Category Archives: Interview

Interview with DJ Michael Knall

by Peter Muller

DJ Michael Knall

Lately, we’ve looked at research concerning recent breakthroughs in the study of music’s effect on mood and film’s effect on our memories. Michael Knall is a music producer, record label owner, and deejay specializing in a genre of electronica known as “House” music. Strongly influenced by elements of soul and funk-infused percussive disco, Knall mixes bass lines, electronic drums, beats, funk and pop samples, reverb, vocals and synthesizers to ensure everyone on the dance floor is truly emotionally affected.

We sat down with Michael to talk about his current and future projects and his thoughts on the effect of music and emotions.

Occam’s Taser: How did you get your start in music?
Michael Knall: Funny thing, I was never really into music growing up, I had my few favorite songs here and there, but I just never realized how great it really is until my late teens. I think I sort of hit a “musical puberty” in my high school years; some would call me a late bloomer in that aspect. During high school, I started frequenting the infamous Mission Night Club in Chicago’s suburb of Elgin, IL. At the time it was really what set me into the electronic music culture. It wasn’t long before I wanted more of it, and moreover, I wanted to learn what made this scene work, the part that you most don’t see, just feel. The part that draws the people together: House music.

OT: What is it about House that drew you in?
MK: House music, just like any other genre, has many different styles ranging from progressive house to electro-house and so on. I love them all, but I tend to stick to a combination of progressive, electro, and dutch house sounds with my music. It has a harder electronic edge and more defined beat. Accelerating highs and lows throughout a track, layering different sounds on top of each other and slowly bringing them in and out of the mix are the key ideas behind the progressive movement.

OT: What are some of your current projects?
MK: Aside from running a very new record label and the responsibilities that go along with that, I’m constantly producing new music. Whenever I have an idea for a new track or sound, it’s important for me to get to work on it right away while it’s still fresh in my mind. That usually accumulates to around 10 or so works-in-progress at a time, and I manage to finish only around two per month. I’ve also been working with some vocalists around the city, really trying to showcase a lot of unseen talent in the Chicagoland area. Who knows, maybe I’ll find the Freddie Mercury of our generation.

DJ Michael Knall

OT: Last week we looked at research that studied how music affects people’s emotions. Do you have any thoughts on the emotional effect of music on people?
MK: Every track I write embodies my current mood at the time. I think that transmitting emotions to my listeners through my music is key to connecting with them. We all listen to music that suits the mood we’re in, and sometimes music can help change our mood. Any song you hear can take you back to a certain memory or mindset linked with it resulting in happiness, sadness, excitement and so on. I often see this first hand when I’m playing to a packed night club; depending on what I work into the mix, I can see differences in how people react almost immediately. It’s almost like I can control peoples moods or energy levels through my choice of beats, intensity, effects, etc.

OT: Is there any music that has, or has had, an emotional effect on you?
MK: I think everyone has different memories linked to different songs, be those good or bad, they’re emotional connections. That’s one of the reasons we consciously like or dislike certain songs, whether or not we truly think they’re good songs.  One that immediately comes to mind from my childhood is Alice Cooper’s “Schools Out”. I remember singing along to it with my brother, blasting in my Dad’s conversion van with the new high-tech CD player. That’s a memory that will always remain warm every time I hear that song.

OT: What about music in film? Do you think it has a similar effect on the audience?
MK: If you ever have a chance to watch a movie with the music removed, do it. It’ll blow your mind as to the difference it makes in your emotional perception of the film. For example, The Dark Night was a movie that used a lot of music and intense sounds to give the audience those goosebumps and butterflies.  Movie soundtracks are one of the most important elements of film that I’m sure most people don’t even notice. Music is, at its core, an emotion in a the form of sound. It creates a certain feeling and mood that can’t be replicated by anything else.

DJ Michael Knall Live

Michael Knall is the president of  White Smoke Records. He produces House music in his home recording studio and deejays at various night clubs in and around Chicago. You can catch up with him on his FaceBook page, check out and download his tracks from his SoundCloud page, or see him spinning his beats live in and around Chicago’s club scene. Just try to control yourself at his shows and keep your memories good ones.

My Life, The Movie: An Interview with Patrick Muldoon

By Lizzy Sebuck

Sometimes the staff at Occam’s Taser just gets really, ridiculously lucky (it’s probably because of our dashing good looks). This week we were fortunate enough to speak with Patrick Muldoon, a Chicagoan who works in the film industry. For this interview we picked at Patrick’s noggin about his experiences helping to create some of the most known films of the past ten years. Working as a Locations Manager, Patrick has worked on the sets of major blockbuster films including the masterpiece The Dark Knight. Want to know how Patrick got into the film industry? Would you believe us if we told you paper products and copy machines played a small role? Read on.

Occam’s Taser: So what exactly is your job, Patrick?
Patrick Muldoon:  I am a Location Manager in Chicago. I work as a freelance employee and I work with the Illinois Film Office on some projects.

OT:  Where did you go to school, and what did you study?
PM: I graduated from Loyola University and worked at Xerox right out of school selling copiers. I ended up going back to school to get a 2nd degree in television from Columbia College and from there I started working on independent films here in Chicago.

OT: What have been your favorite projects?  A little birdie told me you’ve worked on some pretty cool sets…
PM: I was fortunate enough to work on projects such as Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, Public Enemies, and most recently Transformers 3.

OT: Xerox to The Dark Knight? Awesome transition. So what was your role in producing those films?
PM: Basically, when a studio plans to do a movie in Chicago they put together a crew and the Location Department is the first on the project. They send me a script and I breakdown the locations and start scouting for them. I will give the Production Designer and Director pictures of various locations and they pick a few possibilities. For example if a scene calls for a house I will scout 10-20 houses and send them pictures. They would pick a few to see in person.  I would take them to the locations and they would decide which one to film in. From there I negotiate a legal agreement and location fee with the owner. During these negotiations I develop a relationship with the owner which will help when the preparation and filming of the location occurs.

OT: Whoa! Your job is all over the place. Any other responsibilities?
PM: Many times it will take weeks for the Art Department and Set Decorators to make a location ready for filming. When it gets close to the shoot day I am responsible for obtaining permits from the city, hiring security to watch the trucks and equipment and hiring Police to assist with the shoot.  I also have to find a place for the crew members to park and rent out a nearby space for the caterer to set up for lunch. As you can see there is a lot that goes into my job and I am usually part of a department (5 or 6 of us split up the work). There are many other things that come up that are unique to each location.

OT: What do you consider to be the best part about your job?
PM: It’s interesting to be part of the creative process and scouting the city with different directors. They all have different styles and processes. The most rewarding part of my job is to see a movie I worked on and see the different locations I found.

OT: Patrick, you have the coolest job ever. Any current projects you want to let us know about?
PM:  I am currently working on a television series called The Chicago Code.  It is shot entirely in Chicago and will begin to air on Fox in February.

Working in the film industry isn’t reserved for the Landsberg-theorists of the world. Patrick Muldoon has done a pretty awesome job making a career out of something he clearly loves to do. From helping pick out set locations, to working with the Art Departments on designing the ideal atmosphere for each scene, Patrick Muldoon has helped shape some of the highest grossing films of the past decade. Let’s just hope that he’s not left with any twisted prosthetic memories from his work on films like The Dark Knight keeping him up at night. “Why so serious?”, you ask? We have a hard enough time sleeping at night remembering Heath Ledger’s performance, let alone the repressed memories of him in a nurse’s outfit.

From the Sunshine State to the Windy City: An Interview with Cory Vogt

By Margo Ruter

A Florida native, Cory Vogt is spending is first winter in Chicago, and recently felt the first snow of the season. But for Cory, it was his first snow. Florida, the Sunshine State, has been home to him for twenty years. Although most of us are used to the decline of available Vitamin D from November to March, we took a minute to sit down with the rookie himself and see how things are going.

Occam’s Taser: What was your first reaction when you saw snow?
Cory Vogt: It was slightly surreal. I really didn’t know what to expect. Ever since I got here in March, people have been telling me horror stories about the winters here. It’s funny because it’s always “not last year, but the year before” that was the worst winter ever.

OT: What do most people say is the worst part?
CV: The short and gray days. I’m so used to long and sunny days in Florida, it didn’t make total sense to me. It was such a new thing to imagine. But now it gets dark at 4:30 in the afternoon, it’s so limiting. In Florida it stays sunny out until 7:00 all year round, so adjusting to the darkness has been a challenge.

OT: How have the gray days been on your psyche so far?
CV: Well it’s definitely been strange. Going from constant sun, to constant gray for a week or so is incredibly weird. I anticipate a few rough days in February, but I don’t think it will disrupt my life.

OT: Sunlight is one of the crucial providers of Vitamin D. Have you noticed any physiological effects with this climate change?
CV: I’m just very mellow. It almost feels like a slower pace, but that doesn’t make sense, it’s Chicago. I have noticed that my allergies are no longer a problem. I’m allergic to just about everything under the sun, so I moved somewhere with less sunlight, and bam – problem solved.

OT: A common effect of less Vitamin D in your diet is a weakened immune system. Have you been sick at all?
CV: I got sick when I first moved. I haven’t been sick since then, but I do feel fatigued more often. I have been sleeping a lot more. I’ll wake up and still be tired for a longer period of time. The sun has a natural way of waking you up to begin with, so without it, it’s pretty hard to shake it off in the morning.

OT: Do you take vitamins at all?
CV: I take a multi-vitamin. I like to make sure it has Vitamin D in it because I know that my source has been greatly diminished. I also take a lot of B Vitamins. They help pick up the slack the sun left behind.

OT: What are some of your concerns as the winter continues and the days get shorter?
CV: I think just staying active and productive. I’ve noticed that it’s really easy to get sucked into the grayness, especially if you don’t utilize what little day there is. I worry about the cold and snow in terms of transportation because it’s something I’ve never had to battle.

OT: You definitely need a legitimate set of winter gear. Are you prepared?
CV: I’m getting there. As the days get colder, I’m realizing the kind of things I need to buy. Thicker gloves are next.

OT: Have you considered fake baking to get that extra Vitamin D that you miss from Florida?
CV: No. But I’ll keep it in mind.

As you can see, Florida consistently has more hours of sunlight per day than Illinois. While Florida residents may not have to worry about a Vitamin D deficiency, Illinois residents should take special care from November to April while sunlight is grim.

Perhaps Cory will have a colder winter than most, but we can rest assured that Occam’s Taser reminded him of the dangers of Vitamin D deficiency. Being aware of the challenging differences from Florida to Chicago is the first step in overcoming the winter blues and staying healthy. Keep on your vitamins and stay warm kids.

Interview: An Insider’s Take On Tanning

By Daniella Lee

Vitamin D is the secret steroid that provides benefits such as a longer, healthier life and overall happiness. But when the sun sets and the winter cold creeps up, the recommended intake for Vitamin D might be a little difficult to reach. A possible solution: tanning salons. Now, we’re not suggesting you turn into Snooki, but she may be onto something. This week, we sat down with Melina Vincent, an employee at Halsted Tan and Spa to find out if tanning salons can provide you with that extra vitamin D you need to get through the winter.

Occam’s Taser: What tanning services are offered at Halsted Tan and Spa?
Melina Vincent: We offer UVA tanning (helps eliminate burning), UVB and UVA, and our spray tan which is called Versa.  All the UV beds we have include base level, mid level and high level and both stand ups and lay downs in each.

OT: Tell us about the different levels of tanning?
MV: Base level is equivalent to a level 3 or level 4, it will give you a good base color tan without making you too dark.  Mid-level is the next up and includes more intense face and shoulder tanners.  It’s a stronger voltage and has more bulbs in the bed so you get a deeper tan and after a few visits you look like you came back from vacation.  Our high-level beds are a good way to get color right away that stays for a few days without doing the versa spa.  It’s a higher voltage than both the base level and mid level and has more beds than all of them.  We have two beds imported from Italy that are Strictly UVA so if someone who is fairer complected and wanted to go in a high level bed they can go in one of these beds and still receive all the benefits of the high level bed without burning.

OT: How does your salon offer Vitamin D?
MV: Because each bed is the newest technology it makes sure to give you a safe tan with your daily amount of Vitamin D.  We also offer deals like $2 tan coupons, $5 tans every Tuesday, and $10 on any bed (including our $32 high level bed) after 9pm Tues-Thurs. to promote UV tanning and Vitamin D Nutrition.

OT: What are the major side effects of tanning?
MV: To much exposure or burning is something we see very often, people will come in and want to do a strong bed for the full time and they haven’t been in the sun so their melanin is still “sleeping” and although we warn them they still tend to burn.  Also, a side effect could be wrinkles at an early age ONLY if you abuse your tanning privileges and have been doing it for many many years.

OT: What are the benefits of tanning?
MV: Vitamin D is the biggest benefit because studies have shown that people who have the required amount of vitamin D daily and or weekly are healthier than those who are not.  Also, you get a nice color and look healthy.

OT: What do you recommend at your salon?
MV: I recommend trying the UVA bed because it’s very uncommon for a salon to have it. If you have an upcoming special event, try the Versa Spa Spray because it is the newest spray tan technology. It’s a sugar based solution, not an iodine base,  so it won’t turn your skin orange.

OT: How does Halsted Tan and Spa promote tanning?
MV: We promote tanning in the safest way possible, we make sure every client goes into the room with eye-wear and we encourage them to have lotion to moisturize their skin. We also have many many options, so between packages and specials and beds a customer can really come in and customize exactly what they want to do. We advertise a healthy glow during the winter and promote Vitamin D benefits.

Tanning salons can be your resource for that healthy glow and your vitamin D fix. Now, we aren’t recommending that you turn into an Oompa-Loompa, but the occasional drop-in won’t hurt. Before you head into any salon, get to know all the facts. Melina and the tanning world like to look at the benefits of the tanning bed, but there is a dark side. UVA rays go deep into the skin creating that nice golden brown tan, but provide no Vitamin D production. UVB rays are the ones that stimulate the vitamin D production, but also burns your skin easily. And we all know that tanning increases your risk for skin cancer. Halsted Tan and Spa does offers great deals, if the tanning bed is suddenly calling your name, so you can glow even in the winter snow.

The Composed Composer: An Interview with Nikolas Lund

by Margo Ruter & Peter Muller

Music has a special effect on our emotional landscape. The Swedes uncorked that mystery for us earlier this week. When we hear music, we adjust our feelings to the mood of the song, but not all of us remain on the receiving end of the treble clef. Nikolas Lund for example, performs, composes, arranges, produces, and promotes music while also running a recording studio and dabbling in acting. Occam’s Taser stole a meter of his time and asked him how he felt on the matter of mood, emotion and music.

Occam’s Taser: I guess we’ll start with the obvious. How did you initially get into music?
Nikolas Lund: I come from a family with a lot of music in it. My Dad played the guitar professionally, performing with a number of bands in Champaign, Illinois while I was growing up. He was able to jump between a lot of different styles of music, so I was able to see the same musician function in many different capacities. Now that I’m older, I understand the level of talent needed to be able to do that, but at the time it seemed like a very natural progression between different styles. It exposed me to a lot of difference within the field at a very early age.

OT: Did he pass down any specific knowledge?
NL: Besides exposing me to a lot of different musicians and records, he taught me to play the guitar. I remember him helping me strum through the Pink Floyd song “Wish You Were Here.” I still remember it exactly as I learned it too.

OT: Have you had formal musical training?
NL: Not really. When I was 16, I moved from the guitar to playing the piano. It was a primarily self-guided study. I had a few odd tutors here and there: a man who taught purely via what I’d call “poetics”; and another that wouldn’t even have me pick up an instrument during lessons. Again, being older now I understand what they were trying to teach me: that playing music is a much deeper experience than just knowing how to read music and learning the notes.

OT: So you do know how to read music?
NL: Yes. And more importantly even: How to notate it with precision. I’ve made it a point to hone the skill. It’s proven an extremely helpful ability to have while interacting with all these different types of players. My mother also had a musical background, and she was actually the first one to write out the notes of the treble and bass clefs for me, onto an index card which I still occasionally reference.

OT: Your parents seem to have been a major inspiration for your musical career. How about the rest of your family?
NL: I’d say both sides of my family are very musically oriented. They all really like music. When we get together, the discussions often involve music, new artists, recent concerts, etc. Certainly not all my family members are musicians, but they all seem to have an affinity for music on a broad scale.

OT: Did you always know you wanted to be a musician?
NL: Definitely not. I went to Trinity College (in Hartford, Connecticut) so that I could, as I stated it at the time, “learn how to write.” I played the piano frequently in my time there, sometimes just messing around, sometimes writing songs, but a career in music never really occurred to me. In my senior year, I had a substantial epiphany that put it all into perspective. In short, I finally realized that no matter what I pursued, I was dependent on music for my very understanding of the world, and that I would always return to it. I finished my degree in Philosophy and Modern Languages (French and German) and then moved directly to NYC to be a “starving artist.” Nevertheless, I wound up “eating” a little too much of the buffet, lasted 2 years, and then moved to Chicago in 2007.

OT: What have you been up to since returning to Chicago?
NL: Well, a little or a lot of everything: performing, composing, arranging other people’s music, running a recording studio, producing, promoting, and some acting. Much of my time now is devoted to my work in an artist’s collective called APTPA. It stands for: Artist Public Trust / Thinking Power America. We’re working to establish a broad network of artists, musicians, and performers, through the staging of elaborate events. Our last show was in an old house in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood, and it was quite lively. I had a photographer at my feet while I was playing and others huddled around the piano. Sort of wild. I’ve got a show coming up now that’ll have me playing at a cabaret.

OT: Would you classify your musical work as belonging to a certain genre?
NL: It’s definitely not concerned with or indicative of any genres that I know about. I’m just trying to take everything that seems important into a new world.

OT: We recently featured a study that discussed the alteration of a listener’s emotional landscape based on the music they listened to. Do you consider emotions and music to go hand in hand?
NL: When you’re dealing with emotions and music, it’s everything vs. nothing. Once you allow a few emotions to come through, you’re dealing with them in relation to the rest of your feelings or you’re not dealing with them at all. On a good day, I can have a one-on-one correspondence between the, let’s say, “soul” and the piano. Some days, I feel like I barely know anything. One thing to remember is that mood is different from emotion. Mood is primeval. Mood determines the frame for the experience of emotion, which leads somewhere else in the same stream. If that makes sense?

OT: Does your music tend to express a current mood?
NL: To a certain extent, yes. In order to learn and progress, I usually record myself practicing. When I go back and listen, I can often pinpoint events in my personal history that influenced how I was feeling at the time. There are sometimes unexpected correspondences between the mood and the state. I’ve written some fairly bright and affirmative music in periods of extreme personal upset or misery. Of course, I’ve also written some stuff in that sort of state that comes out sounding upset and miserable.

OT: You have that degree in English. Do you ever put lyrics to your music?
NL: Oh yeah, all the time. But it’s so hard to write lyrics in English! For example, in French, the word “love” rhymes with over 50 other words, but in English, it only rhymes with four. How am I supposed to work with that?

OT: It’s commonly thought that musicians express a lot of emotion in their music. Are you able to understand emotions and moods in the music you listen to?
NL: Well, I’ve come to the realization that I’m on a long journey and that I’m going to continue to find myself in a lot of new and different places. I think that “getting better” at making music, for me, actually has a lot to do with the ability to control my emotions; or better yet, with the ability to be more comfortable with them as they are being experienced. In a “for good or for bad” kind of situation, I simply prefer the “for.” Otherwise I feel paralyzed. I think I’ll write much better music as I become less and less ego-heavy. With that in mind, I should be getting “good” any day now!

OT: Any favorites?
NL: I think The Beatles had more fun in the 20th Century than anyone. They were the quintessential “band”. John Lennon suffered from extreme emotions, but was capable of writing very emotionless music. And then there’s Paul McCartney. A cooler character seemingly, but the one who wrote “Let It Be” and “Hey Jude.” Aside from that, it would be a vast understatement to say that there’s a lot of different stuff I’m into. The new Sufjan Stevens album is absolutely extraordinary.

Nikolas’ artist collective, APTPA (www.aptpa.com) is doing some pretty amazing stuff. We suggest going to see them perform if you’re in the Chicago area. The Arts rely on the support of fans. Between his unique training and professional expertise, Lund helped us compose a perfect coda to this week’s research.

How To Stand Out In Your Career: An Interview With Someone Like You

By Katie Gangloff


Emotional intelligence: the next big thing to have when trying to stand out to potential employers. How do you figure out how much emotional intelligence you have? When you figure that out, how do you know if you’re using it for the right reasons? Jonathan Rosenthal is a young professional trying to start a career in this tough economy. Recently graduating with a Master of Healthcare Administration degree, Jon tells us about his hopes and dreams and we find out what he wants to be when he grows up. Although Jon is not an expert on emotional intelligence, or EI, it is always great to get some insight from the average Joe about using emotional intelligence to our advantage.

Occam’s Taser: What type of job are you looking to get with your degree?
Jonathan Rosenthal:  Ideally, I’d love to obtain a manager or supervisor position dealing with operations or quality and safety within a large healthcare system in Chicago; however, realistically, I’ll be glad to have an entry level position in any field at any healthcare venue within the Chicagoland area.

OT: Are you willing to take any job in this economy, or are you still sticking only to fields within your degree?
JR:  My graduate program prepared me for a mid-level position in the industry, but with the economy still recovering and full-time jobs at a premium, I’ll settle for anything at this point.  With several applications out to various organizations (not all are degree related) for a variety of position types (entry level and mid-level) and no responses after months of waiting, I may have to consider less attractive options to remain employed for the time being.  I won’t be selling myself short though, because I’ll still pursue a more permanent (career-focused) job in the meantime.

OT: What other areas are you interested in? Given your background, do you think you can find a job in a different field?
JR:  I have a secondary passion for student affairs/academic affairs at a higher-ed institution (such as universities and colleges).  For the past 4 1/2 years I’ve been heavily involved in the New Student and Parent Orientation Program at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC).  In addition, I’ve participated in numerous other student development groups/programs/positions at UIC broadening my scope and boosting my interest in the field.  With so much of my undergraduate and graduate life spent working for these areas, I have a strong background in student affairs and academic affairs, and feel confident that I could find a job in this field.  In fact, I have submitted applications for full-time permanent positions in this industry just in case my pursuit of a healthcare career falls short.

OT: This week we learned about emotional intelligence in the workplace. EI is the ability to control your emotions and utilize them when working in groups toward a universal goal. Is this something you are aware of in your current job?
JR:  This is something that I regularly do, whether I’m conscious of it or not. I never really thought much of it until you posed this question, so I guess I wasn’t aware of it in my current job.  However, when someone in one of my working groups is unable to control their emotions, the impact of that is definitely felt and it is always negative.  Being emotionally intelligent seems very necessary and professional, so having this ability will only enhance work performance and team effort.


OT: Do you think you are doing a good job of controlling your emotions and utilizing them for a common goal?
JR: Due to my student development mindset and work setting, it is essential for me to foster and maintain an environment that is motivational, supportive, and team centric.  To do this, I must be emotionally intelligent and set the example.  I think that I do a good job of controlling my emotions in the work place and using them for the common good.  However, I’m generally a calm, cool, and collected person, so being emotionally unrestricted would be out of character for me.

OT: You mentioned that you are applying for jobs right now. How do you think you stand out in the job pool with your high level of EI?
JR: I find it difficult to translate emotional intelligence into meaning on a resume or cover letter, but it is very useful during an interview.  Emotional intelligence will help candidates exude confidence allowing them to shine in an interview.  Controlling your emotions and focusing that energy into well constructed, honest, real responses speaks volumes in an interview setting.  Candidates who can present themselves professionally and profoundly without losing meaning or emotional connection will definitely have a one-up on other candidates.  This is what I strive to do in my application package. Constructing powerful and purposeful resumes and cover letters coupled with a personal touch during an interview is a great way to snag a job.


All in all, the ability to control your emotions and understand those of your co-workers tends to result in better job performance and, more importantly, can help you dominate in the workplace. Setting an example is easy if you are emotionally intelligent. For Jon, being emotionally intelligent is a necessity. Being aware of your emotional intelligence can get you ahead in the workplace and help you stand out. If you are an aspiring careerist fresh out of school, don’t forget to outwit fellow applicants with your sharp emotional intelligence.

A Word With The Wise

By: Daniella Lee

in the Parlor

Words: We combine them to form sentences, paragraphs and papers in order to convey meaning and emotion. Some of the best word nerds, authors, poets and the staff at Occam’s create stories with words. Would writings be as memorable if they were written using “textism”? We’ll never know. But if Shakespeare wrote “2b er naw 2b tht iz da ?” we doubt anyone would take him seriously. Patricia Harkin’s interest in the power of language led her to pursue Ph.Ds in English and Communication. Currently a Dean and professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Patty took time out to sit down with Occam’s Taser to discuss the importance of formal writing skills and language in the classroom.

Occam’s Taser: How did you know you wanted to study English?
PH: I was a teenager when John Kennedy was inaugurated, and his best speeches–or, as we now know, Ted Sorensen’s, were profoundly moving to me. “Ask not what your country can do for you; rather ask what you can do for your country” and phrases like it were a rallying call for my generation. Those stirring phrases gave way to more pithy ones:  “make love not war,” for example. Such political uses of language really did change things for me. Witty, apt, use of language can have political effects. They prompted people to join the peace corps and/or to protest the (Vietnam) war. I became an English teacher and a writer because I wanted to be part of that. Even today, when people quote me in print, it’s a thrill.  Language is an instrument for moving people. That’s why I keep doing what I’m doing.

1967

OT: What do you think is the primary difference between formal and informal writing?
PH: The situationally appropriate use of formal language makes it likely that the discourse will achieve its purpose.  But not every piece of writing tends ALWAYS to be perfectly “correct” and “formal.” “Hell, no, we won’t go” was pretty effective as anti-war rhetoric, too.  It’s important to me that when and if a piece of writing DOES break convention, it does so self-consciously, rather than simply through carelessness.

OT: What kind of changes have you seen in writing practices?
PH: I noticed after email became prevalent was a tendency to condense messages, especially by omitting context.  For example, a traditional business letter might say “In response to your inquiry of November 1”; an email might just answer the question, e.g., “yes, go ahead.”  Such practices might cause confusion.  But people got used to them pretty quickly.

OT: Have you noticed changes in writing skills due to the growing popularity of texting?
PH: The absence of punctuation. Students have pretty much always chosen not to bother with (say) semicolon/comma conventions, but until recently, they’ve pretty much always ended sentences with periods. Not any more. So, since context might already be missing, the lack of punctuation can really cause confusion. And that confusion calls for more email messages, to correct the misapprehension of the first message.

Now, what bothers me most in emails from students is an absence of context–why is this message being sent?  What’s the problem it’s intended to solve? My sense is that the immediacy of electronic communication tends to encourage people to write or text BEFORE they think a problem or a question through. We’ll all probably get used to sentences that don’t have terminal punctuation.  But the absence of context is a question of writing ABILITY.  If you’re gong to be clear, you need to establish a context.

OT: Do you think this will affect how we communicate with one another?
PH: It may be that our fast changing world will soon make “context” dispensable as well.  If the context is likely to change in seconds, it may not be necessary to establish one.  But I think it will be a while before that happens, because there are economic and political consequences of misunderstanding.

OT: “A recent study found that more texting can  have negative impacts on formal writing skills. Have you noticed a change in our generation’s formal writing skills?”
PH: Yes, but not so much BECAUSE of electronic communication practices as because of the desire for speed that these practices reflect.  And speed almost certainly leads to what Fredric Jameson calls “depthlessness.” In other words, I don’t mind at all if somebody says that she thinks a situation is gr8t.  But I am bothered if she doesn’t think about whether it’s great for everybody or just gr8t for her, at the moment.

OT: The researchers suggest because of the findings, a new form of writing in the English Language will form. What do you think about this statement?
PH: I think they are absolutely right. We’ve seen these changes before.  It used to be considered inappropriate (if not “wrong”) to use contractions.   And we used to be much more particular about pronouns (who/whom, for example) than we are now.  I truly believe the the age of the semicolon is basically over.  Language changes.  There’s no point in trying to stop those changes.  First, we can’t.  Next, we shouldn’t.  Language needs to change.

OT: What aspect of writing papers do students struggle the most with?
PH: Sentence structure–absolutely!  But, to be honest, I wouldn’t call what my students do “struggling”; I’d call it not bothering. Here, too, texting conventions probably do play a part. Linguists make a distinction between written (formal) language and spoken language.   For example, when you’re waiting at a bus stop, you can say”coming” and most of your audience (the other folks at the bus stop) will grasp your meaning.  But if you’re writing to an absent audience, a one-word message like that will not get the job done.  Texting, I think, collapses the distinction between spoken and written messages.  It’s a written message that acts like a spoken one. Hence, students who are used to texting have a diminished awareness of context.  They now tend to write more run-on sentences and produce more misplaced and dangling modifiers.  These constructions are not a problem, usually, in spoken language, but they really can hide or change meaning in important written messages for multiple, absent and varying audiences.

Whatever your career, the context in your writing needs to be clear for your reader. Texting has changed the way we communicate with each other and we tend to lose substance because of it. Next time when you’re sending an e-mail make sure you use your periods and your words to get the message across. Text lingo may be great with your friends, but never in professional settings. Wuld any1 tke u sriusly if u wrte lyk dis?