by Catriona Mills

Articles in “Writing”

Inappropriate Quotation Marks

Posted 26 October 2008 in by Catriona

I’ve become a little obsessed with odd punctuation over the last two semesters: in fact, I actively seek it out, to use as material in my lectures (due ascribed to the original source, of course).

Which led me directly to many happy hours at The “Blog” of “Unnecessary” Quotation Marks.

But what’s bothering me at the moment—and I must keep a copy of this for one of the punctuation lectures next semester, if I give them—is the label to my current batch of coffee.

I’m intermittently eager to buy fair-trade coffee. I say intermittently, because sometimes the budget simply won’t allow it, and I have to stick to the regular, exploitative type.

This, of course, is straight hypocrisy. I know why fair-trade coffee is more expensive and that’s why I like buying it. So much coffee is grown in Third World countries (on a slightly unrelated note, a coffee shop at the university, which makes the best coffee on campus, sells Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee: according to their brilliant sign, the Blue Mountains are “generally” located past Kingston. I wonder where they go the rest of the time?). And coffee is a crop that can have a devastating effect on local ecology, especially as demand rises and farmers struggle to produce larger and larger crops.

I wonder sometimes whether my coffee-related guilt (and associated budget-related, exploitative-coffee guilt) arises partly out of the face that coffee is such a yuppie drink, evocative of the economic exploitation of poorer countries for the leisure and pleasure of richer ones, just as we used to do (perhaps still do) with tea.

I still drink it, though. And I make an effort to buy fair-trade coffee.

I have fair-trade coffee now, and that’s what’s worrying me. Because it’s slathered in inappropriate quotation marks in questionable places.

For example, the company tells me on one side of the packet that their commitment to their customers is “coupled with ‘state of the art’ roasting facilities.”

I don’t see why that would be ironic, but I can think of some horrifying ideas . . .

This coffee is also organic, though I don’t care one way or the other about organic production. Perhaps I should, but I’ve not given it any thought. Still, when I do, apparently “The Australian Certified Organic label is your ‘Guarantee of Integrity’,” so that’s nice.

But it’s the last section that’s worrying me:

By purchasing products marked with the Fairtrade label you are ensuring the poorest workers and farmers in the developing world are getting a ‘fair go’. The label guarantees that products have been ‘fairly traded.’ Funds generated support education, healthcare and improving work practices.

Now, granted, this isn’t the best-punctuated passage I’ve ever read. I’d have a comma after the introductory phrase in the first sentence and it looks as though the list at the end lacks parallel structure, though they may actually mean that the funds “support improving work practices,” clumsy though that phrasing might be.

(I’m also skipping over the implications of the “fair go,” which I’ve never cared for. It’s not only a cliche, but it’s also shorthand for something too complicated for any two-word phrase to express. Hence the shorthand. Yet, it seems to me that the shorthand version is increasingly used unthinkingly, divorced from any of the more complicated connotations: shorthand, like windmills, does not work that way. But that’s not the point here.)

But it’s the quotation marks that get me here.

Excluding, perhaps, the reference to the “poorest workers and farmers” and the information about where the funds are distributed, it seems that the terms “fair go” and “fairly traded” are actually the most important in the passage.

So why are they in inverted commas?

Are they ironic? Is the coffee not, in fact, fairly traded? If so, what on earth does that rather pretty badge on the front of the packet mean?

I imagine, of course, that this is an attempt to use quotation marks as a means of adding emphasis to a phrase. Naturally, that’s annoying, too.

But not as annoying as the fact that every time I open the pantry door I have to think, “But how is ‘fairly traded’ ironic? And why?”

Still, I suppose it’s not as bad as that sign I once found that read “Employees Must Wash ‘Hands’.”

For Your Consideration . . .

Posted 16 October 2008 in by Catriona

I’ve not received an official letter, as yet.

But the thesis is uploaded to the library site/digital theses project (and remind me to tell you about that debacle some day). Apparently, since it was uploaded yesterday, that should be the official date of award.

It’s printed and bound (and, yes, there was a debacle there, too, but not the printery’s fault: they’ve been awesome).

And it’s sitting on the shelf at home, next to the M.Phil.

This is the most self-aggrandising blog post I’ve ever written. And that’s saying something.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to put my education to good use (having a drink), by spending my evening in quiet, scholarly pursuits (having another drink), thus contributing to the overall state of knowledge in the world (maybe even having a third drink).

Bibliographical Practice and the Busy Academic

Posted 1 October 2008 in by Catriona

I don’t normally link the articles on this solipsistic little blog to discussions in the wider blogosphere (though it sometimes happens almost accidentally, as with the season finale of Doctor Who).

But this is causing a little stir at the moment (courtesy of Crooked Timber): the owners of EndNote are suing George Mason University for an enormous sum over a tool (based on open-source software) that they say violates EndNote’s license agreement.

I’ve never been an EndNote user. I did try it, back in the days of my early enrolment in the M.Phil. programme: the library used to make it freely available to research higher degree candidates, and I did install it.

But it never suited me. My preferred bibliographical practice is this:

Index cards don’t suddenly crash in the middle of a project, they can be physically manipulated as a diagram of your argument, and they don’t suffer the same disadvantages as my other favourite research tool: Post-it notes.

(Those are forever losing their adhesive and ending up scattered all over the study floor.)

And yet, my most recent work had a strong bibliographical component.

The Ph.D. thesis required the standard list of works cited (a rigorous enough task—the standard academic requirements for accuracy aside—since established criticism on penny weeklies includes a large quantity of scattered pieces across a wide range of sources).

In addition to that, though, the thesis also included a second volume of scholarly bibliographies: the Index to Fiction in Fiction for Family Reading (1865-1866) and the Index to Fiction in the Second Series of Bow Bells (1864-1881).

This is a slightly different kind of bibliographical practice, of course, and not one to which EndNote is ideally suited.

But it is the reason why I’m peculiarly interested in bibliographical practice.

And, conversely, it’s why I’m concerned about what Crooked Timber points out as the side effect of this action against George Mason University.

While Fiction for Family Reading is only six volumes, the Bow Bells bibliography covers eighteen years—or thirty-four volumes or 882 (25-page) issues, whichever gives a better sense of scale. The entire 250-page index is the eventual result of six months in which I spent at least half of each day sitting in front of a microfilm machine.

That doesn’t seem relevant?

My point is this: an enormous amount of academic practice takes place in isolation.

Yes, collaborative work is an increasingly important part of academic life. But collaborative work is largely collaborative in the writing stage, not the research stage—and even then, it’s frequently a matter of independent writing followed by a stage of meshing different areas of expertise together.

It’s an important aspect of academic life. When I began my M.Phil., one of the main points they stressed for us was the importance of creating networks among other postgraduate students, of not spending three or four years scurrying between your office and the library and feeling increasingly isolated.

And this is where the apparent rival—in EndNote’s eyes—to EndNote becomes valuable: it’s not just a bibliographical tool. It also has a social-networking aspect, in that it allows academics to share, in Crooked Timber’s words, “metadata and other interesting things.”

As Henry points out on Crooked Timber, “this battle is likely to have long term consequences in determining whether or not new forms of academic collaboration are likely to be controlled by academics themselves, or take place through some kind of commercially controlled intermediation.”

Given that academic practice is already strongly skewed towards isolating work practices, this is a more serious concern than whether or not Zotero contravenes EndNote’s license agreement.

I’m rather pleased now that EndNote never suited me, although it would be satisfying to boycott it.

But that’s the point that concerns me here: I’ll leave the intellectual-property issues and the concerns about whether such a lawsuit is viable to those who better understand such issues.

Perhaps many years ago, when universities, at least on the European model, were largely staffed by academics who also lived on campus and therefore shared, to a large extent, a common social life in the common room, the isolating nature of academic practice wasn’t such a concern.

But that’s no longer the case.

And in the case of EndNote as opposed to Zotero, it’s dangerous to allow a commercially driven company to determine not only what type of bibliographical tool suits academics but also whether or not those tools should be used to foster collegiality.

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