Category Archives: inaccurate reading

“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

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

“These are poems that require re-reading, maybe even three times.”

She is referring to Shakespeare’s Sonnets.

How hard this poem is! she thinks to herself. I’d better read it a second time!

This explains why students come to class so woefully unprepared when the assigned reading is poetry. Once through, only a few lines, and it’s time to shut the book and party! Of course when I try to get them to talk about their experience of a poem, they tell me, for just about every one, “It’s about love and how sad love is.” Not a bad guess: many many poems are “about” this. Surprisingly, all these poets feel they must say that same thing over and over again, right? If I ask about a specific image in a poem, I get a generic answer: Q: What is the nightingale doing in this poem? A: It is a symbol of love. (Surprise: NOT ALWAYS! and NOT IN THIS POEM!) Now, I wouldn’t want to suggest that they have never read a poem that isn’t about love: The Iliad, The Odyssey, The Aeneid, Beowulf, even The Lord of the Rings all boil down to this essential theme: “Never give up.” Literature’s great pageant.

Once, after assigning Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “The Snow Storm,” I asked everyone to open their books, reread the poem, and draw the picture created by the first lines—which are, if you haven’t already clicked the link to read the whole poem:

No hawk hangs over in this air:
The urgent snow is everywhere.

So I did not give them a task requiring a lot of artistic talent: the “artist” need only cover the paper with dots and dashes representing snow. The poem goes on to describe people bent over, scurrying under the sideways-driving snow like mice (except that there is no hawk to frighten them). Students might have drawn the people too. The speaker also says that the sharp, icy wind would be too much for the tender flesh under any hawk’s wing…. I’ll bet you have already guessed that of 19 drawings, 18 depicted, with greater or less skill, a hawk sitting on some snow. They swore that they had read the poem carefully. You tell me. Here’s what I’m pretty sure of: they didn’t re-read it.

I used to think that by the time students got to college they understood that poetry, a highly compressed and usually highly allusive genre, required close and participatory reading from the reader. I discovered e.e. cummings all by myself in high school, and I used to pore over his lines, so playful on the page some of them, working to get inside his mind, inside the poem. I didn’t just read the words “as freedom is a breakfast food” or “anyone lived in a pretty how town” or “in Just-,” say “huh!” and feel I grasped the phrase, let alone the whole poem. Who taught me that? Well, I know my English teachers expected it, but I think I just knew it: poetry demands work on the part of the reader.

For Shakespeare, I like to assign “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” along with “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun.” Class begins with the obligatory review of the sonnet form, demonstration of iambic pentameter (Your last name is O’Neill! You’re an IAMB! If I say your name five times that will be IAMBIC PENTAMETER!), illustration of Petrarchan and Shakespearean rhyme schemes…and then we “talk about” the sonnets themselves. Here’s what Shakespeare is “kind of saying” in Sonnet 18: The girl he loves is just like a summer’s day, just as beautiful and warm, and she will never fade away, no matter how old she gets. Here’s what he’s “kind of saying” in Sonnet 130: She is ugly! (How rude! He must suddenly hate her now!)

And then I read the actual sonnets aloud, line by line, and walk them toward what the speaker is actually saying. They are always quite surprised. This may be why a student long ago defined “poetry” as “when the writer never says what he means.” Anyway, after this careful reading-cum-discussion, some students always come up after class to say they now LOVE “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun.” My joy is brief, though: the next time the class discusses poems that were assigned reading, back we go to the “kind of saying,” the pervasive bird=love pattern, and all the other signs of the old once-over.

Is this because they’ve had too many “find the symbol” and “guess the meaning” exercises in the lower grades? (And it’s not just poetry—this is what they want to do with short stories and plays also.) I know my students have trouble developing a thesis, and I attribute that to hanging around exclusively with people who share their opinions, so they don’t even know a judgment requires a rational defense. For literature, they rush to a quick general “moral of the story” and feel they have said all that needs to be said.

When I think of all the literary lines, images, characters, moments that have enriched my life and given me insights into emotions and ideas I have not previously been able to put into words or even perceive—when I think of how richly textured my imaginative life has been as a consequence of all my reading—I am filled with grief and rage for my students. There is no way that they’re going to learn the reader’s habit of mind and its attendant joys in one semester. I can show them my joy, offer them my insights and knowledge; but until they manage to work their way through to their own, they won’t have the experience themselves. Why has this not already happened for them? Why have they been permitted to equate the reading of literature with moving their eyes over words?

So I laugh at the notion that understanding Shakespeare might take a second and maybe even a third reading, and also hope that this basic discovery might somehow prompt appropriate action and, down the line, bring joy.

Could happen, right?

“All he did was a little respiration work.”

This statement comes from one of many student essays on the case of a self-taught restorer of stained-glass windows who extracted a sagging Tiffany window from a crumbling mausoleum, refurbished it, and sold it to an antiques dealer (and fence) who was already under surveillance for trafficking in stolen art. For the story, you can seek out the several entries I’ve already done for sentences dealing with the case. Here’s one to get you started.

My student here is defending the window thief, one of the options for the assigned essay. She just has a strange idea of what he actually did.

It’s only a typo. Or a misspelling. Or a bad word choice…

by way of which she turned our lad from a crooked craftsman into a fitness trainer, health-care worker, or yogi.

She could have said “repair work.” She could have made a somewhat ambiguous choice and said “reparation work”—that would have gotten by. The assignment sheet, which includes a case summary, uses the word “restoration,” which, to anyone even remotely familiar with antiques and art, is the most accurate choice of the three: it describes his intention, his process, and his product.

He was a lover of Tiffany’s works, a self-taught student of the windows especially, and also a student of stained glass construction and repair (one adult-education class and then more self-education). In his job of cemetery caretaker, he noticed the forgotten mausoleum and its sagging window. Time is not kind to stained-glass windows: as the came (the lead that holds the pieces of glass in place) expands and contracts during years of summers and winters, it becomes stretched and sometimes brittle, and the glass thereby becomes looser in its setting. Given enough time, the window can release the glass fragments like a hand opening and scattering so many coins, and what was once a pictorial or decorative work of art or high craft is transformed into a meaningless pile of shards.

The window in question was nine feet tall and proportionately heavy. He painstakingly removed it, took it home, and spent six years restoring it. Where pieces of glass had been lost or cracked, he sought out and purchased appropriate replacements. He replaced the came. When a client of his purchaser’s asked if a rising sun could be inserted into the scene (said client was a “Japanese collector,” which may explain his whim), our craftsman refused to violate Tiffany’s design. The finished window fetched him $60,000 from the fence; the Japanese client in turn paid $240,000 for it. And the craftsman was arrested for (and convicted of) trafficking in stolen art, grand larceny, and perhaps vandalism.

His defenders among my students said he was a hero, saving a work of art from certain ruin and enabling it to be seen again (the purchaser reportedly gave or sold the window to a Japanese museum). Or he was a good man, heart-broken to see something beautiful decay. Or he was an art-lover whose passion had overcome his reason. Several students pointed out that the window was, in effect, worthless before he restored it, and so the charge of grand larceny seemed inappropriate.

This particular student wanted to know what the man had done that was all that bad. After all, he hadn’t harmed anyone or anything. All he did was…yes, alas, a little “respiration work.”

We are left with the picture of a man crouched over a window, or kneeling before it, breathing on it. The breath of life, perhaps? Was he sighing, panting, gasping, holding his breath, blowing dust away? All of these would qualify as respiration work, I imagine. Hard to imagine how any of those activities would do much for a deteriorating stained-glass window, though. Could he have been some kind of “window whisperer”?

If she didn’t know the word “restoration,” and didn’t notice it used repeatedly on the assignment sheet and therefore feel compelled to look it up, surely she did already know the word “respiration.” Where was the internal editor that should have asked “BREATHING??? What does that have to do with it????” and driven her at least to reread the sheet? I am sure she did not mean “breathing,” in any of its forms. Even if he was INspired by Tiffany, the fact that he was REspiring at the time is totally beside any rational point.

The saddest part of the whole thing is that we did a lot of small-group work with the drafts of this essay. Unless “respiration” was a last-minute addition during the polishing of the final draft, more eyes than hers gazed upon it in its little sentence and noticed nothing amiss.

Or else perhaps someone in the peer process suggested the word? If that was the case, though, where (again) was my student’s internal editor to ask “Are you out of your mind?”

As for me, when I read the paper I laughed, shook my head, wrote “wrong word” in the margin, took a deep breath…and moved on.

“Blessed are the gentile…”

For today, the Revised Nonstandard Version of several of the Beatitudes. Before sharing this enlightenment, I’ll remind everyone that The Beatitudes is the traditional name for part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Christian Bible, Matthew 5 – 7; you can read the lovely King James Version on Bartleby if you don’t have a Bible handy), a litany of “blessed are”s describing the kind of person Jesus (and thereby God) approves and would like to encourage: collectively, a kind, patient, tolerant, selfless, and spiritually hopeful person whose deprivations on earth will be rewarded by a grateful Father in Heaven (and possibly also by the endorsement of similar individuals on earth).

The Beatitudes was one of the Bible excerpts in my World Lit I anthology, and I thought we had a nice discussion of the style, the message, and the ways in which the message compared with the teachings of the Hebrew Bible, the Qur’an, and several other Eastern texts. Later in the semester one of my students was moved to incorporate the Beatitudes in a paper, and here are the ones he thought were particularly noteworthy:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, because there is a kingdom of heaven.”

“Blessed are the gentile, because they shall inherit the earth.”

“Blessed are they who are hungry and thirsty for righteousness, because they shall be feed.”

To be fair: The Norton Anthology didn’t use the King James Version. Also to be fair: my student is not quoting the version the Norton did use, either.

Now, let us take a look at these words of direction and comfort.

The poor in spirit are blessed by the fact that there is a kingdom of heaven. As far as my student is concerned, this seems to be the most Jesus is willing to promise; no guarantees or even suggestions that the poor in spirit will actually go to the kingdom of heaven, let alone inherit it.

There’s no ambiguity or confusion about the next point: the gentile will inherit the earth. King James says the “meek” shall inherit the earth, but the translation the students read said the “gentle” would inherit the earth. Why do students have so much trouble with words that begin “gent” and have an “l” somewhere later? We have all, I’m sure, seen bizarre statements about the “genitals” by writers who were probably writing about “gentiles”…and vice versa.  And here my student must have thought he was talking about people who were meek, gentle. But he didn’t write that. I’d hate to think AutoCorrect has become so cynical, so “now,” as to assume that nobody ever means to write “gentle” anymore; but if I can’t blame AutoCorrect I’m going to have to blame my student. I certainly hope he didn’t actually mean “blessed are the gentile” here, because if so he was seriously disenfranchising the Jewish people, who were not only Jesus’ people and his principal audience but also the people who had been promised back there in the Hebrew Bible that they had been chosen by God to be his people. Now suddenly Jesus is promising the whole earth to the gentiles?  Actually, the word “gentile” per se doesn’t occur in the Jewish or Christian bible, or in the Qur’an; it is a word from the Latin originally meaning “people” or “ethnic group” and applied in Latin translations of the Bible to mean “non-Jew” (people who don’t get a very good rap there, especially in the Old Testament). English translations, generally from the Latin texts, continue this usage, and more largely in English translations of other cultural texts it also stood in for “infidels,” or  “non-believers (in ______ [your faith here]).” When the Qur’an says “gentiles,” it means non-Muslims. And this continues even in texts originally English: To a Mormon, it can mean “non-Mormons.” Anyway, whoever these people are, like a doting lover Jesus is giving them the earth. The chosen-people-of-your-choice must be pretty frustrated.

Finally, those who are hungry and thirsty for righteousness are not going to get righteousness; they’re going to be turned into some kind of Soylent Green for those who, presumably, are less urgent about their desires. (My student might have meant “paid a stipend,” as in “feed” as the past form of “to fee,” or to pay. But I really don’t think he did mean that. How often do you hear college students use “fee” as a verb?) No, Jesus must have been giving the needy some straight talk: The rich get richer, and the full get fuller by munching their feed, those hungry-thirsty people. Literally serves them right, get me?

The Sermon ton the Mount. Not everybody looks happy...must be some non-Gentiles in the audience? This image, a nineteenth-century painting by Carl Bloch, can be found on a zillion Internet sites, one of which is

The Sermon on the Mount. Not everybody looks happy…must be some non-Gentiles in the audience? This image, a nineteenth-century painting by Carl Bloch, can be found on a zillion Internet sites, one of which is

“In the Aeneid the power of the Queen of Carthage is impressive…”

Yes, it is. The Carthage episode is the principal one in the Aeneid selections included in my World Lit I anthology, and since it brings together a lot of important aspects of the story as tale and as poem I like to take time on it. With Aeneas we gaze in amazement at the busy and sophisticated city of Carthage, still under construction; with him we look upon its Queen and marvel at her beauty, her wisdom, and her power. My student has clearly taken those aspects to heart.

The Queen’s name is Dido, and there is some debate about how to pronounce it—Latin (DEE-doh) or Britified (DIE-doh). In fact I comment on this and warn my students that I will try to consistently use the former but will probably slip into the latter, which was the pronunciation favored by the professor in whose class I first met The Aeneid.

I hope some students found this small digression interesting, especially in a class where we frequently comment on the losses consequent on reading material in translation rather than in its original language.

The student here, however, did not; or at least he did not absorb much from the actual pages of the epic, because he added not only a third pronunciation option but also quite a new spelling:

“In the Aeneid the power of the Queen of Carthage is impressive. She is described as a beautiful woman. Her name is Ditto.”

Now, I don’t know about you, but I always looked forward to the Sunday “funny papers.” If Wikipedia is to be trusted, I was four years old when Mort Walker created the comic strip Beetle Bailey. I could read the newspaper by myself at that age (indeed, at three!), but I didn’t make a regular practice of it. I think I started reading the funny papers around age six. And there, along with Nancy and Our Boarding House and Dennis the Menace and Dondi (Korean War orphan) and Little Orphan Annie (not a Korean War orphan, but ward of Daddy Warbucks) and the gorgeous Prince Valiant and the exotic Buck Rogers and the great role model Brenda Starr and the angular Dick Tracy and, blessedly, Peanuts, was Camp Swampy, populated by the lazy eponymous Beetle, the irascible Sergeant Snorkel and his faithful dog Otto, the luscious Miss Buxley, and  many others, including Beetle’s brother-in-law and sister, Hi and Lois, and their kids—Chip, Trixie, and the twins, Dot and Ditto. In 1954 Hi and Lois got their own strip, where their kids had plenty of room to shine; but they still occasionally visited Beetle, and Beetle occasionally visited them. In my mind, if your name is “Ditto,” you’re a chubby blond eight-year-old boy with nice parents, a lazy lowly GI uncle,  and a big dog (“Dawg”), and you have something to do with lazy soldiers.

For Aeneas, the murals adorning the walls of the temple of Juno in Carthage evoke tears for the destruction of Troy. For me, the name Ditto evokes neither wonder nor admiration—a queen named Ditto can’t be powerful or beautiful. Someone named Ditto lies prone on the Sunday carpet, coloring book in hand, shaggy dog nearby, and is visited by an uncle in sloppy fatigues.

For someone who wasn’t a devotée of the funny papers, “ditto” is the double dot, or an uncurly quotation mark, meaning “same as above.” And that’s not a very good name for a queen, either.

Blame student laziness (à la Beetle Bailey!) or AutoCorrect if you will, but this howler made its way onto my desk in a paper the student hoped would impress me. Impress me it did. I’ll never be able to think of Queen Dido without seeing those dots, and that little blond kid—dots over her head maybe, kid in her arms next to Aeneas’ boy Iulus.

Farewell, O tragic queen.

“Rip Van Wrinkle woke up after sleeping for twenty years.”

Most of my students bring to Washington Irving’s story an assumption that Rip Van Winkle slept for a hundred years. Irving was writing a folk tale (for The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent.), but today’s students have been raised on cartoon versions of fairy tales, and most people who fall asleep in fairy tales sleep for a century, I believe. Furthermore, today’s students are more likely to have seen an animated version of this story than to have read it in a book. And images of the famous sleep-off-the-gin-binge gentleman depict him as very old indeed, from the earliest images we have. Take a look, for example, at John Quidor’s painting. John should have known: he himself was born in Tappan, New York, just across the Hudson River from Washington Irving’s Irvington farm, “Sunnyside,” and not far from the site of Rip’s al fresco nap in the Catskills. How close to the thing itself can you get?

Rip Van Winkle, by John Quidor. You can see the original in the National Gallery; you can see this image courtesy of wikicommons.

Rip Van Winkle, by John Quidor. You can see the original in the National Gallery; you can see this image courtesy of wikicommons.

Now, observe him. Look how ancient he seems.

And I imagine that’s what was operating in the delightful mind of this student writer.

I happen to love the name “Rip Van Winkle.” It really does strike the American ear as very Dutch, appropriately enough for a resident of the banks of the lower Hudson River. I also think of winkles—first of all, the oyster-killing marine snails, themselves edible; then the verb for getting the little buggers out of their shells for a human snack. The periwinkle is one kind of winkle. The periwinkle is also a ground-cover plant with blue flowers, and I must thank the Crayola company for introducing me to “Periwinkle Blue” before I ever saw the flower (or the snail). Can you imagine Rip Van Winkle perhaps gradually disappearing beneath a carpet of periwinkles? What of all this free-associating did Irving want me to indulge in when he named his protagonist? Who can say? But the sound of the word and the creatures who share it as a name are small, unimportant (except perhaps to an oyster). Irving says Rip was fun-loving but “hen-pecked” (his term, not mine!) and consequently meek. And of course there’s “wink” sitting right there in the name: the flirtatious eye-twitch and also a name associated with naps: forty winks. The -le suffix makes it diminutive. Rip from-the-little-nap. Only twenty winks.

But my student had seen some cartoon version. Or perhaps he had gone to the National Gallery. Or maybe he had read the Classic Comic. In these depictions, Rip looks like a very very old man when he wakes. This despite the story, wherein Rip is father to two children when he wanders off into the Catskills and hoists a few with Henrik Hudson’s ghostly bowlers, and discovers on his return that the children have become adults. So he’s far from a sexagenarian when he begins his adventure, and hence far from a snowy-bearded old fogey when he returns. Irving also says that during his absence his beard has grown “a foot long,” indicating that he started off clean-shaven, and describes that beard as gray. But Quidor (and the other depictors) gives him a lot more than twelve inches of Van Winkle whiskers, all Santa-white.

So: when he wakes up, he has become, or taken on the appearance of, an old, old man, according to the pictures.

The village, the society, the culture have all changed a great deal during his absence. But that’s because the American Revolution has happened, not because things have been slowly evolving.

Anyway, you KNOW what’s coming. If any auto-correct was going on when my student was writing his paper, it was in his mind’s eye, not in the word-processing program.

There in Rip’s name, as on his face, wrinkles. Rip Van Wrinkle.

Well, of course.

Now, I dare you: Say my student’s version of the name three times, and then try to remember what Irving wrote.

“Her father, Creon, decides he will lie by her side…”

As promised, the other Medea horror.

In this version, my student makes King Creon out to be just about as selfless as Milton’s Adam, who accepts the apple from Eve and takes a bite so that whatever her fate may be, he will share it.

Creon really isn’t that kind of guy. He bosses Medea around and is quick to exile her, has no problem marrying his daughter to someone who’s already married, and is, like Creon of Thebes, full of himself. Euripedes certainly didn’t make him self-sacrificing or suffused with paternal love for Glauce.

But my student does:

“Her father, Creon, decides he will lie by her side and soak in the poison as well.”

My student conjures up a puddle of poison for Glauce to lie in (has it dripped down from gown and crown?), and then brings in Creon and stretches him out to share the bath—or to help her sop it up. Will he SOAK in the poison, or soak IN the poison? I’m not sure it matters much, except maybe to Creon. Can’t you just see him there, deciding to lie by her side? What alternatives does he consider before making his choice? “What shall I do, what shall I do?” he dithers; then, finally, “Ah! I will lie down and soak in the poison.” And is it sympathy that drives him, or jealousy? (“Why should she get all the attention?”)

In actuality, Creon does run to his screaming daughter and embrace her. But his intention is NOT to have his own flesh burned off upon contact with her poison-coated skin. Maybe he thinks he can save her; maybe he just wants to rock her and murmur “There, there.” But he doesn’t know that that one loving impulse is going to doom him to a horrible death. Ah well. Fate, the gods, and all that.

I’ve never liked either Creon much, and that may be why I don’t see the scene with the sympathy my student brings to it (or at least seems to bring to it).

I just wonder if Medea knew her poison would destroy so many of her enemies. She may be something of a monster, but to me she’s the aggrieved party, and a lot more sympathetic than any of those spoiled, self-centered Corinthians. I’m with her: “Let the whole house crash.”

Ah, excuse this bitter tone! It’s the middle of Finals!

“tubal ligation”

This is what three of my students did not write.

I commented the other day about students’ difficulty writing about various physical ailments, even when the terms are spelled out for them on assignment sheets. I have another group of examples today.

The case I asked students to write about involved a couple in Tennessee who were accused of molesting the woman’s two young sons. The presiding judge sentenced husband and wife to ten years in prison, but offered probation instead if the woman consented to a tubal ligation. Presumably if she had no more children there would be no one to molest….The state was also seeking permanent custody of their five children (one a new-born), noting that the mother came from a “very incestuous” family. After presenting a number of opinions from people involved in the case (including a comment that there was gender discrimination in this particular case since the husband faced NO consequences if his wife agreed to be sterilized) and some background on prison overcrowding, I asked my students to write in favor of or against making sterilization an alternative to prison for sex offenders, with the Tennessee case as their example.

The arguments covered a reasonable spectrum, but most students were critical of the judge’s “creative” solution, for one reason or another.

The biggest challenge in the assignment, it turned out, was specifying the nature of the sterilization procedure. It was stated, and defined, on the assignment sheet. How hard are those two words to spell? How can the act of tying off, by means of a ligature, the Fallopian tubes be confused with any other action? Here are three of the most popular variants:

“She must get a tubal litigation done to avoid going to prison.”

“She has been given the option of undergoing a tubule legation.”

“The woman agreed to the tubal legation.”

Legal procedures are invoked by way of “litigation.” The seriousness of the surgery is trivialized via “tubule,” a “small tube, esp. a slender elongated anatomical channel.” The “-bule” makes it such a little thing…. And of course we get that gang of men arriving in the “legation,” “a body of deputies sent on a mission, specifically to a foreign country and headed by a minister.” Foreign minister, not religious minister. At any rate, she seems to have consented to their visit.

“Undergoing” this legation must involve tedious receptions, perhaps onerous dependence on translators, serious overstaying of welcomes, and the like. Clearly the woman is the foreign country here, since the legation will be visited upon her. But where do the little tubes come in?

Not having been to law school myself, I don’t know what tubal litigation would be. “Tubal” is, properly, “of, relating to, or involving a tube and esp. a Fallopian tube,” although in relation to litigation the word might suggest a fanfare of tubas as the judge enters. How might litigation involve a tube? Do the attorneys beat each other with hoses? Do they speak through speaking tubes? Or is there a whole class of case law that applies to disputes over tubes, esp. but not limited to Fallopian tubes?

When I read about the Tennessee case in the newspapers, I was floored by the judge’s notions of justice. When I read about it in my students’ papers, I was floored by the bizarre pictures of those notions as conjured up by this procession of wrong words, perfectly spelled—quite in the tradition of Mrs. Malaprop. Make way for the tubule legation!

“She found her place in the social higher arky.”

Good for her!

Pre-Spellcheck, pre-Autocorrect, my student was working with a concept but evidently had never seen the word written down.

Well, actually, she may have seen it written down. In grad school I had a fellow student who presented a seminar paper that was full of the expression “I’ll bite.” At least that’s what I heard. I wondered why he was repeatedly inserting a jokey aside (isn’t it what we say when asked a riddle that we know has a humorous answer we can’t immediately come up with?) into a paper that was in every other way definitely boring and probably scholarly. Ever nosey, I asked him afterwards if I could see his paper. The word was “albeit”—of course, how scholarly an adverb! But he had evidently never connected the pronunciation “all-BE-it” with that German-looking collection of letters; and, although he had probably never heard another academic speaker say “I’ll bite”—or “Ah’ll Bite,” which was actually how he sounded—he did his best. Similarly, my student may have seen the word “hierarchy” without associating it with the term she kept hearing in various contexts, “higher arky.” She may have thought that word “hierarchy” was pronounced “hair-archie,” or “air-archy,” for all I know. Or “Here, Archie!” as Betty might have said to invite that merry lad to hit the floor with her at the sock hop.

I wonder what she thought an arky looked like, and then what would make a higher one. Is it anything like Noah’s ark, but cuter or smaller?

At least that would give the word the biblical spin it deserves.

I’ve been using “hierarchy” for a really long time, but it’s only this morning that I learned its derivation and full list of meanings. I have lived my life in hierarchical structures. I grade according to a hierarchy of skills and competencies. I know that way back when it had to do with holiness and with ruling, because I learned all my Greek and Latin roots, prefixes, and suffixes faithfully back in high school. and that’s where Webster’s begins too.

Its first meaning is “a division of angels.” That great list in, or amplified from, the Bible—Angels, Archangels, Principalities, Powers, Virtues, Dominations, Thrones, Cherubim, and Seraphim—is called the “choirs of angels” and has been divided further by the Fathers of the RC Church into three “hierarchies.” I guess if you’re going to buy into the Great Chain of Being, you have to account for all the links.

The second meaning Webster’s gives is “a ruling body of clergy organized into orders or ranks each subordinate to the one above it.” Great Chain continues.

The third meaning moves into the secular: “a body of persons in authority.” Presumably they too are ranked.

The fourth meaning allows the abstract or figurative: “a graded or ranked series,” such as spiritual virtues or the linked actions of a machine. Here is where a social hierarchy would fit, presumably, since social orders, while definitely ranked, don’t usually have official officers for each tier.

I’m touched that my student believes a person could “find her [or his] place” in a social hierarchy, though, or in any hierarchy for that matter. Everything I know about hierarchies suggests that the hierarchy does its own placement of newcomers.

An arky, on the other hand, might be discovered and selected by some young woman wandering by (I’m seeing Little Red Riding Hood, Gretel, or another of the traveling girls of fairy tales). Picture little Noah’s Arks, stacked one on top of another according to size, with the tiniest on top. Then picture LRRH—or Alice!— looking up at the tower of arks and choosing the one that seems most attractive, or most accommodating, to her. She proceeds to clamber up to “her place.”

Actually this does seem more American, somehow: the individual spotting the perfect place and then, dammit, going there!

More fun than a barrel of angels!

This single ark seems to have a higher arky of its own, with all those levels…
(image from

“The final part of the plot is the falling action and the denouncement.”

I’ve been saving this student’s Horror for exactly this moment—the end of the academic year. Major papers have been read, appreciated or lamented as the case may be, and graded; final exams ditto. Grades have been posted. And of course the students have had their fling at the anonymous Teacher Evaluation, the results of which I have not yet seen…but I’m sure there will be some denouncement!

I knew what she meant, having conscientiously and painstakingly written “dénouement” on the board as part of the mapping of a “traditional plot line” when we first discussed short stories. I’m sure that if she read the assigned introductory material in the textbook she would have encountered the exact same word. And I’m sure she copied it down to the best of her ability. Therein lies the problem.

This example comes from 2003. Did word-processing programs auto-correct in those days? I suspect not, although a spellcheck feature might have challenged such an exotic word as “dénouement,” with or without the accent.

As an aside, I must mention that many years ago, back in the 1980s, the computer lab available to our writing classes had a program that could assess the “writing level” of a text, primarily on the basis of the vocabulary. I ran a sample of my writing (one of my assignment sheets) and got “college level,” which I expected. I ran a sample from a student paper and got, if I recall correctly, “junior high school.” This was not much of a surprise, since the course was part of an alternative-admissions program; but in fact the student was a fairly savvy writer in terms of ideas, reasoning, and sentence structure, so I felt the computer wasn’t that good a judge of “writing.” And then, just out of curiosity, I ran a sample from a rough draft written by a student of mine who struggled with dyslexia. And the computer rated his writing “doctorate level,” or “genius,” or some other descriptor that suggested Off The Charts! Indeed, he was off the charts: he was using words not in the computer’s memory bank, and the computer assumed that meant he had a vocabulary so sophisticated and specialized as to be beyond its ken—ergo, smarter than a computer, and ergo, genius. (There was much to love and respect about this student, including his intelligence; but he was neither a genius nor a PhD, and the words he had intended to write would have kept him at or below grade level on the computer’s scale.) So much for the know-it-all attitude of Autocorrect and its minions!

Nowadays I would have to be impressed with a student who managed to get as close as “denouncement” to “dénouement” written on the board. I am now dealing with the first of I fear many generations unable to read cursive writing. This isn’t my assessment: it’s my students’ assessment, or rather their boast and their excuse—and their agony. Here’s the history of my discovery:

  • Many years ago, before the atrophy of my fine motor control over my finger muscles (consequent on the tyranny or luxury of writing on the computer), students used to marvel at the beauty and clarity of my handwriting. I prided myself on it, too, and occasionally supplemented my income with calligraphy gigs, including names on diplomas.
  • Then, as my Mac wrapped me more and more completely in its convenient and charming clutches, students began to say my handwriting was hard to read. I felt bad about that until I asked them to show me what they couldn’t read, and got this: “Oh. That says ‘ambiguous.’ “Yeah? That’s what it looked like to me. Is ‘ambiguous’ a word?”)
  • And this year, making the same enquiries in response to the same comments (“I can’t read your writing”), this is what I’ve been getting: “Oh! ‘Paragraph!’ I didn’t know what that middle letter was.” And, writing on the board, “What is that letter???” “It’s an ‘f.'” “What kind of ‘f’ is that?!?!” This makes sense of the comment I got one day from the World’s Most Gorgeous Cashier, at my local Trader Joe’s, when I handed him my check: “You have a nice signature. I’m damned if I’m going to let my kids not use cursive writing, no matter what the school says!”

So I’ve been talking to my students this year about “writing cursive.” Evidently, at least for most of them, they’re taught cursive writing in the third grade and then never asked to use it again—in some schools, told not to use it again. No wonder they all print on their exams and in-class essays, and no wonder they moan and groan about “hand torture” in the process. (Yes, I too used to moan and groan about hand torture, after writing non-stop for an hour or two. They start to m & g after about 15 minutes.) They claim that their teachers didn’t make them (or want them to) use cursive because “all the reading and writing we’ll be doing will be in print, on the computer, so who needs it?” I suspect that somewhere in the mix were a few ever-hopefuls who thought their papers would be more legible in what we used to call “printing” than in what we used to call “writing,” or “handwriting”; but if that’s the case, I’m here to tell them they’re dead wrong. Student scrawl is student scrawl, and it afflicts printing no less than it used to afflict writing.

Evidently I’ve gone somewhat astray on this post, which began with “denouncement.” What was responsible for the student’s error—inattention, some precocious computer speller, limited vocabulary, or inability to read? Whatever, I wrote down her sentence because, wrong though it was, it did seem to speak a deeper truth. Alas.

Writing according to the Palmer method. We all learned this in the third grade—and KEPT using it!—and the individual handwriting of most American adults has developed (or devolved) from this model. My students say they cannot read it. (From