Writing


Author’s Note: I’m sort of on hiatus at the moment for various reasons – the main being that I’m in a writing slump. In the meantime, enjoy this tidbit of logic and language.

Recently, I taught my sophomores about qualification – the practice of using certain words to qualify generalizations, such as probably, generally, perhaps, etc. Qualifiers, in my opinion, are eminently important since they are the best way to avoid error (such as suggesting that all swans are white) and still make strong evidentiary claims.

But today I ran into an example of overqualification – that is, qualification where none is needed:

Very few of you [in the audience] has [sic] a coin in your pocket with only one side.

Cases such as this where qualifying a claim would indicate that a logical contradiction is possible show how qualification can sometimes end up in absurdity. No one needs to qualify claims about one-sided coins anymore than claims about being able to draw square circles or be married bachelors. If a statement is tautologous, then there is clearly no reason to qualify it.

Understatement of the century: I am an argumentative person. This is no truer than when I am on the Internet. (This strip is me.)

I have been arguing in various Internet forums – message boards, chat rooms, and more recently, facebook statuses/comments – ever since I really got into the Internet roughly 10 years ago. And I have very consistently noticed one trend in the most heated of battles that I feel I must speak out about. I call it the “more research” gambit.

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Part of my personal philosophy on teaching and learning is that they are somewhat interchangeable: most of the time, I will teach and students learn, but the opposite should also happen frequently as well. And although I want to provide models, sometimes it’s nice to explore with them.

In my writing elective, we’re studying short fiction, and I wanted my students to write some microfiction pieces, 200 words or less. I gave some examples from a blog that is run by some friends of mine (it’s good stuff) and let the students go, joining them in writing a couple of microfiction pieces as well. The ones that the students shared were quite good: some funny, others serious, with some other variations as well.

But for a moment, I’m going to take the spotlight and share my own writing. Keep in mind that these pieces are unedited from the original writing – and I wanted to keep them that way. (more…)

That’s one of the most debated questions in terms of language, in my experience. It’s an important question because there is at least a general consensus that there is good language and bad language – acceptable and unacceptable language – and a common question because everyone seems to have an opinion on the subject, although they tend not to be exceptionally informed opinions. It’s also important because there are plenty of people – some who have knowledge of language and some who really don’t – who have decided at some point that they are the arbiters of what is good and true and what is not and dispense advice (often unsolicited) or make disparaging comments about language use, be it word usage, grammar, mechanics, or style.

I don’t consider myself an expert on language use by any means, but I think my interest in language is perhaps greater than the average layperson: I have studied writing theory, I have read grammar texts critically for personal edification, I regularly read blogs about language and try to keep up with what people are talking about regarding language, and I’m a certified English language teacher. I don’t claim that my advice on language is gospel, and I stress to my students that comments on written language especially are mostly tentative (even though I think it would be prudent for them to take my advice). Generally, I think I know what I’m talking about, but I’m open to correction from people who know more about the subject, primarily linguists.

This in mind, I’m pretty used to people making comments about language when they lack relevant training, like that old proscription against terminating prepositions. But I still confess that it puzzles me when I see people who are qualified in the area of the English language railing against things about which they really should know better.

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I am so far behind, both here and in real life, so here are some highlights of the past, uh, week or so:

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Tonight, I’ve been grading college application essays that I received from students yesterday, and I’ve noticed a pattern that I’ve encountered before during student teaching, so I have to say something about it. If you are a student in an English or writing course, I suggest you read closely.

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I’m in the midst of grading autoethnographies, and I’m taking this very short break from grading to reflect on one specific paper. (After I finish with them, I intend on returning to the assignment to gauge its efficacy and my efficacy in teaching it.)

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Since I last wrote here, I have encountered my first instance of outright plagiarism as a full-time teacher, one so flagrant that it was almost immediately identifiable as something other than the writing of a high school junior and which I found almost immediately with a Google search as an Apache creation myth (the assignment was for an original creation myth). At first, I was furious about it, but now I’m just disappointed and have cooled down maybe enough that I can handle the student the way he/she deserves to be handled: firm but with mercy.

I say “with mercy” because I’m providing a second opportunity for the student. If he/she will turn in an original myth by tomorrow, I’ll accept it for a significantly reduced grade (but higher than what he/she would otherwise get: a zero), and if not, I’ll give a zero and inform the principal of the violation. I was perfectly clear on my syllabus that plagiarism is not something I take lightly, and I intend to make my example here for future violations. I think I’m being more than fair.

On a totally different note, I have felt like planning has come together very loosely, and I’m still working out details for instruction this week despite having the weekly assignments up for students. (I might have set a bad precedent by doing this, although it helps keep me accountable.)

But one thing that I will change – in a very positive way – is due to something I just found. In searching for information on the 1992 movie version of Of Mice and Men (starring Gary Sinise as George Milton and John Malkovich as Lennie Smalls), I found an online streaming version of the full movie on imdb (streaming provided by that great video site, hulu) that I can use today for my students. I had wanted to show parts of this but wasn’t going to be able to get it in time; it’s available on netflix, which we use pretty much exclusively now for movies at home, but it wouldn’t have arrived quickly enough, and it isn’t available for instant watching.

And I took a phrase that has been a part of my teacher’s toolbox for quite a while – Don’t panic! from Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – and printed out an image of it with Marvin, laminated it, and put it in my classroom for easy reference (and another decoration for the room).

Another week, a mixed bag – but onward I press in this journey of teaching. As long as I enjoy it, I think it’ll be just fine.

Okay, that title is meant to be a little obfuscatory: I’m not really talking about model teaching in the idiomatic sense of ideal teaching (or best practices).

I agree with and try to practice the idea that students often need a model to follow before they go off on their own doing something. It has been painfully obvious to me that the autoethnography assignment that I gave to my seniors is definitely one of those things, since these students are new to the term and have probably never read an autoethnography (or if they have, they probably didn’t know that it was called autoethnography).

The problem: there aren’t really any models of autoethnography out there that are readily available. Certainly, I don’t have any writing resources for this assignment, having cobbled together an assignment from information available online from Susan Bennett (which was actually provided to me last fall by a professor at my alma mater who has, unfortunately, not returned my E-mail asking for assistance in finding a model).

So what’s a teacher to do when there is no readily available model? You make one.

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I guess it’s taken the creation of syllabi – which is almost finished, thankfully – to make me understand something about writing that I’ve seen before but also very recently: sometimes writing is not merely about clarifying ideas but about discovering them.

I have to admit to myself that until very lately I have not entirely known what I am going to do with some of my classes. Some have been better than others, and with the sophomore and senior classe especially, I have had to discover the material in order to determine what I want to teach from the materials I have. (What my co-op once said is true: Don’t worry about having all the background knowledge before hand – you can learn whatever curriculum you teach, and I think it’s even true when you are the one putting it together.)

And so it is with my writing elective, which has been vague and somewhat ill-defined almost from the beginning. I asked for clarification once and was told that it was more of a creative writing course than a research-intensive one, so I have strayed away from a major research paper (although I will likely incorporate some aspect of research into a creative piece). Other than that, I have little to no idea: no background on what has been done in the past, no course listing or blurb to indicate the direction of the course, and (as I noted earlier) no text to organize my thoughts around.

So I sat down tonight with my syllabus template in front of me, which has worked excellently for three other courses, and I thought about the course objectives as I was writing a description. Quickly, what emerged was a vision of a course that gives attention to multiple modes of writing, using a code-switching model to focus students’ attention on the importance of understanding how language needs to be shaped by considerations of purpose and audience. I listed things I want students to have had experience with: personal and reflective writing, communicative writing (which could be informal or formal), creative and expressive writing (fiction, poetry, etc.), and even a little of professional/technical writing, like formal letters.

And now I feel like I’ve already taught the class. Lesson ideas abound to me; I feel like this course will virtually write itself.

It truly is a unique discovery to make, especially since it is one that I can hopefully pass on to my students. And more importantly, now I am one step closer to securing my broad plans for this year, which itself is a discovery worth celebrating.

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