“Lead” Poisoning: An Open Letter to Pat Meehan

Dear Pat,

I generally don’t discuss politics on my blog, and I’m not about to start now. At the same time, however, I have to take issue with a recent mailer in which the Republican Federal Committee of Pennsylvania asks me to vote for you based on your record of fighting to strengthen campus safety throughout the United States through your support of the Clery Act. My problem isn’t with your record; as a faculty member at Montgomery County Community College, I appreciate the value of a safe campus. As a member of the English Department, however, I must point out a glaring typographical error on the part of whoever composed the mailer in question.

Touting your record in relation to such an important facet of higher education as campus safety, the mailer reads, “Pat Meehan lead the fight to strengthen campus safety and protect students.” As you may know, the past tense of “lead” is “led.” As you may also know, the word “lead” can also refer to the chemical element listed as Pb on the periodic table. “Lead,” however, is not used as the past tense of “lead.” That the flyer in question draws the reader’s attention to the misspelled word by both underlining and highlighting it in red makes the mistake difficult to ignore. What’s more, the fact that this mailer ostensibly focuses on higher education renders the error especially egregious.

Although I’m rarely one to offer advice to those in the political realm, my recommendation to your friends in the Republican Federal Committee of Pennsylvania is identical to the recommendation I make to all of my students before they submit their work: proofread. More to the point, if you’re going to pander to educators — especially those who teach writing — you might want to make sure that you don’t go out of your way to draw attention to your spelling errors.

Warmest Regards,

Marc Schuster

PS: I think you’ll like my latest novel, The Grievers. You may even find a typo or two in it.

Exhibit A

Beyond ABC: Going Deeper with a Subject

Here’s a handout I just put together for my ENG 101 class when I realized (after more than a decade of teaching!) that my students might not know what I mean when I tell them to “go deeper” with a subject.

Frequently, a teacher will respond to an essay by saying that the author could stand to “go deeper” with an argument or discussion. What this frequently means is that the student has done a decent job of explaining the facts of a given topic or issue but hasn’t fully explored that issue. It can also mean that the student has only discussed what might be described as “obvious” or superficial concepts associated with the issue at hand but hasn’t really done anything interesting with the material or explained something that the reader might not have already known. One way of describing this problem is to say that the author has sacrificed breadth for depth.

Imagine, for example, that you’ve decided to write an essay about Facebook, and you’ve narrowed your subject down to the subject of marketing products and services on Facebook. Let’s further assume that you’ve personally had some good experiences with marketing a your band’s music on Facebook and that you’ve come to the conclusion that Facebook is a great marketing tool. Although this is a decent place to start, it runs the risk of leading to a paper that does little more than list some of the reasons why Facebook is a great marketing tool. A paper on those lines would tend to be somewhat formulaic and wouldn’t allow you to explore your position in great depth.

Let’s look a little more closely at what I’m talking about: It would be pretty easy to write a paper arguing that Facebook is a great marking tool. The opening paragraph would provide a little bit of background and end with the statement that Facebook is a great marketing tool. The next few paragraphs would then provide evidence of why it’s a great marketing tool. Body paragraph A would begin by saying something like, “First of all, marketing on Facebook is free.” Then it would go on to provide examples or explain why free marketing is a good thing. Body paragraph B would say something like, “Additionally, Facebook has many users.” The rest of that paragraph might discuss the numbers of users in different demographics and why they matter. Body paragraph C might mention something about the ability to target specific types of users. The paper would then end with a conclusion that says something like, “Facebook is a strong marketing tool because of A, B, and C. A is good for this reason. B is good for this reason. C is good for this reason. Therefore A, B, and C make Facebook the ideal marketing tool.”

The trouble with this approach is that it really doesn’t leave any room for debate and doesn’t fully address the complexity of marketing products and services on Facebook. Basically, it presents information that everyone probably agrees with. At the same time, though, it leaves some questions unanswered. For example, why do some products and services sell better than others on Facebook? Are the marketers of these products and services using the Facebook more effectively? If so, how are they doing that? Or is it a question of the type of product or service that’s being sold? Are Facebook users more likely to purchase some products and services than others? Which products and services are most conducive to being marketed through Facebook? By dedicating a paragraph to each of these questions, you will be able to write an essay that takes the reader much deeper into your subject matter than the basic A, B, and C pattern.