Camille Reyes

Archive for the ‘Education’ Category

Falling for It

In Culture, Education, PR on April 3, 2011 at 9:31 pm

I am exceptionally good at what I do.  I know you won’t click away now.  My arrogance has grabbed you.  I work in public relations.  They should do those Leno-style “man-on-the-street” interviews to ask people what PR people actually do.  That would be entertaining; although I’m going to tell you what we do right now.

We persuade.  We influence.  We whisper.  Like so many wizards behind curtains, we change narratives. The hidden quality is not accidental.  I’m probably pissing off a few colleagues right now by giving this away.  Many would prefer to be called “storytellers.”  Like Mr. Rogers, only not.  It is true, I have told stories in my career.  I’ve committed acts of journalism.  I’ve perpetrated information sharing that you later read in the New York Times under someone else’s by-line.  I’m not suggesting I actually write the stories you read (well, most of them at any rate).  I would, but I get paid more behind the curtain.  In this neighborhood, perception is reality, and perception-changers are kings¹.

Some may wonder how I can do what I do with any sort of conscience.  I’ve wondered the same.  I will tell you that I’ve never willingly promoted big oil or pharmaceuticals or God-forbid Monsanto.

I’m a PR person, not the Anti-Christ.

The more astute among you may have noticed I used the word “willingly” to modify the past-tense verb “promoted.”  That’s the tough part of living in the global society, of kicking it new school in America circa 2011.  You can never be exactly sure what you’re promoting, or buying, expelling or ingesting.  Everything is interconnected.  For example, you may have read about the astounding ways that General Electric legally gets away with not paying taxes.  This missing tax revenue might have been put to good use.

Just try not using a GE product sometime though.  You’d probably have to throw out an appliance or two, forget turning on a light bulb, hell, the energy itself is probably connected in some way to a GE subsidiary.  Just look at the astounding array of product groups (that’s groups, not individual products) for which they account.  GE is just the best at tax evasion.  All the other multi-nationals do it, too.  I know for a fact I’ve committed a lot of public relations for at least one of those corporations.  I won’t name them here.  I like to eat.

Andy Bichlbaum of the Yes Men told a group of NYU students at a workshop on Friday that there are 19,000 corporations registered in a single office building in the Cayman Islands.  There is not enough physical space on one of the islands to house that many operations, let alone one building.  It is a giant scam, a ruse, and they sip blended cocktails at our expense.  Or maybe just your expense, because I inadvertently promoted one of those 19k, and I will intentionally do it again soon because I like eating, and remember, I am exceptionally good at what I do.  This is bad news for you.

icarus|henri matisse|1947|1983.1009(8)

Image: Icarus by Henri Matisse from MetMuseum.org

Since I feel pity for you, I will share my secret, and it is, as I recently discovered, similar to the philosophy of Dave Bernbach, a titan of the advertising business.  I learn all the rules so that I can strategically break them.  I became an expert in “client expectations” and product marketing.  Then, I did the opposite of the norm.  I deliberately bent “best practices.”  I crushed the playbook.  I occasionally wrote decent messaging (that’s PR-speak for words that persuade you to buy stuff or ideas) by not reading my email every five minutes (I was literally marked down for the latter by clients).  As a result, I had the best relationships with “the influentials.”  My words were in the background of more “news.”  My special projects were more often approved to go “direct-to-consumers.”  In the end, I did and do these things not for personal glory (remember, what we do is hidden).  I did it to sell more <product>.  And you all fell for it.  I fell for it, too.  There is perhaps nothing more post-modern than defying convention in a way that reinforces conformity.

I’m trying to get out, and I say that with the twitch of an addict.  I’m slowly climbing the credentialed steps of academia.  I want to become a professor someday, and yes, I plan to teach public relations among other subjects.  The first thing I will say to my PR class is that public relations is quite possibly the worst subject in which a student could major… if the point of a college education is to develop critical thinking skills².  Of course, this is no longer the point.  The university is a corporation, too. College is vocational school.  There is nothing wrong with that except false advertising, and really poor placement rates.  Humanities programs are getting violently cut from institutions across the country.  This outcome is many years in the making.  Even <muffled noises so you can’t hear> years ago, my undergraduate major, English, prompted responses like, “That’s nice, but what are you going to do with it?”  (Btw, that do was dripping with upper-crust derision like Thurston Howell.)  Thankfully, I found my first job the old-fashioned way: nepotism.  Ah, from the depths of exploitation rise great capitalists.  Well, I’m actually an Icarus capitalist.  Hopefully, I won’t go splat on you.  I got the wings on sale.

I am, at thirtysomething, an anachronism for subscribing to a life of the mind, for genuinely believing that a single course might be worth $5,000.  Perhaps I’m a chump.

Perhaps I am the victim of some professorial cabal, working behind a clump of trees, conjuring ways to persuade me into massive debt.

All I can say is, the government can’t repossess my education… at least not until they come up with the technology for this purpose.  (One could argue advertising is one such technology, and I would listen.)

I choose this path not because of some higher moral ground.  The fact is I’m only good at writing and singing—communicating, if you will³.  Since Disney didn’t hire me out of college to play Ariel at a theme park, I figured the QWERTY was mightier than my vocal cords.  I tread here to someday make a difference, to write something or say something inspirational.  I chose higher education because, pound-for-pound, professors are my intellectual heroes (including my mother-an adjunct in, wait for it, Communication!) I’ve managed to find individuals within the university system who buck the corporatization effect, sometimes even without tenure, and the latter chumps deserve extra admiration because they are truly breaking the rules†.

¹For those of you who know me personally, this is a terrible pun on my last name.  My sincere apologies.

²Don’t get your knickers in a twist, PR grads.  I’m trying to make a larger point.  I know some PR majors capable of critically thinking my ass into next year.  Besides, do you think I’d want to teach PR if I didn’t respect it on some level? <pfft>

³My ex would add “schmoozing” to my short-list of skills.  As in, “Wow, babe, you really worked that room.”  This has a vaguely prostitution-y ring to it.  Thus the omission.

†Additional applause is also due to the PR people who continue to hire me for freelance work.  Despite my ornery views, I think there is such a thing as good propaganda.  My mentors and financiers will find it first.

Beware the Single Story

In Culture, Education on March 1, 2010 at 7:31 pm

I’m going to a talk at NYU tomorrow night about Transgender issues. As a Queer activist, I’m guilty of often forgetting the end of the LGBT alphabet. Sometimes I have a “me first” attitude—let’s secure my equal rights as a lesbian, and then we’ll get to the transgendered among us. Although I’m very open about my sexuality with family, friends and colleagues, I seldom say I’m a lesbian or a queer. Aside from the unfortunate, vaguely disease-like sound of the name, “lesbian” is far down on the totem pole of my story. Due to my outward appearance, I’m also able to control that story, i.e. unless you watch me walk (so I’m told), you can’t tell I’m gay.

This has caused frustration at times, as when I walked into Austin’s Rainbow Cattle Co. to two-step with a lovely stranger only to be asked, “You do know this is a gay bar, right?” Although it makes dating harder, at least I get to own my narrative. My trans sisters and brothers have less control, and not necessarily because of outward appearances. The gender binary is even more culturally loaded than the false gay/straight divide.  A brief example to explain why…

As a publicist, I work with many reporters. Talking shop with co-workers includes, naturally, sharing stories about journalists-their profiles, their quirks.

This one falls asleep in interviews (so be sure to invert your pyramid early). That one picks scabs. He is a funny, gifted writer. She slept with your client.

Such talk laid bare smacks of gossip and makes me uncomfortable, save for the compliments, yet this is how we relate to one another; this is how we process information. This is reality.

Clearly, the water cooler is tough no matter what your story, because more often than not, people feed on the negative, the strange, the culturally acceptable (notice the woman in my example is noted for her sexuality). This is like rain on your wedding day for the transgendered–not ironic, just craptastic.  When I first heard about CNET journalist Ina Fried, I was told, in the same sentence, she used to be Ian Fried. This story was repeated constantly until eventually I started to repeat it myself. Ina’s identity as a writer rode shotgun; we stole the keys.  I eventually discovered that Ina is talented, crafting flavorful reads in a sea of typically snooze-worthy tech writing. In fact, Ina is about to return from the Vancouver Olympics after a triumphant two weeks of wonderful storytelling. She makes software sing even in duller settings, yet we snicker about pronouns.

Without intention, out of cultural habit, I once reduced Ina to a single letter, T. This, as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie explains below, is the danger of the single story. Stereotypes are dangerous because they are “incomplete.” Telling a single story “robs people of dignity.” I hope you will make time to watch this video. I humbly suggest that the moral of her brilliant story is not to censor, but to shine.

Include unexpected authors and stories on your reading lists, especially if you teach, and we teach every time we communicate. Shake up the white male cannon, but don’t negate the value of those words, the beauty of Shakespeare. Write your personal stories, lest someone else write them for you. Report multiple facets of people and places. Attend talks on subjects you know little about. Advocate. Do whatever is in your power to shift power, to change the story. Start by watching this clip.

Steak is Overrated. A Prose Ode to Thomas Benton.

In Education on February 18, 2010 at 6:10 pm

Although I’m certain about finishing my MA, I’m not sure about getting my PhD.  If you read accounts like this one from Thomas H. Benton in the Chronicle of Higher Education, I would be one graham cracker short of a Smore for enlisting.  The comment trail to the article is equally interesting.  Benton has hit a nerve.  I’m one of those gals who actually likes to do a lot of research on prospective opportunities/fields.    My independent studies confirm the bleak conditions Benton describes.  Finding a tenure track position in the Humanities post graduation has only slightly better odds than becoming an astronaut.  Yet, I chuckle at a number of descriptions offered in the piece, including the idea that teaching and research assistants are some sort of cogs in the machine, an exploited labor force with the evil tenured bosses spitting on them from on high.

In the private sector, this form of “exploitation” is known as internships or junior staff.  There are many junior staffers who think they are above such menial tasks as teaching freshmen or making copies.  Those elitist jerks miss loads of opportunities.  Perhaps I watched The Secret of My Success with Michael J. Fox one too many times, but delivering those copies to the CEO and having a conversation in the process embodies an entrepreneurial spirit, not some laughable masochistic grad student behavior.  Same with teaching freshmen.  News flash for Benton: at some universities (read NYU) competition for even these teaching jobs is fierce, as it should be.

Does NYU have more delusional hordes than most schools?  Perhaps.

Is NYU a different animal because it is private and absurdly expensive?  Perhaps.  And this question of expense leads me to another point.

Benton derides the “life of the mind” as some fantasy world.  Is it any more of a fantasia than the working class HVAC brother he touts in the essay?  When I completed my undergraduate degree in English, well over a decade ago, my dream was to become financially independent.  There were many who forecasted doom simply because I chose to major in what I loved.  I owe Professor Robert “Rocky” Rockabrand for dispelling such myths.

To be fair, there were plenty of thunder heads; starting my career was extremely hard–right up there with divorce, home foreclosure, losing a job, pregnancy–or so I hear.  Would it have been any easier if I had majored in Business? No, partially because I’m less talented/interested in determining break-evens or traditional ROI.  I did my research then, as now.  I began in marketing/public relations at a theater, and for a time I really wanted to be a journalist.  I worked connections and landed a fancy freelance gig with a wildly respected daily newspaper, working at night while I slaved away  at Arthur Andersen (Benton should’ve been there!  Hello disillusionment. ) during the day.  There was a hiring freeze at the paper.  Even in the late 90s the media had a chronic cough.  They couldn’t hire me full-time, and I am so grateful because I would’ve been miserable.

After limited experience and observation, I came to the conclusion that journalists had it really, really bad–PhD holding bad.

I stuck with public relations so I could work with my journalist friends, yet eat filet mignon on Tuesdays.

This “strategy” or life plan worked much to my satisfaction for many years over the course of many companies, none greater than my last, the venerable PR agency, Waggener Edstrom.  I was living Benton’s private sector fantasy, driving around in my dream car fueled on healthy paychecks, benefits and only a B.A. in, gasp, English.  Had I a family to enjoy and help support, I probably would not have left.  I did not radically change my life because I was a bitter bunny either; I took a giant risk because I wanted something more.  Divine providence, hard work and many mentors brought me to NYU, not some brainwashing professorial cabal.  Grad students are, by my estimation, better than your average exploited worker at making informed choices.  Benton is kind to write with such truth, and he will no doubt help many students.  Yet, this is his truth, not mine.

I admit the mounting debt from student loans looms large.  I miss the Caesar salad at El Gaucho, and my sweet Mini Cooper S.  Double for my Portland friends or my adorable dog, now happily retired with his grandparents in Florida while I read Heidegger in Brooklyn.  The other side of my ledger is looking plump though too, filled with big ideas about the fate of the media in this country, critical theory, even I Love Lucy.  I’m learning kaleidoscopes from brilliant faculty and fellow students; I’m happy… for now.  Keeping my fantastic life of the mind going will come with continued sacrifice, yet it also will come with value–a value determined by me-the little worker, dear Benton.  I will weigh my choices once more, as soon as I finish reading The Death and Life of American Journalism with relish.

For a lovely retort to Benton check out Matt Feeny’s essay:

http://theamericanscene.com/2010/02/16/is-the-phd-trap-a-trap-ii

I Give You an ‘A’ for Email and Effortless Disrespect

In Culture, Education on February 17, 2010 at 6:14 am

I’m disturbed by a specific moment in Digital Nation, an excellently produced program on Frontline.  Disturbed is the polite, NPR word for my feeling.  Shades of anger aside, many of the educators interviewed at the “pro-technology” public school in the United States should be introduced to the nuns from my father’s Cuban elementary school.  I wonder what the Sisters would say about multi-tasking in their classrooms.  Not only are many of the teachers interviewed defeatist about the multi-tasking (read: undisciplined) behaviors, one of them says teaching multi-tasking is important for the students’ future jobs.  (See 34:48 in Teaching with Technology) Maybe I’ll need to do the PTA circuit (my Lisa Simpson moment!), but such notions about teaching are not acceptable.  The fact that this educator says this with pride on a nationally broadcast television series is disgraceful.  What happened to teaching students how to write or multiply or feel awkward in the locker room (oh, P.E.)?  To be fair, this same teacher had some cool, likely effective methods for using tech in the classroom, but then she busts out with the really unfortunate multi-tasking quote.

Our highly caffeinated educator is equating the “skill” of multi-tasking as something on the level of writing.  I have two issues with this: 1. Multi-tasking does not count as an employment skill (unless wearing shoes does, too) 2. Multi-tasking masquerades as productivity.  Let’s put aside the question of college preparation because this teacher likely wears neoliberal undies.  Let’s meet her in the break room on her turf.  I’ve been in the information workforce for over a decade.  (I’m taking a break now for grad school, but more on that in a future post.)  I worked for an excellent company where I received, on average, 100 emails a day.  At first, I drowned in that sea of mail, but I learned to cope; oddly enough I had no educator to thank for this prized ability of writing an important document one minute, and dealing with interruptions the next.  Maybe my “ramp up” time would have decreased if I had “Spark Noted” The Great Gatsby and mastered the art of distraction thinking, a.k.a cheating on ideas?

Most companies are not in the business of producing email, text messages, instant chats, You Tube videos, and status updates.  Aside from priority communication needs, multi-tasking does not lead to a superior product or service.  I am a good example of this.  In my last performance review, the only constructive criticism I received was to increase my response time on emails (valid).  The irony, of course, is that my superior performance was achieved, in part, by NOT MULTI-TASKING.  I blocked out time on my calendar for email, and email only.  I “hid” on instant messenger.   In short, I focused; and perhaps we could give some of that credit to the educators who dared to lecture me using only their knowledge and their voices.  Horrors!

Yes, I could have used my Outlook rules to more efficient ends.  Yes, my inbox loomed like a schoolyard bully to more traditionally ordered friends (3k messages—run away!).  Yes, I sometimes missed important pieces of communication, but more often than not, I missed what my girlfriend had for lunch, twenty things about you or the cat playing on the keyboard.  Instead, to borrow a tag line from my favorite software system, I got “better results, faster.”  No thanks to the maverick educator over at middle school I.S. 33-whats it number; sorry, I was distracted by your bra color.

*Disclaimers: I did learn to enjoy the soothing sound of Tweet Deck while I worked, but I didn’t look at it when I was writing something important; my education, thank the pre-LOL Cat Bible, gave me the sense to determine relative importance and timeliness.

Also, my mother is a professor.  Her brothers called her Dragon Lady.  Scratch the nuns, let’s send Mrs. Distraction to Mom.  Mwahahahaha!