Category Archives: RAB waxes…

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


“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:

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

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



This solitary word appears in a margin of one page of my current (5-year span) gradebook. When I wrote it down, or what the context was, or even what course the writer was taking I cannot say. Most likely this is from a first-year student, since their writing topics tend toward social issues rather than literary criticism. But lacking a context of any kind, I can say nothing much about the writer’s intent.

Oh, certainly I knew she meant “hypocrisy,” and I sympathize with anyone who has trouble spelling that, since it seems so strange on the page. I used to look it up almost every time I had to write it, until I taught myself simply to make sure what I wrote “looked wrong”: that more or less guaranteed that I had made the correct spelling choices.

In fact, using various “ends-in” sites just now I have been able to find no other word that ends in -crisy, unless I count “acrisy,” offered by one site but not recognized by my friend Mr. Webster. No wonder “hypocrisy” looks so wrong.

On the other hand, asking for words ending in -crACy yields FIFTEEN words: to wit, “aristocracy autocracy bureaucracy democracy gerontocracy hierocracy meritocracy mobocracy monocracy ochlocracy pantisocracy plutocracy stratocracy technocracy theocracy.” And thus my joy in my student’s word…

…because we ALL know that the suffix “cracy” means “form or philosophy of government” or “rule by a particular group,” the group being defined by the root word. An aristocracy is a government by aristocrats. A bureaucracy is a government by bureaucrats. A democracy is government by the demos, or people, or by democrats, those who favor rule by the people. A theocracy is a government by gods or their representatives.

So a hypocracy must be a government by hypos…or by hypocrites, no? Although I guess we’d have to call them “hypocrats” in order to conform to the pattern of the other -cracies.

“Hypo”by itself means “under,” but I doubt that a hypocracy would be a government by underlings; it might be a government by people who are somehow undercover, though—concealing their true selves under some charade or façade. There’s a word for that:  “hypocrite,” which, as Webster says, is “one who affects virtues or qualities he does not have,” someone practicing hypocrisy— “a feigning to be what one is not or to believe what one does not, especially the false assumption of an appearance of virtue or religion.”

Watching the antics during the maiden week of the 114th Congress of the United States, I can think of no better word for the philosophy of government they seem to be espousing than hypocracy.

See if this term comes in handy for you in your social and political discussions this year. I believe I will be using it a lot. Alas.

“Detroit does see a lot of repeat visitations from tourists.”

My student was following the money woes of Detroit as his Journal project (“follow an issue in the news for seven weeks, selecting and summarizing articles on multiple sides of the issue, and then write an argument essay that takes a position on the issue and supports it with evidence and reasoning” is more or less the assignment).

This sentence is from his summary of an article talking about the viability of Detroit as a “destination.”

Of course I noted “wrong word!” in the margin. And then I took another look at the article—and found that the reporter had also referred to tourist “visitations.” How, then, can I blame my student?

I can lament his not knowing that “visit” and “visitation” do not (yet) have the same meaning, but I also have to acknowledge that people who don’t read a lot—and especially people who don’t read certain kinds of things a lot (legal papers, ghost stories, confessional tales)—haven’t had a lot of opportunities to learn this.

For those of us who do read those certain kinds of things, and/or the dictionary, the words are distinct.

A “visit” is a “short stay,” or a journey combined with a short stay. It might also be a search by a naval officer on the high seas, but we’ll leave that alone.

The fun comes with the verb “to visit.” It can mean “to pay a call on”; it can also mean “to comfort, as by God,” “to reside with temporarily as a guest,” “to go to see with a particular purpose,” “to go officially to inspect or oversee”—AND “to inflict a scourge upon, as by God,” “to avenge, as in visit one’s wrath upon,” or “to present momentarily or be overcome by,” as to be visited by a strange notion.

These latter verb senses seem to inhabit the noun “visitation”: “an official visit as for inspection,” “a special dispensation of divine favor or wrath,” “a severe trial or affliction,” “a right granted to the non-custodial parent in a divorce.”

Another meaning adheres by way of the noun “visitant”: a visitor, especially one thought to come from the spirit world. Or a migrant bird that regularly visits a particular site.

These definitions all come from my handy Webster’s, but a quick tour around online dictionaries pretty much bears out these demarcations.

So when I read about tourist visitations to Detroit, I imagine ectoplasmic sojourners wafting in on the easterly breezes, possibly at the summons of some benevolent (or malevolent) psychic in the public-relations office. And then of course I imagine Detroit besieged by them, the air thickened and the atmosphere begloomed by them, a plague of touring ghosts. Have they come on an official inspection tour, or to reward or punish, or simply to haunt? That we are not told; we know only that they come more than once. As if Detroit didn’t have enough problems.

A visitation by only one ghost, preferably one who still believed in democracy and public property and was willing to punish incompetent or irresponsible management, would perhaps be a blessing. If the ghost were especially whimsical or frolicsome he or she might even contribute to the economy by becoming an attraction for visits by ordinary tourists!


“Beowulf, like Everyman, accepted death towards the end of his life.”

That’s a pretty good time to accept it.

Actually, both of them fully accept death AT life’s end, not TOWARDS it. Furthermore, Beowulf makes a beginning at acceptance quite early in life, whereas Everyman waits until the last minute.

We see Beowulf as heroic partly because he accepts even in youth the very real possibility that he will die in one of his exploits. Wrestling with the ferocious and powerful Grendel in the Danes’ mead hall is fraught with danger; but even though Beowulf acknowledges this, he insists on meeting Grendel in barehanded single combat; although a dozen hand-picked Geats stand ready to assist him, he sees the battle as HIS fight. Either he will prevail, thus saving the lives of countless Danes and relieving King Hrothgar of the burden of guilt AND at the same time enhancing his own reputation for strength and courage; or he will fail, and failure means death of a particularly gruesome kind. Similarly, when he takes a sword and pursues Grendel’s mother into her underwater cave to avenge her (revenge-) killing of Hrothgar’s best friend, he tells his Geats and the Dane warriors assembled at the brink of the mere that he goes into this alone, and their only task is to watch and, if necessary, report his death. Fifty years later, when he goes to fight the dragon who has been despoiling his kingdom after a drunken lout disturbed the treasure-hoard the dragon existed to guard, he acknowledges that he will probably die in the attempt but insists that he must fight alone. Young Wiglaf enters the fight after the dragon has wounded Beowulf, but although he manages to wound the dragon he leaves the last knife-thrust for Beowulf. Both hero and dragon die as a result of this battle; but before Beowulf dies he distributes some of the treasure from the hoard among his people and gives them some good advice (through Wiglaf)—in effect, he makes his will. His people mourn him greatly, a “good king” who has ruled wisely and fairly. Beowulf, though, accepts death with the same grace with which he has accepted success before: it is in his nature to accept death.

This is nothing like the way Everyman “accepts” death, especially towards (as distinct from at) the end of his life. When God sends Death to Everyman to set him on the road to his final accounting at the grave, Everyman tries to talk Death out of it, asking him to come back later, give him just a little more time…. Death being adamant, Everyman then bemoans the terrible state of his accounting book and tries to persuade a series of friends and relatives to go with him to buck him up on the journey. They all refuse (one pleads a sore toe!); he sets out, but continues to ask such friends as Beauty and Strength to come along. He manages to restore Good Deeds to health after much too much neglect, and he embraces the promise of salvation and confesses his sins; he can’t actually be accurately said to “accept” death until the very end, though—his attitude is closer to resignation than acceptance.

So my student is wrong two ways: both on the timing of the acceptance of death, and on the similarity of this acceptance. She should have known better than to try to equate a HERO with an EVERYMAN, or “typical person.”

What an interesting discussion could have developed from a comparison between the two characters. She might have speculated on the relative philosophical stances of a hero and an everyday kind of guy, or on the role of an afterlife on the way a Christian should live life as handled by a (probably) Christian monk writing about a pre-Christian hero, and another (probably) monk several centuries later writing about a not-very-diligent Christian. She could have discussed the value of remembering the inevitability of death (memento mori) even when life is at its richest, comparing Beowulf’s integrity even in his youthful adventures to Everyman’s moral and religious laxity until the last minute (“O Death, thou comest when I had thee least in mind”). What conclusions she might have reached I don’t know, since I admit I’ve only begun to think of these possibilities as a result of writing today’s post on today’s horror. But they seem to be worth exploring nevertheless.

Making a hasty generalization about a vaguely defined moment is not the way to find the road to revelation: I do know that.

Sometimes I look back on my college career and lament the opportunities I missed: courses I might have taken, papers I might have given more thought to, heights I might have reached…. I know we all have such regrets. It breaks my heart that my students seem to amass regrettable moments so quickly, and at such a trivial level, where they could instead have let themselves be tempted into taking more glorious risks.

Well, anyway, she sighed.

Let us accept the inevitable things while we can still throw joy at them.

“The question that is always wondered in everyone’s mind is…”

So the verb here is “to be wondered.” Do we have yet another inanimate agent? Not sure, because the question is wondered; that is, it is wondered by something, and that thing is the agent. The agent is certainly unclear, though: the wondering takes place in everyone’s mind, so the mind itself can’t be doing the wondering. Could the question be presenting itself to be wondered…by whatever else happens to be in the mind?

I suppose if my student had included a preposition—”the question that is always wondered about“—the phrase wouldn’t seem quite so bizarre, although the matter of agent would still be up for grabs, or for gropes in the dim recesses of the mind. Wondered about by whom or what?

Perhaps one of my readers more thoroughly informed in grammatical terminology can name this error. I throw up my hands, then put them down again and grab a pen so I can write “awkward and unclear” in the margin and move on.

And so, on to the question itself:

“The question that is always wondered in everyone’s mind is ‘Whose fault is obesity?'”

I had assigned five essays on the “American obesity epidemic” for the week’s reading. Apparently my student generalized from those examples and assumed that everyone was thinking about the issue, all the time. Now, as a perennially-dieting person from the age of eleven on, I probably think about obesity more than a lot of other people do—and I don’t think about it all that much, at least compared to the other things I think about. I especially don’t spend a lot of time wondering whose fault it is. Two or three of the assigned readings did place blame: one accused the weak-willed or perverse individual; one accused pleasure-pushing fast-food joints; a third accused a hurried and thoughtless society that offered few convenient alternatives to junk food. It’s tempting here to echo a wonderful song by Jo Carol Pierce (Bad Girls Upset with the Truth) and add “I blame GOD!” But none of the readings did that…

So my student wasn’t really far off the mark, and an effort at more precise diction would have produced a more effective opening to a (probably accurate-enough) essay of his own. The quarrel I have with him is that he spawned that horribly awkward and unclear noun clause and then went blithely on with his verb of being and ill-defined predicate-nominative question. And that’s the sentence he used to launch an essay that staggered its way through a similarly awkward and ill-defined discussion.

I really, really believe that taking more time on that first sentence would have given him some control as he went forward.

Did he read what he had written? In the small draft-reading circles, did any of his partners object to, or ask about, this sentence? Or, horrible to contemplate, was this phrasing the result of polishing something even rougher as he finalized his paper to turn in?

All these speculations are too depressing as the second week of the semester chugs along and my brand-new first-years toil over Essay Number One, Draft One.

Many years ago, a professor on whom I had a blinding, suffocating crush came into class the day after, we later learned, his wife had left him and commented à propos of nothing that “Hope was the last thing released from Pandora’s Box…the last evil, and the worst.” I tell myself this characterization was as wrong as it was unorthodox, as I gaze hopefully at my students.

“Unfortunately she received tuberculosis.”

Bummer of a present, eh? Everybody else received toys for Christmas, but unfortunately she received tuberculosis. “Unfortunately” is right!

Whatever happened to “contracted”? Isn’t that the fancy word for “got” when it comes to diseases?

Maybe, for a person who has risky habits or hangs out in risky habitats, “developed” would work.

“Caught” would work too, of course. Tuberculosis is an infectious disease, and so one could logically catch some germs as they flew through the air.

We kids used to “come down with” things. We knew that coming down with the measles was different from coming down from school with a friend, or coming downstairs with a Teddy bear; we understood how to use this clear and functional phrase. And it had a logic to it, too. In our family a genuinely sick child got to spend the days on the livingroom couch, cuddled under a Crazy Quilt lovingly stitched by an ancient family friend named Martha (“which is your favorite patch?” could pass any amount of time), forehead regularly touched by Mommy’s cool hand, lovely little food treats periodically appearing (who else has eaten butter lumps rolled in sugar for a sore throat?). This meant, of course, coming downstairs instead of languishing remote and alone upstairs in one’s bedroom. We were sick; we “came down.”

And, in the vernacular, “got.”

Is this where my student went wrong? Did he check a thesaurus for fancy words meaning “get” and find “receive”? I suppose that’s possible, although I would have expected that he would then test it by ear: “Have I ever heard anybody use ‘receive’ in this way? Have I ever heard of anyone ‘receiving’ an illness? Well, NO! So I guess it won’t work…” But no such internal monologue seems to have occurred, and in it went.

The expression cannot, I tell myself, be part of anyone’s dialect—family or regional. Can you picture the excuse-note sent in by someone’s mother—”Anthony missed school yesterday because he unfortunately received a sore throat”—?

The only thing my student received from me was a comment that “received” was the “WW,” or “wrong word,” in this sentence, with a notation in the margin that it was not an idiomatic usage. If he paid attention to the comment, receiving it will have been fortunate.

“The majority of sources that came across my path…”

That fragment isn’t a teaser; it’s all I wrote down. I’m sure my student finished the sentence somehow—”were useful”? “were hard for me to understand”? “seemed irrelevant”? “gave the same information”?

No matter. This is yet another instance of the passive student in a world of lively inanimate objects.

Here I am, sitting in the library (perhaps, or in my bed with my laptop before me), hoping to work on a paper for which I am supposed to do research. I am sitting here, evidently, passively and hopefully.

And sure enough, along the aisles come parades of sources. Can you see them? Slim books, fat books, bound periodicals, videotapes, microfiche cards… Or, if I’m sitting at my computer, here they come like pop-up ads and streaming banners: links, excerpts, full-text articles, YouTube screens… In either case, they’re all headed for ME, traveling at right angles to my gaze, or to my assigned task.

And I just sit there. Or maybe I get up and walk a step or two—not sure if my “path” is figurative or literal.

All those sources come across my path. I seem not even to have summoned them, let alone located and seized them for my use. I reckon I’m pretty lucky—had I sat in a different section of the library, or opened my laptop at a different time, I would probably have missed the parade, since the sources weren’t actually ever coming to me: they were just coming across my path. They would have marched along to their intended destination, and I would have been luckless and sourceless. My paper might have failed to be completed! My grade might not have been able to pass!

Such writing suggests that the world of today’s student, or today’s young adult, is curiously random, a place where things happen to people rather than being the result of anyone’s actions or choices. Flotsam on the sea of life, without what we currently call “agency.”

What ever happened to that conviction of responsibility and purpose that infused us Back In The Day, when we thought we could make the world a better place just by making an impassioned effort? (And we succeeded, too, to a point…)

Those were the days when research was a pursuit—legwork as well as head-work. And damn, it was fun.


“An estimated 1.7 million to 3.4 million American women once were or are now married…”

In celebration of today’s dumping of DOMA by the Supremes (5-4), this garbled statement. It begins so authoritatively, with its statistics and alternatives (“once were or are now married”…); then it loses its grip entirely and falls into chaos:

“An estimated 1.7 million to 3.4 million American women once were or are now married to men who have found that their husbands have homosexual tendencies.”

According to this student, then, gay marriage has been going on for quite some time, and has been quite widespread, and some of the men in those marriages have also had bigamous marriages (not sure “bigamous” is quite the word, but I don’t know what would be better) to American women. Evidently those men were not originally aware that the men they had married had “homosexual tendencies,” either; they’ve just found that out. I’ve never met anyone in this complex situation, but I should be reassured by those statistics that such ménages à trois exist somewhere.

The problem is, of course, the relative pronoun “who.” If she had gone directly from “who” to “have,” she would have been fine. Or if she had written “and” instead of “who,” she’d be okay, although not very graceful. But in her sentence the “who” must modify its direct antecedent, which is “men,” and “their” should refer to the nearest appropriate noun, which again has to be “men.” The husbands of the men married to the women.

I’ve written before about sentences that invite the reader to imagine the writer deeply engrossed in a thought and then unexpectedly interrupted—perhaps by suppertime, perhaps by an alien invasion, perhaps by a fit of despair, perhaps by a bothersome roommate—to resume the sentence upon returning without rereading it. This is that kind of sentence.

I can’t recall where my student took the essay from this amazing statement; I’m not even sure what the assigned topic was.

I’ll just be grateful that, going forward in our nation, men “with homosexual tendencies” will not have to enter into complicated relationships, including heterosexual marriages, for the sake of social acceptance or insurance benefits. No matter what strange sentences my students write on various subjects hereafter, this is one sentence that will not appear again.