Humor


I am a somewhat reluctant reader of webcomics: I don’t really like following ones with extended storylines, but the ones that can be read fairly individually and still make me laugh are my favorites. My favorites are definitely PHD Comics, Chaospet (although it isn’t updated frequently, it’s good philosophical humor), PartiallyClips, and – last but certainly not least – xkcd.

Well, today’s webcomic combines my love of literature and technology (and all most things geeky) into a strip:

Dear Peter Wiggin: This letter is to inform you that you have received enough upvotes on your reddit comments to become president of the world. Please be at the UN tomorrow at 8:00 sharp.

The mouseover/alt text is perhaps the funniest part (and that is often so with xkcd – it’s sort of like a really easy Easter egg): “Dear Peter Wiggin: This letter is to inform you that you have received enough upvotes on your reddit comments to become president of the world. Please be at the UN tomorrow at 8:00 sharp.”

Of course, this representation isn’t quite what happens in the book, but it’s still a funny little commentary on the idea that “essays on the nets” – which is precisely what blogs are – could give a person enough clout that the general population, even one that is in the kind of turmoil that we see in Ender’s Game, would hand over leadership to these bloggers. Why isn’t anyone handing over the keys to their city or state to Andrew Sullivan? (Other than the fact that he’s a Brit…)

[By the way, if any of you are interested in math, science, programming, science fiction, pop culture references, the Internet or its little quirks like 4chan (no, I will not provide a link – I like you all too much for that), or other geeky/nerdy things, you really should be reading xkcd. Bookmark it – now!]

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I must have taken some of what I said before to heart: today was a great improvement.

I don’t know that I can rope anything down for sure, but I think that what I did with my students was more interesting in general. I know that my sophomores seemed to work much better with the work we did, and we easily filled the time. My juniors are still so rambunctious, and I need to come down harder on them, I think. There’s still so many disruptions that make it difficult to keep everything together, and I haven’t been as strict as I know I need to be about that. I’ve already predicted that my first detentions will come in a junior class, and I think I might just have to make it happen so that the precedent is set and the kid gloves thrown off.

[I have to make a side note here: the juniors have been incredibly open about some of the things they did to the last teacher who didn’t provide enough structure, including but not limited to stealing signs from the classroom and – almost unbelievably, to me – hiding a student inside the podium/lectern that’s still in the classroom. Even as disruptive and even undisciplined they can be for me now, I don’t have anything like that yet. I guess when I start to see pranks being played, that’s a sign that things need to change. Although, I did lose my doorstop today…]

In addition to coming down harder on classroom management, I’ve been thinking about ideas to provide some sort of incentive. Because the entire junior classes seem to be pretty unfocused when I have them, I’ve considered making a bargain for better focus and fewer diversions by using one of the tools in my teacher’s tool chest of experience: music. As I discovered last semester at the end of student teaching (and a little earlier for my juniors there), my students responded very well to bringing in a guitar and showing off my abilities as a musician, something that I think teenagers respect.

So here’s my idea – and feel free to give me feedback on this if you think I’m crazy and/or a genius: rather than making a deal outright exchanging the behaviors that I profess to be expecting for a reward (something that hasn’t worked well for me in the past), I would propose that in addition to avoiding the less pleasant aspects of disciplinary measures (i.e. consequences), students could earn the opportunity to nominate and vote on a song that I would then learn (with all of the selection happening well in advance) and play for the students. (Guidelines would be given on the nature of the song, of course.) My prediction is that this could get really silly, like voting for a rap or hip-hop song or some other song that would be somewhat embarrassing to hear me sing (my initial thought was Oops, I Did It Again by Britney Spears for such a song). I would also probably make this the result of a long streak, like setting a non-trivial number of days without any major diversions that are far too tangential.

Now, I might just be setting myself up for an inevitable denial of that incentive; I know that these students in particular tend toward being unfocused and even a little boisterous. (I think that certain classes are just this way, for some inexplicable reason. I’ve noticed it at other schools – my seniors during student teaching were that way in quite a few respects.) But I think that it might be something to help motivate students toward establishing habits that hopefully will make the class easier to deal with. It adds a social element as well, where students who actually think that this incentive is a worthwhile goal will put pressure on the other students who might not be as interested.

Nevertheless, I think it’s something I might consider. I even worked out an arrangement with the music teacher to see about borrowing the electric piano he uses for chorus in case it works out better. (The arrangement entails me doing accompaniment for the chorus for concerts, which I probably would do without getting anything. Conversely, I bet the music teacher would let me use the electric piano even if I weren’t accompanying the chorus because I’d only need it during hours that no one uses it. Still, it works as a nice little reciprocal agreement.)

Now, I just need to make sure that these improvements turn into a pattern, not allowing one good day to make me complacent about the amount of work I need to do. That won’t stop me from being pleased with the progress, of course, but hopefully it will keep my feet firmly grounded so that I can do the real work that I need to do, for my sake and my students’.

Disclaimer: I like thinking too deeply about the characteristics of things that some most people probably think should be taken at face value. If you are one of those people, turn back now. If you’re one of those people and can’t help yourself, my condolences.

I recently noticed – okay, it wasn’t recent that I first noticed, but I observed again – that the syntactic features of Facebook statuses are quite varied. Eric Baković at Language Log wrote about pronoun issues with Facebook back in May, which was sometime after Facebook decided (perhaps after some complaint from syntactic-minded users, or maybe just from non-syntactic-minded people who just thought it was awkward) to stop forcing users to use “<Person’s name> is” at the beginning of statuses. Currently, the default is a box that says “What’s on your mind?” rather than prompting for an exact phrasing of the user’s status. Some people have ignored the fact that Facebook inserts the user’s profile name at the beginning of the status, which results in updates like

Jane Smith* what to eat….

Isaac Houston* stargazing! finished up for the night. took a fantastic picture of jupiter live! I will have a picture posted tomorrow I hope..

But at least among my friends, who are not universally English-oriented individuals (although I have plenty of English majors, graduates, and professors in my friend list), the trend as I’ve observed it in my relatively small sample is to stick with the classic style of updates and start with a verb. What’s interesting to me as I think about how I update is that there is also a tendency to stick to forms of “be” or “have,” the former especially due to the natural tendency for status updates to be expressions of an emotional or physical state (e.g. “Jacob Seinz* is tired and needs to go to bed now.”). Other copula appear less frequently, and there are a few others that tend to be more abstract (c.f. “need” in the previous example).

I’ve noticed, however, that even when I want to express some action rather than a state of being, mood, etc., I almost always use the present progressive. This tendency popped out to me when a friend’s status said “Marsha Cherrywood* reads Freire”, and I realized that I probably would have said “Mr. B is reading Freire.”

So now, just because I don’t like fitting into neat little syntactic modes, here is my new status:

Mr. B updates his status in simple present tense.

Much better.


*Names withheld to protect the innocent. Or something.

I promised a review of a little grammar text I recently finished, Things Your Grammar Never Told You, and since I’m a man of my words, here goes.

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This Language Log post by Geoff Pullum is one of the funniest things I’ve read in a while. Pullum has been making rounds after his article in The Chronicle of Higher Education talking about Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary of the first edition. I’m not a big fan of Elements (although I’ve had at least one writing instructor who was), and neither is Pullum, which has made some people very angry, including a commenter on an NPR story which Pullum was interviewed for on the topic of Strunk and White.

The whole response is brilliant (and you’ve got to be amused by someone who gets so angry at criticism of “proper” grammar but fails to use it herself), but my absolute favorite part is when Pullum responds to the accusation that he merely looked at his “favorite authors” to decry one of the grammatical proscriptions contained in Elements:

Third, I didn’t look at my “favorite authors”. I would rather eat live worms on cold toast than read fin-de-siècle chick lit like Anne of Avonlea.

When people like Pullum have blogs, it makes me feel like the world, at least in a small way, is just.