Quality enhancement

by CarlD

Our accrediting agency requires a “quality enhancement plan” (QEP) because nothing is perfect and everything can be improved. We settled on a program to create a culture of reading. And no, you can’t take that for granted at American universities. Here’s a poster I posed for to promote the cause:

The book I’m holding upside-down is Postmodernism for Beginners. The t-shirt says “Don’t Wanna.” By the way, at first I thought the committee-produced slogan “get between the covers” was harmless enough in a nerdy teehee kind of way, but it turns out to be catastrophic in both directions at once: it’s nerdy enough to turn off the students; yet it offends the prudes.

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20 Comments to “Quality enhancement”

  1. Is it a deliberate piece of snark that the reader is holding the book upside down?

  2. Serious recommendation: Check out Richard Earle (2000) The Art of Cause Marketing: How to Use Advertising to Change Personal Behavior and Public Policy .

    A favorite screw-up: Early in my career as a copywriter I was asked to produce an ad for Sony’s then state-of-the-art Trinitron TV. The new feature was the black mask that made colors on screen more vivid. I got caught up in thinking about the technology and how black is, technically speaking, the absence of color. I came up with the line “The Brightest Black You’ve Every Seen,” not thinking for a moment how it might be read in, for example, South Africa.

  3. Oh dear! That’s a really good one.

    I did hold the book upside-down deliberately, and choose that book, and wear that shirt, and the propeller beanie, and stand in front of the Mao section in the Library, etc. My purpose wasn’t snark, although I do have a sense of the absurd about teaching college students to read. But my purpose was to create an immediate visual interest and intellectual provocation by violating the sanctimony of the topical convention, then layering in possible ‘readings’ for those who cared to look past the goofy surface.

  4. I like how the cartoon character on the t-shirt appears to be grasping the book, or perhaps trying to escape from it.

  5. I know, I love that. Entirely unplanned and unanticipated, a happy accident.

  6. I’m also now interested in the book.

    There should be more philosophy books printed in Comic Sans Serif.

  7. A couple of quotes from the Amazon.com reviews of Postmodernism For Beginners:

    Other books on Postmodernism begin by gleefully flooding you in terms such as “aborescence,” “diegetic,” “interpellation,” and “simulacra.” By the third page your head aches and you throw the book aside – if you’re still awake. You might give up, concluding that Postmodernism is a kind of navel-gazing for college professors with too much time on their hands.

    But because so many young academics, graduate students, and sophomoric philosopher-dilettantes invested so much of themselves in learning French theory (often at the expense of studying the objects of inquiry), they tend to overestimate its importance on the present-day scene, imposing it upon bewildered young students having difficulty weighing its actual importance.

    The trouble with postmodern thought, which one MUST give the appearance of having learned, if one is to be successful in a graduate education in the humanities, is that it is so labyrinthine, so French, and so obscure.

    hus, most people talk about Postmodernism without even having really learned one of its major authors. This boils down to grad students and professors making moves in a game. The game consists of using buzz words and phrases of PoMo-babble–without a real in-depth knowledge that one would need to discuss even one of these thinkers seriously.

  8. Before I go off on a rant, let me ask, would anyone here be interested in a serious critique of the ad qua advertising — the sort of thing a creative director would be saying by way of advice, having rejected this proposal?

  9. Oh yeah, please go for it. The thing’s a mess for sure. Just to put it in context, it was done as a one-off by an assistant librarian on a shoestring budget as part of a series for placement around campus with various faculty as models in settings, poses, clothes and books of their own choosing. But I suspect there will be more rounds of this going forward, so your rant/advice may well be very helpful, and the expert critique is interesting to me in any event.

  10. The creative brief for an ad varies a bit from one agency to another. There is, however, a broad industry consensus on four critical elements

    1. The target — Who are we talking to?
    2. The objective — What do we want the target to do?
    3. The proposition — What we want the target to take away from exposure to the ad
    4. The rationale — Why we believe that this proposition, communicated to this target, will cause the target to do what we want them to

    So, for example, an orientation from BMW (several years ago)

    1. The target — People who want to be in the driver’s seat, not Mercedes customers who like to be driven around.
    2. The objective — Consider a BMW for their next luxury sedan purchase
    3. The proposition — BMW is “The Ultimate Driving Machine,” the world’s most beautiful synthesis of luxury sedan comfort and status and sports car performance
    4. The rationale — The ultimate driving machine is exactly what people who want to be in the driver’s seat are looking for in their next car. If they believe our proposition, they will choose a BMW.

    So let’s look at this ad

    1. The target is college students who don’t read. Why not? Is reading too old-fashioned, too associated with being an unpopular nerd? Is reading being squeezed out by video games, the Internet, class assignments, the dating game?
    2. The objective is to get our target to read more. Why, then, is the person reading made to look like an idiot, precisely the sort of person that our target may be most afraid of becoming?
    3. The proposition. This isn’t just an old-fashioned wording issue. Where’s the beef, the benefit of reading for our target.
    4. The rationale. I don’t see one. Someone thinks that juvenile humor will appeal to juveniles. Almost never works unless you are selling candy to late elementary/junior high kids, especially boys for whom grossing out parents or girls is seen as a good thing.

    Next step: Develop a strategy incorporating the elements described above.

    Then: Show it to some kids in your target group; see if they think it makes sense. Listen to what they say when they slam it. You will know you are there when you show them a proposition and see them responding in ways that imply they find it interesting. A useful tactic at this stage is to show them three ideas, ask the kids to rate and rank them and then ask them to explain their choices.

    When you’ve got a strong proposition, then you can start worrying about creative issues like copy, visuals and getting the right tone and manner.

    Hope this is helpful.

  11. More than a little helpful. Let’s see if I can contribute anything to refining the analysis in this case:

    1. The targets are college students who don’t read and colleagues who intimidate students who don’t read by taking themselves too seriously.

    2. The objectives are to legitimate reading to students by demonstrating that not all readers are self-important, humorless poindexters, and to make self-important, humorless poindexterity more difficult and costly for colleagues.

    3. The proposition is that when faculty natter on about a culture of reading, they aren’t necessarily just attempting to jam yet another ration of spinach down students’ throats.

    4. The rationale is that before students can be convinced to read, they must first be convinced that reading is not the exclusive and inherently-polluting activity of self-important, humorless poindexters.

    There’s some leverage and challenge in the model’s local notoriety as both an unconventional and a demanding teacher. “The person reading” is not just anyone, it’s Dr. Dyke.

    How could we do these things better?

  12. 1. It is often said that the best of all possible ads is one that speaks directly to the target. That is why ads with two or more targets rarely work.
    2. “Legitimating reading” is (to use a term that Clifford Geertz borrowed from someone else) too “experience distant.” Remember, the objective is something that we want the target to do, e.g., consider reading as a way to spend time, in the same consideration set* as playing a video game or watching a DVD, for example.

    *Consideration set: a term of art for the alternatives to what we are selling, in this case other ways to spend time.

    3. Read that sentence again and ask yourself if it will move you, let alone a student, to read something. Off the top of my head

    3.1 Readers get jobs — Something everyone is worried about these days, but especially students counting down the days until they are out of school.

    3.1 Readers are sexy — They say that nerds are cool these days; but I’d bet that we aren’t talking about slobs who never leave the keyboard or release their grip on their Gameboys or Wii controllers.

    Anyway, the proposition is “Read and [Something Good Happens].” What could that be?

    4. It can be important to lower barriers — but the strongest rationales are always benefit-based and very, very simple, i.e., “Telling our target that doing X while result in Y, where Y is something they want, will cause them to do X.”

    Next round.

  13. Cool. Going to bed, so I’ll have to come back to the point-by-point later. But in the meantime, it strikes me that I’m seeing the objective as a multi-step process with a number of variables. So at the moment I don’t see how one ad can get students who don’t read from where they are now to reading; there’s some underbrush that needs to be cleared first. I’m open to and even excited about a more direct, one-step “Read and [Something Good Happens]” approach. Maybe I’m too much the self-important, humorless poindexter to see it.

  14. Part of the problem is that we are not offering a product of immediately tangible value. In some sense reading, and education, are more like physical fitness: the goal is easily articulated, but like working out the process is arduous and immediately off-putting. [Something Good Happens] doesn’t fall easily into the hedonic wheelhouse.

  15. If your library has a copy, you might want to take a look at Edwin L. Battistella (2009) Do You Make These Mistakes in English?: The Story of Sherwin Cody’s Famous Language School. You may find yourself filled with a certain loathing, since this is the story of the inventor of direct response advertising, who made a pile selling improve-your-English courses to immigrants aspiring to join the middle class. On the other hand, the ads he created are among the most successful in history. Might find some tips here.

  16. Thanks, John. Sorry to drop the thread. I have to watch out for getting stymied in this conversation by the pile of references. Clearly there’s some work I need to do to get up to speed in this field. At the moment I’m at the level of commitment corresponding to “mildly unpleasant task hastily and perfunctorily performed.” If I were you I wouldn’t want to do all the heavy conversational lifting without more sign of commitment from me either.

    So I should read Battistella on principle, but I’m hoping you’ll help me with how there’s an analogy. It seems to me Cody had a tangibly-useful product for highly-motivated customers. In contrast, what I have is an intangibly-useful product for adversely-motivated customers. For those college students who have not yet found reading to their liking, the benefits are inherently experience distant. We could put hookers in the Library to make the sex connection but I imagine a number of constituencies crying foul on that. We could make cookies drop into a slot when a chip in the book registers a certain number of eyeblinks. The point is we’re trying to get them to choose to do something they find unpleasant and for which there’s no immediate payoff.

    OK, I’m thinking about the analogy with working out. Reading a book is like lifting weights for your brain. It burns and you’re tired at the end, but you get stronger and more appealing. The analogy-fail that has to be overcome is that reading is not visibly strengthening or appealifying. So what would be the imagery of acquired empowerment that could be tied directly to reading?

  17. Carl, how about going back to comment 13 and taking a second look at 3.1? The one thing we know for sure is that getting a job after graduation is an urgent priority for most college students. Getting a better job — at least a bit better than driving a cab or flipping a burger — is a widespread aspiration. Why not tap that very real, we know it exists, motivation instead of trying to persuade them that reading will make them bigger brains. How many of them do you think would find that an attractive idea?

    Not really cooking yet, but I imagine a series of ads based on the line “Who is the reader here?”

    1. Nicely dressed person placing an order or the waiter/waitress taking the order?
    2. The fellow thinking about which new car to buy or the salesman trying to sell it to him?
    3. The woman turning her back on the 40″ TVs and pointing to the new 60″ model or the guy in the BestBuy/Sam’s Club style jacket looking where she’s pointing?

    Yes, this kind of thing may seem like a violation of the academic dogma that we all need education just because it’s good for us. But I’ll bet the premise holds; you’ll get more people reading — and discovering that reading is actually fun —if you can tap their desires to get ahead and have something to say to their parents and friends when they ask, “Why have you got your nose stuck in a book all the time?”

    Which is more important, to convince a few kids to see reading the way you and I do? Or convince more kids that reading is a better way to achieve a better life?

  18. Those are great ideas! I agree with you that there’s no point trying to convince the kids to see reading the way we do; but that if they do it for self-interest they might also find the more intangible joys of it. Your specific ad suggestions seem well-targeted to me, or at least focus-group ready.

    I do have one piece of information re: 3.1 that may be neither here nor there given where we are in the conversation. I know from extensive experience with word and deed that the students who do not read do not believe that anything they do in college has any bearing on their employability. They believe that college is all useless egghead crap and hoop-jumping, as their entire formal education has been. Their purpose is to get paper certification that they’ve jumped through the hoops. Some of them are quite pragmatic about this, while others think more magically – for the latter the diploma is a kind of talisman received from irritating shamen after unpleasant rituals.

    I’ve had some success troubling these attitudes by asking whether they themselves would pay someone $20K more a year just because they carried a piece of paper, whether they can imagine anyone staying in business for long if they threw money away like this, and whether they’d actually want to work for a company that was so clearly self-destructive. The good answer I’ve gotten is that the diploma certifies a capacity to persevere through adversity; the image is of education as an obstacle course, with the objective being to complete it unscathed.

  19. I’ve had some success troubling these attitudes by asking whether they themselves would pay someone $20K more a year just because they carried a piece of paper, whether they can imagine anyone staying in business for long if they threw money away like this, and whether they’d actually want to work for a company that was so clearly self-destructive. The good answer I’ve gotten is that the diploma certifies a capacity to persevere through adversity; the image is of education as an obstacle course, with the objective being to complete it unscathed.

    I like this direct approach and am glad that you have had some success with it. Have you tried confronting your students with the fact that a diploma won’t get you a job anymore, i.e., that the piece of paper per se is (a) worthless and (b) worth less everyday? Followed with serious discussion of what people with jobs to give you are actually looking for?

    I am thinking first of the arguments advanced by Robert Reich in The Work of Nations, where Reich suggests (here I am quoting from Scott London’s review) that jobs now fall into three broad categories,

    These are “symbolic- analytic” services, routine production services, and “in-person” services. The first of these is carried out by what Reich calls “symbolic analysts” engineers, attorneys, scientists, professors, executives, journalists, consultants and other “mind workers” who engage in processing information and symbols for a living. These individuals, which make up roughly twenty percent of the labor force, occupy a privileged position in that they can sell their services in the global economy. They are well-educated and will occupy an even more advantageous position in society in the future.

    Routine production, a.k.a., repetitive labor, turning bolts on an assembly line or flipping burgers at a fast-food restaurant, is caught in a downward spiral. Even a lot of fast food can now be prepared offshore, delivered frozen, and reheated in convenience store microwaves.

    In-person services can be a good place to be if you are really, really good at delivering a service that people need in person, be it Swedish massage, emergency room nursing or being Madonna’s butler. But this sector now faces a lot of competition from people who formerly found jobs in routine production.

    Symbolic-analytic jobs, unless you are a star athlete or entertainer, this is where the money is. But you can’t afford to rest on your laurels. By some estimates there are now more really, really smart and hardworking Chinese students in the top 10% of their high school and college classes than there are good, bad or indifferent students in the U.S.A. And information technology means that they, or their Indian counterparts, another group bigger than all of the students in the U.S.A. are the people young folks starting out now are competing with.

    I’d introduce these ideas and follow up with what Dan Pink has to say in A Whole New Mind. We may or may not be convinced by Pink’s enthusiasm for right brain thinking, but his diagnosis of the situation of kids now facing global competition is spot on.

    Whoops! Got carried away again.

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