Monday, July 15, 2013

Comments about an Article Read in Flight

Certain affairs required me to take a trip this July.  The details of the trip are not relevant, except to say that I flew via United Airlines, and so I had the opportunity to read the July 2013 issue of Hemispheres, the in-flight magazine offered by the airline.  It was a quick read and for the most part unentertaining, but one point did stand out as particularly relevant to teaching.  To wit, in Arnie Cooper's article "Mr. Fix-It," Kyle Wiens of iFixit is reported as refusing "to hire people with poor grammar.  'I understand missing a comma, but if you use "to," "too" and "two" [sic] incorrectly,' he said at the time, 'it shows me you have no idea what you’re talking about.'"  The remarks serve as a reminder that it is not only English teachers and professors who care about such things.  It is not only in the academy that adherence to prescribed standards of usage matters, but in professional contexts as well.

While Wiens's comments do seem to partake of narrowly prescriptivist views that are not necessarily in accord with the best understandings of language and usage held by linguists and rhetoricians, they do align with prevailing popular understandings of "good" writing.  Freedom from "error" is one of the things for which people look when they decide that a piece of writing is worth reading, and it is often (if incorrectly) used as an indicator of competence and intelligence--as Wiens indicates of his own hiring practices.  Having a firm command of the "standards" that have grown up through repeated use and tacit social agreement, then, is something that is immensely helpful for those seeking work, and not just in the "soft" fields of the academic humanities, but in the "practical" field of electronics repair.  It is likely true in other fields, as well, allowing for a quiet assertion of authority and credibility, as an authoritative, credible source is more likely to be believed and valued than one that is not.

Also to be noted is an issue of context.  In-flight magazines are frequently read by those who fly, and many of those who fly do so for concerns of business and profession.  Many of my own flights are taken to get me to research conferences, and I often overhear others talking about business they will conduct when they get where the planes take them.  The in-flight magazines are therefore poised to spread their messages through the middle socio-economic strata of mainstream United States society (the lower being unlikely to fly much and the upper enjoying chartered flights that offer different entertainments)--where much hiring and economic activity take place.  Wiens's comments thus have the potential to spread widely, and although there are problems with them, they do serve to spread the idea that control of one's prose is a skill not just for the classroom, but for far outside of it.  And that is a welcome vindication of the years-long efforts of those who teach English.

Work Cited
Cooper, Arnie. "Mr. Fix-It." Hemispheres. Illus. Carl Wiens. Ink, 2013. Web. 15 July 2013.

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