July 2008


Paul Martin over at The Teacher’s View has some excellent thoughts pulled from Seneca’s Epistulae Morales (published as Letters from a Stoic by Penguin Books) concerning teaching and learning. I own this book and haven’t picked it up since I bought it as a class text four semesters ago – looks like I should take a second look at what advice Seneca can give for teachers and those who have a passion at learning.

We all know that gas prices right now suck. They’ve sucked for about, oh, 7 years now. (I think 9/11 was the beginning of the end, but I could be mistaken.) Like everything else, higher education is being affected.

Or so the New York Times reports today (“High Cost of Driving Ignites Online Classes Boom”), citing numerous schools (although the vast majority of them seem to be community colleges, there are some 4-year institutions represented as well) who have seen dramatic increases – at least one over 100%! – in their online enrollment.

Now, I’ve taken a handful of online courses – one sociology, one business, one literature, possibly others that I’m not recalling offhand – and I have to say that I do not find that they are not conducive to authentic learning. I found myself fighting to stay with the material and eventually not even really studying it, opting instead to do a little bit of cramming for the exams (which were universally simple and required very little thinking about the material other than regurgitation of facts). So I think this is a bad trend for a number of reasons.

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A funny language thing happened to me today…

For a summer internship doing Web programming for a local marketing/web design firm, I’m working to develop a Spanish-language version of the client’s existing English site, and it’s been rather interesting. I certainly do not know enough Spanish to translate most things in a way that would probably make much sense to a native (or even fluent) speaker, but I know enough to know when little things are wrong in the translation I was given for the content.

Case in point: The original text used the phrase “is simply too complex”, which was then translated “es simplemente dificil” – “is simply difficult”. For one, it’s very arguable whether or not complexity and difficulty are the same, but let’s assume they are. The English phrase involves an additional relation apparent to the speaker – too complex for something or someone – but the translation does not. And it’s not like Spanish lacks the linguistic resources: the adverb demasiado gets across that relation, and complexity could be represented by the almost-cognate complejo.

I have virtually no experience in translation outside of translating my own thoughts into Spanish for my college language courses (I’ve taken two of the three required semesters for my degree), but I think this sort of thing is common if the translator isn’t careful. A former professor of mine said once in class that she made a similarly straightforward mistake when translating a line of a poem: “Mother this child.” Since she is a native speaker, she translated it by word – “Madre este niño” – even though Spanish does not generally make use of verbification as English very commonly does. She had to reconsider (upon an editor’s advice) that “mothering” in English means something like caring for, which could then be expressed in clearer Spanish.

On a different note, this strange construction made me consider the function of “simply <adjective>”. While in a sense “simply” does mean “in a way that lacks complexity” in some usages, it is also used as an intensifier, similarly to “really” or even the often frowned-upon “literally” (see here on some non-standard intensifiers). It makes sense to consider “simply” here as an intensifier because its stricter usage would entail a strange oxymoron: being complex in a simple manner.

After several weeks and a bit of anxiety about my content area test, I got my unofficial score: 278 (out of 300). The minimum passing score is 240, so that means that I passed by a fair margin. To put the numbers into perspective by percentage, I had to get 80% to pass, and I ended up with ~93%. I’m very satisfied with the overall score, and the score given for literature (the area I was most concerned about, rather unnecessarily because of the low number of questions) was a perfect 300. Can’t beat that.

So now I only have to make it through this next semester – all 18 credit hours of it – and then it’s clear sailing on through to my student teaching. Exciting times!