Monthly Archives: December 2014

My nonfiction is better than your fiction, and other absurdities

girl sitting in a bright room, surrounded by stacks of books

CC image “books” courtesy of Porsche Brosseau on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

How many of you, whether in school now or remembering what it was like to be in school, ever caught yourself scratching your head about some piece of information you were required to learn, memorize, practice, and regurgitate, which you questioned would ever have any use in your future life?

I know I have.

A little while ago, I stumbled across a strange statement that reminded me of that feeling. It was a minimum suggested benchmark for reading: by the 12th grade, so the new wisdom, teenagers should be reading at least 70% nonfiction work.

What?

I’d never seen a number like this before, and yet the topic was thrown out there like a well-known and recognized quantity. Where the hell did they come up with this figure?! And whose recommendation was this, anyway?

I’ve been a bookworm all my life. For as long as I’ve been aware of my reading — people commented often — I’ve also been aware of how people were bemoaning the loss of reading among the young. I’ve been hearing about this, I feel like, forever. Kids are watching too much TV, they’re playing too many video games, et cetera. When I saw the seventy percent figure, my first reaction was of disbelief — wait, someone cares about the proportion of fiction to nonfiction reading? — and the second was: Well, isn’t it great if kids are reading at all??

I had to get to the bottom of this idea — it was so weird. Who cared? Who were these people and where did this recommended minimum come from?

The answer was: the Common Core.

If any of you reading this are teachers or know a teacher personally, you probably got to this answer well ahead of me. The new Common Core standards for education emphasize nonfiction reading from the early ages of grammar school, and recommend proportions of nonfiction to fiction reading for each grade level. They are, as one article I read put it, the reason why educators “are extolling the importance of factual, informational reading” far and wide.

But why would they care about nonfiction reading, as opposed to reading in general? Well, the short answer is: the system.

College, and then the workplace.

In my pursuit to understand the discussion about nonfiction reading goals for students, I read quite a few scholarly articles, by educators and cognitive scientists, specifying what scientific research says with regard to reading, and reading nonfiction in particular. Almost in chorus — 99.9% of what I’ve read and the search results that turn up online — the results focus on getting into college and then parlaying that into the workplace.

Yes friends, once again, this all boils down to a culture in which the value of a proposition rests on how well you can measure it.

Is the only reason to read nonfiction to achieve a certain score on certain tests, and be accepted by certain institutions (that may or may not have anything to do with the material you are reading)? Is the only value and rationale to further my career? Can there be no other reason to want to read nonfiction?

Books — nonfiction books — have no artistic or cultural value?

As a confirmed fiction nut from earliest days, I take issue with this. Nonfiction books are replete with amazing information: also stories! One of my favorite books this year was a nonfiction book: The Wild Trees, by Richard Preston. The discovery of the ecosystems that are redwood trees reads like a thriller, and is full of scientific information as well. If you’re not into trees, check out this article from a college-age student about her discovery of nonfiction texts for other examples of how cool nonfiction can be.

I found one divergent view — an English teacher who advocated for nonfiction reading, who spoke about the resistance of other English teachers to what they saw as an assault on literature and literature education. His point, as I see it, is that we can only develop and make use of skills and information that we are exposed to. I agree; here is a person after my own heart. He’s talking about people, not numbers.

Saying nonfiction is necessary because it prepares us for college is kind of an idiotic justification. We choose what to value at the college level, just as we choose what to value at work. The whole argument is self-referential, because we can change the parameters at any time (and often do). The paradigm advocates standardization and the institutional over the fulfilling and the individual. My eyes are already glazing over.

For me, the value of nonfiction, just as with the value in all reading, lies in critical and independent thinking, analysis, and adaptability, not to mention fun — none of which, I would argue, is embodied in a standardized (hello!) test. Harping on a 70% baseline guarantees none of those skills or the desire to pursue them.

We need a place to start, from which we can go out into the world under our own strength. We need a way to choose and embody individual value. Not a comprehensive way to become a cookie cutter person. And for that, we need to find reading that is interesting and engaging to us… whatever guise it comes in; whether and how much of it can be classified as “nonfiction” or not.

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What’s your favorite type of reading?

Violating trust and artistic integrity

I'm looking at you, Yahoo!

hamsters playing tug of war with a carrot

CC image “Stealing” courtesy of ryancr on Flickr. Some rights reserved. NOT a commercial license!

Recently, it’s come to my attention that Flickr is doing something new with its users’ photos. Or rather, Yahoo!, which owns Flickr, is doing something new. They are doing it WELL below the radar. As someone with a Flickr account, I never even received an email notification*, something even Facebook is good at doing, with its recent news about the updates to its privacy policy.

What is Yahoo!/Flickr doing? Yahoo! is exploiting other artists’ work for their personal gain. I can put this another way. Yahoo! is stealing.

Not that I found this out from Yahoo! mind you. Thanks to the glories of social media, I found out about it from a friend who also uses (used?) Flickr, far more intensively than I do.

You won’t see Yahoo! saying anything remotely like “stealing,” of course. Yahoo!’s official position on this (once I went to the trouble of hunting it down; as I said, I didn’t receive any notification from Yahoo! A search under “Yahoo selling Flickr photos” which is as close to what’s happening as a search query can get, didn’t even turn up a press release on the first page of results. In fact, even when I went hunting specifically for a press release or official announcement, I didn’t get any information. I finally found a link to Yahoo!’s Tumblr through another article on The Daily Dot. That’s great outreach, Yahoo! *snort*), is as follows:

Yahoo announces printing of commercially licensed photos

screen grab from Yahoo!’s Tumblr

Yes, you are reading that correctly. Yahoo! is posing this whole situation as a boon to the consumer of photo art. Indeed, I think it IS a boon to the consumer. Only recently I came across this awesome artistic rendition of a Language Family Tree by Minna Sundberg, and really wished there was a poster available for it. The image is beautiful — appealing both to my inner language nerd and my wannabe-artist. Judging by the comments, I’m not the only ready-made consumer, either. However, I feel that Yahoo!’s move is no boon to any but the most select photographers. I think this move violates trust at a basic level, and thoroughly mauls artistic integrity and choice.

(See the bottom of this post for links to additional information on this issue)

Basically, Yahoo! is offering the printing of images from two sources: selected photographers, with whom I presume they had a conversation about this arrangement before the announcement went live to consumers; and a number of Creative Commons commercial-use-licensed images, which I doubt had any prior notice. They are offering two payment schemes, one to each group. The pre-selected photographers get to keep 51% of their profits.

The Creative Commons-licensing photographers get zero.

While I think 49% is a steep commission, let’s face it, those photographers had the opportunity to discuss the deal and accept the terms. I’m much more concerned with everyone who licensed their photos through Creative Commons, who are now being treated like shabby work-for-hire widget-makers, only without the hiring part.

Yahoo! is under its legal rights to do what it is doing. However, legal does not make right. Morals and the law might intersect sometimes, but this is far from a given. I am incensed with Yahoo!’s hubris on behalf of artistic and creative folk everywhere. Someone else has done the work, had the vision, and then expressed their joy in sharing what they’ve been able to create. Yahoo!, who had absolutely nothing to do with this creative process, decides to cash in. On work that isn’t theirs.

That is crap, Yahoo! That is real crap.

I can think of a number of more thoughtful ways of pursuing the idea of making beautiful photos accessible to people who want the art. What all of these ways have in common is that a) they take more time, b) they take more work, and c) they involve dialogue with the artists who’ve created this opportunity in the first place.

I can imagine that reaching out to all the creators and setting up a dialogue has the potential to create any number of administrative headaches. But the payoff is almost without price. People are posting their photos on Flickr with Creative Commons licenses — or they were; that’s certainly changing — because they WANT to share their work. If they are sharing their art for free, they are certainly there for recognition, and given the opportunity might jump at even more recognition! On the flipside though, remember they are offering their work for free. How can you presume to take that as a tacit agreement for you to charge for it? And keep all the change?

The gall is breathtaking.

Yahoo! has acted unilaterally and way overstepped its boundaries. You could argue that Yahoo! is serving the consumer, but in the process, the artist gets screwed. Almost no one has a problem with this, except the artists themselves, but in reality we all suffer. How long do you think someone whose work is so disrespected will continue to create work, or if they create it, to share it with anyone else?

When we drive creators off the stage, we all lose.

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*If you are a Flickr user with Creative Commons-licensed images, and you received an official notification from Yahoo! about this, I’d love to hear from you. I haven’t licensed my photos, which right now I am profoundly relieved about. Perhaps notices only went out to those who were affected; I want to be accurate and level-headed and not make any unjust accusations.

Note: I use a lot of Flickr Creative Commons-licensed images in this blog. I always use photos that are not commercially licensed, and I provide links back to the Flickr page and credit to every photographer. I appreciate everyone whose images I’ve been able to use, and their gracious permission to do so. Strictly speaking, my ability to find images this way should not be impacted because the license is different than what’s under discussion here, but you never know. Folks may pull out of the license altogether. I feel like I am making a conflict of interest disclosure, which might be overdone… but I want to be transparent.

Note 2: Links. You may already be informed of the issue discussed in this post. If you aren’t, feel free to type in a few search terms. Here are two more links that I turned up, in case you are interested in diving deeper:
Wall Street Journal
Slate