Saturday, October 22, 2016

The Ten-Word Answer

A couple of decades ago, or so, I started referring to the Limited Power of Discourse. Given that my life's work is conveying information--often verbally--it's an odd turn of phrase. Given that I grew up in an educational system that valued teacher oration quite a bit, probably because mimeograph machines made chalk seem like a pretty good delivery device by comparison, it's stranger still. Yet, I have to ask: When was the last time someone actually changed your mind through the power of their words?

The title of this post comes from one of the most important elections in our nation's history: Bartlet/Ritchie. Bartlet was an economics professor, with a worldview that simultaneously confronted all of the enormous complexities of everything. In a different context he said, "In my house, anyone who uses one word when they could have used ten just isn't trying hard." His opponent was the "fortune cookie candidate"--a Southern governor who rarely uttered a sentence that wouldn't have been suitable for a bumper sticker.

Regular Slacker Guide readers--Is it possible to have regular readers of a blog updated so irregularly?--know on which side of the ledger I find myself. I recently wrote 67,000 words for Messiah College in exchange for a master's degree. Just for comparison, that's a NaNoWriMo win with 17,000 words to spare. I am well aware of the fact that getting down to the nitty-gritty usually takes me about nine paragraphs.

In the years before I coined the Limited Power of Discourse, there was a time when I believed devoutly in the power of debate. Before we ever dated, my wife and I spend two years arguing. Not the kind of arguing that is more common these days, like which-cabinet-the-water-bottles-should-be-kept-in, but debating Life's Greater Mysteries--that still goes on, but it's harder to come by post-college. Maybe it was being young, maybe it was because we were secretly into each other and just never disclosed this to each other for two years, but I know that at times my mind was changed. And not just by her. I know that other friends and professors and even sometimes public figures could shape my world view by what they said.

I'm not sure that our political system is really even trying to persuade anymore. During the above-mentioned campaign, Bartlet also does a rant on the debate format--"That's not a debate. That's not a debate! It's a joint press conference." He believed in a debate format that could actually get candidates beyond their talking points and engage in a real exchange of ideas. The debates this time around, the entire presidential campaign for that matter, has seemed less like a battle of ideas and more a battle to demonstrate the purity of the candidates' Red or Blue credentials. That, plus dueling scandals and a personality contest that is sometimes a race to the bottom of likability.

Despite the Limited Power of Discourse, I recognize some ten-word answers from teachers that did nothing less than shape my life. I'm tempted to write three paragraphs on each explaining the complexity of what these things meant/mean to me, but that's not really the point, then is it? Instead, I'll just identify where each was said, and some idea of the topic at hand where that is not obvious from the quote itself. Not all are ten words long, but sticklers for this sort of thing should get their own blog (for more lousy Slacker Guide math, see also: here). This is by no means a definitive list of every teacher who made an impact on me, but in terms of efficiency of syllables, these are hard to beat:

1. "You've got the musicality and the ideas. It's clear that you've listened to this stuff. You just need to learn to play your horn."  - Tom Strohman, jazz improv lesson

2. "Teach right principals, and let the people govern themselves."  - Mark Mecham, Concert Choir rehearsal on making music sound good by developing students into musicians  

3. "Don't get cross; they sing wrong notes because they're incompetent, not wicked."  - Sir John Bertalot, Westminster Choir College

4. "I could make this piece sound good today, but I'd rather have them fight their way through it."  - Fred Otto, PMS (not to be confused with PMS) just before band rehearsal during student teaching

5. "You actually sing better when you're goofing around than when you're trying your best."  - Alan Wagner, West Chester master's program voice lesson

I'm sure that as soon as I hit <Publish> on this thing that I'll think of five more. By the way, it would also be a lovely thing for readers to post their own in the comments. Slacker Guide readers don't always do too much with assignments like that, but you know you've got yours--something that someone said to you that rolls around in your head and proves that saying things to people actually has value. Maybe you can make this shard of wisdom do the same for us. 


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