Saturday, November 19, 2016

6 Lessons Learned from Facebook During this Election

Photo source:
Love ‘em or hate ‘em. It looks like you’re stuck with them.

No, I’m not talking about the winners of the tortuous election cycle the US has just gone through. I’m talking about your Facebook friends.

Facebook, for me at least, has been an enlightening social experiment: a way of getting to know some friends in a different context, exploring issues and ideas, and, of course, sharing the ubiquitous silly memes. Over time, FB evolved for me into a means of keeping in contact with others and promoting myself as a writer. Mostly, though, it’s been a convenient excuse for social contact. It’s like sitting down in front of a computer with a large group of friends from all over the world and seeing what happens.

But, like any gathering of large groups of people, FB exchanges often take on a life of their own and gravitate toward certain issues or themes. For much of the last year, the dominating theme on my FB feed has been politics.

I have FB friends on both sides of the political divide—liberals and conservatives—as well as some in between, and some who favor third-party candidates. One would think (hope) that such variety of views would enrich conversations and provide enlightening glimpses into how other people think.

However, that’s rarely been the case.

Most political exchanges on FB have been brief—usually condensed into a Willy Wonka meme intended to show how stupid the other side is. Even the few in-depth conversations I’ve participated in have left me feeling frustrated and more alone than ever. Sometimes a meeting of the minds is not a good thing.

Herewith are six lessons I’ve learned on FB during this political season:

1. Everybody wants to be “heard.”

Being heard is not a bad thing, but FB creates the impression of being trapped at the bottom of a well and crying out for help against the political rainstorms: “Help! I’m a liberal! Save our same-sex marriage!” “Help! I’m a conservative! Save our guns!” FB creates the impression that the world is falling apart, and only you and your side can save it.

2. Social networking is a lazy way to have a relationship.

I confess I’m guilty of this. Rather than going out to events and interacting with “real” people, I find it more expedient to get on FB and see what people have to say. I post my bits—usually short quips intended to be humorous—before going on to the next post.

This is the Internet equivalent of speed dating: Make snap judgments and then move on.

3. Some relationships outlive their usefulness.

Sad but true. Some people were not meant to be friends forever. There’s a wonderful saying that some friends are yours for "a reason, a season, or a lifetime." FB makes it possible for everyone to be “friends” for life. However, this is not always a good thing.

People change as different experiences shape them. Hanging onto an old relationship can prevent you from moving on and making new friends.

4. “Friends” may have their own agendas.

One of my FB friends shared a meme that was patently and historically false. I took it upon myself to respond with a thoughtful correction. My friend replied with a “thank you.” He explained that he knew I would set people straight and that he was just waiting for me to do so.

I did not feel honored to be put in that position. I felt used and even baited.

The experience led me to wonder just how many messages are posted not because they truly reflect what the other person believes, but to get a rise out of someone.

5. It’s not always a good thing to know what your friends are thinking.

As adults, we develop a social filter for a reason. There’s a lot going on in our minds that, frankly, is indefensible. Yet FB seems to encourage people to “put it all out there,” which can lead to some silly, illogical, and even hurtful exchanges. 

One of my FB friends argued that Trump should win because, when he is impeached and forced to resign, it would be good for third-party candidates. (As someone who lived through the Watergate scandal, I don’t want to see the country go through another period of disillusion and distrust brought on by the resignation of a president.) 

A dear relative posted a meme which said anyone who favored any form of gun control could defriend this person immediately. (As someone who favors background checks and a ban on assault rifles, I was tempted to do so.)

FB polarizes people perhaps even more so than the real election did.

6. People of every political stripe can be unreasonable.

Nothing new here. Politics provoke extreme reactions from people on all sides. But FB creates the impression that there are two sides: OUR side and the WRONG side.

In the past, I’ve considered myself an independent and a moderate. I’ve always been wary of political parties. Yet I understand that the way to get things done is to ally with people who share the same positions and ways of looking at the world as you do, and to work toward making changes you agree with. For this reason, I’ve found myself leaning more and more toward the left—the side that promotes equality, inclusiveness, and a way of looking at the world through the guarded lens of hope instead of fear. 

Yet some of my liberal FB friends go to extremes in mischaracterizing conservatives, just as some of my conservative friends have gone to extremes in characterizing liberals. If one is on either side of the divide, it’s easy to find “evidence” that the other side is stupid, corrupt, or lying hypocrites.

FB has allowed users to take mudslinging to new lows.

It can be argued with justification that FB is only a platform. What users do with it is up to them. This is true, which is why it is up to users to regulate the messages and the people we allow into our circle of FB “friends.” I’ve been wary of doing this because I don’t want to be the person who shuts out contrary opinions.

Yet the recent exchanges have left me feeling more and more isolated from deep, meaningful conversations. Perhaps it’s because FB, in its straight-to-the-point simplicity encourages us to categorize each other and ourselves in the most convenient terms: liberal, progressive, conservative, atheist, Christian, Muslim, Jew, veteran, non-veteran. 

Perhaps it’s because everyone feels they have to have the last word—after all, others are watching, even if they don’t participate or “like” our post.

Perhaps liberals and conservatives do see the world in such widely different terms that no true coming together is possible. But if such a meeting of the minds were to happen, it will not be facilitated by the sharp comments, cartoonish memes, and one-upping arguments on Facebook.

Sunday, October 23, 2016


Get off your grass,
You simple man!

You are not an ostrich
Hiding in its fears.

A circular posture
Crowned in darkness

Cannot get you what you need
Oh, useless muse

You sing songs of desire,
Loneliness, and starvation.

Get out of your cellar
Your lofty perch is the highest of the low

It's not about you.

You exist to serve, and in serving
You meet your own need.

Trust in the Lord or the Universe or
Something Greater than yourself.

Lose your ego and your self-defeat;
You will not be happy

Until you serve another.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Want a Faster Email Response from Your Professor? Follow These Four Tips

Email makes taking classes so much easier these days. Among other things, you can reach out to your instructors about an assignment or grade with a few keystrokes.

However, email can make users careless. Students sometimes fire off messages without putting much thought into them, leaving instructors scratching their heads as to what the student is asking and how best to respond.
You can give your instructors all the information they need by following four easy steps:
1. Tell us which class you are in.
Believe it or not, you instructor probably doesn't teach just one class. Full-time professors may teach anywhere from four to seven classes, or more, at a time. Adjunct instructors may teach several classes at different institutions. So, even if the instructor recognizes your name, he or she may not associate it with a particular class.
You can tell the instructor precisely which class you are in by including the course section number in your email.
Most college courses have a course number and a course section number (CSN). For example, the course number may tell you the course name and level, such as "English 101" or "Business Administration 250." But there may be hundreds of individual courses, or sections, and your professor may be teaching several at the same time. 
At some institutions, a CSN may look something like this: EN101-001 or BA250-327N. At other institutions, the number may be a more generic series of numbers, such as 32466. 
Where do you find the CSN? Try looking in the course catalog or the list of courses you are currently taking. If you are taking an online course, the section number can usually be found on the course home page or menu. 
2. Send emails only from your college email account.
In the modern world, people have many different email accounts, and sometimes those accounts are linked for convenience. But if your instructor receives an email from your personal or work account, she has no way of knowing if the sender is you or someone else. She also has no way of knowing who else has access to your account: your spouse, your children, or your employer.
Your college account should not be shared with anyone. Your instructor must be able to respond with the confidence that you and only you are receiving the messages.
For this reason, many instructors will respond to emails only if they are sent from the student’s school account.
3. Be specific about what you are asking.
“Hey, prof, I don’t understand the assignment” tells us very little. “Hey, prof, I don’t understand the Week 6 assignment” tells us only a little more.
If you really want to blow your instructor’s mind, write something like, “The Week 6 assignment asks us to write in third person, but I don’t know what this means. Can you show me some examples?”
The more specific you can be, the more specific a response you will get. 
Otherwise, you may receive a ton of information you don’t need. Even worse, the instructor may ask for clarification, which means you have to send another email with more detailed information anyway.
And while you can ask as many questions as you want, it may be more meaningful to focus on one at a time. Make sure you understand the instructor’s response before going on to another concern. You can always send another email later.
4. Be polite.
This one should go without saying, yet I sometimes receive emails which make demands or even threats—usually over a low grade.
No one likes to receive a low grade. If you receive one, it's okay to be upset. But this is also an opportunity to practice your readiness for a professional career by keeping your emotions in check. Instead of writing, “I don’t agree with my grade. I’m going to file an appeal,” write something like, “I was stunned to see I had received a D. Did I miss something?”
If, after receiving the instructor’s response, you still feel you have been wronged and have evidence to support your claim, by all means you should file an appeal. But making threats comes across as childish and can shut down communication with the person who is most interested in helping you succeed: your instructor.
Always practice the Golden Rule—treat others as you want to be treated. Even better, practice what Dr. Tony Alessandra calls the Platinum Rule—treat others as they want to be treated.
If you follow these steps, your educational experience will be immensely improved by helping us help you.

Friday, October 7, 2016

The Thesis Statement: This One Sentence Can Make or Break Your Essay

Below is another of my posts on college writing. This post originally ran on the Grantham Blog in 2015.
Here’s a quick quiz.
Let’s say you are writing a paper for one of your college courses on whether or not colleges and universities should change their grading systems.
Which of the following would make the best thesis statement?
A. This essay will discuss whether or not colleges and universities should abolish grades. 
B. In my opinion, colleges and universities should do away with grades altogether. 
C. The traditional grading system of A-F does not adequately measure student achievement inside and outside of the classroom. 
D. Should colleges and universities change their grading systems?
Before you select an answer, let’s get a clear understanding of what a thesis statement is and what it is not.
Get to the Point
A thesis statement is the most important part of an essay. It is the central idea of the paper—the “thing” you most want to get across. In a persuasive essay, it is the idea you want your readers to accept.
In other words, it is the point of your paper distilled down to one sentence or twoat most.
A thesis statement must be specific. It does not leave room for readers to guess what you mean or for you to weasel out of a position by saying, “Well, it’s just my opinion.”
This can be a challenge because, in writing an essay,  you commit yourself to a position. A position in writing is like a position in baseball: you must be standing in the right place (or on the right base) to get home. If you are in the wrong place or too slow in getting to the next base, you will be “out.”
Unlike baseball, there are rarely winners and losers in writing. Writers try to express some universal truth that their readers can agree on. If you can get your readers to agree, we are all “winners.”
But in order to find that truth, you have to take a position.
Don’t Argue with Me (Well, Yes You Can)
A thesis statement must also be arguable, which means someone can, in fact, disagree with you. This, too, is a challenge because most people feel uncomfortable when others disagree with them. Who wants to be told we’re wrong?
However, a good writer prepares to take that risk. He/she does this by showing confidence in the position and welcomes the opportunity to address others who hold different views.
Don’t Just Lie There. Get Up and Move!
A thesis statement should propel the reader forward. It should make the reader curious about how the writer arrived at this conclusion.
These statements are active, not passive (“This paper will discuss …”). They engage the reader in dialogue, making the reader feel he or she has a stake in the issue.
Last, a thesis statement is never a question. It is by definition a statement. It ends in a period. Think of a thesis statement as the answer to a question.
Drumroll, please!
It should be obvious that the correct answer is C. It is the only answer that meets all of the above criteria: It is specific and arguable. It propels the reader forward, and it is not a question.
Does this mean that the thesis statement has all the answers? Absolutely not.
One can easily argue the opposite position—that grades provide students with easily identifiable goals and employers with a quick measure of an applicant’s academic record, for example.
Because this counterargument exists, the writer now has a clear job: to convince the reader(s) to take his/her side.
And the best part of a thesis statement? If you distill your entire paper down to one sentence, you now know where you're going and so does your reader.

Friday, September 30, 2016

The Blacklist: Topics to AVOID for your college paper

Last week, we talked about how to pick a topic for your college essay. This week, we talk about topics to AVOID. 
This article originally appeared on the Grantham Blog in 2014.

One of the challenges students face in college writing is topic selection.
Some instructors determine in advance what topics their students are allowed to write about; others give students a more or less free rein.
The good thing about such a course is that you may get to write about a topic that already interests you. The bad thing? You have to choose your topic wisely.
The Blacklist of Topics
Some instructors allow students to write about anything they wish; others discourage certain topics or ban them outright. Often called “the Blacklist,” these topics rarely result in good college essays. Although the Blacklist varies from professor to professor, it commonly includes the following topics:
  • abortion
  • stem cell research
  • same-sex marriage
  • legalization of marijuana or other drugs
  • gun control/gun issues in general
  • any sports-related topic
  • death penalty
Topics like these should be avoided for three reasons:
1. "Not This Topic Again!"
Students often select these topics because they aren’t sure what else to write about and they can easily find information about the topics via a quick search of the Internet.
However, students with nothing new to say about abortion or the legalization of marijuana often lapse into summary, merely repeating what their sources have already said instead of making an original argument. Professors cringe when they get such papers. Some want to tear out what little hair they have left.
Other times, students are so dead set on their position that they make questionable claims. If you support the legalization of marijuana because you tried it and turned out just fine, you might want to consider whether or not it is advisable to admit to engaging in an activity that is still illegal in some states.
And it’s tough to make an original argument about divisive issues, which leads us to Reason No. 2:
2. "You're Wrong, and I'll Prove It!"
“Hot button” topics polarize readers who already have strong opinions about them. You can turn on the television and watch most any debate on gun control turn into a shouting match.
Some instructors also have strong opinions about certain issues. Your argument to the contrary is not likely to change their minds, which defeats the purpose of writing the argument. But aren’t professors supposed to be objective?  Yes and no. Professors are human beings, too. The last thing any writer wants to do is bore or antagonize the audience.
Besides, if you have strong feelings on a topic and aren't willing to change your mind, what makes you think your readers will change theirs?
3. Preaching to the Choir
Some topics matter only to readers who already have a strong interest in them.  For example, if you want to argue that so-and-so should be considered the greatest baseball player ever, your audience is already limited to fans of baseball.  
Even so, only fans of that particular player or those who believe someone else should be considered the greatest are likely to care.  (And, in the latter case, you are unlikely to convince them otherwise — see No. 2, above). For other readers, it simply won’t matter who the “greatest player” is.
So, if you can’t write about these topics, what should you write about?  
Begin with your own life and your community. What interests you enough that you want to know more about it? What problems do you see need that need to be addressed? Browse your college databases to get a sense of what topics are relevant to your field of study.
If you have any concerns about whether or not your topic is on the Blacklist, ask your instructor before you proceed. 

Saturday, September 24, 2016

How to Choose a Winning College Essay Topic

Sorry it's been a while since this blog was active. There are some big changes afoot in Greg Gildersleeve Land, including a new Power Club website. Meanwhile, I'm returning to this blog and expanding the focus. Since all writing is connected (at least in my mind), and good writers should be able to do a variety of things, I'm including some non-superhero and non-how-to-be-a-writer topics. 
This first offering addresses something that vexes college students everywhere. It originally appeared on the Grantham Blog. Enjoy.

Writing a persuasive paper or a researched argument can be a daunting task for online students, particularly when you’re given the freedom to choose your own topic.  What topic should you pick when the sky is the limit?
So, you pick a hot subject of the day. You go online, find sources both for and against the topic, write your paper, make sure everything is cited properly, and sit back in anticipation of the A that is surely yours.
Then the paper comes back.
“I got a C!”  What’s up with that?
You did everything the instructor wanted, didn’t you?
Well, yes and no.                     
From someone who has graded hundreds of papers, here are three factors to consider when choosing an essay topic.
Hot Topics are Lukewarm
The problem with selecting a “hot” topic is that you must have something new to say about it.  When instructors ask for an argument, they are not looking for a summary of what other sources say or a rehash of others’ arguments.  They want you to bring something new to the academic conversation.
No “Safe” Topics
To write well, you must take risks.  Writing means exposing some aspect of your soul, your thinking, or your inner world to an audience who is going to react to it. 
For example: When I was in college... I was (and still am) a huge fan of Star Trek.  However, I grew up with the notion that a science fiction television and movie series was not worthy of “serious” discussion in school.  Then, during my freshman year, I took an upper-level course called Transformations of Myth through Time.
One of the required readings was Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces.  In this influential scholarly work, Campbell identifies the paradigm of the hero—a universal pattern that occurs in the heroic literature and mythologies of diverse cultures throughout history.  To me, this paradigm sounded eerily familiar: It reminded me of the back story of Star Trek’s iconic Vulcan character, Mr. Spock.  
So, I wrote a paper showing how Spock’s fictional history could easily be plugged into Campbell’s paradigm. Comparing and contrasting a popular modern character to ancient and universal themes increased my own understanding and appreciation of Star Trek.  It also held significant implications for readers.
Guess what?  I got an A.
When you write a college-level essay, you must look beyond your immediate audience (your professor) and consider who, in a larger context, should read your words.
“Safe” topics won’t take you there.  They ask nothing of the reader because they ask nothing of you, the writer.
Dare to Be Original
Select a topic in which you have a deep, personal interest.   Better yet: draw a topic from your own life—something that excites or annoys you.  A topic you care about is one you will invest the time and effort to research.  It is one you probably already know a great deal about.  It also has significant consequences for your audience, should they accept your viewpoint.
That isn’t to say your topic must be earth shaking.  In fact, the smaller, “quieter,” and off-the-wall topics sometimes work best.
Look for connections between your own life and interests and the material you are studying.  Write something original. Write something you would want to read.
Apprehensive about whether or not the topic will go over well with the professor?
Ask first.  Professors don’t bite. They love it when students save themselves (and the professor) time by troubleshooting a topic first.
Keep in mind that your professor has probably read hundreds or thousands of papers on those hot topics that have been covered to death.  Dare to be different.

Sunday, June 26, 2016


Hard to believe this is my first post of 2016. I'm still writing fiction and working on a Power Club sequel. In the meantime, here's a poem that really has nothing to do with PC. Enjoy!

I have no manifest destiny,
No higher calling
That makes me better than you.
The work I struggle to perfect
May not live on.
It may wither and die
Like yesterday’s songs.
It may change lives,
But, if it does,
It will be as ripples of love and hope.
Those grazed by the ripples
Will think my grand ideas theirs,
And so they should.
Take ownership of life;
If you remember me at all,
Remember me with kindness.

Sneak Peak at My Answers for the Local Author Fair Panel

On Thursday, November 5, I will be one of four authors participating in the Local Authors Fair Panel through Woodneath Library Center, Kansa...