Archive for School

Not really insomnia

I can never sleep before my day of classes. I can’t watch TV. I can’t listen to music. I can’t even think about my classes. I just stay awake, knowing that something important will happen soon.

Kwantlen Polytechnic University …

in the news. I would prefer to see stories that describe our sedulous teachers and students. That said, this is real news. (I will leave it at that.)

Blasts from the past


Way, way back in the day, I spent a year as Books Editor at The Stanford Daily. It was a wonderful experience doing campus journalism alongside my graduate school studies. Recently the publication put the entirety of its archives online. Stanford Magazine explains how this was accomplished.

Typing my name into the search engine doesn’t locate my entire oeuvre, but keystroking “Bob Basil” does find my loving tribute to the band Katrina and the Waves as well as my take on Sam Shepard’s “Fool for Love.” “Robert Basil” will get you my discourteous take-*down* of Cynthia Ozick, which still embarrasses me.

Carl Djerassi, RIP


Carl Djerassi

Known as “the father of the birth control pill” – an odd phrase, when you think of it – Stanford University professor Carl Djerassi was a genius in many areas of chemistry, authoring or coauthoring more than 1200 scientific papers. After he turned sixty, he turned to writing novels and plays, with great success. (I remember a number of my colleagues in the English department at Stanford being, well, a tad bit jealous.)

He was famously immodest – without, somehow, being arrogant. He mentored generations of scientists and, as a philanthropist, supported artists for decades.

I met professor Djerassi through my Stanford advisor, the wonderful Diane Middlebrook, his wife. Diane once told me that one of Djerassi’s great qualities was that he did not react to – perhaps did not even *notice* – her moods, and hence wasn’t adversely affected by them – so she never had to feel guilty *having* them. (I knew where she was coming from.)

Their home – an entire floor (the 14th?) of a Russian Hill apartment building in San Francisco – was filled with modern art by likes of Paul Klee and Alexander Calder. Once, when the couple was in London, Diane invited me to stay there for a week. I was so afraid I’d bump into a million-dollar painting or mobile, I stayed in the kitchen and bedroom my first couple of days there. Diane had a desk that looked out onto Alcatraz. That’s where she wrote her biographies of Anne Sexton, Billy Tipton, and “the marriage” of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath. (I was very honoured indeed to be asked by Diane to copy-edit the first draft of the Tipton bio, Suits Me: The Double Life of Billy Tipton.)

Diane passed away eight years ago. I honestly can’t believe it has been that long. Her wisdom and sweet courtesy were legendary. I am grateful to professor Djerassi for being a great husband to her, and grateful, too, for the gifts – his inventions,  his research – that have improved the lives of millions and millions of people the world over.

Thank you both.

(The photograph above, appearing in the Stanford Report’s nicely composed obituary, was taken in Diane and Djerassi’s huge library. By delightful luck, right above the great chemist’s right elbow is a copy of my first book.)

Revision : Heterovision

I tell students and clients they shouldn’t take feedback on their work as personal critiques. “You are not the words on the paper on which your reports are printed.” This seems like a straight-forward point, but even seasoned editors tend to forget it on occasion, so I tend to make it a lot. “What we have in common is our concern for the usefulness of this prose here, this separate and individual bit of existence that is neither you nor me.”


The word “revision” comes from Latin word revisionem, meaning “to see again.” While an author and an editor might look at a single work of prose more than once, often the work itself needs to be seen, amended, and fixed by other stakeholders and document contributors as well (lawyers, accountants, scientists, project managers, executive assistants), folk who will look at this work of prose just once. What these latter individuals are doing is not, strictly speaking, “seeing again.”

So, perhaps we need a new word to explain what our written works really and more precisely need, over and above “revision.” I suggest heterovision – meaning “seen by others” (hetero- coming from the Greek for “other” or “different”). This neologism conveys the collaborative aspect of editing better than the word “revision” does. (Analogous expressions would be heterodoxy and heteronym.)

In sum: While the work itself is looked at again (“revised”), the people who do the fixing, who proffer their critiques, are usually heterovising.

(Could our nifty neologism catch on? I am not betting on it. The prefix “hetero” seems rather charged in our language at the moment, connoting culturally normative and uniform values, I think, rather than what’s inclusive, alternative and welcoming. And editing’s nothing if not “welcoming.”)



Note: An earlier version of this post appears in

Problems with the “bucks for clicks” model of journalism

I like Virginia Postrel‘s take on the recent controversy over at A popular author, Bill Frezza, published a controversial column on that website – advising university fraternities to beware of female students who show up at their parties drunk – and was fired. Comments Postrel:

What has drawn little comment is the business model that produced a journalistic fiasco. (not to be confused with the print magazine) is a publication that acts like a platform. It hires columnists, gives them a general turf, tells them to write and post pieces, and pays them by how much traffic they attract. Unlike a traditional publication, it doesn’t spend money on having editors review the topics or articles beforehand.

In the traditional model, Frezza’s article either would have had the backing of the publication–which would have stood up for it–or it would have never seen the light of day. If the argument seemed beyond the pale, an editor would have said, “No thanks. What else do you have?” There would have been no public blowup and no firing. One way or another would have taken responsibility. (As anyone who reads knows, its lack of editorial oversight extends to basics of proofreading.)’s business model has been successful in a tough environment, but it presents editorial perils.

Under the new model, columnists have to guess what readers will find interesting and they also have to guess what editors will find a firing offense. They are expected to internalize vaguely defined standards and self-censor accordingly.


Addendum: Other, very bad problems with this model: (1) Authors are financially punished for writing stories that take a long time to report or that are important-but-boring; (2) livid, invidious opinion is likely to generate more “clicks” than researched journalism; (3) writers must now aim to please rather than to inform their readers.

Back in the day, Sports sections, for example, subsidized important-but-boring stories about school-board meetings and treaty negotiations among Asian nations. No more, alas. – 18 October

Kwantlen’s Compensation Controversy

There have been four presidents of Kwantlen Polytechnic University since I was hired eleven years ago. Our current one, Dr. Alan Davis, seems to me to have been the best. Why? He understands how our university’s future will never be a break from its past: a community-focused, rigorous institution devoted to providing students with real-world expertise – from fashion and interior design to horticulture to business to criminology and, now, even to beer-brewing and to Chinese medicine.

He has been a superb hire. In his previous post – president of the State University of New York’s prestigious “university without walls” – he demonstrated his commitment to cool and interesting innovations, humanism, and technology.

How Dr. Davis got hired is not controversial, but how he got paid *before* he started his job as President has. Today he released this statement:

I am very troubled by aspects of administrative compensation at KPU that have recently come to light. It is clear that, prior to my arrival at KPU, there was an established pattern of issuing pre-employment consulting contracts to people being hired to senior positions. The recipients of those contracts, including myself, were unaware that these contracts might be non-compliant in some way with BC public sector regulations.
Assistant Deputy Minister Rob Mingay found in his recently released Compensation Review of Kwantlen Polytechnic University that the mis-reporting of two of those contracts (including my own) was not in keeping with the spirit and intent of government standards.
Similar conclusions could be drawn about other such contracts that were issued before my arrival.
I am therefore conducting a review of these issues, using independent external resources as required.
I wish Dr. Davis the best, and I applaud the transparent manner with which he has addressed this episode.