Hypothetical Reality

“Hypothetical reality” is a term I've come up with to describe a lot of the assignments we're asked to do at library school.  Unlike an undergrad English program (for example) where you're given an assignment, you do the  research and then write a paper in a pretty straight forward manner, something entirely different often happens at library school. 

Because it's a professional program, you end up being given assignments that are some weird blend of the real world and the fictional.  Right from day one in 503 where you're told to “describe your answers for these questions as if you are a working reference librarian” (even though you may have never spent a day working in the library before), you're asked to enter this hypothetical reality mode.  For the most part, it makes sense and can even be fun (I spent a bunch of my weekend working on a floor plan for a hypothetical special library) but again, you're entering that netherworld between the real and not real where it's sometimes hard to find a balance. 

It struck me today again when a group were presenting in public libraries and one of the group members stopped in the middle of the presentation, said “outside of the conceit that we're librarians presenting to the board of LPL, can I ask you a question about…?” 

I'm not saying this is a good thing or a bad thing – for the most part, I think it's a good thing but it can be frustrating when you write something in your hypothetical role and get back a comment like “This would never happen in a real library.”  Oh.  Uhm, I'm not a real librarian yet so I didn't know that. 

To bring it back to 503, I have to admit that my confusion and frustration about dealing with hypothetical reality boiled over a bit when I wrote my final reference question (of five in a row we had to do at the end of term, like clockwork every Monday), as a surreal narrative where a grouchy old lady showed up in my apartment in the middle of the night (half of that sentence was hypothetical, half was reality – I leave it to you to figure which was which.) 

She asked me a reference question and then, as I answered it, various other random elements appeared including a crazed Scotsman from the other optional reference question that week, Mr. Miyagi, and one of the worst cliches you can use in writing.

Here it is.  The little ranty aside at the beginning was in reference to the previous week's RQ where I'd given the right answer but because I hadn't described it very well, had lots nearly half my marks for the question (although to be fair, the professor did bump my mark on appeal.) 

Oh, and I knew it was a bit of a risk handing this thing in – either the prof was going to really hate it or maybe get a bit of a laugh after having to read twenty-odd reports that would all basically say the same thing.  Luckily, they  apparently weren't bothered by me having some fun with the conventions and I ended up getting an 85% for my answer. 

(Another thought – does it bug anybody that I use “they” when its a singular antecedent (ie. “professor”)?  Frankly, I don't know if it was my female prof or the male TA who marked this RQ and anyhow, I'm not a huge fan of the “he or she” or “he/she” or even just picking one and sticking with it options.  I *did* get killed on a different assignment I got back today though because of this.  Ooops.  Me know grammer gud.  Edit: Shea pointed out another horrible one that people sometimes use – “s/he”.  Yuck!)

PS – welcome to everybody from Ask MetaFilter who found this site after my recent comments about the job market for librarians in Canada.  Hope you find something of value here if you're a librarian (or even if you're not) and keep coming back! 

Comments 24

  1. Anonymous wrote:

    OK, I can't resist…
    The indefinite singular “they” has had a long and noble history through the centuries, and it is unjust – unjust, I say! – that it has been marginalized in favour of the clearly inferior and supposedly genderless “he”. 😀
    I'm a big fan of it, anyway. Though I do censor it out of my formal essays, not particularly wanting to have this argument with profs. 🙂 Not that I use the sexist “he” instead, of course – usually I manage to avoid either one…
    On the RQ front, I didn't take 503 when you did, but the marking for those things was…weird. It took me rather aback when a good portion of the class lost marks for not explaining *why* they thought to go to *Health Canada* to find out the calcium content in particular foods. *rolls eyes* You had to be so. painfully. obvious. in explaining each and every step.(1) Reading your RQ, somehow I suspect the same was true when you took the course. It's definitely more interesting and fun to read than any of the RQs I wrote, though! And the ending made me laugh. 🙂
    (1)Is this really a necessary aspect of the course? Does having to specify that you found something on a website by using control-F on your keyboard really add to your skills as a librarian, or is it needless torture of library students? I don't know. In online reference, I suppose you may need to describe how you got an answer, but to this level of detail? Maybe very occasionally. But I can't imagine most people being willing to read or listen to that much detail, even if they want you to explain your process of finding an answer.
    So I guess I'm concluding it's needless – inhumane! – torture of library students. Well. Good to have that cleared up. 😉

    Posted 21 Nov 2006 at 4:45 am
  2. Anonymous wrote:

    You are truly a brave soul…

    Posted 21 Nov 2006 at 7:41 am
  3. Anonymous wrote:

    I have never heard of this long and noble history. I rather think “they” has a short and bastardized history. My preferred technique is to use he/his/him throughout one page or chapter, and then switch to her, etc. for the next. Yet, if it is the case of a specific referent in mind (like real person, not some hypothetical person) then this might not work so elegantly. I don't mind the somewhat verbose “him or her”.

    Posted 21 Nov 2006 at 3:32 pm
  4. Anonymous wrote:

    I'm with Quinn on this one. “They” or “their” has never been grammatically correct. It's my understanding that “they” is *starting* to become acceptable in some grammatical circles but, clearly, there are still “old-school” traditionalists who prefer the use of “his” or “her,” “his/her,” or “his or her.” I think that the use of “they” or “their” is gaining in acceptance because it maintains the gender neutrality that “his/her” was supposed to instill (don't forget – it hasn't been that long since the use of “he” was supposed to cover both genders), and yet it eliminates the awkwardness of reading “his/her” or “(s)he” or “his or her.”
    Having said that, I think we also have to pick our battles. I'd rather overlook the debatable details like the incorrect use of “their” (plural being used for the singular) or not consistently using “an” instead of “a” before any word beginning with “h” (have you ever heard of “an horse”? that's the grammatically correct use). Frankly, the focus should be on getting people to write in complete sentences. It's a dying art.
    c u ltr – lol!

    Posted 21 Nov 2006 at 4:10 pm
  5. Anonymous wrote:

    Hypothetical reality …
    Add that to your list of t-shirt slogans. It sums up the MLIS experience quite nicely, no?

    Posted 21 Nov 2006 at 4:13 pm
  6. Anonymous wrote:

    hilarious! our stupid version of that question was how many times was “How many times, to date, has the following article been cited: Lefever, R. , Nicolis, G. & Priogogine, I. (1967). On occurrence of oscillations around steady state in systems of chemical reactions far from equilibrium. Journal of Chemical Physics 14(3), 1045-? Has Prigogine ever cited this article?” getting the answer to the print source involved going into the bowels of one of the libraries and searching through the 18 volumes and counting up all the citations.
    i like your response better.
    also–i use they when refering to folks in the third person who i am not sure of their gender or if i know they are not really he or she. s/he makes me carsick from going over the bump of the slash.
    good luck grasshopper–just a bit more!

    Posted 22 Nov 2006 at 1:12 am
  7. Anonymous wrote:

    *sticks out tongue at Barb and Quinn* 🙂
    There's a discussion of the singular “they” as used in past centuries here: http://www.crossmyt.com/hc/linghebr/austheir.html
    It dates back to the fourteenth century, and apparently (arguably, anyway) was not considered grammatically incorrect until only a couple of centuries ago. Darned new-fangled grammarians. 🙂

    Posted 22 Nov 2006 at 1:39 am
  8. Anonymous wrote:

    …I note that (according to Wikipedia) the Australian government actually officially encourages people to use the singular “they”. Cool. I can only hope other lands will also come to see the light! 😀

    Posted 22 Nov 2006 at 1:44 am
  9. Anonymous wrote:

    Because I handed that in or because I posted it publicly? I knew when I handed it in that I was risking a really low mark, depending on how the person marking it responded.
    But that was a risk I was willing to take at that point – the RQ's were only worth 5% so even if I bombed it, it wouldn't hurt my overall mark much. And I knew I had everything required and who knows, maybe I even got a bonus mark for helping break up the monotony of marking 20-odd RQ's that would all basically say the same thing.

    Posted 24 Nov 2006 at 6:46 am
  10. Anonymous wrote:

    Don't mess with somebody with a medieval history degree!
    Personally, I'm more of a fan of grammar and spelling being fluid things that should lean more towards reflecting popular usage rather than whatever is considered “proper” (which as we've seen in this discussion, changes over time.)
    I personally like it for the gender-netural aspect – such an easy solution for an awkward problem.

    Posted 24 Nov 2006 at 7:01 am
  11. Anonymous wrote:

    I think part of my frustration with the RQ's was trying to be extremely anal about every single step I took – you probably didn't *need* to specify “I clicked Control-F on the keyboard” (but with that said, the impression I always got was that more detail was better than less.)
    Another library school slogan occurs to me: “Library School: A Good Chance To Re-live Kindergarten.”

    Posted 24 Nov 2006 at 7:11 am
  12. Anonymous wrote:

    Interesting idea but I think your “switch genders every page/section/chapter” would be a lot more confusing than using a gender-neutral solution like “they/their”.

    Posted 24 Nov 2006 at 7:13 am
  13. Anonymous wrote:


    Posted 24 Nov 2006 at 7:14 am
  14. Anonymous wrote:

    I think you make a good point about what professors should focus their marking on. Obviously you can't disregard spelling and grammar completely but an awareness that there are two camps in regards to this and many other issues (an/a horse is a good one) shouldn't be that far out of reach of most academics.
    I liken it to the “How do you want us to do citations – MLA, APA, LSD, NHL, A-OK?” question that gets asked at the start of every required course in the program. 99% of profs say “Do whatever you're comfortable with – it doesn't matter to me.” They should take a similar approach to grammar questions that have multiple acceptable solutions.

    Posted 24 Nov 2006 at 7:19 am
  15. Anonymous wrote:

    “s/he makes me carsick from going over the bump” Nicely put!

    Posted 24 Nov 2006 at 7:21 am
  16. Anonymous wrote:

    “Don't mess with somebody with a medieval history degree!”
    Yeah, grammar is something that evolves – no sense in trying to keep it still and changeless. That said, I do have my own Grammar Police Moments, born of my great and undying sympathy for the victims of cruel and not-sufficiently-unusual linguistic abuse. O poor misunderstood semi-colon, I weep for thee…

    Posted 26 Nov 2006 at 5:27 am
  17. Anonymous wrote:

    …Maybe I just think that you ought to know the rules of grammar before you break them – I use “they” in a singular sense, and I end sentences with prepositions (like Churchill is supposed to have said, not doing so is pedantry up with which I will not put!), but I do know the accepted rules; I just don't agree with some of them.
    Oh, and I write run-on sentences. As you can tell. 😀

    Posted 26 Nov 2006 at 5:39 am
  18. Anonymous wrote:

    Yeah, I do that too – if somebody breaks a rule *I* think shouldn't be broken, I get mad. But otherwise, I think I should be able to break rules with impunity (even though I would never claim to know all the rules or understand them…even with my very expensive English degree..exclamation point, I'm looking at you! )
    Come to think of it, nor do I know the meaning of the word “impunity”. But it sure sounds right up there, don't it?

    Posted 27 Nov 2006 at 5:59 am
  19. Anonymous wrote:

    I suppose I shouldn't claim to know *all* the rules…just enough to get by. 🙂
    I do think, though, that people break rules differently when they do so *knowingly* than when they just don't know what the rules are in the first place. And it is so, so much easier to read and understand stuff written by someone belonging to the first category, even if you disagree with how they choose to break the rules.

    Posted 27 Nov 2006 at 9:17 pm
  20. Anonymous wrote:

    That's a good point. There is a difference. Using “And” at the beginning of a sentence (which isn't technically a rule break depending on how you word the rest of the sentence) is an effective writing technique. But some undergrad who starts all his sentences. And all his paragraphs. And uses sentence fragments to boot. Would kill me.
    (I know a person who TA'ed in the MIT program and got an essay where the student literally wrote like they talked – “So, like, this film was, like totally about the Middle Ages and like, I freaked when I saw that scene where…” (Yikes!)

    Posted 29 Nov 2006 at 5:56 am
  21. Anonymous wrote:

    Jason I know this is old news and you probably won't even see this comment but WOW you ARE brave! What a great idea. It drives me NUTS that we have to overanalyze every step in these RQs. I like doing them but was so frustrated when the second one I did I got 10% lower than the first and honestly couldn't tell the difference between the amount of detail I had done (and both were equally correct). The worst part is… they say 'more detail' but limit the page count to two! That goes for every class actually. Anyway just wanted to say BRAVO! And wish I had the guts (or the time and inclination, really) to hand my next one in this way.

    Posted 31 Mar 2007 at 3:46 am
  22. Anonymous wrote:

    I get an e-mail notice anytime someone makes a comment so no need to worry about me not seeing it (and glad you wrote anyhow!)
    Well, as I said to someone else, brave is another word for stupid in some cultures. But between the repetitiveness of the RQ's (one classmate created a template for the first one and just filled in the blanks for each subsequent one) and my frustration with the weird mix of high-level detail yet “pretending to be something you have no complete knowledge of” kinda boiled over.
    As I said in the blurb, either I'd get a 0% and fail for being so insolent or the prof would have a laugh and enjoy it. Or they'd just ignore my extraneous crap and mark the content relevant to the assignment (which is what I believe they did in the end.)

    Posted 01 Apr 2007 at 7:37 pm
  23. Anonymous wrote:

    I'm adding that to my funny tshirts collection. The guys will laugh really hard after they see it.

    Posted 20 Jul 2009 at 5:15 pm
  24. Anonymous wrote:

    Actually, I think it's spam since you left three messages on three unrelated posts, all pointing towards the same site. But since you personalized your spam a wee bit (and since the site you link to sells shirts like this), I think I'll let them stay.
    Congrats – you've just discovered the secret to successful blog spamming!

    Posted 23 Jul 2009 at 7:14 am
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