This post is one of a series on contemplative pedagogy, where the subject is as much the absence of language as language itself.
In an essay writing class, a fictionalizing imagination is not necessary, but students must think of everyday events and reactions in new ways, and must link these events and reactions to larger ideas. The imagination must be unleashed to do that. This exercise may aid in the process.
EXERCISE: We sat in our customary circle, feet on the floor, lights off, following the breath in its courses. This takes a minute, two minutes.
I asked them to imagine themselves getting out of their chairs and going to the door. This thought rested about a minute. They might, in their imagination, be putting down their purse, or meeting up with another person, or waiting a little while before getting up.
Once at the door, they were instructed to choose a place on the campus which they would walk to, always in their imagination. And then to walk there. Another minute.
What do they do once they get there? What do they see? What is the weather like? What season is it? Are they alone? What are they carrying or wearing? Do they stand still, turn around, walk around? This should take a minute or two.
They were then instructed to return to the classroom and sit down, always in their imagination.
Lastly, they were asked to think about their little journey. Do they feel different upon their return? Is the sun still warming their hair? Have they seen something beautiful? Something awful? How does sitting feel different from walking?
The lights went back on, and I asked for reflections. ”We should do this every class,” said the burly construction worker. The rest of the class agreed that it was a very pleasant experience and they would like to do it again.
I cannot say what was accomplished by this exercise. The first step in a meditation practice is likely a small one. All I can say is that they fell deeply into the exercise, enjoyed it, and wanted to do it again. Perhaps they will feel more confidently about the workings of their own imaginations. They bonded as a class just by sharing in the experience.
We should watch our gun language. The New York Times has an article today, “In Gun Debate, Even Language Is Loaded,” documenting the pervasive gun references in our language. I speak six languages, and in thinking about each, I believe the article is correct — we have far more expressions, verbs, and nouns which come from gun culture than other languages do. It would be interesting to compare American English to British English and other World Englishes in this regard, too.
The parents from Newtown made the statement yesterday that they were in the gun debate for the long haul. Legislation can help, but the bigger changes have to come from the bottom up. There has to be a cultural change before this violence begins to subside. Just as we changed our language regarding race and gender, we might begin to change the national obsession with guns by changing our language. The first step to doing that is to increase our awareness of how often we use military and gun terms in our everyday speech.
A consistent mistake made by my students is using “everyday” instead of “every day.” “everyday” is an adjective, as in “That is an everyday concern of mine.” The other is a noun with a modifier, as in “Every day I brush my teeth.”
While on an unrelated Internet quest (looking for the website which best lays out the rules for use of prepositions), I landed on www.grammar.net which provided the following advice: “Although ending a sentence with a preposition is considered incorrect, these constructions are used everyday.” This is a GRAMMAR website, and they used “everyday” when they should have used “every day.” How can I object when my students make the same mistake? I can, but it is an uphill fight.
The www.grammar.net posting about prepositions was written by “Victoria,” a mysterious creature about whom no information was available other than her purported first name. (Is the author really a “she?” or could this be Victor or Viktor in female guise?) Being at the top of an Internet search for grammatical guidance, my students might land on this site, and could they not raise the “everyday” usage to contradict my assertion that this is a grammatical error? No. In order to use a website as a source, it must be from a trusted organization, not creatures like “Victoria,” and should have an academic sponsor or some expert backing. Digging a little deeper into the “About Us” section of www.grammar.net reveals that the website is linked to “SpellChecker.net” which sells two products named SCAYT and WSC. www.grammar.net is thus a commercial organization, and not a reliable source. Their minds are on their products, and the related grammar websites are no more than a come-on.
Another consistent mistake concerns using apostrophes to make plurals. In the popular textbook A Writer’s Reference, by Diana Hacker and Nancy Sommers, the section on apostrophes states, “Do not use an apostrophe to pluralize an abbreviation.” According to this textbook, the plural of G.M.O., an abbreviation, should be G.M.O.s. But a recent New York Times (9/16/2012) article by Mark Bittman is entitled G.M.O.’s: Let’s Label ‘Em, defying the rules in my textbook. Shot down again.
So what’s a teacher to do? Neither The New York Times nor grammar.net support her. She is beginning to doubt the reliability of popular textbooks such as A Writer’s Reference, and has long ago despaired of using The Elements of Style because “style” has changed. Article one, page one, of that venerable tome declares that we should write “Burns’s poems” and “Charles’s friend.” The universal book at Montclair State this year was The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, and the university posted announcements about the appearance of “Lacks’ son” at a symposium there. I can’t even get past page one of The Elements of Style before losing support from academic and scholarly sources..
I come back to a point I have made many times before – our language is changing quickly, unreliably, unpredictably, constantly. There. I broke the first rule of Stephen King, stated over and over again in his masterful book On Writing, “Avoid adverbs!”
As the semester opens, next week, I don’t know what to tell my students about punctuation. Authoritative books, such as A Writer’s Reference, The Everyday Writer, and the latest edition of the Modern Language Association handbook on my shelf, the 6th, have almost identical lists of rules about commas, for example, yet the series of punctuation articles recently published in The New York Times throw the rules in my source books into a cocked hat.
Which of these two examples is correct?
In my opinion this is correct./In my opinion, this is correct.
Frankly I don’t give a damn./Frankly, I don’t give a damn.
University of Delaware professor Ben Yagoda write in his recent NYT article, “A modifying or transitional phrase at the beginning of a sentence can be followed by a comma or not, depending on your personal style, the meaning of the particular sentence and the length of the phrase. So would you put a comma in the following sentences?
By this time tomorrow I’ll be in Poughkeepsie./Generally speaking the Republicans win the Western states./Late at night the visibility can get pretty bad.
There’s no right answer! It’s up to you!”
The reading diet of my freshman writing students consists of emails, Facebook, and snippets from blogs and yahoo. I don’t disparage this – they have been creative with language, and perhaps have established a personal style for extremely casual writing, but they cannot use this style in academic essays. They are in need of some parameters, some order, some discipline. Leaving punctuation “up to you” is a recipe for slush.
Professor Yagoda shies away from rules regarding some of the most basic comma practices. He writes: “Referring to the Philadelphia Phillies outfield as ‘Pence, Victorino and a left fielder-by-committee’ would be fine in [The New York Times] but not in The New Yorker, which would change it to “Pence, Victorino, and a left fielder-by-committee.” Notice the comma after Victorino, or not.
All three of my source books would deem the New Yorker version “correct.” A Writer’s Reference writes, “Use a comma between all items in a series” The Everyday Writer writes, “Use commas to separate items in a series,” The MLA Handbook writes “Use commas to separate words…in a series,” and gives this example: “Boccaccio’s tales have inspired plays, films, operas, and paintings” That series of nouns scans like “Pence, Victorino, and a left fielder-by-committee” to me.
Okay. Fine. What do I tell my students? Yagoda’s article shuns “precision and clarity” by using phrases such as “There’s no right answer! It’s up to you!”
The student’s ear is perhaps the best guide to good writing, but if he or she stumbles into an awkward or incomprehensible sentence, and has only the ear to depend upon, the corrected sentence may be equally awkward or incomprehensible. Freshmen need some rules. I tell them “When you write for The New Yorker or write a published novel, you can make your own rules. Let’s learn the rules first, then you can break them.”
Punctuation changes over time, so does syntax, accent, and every other aspect of language; but you have to start somewhere.
One student may use creative punctuation, and it may work. He may be the next e e cummings. Professor are not robots – we can act as editors. If I cannot understand what a student means, it’s time to go back to the book and review the rules. If the student’s prose soars, give her an A. This does not mean that “There’s no right answer! It’s up to you!” It means that once a student gets precision and clarity in the muscle memory of her brain, she can soar into her own space.
The Politecnico University in Milano, Italy, has decided that it will teach all of its classes in English. As you might imagine, this has caused controversy.
As European (and other) universities attract a student body from various countries, there is something of a trend to teach classes in English. Montclair State University, for example, has been teaching in Graz, Austria and several cities in China and Korea for several years, and that program is expanding. Montclair State is sending professors to these universities to teach the professors who will be teaching their courses in English, in all disciplines.
This weekend I saw Dr. Andrew Weil speak about mental health at the Book Fair in Tucson, Arizona. Dr. Weil is a well known author and doctor who advocates integrated health care, using both traditional and modern medical techniques.
Among the many elements of maintaining mental health, he mentioned gratitude. We should be grateful, he said, for the good things that happen to and around us. He went one step further — we should, he said, keep a “gratitude journal,” writing down the things we are grateful for.
This brought to mind one of the most interesting aspects of literacy; writing things down gives them power. We generally tend to believe what we read more than what we hear. “Give it to me in writing.” (Perhaps in pre-literate societies, of which some still exist, hearing is as powerful as the written word. That would be interesting to know, and I have not personally seen research on that issue.)
Students can test the power of the written word in with the exercise below.
Exercise: Take 5-10 minutes for students to summarize what has happened in their lives over the previous week.
Then ask the students to keep a journal for a week, writing down each evening the things which impressed them that day. At the end of the week, ask them to bring the journals to class, and ask them, again, to summarize their week, using the journals for reference.
A class discussion should reveal some of the benefits and disadvantages of the written word, revealing an important lesson about literacy. I don’t know what your students will say, but some possibilities might be: the journal helps them to remember, the journal limits their imagination, the journal reveals a personal philosophy or pattern of behavior, and so on…
We often think of dictionaries as definitive in their definitions, without questioning their authority, yet there are many different kinds of dictionaries, and students should be encouraged to use them with discretion and sophistication.
An example: Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary, 5th ed. (WNCD) aims its definitions at the “college student and general reader,” while The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (accessed online) (CEOEO) aims to present a far wider range of definitions, “Common, Literary, Colloquial, Scientific, Foreign, Dialectical, Slang, Technical.” They note “Main Words, Subordinate Words, Combinations, including the Identification, Morphology, Signification and Illustrative Quotations.” They include the word’s etymology in depth. WNCD takes its examples and definitions mainly from spoken customs, while CEOEO takes them from a literary database.
Exercise: Ask students to investigate the presentation of two words of their choice in two different dictionaries. They should read the front matter of both dictionaries as well as the definitions. They might comment on the fonts used. The rest of the exercise can be up to the students — what do they find the same or different in the presentations, and which do they like better.
Another Exercise: Ask students to do some research on the Web and find out how many different kinds of dictionary there are; for example, Web dictionaries with an audio module giving correct pronunciation, multilingual dictionaries (French to French, and English to French, etc.), sign language dictionaries, dictionaries for children, etymological dictionaries, thesauruses (what is the plural? I don’t know), slang dictionaries, regional dictionaries showing distinct usage in, say, Louisiana or Texas, and so on, and on, and on
What do you do when a college freshman, who has passed the required classes and tests to get into college, says the Subject of the sentence, After being forced to look into a deeper meaning I realized how that one little factor could alter your mood, is “mood?” (Please ignore the other problems with word choice, pronoun selection, etc.)
My question followed a review of the placement of commas and other punctuation. (We had reviewed Chomsky’s Colorless green ideas sleep furiously sentence in which the grammar is perfect, but there is no meaning, and Eats shoots and leaves which is unclear until the punctuation is added. The class was intrigued.) I went on to indicate that the required comma after the word, meaning, separated an introductory phrase from the heart of the sentence, which included the Subject and Verb (and an Object too).
As the student struggled to find the Subject, I could fall back on my mention a few days before that English was an S-V-O language, and ask her, “If you are looking for the ‘S’ in S-V-O, why would you look for it at the end of the sentence?”
She got the point and had the look of minor epiphany on her face, and I was pleased. Asking students to repair sentences which are not quite right without their knowing how the sentence is constructed is asking a lot. It would be like asking an electrician to fix a non-responsive outlet if she didn’t know how the wires in the room were connected.
The confession part of this is that while one student experienced epiphany, one or two of the other students were either sleeping or wishing they were.
Sometimes you have to teach what needs to be taught and accept the fact that there are a certain number of students who do not want to learn it. Or maybe it will lodge in their brains for a while and they will have their own epiphany at a later date.
I am convinced that teaching students how sentences are constructed is necessary to good writing. It has been my observation that students who pay attention to this instruction more quickly become adequate-to-good writers than the sleeping students. They probably wake up in chemistry lab or their math class.
My conviction has something to do with faith, and something to do with practicality, but I must confess that I may be torturing the sleeping students to no good end at all. I wonder. I often view myself as teacher-as-entertainer, but sometimes have to ditch that role to do some scales, some basic mental calisthenics, some just plain drudgery.
My linguistics professor once posed the question, “What is an idea?” I must admit that I am still unsure. There is a complex process which occurs between thinking something and speaking or writing it. When we speak, we have not taken the time to figure out exactly what we think beforehand. The American Heritage Dictionary defines an idea as “That which exists in the mind, potentially or actually, as a product of mental activity…” Pretty vague, right?
There are ways we can sort out the thinking process, and tools to sharpen it. Meditation is one.
Exercise: Introduce a subject (methods of parental discipline, 9/11, Queen Elizabeth, my favorite meal, or something else) and ask students to meditate on it in class. They should sit quietly, without reading, writing, or looking around, possibly with their eyes closed, and think about the subject for five minutes. (This is a very long time for some people.) Afterwards, ask them to write a paragraph on the subject.
This could be paired with another short exercise where you provide the subject and ask them to freewrite about it, just putting down everything they are thinking.
After having the two experiences, ask the students to discuss the difference. Can they identify the worth of silent reflection?
In my classes the result is always a great variety of responses. Some people find meditation extremely helpful, others find it annoying. Most find it an interesting experience if nothing else.
We still are not sure how to refer to that awful day — is it “nine eleven” or “September 11th?” As a society, we’re still vacillating.
In 2001, 9-11 (or equivalents) was the Word of the Year, according to the American Dialect Society. In 2002, it was Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD). What do you think it was for 2003? Metrosexual. What a change. Soon after that came words like Facebook, truthiness, and Google. The significance of the Words of the Year (see http://www.americandialect.org/) as commentary on our society is worthy of a classroom discussion.
But back to 9-11. Here is a list of related words that have entered our vocabulary:
Al-Qaeda, burka, Taliban, weaponize, Ground Zero, terrorist, Jihad, Department of Homeland Security, Osama (bin Laden), first responders, embedded journalist, Islamist.
Some of these words existed before, such as terrorist, but took on a new meaning after the attacks. Some, like Osama, refer not only to a particular individual, but can be generalized to mean any evil person. Some words were created to describe situations that never existed before, like embedded journalist. Journalists have traveled with soldiers before, but not in this particular way.
Exercise: This list is certainly not complete. What other words can your students contribute to this list? Are your students creating new words? Are they slang words (that is, words to obfuscate meaning so their parents won’t understand), or are they words which describe truly new phenomena, such as twitter?