Saturday, September 25, 2010

Love of etymologies and dictionaries

"I love the dictionary. Perhaps a love that only English majors can fully appreciate. When I was teaching, I always made my students carry little dictionaries, and we would often spend an entire class period trying to figure out what things like 'existentialism', 'modernism', and 'caucasian,' actually meant."

I found the above statement somewhere online, written by a woman who understands what it is to love words, and their meanings. To go back to a word's original source, its earliest recorded usage, is to connect with something more important than the quotidian use we've assigned it. I feel like I better understand not only the word itself, but the people and the time the word derives from. I have also told students, when they're resistant to this process of looking up words in the dictionary, that if they do not understand where a word comes from, the language is using them, they're not using the language. 

To become more consciously aware of the language we're using, it is crucial to look up the origins of words. To know that a word comes from Old English, for example, is to begin to trace its development over time, and to see how it has changed, how meaning and social values have changed too. There are also people who enjoy looking up phrases, to see where and how its vernacular usage began (when, for example, we began to call a low-hanging orange-hued moon a "harvest moon").

If you ever try to explain a phrase you're accustomed to, to someone from another culture, you begin to see the insularity of a phrase; how it didn't travel to someone else's country, how instead it stayed home, and might, in fact, be something only said in your "neck of the woods." It isn't until you begin thinking about the language from someone else's perspective that you're most likely to really, truly question each individual word. Those who are not familiar with your words might be the very people who spur you to try to understand where the word 'furze,' an Old English word of "uncertain origin" according to the Oxford American Dictionary, comes from.

I remember trying to explain to someone once what "trimming the verge," a line from J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, meant. Having someone question a word, and not only when playing Scrabble, is a valuable occurrence. It makes you think much more about the language you'd otherwise use unthinkingly. You also discover what the word refers to, what it alludes to, what metaphor it's relying on. If you're used to thinking of the word 'verge' as 'on the edge of' something, you might not know that for the English, it refers to a herbacious border, a piece of vegetation that gets trimmed with cutting shears. However, once you know all the ways in which the word 'verge' can be used, it adds dimension and depth to your comprehension of one simple word. 

Once you begin to question the origin of words, you run into a bit of a sticky wicket, in that you then have to determine if your source is reliable. Since there are so many dictionaries now, I tend to only buy those that are capable of giving their readers the most accurate etymologies. I eschew (related to 'shy,' a word deriving from  Old English scēoh [(of a horse) easily frightened,] of Germanic origin; related to German scheuen ‘shun,’ scheuchen ‘scare’; compare with eschew. The verb dates from the mid 17th century) dictionaries that cannot tell me where a word comes from, its perambulations from place to place, its visits through time, the ways it has changed, the new clothes it wears each time someone decides to use it differently than they did before. 

I think to want to know where a word comes from is a lot like wanting to understand one's genealogy. It is genealogical research for word-lovers. Think of a word you'd like to know better, and go look it up!

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Monday, August 9, 2010

Basic skills to prepare students for college

As an educational consultant, parents and volunteer organizations for foster children have asked me what they should be thinking about as they help teenagers prepare for academia. These are the basic skills that students should have in place to help ensure academic success:

A) Critical Thinking Skills:

Reading: The more you can encourage reading, the easier the student will have it when they get to college. Reading skills are the most complicated critical thinking skill to teach. How to read, especially when you're in college, is a huge issue. Most students don't know what to read for, so they underline everything in a textbook. Help them find the major issue in a piece of reading. What is the piece about? Who is it written for? What is the piece trying to get you to believe? Do you believe the credibility of the writer? These are crucial places to begin in college reading for any class, any discipline.

Categorizing: Ability to sort information hierarchically, logically, in order of importance. The ability to summarize, to express the gist of something. First-years will often give a blow-by-blow and think it is a summary; it’s not.

Vocabulary: Students often believe that ‘fancy’ words make them sound pretentious, and they need encouragement to use one longer word instead of three short ones. Therefore it's ideal to start with words they think they already know the meaning of, or words they think are funny-sounding. If you can get them to underline words they're not familiar with, and then look each word up in the dictionary, it's a great start toward building their vocabulary.

Argumentation skills/Providing evidence: Students must learn how to rely on sources when writing term papers. College writing will require students to use evidence to support their assertions and arguments from primary and secondary source material. To be taken seriously, they must get used to this convention, especially the reality of providing more than one source to support or contravene an argument.

Essay-writing: Usually based on argumentation skills. Ability to locate the argument/topoi, and to argue for and against.  Tell student about Blue books (remember those?). Students generally haven’t heard of them, nor are they familiar with essay-writing conventions. Usually they know the five paragraph theme from high school, but its conventions and rules will not help them in college. In fact, it will hinder them.

B) Practical Skills:

Note-taking: When to take notes during a lecture; what to take notes on (when you went to college, how did you know what was important and what to listen for?). Most first-year classes in big schools are lecture courses, so note-taking is crucial to surviving the first year. Students often believe that the information they’ll need on a test is in their textbook, and are dismayed to find that issues covered in class show up on the test.

Computer skills: Familiarity with computers, finding websites, online resources, and Microsoft Word, plus any other programs that will get the student through their first year. Microsoft Word is the standard, expected word processing program.

Internet Use: It is really helpful if students are not just familiar with computers before they get to school, but are actually fairly fluent. One of the best ways of familiarizing the student with the colleges they’re interested in is by having them search online for the colleges, departments, and courses they think they might want to take.

Library: Find a book and follow through with the entire process of looking it up in an online catalog locating it on the shelf, and taking it out.  It's important for the student to have some familiarity with journals and magazines in a specific area of interest. Professional journals are frequently overlooked by students as a source of information.

2) More complicated issues that will need your help:

Taking responsibility for their own learning: Students don’t ask enough questions for fear of looking stupid. Scared students from a difficult background are most at risk for not going to the teacher to ask questions, preferring to disappear into the woodwork rather than look as though they need help.

Writing Across the Curriculum: This curriculur change is fairly standard now for most larger schools, and smaller schools are catching on to it as well. Essentially, what it means is that students will be writing in all their classes, not just English Composition. Writing skills are central to success at college. Anything you can do to promote and support their ability to write rhetorically in any given situation (to make an argument regarding an issue, support it, show the opposition’s point of view, and what the writer intends to do about the problem they’ve discussed) will help the student’s chances of success in college.

Being able to work in a community of learners: The educational process is less and less about the individual and more about collaboration and group work. This can present a challenge for students who don't expect to have to listen to their peers more than to the teacher, whose authority is increasingly questioned. Authority issues have become a subtext of most college classrooms.

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The first three pages of my book "The Mythologized Writer"

In an effort to be brave and get the publication process started, I'm posting this, if only to get used to seeing my words in print:


 What I Once Thought I Knew About Teaching Writing

“How we teach is shaped by whom and what we teach. To some extent we also define how we behave as teachers in light of our previous experiences as students. We emulate teachers whose classrooms we enjoyed and avoid the habits of those who most displeased us. By continually planning, executing, and revising our teaching performance, we eventually develop a style that best expresses our teaching self” (253).

--Erika Lindemann, A Rhetoric for Writing Teachers
My “teaching self,” complicated by convictions and prejudices I was unaware of, developed years before I entered my first classroom. Revising my ideas about what I thought I knew about writing has proved to be fairly difficult; what I have learned has taken years to integrate, understand, and write about. What I learned was that everything I thought I knew about writing was wrong. I also discovered that long before anyone who wants to teach writing enters her first classroom, she has already formed complex beliefs about the act of writing. She may believe that writing involves inspiration, talent, even genius. She may have been told that the authors she has read were eccentric because of their solitude and isolation from society; that the act of writing itself isolates and secludes.
She may have been told that only certain people should be considered writers, and that only certain Authors (with a capital ‘A’) are worthy of her attention, those who elucidate ‘universal’ themes ‘all people’ identify with and understand. Long before a writing teacher discusses the subject of writing with her students, her writing will have been judged by someone in authority, someone who knows what ‘good’ writing is. Early in her education, she will be told whether she has talent, and whether she might one day become ‘successful’—a publishable writer. 
            Writing teachers educated during the process movement in composition studies will also have been told that writing is collaborative, recursive, revisionary (cf. Flowers and Hayes, N. Sommers, S. Perl). The workplace writer, she is assured, works in a group, and revises according to her readers’ demands (cf. Nancy Sommers, “Revision Strategies of Student Writers”; and Flower and Hayes on reader-based prose). She is told that the key to success is perfecting her craft. She will be able to sell her writing skills anywhere, for she is a marketable commodity. This potential composition teacher has been trained, as have most people educated in the Western tradition, to believe some combination of two reductionist concepts about writing: one, that writing ability relies on solitary inspiration, talent, and genius; and two, that writing ability relies on learning-by-doing, and by continually revising modeled skills.
            As I will show, the former belief is based on a philosophical, Platonic epistemology, and the latter represents Isocrates’ workbench pedagogical style. As I will illustrate, these differing perspectives represent the ancient debate between Plato and Isocrates regarding the meaning and definition of discourse and whether, or indeed if, writing could or should be taught. A full understanding of the import of this unresolved struggle is crucial because at its core lies a fundamental disagreement about the function of logos [i] and who is permitted access to the power of discourse. This debate has never been resolved for composition and rhetoric because the argument between Isocrates and Plato regarding the purpose of an education and discourse’s role in that education is renegotiated with each new generation of educators who must come to terms with these issues.
            Unfortunately, the inheritance of their debate includes elitist attitudes toward the power of writing, and how access to logos must be limited to exclude the masses. The material outcome of these attitudes is seen at the moment of assessment and judgement, when grades are given. Ultimately, teachers judge and assess students according to the beliefs they have about the subject of writing, and it is inevitable that students will feel confused by comments and behavior that reveal dissonant values.
            The issues of the debate remain; what changes are the social, historical, and political contexts within which the issues are debated. I will show that a Platonic, philosophical, and exclusive view of education is incompatible with a Sophistic, practical, technical, and communal view of education; that both models coexist within the educational system, and that they serve to infuse each subsequent generation of teachers with discordant information about writing, discourse and the meaning of logos. It is my contention that since this ancient debate has never been resolved, it has been inherited by English studies, and in fact underlies the pedagogical inconsistencies teachers and students experience in the composition classroom.

[i] In The Sophistic Movement, G. B. Kerferd discusses the three ideas contained for the Greeks in the word logos: 1) “speech, discourse, description”; 2) “thought and mental processes . . . thinking, reasoning”; and 3) the world, that about which we are able to speak and think, hence structural principles, formulae, natural laws, and so on.” The “underlying meaning [of logos] usually, perhaps always, involves some degree of reference to the other two areas as well” (83-84). Logos then has a “range of applications,” although Kerferd does not mention that, according to Samuel Ijsseling in Rhetoric and Philosophy in Conflict, it has also been used to mean ‘fate,’ making logos a multivalent word indeed. The multiplicity of meanings possible in any given Greek word not only makes absolute translations difficult at times, but it also can lead to misreadings and misunderstandings based on the biases or stance of the translator.   

Saturday, July 31, 2010

In Pursuit of the Unattainable: The Quest for Perfection

Having been deeply absorbed in the spurious pursuit of the unattainable these past few weeks, I have been reminded how entirely obnoxious people are when they focus on individual trees rather than the entire forest. Okay, you're thinking, where is this going? I understand. Where this is going, of course, given the tone, is in the general tilt of a rant. I get into ranting moods when I am confronted by situations that do not permit me to express a sense of humour about things I don't think are terribly important. When my sarcasm has to be contained, it leads to rants.

Correction, editing, and sentence-level grammar are of very little intrinsic interest to me. These tasks are considered, rightly, the final stage of the writing process. Think of it as the clean-up phase that comes long after inspiration, invention, creation, production, etc. In other words, only appropriate when the words you're mostly happy with have already been created. Too many writers, however, focus on this step in the writing process, which has the effect of truncating their thoughts. Now, thoughts, from my perspective, are precious commodities. They are the hardest part to come up with. Invention of a new thought is one of those things I take very seriously, and adamantly resist any force that comes close to interfering with it.

The clean-up phase requires a fair amount of attention to detail, but it also attracts obsessives and perfectionists. There is a mentality that focuses on error that is positively annoying, but it's also dangerous for some students, especially those who are marginalized. Mina Shaughnessy's Errors and Expectations deals with this subject. The politics of error correction has the effect of limiting what students are allowed to say, and how they are allowed to say it. There are not-so-subtle social expectations that there is one "right" way to say something, and when we force this on writers (and students, especially) we squash their creativity and tell them they are deficient the way they are. We tend to shut down their communicative abilities, as we attempt to reform them in "our" image.

Correcting error is a tricky path to walk. It is extremely difficult to correct someone without employing criticism, or implying the other is a flawed being. Very few people are so self-confident that they have learned how to ignore the psychological and emotional affect of having been corrected. Most people feel it very keenly, and if the act of criticism is handled badly by the person in power who is authorized to do the correcting, the person who is being corrected might shut down completely and stop writing entirely. There is no error that makes taking this risk with a student's creativity worthwhile.

How right does the error-corrector need to be? Writers need to know when they've made a mistake, yes. However, there are people who correct writing who carry this need to convey wrongness to extremes. Think about the effect your need to be right will have on your student, or on the basic writer—or even on the published writer who is, nonetheless, insecure. The quest for perfection, and forcing correctness on others (especially students who cannot defend themselves, due to the inherent power imbalance in the student-teacher relationship) is redolent of the Victorian era, when the English dominated the planet and were allowed to tell everyone, in judgemental tones, how to conduct their business. I keep wondering when students will rebel against this treatment.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

The Political Nature of Grammar

Grammar is typically taught very much as a form of "inside the box" thinking. In other words, there are rules, they're packaged and sold as being fairly linear; follow them, and your writing will improve. However, the deeper truth about grammar is that it's actually extremely complicated, and accurate use (an arguably impossible task) depends very much on who you're reading and why they wrote their grammar guide. Scariest of all, there are actually multiple grammars.

Let me start with my strangest-sounding proposition first, the notion that there are, in reality, multiple grammars. This statement flies in the face of what we grow up being taught, that there is "one" grammar, one way of doing something, and one true way to write. In fact, grammar use is highly political, it's fluid, and it changes with the prevailing values of the dominant culture. You are forgetting, even as I write this, the grammar you learned to set in cement when you were a child.

The reason you're forgetting is because you do not use the grammar you learned as a child. You don't realise it most of the time, but it's true. A great deal of what you learned when you were young is probably still valid, but there are once-important bits and pieces that no longer matter, that no one cares about, and that few people, except perhaps die-hard grammarians and linguists, think are important. In other words, the grammar you were taught to cling to as a life raft on the sea of errant words has been over-written by more recent information, and that newer information was written when you weren't paying all that much attention.

So the concept of multiple grammars starts with the simple fact that there are acceptable ways of saying something and unacceptable ways of saying something. The second aspect to the concept of multiple grammars lies with the inherent politicization of the use of language when a grammar is applied to it; the grammar forms and restrictions determine 'correctness' at the cost of meaning, but if you're representing the dominant voice in society, do you honestly care if a group's meaning is erased by the power of your grammar? No, you do not. Your concern is to make the group learn 'the correct way' to say something.

Unfortunately for those you dominate with your grammar rules, they had their own forms, methods, and ways of saying something, now in the process of being erased by your need to 'correct' them. Grammars then become a method of controlling what people are allowed to say, how they are allowed to say it, and who, ultimately, will be heard. In this way, the deep structure of language is controlled by the very few in charge who are authorised by society to make the decision to approve or disapprove language use.

You begin to see the inherent risk of making it necessary to say something in any one way, when you start to realise how rigid, limiting, and controlling the concept of grammar can be. Grammar is never a value-neutral activity; it always carries with it the danger of oppressing the writer's unique voice, creativity, and style, and replacing it with what you approve of, what the dominant voice in society approves of—this is what makes grammars political. Yet, control constantly slips through the hands of those who seek to manage the unmanageable. The very fluidity of language makes it an impossible quest for lost verb forms to try to tell someone to use the language the way it was used in your Aunt Sally's era.

Further, the disparity between the grammar that is approved by those 'in charge,' and the grammar that is actually used, reveals the divergence between someone's reality and someone's ideal, and that territory belongs to philosophy. Grammar exists in that space very uneasily, and should come with a warning label: danger, you're entering heavily politicized ground! User beware! Just remember that correcting someone carries with it a tremendous responsibility. Who and what are you turning them into, precisely, when you correct their language use? You? Perhaps they'd like to be themselves instead.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Let our pen be at first slow, provided that it be accurate...

"We must write, therefore, as carefully and as much as we can, for as the ground, by being dug to a great depth, becomes more fitted for fructifying and nourishing seeds, so improvement of the mind, acquired from more than mere superficial cultivation, pours forth the fruits of study in richer abundance and retains them with greater fidelity. For without this precaution, the very faculty of speaking extempore will but furnish us with empty loquacity and words born on the lips. In writing are the roots, in writing are the foundations of eloquence. By writing, resources are stored up, as it were, in a sacred repository, from where they may be drawn forth for sudden emergencies or as circumstances require. Let us above all things get strength, which may suffice for the labor of our contests and may not be exhausted by use. Nature has herself appointed that nothing great is to be accomplished quickly and has ordained that difficulty should precede every work of excellence. She has even made it a law, with regard to gestation, that the larger animals are retained longer in the womb of the parent...."

Quintilian, Book 10, Chapter 3, Institutio Oratorio

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Bravest Act a Writer Can Perform...

In Victoria Nelson's On Writer's Block, writers are encouraged to come face-to-face with their inner fears, resistance, and blocks about the act of writing. From personal experience, I know this is harder than it sounds. I am not sure that I agree with her fundamental premise, that a resistant writer's first task is to find self-love, although maybe she's right. I'm not sure resistant writers throughout history have necessarily found the "peace" of self-love before they forced out yet another manuscript. I think plenty of writing goes on whether the writer feels self-love or not. 

However, I do agree with her that resistance stems from some fairly deep places within the psyche. I'd say it's probably more accurate to start, not from a lack of self-love, but from the overwhelming and subsuming lack of confidence that probably cripples most resistant writers. I'd say, from personal experience, and from talking to most writers who have not yet determined that what they want to say is important enough, lack of self-confidence eats away at one's desire to be a writer. 

Nelson counters emotion with some simple, but entirely reasonable, logic. It is not logical, she says, to claim you have a novel in you that you hope to get published "some day," if you're not also willing to put in the time practicing to write that novel. She's not saying practice to get published. She's saying write as an activity, practice how to write—this reduces your stress, because instead of thinking of writing a novel and getting it published, you think in more reasonable terms. Her analogy is that a long distance runner doesn't just suddenly leap up one day, prone from years on the couch, expecting to run the Boston Marathon. It requires practice—daily practice, in fact—to hone your abilities to do any long-term task as large as writing a novel (or running a marathon).

However, the resistant writer baulks at the notion of 'practice.' What seems logical and simple on the surface gets tangled in the strands of cloying, destructive inner nay-saying. So Nelson's point is, you're sitting there, a writer-wannabe, in front of the piece of paper (nowadays more likely to be the computer screen) and your mind is filled with thoughts far too grand and complex to translate adequately to the page. And she isn't wrong. Every word I write is a negotiation with what it should have been, if only I'd been a "better" writer, one who has a better command of structure, intention, plot, character, etc. Even now, writing this blog, a low-risk endeavor, there are so many better ways I could have chosen to say what I'd like to say. There were better choices of topic, or more elegant methods of expression. Yet here I go, writing anyway, ignoring (as much as I can) the negative voices saying "this sounds stupid," or "do you really need this sentence? can't you find a better way to say this?"

Nelson's contention is that the bravest act a writer can perform is to simply put one word down, and then the next, and the next. One mundane, inelegant word after another. Each word will be inadequate, and won't say precisely what's in your mind. All the wonderful, Xanadu-like structures your imagination has created won't be expressed in precisely the way you think they should: "The bravest act a writer can perform is to take that tiny step forward, put down the wretched little word that pricks the balloon of inflated fantasies with its very mundanity, and then put down another word directly after it. This act marks the decision to be a writer" (11). Perhaps then the hardest part is not a lack of self-love, but the puncturing of one's inflated ego? But that question is for another blog entry.  

My Shelfari Bookshelf

Shelfari: Book reviews on your book blog

How have you overcome writer's block?