Zed or Zee? A crisis of Canadian identity

Recently, I have had several conversations with my children that would suggest I don’t feel as old as I think I may actually be. I am a child of the 70s. I grew up on Sesame Street, Mr Dressup, Mr Rogers and the Friendly Giant. I knew the difference between the CBC and PBS, and the difference was simple: when I watched Sesame Street on CBC, the alphabet ended in Zed and the second language was French, while in the same show on PBS, the alphabet ended in Zee and the second language was Spanish. Thus began my sense of Canadian identity, and, as for many of my generation, it was centered on how we talk and spell and how those things proved we were not American.

My kids span the line between the Millennial and Gen Zee generations – and please note that I have to write “Gen Zee”, because if I write it “Gen Z” I will say it out loud as “Gen Zed”. It took most of my childhood years to figure out why the heck a slogan like “EZ-clean” held any meaning whatsoever. And when I did finally clue in, I reconciled it by thinking “well, that’s fine if you’re American, but otherwise it’s just silly.”

More than one of my kids has taken pretty strong exception to my insistence that Canadians call it Zed and not Zee. My stubborn adherence to these subtle speech and language differences apparently causes me to come across as stubborn, petty and chauvinistic. This is not how I want to be described.

But in mild self-defence and an effort to find perspective, let’s consider that in my adult lifetime, I have watched the following sweeping changes in the way the Canadians around me speak and write:

  • We’ve moved, almost completely, from Zed to Zee
  • We call the country to the south of us America, not the United States
  • We move, in school, from the 7th to the 8th grade, not from Grade VII to Grade VIII
  • We opt to leave out the u in colour, neighbour, favour, humour, and behaviour. We increasingly choose between US and UK spelling, and there is less and less tolerance for anything in between.

Canadians have struggled with their national identity as long as the country has been in existence. Hundreds of thousands of words have been written on the subject, coming to all kinds of conclusions ranging from the sincere to the ridiculous:

  • there is no such thing, really – it’s political, not cultural
  • Canadian identity is whatever makes us not American
  • it’s about hockey, poutine, and Tim Hortons (which was, ironically, absorbed by American corporate interest)
  • it’s about balancing unity with inclusion and diversity
  • it’s about being polite and apologetic
  • it’s about being liked internationally

Recognizing the complexity of the question of Canadian identity, my simple aim here is to come to terms with “Zed vs Zee” in a way that will make me a better person. And that’s it, really: how does being Canadian make me a better global citizen?

Being Canadian is important to me because I have a life-long belief that my country stands up for decency. To me, being a decent human being means understanding my place in the world as a global citizen, as a member of the most powerful and influential species on the planet. We’ve heard it many times: “With great power comes great responsibility.”

It will take me a long time before I stop cringing when my kids say “Zee” and refer to “the 10th grade,” but I will get there. I will bite my tongue when they tell me about something they heard happening “in America” or if they spell colour without a U. I will let these things go in favour of promoting good citizenship within and beyond our national borders.

When I dig deep, what I really want is for the next generation to understand how things work in Canada and how Canada’s relationship to the rest of the world matters more than how we “identify” as Canadians. I want them to appreciate the privileges that living here affords us. I want them to vote and to exercise their right from an informed place and an impassioned state of mind. I want them to remember that of all the species on the planet, human beings hold the most power over, and thus the greatest responsibility for, life on Earth.

Our national identity is useful only to the extent that it makes us better people. Ultimately, if being Canadian means that I strive to be a decent human being, I’m all for it, regardless of how we get from A to Zed. Namaste.

Why I Love Editing: Brain Balance

Editing is a varied and dynamic process that is sometimes hard to define, and that is actually one of the things I love about it. It is a very personal process that will depend entirely on the context not only of the work itself but of both the creators and the audience.

When anything is written down to convey information, it is only useful to the extent that it reaches its intended audience. And I don’t just mean that they receive it; I mean that it reaches into their minds and hearts and that the intended message is understood.

Editing happens all the time, all around us. We self-edit an email before we send it. We ask a trusted person to bring “fresh eyes” to something when the stakes are high and after we’ve read it a thousand times already.

What I love about editing is that it is simultaneously intuitive and technical.

When I was in school, I could never decide if I was an arts or a science person. My parents and teachers suggested that people are either right- or left-brained but that some (like me) are pretty balanced between the two. Rather than embracing this, I tried very hard to pick one at the expense of the other. When the technical side was in charge, my creativity suffered, and when I let the creativity peek through, it felt like the technical side tried to keep it in line with the “rules.”

In hindsight, this led to a lot of frustration, but it also led to me to the level of understanding I have today. Editing allows me to use both sides of my brain. I can be creative and intuitive as well as technical and methodical, and I can use these skills for good.

I even have two “missions” in my freelance work:

When I am feeling creative and intuitive, my mission is to help brilliant minds shine brightly. I have encountered so many bright and inspired people who know what they want to say but, whether for lack of training or a language barrier, cannot always bring that brilliance to the written word without some help.

When my left brain kicks into gear, my mission morphs accordingly: to help clients convey information that is both useful and helpful to the intended audience. By “useful,” I mean that the writing fulfills its purpose, whether that be to instruct, inspire, or inform. By “helpful,” I mean that the writing fulfills its purpose while inflicting no unnecessary pain – that is, that the intended audience can read and understand with no distraction and without having to think any harder than they should have to.

A couple of weeks ago, a post on Editors’ Weekly by Anna Williams resonated with me, because it asked the question whether editors are born or made. As with all things, I honestly think the answer is “some of each,” but it made me smile to think that other editors out there love what they do, and dare to wonder why.

Porcupines and Pine Trees

A porcupine ambles across the TransCanada pipeline near Barren Lake in Manitoba, May 10, 2023.

The horses see the porcupine before we do. Downwind, they stop, ears pricked. Oddly, they are not alarmed, or even nervous, which makes me giggle, given all the scary leaves and sticks and squirrels we’ve been side-eyeing up until now. The walking pin cushion shuffles off, unhurrying, on its stumpy legs, and disappears into the trees.

We are riding on the TransCanada pipeline that runs through the southern part of Whiteshell Provincial Park in Manitoba. Beneath us is human-made infrastructure that funnels natural gas across the country to heat homes and cook food. It was built in the 1980s, a massive undertaking involving much dynamite and movement of rock. Others can tell you what it was like then, but what I see now is land that has adapted to the change. In the winter, it’s a corridor for wolves and lynx, deer and snowshoe hares alike. Bears traverse it. Sandhill cranes and blue herons nest near it. The porcupine is testament to the pipeline having apparently been accepted by the local flora and fauna as part of what is. The disruption happened, and the scar has been reclaimed, even embraced, by the boreal forest. It is peaceful here.

A highway would not be so peaceful. And yet, as we ride along, I imagine what the landscape would become if the powers that be decided to carve away more of the park to make way for more trucks and traffic. A porcupine crossing a pipeline is one thing. Crossing a highway is another story entirely. The pipeline curves around and up and down with the land, leaving ridges and wetlands mostly intact for their inhabitants. A highway would fill in wetlands and destroy ridges to make way for lumps of steel, rubber and plastic to go hurtling through at high speeds. A highway would be a deathtrap for forest dwellers seeking to cross it. A highway would kill this gem, this corner of the boreal forest where people – and horses – can experience the joy that I feel in this moment.

Any local trapper will tell you the beaver, pine martens and mink are all happy here. Those of us who live here year round know the land, the trees, the plants, the animals. Those who have lived here a lot longer than I have know everything about them: what they are, how they interact, why they are important to each other and to us.

Falcon Beach Ranch offers the only boreal forest horseback experience in Manitoba or northwestern Ontario.

The problem is, the South Whiteshell stands in the way of the rest of Canada travelling west to east and back again. It’s a story we’ve heard countless times in the last hundred years, since the birth of the internal combustion engine that powers the automobile. People want to get from A to B, and they want to get there as fast as possible. We want our stuff to get there just as fast. Getting there fast means bigger roads, and bigger roads means fewer trees.

Ironically, much of the traffic traversing the South Whiteshell consists of Manitobans heading to their cottages in northwestern Ontario. As a child, I remember travelling to a family friend’s cottage east of Kenora, and gleefully pointing out the “cottage rocks” (blasted by dynamite to make way for the highway, but my 5-year-old brain had not made that connection yet) that are visible at the point where the highway is flanked by Falcon Lake to the south and Barren Lake to the north. Travellers who are in a hurry to reach their weekend destinations may not necessarily be aware, or care, that they are travelling through someone else’s weekend destination to get there.

We are naturally selfish: we want what we want, when we want it. To be inconvenienced has become an intolerable offense. This seems to have been made worse by the pandemic, but it must have been brewing before that to have become the problem that it now is. People are angry, stressed, and afraid, and it shows.

I take guests on trail rides through the woods who look around in absolute awe and admonish me for taking any of it for granted. People come from the city and they are tired, burnt out, despondent. They get on a horse and we venture over the hill and into the trees, among the spruce, fir and birch, where the noise of the highway disappears and is replaced by rustling leaves, thumping grouse, chattering squirrels, knocking woodpeckers, and chirping songbirds. We breathe. We climb rocky ridges and splash through ponds. By the time our ride is done, our shoulders are lighter, our lungs fuller.

I don’t know where the highway will land. I don’t want it to be here, in this place I now call home, a home I share with many people and countless plants, animals and fungi, a home where I can be a host to the worn-out, weary folk who visit us. I don’t know how to help the rest of Canada see that their path from west to east and back again is through our home. I don’t know how to make them care. But I know I will try.

Wondering what all the fuss is about? Check out this report from Global News from March 23, 2023

Coming to Grips with the Singular They

I was hesitant to say much about this topic, as the internet is full of discussion, and most people in my circles feel that ship sailed some time ago, that there is nothing left to discuss.

Let me be clear: I 100% support gender neutrality. I support gender inclusivity, and I support empowering people to explore gender identity in whatever way helps them make sense of this reality we face. This is not a commentary about gender. This is a commentary about number.

What I choke on with the singular they is the loss of yet another distinction between singular and plural. We already gave that distinction up with the second person: thou/thee got merged with you/ye into you and now we have some terrible options for distinguishing singular from plural: you guys (really?), you all (y’all, which, so help me, makes me cringe) and youse (which I almost like, it’s cute, ish). With the historical use of the “royal we” and the increasing use of we to imply solidarity, collaboration and/or togetherness (even insincerely), a future completely devoid of singular pronouns other than “it” is not all that far-fetched.

As a professional wordsmith, it is my job to help people make themselves understood. If communication is two individuals sharing and understanding an idea (thank you Pat Parelli), there has to be a mutually agreed upon way to convey that idea. It seems important in many cases to be clear about whether we are talking about one or more individuals. However, from an academic writing perspective, the rabbit hole took me on a surprising journey.

Finding clarity through being vague

I have been noticing that in many contexts, particularly in non-fiction discourse, it’s not necessary to talk about an individual. I work on a lot of books that have been translated from French, and the translations are often not great, or too literal, but they reveal a lot about nuances in English and French that I find fascinating. I recently worked on a book about maps. The translators worked diligently to achieve gender neutrality which, bless them, resulted in a few instances of singular/plural discordance, my favourite of which was, in reference to the language of maps: “They makes good use of grammar…“. But I digress. Here’s an example to illustrate the point of being intentionally vague to achieve clarity:

The author may plan to deceive his readers, or not realize that his map will often be misinterpreted.

We’re not talking about a particular author here – this is just any old cartographer who might be making a map with or without the intention to mislead. Ironically, French, a language built entirely on masculine/feminine constructs, has the luxury of gender-neutral third-person possessive pronouns that agree in gender and number with the object, with no refence to the gender or number of whoever is doing the possessing. The original French of the sentence above reads thus:

Leur auteur peut prévoir de tromper ses lecteurs, ou ne pas se rendre compte que sa carte va être souvent mal interprétée.

A simple solution to this is to remove possession, which is not necessary to convey the intended meaning:

The author may plan to deceive readers, or not realize that the map will often be misinterpreted.

The sentence that follows in this passage further illustrates the trend I find in French writing to talk about a single individual when really a category of people, such as a profession (in this case, authors of maps), is the subject being discussed:

Il peut aussi intégrer des éléments graphiques qui vont éventuellement évoquer certaines idées ou sentiments chez les lecteurs

translates literally to

He (or she) can also integrate graphic elements that will eventually evoke certain ideas or feelings in readers…

So we could use they here, but it’s even cleaner if we just eliminate the pronoun altogether:

Authors can also integrate graphic elements…

This boils down to a simple guideline that I have been trying to apply in all my academic editing: If a pronoun can be avoided, avoid it. Speak to the idea, and take the emphasis off the individual.

Showing respect and inclusivity by not specifying

In a world rife with ad hominem attacks, I find it refreshing to take the emphasis off the individual and instead focus on the idea. Good academic writing should be about sharing ideas, making arguments, presenting hypotheses, observations, and conclusions. We can show sensitivity and respect for the individual by not assuming anything about an individual, especially when that individual is representative of a group (e.g., a profession) that hopefully is made up of diverse individuals. Speaking collectively about cartographers without any assumptions about gender (or any other axis of identity, for that matter) helps me counter the implicit bias that comes from visualizing an individual cartographer, something which I cannot trust my brain to do fairly or inclusively.

Up next: the individual they

It’s obvious that none of this is helpful for the nonbinary person who wishes to be identified as such. As a straight, cis-gendered, privileged white woman, I am still learning from individuals in my circles who are not straight, cis,-gendered, privileged or white. I’m hopeful that my efforts to write inclusively by not specifying will help bring unconscious bias to my conscious mind, where I can acknowledge it and learn from the lived experience of others who are willing to share that experience with me.

Repost: Being human in the face of AI language tools.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Can articulating a conception of judgment provide us with inspiration on how we might use the advent of AI to raise the standards on what it is to be human?

Cantwell Smith

My synopsis: Rather than being something to fear, dread, or use to shirk responsibility, AI language models like ChatGPT afford the opportunity to step up and be our best human selves.

ChatGPT killed the student essay? Philosophers call bullshit

Dylan J. White, Philosophy PhD Student, University of Guelph and Joshua August (Gus) Skorburg, Assistant Professor of Philosophy, University of Guelph

That students can cheat more efficiently with ChatGPT does not warrant claims about the death of the student essay. (Shutterstock)

Since ChatGPT was released, many commentators are sounding the alarm about an artificial intelligence (AI) takeover, suggesting that professors will soon be out of a job, or that the student essay is dead.

This is reactionary and misguided. ChatGPT, by its very nature, cannot do the kinds of things we ought to want student essays to do.

ChatGPT does not, and cannot, like other AI, give a damn: In the words of philosopher John Haugeland, AI cannot possibly give a damn, as nothing matters to it.

ChatGPT does, however, pose a unique set of challenges and opportunities when it comes to education and assessment — some of which ChatGPT has not so much created as brought to light with new urgency.

Beyond existing shortcuts facilitated by online tools that predate ChatGPT, students and educators may have lost sight of some of the skills and values that essay writing is meant to develop — namely, judgment and giving a damn.

Shortcuts already abound

A ghost is seen above the words ghostwriter.
There will always be students who use shortcuts. (Shutterstock)

Does this require educators to stop to think about — and potentially change — some of our teaching and assessment practices? Absolutely.

Does ChatGPT signal the death of critical thinking? Quite the opposite.

Let’s first consider the landscape before ChatGPT arrived on the scene. Online textual summaries and ready-made analyses offering shortcuts to actual reading and understanding have been readily accessible.

Essay mills are easy to find, and as The Washington Post reports, “online tests have also meant a booming business for companies that sell homework and test answers, including Chegg and Course Hero.”

There will always be students who use these shortcuts. Teachers and administrators will do their best to catch them, but some will inevitably get away with it.

Novel feature of ChatGPT

A genuinely novel feature of ChatGPT, however, is the speed and ease with which students can take shortcuts to bypass the difficult processes of reading, understanding, thinking and writing.

Before, students may have had to browse multiple websites or shared cloud documents and piece together their findings. Now, a series of prompts from their smartphone will do.

But why should speed and ease be the change that make a difference? The efficiency with which students can now cheat does not warrant claims about the death of the student essay.

These problems have been around since long before the arrival of ChatGPT. They’re just harder to ignore now.

A student seen earnestly working at a laptop.
Desire to bypass the difficult processes of reading, understanding, thinking and writing has been around since before ChatGPT. (Tim Gouw/Unsplash)

No understanding: a bullshitter?

What about the essays that ChatGPT produces?

Yes, ChatGPT can often cogently answer straightforward essay prompts, but these essays show no regard for understanding, judgment or truth. When we asked ChatGPT to explain itself to a group of philosophy students, it readily admits “it doesn’t have any understanding of the world, beliefs or moral values.”

This had led some commentators to suggest ChatGPT is a “bullshitter” in the philosophical sense of that term: According to the philosopher Harry Frankfurt, whereas a liar must to some extent be responding to the truth, the bullshitter has no regard for truth or falsity — their “eye is not on the facts at all.”

The bullshitter merely makes things up as they see fit, to suit their purposes.

Screenshot showing a query explain ChatGPT to a group of third-year philosophy students.
ChatGPT readily admits it has no understanding of the world, beliefs or moral values. (Dylan J. White), Author provided

AI does not care what it says

It is tempting to see ChatGPT in this light, but this doesn’t go far enough. True, ChatGPT has no regard for the truth. How could it?

It’s not just that ChatGPT is a bullshitter with no regard for the truth, but that it has no regard for anything.

Philosopher Evan Selinger puts this well:

“OpenAI can’t make a technology that truly cares because that requires consciousness, inner experiences, an independent perspective and emotions. To care, you need to put things in perspective, offer respect, take offense when appropriate and provide camaraderie.”

This is why ChatGPT, by its very nature, cannot do the kinds of things that we ought to want student essays to do. The “essays” it produces have no regard for the truth, demonstrate no understanding and have not even a hint of caring about what is said.

Genuine stakes

What ought we want a student essay to do? What writing skills are valuable for students to develop? There are many plausible answers, all of which will vary from classroom to classroom.

But overall, a compelling answer is captured by what Brian Cantwell Smith, a philosopher of artificial intelligence, calls judgment — a form of thought that is deliberative, open-minded, grounded by caring and responsible action and context appropriate.

A student seen writing at a laptop.
Caring about what you write requires emotions, an independent perspective and being aware of what’s at stake. (Shutterstock)

Judgment requires the agent to be normatively situated within a world — in other words, to care about itself in relation to the people and things around it. As Cantwell Smith writes:

“Only with existential commitment, genuine stakes and passionate resolve to hold things accountable to being in the world can a system (human or machine) genuinely…distinguish truth from falsity, respond appropriately to context and shoulder responsibility.”

That is, understanding and judgment require giving a damn — and this is what teachers and our society at large ought to want student essays to reflect.

Raising the standards on being human

As Cantwell Smith asks: “can articulating a conception of judgment provide us with inspiration on how we might use the advent of AI to raise the standards on what it is to be human?”

What we have argued here suggests the answer is a clear and unequivocal yes.

Lest We Forget

Three reasons why observing Remembrance Day in a global pandemic carries special significance

Photo by Craig Dennis from Pexels

There is no doubt that our Remembrance Day activities look different this year. School services and assemblies were held online. I followed my family’s tradition of watching the national service in Ottawa from the comfort of my living room, noting the scaled-back attendance and display of face masks. To be brutally honest, in light of the state of everyone’s current state of pandemic-related chronic fatigue and stress, the whole thing had me asking myself whether any of this is worth it. What meaning can the poppy have for us in 2020?

The truth is: a whole lot.

Here are three big reasons why remembering the supreme sacrifice of our fellow Canadians is especially important in 2020:

1. The last global pandemic happened at the end of World War I.

The First World War lasted from August 4, 1914, to when Armistice was signed on November 11, 1918.  Around this time, people across Europe began mysteriously dying from a respiratory illness that was later discovered to be a deadly strain of influenza.

Only Spain, which was neutral in the war, made its infection rate known to the world, because the countries still in the war did not want to alarm their troops or show weakness to the enemy. The H1N1 influenza virus thus gained the unfortunate misnomer of “the Spanish flu.”

The Great War had already taken the lives of 66,000 Canadian and Newfoundlander soldiers (over one-tenth of those who served), and wounded more than 172,000 others, sometimes terribly. By the time the flu pandemic was mostly done in 1920, the virus had claimed 50,000 more Canadian lives, and anywhere from 20 to 100 million worldwide. Imagine the compounded trauma of returning from a devastating war only to lose more loved ones to an invisible enemy. Imagine how the soldiers must have felt when they realized that this enemy came home with them.

2. Democracy cannot be taken for granted.

Last week, many, if not most, of us learned more about the American electoral system than we ever thought we’d know.

How much do you know about the Canadian electoral system? What’s the difference between a president and a prime minister? How does the vote get counted in Canada? Why don’t we elect our prime minister directly? How does our system work well? What might improve it?

These are all important questions, and all the more important in light of Remembrance Day. At its core, a democracy is about giving a voice to the people. That voice allows us to choose our leaders, to evaluate the job they have done, and to choose the same or differently the next time. In a democracy, might does not make right. In a democracy, our opponent is not our enemy. Democracy gives us the freedom to disagree, to speak out, to change each other’s minds, because deep down we know we all want the same thing: a home, a job, and people to love. It is these things that the soldiers we remember died for. They did not die so we could be divided by our differences. They died so we could be united by our strengths.

3. Life is bigger than any one of us.

The last living Canadian World War I Veteran, John Babcock, died at the age of 109 more than 10 years ago on February 19, 2010.

As of March 2019, 33,200 Canadian Veterans of World War II (1939-45) and 6,500 Canadian Veterans of the Korean War (1950-53) were still living. The average age of our war veterans is 93 years.

As of March 2019, the estimated Canadian Armed Forces Veteran Population (Regular Forces and Primary Reserves) was just over 600,000. These people have served the cause of peaceful democracy in places such as Rwanda (1993-1996) and Afghanistan (2001-2014). Their average age is 58 years.

To date, over 10,000 Canadians have died from our newest invisible enemy: COVID-19. The vast majority of these deaths have occurred in personal care homes, the kinds of places where our veterans will be living. It is worth considering that we owe our elders and our veterans extra respect this year. Many of them will not be able to attend the ceremonies and parades they hold so dear. After living and dying to protect our democracy and our way of life, they are now looking to us to protect them.

They left their homes, their loved ones, and travelled across the ocean. We are being asked to stay home with our loved ones and wear a mask when we must go out to school or work. We can do this. We can do this for those who fought for us. We can do this for each other.

Why do we remember? Lest we forget.

This Remembrance Day 2020, I can find a way to remember what was lost – and won – for all of us.

Values, Ideology and the Narrative: Making Sense of the Voice in my Head

Never before have I been more keenly aware of the effect of the narrative on my state of mind, my ability to relate to other people, and my ability to work.

reading glasses on open book

An unfortunate and unexpected outcome of the global pandemic for me has been heightened annoyance with my father, who is to date safe from harm and also geographically out of my reach thousands of kilometres away. My father and I are very different, but we are also very much alike, and that makes me uncomfortable. The source of my discomfort is not that I scorn the one who provided half my genetic material and a large part of my ideology: it is the fact that the ideology I inherited from him actually interferes with my personal growth and, much to my recent surprise, my professional work.

My paternally inherited ideology includes (among many things) a strong work ethic, equal opportunity, economic freedom, and justice. None of these things is harmful – on the contrary, they are great values. But when these values get mixed up with certain narratives, they become ideologies. Ideologies are at best annoying and at worst downright dangerous. Here’s a thought experiment:

  • Take a strong work ethic and combine it with the narrative that people are basically lazy and don’t want to work.
  • Take equal opportunity and combine it with the narrative that we are all born equal.
  • Take economic freedom and combine it with the narrative that the market will always correct itself.
  • Take justice and combine it with the narrative that the punishment must fit the crime.

If you adhere to politically conservative ideology, you will likely see nothing at all wrong with any of those combinations. In fact, they might make perfect sense. If you lean further to the left, you might be horrified, or at least repulsed, by every one of them. Either way or somewhere in between, your Feeling Brain is off and running and your Thinking Brain is scrambling to catch up. This is, for better or worse, the way we operate. Don’t take my word for it – read Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind or Mark Manson’s Everything is Fucked for well-researched psychological discussions of how we know the rational mind is not the one in charge.

But I digress. The difference between the value and the narrative is that a value can’t be proven or disproven, but a narrative can. Narratives are the stories we tell ourselves that add a new dimension to our values and turn them into ideologies. Compare the four thought experiments above with these:

  • Take a strong work ethic and combine it with the narrative that most people want to live productive lives, and many haven’t been given the chance, or just don’t know how.
  • Take equal opportunity and combine it with the narrative that some of us are born into far more privileged places in society and have no idea about the impact that systemic barriers can have.
  • Take economic freedom and combine it with the narrative that governments can and should guide the market in forward-thinking, problem-solving directions through incentives and penalties.
  • Take justice and combine it with the narrative that most people just want to be loved.

Too soft for you? Or does your Feeling Brain relax a little? I’m not here to preach or try to prove that the second list is better or more accurate than the first. I wish instead to assert that ideologies – defined by me as value plus narrative – can be dangerous, no matter where on the political spectrum you might fall. Ideologies are full of unconscious bias and are at the root of so much conflict and destruction. What if, as a solution, we were to stop trying to prove how right we are and try instead to hold our narratives – all of them – loosely?

Narratives are damaging only when we hold on to them so tightly that even in the face of evidence that contradicts them, we stay stuck because to change our mind would be too humiliating. But even that is a narrative: changing my mind and admitting I’m wrong means I’m somehow less than I would be if I could stick like glue to an idea no matter what.

Here’s where I see ideologies born of immovable narratives doing the most damage:

First, ideologies keep scientists from doing science. Science is not an ideology; it is a method of guessing, testing, and guessing again. Many people lost sight of this a long time ago and now think that if there is “no evidence” for something, it must mean “it’s not true” and not “we don’t know yet,” which – I swear to you on my entire education and profession – is what it actually means. Scientists don’t change their minds on a whim; they learn and readjust to new information. Or at least, they’re supposed to. They are victims of their own systemic barriers that contaminate science with ideology. For example, the value of “shared knowledge” combined with the narrative of “no one is interested in negative results” results in a phenomenon called “publication bias,” where ten clinical trials that failed to show a drug treatment made a difference do not make it to press while the one trial that did show a difference gets published and then everyone thinks there’s a new miracle cure. Ideology at its best: getting in the way of wondering what might actually be true because “publish or perish.”

Second, ideologies keep people stuck and close off minds. Our narratives can tell us things like we know stuff better than experts do, that all governments are corrupt, that our tax dollars are wasted, that people can’t be trusted, that all men are scum, that all women are a pain in the ass, that millennials are stupid, that boomers are stupider, that people are idiots, that the world is going to hell in a handcart… Should I go on? If you carry any of these narratives with you, your ideologies will make it pretty hard to have a rousing, constructive debate with anyone about anything of importance. Just check out the comments online, where clashing ideologies run amok.

Third, the narratives that create ideologies can kill. Where do you think people get the idea that suicide is a reasonable option? Not from a value, but definitely from a narrative. Why do we start wars or hate our neighbours? Narratives. Why do we give up on our hopes and dreams? Yup – narratives.

So now for some good news: Narratives are actually there for our choosing. They are impermanent, optional, changeable, and to change your narrative is a sign of tremendous strength because it forces you to let go of pride and embrace humility. Even better: narratives colour, shape and direct your values, and you have total control over this process in your own mind. Think of the earlier contrasting ideological statements. Think of the power we have to shape our narratives consciously, constantly, and to be always open to having them change.

And the even better news: All narratives are true, and all are false. Take any narrative from this post, and I can give you at least three carefully nuanced reasons in either direction. Try it if you don’t believe me. It’s like Schrodinger’s hypothesis; it’s that profound and hard to understand. But it’s so easily experienced. Try picking a narrative and acting on it when you next encounter a stranger. Are you going to see that person as a lazy freeloader or as someone who has had a lot of hard knocks and really just needs a break? Are you going to gently question your knee-jerk reaction (i.e., your unconscious bias) even as you accept it for what it is – an involuntary reaction, not a truth?

I mentioned the negative impact of inherited ideologies on my professional life, and I should come back to that. In my work writing grant applications, I encounter things that send a voice on a rant inside my head. It can be so loud that I can’t even focus (not that focus during a global pandemic is so easy in the first place). For example, I’ve been reading a lot lately about principles of equity, diversity and inclusion, which are to be explicitly and specifically woven in to a 20-page proposal. I’m reading Canadian government sources about things like unconscious bias, microaggression, and intersectionality, and all I can hear in my head is something that sounds like my father scoffing. If I listen to “him,” I will start scoffing too, and I cannot afford to do that, never mind that I am horrified at the possibility. So I yell at the voice in my head to shut up and let me work. And I create my own narratives about my father that defend me against that voice (which, I must point out, is not actually his voice, but an invention of my own mind based on a lifetime of experience and conditioning). These narratives are damaging because they drive a wedge between us and make me want nothing to do with him – so much so that when he shares his unsolicited opinion of the state of the world with me (an opinion which undermines so much of what I am trying to focus on in my life) I tell him this and send him away. And it feels awful. And I’m no better as focusing than I was before.

I’ve spent my whole career working with people who learn for a living. I still learn for a living. Seriously: I get paid to read and figure stuff out and then write about it. I get paid to work with people who are trying every day to solve really big problems and make the world a little better for everyone. How awesome is that? Yes, there are politics and personalities that trip people up. There are clashing ideologies and there are power struggles and there is bureaucracy. But there is also an expectation that we learn about and practice principles (values) like equity, diversity, and inclusion, and that we be open to new ways of looking at things (narratives) that we had not considered before.

It seems to me that one way out of my mental quagmire is to stop holding on so tightly to my narratives – any and all of them – and start accepting them as impermanent lenses through which I view the world, myself, and my father. Such practice might help me be a better person. And maybe, just maybe, it will help me find a way to be comfortable in my father’s company, no matter what narrative he happens to be clinging to. I would like that very much.

I want to thank my friend Ken MacDonell for engaging me on the topic of narratives and helping me see them, and other people, more neutrally. I also want to thank my husband of 25 years (?!), Gilles Detillieux, for believing other people might actually appreciate hearing this perspective. Finally, to my father, and you know who you are: thank you for the gift of critical thinking, and for giving me the space to figure things out.

Goals and Objectives: What Are We Aiming For?

red and white dart on darts board
Photo by Pixabay, from Pexels.com

In my work, I come across aims, goals and objectives all the time. You would think by now that I would have figured out what these words actually mean. But alas, today I got mired in the mud and went down the rabbit hole, and decided that these words are only as useful as the extent to which they are clearly defined in the context they are used. Here’s a brief travelogue of my journey there and back again.

From a strictly English language perspective, there is really very little difference between aim, goal and objective. Aim is the only one of the three that can be either a noun or a verb; the other two are nouns.

The most common word is goal, and aim and objective are usually used in more formal writing. Generally, though, an objective is considered to be more specific than a goal (e.g., Our goal is to improve health care for children. Our objective is to provide 10,000 children with vaccines).

In casual conversation, most people would use goal for both general and specific things: My goal is to lose weight OR my goal is to lose 20 pounds by the summer.

In business, aims relate to the end results, but goals and objectives help you achieve these results. Goals are abstract ideas, while objectives are more tangible and concrete.

An aim is a purpose or desired outcome – a vision (e.g., to become a successful entrepreneur).

A goal is a specific statement of intent – a target or destination (e.g, increase profits by 24 percent within one year)

Objectives are the actions needed to arrive at a goal – creating a road map or action plan (e.g., sending letters to prospective employers, obtaining a qualification).

It would seem there is a similar hierarchy in education, at least as far as writing curriculum goes: aims, goals and objectives (AGO) is the progression from larger ideas to smaller instructional components.

In this context, aims are general statements that provide direction or intent to educational action. They include terms like learn, know, understand, appreciate, and are not directly measurable (e.g. Students will understand and become proficient at identifying the different types of spoken English).

Goals are statements of educational intention which are more specific than aims, but they may still encompass an entire program, subject area, or multiple grade levels. They may use amorphous language or more specific behavioural terms (e.g., Students will be able to identify and use American slang terms and phrases).

Objectives in curriculum writing are usually specific statements of educational intention which delineate either general or specific outcomes. There are different types: behavioural, holistic, non-behavioural, problem-solving, expressive. According to this website, most educational objectives are written in behavioural terms using observable verbiage that can be divided into specific domains – cognitive (head), affective (heart), and physical (hand). The author offers an amusing example: Cognitive – Students will identify and list 5 slang terms they have heard from their peers. Affective – Students will choose 3 of the most offensive slang terms from a list developed by the entire class. Physical – Students will create expressive gestures to go with their favourite slang terms.

That was cute. And then I came across this attempt at clarity:

“You aim to accomplish a goal in order to achieve your objectives.”

Not really helpful. At all.

Moving on, another source presents aims and objectives as specific types of goals:

An aim is an ultimate goal, which the individual or the entity strives to achieve. It describes what is to be achieved and is not time-bound or measurable.

An objective is a specific goal of an individual or company. It describes how the aim is to be achieved and is both time-bound and measurable.

Seems clear enough, until a different article on the same website defines a goal as a “lifelong aim” and an objective as a “specific milestone.” Objectives are “precise, measurable, time-based actions that assist in achieving a goal.”

Confusing as that is, the common ground is that objectives are the means, and the goal or the aim is the end.

This hierarchy of specificity between goals and objectives is generally carried over into health and health research, at least in the US. An internship program defines a goal as a “big-picture statement exhibiting relevance to a declared mission or purpose, [which is] non-specific and non-measurable.” Objectives, they say, follow the SMART criteria: specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound. Measures are articulated for each objective. This goal-objective hierarchy extends to the CDC.

The Health and Community Workforce in Australia advises that developing goals and objectives is an important first step in developing a project plan. Consistent with the US references, goals and objectives are hierarchical, where a goal is a broad, long-term change the project seeks to achieve, and objectives are more specific and immediate. The SMART acronym is also used here to define objectives. This source also adds a third level, strategies, which are the steps taken to achieve the objective. Strategies can be further broken down into actions or tasks to be completed.

Now for some Canadian context:

CIHR’s Project Grant website defines the following for grant writers:

  • The goal states the purpose of the project, and what the project is ultimately expected to achieve.
  • The objectives clearly define the proposed lines of inquiry and/or activities required to meet the goal.
  • The proposed project outputs (i.e., the anticipated results of the project) are clearly described and aligned to the objectives.

If you will forgive the dig: because it doesn’t seem to be in CIHR’s nature to be straightforward or consistent, in their Guidebook for New Principal Investigators, they suggest writing a research plan based on “a General Objective and Specific Aims.”  

Now I feel less embarrassed by my confusion.

So while the business and education worlds talk about aims sitting at the top of the hierarchy, followed by goals and objectives, in health research (at least in Canada) the concept of an aim seems somewhat … aimless. At the very least, the term is confusing and inconsistently applied. Maybe it’s best to leave aim as a verb, since that remains its unique feature among the words in question. (Yes, technically task and output have been verbified, but let’s not make things any harder than they need to be, shall we?)

Personally, I like the hierarchy of goals (non-measurable), objectives (measurable), and strategies or tasks (itemized milestones). I’m going to try that and see how it goes. But remember, if you’re writing a CIHR grant, you have the option of calling your goal your objective and your objectives your specific aims. Clear as mud?

This isn’t even jargon. These are everyday English words that are being applied in a variety of different contexts. The moral of the story is that it never hurts to clarify a term you are choosing to use in a very specific way. Because even if you manage to get it straight in your head what you mean, your reader or reviewer might be left aimlessly wandering and trying to catch up, or missing the mark entirely.

Editors beware: Scammers at large

Twice in the past few weeks, I have been contacted by someone looking for help with a document that raised the same series of red flags. I was alerted to the first of these email scams by my lovely Facebook community, because these scammers shamelessly and systematically target freelance editors. Thanks to my colleagues, then, I was slightly wiser this time around.

On top of that, recently I had a dinner conversation with two friends (both IT professionals) who shared stories of dealing with phone scammers who try to convince their victims that their computer has been infected by a virus. One friend led the person on with all kinds of bogus information, thinking that he was at least distracting the guy from bothering anyone else. The other friend recounted how he basically shamed the dude into confessing and actually got the scammer to admit he was a bad person. I found both stories amusing and inspiring each in their own right.

So when the red flags showed up for me this week, I settled on a straight-up, straightforward approach – not mean, but I did put on my mom voice, just a little. 🙂 I’m no saint, so this email went through several more colourful drafts, at least in my head.

The call-out

Dear Kylian,

I’m afraid there are several aspects of your overture which raise serious concerns for me:

  • a Google search of your name gives me only information on famous football players, and your email address is impossible to track
  • your English language skills in your email messages do not match the language in the attachment
  • you have not answered my questions clearly about your geographical location or the purpose and intended audience of your document
  • you have asked for a full estimate and proposed a paper method of payment even before you have determined I am the right editor for you
  • your deadline is odd and the term begins on a future date, even though your project is apparently already underway

Unfortunately, all of these factors call into question the legitimacy of your project. There are many shameless scammers out there who try to take advantage of freelance workers making an honest living, and I would hate to think (but I do think) that people like you are not so much looking for help as you are looking for victims..

I am willing to give you one more chance to prove to me you are a legitimate prospective client. If you are, then please understand the absolute need for transparency and clear communication, and give me reason to trust you. If you are not, then please reconsider your life choices, think about the kind of person you want to be, and find a better way to make your living.

Sincerely yours,

Karen A. Limbert Rempel, MSc


Consistency and Flexibility

One pitfall of being an editor is seeing things that I wish didn’t bug me, but do. I don’t want to be a critical or judgmental person, and I certainly don’t want to be one of “those people” who thinks she knows better than anyone else. But here’s a story of the (mis)application of style just for the sake of following the rules: the story of number styles in lists.

My son is about to write his test to prove he knows the rules of the road so the Province of Manitoba will grant him a learner’s permit. Last night, we were reviewing the Driver’s Handbook and having fun with the practice quizzes (a great resource, and a great refresher for veteran drivers like me).

The question came up: how far away from a railway track do you have to park? Well, that one stumped us both (I’ve never had to think about parking next to a railway track), so we looked it up. Page 88 of the Driver’s Handbook has a lovely, comprehensive list that looks like this:

It’s illegal to park:
• on a sidewalk
• across the entrance to any driveway, back lane or intersection
• within three metres from the point on the curb or edge of the roadway
immediately opposite a fire hydrant
• on a crosswalk or within three metres of a crosswalk
• within 15 metres of a pedestrian corridor
• within nine metres of a stop sign or other traffic sign or signal posted
at an intersection
• within 30 metres of the nearest rail of a railway crossing, unless
otherwise posted
• within six metres of a driveway entrance to a fire station, unless
otherwise posted
• on a roadway beside another vehicle that is already parked
• at a curve on the highway outside a city, town or village, when
the vehicle cannot be clearly seen from at least 60 metres in each
direction upon the highway
• in such a manner that it becomes a hazard or that is contrary to
any section of The Highway Traffic Act or any municipal bylaw

Now, I have no way of knowing how this list strikes you, but it bugged me. So much so that I stopped and said, “As an editor, this bugs me.” My son said, “Yeah, what’s with the mixing of the words and numbers?” To him, it seemed totally illogical. I laughed, because the poor handbook writers are just trying to follow the rules.

Follow the rules – to a point

The basic rule is simple, and follows Chicago 17: the numbers zero through nine are written out, and everything else is set in numerals. I tend to write this way myself, and I’m not sure why except that I’m used to it (which is, by the way, the wrong  reason to insist on any point of style). But if I’m used to it, why did this list bug me?

In an earlier post I pondered number styles according to Chicago 17  in far too much detail, having spent far too much time trying to decide whether to reverse the decisions of a copy editor. I settled on the section in the manual called Consistency and Flexibility, which in its essence says, “Follow the rules unless you have a good reason not to.” One good reason to bend the numbers-vs-numerals rule is “local” consistency, such as a list like the one above. Using numerals consistently to indicate how far away from something you should park would make the whole thing so much easier to scan and memorize, would it not? See for yourself:

It’s illegal to park:
• on a sidewalk
• across the entrance to any driveway, back lane or intersection
• within 3 metres from the point on the curb or edge of the roadway
immediately opposite a fire hydrant
• on a crosswalk or within 3 metres of a crosswalk
• within 15 metres of a pedestrian corridor
• within 9 metres of a stop sign or other traffic sign or signal posted
at an intersection
• within 30 metres of the nearest rail of a railway crossing, unless
otherwise posted
• within 6 metres of a driveway entrance to a fire station, unless
otherwise posted
• on a roadway beside another vehicle that is already parked
• at a curve on the highway outside a city, town or village, when
the vehicle cannot be clearly seen from at least 60 metres in each
direction upon the highway
• in such a manner that it becomes a hazard or that is contrary to
any section of The Highway Traffic Act or any municipal bylaw

This kind of local consistency does not mean that the rules aren’t followed elsewhere throughout the handbook. It just means you make an exception for that list, because really, what are you trying to remember? Distances. In metres. Numbers.

  • 3 – fire hydrant, crosswalk
  • 6 – driveway entrance to a fire station
  • 9 – stop sign
  • 15 – pedestrian corridor
  • 30 – railway crossing
  • 60 – range of sight of a vehicle parked on the road.

What a nice, neat list of multiples of three. Yes, three. The list is done, and so I revert back to the rule.

(Un)common sense

It comes down to common sense, a lot of the time. Following the rules absolves us of the responsibility of thinking for ourselves. It’s better to think and make a conscious choice than hit something and claim you had the right of way.

In writing to convey information, our goal should always be to never make the reader work harder than they should have to. Some information is hard to process, and we’re not talking about simplifying everything. We are talking about avoiding unnecessary distractions, which can be likened to impairment. Check out this Driving Quiz question (just because it’s funny):

A few drinks after work before driving home:
a.is good because you miss the rush hour traffic
b.is good because they help to release the day’s tension and make you a safer driver
c.will impair your ability to drive
d.will never hurt anyone

If blindly following a style rule impairs the ability of the reader to retain the information you are trying to convey, then it undermines the purpose of the writing, just like alcohol in your bloodstream impairs your reflexes. Even rules of the road, if blindly followed, can get in the way of defensive driving (for example, driving according to conditions instead of blindly following the speed limit or proceeding because you have the right of way).

Be safe, be kind

The central message of the Driver’s Handbook is, don’t be stupid or reckless. The central message of the astute editor is: don’t be stupid or reckless. Be courteous. Be safe. Be kind. To other drivers and to your readers. Just be glad “reader rage” isn’t a thing. Unless you’re on social media. But that’s another thing altogether.

Update: James Harbeck recently posted about number style on The Editor’s Weekly. Because he is way smarter than I am, I get very excited when we agree on a style decision. 🙂 However, I also recently encountered a client preference to follow the one-to-nine spelled out rule even in the face of an exception as outlined above. Here I made an exception to my exception, because clients preferences trump mine, and that is just the way it is.