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(The following article was published in August 2006 in the IT Manager’s Journal. Since this site is no longer active, I am reprinting the article here with a few minor modifications to give it a more permanent home. If you find the article useful, you can republish it under a Creative Commons Attribution – No Derivatives license.)

For many, returning to classes means returning to slide shows. Once used mainly in business, today slide showsare equally important in education. Students use them in portfolios to share their mastery of a subject, and many consider them a basic requirement for class presentations. Yet, despite the ubiquitousness of slide shows, few people use them well. Here are some tips to help you improve your presentation skills.

Some doubt that slide shows can ever be used effectively. Among them are communications expert Edward Tufte, who satirically compares them to a May Day rally in the Soviet Union, and Peter Norvig, who highlights their shortcomings with the Gettysburg PowerPoint Presentation. These criticisms are overly severe, but they emphasize the point that if you want to use slide shows effectively, you have to understand their limitations as carriers of information and the restrictions they place on design, and make them a supplement to your presentations rather than an end in themselves.

As their name suggests, slide shows were inspired by 35mm slides. They also owe something to overhead transparencies. However, like spreadsheets, slide shows are a product of the personal computer. The first slide show software was MORE, a Macintosh program for outlining released in the early 1980s. It was followed in 1987 by Microsoft PowerPoint, whose pre-installation on most new computers helped to spread the popularity of slide shows until, by the end of the 1990s, standing up to talk to a group without showing one became a guaranteed way of being noticed.

With the rise of free software, tools like KPresenter (now Stage) and OpenOffice.org / LibreOffice Impress became available. While these lag behind PowerPoint in support for sound and some advanced features, they are adequate tools for the vast majority of slide shows.

When to use slide shows
The most important point to remember about a slide shows is that it is a medium with serious limitations. With no more than 50 words per screen, by itself a slide cannot easily communicate complex information. Even more seriously, slides are designed for one-way communication from a single presenter to a group, and do not encourage conversations or questions. This one-way flow of information is perfect for a standalone demo at a trade fair, but not for a forum in which you want to encourage interaction.

With work, you can reduce these tendencies, although you will always be straining against them. However, before you choose to use a slide show (assuming that you have a choice), you should ask yourself:

  • Is one of your goals class participation?
  • Will members of the class require individual instruction?
  • Is an appreciation of language necessary for the subject?
  • Is your information complex or abstract?

If you answer “yes”  to any of these questions, then you should consider either not using a slide show or making it only part of your presentation.

Choosing and organizing content
The worst thing you can do when developing a slide show is to transfer all your notes to slides. Doing so may beconvenient for those who miss your talk — although less so than you might think  even the most detailed slide shows omit too much to stand by themselves. However, it almost guarantees a dull presentation.

Instead, resist the natural tendencies of the medium by delaying developing the slide show as long as possible.

Start by outlining your presentation in another program, and developing a detailed series of notes. Before opening Impress or KPresenter, go through your notes and mark:

  • Key words or concepts that need definitions or that might be misspelled.
  • Any material that might need illustrating through a still picture, animation, movie, or sound clip. You may be able to find usable content at Classroom Clipart or the Open Clip Art Library.
  • Points where you might want to display a quiz, discussion questions, or other interactive material.

By adding these markers to your lesson plan, you’ll know when you need a slide. If you’re using OpenOffice.org Writer, you can save time by formatting these markers in a Heading 1 style, then selecting File ->  Send -> Outline to Presentation to open Impress with a series of files automatically defined for you.

Another way to decide how to use a slide show is to imagine what you would do if you had no projector but could give your audience handouts or draw diagrams on a whiteboard. Anything that you would put in a handout or draw on the whiteboard can go into your presentation. Anything else should not.

The result of either of these methods is a slide show that lacks continuity — but, unless you are designing a looping demo, you don’t need any. The purpose of the slide show is not to be complete in itself, but to support what you say.

Designing a slide show
A slide is a very limited space. The fact that it is designed to be viewed at a distance makes it even more so. For this reason, the simpler you keep the design, the more effective it is likely to be. Also, if you resolve to keep the design simple, you are less likely to waste time on the chrome — impressive effects such as getting bullet points to doppler into sight in time to music — instead of on content.

You can find backgrounds for slides with a quick search, but you can also design your own using the master slide view (available in Impress from View -> Master Slide -> Slide Master). Whether you download or design, choose the basic color scheme for contrast: you’ll want a dark background for light text, or the other way around. At the most, you’ll want two fonts: one for the title and subtitle, and another for bullet points. To keep them readable, the smallest font you use should be about 22 points.

Simplicity also applies to slide transitions. Choose one and stick with it, unless you plan a change for dramatic effect.

Similarly, when designing individual slides, remember that:

  • Keeping your bullet points to a single line will help you to resist the temptation of reading them.
  • Slides only have space for 5-7 bullet points or 1-2 pictures. If a slide contains both bullet points and pictures, then halve these totals.
  • The more complex a diagram, the larger it should be. Many diagrams work best on a separate slide.
  • To keep the slide size readable, use another slide rather than squeezing more material on to one slide.

As you edit, your goals should be simplicity and readability. If you find your slides getting complex and cluttered,or requiring smaller text, then you need to reconsider what you are doing. In some cases, you may find the material simply doesn’t fit comfortably on a slide, and needs to be a handout or a drawing on the white board.

Delivering a slide show
You have two related problems while giving a slide show: Keeping yourself from reading from the screen, and keeping your audience from reading the screen when its members should be paying attention to you.

If you create your slide show as suggested here, both these problems should be minimized. However, you can reduce them even further if you:

  • Reduce your nervousness by arriving and setting up before the class starts, and carrying a backup presentation plan in case of mechanical failures. The less nervous you are, the less likely you are to let the limits of the medium control the presentation.
  • Know your material well enough that you only occasionally need to refer to your notes or slides.
  • Continually position yourself (from the class’s perspective) to the left of the screen you are using for the slide show. Since English reads left to right, their eyes are more likely to move toward you. If you are using a lectern, position it in that spot, if possible. You do not need to stay in that position, but when you start to refer to a slide, you should move to that position, and keep coming back to it as you continue to discuss the slide. With any luck, you will draw at least some students’ attention toward you and what you are saying, and away from the slide.
  • Move around as you deliver your presentation in order to distract the audience from looking at the screen. In fact, you can signal changes of topic by changing your position.
  • Get somebody else to change slides, or be well-enough rehearsed that you can set the slide show to advance automatically. The less you interact with the slide show, the less likely you are to start reading slides.

With these hints, you should have as good a chance as anyone of controlling your slide shows, rather than being controlled by them.

Conclusion
When desktop publishing programs became available in the 1980s, easy access to advanced design features created a mountain of documents that had been tweaked into unreadability by inexpert users. In the same way, the rise of slide show programs in the mid-1990s has been responsible for millions of presentations that bored their audiences into insensibility. In some circles, the inexpert use of slide shows has become so commonplace that people have been known to cheer when presenters announced that they were not going to deliver a slide show.

Now that their novelty has long worn off, there is less excuse for inexpert use of slide shows. Use them sparingly, and with an understanding of their limitations, and you can get slide shows working for you, rather than against you — and keep your audience engaged rather than stupefied.

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(Note: The following is a handout I used to give in composition courses to first year university students. You are welcome to reformat and distribute it under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License. Basically, that means you it any way you like so long as you give me credit and let others use it under the same conditions)

A. “Chunk” (Paragraphs arranged by subject):

In the co-op, Judy is the practical one. Of the four people who share the house, she is the only one who is not visibly eccentric. She keeps regular hours, and sees that the bills are paid. If food is bought, or laundry is done, either she has done the work or bullied someone else into doing it. Periodically, she musters everyone else for a massive cleaning of the house. It is only her profession–writer–and her New Age interests that suggest how unusual she is.

By contrast, Saul, the household’s other original resident, is so eccentric that his friends think that he looks abnormal in ordinary clothes. His usual wear is either a faded red caftan or Scottish formal wear, complete with a sporran and skean dhu. Because of his light-sensitive eyes, he is usually awake while other people are asleep. He rarely leaves the house, and the ordinary business of living holds little interest for him. He never considers bills, and, although he will eat if food is available, will lives for several days at a time on nothing more than nerves and coffee. Only the area around his computer is clean; the rest of his living space has mounds that archaeologists would love to excavate. Even his hobbies are unusual: sword meditation and writing poetry in obscure languages like Gaelic and Iroquois. Unlike Judy, Saul seems incapable of functioning normally; he does not meet visitors in their world so much as invite them into his.

B. “Slice” (Paragraph arranged by Points of Comparison):

Although both Judy and Saul are old friends, they have little else in common. Saul is visibly eccentric; Judy is so ordinary that she is no more noticeable on the street than a lamp post. She is awake and starts work when their neighbors do, and she can handle such things as bills, laundry, shopping and cleaning–matters that are mysteries to Saul. She even knows how to organize the other household members. Saul, on the other hand, can barely organize himself. Except for his work station, he is surrounded by clutter. If his routine is more organized than Judy’s, the reason is only that he organizes only himself–and then only so that he can work, which is the most important thing in his life. His life is arranged to give him as much time to work as possible, so he pays no attention to ordinary matters like food. A night person, he may go for days at a time seeing nobody, never leaving the house, and surviving on coffee with the odd bit of leftovers. Even his hobbies, sword meditation and writing poetry in obscure languages like Gaelic and Iroquois, are private. He is so different from Judy that many people are surprised to learn that they have shared a house for over twenty years.

C. Analogy:

If the difference between eccentrics and ordinary people is the difference between night and day, then Judy is twilight and Saul is midnight.

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(The following is a handout from my days of teaching first year composition at university. It consists of some informal examples of opening paragraph strategies, but should be equally useful for formal essays. Anyone who finds it useful can reproduce it, so long as they give me credit for it)

Explanation of Topic’s Importance (Anticipatory Summary):
Computers abound in our houses and offices, exchanging information via modems. Programmers are constantly finding new applications for existing software, and computer technicians are refining the hardware so fast that a new computer is no longer state of the art six months after it is sold. We live in a computer-dominated age, and every citizen should have some knowledge of computers. They make routine decisions in business, education and government, and monitor our defense systems. They help individuals to manage their private affairs, to organize their personal records, and to access goods and services, and municipali­ties and legislatures depend on them for planning future develop­ment. Since a knowledge of computers is so necessary for all of us, computer education–“computer literacy,” as the jargon has it–plays a significant role in our society. To understand this role, we must first consider the importance of computer education to the individual citizen and to the country as a whole; next, we must assess the present quality of computer education at all levels; and, finally, we must examine the ways in which computer education can be improved.

Examples:
For many years, automatic vending machines have dispensed such products as salted peanuts, chewing gum, cigarettes, soft drinks and candy bars. Now these robot sellers are becoming more ver­satile. At one eastern airport, the simple act of inserting a coin in a slot will get you a magazine, a pen, a toothbrush, a pocket comb, a handkerchief, a necktie, a suit of underwear, a cup of hot coffee or chicken soup, a set of puzzle toys, a spray of perfume, an insurance policy or a shoe-shine. There are other machines that will take your blood pressure or give you a thirty-second dose of pure oxygen. One corporation has designed an automatic snack bar–a cluster of automatic vending machines that offer toasted sandwiches, hot soup, chili, baked beans and hot pastries and pies. Another firm has produced an automatic cafeteria with a menu of over fifty dishes, including a roast-turkey dinner; the machines even say “thank-you” in a computer-generated voice. These are only a few examples of the many types of vending machines. How are these mechanical conveniences constructed? What effect do they have on buying habits? As we shall see, the vending machine plays a major role in modern commerce.

Definition:
Although manufacturers are reluctant to discuss it except in general terms, copyright violation is becoming increasingly common in our society. Briefly, copyright violation may be defined as the unauthorized use of an artistic product such as a book or a software program by anyone other than the creators or their representatives. It may involve the use of material in slightly altered form, or the copying and distribution of the work, with or without profit. Some people, especially artists, are violently opposed to copyright violation; others, especially software users, consider it their right and something which is inevitable. However it is viewed, it raises ethical issues of great importance.

Cause and Effect:
For the past two years, I have run an average of four to six miles every morning. The results have been amazing. The daily exercise keeps me calm and alert for the rest of the day. It allows me to eat what I want without worrying about calories, and to sleep well every night. It gives me more energy, and, most of all, it gives me a self-confidence that carries over into everything I do. My experience has convinced me that everyone should have some form of daily exercise.

Comparison and Contrast:
For many years, we have thought of the Vikings as bloodthirsty savages who did their best to destroy European civilization. Now, we are starting to understand that this view is too limited. The Vikings were certainly no more bloodthirsty than those they attacked (who generally defeated them, after all), and in many ways they were more advanced. At a time when merchant ships hugged the coast both for safety and for ease of navigation, the Vikings were building sturdy yet light boats that were capable of surviving all but the roughest storms, and boldly sailing across the open ocean using their navigation skills. At a time when most people lived and died within ten miles of where they were born, the Vikings ranged from North American to Russia, and from Greenland to central Africa. Most European art during the Dark Ages was a crude attempt at representational art; the Viking had an intricate abstract art style that we are only now starting to appreciate. Similarly, while most European literature was oral and poetic, the Vikings had complex poetry and detailed prose stories about the deeds of their ancestors. Until early in the twentieth century, a woman in France or Italy had little say in who she would marry, and almost no right to property or divorce; a thousand years ago in Iceland, women had all these rights under written law. As archaeologists have started to reevaluate Viking culture, we have learnt that, far from the horn-helmeted savages of popular imagination, the Vikings were a literate and sophisticated people who were probably closer to us in their assumptions than the southern Europeans of the Dark Ages.

Rhetorical Question:
Can chimpanzees talk in sign language, or do they simply learn what to do to get what they want? Are dolphins and whales possessed of an intelligence equal to ours, but subtly different in nature? Can parrots really have the intelligence of a five year old child? Biologists are divided about the answers to such questions, but the fact that these questions can be asked at all challenge our assumption of our uniqueness. How the question is eventually answered will have a sweeping effect upon our religions, science and ethics.

Illustrative Anecdote:
Once, I made the mistake of telling the woman who was cutting my hair that I wrote poetry. “Must be nice,” she said. “Just light up a joint, sit back and wait for inspiration, then write whatever comes into your head.” At the time, I could have told her that I didn’t smoke tobacco, let alone anything stronger, but, when I think of all that I have learned in the intervening years, I realize that I could have said a good deal more. Like most people, she had a romantic view of writing that is almost totally unrelated to the reality. The truth is not only that few writers use any stimulants stronger than coffee (at least, while they are writing), but also that they hardheadedly plug away at lonely and time-consuming work that, far from being easy, can ruin your nerves in a week if you take it too seriously.

Opposing View to Be Refuted:
Many people think that keeping parrots is like keeping fish. Just as you keep fish in a bowl, feed them, and sit back and watch them, so you keep parrots in a cage, feed them, and sit back and watch their antics. Pet-store owners tell me that this assumption is so strong that some people buy parrots to match the decor of their living rooms. I don’t know how many people act so careless­ly, but I do know that they are in for a surprise. Far from being passive animals, parrots are curious, intelligent birds, that have to be watched constantly and demand hours of attention each day.

Relevant Quote:
“Violence,” Isaac Asimov writes in his Foundation series, “is the last refuge of the incompetent.” Salvor Hardin, the character who adopts this aphorism as his motto, goes to great lengths to prove it, inevitably outwitting his enemies when he applies it. Cynics may doubt that avoiding violence in real life is as easy as it is for Hardin, but, if my personal experience is any indication, Asimov may have a point. Admittedly, avoiding violence is harder than giving into your impulses, and requires more patience. Yet the simple fact of making the effort is worthwhile for at least two reasons: it leads to creative thinking about problems, and, if successful, to more permanent solutions.

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(The following is a handout from my days of teaching first year composition at university. It is meant to be a very basic introduction to the complicated study of logical fallacies. Anyone who finds it useful can reproduce it, so long as they give me credit for it)

For thousands of years, people have been cataloging invalid arguments. These are arguments are invalid largely because they are illogical. That does not mean that they cannot be extremely effective; the associational fallacy, for example, is the basis of a good deal of advertising. But the illogic does mean that they should not be accepted in an essay, which is meant to be the construction of a logical structure of ideas.

Over-Generalization:
Too large a conclusion is drawn from too specific evidence.
Example: Three regional airlines have just gone bankrupt, and many of the larger lines have discontinued flights on certain routes. The North American commercial transporta­tion system is in chaos.
Airlines are not the only form of commercial transportation, and bankruptcies and discontinued routes might not be enough to justify calling the result “chaos.”

Over-Simplification:
Too many considerations are left out for the conclusion to be valid.
Example: Getting a good grade in English is easy. All you have to do is write essays of the required length and repeat the teacher’s opinion.
Grammar and punctuation, structure, and even original thought are also factors in getting a good grade.

Either/Or:
Only two extreme positions are acknowledged, and no alternatives or mixed positions. Sometimes called “the excluded middle.”
Examples:
a.) America: love it or leave it (a statement made by political conservatives in the 1960s)
b.)What do you want: good grammar or good taste? (a slogan once used by Winston cigarettes)

You can criticize your country and still want to live there, and good grammar has no relation to good taste, so it can hardly be its opposite.

Post hoc ergo procter hoc (Latin, “after this, therefore that”)
Because one event occurs after another, it must be caused by the second event.
Example: I carry a gun so I won’t be robbed. It must work. After I was robbed a year ago, I started carrying a gun, and I haven’t been robbed since.
From this statement alone, you can’t be sure of any cause or effect. The speaker may not be going to the same parts of town as before, or maybe they have just been lucky.

Non sequitur (Latin, “it does not follow”)
No logic exists between two parts of an argument
Examples:
a.) “I made the decision myself, because if we listened to experts, we’d have a tyranny of expertise, and then where would we be?” (John Fraser, former Minister of Fisheries)
b.) “I couldn’t have kicked that girl to death. I wear soft shoes” (a murder’s explanation of why he was innocent)

Why should Fraser insist on making the decision when the whole point of experts is to have someone with advice worth listening to? Similarly, you can still kick with soft shoes – or even when you’re barefoot.

False Analogy
A poor choice of metaphors or of similar situations.
Examples:
a.) Some people cannot be educated. You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.
b.) A well-run office is like a machine. You should be able to replace people without disturbing the office’s efficiency, just as you can replace a bolt or a gear in a machine.

You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, because silk isn’t made of pigskin, but it’s not clear that people are that inflexible.
As for an office being like a machine, every organization has an informal organization that compensates for problems with the official organization. For instance, a receptionist may compensate for a company officer’s inability to keep to deadlines. Replace that receptionist, and the office may become disorganized.

Ad Hominem (Latin, “to the person”)
Attacking the person who holds the argument, not the argument itself.
Examples:
a.) People who complain about the conduct of Cabinet Ministers have a vested interest in attacking the government.
b.) Ignore what teachers tell you about writing. They’re all frustrated journalists and novelists who aren’t good enough to compete in the commercial market.

Both these statements may be true or false. But, either way, they do no mean that the attack isn’t valid or that their advice isn’t worth following.

Ad Populum (Latin, “to the population”)
An argument that appeals to popular prejudice or belief.
Examples:
a.) Canadians have worked too hard to see their jobs stolen by recent immigrants, or, even worse, to support them when they go on welfare or unemployment.
b.) Everyone is entitled to an opinion.

The first example tries to appeal to anti-immigration prejudice, the second to the popular wisdom of a cliché. Neither replaces a reasoned argument.

Associational Fallacy
A position is made attractive by who holds it – either a famous person, or people with desirable qualities.
Example: I have no crystal ball. But based on our previous mailings, I’m willing to go out on a limb and make a prediction –
Of all the people who receive this invitation, only a very special group will select accept.
You can easily spot them in any crowd. The young in mind, no matter what their age. Eternally curious. Open to new ideas. Alert to future possibilities. Those fortunate few who didn’t stop growing – intellectually – the day they left school. (a magazine subscription offer in the mail)

The implication is that, if you subscribe, you will prove yourself open-minded and curious, too.

Appeal to Authority
A position must be correct because of who holds it. Alternatively, some greater force such as God or a natural order may be mentioned. Note that this has nothing to do with citing who you got an idea from.
Examples:
a.) Biology is destiny. Women must be dependent on men.
b.) It is historically inevitable that capitalism give way to socialism.

Here, “biology” and “historical inevitability” are represented as greater than human forces with which no one can argue.

Circular Argument
An argument in which the first statement depends on the second, and the second on the first.
Example: There are no drafts of the last half of the poem because Shelley never finished it. If he had finished it, we would have had the drafts.
Besides being faulty reasoning in other ways (the drafts could have been lost), this argument simply goes round and round.

Dormitive Explanation
Similar to a circular argument, the second statement simply repeats the first one – bu tthe repetition is disguised because of a change in wording.
Examples:
a.) Opium puts people to sleep because it contains a dormitive principle.
b.) Ted Bundy killed young girls without remorse because he was a sociopath with a disturbed libido.

“Dormitive” is an adjective that refers to sleep, and a sociopath does things without remorse.

Value Judgment
A position is attacked or defended because of its moral or ethical qualities.
Examples:
a.) That is an evil position to hold.
b.) My plan is simply common sense.

Arguments are supposed to be about logic. The morality or ethics of them are irrelevant.

Equivocation
A word or phrase is repeated, but with a different meaning each time.
Examples:
a.) The law is clear on this point. You can’t argue against it any more than you can argue against the law of gravity.
b.) Since evolution is just a theory, my theory about the origins of life are just as good as any biologist’s.

You can’t argue against gravity because it is a description of how the universe works, but the laws of a country are made by humans and regularly argued. Similarly, a theory is just below a law in science – a position that best explains the evidence – while a “theory” in ordinary conversation is just an opinion.

Confusion of Logical Types
A logical type is a level of organization. For example, a body is of a higher logical type than an organ like the liver, and an organ is of a higher logical type than a cell. You cannot compare or contrast different logical types because they create the absurdity of the parts of something being discussed as equal to the thing itself.
Example:
a.) The needs of the individual are more important than the needs of society.
b.) Ignore the details and concentrate on the larger picture.

Give too much priority to either the individual’s or society’s needs, and you are likely to have trouble. In much the same way, the larger picture is composed of details, so you cannot ignore them.

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What skills do English graduates bring to the job market? More than you might think – and far more than all the jokes about their unemployability would have you believe. In fact, many of the skills developed by English markets while reading novels and poems make them ideal for senior positions.

To start with, English majors may be comfortable with reading. I don’t mean simply that they can read; I mean that they can read with some ease. Many read as instinctively as they hear. It has become a reflex in them to read whatever words are put in front of them.

Moreover, because they are comfortable with reading and have practiced it, they can read more quickly than most people.

These may seem like minor skills, but when you consider the number of reports, emails, memos, and other documents that the average manager has to plow through every week, they mean increased efficiency; I’ve known at least one politician who found that the worst parts of being an elected official was reading the weekly paper work.

Even more importantly, English majors may have learned not only to be comfortable with reading, but to have gained some skill in it.

If you look at the comments beneath almost any article published online, one of the first things that will probably strike you is how few people can read a comment in context. More often, people take things out of context, and come up with the most fantastical over-simplifications, exaggerations, and misreadings.

Nor, naturally enough, can the average person summarize accurately. In fact, most of the critical skills that English majors learn when producing essays are beyond the average person. After all, you can hardly analyze or compare accurately when you haven’t read accurately. These skills are especially important if you need to keep abreast of legal matters, but they matter almost as much when you are writing marketing copy, producing a white paper on technology, or writing a business plan or competitive analysis.

Finally, like most Art students, whose grading is based largely on essays, English majors have probably learned to research – to find sources, absorb them quickly, and evaluate them both on their own and in comparison to other sources. In other words, they have learned to process information, and reach conclusions that are logically based upon that information. This ability is continually useful in daily business, and, on the Internet it can be invaluable. After all, what is the Internet, if not a giant library waiting for an expert to use it?

Of course, not every English graduate possesses these skills. Because the subject matter of English Departments is subjective, students can coast through them more easily than they can in other Departments. Even in English graduate school, you can find students who don’t read unless they have to, and whose essays have more to do with striking a pose than actual analysis.

But, having been a product manager and a director of communications, I can’t begin to tell you how often I’ve looked down at the task that I’m doing and realized that what I learned taking an English degree has helped me breeze through it.

Contrary to the conventional wisdom, English major do graduate with employable skills – in fact, ones that will help them if they ever become managers or team leaders among the creatives. The only problem is, they don’t realize everything they’ve learned, so they don’t express it.

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Like far too many North Americans, I remain unilingual. I understand French well enough that when I met the exiled King of Ruanda and his aide-de-camp (which is a long story in itself), I could understand about eighty percent of the conversation, but I couldn’t participate in it. Otherwise, I can read a reasonable amount of Anglo-Saxon (which will come in useful if I ever travel in Frisia.), and even less Latin – and that’s it. In other words, compared to the average continental European, my linguistic education is pitifully inadequate.

The reasons for this common ignorance is obvious. For several centuries, one of the dominant powers in the world (if not the dominant power) has been English-speaking. Even now, with the United Kingdom reduced to a second-rate power and the United States possibly tottering, English remains the language of trade and the Internet. You can tell this because, while you often read people apologizing for their lack of English skills, you hardly ever see English-speakers apologize for their lack of another language. The best you can say is that these days we at least have keyboard locales with a decent array of accents, so that we can spell the names of many non-English speakers correctly.

Just as importantly, with the exception of Quebec and possibly a few Inuit villages around the Arctic Circle, once north of Mexico, you can travel for thousands of miles without knowing anything except English. Even in ethnic enclaves, you have a strong chance of finding someone who speaks English. The result is the most North Americans feel little need to learn a second language, much less a third. By contrast, you have a greater incentive in many countries in Europe, where you are unable to travel more than a few hundred miles without finding another language useful.

Still another reason for the ignorance of people like me is that, given the language instruction we did receive, we would have been better off memorizing a tourist’s phrase book. I was in school before French immersion began, and forty minutes a couple of times a week – or fifty-five in high school – is not enough to learn any language, even if you have competent teachers – and I, for one, rarely did.

My first French classes consisted largely of playing bingo with the numbers from 1 to 50. Similarly, in high school, my French teacher for two years could always be distracted by asking her about her travels in France. I never did figure out if she had gone there several times, or just the once, but it didn’t really make a difference; ask her about Mont St. Michel or omlettes, and the members of the class could lean back and relax, confident that no other word of French would pass their lips for the rest of the lesson. As for my French teacher in my last year of high school, she was so dully stolid that I earned the only C+ of my school career while staring out the window of her class room.

I did have one native speaker who taught French. But he was my elementary school’s science teacher, and while his French lessons were dutiful, they were not inspired. His heart was not in it.

The combination of such teaching with a lack of any chance to practice meant that most of us had no clear concept of what another language might actually mean. If pressed, most of us probably would have said that it was like a cipher that mapped one to one with English words; if the structure wasn’t the same, it would always come out a match by the end of the sentence. As for idioms and dialects, they were not even concepts. The handful of us who knew better – one girl who was my main competitor for high grades, and another on whom I had a crush once or twice – were seen as having almost mystical powers because they could actually speak French, and not just recite memorized phrases from the textbook.

I could, of course, have cured my ignorance as an adult. In fact, a wish not to be so limited was the reason why I learned the little Anglo-Saxon and Latin that I know. Together with a small knowledge of linguistic sound changes, they remain enough for me to sometimes puzzle out German and to see cognates in the Romance languages or Middle English, but it seems indicative of my failure to understand the usefulness of languages that I never tried to studied one that might have a daily usefulness.

I wanted languages that would improve my understanding of English. Yes, that was the problem – I was too absorbed with learning English to make the effort to learn other languages. But that excuse sounds lacking even in my own ears.

The only mitigation I can plead is that I am aware of my defect. Unlike many North Americans (all right – unlike many Americans), I do not think that English is the default language, or that the Bible was written in English. I know that I am lacking this basic piece of education, so painfully so that I wince when I read 19th century novels that blithely mention school boys translating pages of Latin and Greek, or even Hebrew.

I know I should know better, and, maybe one day I will. Wasn’t it Queen Victoria who undertook to learn Hindu when she was in her eighties? If so, maybe there’s hope for me yet.

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A meaningless Labour Day is still strange to me. For years, as a student and English instructor, it marked the start of a new school year, or at least of a new semester. Then, when I worked in an office, it marked the end of casual summer wear and a return to seriousness – suddenly, all the promises to do something in the Fall came due. But now, working from home with an unvarying workload, it means very little except some quiet mornings when I go for my morning run. I didn’t even take a full day off, although I worked lightly, and got caught up on a few housekeeping chores such as sending out invoices.

It didn’t use to be like that. When I was growing up, Labour Day always came with a sense of disruption as much as regret. I always felt that I caught a rhythm in the summer holidays, filling my days with par three golf and bicycle riding, and that I was on the verge of some mental breakthrough that would be lost forever when I returned to school.

Later, at university, Labour Day marked the end of my labour. Thanks to my father, I was lucky enough to have a well-paying summer job that, together with scholarships, would keep me funded through two semesters of study. I was grateful, knowing how scarce such jobs were, but the work was unrelievedly boring.

Mostly, it consisted of repetitive jobs, such as assembling roof racks for telephone repair trucks, or drilling half a dozen holes in each of thousands of stakes for some purpose I never learned. One summer, I did enjoy building crates for equipment, which required some independent judgement, but, even that year, I was grateful to flee back to the comfort of university. Although such work told me that I was not the total klutz I had learned to believe, growing up left-handed, it also convinced me that I wasn’t going to do manual labor when I was an adult, no matter how highly paid I might be.

Twelve years of high school followed by five at university is more than enough time for conditioning to set in. Yet, as important as Labour Day was in those years, it became even more important when I started working as a teaching assistant and university instructor. In both positions, I was hired by the semester, and, often, I would only hear about my teaching appointments a few days before I had to step into the class room. Once, I actually only heard on the evening of Labour Day. So, in this period of my life, the Labour Day weekend became for me, not one last chance to get away while the weather was still good, but the point when my immediate financial future was determined, and, if I was lucky, a sleepless frenzy of preparation.

At night on Labour Day, I would fall asleep tense with anticipation, wondering how my lessons would be received and what students might be in my classes. Would any of the students with whom I’d had a rapport in previous semesters be there? Any of the occasional troublemakers? Any mature students, who often did so much to raise the level of class discussion?

Since about half my teaching was composition (and, even at that, I was luckier than the average sessional instructor), I knew that many would be fresh out of high school. I knew, too, that many, including scholarship students, would be overwhelmed by the sudden independence of university and have much to learn before they could write a university essay. Some would be shocked, and probably cry. Some would learn to love the responsibility and blossom. Either way, I would be one of those trying to help them adjust, and I would lie awake wondering if I was up to the challenge.

Labour Day changed yet again when I left academia. In business offices, it was marked by a sudden outbursts of suits for the men and stockings and heels for the women. The same people who hung on my office door talking when I was trying to work would suddenly be full of brisk purpose, striding around with a determination that left me feeling jet-lagged.

Throughout these years, I always thought that Labour Day would make a better New Year’s Day than January 1. Unlike January 1, it was a day when people’s lives really did change. But this morning, running through the rain and noticing the long line ups for the bus and the near gridlock on the roads, the most interest I could mutter was a vague interest in what was occupying other minds. I returned home happily to bathe and sit down to the keyboard, thinking myself well out of the post-Labour Day grind.

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