Author Archives: RAB

About RAB

Teacher of English writing and literature (college-level); academic-freedom activist; editor and copy editor; theater director, costumer, actress, playwright.

Plus ça change—not necessarily for the better

I am sympathetic to the deep feeling of inadequacy as far as our binary-choice pronouns are concerned. I recall, still vividly, moving through life perpetually reminded of my marital status, back when females were either “Miss” or “Mrs.” (A bright light on that path was a student from Korea who insisted on calling me “Sir.”) Never mind that when “Ms.” was introduced it meant “Manuscript” to me and my literary-scholar colleagues—it was still a blessed refuge into the freedom of being myself independent of the existence (or nonexistence) of a spouse. I count a number of gender-fluid, questioning, and transgender people among my friends, and I sympathize with their dissatisfaction over yet another binary identity choice, and my own panic over pronoun choice particularly when referring to people I don’t personally know. It’s exciting to be present in a moment of language examination and creativity, even though it brings back memories of definition-by-single-factor associated with the “Miss/Mrs” dilemma.
But as a teacher of writing I have to keep my students focused on clarity; and the expedient, or experiment, of “the singular they” isn’t helping me. Here’s a little paragraph that will show you why: “In the article it discusses how the child does feel the impact and is upset when they first hear the news about their parents getting divorced, but it overall can bring themselves closer together in the end. The child still has two parents who care for them and are still able to reach the same milestones in life that they were going to reach and still able to have a good life even if it means that their parents aren’t living under the same roof.… It was also interesting to see is [sic] how sometimes the child will blame themselves for their parents divorce when they didn’t do anything at all but the parents just need to reassure them that it was nothing to do with them.”
Did you notice when grandparents seemed to sneak into the family picture?
One of the fundamental sources of confusion is that “they,” while doing service as an undefined third-person SINGULAR pronoun, also continues to be our standard PLURAL pronoun. In a context where the term could mean (to someone other than the writer, presumably) EITHER of those choices, the reader is left to clutch at other sentence clues in an effort to get the comprehensible mental picture that every sentence hopes to create.
The singular “they” can also mask the “they” that has always crept, grandparent-like, into sentences to save students from having to cope with a “he or she” situation or choose “he” for a gender-undefined filler individual, as in “When a student arrives at college he is full of hope.” (My own English teachers in high school and, yes, college [pre-Lib] explained it this way: “In English the masculine embraces the feminine.” Hot grammar!) Students produced paragraphs not unlike the child-of-divorce paragraph above BY MISTAKE in those days (and perhaps in the divorce example as well?). Maybe I should just relax and let “they” solve that grammar issue as well as the more-important identity issue.
For now, though, even the New York Times occasionally wanders into “they” chaos, particularly in the Weddings write-ups I so much enjoy reading on a Sunday morning. I would encourage the Times, as I encourage my students, to avoid the pronoun-choice issue entirely. The divorce paragraph above might then be rewritten thus: “The decision to divorce can confuse a child, who won’t know whom to blame, perhaps; but a divorce can bring family members closer together even when the structure of the relationship has changed. Parental care and attention are necessary, though, so that the child does not assume guilt for the change.” Well, I’m doing this on the fly, but you see it can be done. And the ideas get sorted out along the way, so that the central issue—the stress of divorce on the child—takes a more clearly central place in the paragraph.
Sonnets and haiku are pleasurably challenging to compose partly because of the demands the forms make on linguistic control. Maybe the same pleasure can be found in prose. Meanwhile, I hope our present quest for pronouns more appropriate to our very real identity needs will result in the discovery of devices that, like “Ms.,” allow each of us room without displacing the rest of our grammatical furniture.


Lecture 1: readings by and about Native Americans

When I planned the syllabus I wanted to make this week’s reading on the light side, to give you more time to develop your Confluences paper and produce your Prospectus while still enjoying Spring break. Well, Corvid-19 had its own response to human planning. At any rate, that means what I plan to do in terms of this week’s “lectures” is to talk a bit about the various readings today and hope that you’ll watch the talk, and then be available by email and the class Facebook page to answer questions (email or Facebook) or engage in some discussion (Facebook).

The week before Spring Break we looked at readings that expressed the views of colonial settlers and, later, white Americans towards the peoples they found on these shores and the encounters that had transpired. Some of these sentiments are also part of William Bradford’s “Of Plymouth Plantation,” you’ll recall. The ideas that Native Americans could be helpful neighbors or exploitable trade partners—but were nevertheless alien, untrustworthy creatures worshipping devilish gods and living debased lives and thus in need of conversion (or elimination, depending on circumstances)—these ideas inform a number of writings, beginning with Christopher Columbus’s letters informing the King and Queen of Spain that the native people he encountered in the Caribbean islands could be taught Christianity, persuaded to reveal the sources of their wealth, and snatched up to become slaves for Europeans.

The determined hatred that is the lens for Mary Rowlandson’s Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration originates not only in the horror of the attack she and her family suffered during King Phillip’s War of desperation, but also in her implacable belief that non-Christians were incapable of goodness and mercy. After seeing her relatives and friends killed and her home burned in the space of two horrific hours, and being herself captured and held for months, this minister’s wife can be excused at least her initial attitude; she does become sufficiently accustomed to her captors to admit they are capable of kindness, but that’s nearly at the end of her book…a book that was a huge best-seller for some time, no doubt contributing to her living expenses but also to the continuous rise of anti-Indian sentiment and actions that became more emphatic in popular literature and fueled more wars on Native tribes in the latter 1800s (which our course does not include).

Still, we have also had the refreshing views of Benjamin Franklin, in “Remarks Concerning the Savages,” which begins with the astute if ironic observation “savages we call them, because their manners differ from ours, which we think the perfection of civility; they think the same of theirs.”

We also have the sympathetic myth-making of Philip Freneau’s poem “The Indian Burying Ground,” which offers a beautiful and haunting vision of an afterlife where social community and nature-linked life belong to the Indian for all eternity.

This week’s readings, representing the views of the same Native Americans, show that continuing clash of world views and values, although in the Iroquois Creation Myth, Pontiac’s Speech at Detroit, and Occam’s “Short Narrative” of his life we see the growing influence of Christian teachings as natives sought to understand white settlers—the Establishment, eventually—and accommodate Christian mythology into Native American ways of thought. Occam’s later experience with his “mentor” Reverend Eleazar Wheelock threw cold water on his trust in whites but not on his dedication to teaching English and reading to Indian children.

Benjamin Franklin has shown us in “Remarks Concerning the Savages” why reaching an understanding between white colonists and Native Americans was difficult, especially in circumstances where the Whites were in control and their mythology dominant even when it didn’t quite match their behavior. Red Jacket in his 1809 speech to the U.S. Senate attempted to explain with logic, examples, and clarity how hard his people had tried to understand Christian beliefs and behavior and why, ultimately, they had to reject them, concluding eloquently that “We do not wish to destroy your religion or take it from you. We only want to enjoy our own.” As our editor points out, it was essentially a separatist speech, suggesting that two nations side by side could get along but forcing Native Americans into a larger nation and expecting them to conform to the dominant beliefs and laws was a bad idea. Red Jacket’s traditional and courteous “Brother:” that begins each paragraph of his statement yields in 1811 or so to Tecumseh’s speech to the Osages, beginning “Brothers: We all belong to one family: we are all children of the Great Spirit,” but going on to argue for taking that family to war, on the basis that “nothing will pacify [the white man] but the destruction of all the red men,” and calling for a united resistance that will “stain the earth red with their blood,” with the help of the Great Spirit.

Our editor tells us that eloquence was highly valued in Native American tribes, being the traditional measure of effectiveness in an argument, and argument being the method of resolving disputes. Argument was the responsibility of males in the tribe. (The traditional role of women, by the way, was to listen to these disputes and remember the issues, the eloquent arguments, and the resolution: kind of a combination Court Stenographer and Tribal Memory, a role of great respect and, in pre-literary cultures especially, critical importance.)

These opportunities to hear the voices of Native Americans have been provided to us by historical and cultural historians, tribal memory, documents preserved in government and tribal archives, and, as we see this couple of weeks with Jefferson and Ben Franklin, transmission in letters and other documents by “white” political figures recording true encounters with “red” men they had learned to respect and admire. And don’t forget Roger Williams’ belief that the best way to understand and interact with Native Americans was to learn to talk with them in their own languages.

I’d like to hear your thoughts and questions.


A little out of season, but an attempt at a return…

Last semester has supplied me with a lot of new “material,” alas. I am resolving to return to my blog.

But I want to begin by looking back, and offering a meditation on some of the changes that are affecting not only my students’ language skills, but also their lives.

This is an editorial I wrote two springs ago for the Connecticut AAUP newsletter I edit, VANGUARD. The title was “Silent Spring,” partly because this editorial was written for the Spring issue (2016), and partly because yes, I was thinking of Rachel Carson. This past semester my first-years all carried out research projects having to do with social media, and they have concluded that the kinds of things I addressed here have only gotten worse. Anyway, here goes:

Silent Spring

In 1962, Rachel Carson published the landmark environmental book Silent Spring, the result of her study of the consequences of indiscriminate use of man-made pesticides, particularly DDT. She envisioned a future in which the Springs would be silent because insect eradication by poison was passing the poison on up the food chain to birds, killing them outright or so weakening their calcium production that their eggs were not viable: hence, the glorious sound of birdsong that is their territorial and mating music would be no more.

The book and its vision appealed to the general public as well as to the scientific community, and created strong pressure to ban the use of DDT. As I sit in my kitchen with the deck door open and listen to the glad songs outside, I thank Rachel Carson (for whom my niece is named) for awakening us before it was too late.

Her title phrase resonates with new meaning for me 54 years later, when I walk into my classroom building and have a moment of wondering whether I have misread the calendar and shown up to teach on, perhaps, a Sunday morning. Or maybe there’s a holiday I missed…. The building is silent. Well, the ground floor is never very busy.

I ride the elevator up to the third floor, home of my busy department and my scheduled class. Silence greets me. Has The Rapture actually occurred?

Into my classroom I go, to find twenty students or so waiting for class. They seem to be alive, but they are soundless, each gazing into a tiny screen, heads down, thumbs a-gallop.

As I make my way to the front of the room, I remember other days. Long ago the halls were alive with chatter and murmur, and beginning a class session meant getting the students to wind up their conversations with neighboring students and focus on beginning the day’s work. I taught with my door closed to mute the random bursts of chatter in the hallways and deter the occasional passer-by who otherwise wouldn’t resist putting his or her head in to see what was going on, or waving at a friend. As soon as the formal class was over, students would turn to one another and begin to talk—expressing reactions to the lesson, making plans to get together, sharing jokes… Sometimes one or two would ask me to join them for coffee so we could continue a class discussion.

Before things changed in the classroom, they started changing in the halls, as cellphones become more and more popular. Voices were raised because the phone connections were sometimes weak, or because the speaker couldn’t hear his or her own conversation over the phone-shouting of someone standing nearby. Signs appeared in the hallway: PLEASE USE CELLPHONES IN STAIRWELL ONLY. In the classroom, soon thereafter, electronic music would suddenly burst forth and a student would sidle out to talk to mother? friend? boss? Colleagues and I began announcing policies for cellphone use in the class.

And then cellphone use became silent, thanks to the innovation of texting. In the classroom my policy now is: “If I see you gazing happily into your lap and notice that your hands are moving, my first thought will NOT be ‘texting.’ You don’t want to know what my first thought will be.” (Amazing how effective this is, once they realize that first thought and blush….) A friend says she marks student cellphone users Absent: “Your mind is certainly not here.”

The halls are still full of students. There are students in the classrooms. But they make no sound. My colleague is right: they are not “multitasking,” at which it turns out none of us is very good despite our confidence to the contrary; they are absolutely elsewhere. Before class they aren’t thinking about the class, preparing their minds for some lively interaction; they’re thinking about whatever the mother? friend? boss? on the other end of the text is saying. (They haven’t even turned on the lights, since the phone screen makes its own illumination. At first glance they look, especially the ones wearing hoodies, like monks at prayer in a dim cloister.) After class, same: out come the phones, down go the heads. What has been going on in the classroom—let’s call it the “lesson”—is a little capsule framed by completely other concerns. Curiosity, challenge, reconsideration, reflection on lesson or assigned text: the texts of a different world take their place.

In the halls and on the sidewalks, students walk straight ahead, heads down, thumbs moving. They don’t see the leaves coming out, the birds flying by, the blue of the sky. They don’t see me jumping aside or hugging the wall so as not to be walked directly into. Sometimes they don’t even look for traffic in the street they’re crossing.

Yesterday one of my slightly-older students dropped by my office after class, “looking for someone to talk to.” I enjoy talking with him: he’s curious, reflective, funny. So of course I’m not talking about everyone. In fact, one thing he talked about was the creepy silence in the halls….

Like DDT, cellphones are man-made. Like DDT they are weakening our students in many ways: their ability to pay attention to one line of thought; their ability to discuss ideas and challenge interpretations; their comprehension and retention of class material; their willingness to engage with one another face-to-face. Will they realize this by themselves, and seek a different kind and quality of communication? Can new policies limit the danger and the damage? Or will our Springs, and Autumns, and Summer Sessions fall silent as our technology saps our students’ willingness, and ability, to participate in their own lives? —RAB


I May Require Shaming or Even Shunning

Excellent meditation on the nonverbal power of words, especially 140 characters at a time!

ACADEME BLOG

Twitter has been central to a number of controversial cases that have tested the definitions and the limits of academic freedom. The brevity and compression of tweets means that they exist outside of any fixed context and they are therefore very frequently tonally ambiguous. What seems very provocative or even outrageous to one reader may seem edgily ironic or just mildly sarcastic to another.

Yet, the one thing that tweets share with other types of written–and oral–communication is that if you have to start explaining what you intended, you are already in trouble.

It does not require the prophetic gifts attributed to Nostradamus to predict that Donald Trump’s enthusiasm for Twitter and his often unrestrained and seemingly impulsive use of the medium are going to make these kinds of issues a central part of our public discourse for at least the next four years. The core issue for academics may…

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“On the Greek island of Lesbos…”

My Early World Literature students generally love Sappho, at least what of hers we read in the course. And I think some of what they love is her unknowability, if I can call it that, and the fact that much of the work we have by her is fragmentary. Her works were collected into volumes by admiring Greek and then Roman poets and others, but only papyrus scraps have come down to us, through various unusual pathways. She was born around 615 B.C. to an aristocratic family and lived for a time in a community of young women on the island of Lesbos who wrote and sang poetry, danced to their songs…. the word “Lesbian” was attached to the female-to-female sexual attractions described in some of her work. The site The Poetry Foundation sums up what is known or at least seriously believed about her today: “In antiquity Sappho was regularly counted among the greatest of poets and was often referred to as ‘the Poetess,’ just as Homer was called ‘the Poet.’ Plato hailed her as ‘the tenth Muse,’ and she was honored on coins and with civic statuary.” Beyond that, most of what we “know” is custom, legend, speculation…or downright fiction. Readers tend to believe her first-person poems are autobiographical because of that “I” and the frank, intense description of deep emotions and suggestions of intimate experience—but we don’t know.

Anyway, as I said, her poems—what we have of them—are compelling. Poets of many centuries and cultures have translated them into their own languages, often padding them out to fit ideas of structure and poetics quite alien to the originals. (If that intrigues you, you ought to visit the site Bureau of Public Secrets, where “some of the many” translations of her “Poem of Jealousy” are collected.)

In my classes, attraction to a piece of writing pretty much means you’ll have to write about it; hence today’s horror. Through the murky sentences I think you will still feel the affection:

“On the Greek island of Lesbos Sappho’s works were written and compiled, into the classic poems they are today. Despite knowing not much about her, her poems speak volumes.”

Oh, the use of the passive voice, which denies Sappho agency in her own work (the poems were written on an island; who wrote them remains unspoken)! Oh, the strange notion that some “compilers” made them into classic poems—again, she doesn’t seem to have had anything to do with it! Were they immediately classic because they were written in the sixth century B.C.E., or are they classic now because they’re still around or because we call them so, or are they classic because someone compiled them “into…classic poems,” or what? The writer leaves us to ponder those questions. Perhaps the writer himself is unsure what “classic” means. They can certainly be referred to as “classical,” because they are writings from the long period of Greek and Roman civilization we call the “classical age.” Well, be that as it may. They’re classics today.

“Despite knowing not much about her,” besides being a remarkably awkward phrase, is a dangling modifier. Of course I knew what he meant to say: Despite the fact that we don’t know much about her…or despite our not knowing much about her. But the sentence as my student wrote it has no such nouns or pronouns to be described (modified) by the prepositional phrase: the only noun offered is “poems,” but surely he doesn’t mean to say her poems don’t know much about her. He goes on to say that the poems “speak volumes.” This in spite of not knowing much about their author, I guess.

Now, generally when we use the verb phrase “speak volumes” we mean “say a great deal (books’ worth, in fact) even without words.” As in “she said not a word when he said he loved her, but her quiet smile spoke volumes,” perhaps. Is that what my student means to say about the poems of Sappho—that the fragments we have still suggest books’ worth of thoughts? I’m not sure. In view of the introductory phrase about not knowing much about her, I have to consider that he may mean the poems suggest a lot about their author. What’s truly odd here is a coincidence of terminology, the juxtaposition of fragments and “volumes,” and the association of poems with books as well.

Most readers of Sappho feel that the fragments suggest deep and complex emotions, or evoke them in readers, although for many of the poems what we have is so small a piece of the probable original that we can’t be positive where the poem as a whole might have taken us. In fact, what we respond to for so many of what we call her “poems” is a single breathtaking image. And the trouble with that is the nagging fact that almost all of us are reading Sappho in a translation. Only the knowledge that her words have struck readers this way regardless of the passage of time and the vagaries of literary “style” and translation gives us the confidence to attribute our response to her artistry.

This isn’t a very funny post! My intention was to have a good time with my hapless student’s staggering couple of sentences and their inadequacies as praise of The Poetess. But it’s impossible to point out where my student went wrong, or at least limped through, without talking about the power and beauty of the words he was trying to respond to. Perhaps there’s a point at which we all become inarticulate.

Here’s someone else’s tribute to her. It’s described as “red-figure vase (hydria, or kalpis) by the Group of Polygnotos, ca. 440–430 BC. Seated, Sappho is reading one of her poems to a group of three student-friends. National Archaeological Museum in Athens….” This photographic image of the hydria is “by Μαρσύας (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons.” She’s writing so intently, and the other women form a group around and above her that seems simultaneously loving and blessing. Beautiful, isn’t it?

You'll notice that, like Sappho's poems, this jar was once broken in pieces. How fortunate we are that unlike so many of her poems, all the pieces were found and carefully reassembled. We respond to its original beauty.

You’ll notice that, like Sappho’s poems, this jar seems to have once been broken. How fortunate we are that all the pieces are here, carefully reassembled, so we can be sure we’re responding to its original beauty.


“Most, if not all, people can relate to Don during this troubling moment.”

First let me admit that one of my current crusades is to stamp out the phrase “relate to.” Particularly in literature classes, its use is pervasive and daunting: “I can relate to Hamlet.” “The Canterbury Tales is hard to relate to because it’s written in Old [sic] English.” “I can relate to the Puritans but they were wrong about witches.” “Beowulf brags too much to be relatable.” Oh, please!

One of my students even coined (or repurposed?) a  noun to express this concept: “relativity.” No, nothing to do with Einstein; just a variant form of “relatability,” evidently. (Nice to see that Spellcheck thinks “relatability” is something-or-other misspelled , not a real word…)

You can follow either of the links in the above sentences for fully-deployed RAB expressions of despair.

And now, Class, we turn our attention to friend Don, that possibly-universally-relatable chap. I wish I had recorded which of Don’s many “troubling” moments my student was referring to here, but perhaps that doesn’t matter: it was something most, if not all, of us would see ourselves in, understand, associate with our own experience, want to associate ourselves with, or whatever “relate to” means….

Is Don some friend of my student’s? A sibling of hers? Or perhaps someone famous, so famous that only his first name is needed for identification? Or, uh, a character in a play, named simply “Don”? (So many modern plays name their characters “Man” and “Woman” that “Don No-Last-Name” seems at least possible.)

Do you have a moment? Would you like to read a little about a famous composer named Bay?

So, if you went there, you will have read another RAB rant, this one about calling people by their first names even if they’re strangers to you, authority figures, or famous writers or composers. I’m trying to stamp that practice out, too, of course.

Furthermore, the lover of Bay compounded the informality with lack of knowledge, mistaking the first syllable of his surname for his given name, almost the same error my student makes with Don.

All this is mere preamble to the astonishing Don.

This year marks the 400th anniversary of the publication of Part II of one of western literature’s most famous and important works of fiction, and this is being celebrated by many groups, in many ways. For example, Dickinson College, my alma mater, has been celebrating it with a read-in and some festive campus and international events. Now you’ve guessed who Don is, haven’t you?

Yes, Don Quixote. Hero of Don Quixote. Good old Don.

What my student didn’t realize is that Don is, of course, not the gentleman’s given name, but his TITLE. Alonso Quixano, voracious reader, longs for the life of bygone knights errant; this member of the Spanish minor aristocracy therefore renames himself Don Quixote de la Mancha, persuades a tenant farmer to serve as his Squire, and sets off into the world he manages to imaginatively recreate as the land of his dreams, with various touching successes and howling disasters as the consequence. “Don Quixote” would be, in English, pretty much “Lord Quixote.” And nobody refers to George Gordon, Lord Byron, as “Lord,” any more than people refer to Alfred, Lord Tennyson as “Alfred Lord.” Well, nobody I’ve met yet, I hasten to qualify.

Should my student have known that “Don” is an honorific, not a name? Yes, I believe she should have. She should at least have noticed that in class I did not once refer to this character as “Don.” But since she knew the word “Don” already—perhaps does have a friend or relative of that name—she didn’t really think about it, either whether she should call this man “Don” or whether “Don” even sounded like a Spanish first name! She plunged into the assigned reading without looking at the textbook’s Introduction, noticing the book’s setting, or in any way considering that there was anything about the book that made it different from her own world. And THEN, having mistaken “Don” for the character’s first name, she proceeded to assume sufficient intimacy with him to call him by it—throughout a paper that supposedly discussed this literary work in an academic way.

The culture of the world in which we live, move, and have our being has changed a lot in the last few decades, and traditions of formality, conventions of academic writing, and various kinds of awareness seem to be falling by the wayside. This means that those of us for whom those things still have significance are more and more frequently disconcerted; it also means that consciousness of those concepts is disappearing and the young people of today may find themselves unable to understand more and more of the literature and life of the past. This is what I fear, anyway.

Well, I’m writing this post partly to celebrate the amazing fact that today my blog’s following reached, and passed, 8000. I’m amazed and grateful! (If it pleases you to do so, you may consider the tour of links throughout this post a kind of happy dance, or pilgrimage…)

So maybe I’m not tilting at verbal windmills alone. Maybe Don and I have 8000+ fellow warriors.

Welcome, all!

Don himself. This image of Don Quixote attacking the windmills is by early-20th-century illustrator G.A. Harker; one of the many sites on which it appears is https://c2.staticflickr.com/4/3299/3503448168_7cfb49b975.jpg

Don himself. This image of Don Quixote attacking the windmills is by early-20th-century illustrator G.A. Harker; one of the many sites on which it appears is https://c2.staticflickr.com/4/3299/3503448168_7cfb49b975.jpg


“Before technology was even invented…”

You can feel it coming, can’t you? It’s that observation-based-on-a-hazy-notion-of-history, the time of “yore” so usefully deployed by Phoebe—or was it Rachel?—in an episode of Friends to describe the origin of a putative antique: it was made in Yore.

I’ve written before about that historical time, so shrouded in the mists of the past and of the student mind. Despite the noble efforts of the school system, Americans in general have a rather shaky notion of history; nevertheless, we like to invoke its lessons and examples (accurately or otherwise) to justify all kinds of things. The past lends GRAVITAS. In this assumption, students are just like all the rest of us.

They want to put their ideas into an historical context to make them important, serious, significant. I appreciate that. The problem arises when the historical context is something comically vague, or comically wrong, or downright bizarre—as it was in this student’s paper.

He was writing about electronic communications: specifically, cell-phone calls, emails, and texts. We had talked in class about the changes these resources had made in the way we lived our daily lives, exchanged information or affection with each other, made contact with our fellow creatures. Then I had asked the class to write an essay that answered this question: Through our embrace of modern technology, have we become complicitous in our own isolation, almost agoraphobia?

My student wanted to defend our near-constant use of technological devices for communication, arguing that they enable us to be not isolated but actually more closely connected than ever before. That’s an argument that can be made, of course.

But he undercut his own effectiveness from the very beginning, because he felt he had to establish the contrasting image of those dark ages “before technology was even invented” (as if starting a fire by striking two appropriate rocks together or creating friction with a bow-drill were not technology). And the way he defined that pre-tech time was… well, you decide:

“Before technology was even invented, one would have to send a letter that would be carried by a man on a horse.”

Communication with someone not in the same room depended on three components, you see: a letter, a man, and a horse—the man carrying the letter and the horse carrying the man. Any other means could not succeed. Clearly the illiterate could not communicate at all (drums, smoke, beacon fires, and other non-script communications not counting). Those who could write letters but who were not men with horses, or who had no access to “a” man with a horse (so much for stagecoaches, not to mention ships), or who could not afford to employ said man, were out of luck. Could next-door neighbors simply hand their letters across the fence, or did even they have to find that obliging equestrian? People who lived in places where horses did not exist or, alternatively, existed but were not tamed to the saddle were, obviously, out of luck.

So what “technology” are we talking about here? Maybe the telephone and the telegraph machine, both of which inventions supplemented and then began to supplant letters—and both of which were faster than a man on a horse, or even a man on a bicycle or in a car, once that technology (!) was invented. I certainly hope my student had at least that time in mind, and wasn’t thinking of the invention of the computer or the cell phone as the advent of technology, because if he was thinking of the computer age as the dawn of technology (and many of my students do) then he was imagining this busy man-on-a-horse serving his very grandparents’ social and business needs, and that is a notion of history not merely bizarre but downright terrifying.

In all likelihood, my student wasn’t thinking in specific terms at all when he wrote this sentence. Something called “technology” that was his subject, a vague figure like a Pony Express rider thundering across the plains with mail in his saddlebags or perhaps a royal messenger galloping through Sherwood Forest, scrolled message held aloft in one hand and reins in the other, as a contrast to two thumbs dancing across tiny letter keys to ask “U hungry?” or remark “ROTFL.” And the contrast was, after all, his subject, his point; the rest of the image was mere launch-pad.

He didn’t expect me, his ever-hopeful reader, to spend more time thinking about the sentence than he had. But if he had spent more time, the essay would have begun better.

A Pony Express rider, appropriately enough enshrined on a postage stamp. No technology involved here! This image of the stamp accompanies the description of

A Pony Express rider, appropriately enough enshrined on a postage stamp. No technology involved here! (This image of the stamp accompanies the description of “Pony Express” in the Encyclopaedia Britannica online, http://www.britannica.com/topic/Pony-Express and can of course be found on hundreds of other sites as well.)


“As a kid growing up with split parents…”

Usually I tease you, gentle reader, with the ellipsis in a post title: “wait till you read the rest!” I implicitly promise.

This time the three dots are all I have; they end what I wrote down on a back page of my gradebook. The rest of the sentence was, presumably, okay, so I felt no need to preserve it for the ages.

The word choice in question is certainly let’s-say unorthodox: on its face, the phrase invites us to picture two adults whose bodies have been cleft in twain—producing four half-parents. Or perhaps the individuals are only partly split, like strands of hair with split ends. This is a funny picture, a moment of laughter the reader does want to preserve for the ages. A cartoonist could draw it.

But any reader, including this willfully obtuse professor (“It’s my job to misunderstand you if I can!”), knows exactly what my student meant: while she was growing up, her parents did not cohabitate. Part of the time they may have been only separated; in all probability they eventually divorced. If when they called it quits one even left town—and if they passed the child back and forth but never themselves sat down together, talked in a friendly way, got together with their offspring for a holiday or snack or college visit—then they completely split up. My student could have referred to this as a “split household,” or could have said “as a kid growing up with parents who had split up…,” both more orthodox ways of saying that.

(I could quibble with the “growing up with,” suggesting that it might be taken to mean the parents were growing up along with the kid, but I don’t choose to quibble with it. The rest of the words are more worthy of remark—I want to focus on the main feature.)

“Split parents” is so efficient: at once communicative not only of their physical and marital situation but also of a certain forlornness, wrongness, that the child must have felt. It is also to-the-point, concise. From the writer’s point of view it keeps the emphasis of the essay where it belongs, too: on the “kid.” Trying to be more factually precise or verbally conventional would have taken more time, more space, and more care than the bald fact merited; she was writing about herself, not about them.

I don’t think my student spent much time (if any) on the phrasing of her idea; I think she put it down straight from her head. But I think she said what she meant.

So I think this “error” must be let stand, especially in a sentence that also refers to a “kid”: that is, in a sentence that is generally informal in tone and diction.

Sometimes you have to let them be poets, even if that isn’t their intention. Sometimes their “error” invites you to take a fresh look at the language, and at the reality they are offering to share. Sometimes you teach, and sometimes you learn.


“From the very beginning the right to bear arms has always had some way of being involved with everything.”

Regardless of your interpretation of the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, you’ve got to love this sentence.

Certainly in today’s political landscape my student seems to be absolutely correct: we don’t seem to be able to address the issue of gun violence, or domestic terrorism, or even street fashion anymore without getting embroiled in the old “right to bear arms” debate (I use the word “debate,” but the reality is more and more like a brawl).

But what she has written here may be even more true than she intended.

In this blog I’ve commented on a number of student sentences where the writer seemed to be passive in a world of lively inanimate objects, and here’s another example.

Notice that the “right to bear arms” has some way of being involved. That crafty right, always finding a way of inserting itself into all sorts of situations where it wasn’t necessarily wanted. Maybe as a young person you knew a kid who always pushed his way into conversations, parties, conflicts, outings, clubs where he hadn’t been invited. He may have been lonely, or egotistical, or greedy, or needy, or just plain insensitive to social cues—whatever the reason, there he was, and he wouldn’t go away. He ruined a lot of good times: he overheard secrets, danced with girls who didn’t like him, ate too much cake, kissed up to the parental figure, sat in the best chair…. You did know a kid like that, didn’t you? And you didn’t like him, did you?

My student makes the “right to bear arms” exactly that kind of kid. Always involved with everything. You can’t get away from him. And he’s always been that way, that right,  from the very beginning. From birth! Not even enough courtesy to sit back and observe, to “lurk,” and get the feel of the group before horning in. The rest of us are evidently powerless to make him behave, or make him leave. That piece of paper—or idea, or law—is in charge; we must sit passively by and let him have his way.

Well, some people do like the Second Amendment the way it’s written (absolute phrase and all, governing the independent clause in good English), and others like the way the majority on the Supreme Court has newly read it (who cares about those words hanging off the front of it?). Of course the way it’s written is in words, and some of those words are open to interpretation (what is meant by “arms”? is “bear” the same as “always carry,” or does it mean “carry and use in battle,” for instance? how about “well regulated militia”?); some people like one definition while others prefer another. And some people wish it weren’t there at all.

But I think most people would prefer that the right just sit there until called upon, or invited. My student sees it differently: we sit there, and the right pushes his way in. As I said at the beginning, she might be wiser than she knows.

The Bill of Rights. My student was describing only Right #2, that pushy thing.  (source of this image: usgovinfo.about.com)

The Bill of Rights. My student was describing only Right #2, that pushy thing.
(source of this image: usgovinfo.about.com)


Forgive me for waxing political, but I had to share this!

A brilliant collection of Shakespearean quotations for tonight’s debates! “Hell is empty; all the devils are here.” Posted by the Folger Shakespeare Library, from Timothy McSweeney’s blog, a post by Emily Uecker

Enjoy.