believe my eyes this morning when I saw how an online shopping website I subscribe to was advertising toys based so much on gender stereotypes. Like something out of the 1950s, it told me that boys had the whole world to explore, while girls had better stay home.

For boys, the Crazy Forts Construction Toy offers imaginative play in which you create a cave, igloo, pirate ship or castle. To be fair, this toy also has a girl pictured on the box cover with two boys, so it’s unclear why it’s marketed only for boys. There is also a build-a-fort set for girls—the “Princess Play Set” in…you guessed it, pink… “perfect for your little princess”. No mention of pirate ships, caves or castles, though.

My mum was a neuro-scientist, and she says that to a certain extent, boys naturally gravitate toward more adventurous, rough and tumble toys. But the almost complete demarcation in the media seems unnatural, as if we are choosing for our children what their roles will be before they’ve even had a chance to explore these things for themselves. No wonder there are still so few female plumbers, carpenters or mechanics.

When I was a kid, my favourite toys were Lego and my brother’s case of tiny cars, plus our cowboy play sets with hats, toy guns in holsters (very un-PC now) and sheriff’s badges. I also loved my dolls (though I couldn’t understand why my cats would never consent to being dressed in bonnet, dress and booties and wheeled around in my dolls’ pram). My hero was Georgina (“George”), the fantastically independent girl in Enid Blyton’s The Famous Five series of novels. In those days, a girl like George was called a “tom boy” because she didn’t conform to the normal idea of what a girl should behave like.

There’s nothing wrong as such with giving girls dolls and encouraging them to nurture babies: many girls do become mothers, after all. But boys become fathers, and in these days of equality, shouldn’t we also then be giving boys dollies with dummies, feeding sets and nappies? See how dumb that sounds? While personally, I have always loved dolls (and still do), I think we can leave the parenting accessories out when children are young, particularly if you’re only teaching parenting to one sex (girls).

I suspect (well, I hope) that advertisers are hopelessly out of date when they market toys in such a way. In most homes, I’m sure, children end up playing together with many of the same toys. We shouldn’t limit girls to home-based toys and boys to adventure toys: let them make up their own minds what they will be.

 

The sad case of Margaret Mary, professor of the working poor

gownWho are the “working poor”? They’re not who you might think.  Well, they are, but in addition to the stereotypical image—a person working in drudgery at a lowly paid and insecure non-skilled job with no hope of dragging themselves out of it—is another, largely forgotten by governments and media alike.

The hidden working poor in western countries such as Australia, New Zealand and the US, include some of our most highly skilled, highly educated professionals. One of those professions is tertiary education. You probably don’t realise that more than 50%—and in some cases up to 75%—of the academic staff at the uni you or your children study at are paid on hourly rates for what is clearly not a casual job, and for little more than half the year.

On paper, the hourly rates look quite good. But not if you factor in actual hours worked, the high amount of extra unpaid work required, the fact that you don’t get paid if you are sick or have to take any other leave, or if your rostered hours fall on a public holiday, that you receive no holiday pay, no security, and that employment is available for only 30 weeks or less a year. I know all about this, because I’m one of them; for six years, my primary employment has been as an academic on sessional or short-term contracts.

This post was inspired by a very sad story this week, posted by my friend Jane on Facebook. “Death of an adjunct”, in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on September 18, told of Margaret Mary Vojtko, who worked as an “adjunct professor” (a “sessional academic” in Australia) of French at Duquesne University in Pennsylvania for 25 years.

She was being treated for cancer and had huge medical bills. She was penniless and mortified about being in such reduced circumstances that protective services authorities had threatened to take her into care. She died on September 1 at the age of 83, after a heart attack.

She had recently been fired from her job, and when she was contacted by Adult Protective Services demanding she meet them to discuss her dire situation, she called Daniel Kovalik to intervene. He is the senior associate general counsel for the United Steelworkers union (more about that below).  Kovalik wrote her story for the Post Gazette, and I’ll let him continue here:

“I called Adult Protective Services right after talking to Margaret Mary, and I explained the situation. I said that she had just been let go from her job as a professor at Duquesne, that she was given no severance or retirement benefits, and that the reason she was having trouble taking care of herself was because she was living in extreme poverty. The caseworker paused and asked with incredulity, ‘She was a professor?’ I said yes. The caseworker was shocked; this was not the usual type of person for whom she was called in to help.

“Of course, what the caseworker didn’t understand was that Margaret Mary was an adjunct professor, meaning that, unlike a well-paid tenured professor, Margaret Mary worked on a contract basis from semester to semester, with no job security, no benefits and with a salary of between $3,000 and just over $3,500 per three-credit course. Adjuncts now make up well over 50 per cent of the faculty at colleges and universities…”

Kovalik says the most she could earn, when teaching three classes a semester and two over summer, earned her less than $25,000 a year net, with no health care benefits. Then she became ill and had to cut back on classes, earning less than $10,000 a year. She could no longer afford electricity. Kovalik continues:

“She therefore took to working at an Eat’n Park at night and then trying to catch some sleep during the day at her office at Duquesne. When this was discovered by the university, the police were called in to eject her from her office. Still, despite her cancer and her poverty, she never missed a day of class.

“Finally, in the spring, she was let go by the university, which told her she was no longer effective as an instructor — despite many glowing evaluations from students.”

If you want to read more about Margaret Mary, there’s a link to Kovalik’s story here.

Now, Duquesne University is the largest Catholic University in Pennsylvania and has 10,000 students. On its website, Duquesne says its staff “are the catalyst behind the University’s growth and prosperity. The University’s remarkable advances in higher education, technology and research are a testament to their hard work and drive.”

I think of Margaret Mary and know there is something wrong with those website claims. A line from Orwell’s Animal Farm comes to mind: “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others”. Her story went viral this week, and a follow-up on Inside Higher Ed explains that when Duquesne adjuncts voted to join the United Steelworkers Union last year, they were blocked by legal action taken by the university on the grounds it should be exempt from labour laws because it was a religious organisation.

In Australia, there are many people in the same situation as Margaret Mary. Every year in November, tens of thousands of academics across Australia brace themselves for the long, lean times ahead with no pay at all until the semester starts again at the end of February or beginning of March—and that’s if they get a job at all. They often don’t know until a couple of weeks or even days before the semester starts. Mid-year, it’s the same, though not as long a break.

Some find casual jobs working at supermarkets or homeware superstores, waiting tables, or perhaps the very lucky ones might get some shifts at a book shop. Many just hunker down for the lean summer months—at least they won’t have to pay for heating—and wish away their well-deserved break.

Of course, academia is not the only area of mass casualisation. I use it as a case study to point out this growing problem of “working poor”. It is short sighted in the extreme: it means so many more people in the future will be reliant on welfare to survive. Or, they will just work until they die.

This is particularly so of single people who don’t have any other person’s income to help with expenses or to cover the lean times. Over the last few weeks, I have been talking to several of my friends, women in their 40s and 50s, who are terrified of what their financial future holds because they can’t find a permanent job.

The New Zealand Listener magazine this year focused on this mass casualisation in a story about “the rise of the precariat class and the end of the golden era of work” (by Karl du Fresne, May 18-24, 2013). The term “precariat”, a portmanteau of “precarious proletariat”, was coined by the British economist Guy Standing in his book, The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class (2011). Initially, it referred to people in unskilled casual jobs, with little education and no prospects. The article, which you can read here, said that in New Zealand—and I’m widening that to Australia as well—the term had morphed to include many well educated people in skilled jobs and professions.

Those in the precariat, according to the article, include accountants, air crew, government employees, and educators at all levels from pre-school teachers to university lecturers.

We will probably never go back to the era when a job meant full-time employment and entitlements. But as a society, we need to think more deeply about sustainable patterns of work and employment.  What we have at the moment is just not good enough.

Taboo? The topic young men won’t talk about

ImageIn one of the university tutorial classes I teach, we had the best discussion this week of the unit so far: the students were engaged, presented different viewpoints, and listened to what others had to say.
Yet, it was, in some ways, the most disappointing tutorial I have ever taught.
Why? Well, of the five men in the class, only one attended. Yet, 9 out of 10 of the women attended.

The topic was gender in the media. It was a look at both historical progression and current challenges.

It doesn’t seem like a coincidence that the men in the class were absent: they have had excellent attendance rates every week until now.

Students must attend 75% of tutorials, thus some choose which ones they will miss. Eighty per cent of the  young men in the class chose this one.

I don’t know for sure if they were absent because of the topic, but if that is the case, I suspect it could be for one or a combination of these reasons:
a) They think gender equality is women’s business;
b) The topic bores them;
c) They believe the media is already equal, or that, in fact, women have it better;
d) They don’t care;
e) They find talk about feminism intimidating.
I don’t blame them: at the beginning of adulthood, young people are largely a product of what they have observed and learned through childhood.

This made me think about the reason we have so far to go in the media to give men and women an equal voice, to give female journalists the same opportunities to take leading roles as male journalists, and to achieve equal pay across the genders.

It will take both sexes to achieve gender equality, and we desperately need to engage young men in conversations about it, particularly in learning environments such as at university . But how can  we do that? How can we encourage young men to take an interest and to become advocates of equality instead of the status quo?

Rock on!

rockonThe August Bloggers for Peace challenge on Everyday Gurus this month stumped me, I’ll admit it. While I love music—I grew up learning classical singing, had a piano at home which my mother played by ear,  have learnt piano and guitar and have an eclectic personal music collection—I didn’t know what I could add to a discussion about how music can bring or promote peace.

I could state the obvious: Give Peace a Chance by John Lennon and loads of hippie songs from the 1960s and so on. But everyone knows that.

 Music is probably the world’s most universally understood medium, thus it’s arguably the most powerful. The challenge, and my inability to come up with a worthwhile contribution, made me think, What do I really know about modern music?

This week, when my regular email from Coursera arrived, I clicked on it, and skimmed the list of courses offered. (If you haven’t heard, Coursera is an online organisation that offers free university-level courses from many different universities to anyone who wants to sign up).  My eye hit ‘The History of Rock Music’, and now I’m enrolled for the seven-week free music appreciation course starting Monday.

I know you don’t need to do a course to appreciate music, but I’m interested in finding out more of the background to great US music from the 1950s on. The course instructor has done the hard work for me, and promises I will discover musical tastes and directions I never knew existed. It’s a free course, so I have absolutely nothing to lose.

Plus, it seems to me that spending a few hours a week listening to wonderful music will help promote harmony in my life–in the same way as my painting takes me away from rules, words, work, timetables, worries. I will keep you posted on how it goes!

My talking Ozzy Osborne doll. But more about him and the other three Osborne dolls in a post for another day...

My talking Ozzy Osbourne doll. But more about him and the other three Osbourne dolls in a post for another day…

 Update, October 20: I’ve finished the first ‘History of Music’ course on Coursera and got 100%! I’ve now enrolled for part two of the course coming up soon. It was fascinating the way the course covered so much in such a short time. I’d imagine the most difficult part was deciding what to leave out. I can now appreciate much more strongly the musicians of the 1960s, who I’d not had much time for previously.