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Coffee on the piazza

Responding to a chorus of readers interested in details of my recent trip to Italy (well, a duet), I can try to satisfy their curiosity while attempting to connect the trip to the actual subject of this blog.

I spent two weeks in Cagli, a town of 10,000 in the Appenines northeast of Rome where Loyola College runs a four-week summer program. The students learn some Italian, report and write news features about the town and its people, take photographs, do videography and combine everything in Web pages. I come in toward the end as the copy editor of their texts. But there is time for other activities.

On a day trip to Gubbio, one of those vertical medieval cities built into a hillside, I saw the relics of Bishop Ubaldo (d. 1160). The relics of Bishop Ubaldo ARE Bishop Ubaldo, whose mummified corpse lies in a case, dressed in cope and miter. In the same cathedral that afternoon, I heard a string ensemble, with timpani and organ, rehearsing an 18th-century concerto for a wedding later in the day. The beautiful and the grotesque, side by side. (Bishop Ubaldo, incidentally, is the patron saint of those who suffer from migraine or demonic possession. He looks as if he might have experienced both.)

On another day trip, to Urbino, I saw the graduates from the university celebrating. Urbino's graduates do not wear mortarboards; they are crowned with wreaths of laurel, and after the ceremonies, they wear their laurel wreaths around town in their street clothes. (The male graduates are then ceremoniously dunked in a fountain by friends.)

I spent a great deal of time loafing in the piazza in Cagli, practicing dolce far niente (the sweetness of doing nothing), drinking coffee or Prosecco, and joining the other faculty for two-hour dinners. One restaurant featured a pasta I had never had before, strozzaprete ("strangle the priest"), strands of pasta twisted together. The proprietor's 82-year-old mother, who makes all the restaurant's pasta by hand, came out of the kitchen to accept our compliments.

But it’s not all niente, or, for that matter, dolce. Editing the stories produced by 33 undergraduates is not work for the faint-hearted. And here we come back to the preoccupations of this blog.

Some aspects of the students’ writing were startling. It is not just that they tended to be unacquainted with the conventions of news features — many of them were not journalism majors — or that they had difficulty with structure. The startling thing was their sheer lack of acquaintance with the mechanics of writing. I don’t mean making subjects and verbs agree (well, actually, I do); they could not be counted on to punctuate direct quotations properly. It appears that what training in writing most of them had had was directed more at expressiveness than at precision.

Then, after a good deal of head-shaking with colleagues about the way the world is going straight to hell, and at an accelerated pace, I saw their photographs. The images were impressive. And their videos, once they got the hang of using the cameras and editing, were also quite good. It came to me then that these students, who appear to be representative of their generation of undergraduates, are more oriented toward the visual than the verbal. They don't retain much from lectures, and they don’t appear to do a lot of reading under their own steam. They look at me, and I look at them, and both of us see an alien sensibility.

For details about the Cagli program:

Posted by John McIntyre at 10:29 AM | | Comments (2)


Very interesting blog you have here. Unfortunately it seems you've fallen victim to Hartman's Law of Prescriptivist Retaliation, which states that "Any article or statement about correct grammar, punctuation, or spelling is bound to contain at least one eror[sic]."

(I'm referring to this passage: "...they could not be counted on the punctuate direct quotations properly.")

[Or perhaps just McIntyre's Principle of Fallibility : Everyone who writes needs an editor. Thanks for pointing out the error. JM]

I came to the article after the commenter had pointed out a problem and the author had fixed it. However, what gave me pause was the translation of the pasta name -- "stangle the priest". I have looked on several search engines and in many dictionaries, and can not find the word "stangle". How does one stangle a priest and does it involve animals?


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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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