Saturday, September 05, 2015

The Re-Branding of SSU

A recent announcement by Shawnee State University informs us that “The Office of Communications has been renamed the Office of Marketing and Communications to reflect its broader role in outreach, marketing, and branding.” I wrote a post about an earlier"rebranding" at SSU in July 2009, which I am reposting a slightly edited version of below. I was hard in the post on Wayne Allen who is a gifted writer, but he would have been better if the PDT  Community Common had had somebody who could proofread.

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Will the cuddly Shawn E. Bear be euthanized?

      SSU’s Director of Communications Elizabeth Blevins was recently interviewed in the Community Common by reporter Wayne Allen on the subject of the “rebranding” of the university. Merriam-Webster defines the noun brand as a well-known and usually highly regarded or marketable name.” So rebranding might mean “changing a brand to make it better known, more highly regarded and marketable.” Last fall, feeling it was time for rebranding, a brand marketing team was assembled from different departments at the university. Wayne Allen, a former SSU student, reported, “It became clear to the team, the university needed a partner to help lead them through the entire branding project.” Incidentally, that comma after team creates a run-on sentence. The sentence would be perfectly correct and clear if Mr. Allen used the relative pronoun “that” instead of the comma. If he wanted to be a little more formal, he could have used a semicolon instead of the comma, something I discouraged students from doing when I taught freshman composition at SSU. Only if they understood the correct usage of commas and periods should they risk fooling around with semicolons. Just as guns should be kept out of the hands of children, semicolons should be kept out of the hands of novice writers.
      Some of my colleagues at the university knowledgeable about composition theory believed that it didn’t help to point out punctuation mistakes to students, because research shows it doesn’t help, and besides there are more important things to teach students about writing than punctuation, a view I agree with. But I circled the punctuation errors anyway, thousands and thousands of them, out of habit I suppose, proving the truth of the saying you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. And if a reporter for the Community Common and the Portsmouth Daily Times, like Allen, who attended SSU, writes run-on sentences, doesn’t it only go to prove my colleagues knew more about composition than I did? Allen proves trying to teach punctuation is a waste of time.
      Anyway, the “ partner” the SSU brand marketing team chose to advise them was Stamats, a marketing firm that specializes in helping institutions of higher education with marketing problems. I had never heard of Stamats before, but I was immediately put off by the name. Isn’t that name a marketing problem? If I were advising Stamats, I would urge them to change their name. I mean what the kind of a name for a business is Statmats anyway? It’s not only meaningless; it sounds stupid and looks ugly. Only when I visited the Stamats website did I learn how Stamats got its name. Stamats is the name of the family that founded the firm back in 1923, and what’s more, their website points out, Stamats is a palindrome, a word that is spelled the same forwards and backwards. Well, will wonders never cease. But it doesn’t stop there. Stamats is a name that keeps on giving, because Stamats is also an anagram, an anagram of Assmat. If Stamats was in the assmat business instead of the business of advising universities about rebranding, the name Stamats would be Ok, the same forward as backward, with an anagram thrown in for good measure, with all kinds of ass-backwards connotations. If I were in the business of rebranding, I would advise Stamats, if it declined to change its name, to at least adapt the slogan of Ohio’s Smucker’s jams: “With an anagram like Assmat, it’s got to be good!”
Better Layed Than Never
       But let’s get back to Allen’s interview with Blevins. “What they did for us is layed the architecture for going through this kind of process,” Allen quotes Ms. Blevins. There is,no such word as “layed.” What Wayne Allen had in mind probably was “laid,” the past of the verb “lay.” I used to advise students to try to avoid the verbs lie and lay, whose various parts are so confusing and difficult to remember that it’s easy to mix them up and embarrass yourself and others.
      Ms. Blevins goes on in the interview to say that the SSU brand-marketing team didn’t want to just toss around suggestions for a new logo and choose one haphazardly. “We wanted it (the new logo) to be more meaningful than that.” She said the university wanted a new logo to be based on research.  So the folks at Stamats advised the brand marketing team on the research. “The research consisted of conducting a survey of current students, facility [sic], staff, and alumni.” Although there is a Facility Dept. at SSU, Allen’s "facility" is probably a typo for faculty. I make mistakes like that sometimes in my blog, but I have a friend who proofreads for me. But that’s what managing editors at newspapers are supposed to do for reporters: keep an eye out for typos and the wrong homonym, such as “there” for “their.” Allen quotes Blevins as saying, “They came in [the students and “facility”] and told us what they think of, [sic] when they think of Shawnee State. What they think makes us (SSU) unique in there [sic] eyes.” Allen writes, a sentence later: “They were also asked what keeps them at SSU, among various other questions about there [sic] experiences.” Blevins goes on, as quoted by Allen, “In a time were [sic] resources are limited [sentence fragment]. We do not want to be wasteful, this will be a soft implementation” [run-on sentence]. Isn’t there a managing editor at the Daily Times company, which now owns the Community Common, or is proofreading, like doing away with a Monday issue, one more thing that the Times company has eliminated to cut costs? Without an editor to assist him, Allen, who doesn't have much facility with language, is, grammatically speaking, virtually bare ass, or since we are talking about SSU, I should say bear ass. But that is nothing compared to what PDT reporters sometimes must do if they want to keep their jobs. Times reporters know that reporting some facts can cost them their jobs, as two of the best and most experienced of the PDT reporters, Jeff Barron and Mike Deaterla, discovered. [Barron was fired after reporting in a story in the PDT that someone who had been arrested for dealing drugs worked as a mechanic at Glockner's, a major advertiser in the PDT.]
      To sum up: the rebranding effort at SSU so far appears to consist mainly of slightly changing the curve of the Shawnee “S,” slightly changing the shade of the school’s blue and gray colors, and changing the cuddly looking  Shawnee Bear to a Grizzly.  Does this mean that the previously lovable Shawn E. Bear is going to be euthanized? If Shawnee State is going to continue to claim that its most marketable feature is that it is a student friendly place, shouldn’t the official SSU bear look a little friendlier, a little less lethally clawed, a little less grisly than the bear that SSU has just adopted?
      In one of Allen’s sentences near the end of his article, he makes an inspired error that shows a talent, if not a genius, for malapropism. It replaces my previous favorite Wayne Allen  malapropism, “imminent domain,” which when used in connection with developer Neal Hatcher, might more appropriately have been called “imminent doom.” Allen’s prize-deserving malapropism is, “There will be an official unavailing [sic] of the new look in the fall when all of the students are on campus.” “Unveiling” is the gerund Allen was not quite able to come up with, but  “unavailing” is even better, because it means “futile or useless,” or availing not. Is there a better word than “unavailing” to describe the current public relations effort on the part of SSU and its “partner” Stamats?
Annual Ranklings
      The other day I checked U.S. News’ annual rankings of American colleges and universities, which I know get no respect at SSU. Though SSU is no longer at the virtual bottom of the bottom fourth tier, the worst of the worst as they were ten years ago, they are still mired somewhere in that  fourth tier: SSU in the U.S. News rankings is not second-rate, not third-rate, but fourth-rate. There are a number of fine students and faculty at SSU, and let’s not forget the fine "facilities," but SSU's reputation is still in the toilet. Isn’t that the problem Stamats should be advising on, not the shades of the school colors, not the curve of the Shawnee S, and not the fangs and claws of the official Shawnee Bear. SSU is not likely to get out of that bottom tier anytime soon, not with former SSU students writing as carelessly as Allen does and not when SSU’s Director of Communication, presumably SSU’s resident expert on communication, spouts the public relations jargon the way she does. ("Soft implementation," indeed!) The notion that American business knows what's best for everybody, including those in higher education, carries a lot less weight than it did before the recent incredible display of incompetence and dishonesty by the business and financial class. Being more businesslike is hardly an unqualified virtue given the recent era of Bernard Madoff madness.
       I used to tell Shawnee students that Harvard was once viewed in England as the cow college in the colonies, but U.S. News now rates Harvard as the best university not only in the U.S. but in the world. Take that Oxford and Cambridge! I told students that maybe by the time their grandchildren are of college age SSU will have become a university they will want to attend and will be proud to say their grandparents attended. But on the basis of this current rebranding effort, I would say that day is much farther away than I thought. With rebranding efforts like the current one in which Stamats is involved, it may not be the grandchildren but the great-grandchildren who might one day may be able to take pride in their great-grandparents' degrees from Shawnee State.
      When I taught at SSU and struggled, along with others, to help raise it from a third-rate to a second-rate university, I adopted as my slogan a line by E. E. Cummings: “There is some shit I will not eat.” Before ending my reflections on rebranding, I will suggest a slogan for SSU, at least for English, if not Communications, majors. It is the title of a poem by the English Victorian author Arthur Hugh Clough (pronounced Cluff): “Say Not the Struggle Naught Availeth.” No marketing or communications experts, trained as they are in the art of deception, could possibly come up with a more inspiring use of the English language than Clough whose poem can be read by clicking here

SSU's new official bad-ass bear

Tuesday, September 01, 2015

301 Front St.: An Architectural Treasure?

301 Front Street, Portsmouth: An Architectural Treasure?

    One of the unfortunate things about the history of Portsmouth architecture is that in the original hand-written records, instead of listing the year, or at least the approximate year that an old house was built, somebody in the Scioto County Auditor's Office simply wrote "old." When the records were digitalized around 1998, "old" was a vaguely useless bit of data, so the Auditor's Office arbitrarily adopted the year 1900 for the birthdate of all nineteenth century buildings it did not have a definite year for, and 1950 for all twentieth century buildings it did not have a definite year for. If there was an ideal solution for the problem of dating Portsmouth's old buildings, attributing the years 1900 and 1950 to them by the Auditor's Office was far from  ideal.  Instead of being  vague about when a building was built by classifying them as "old," the digitalized records now are misleading because there are no asterisks or other indications that 1900 and 1950 are arbitrary and not the actual dates when the buildings came into being.

      Unlike wooden structures, which were victims of time, fire, and termites, one old brick building that survived and could be dated was  associated with a prominent, prolific family whose history was a matter of record,  namely the Kinney family. The style of the original Kinney house reflected the sober, even austere  Federal-style that predominated in  New England and the Northeast from the time of the Revolution to about 1830. The founder of the clan, Aaron Kinney and his wife were from Pennsylvania, whose state motto is "Virtue, Independence and Liberty," which suggests that morality had priority in the Keystone State.  The construction of the Kinney house was begun in 1810 but was not finished until 1812. At first,  as was the custom, the age of a building was dated from the time it was completed, not from when it was begun but from when it was finished, as a baby's age was determined not by when it was conceived but by when it was born. So the Kinney home became the 1812 House, but because the older a building was the more prestige it and the family associated with it had in a new county like America where everyone was supposed to be equal, the 1812 House became the 1810 house.  But not only was the date of the Kinney house changed, so eventually was its style of architecture. What makes the style of the 1810 House pretentious is the incongruous pillared front, which was added in 1913, over a century after the house had been built. Since it was like a Southern mini-manse in the ante-bellum South, it was a front in more than one sense. Those Kinneys who were born and raised and  became well-to-do in Portsmouth were the members of the nascent aristocracy of southern Ohio.  Like the Appalachian migrants they rubbed elbows with, the Kinneys were more influenced culturally and politically by the South than they were by Pennsylvania and New England. The unofficial motto of the city became, "Portsmouth,  where Southern hospitality begins." As it is currently looks,  the 1810 House could be said to be where Southern pretentiousness begins.

The 1810 House: "Where Southern pretentiousness begins."
   301 Front Street   

      If the date of the  construction of the Kinney house was known because of the prominence and importance of the Kinney family, the date of the house at 301 Front Street was lost because its occupant, James Salsbury (the spelling varied) was not the founder of a prominent family and the two-story brick Federal-style house he lived in, and perhaps was owner of, was a plain and unpretentious example of plebeian, vernacular architecture. The house  was built no later than 1820, and probably at least a few years earlier. It has apparently not been altered at all, at least externally, in the nearly two centuries of its existence. Salsbury was a saddler, a moderately successful one, or he wouldn't have been able to build a new house, assuming he owned it. He was active in local affairs, but he was obviously no Kinney, intellectually and socially, with no descendants who kept the Salsbury name alive who might have fiddled with 301 Front Street to make it more imposing and stylish. That is the beauty of 301 Front: its plainness and simplicity, its democratic, somewhat anonymous and by now gritty dignity. If John G. Peebles had not mentioned the house in passing in his journal, which Nelson W. Evans reprinted in his History of Scioto County (1903), where I found it, 301 Front Street might have historically gone up in smoke, so to speak.

      The current  records in the Auditor’s Office say 301 Front Street  was built in 1900, the arbitrary year assigned to older buildings. The unpretentious, two-story house  is an example of Federal-style architecture, which was popular in the United States between 1780 and 1830, and particularly in the thirty years between 1785 to 1830. There are few Federal-style houses  remaining in Portsmouth because there were relatively few to begin with, and the couple of unoccupied examples that remain are in sorry condition, with the exception of 301 Front Street, which up to now has been  a neglected, architectural treasure. (The reason it is a treasure may be precisely because it was neglected.) Its proportions, which haven't changed, seem perfect, like a small Greek temple. The reasons it was neglected may be in part because of errors made by Evans and/or by his  contemporary John G. Peebles, who had drawn a map in 1894 of Portsmouth as it purportedly had been in 1820, which Evans had relied on in drawing the  map he included in his history (Vol. 1, between pages 441-442). Evans is a somewhat unreliable source in determining the age of an old building.

   What's in a Name?   

      The names of Portsmouth Streets had changed over the course of the nineteenth century. Water Street had become Front Street, and West Second Street had become Madison Street. Either Evans or Peebles or both had made a hash of those streets in the following passage (I, 439), in which Evans appears to be quoting Peebles: "In-lot,  Number 227, on the southeast corner of Madison and [West] Second streets, had a small brick house in which James Salsbury lived after his marriage to Nancy Kehoe." The first mistake in this passage is that what is now 301 Front Street could not have been located  on any corner of Madison and [West] Second streets because those two are one and the same street, a street that was  first called West Second and later renamed Madison; and the in-lot on which the brick house was located, that is, the in-lot on the corner, was number 228, not number 227, though the two in-lots adjoined and were probably both part of the property. The house that was later numbered 301 Front was in 1820 on the corner of West Second and Water Street, or West Second and Front Street, if the name of Water Street had been changed by that time to Front Street. The passage of Peebles' journal that Evan's quotes from is in the section with the heading "Residents of Portsmouth, 1819-1821," so what is now 301 Front Street could have been in existence as early as 1819, and probably  at least several years earlier. It is remotely possible that 301 Front Street is about as old as the 1810 (really 1812) house.

      The  confusion about 301 Front Street is a reminder that words are symbols of the thing they represent, and not the the thing itself,  not what Kant called the "ding an sich," which is strictly and epistemologically speaking, unknowable. If we equate reality with the things language represents, we are being not only presumptuous but vulnerable. Words as symbols are not hard to manipulate and even when they are not being intentionally manipulated, they are subject to slippage, with one street becoming two and a corner occurring where none really exists, and with Water Street becoming Front. The latter change, incidentally, was probably an example of the conscious manipulation of symbols, in this instance words, for a purpose. Naming a street Water Street because a river is adjacent to it becomes a disadvantage when the river periodically floods over not just Water Street but half the city,  something a real estate agent and property  owners on Water Street would not want prospective buyers to be reminded of. Similarly, the change of the name of West Second Street to Madison was done for patriotic, i.e., political reasons, as was the change of another street to Jefferson Street. Later, in the twentieth century, I discovered in the Portsmouth Public Library, a woman trying to raise money for the 1810 House gave as one of the reasons the public should  support the house was because it represented "the American way of life," not just the Kinney way of life. But since the 1810 House had become architecturally Southern "gentrifried" by that time, what she was really saying was that the house represented not so much the American way of life as the Southern American way of life. Wasn't  the periodic appearance of  the Ku Klux Klan in Portsmouth throughout the twentieth century a manifestation of the darker side of this Southern American way of life? And is not Jo Ann Aeh's imminent return by underhanded electoral means to the Portsmouth City Council not a reminder of the recent underhanded return to the city manager form of city government. The return to a city manager was a virtual coup d'etat orchestrated by the International City/County Managerial Association. It  did not change Portsmouth politically for the better, and the hiring of a convicted perjurer as city manager virtually guaranteed that it would be crooked business as usual, a feature of that crooked business being the game of musical chairs that is facilitated by the four-year terms of council members who frequently do not finish their terms, giving the council the opportunity to appoint their obliging, rubber stamp  replacements?
      The  bright spot in the recent history of  301 Front Street is that it was purchased in  September, 2014,  by a  young  sociology professor  at Shawnee State University. Sean Dunne is not an ivory tower academic. He is actively involved in community projects, which has earned him a place on our prevaricating city manager’s hit list. Derek Allen's attempt to pass a falsehood off as truth got him in a lot of trouble when he was a member of the city government in Piqua, where they would not hire him as dogcatcher after he was found guilty of perjury, having  testified under oath to what was not true. But that did not prevent the Portsmouth City council from hiring the perjured Allen at a $100,000 plus salary, with a generous severance package as city manager after he persuaded the search committee, with his deceptive words, that he was not really a perjurer.  In the year Dunne  has owned 301 Front Street, he has made major improvements in the inside of the building, probably spending more money than anyone ever has  upgrading the property.  He estimates he has already spent and gone into debt to the tune of about $30,000, without a dime of assistance from the city government or semi-public agencies, Among the improvements he has made was ridding the cellar of termites and removing the huge old sycamore tree near the rear of his house. Because the tree had become hollowed out as it aged, which happens with sycamores, it was leaning toward and in danger of falling on and crushing the small old house. In addition, an inspection of the house by a professional revealed the roots of the sycamore was  damaging the foundation of the house, making its removal imperative.  

      That Professor Dunne was willing to go into debt to buy and upgrade the property—and remove the menacing tree—is ironic in view of what has happened to another historic,  far larger  and more imposing Boneyfiddle house that I have recently written about in River Vices (see link below). I refer to  633 4th Street, the last two owners of which, a lawyer and a doctor, with much more earning potential than a college  professor, were not willing to go to the  expense of removing the towering trees that had turned into  twin Frankensteins. What  the present absentee owner of 633 4th, the doctor, did, instead of removing at least the more menacing of the two trees, was hide its exposed roots behind a new brick wall, the old wall having been pushed over by the tree’s  slowly clambering roots. For anchorage and nutriments, a  tall tree needs its roots to extend up to fifty feet from the trunk of the tree. The tree in the confining northwest corner of  633 4th Street  had become imprisoned, and in an attempt to break out of its imprisonment, had put pressure on the wall, which eventually toppled over. Walled up again, that partially uprooted tree could topple over onto Washington Street at any time, but especially in high winds. It was fortunate that the tree whose roots had been cut had not killed or maimed some child when it fell in  Tracy Park (see the link below). If and when the Frankenstein tree falls on Washington Street, who knows what it might do? Perhaps what our city  needs are more civic-minded college professors and fewer shyster lawyers, like Mike Mearan, fewer absentee landlord-doctors, like Dr. Singer, and fewer prevaricating city managers like Derek Allen.

Sean Dunne with SSU students at a recent meeting 
of the North Central Sociological Association.

Relevant Posts

Update on a Cover-up (click here)
Deathtrap for Tots (click here)
The Dragoness Jo Ann Aeh (click here)
Don't confuse the Klan with the Klutzes (click here)