More Niches

6 January 2002

Well, I think yesterday was the low point of my cold, physically speaking. I hope so. I'm still feeling like I was sent for and couldn't come, but it's not as bad as yesterday. (This morning I got up calorie-short and had to have Timprov make my Nutella tortilla for me. That was no fun, but it had nothing directly to do with the cold and could be fixed pretty immediately.) I still have no receiving capability on my address. Bah. I also have no indication whatsoever of when I will have that. Bah again. But otherwise, not a bad day.

I read Murder Must Advertise, which was good, but it pointed out the perils of series characters: when you don't put some of your best-loved secondary characters in a series book, the readers will miss them. I missed Bunter in this one. I haven't gotten accustomed enough to Harriet Vane to expect her in all the Lord Peter books, but Bunter is indispensable. It was still a good book. I just missed Bunter. Of course, I would like a Bunter of my very own. A fanatically devoted valet who takes and develops photos. That sounds nice. I could do with that. Bunter is superior to Jeeves in every way -- you don't really want a pure comedy character in your life, really. Also, I don't believe Jeeves does any photography. Which is a pity.

I also read Dangerous Angels, which is an omnibus of Francesca Lia Block's Weetzie Bat books, all five of them. I had heard rave reviews of these books. I was, shall we say, less than impressed. First off, the prose -- which some reviewers called lyrical and various other generic prose-praise adjectives -- read to me like "See Jane And Her Non-Traditional Family Run." Block must be my friend Ed's female superhero counterpart, Declarative Sentence Woman. Only Declarative Sentence Man (a.k.a. Ed) knows how to make his Declarative Sentences a wee bit interesting. I have no lower expectations of prose in a children's book or a YA than in an adult novel, and if the flat rhythms keep calling attention to themselves, it's going to annoy me.

Then there was the plot. Or non-plot. Two of the five books in the omnibus had something resembling a plot. One plot was "With magical accoutrements, Children Learn A Valuable Lesson About Not Smoking, Doing Drugs, or Being Mean." Faaaabulous. The other was a quest plot; it was my favorite of the five. The rest of them -- bah. Any family, traditional or otherwise -- takes lots and lots of work. Describing how cool the characters are and then spending lots of pages describing what they did for fun when they started their family is a) not a plot and b) pretty fake. Even families of two have friction when they're adjusting to being families. Families of four, six, twelve -- it's a given. And I can understand how if you were writing a journal of the beginning of your family, you would include things like "we wrote poetry and ate sushi and wore cool clothes" rather than "X is driving me nuts with his demands of Y!" But in a novel, you need to put really personal, private things about your characters, or it's just not going to work.

And the last gripe I had with these books: the characters were "unique, different individuals" in the same trendy way that everybody else in this state who is aimed at being a Unique, Different Individual is. They were not only very California books -- they were the aspect of California that makes me roll my eyes. "I march to my own drummer, man! I eat vegetarian hot dogs and wear flowy skirts!" Just like, um, your next door neighbor? And the people in all the houses next door to them? There was actually one point where two lesbians and their daughter made a pointless cameo so that the main character could take photos of them. (Like Bunter, Witch Baby likes to take photos. Unlike Bunter's, hers seem to be only symbolically useful.) It was as if Block said, "Omigaw! I'm four books into the series and have several gay characters, some interracial marriages, but no dykes! Let's fix that immediately with minor characters who have no point in the plot!"

Sigh. Last night I started Oliver Sacks' latest, Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood. If Oliver Sacks wrote How I Pick Out A Shirt In The Morning, I would probably read it. I mean, I did read A Leg To Stand On, whose Berenstein Bears title would have been Dr. Sacks Breaks His Leg. (But it was interesting! protests the defensive voice in my head. Yes. It was. That's the point.) I like Sacks a lot. I even liked him before I knew that he looked like a cross between Sean Connery and my Uncle Phil.

In other readings, evidently I was not clear enough for Evan when I was talking about niche marketing and colleges. His response assumes that I meant J-term should be part of Gustavus' niche marketing. Not really, no, although it could be. What I meant was that if Gustavus had been successful in marketing itself to the group he labels Group C (the people who are in college because they want to learn), J-term would be a good deal more successful in the eyes of the faculty and could continue with some small modifications. But since Gustavus, like most colleges, is trying to go after all three groups ("Mom and Dad are paying for it," "I want to improve my job prospects," and "I like to learn"), and since it refuses to decide on a niche, it's working counter to itself in several areas.

The distribution requirements as they stand are another example of how failure to choose a subset of the market and go for it makes the college (like many other colleges) trip over its own feet. Gustavus requires for graduation a major, a certain minimum number of credits, and a choice of two ways of fulfilling distribution requirements. The most common way is through choosing entry-level classes in the "one from column A, two from column B" method. They have to be entry-level classes. It was only through a special conversation between my advisor and the dean that I had enough science credit to graduate. (What was my major? Oh yeah, physics....)

The moral of the story is: if you take General Psych and Western Civ I, you are a well-rounded person, educated in the liberal arts ideals. If you try to substitute a class that might actually teach you something for either of those -- say, The Reformation for Western Civ I -- you are not. (That's unfair to my Western Civ prof -- he made a pleasure of a duty. But he was pretty much the only one.)

The people who are dedicated to the liberal arts ideal are usually the ones who are in college to learn something. The ones who are there because Mom and Dad are paying for it don't tend to care, as long as the work isn't too strenuous; the ones who want to improve their careers had better not hope to do so through a History major. (As my mother the History/Poli Sci/Criminal Justice triple major will be the first to tell you, it is not vocational training.) So the liberal arts ideal is set up for people who Want To Learn about a wide variety of things. And yet at that school in particular, if you've already taken initiative and learned the contents of General Psych, Western Civ I, Calculus I, whatever, you don't get the distribution credits. Graduation requires monkey-classes, or at the very least classes that are set up for someone who has never touched the subject before. The very system that's supposed to be suited to people who Want To Learn is set up to annoy the crap out of people who Want To Learn.

And why is this? Because they don't have their market well-defined. They have their product well-defined: they want people to look at a Gustavus degree and think "well-rounded body of knowledge." But they're not marketing the school particularly well to people who genuinely want that product, so they end up making all kinds of rules that would be totally unnecessary if they'd done a reasonable job of marketing.

Some people are quite resistant to the ideas of marketing in things like schools and churches. They will say things like, "You can't treat education as a commodity." Oh, can't you? Why do you charge for it, then? They're partially right -- real education, real learning, is not something for which you can plunk down money and get results. But the people who say this kind of thing don't then behave in such a way as to encourage individual education (or spiritual development or whatever intangible is being provided). They then behave as though they were doing marketing, but incompetently.

"Marketing" is not a dirty word. "Advertising" is not a dirty word. Both of them encompass more than buying ad space on TV or in the newspaper. Neither of them has to be dishonest in any way. Neither of them has to be a top-down process. There is nothing wrong with connecting people with the goods or services that they want or need -- even if those goods or services are intangible. The alternatives (no marketing or bad marketing) either fail to connect people with the goods or services they want or need, or connect them with goods and services they don't want or need. I'm not sure which does more damage in American college marketing -- bad marketing or no marketing. But a whole heck of a lot of people are getting the wrong services here.

(I suppose there's another option: giving people no choices in a particular item or service at all. I don't think I even have to say that I'm not satisfied with that one.)

I think what's scary about this for institutions like schools and churches is that it requires them to actually identify what they are good for, in relation to genuine human beings. Many people involved with these institutions go in taking their goodness for granted -- schools and churches are just Good Things To Have, they're places People Ought To Go. Well, they're not. Not inherently. A bad school is worse than no school; a bad church is worse than no church. And it's going to be impossible to define "bad" so that your institution is not bad for somebody. That's a scary thing, if you haven't encountered it before.

Sometimes I find it hard to believe that some people would prefer to have lofty goals that serve the needs of no one in particular than to have concrete goals that serve the needs of real people. But that's how it goes, I guess.

Ah well. My goal for today is to get to feeling better. I'm going to have a mug of juice now and maybe later as well, going to drink some tea, stay hydrated, rest up, and hope for the best. And I'll probably get a little tiny bit of work done. One would think.

It's Uncle Rudy's birthday, as well as the end of Christmas. Enjoy both.

Back to Morphism.

And the main page.

Or the last entry.

Or the next one.

Or even send me email.