Category Archives: political

“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!


“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.

“There are many laws that are trying to be passed…”

Another post on agency.

In the world of the student writer, people have curiously little power. Frequently, in fact, they seem to be standing in the way of abstractions that are struggling to achieve something.

Considering the current Congress, I’m tempted to agree with this student: there are laws the passage of which is being actively impeded by people who have decided to block them. Many of these hopeful laws have the support of a substantial majority of the American people, so in this sense they are trying to be passed. But grammatically and logically, no, laws can make no effort of their own.

My student has more than this in mind, too:

There are many laws that are trying to be passed that go on behind the scenes that people are not aware of.”

Do the laws go on behind the scenes, busily looking, perhaps, for a chink in the Congressional defensive line through which they can be passed? The first “that” seems to be referring to the laws.

The second “that” evidently refers to “scenes”: people are not aware of these scenes. Scenes where? The scenes of the defensive line? People are not aware of these scenes, but the struggling laws going on are?

I think my student meant that in committees and in congressional offices, unnoticed by CNN’s eye on the congressional floor and by other reporters, legislators are drafting laws; and that is true.

It’s not nearly as entertaining, though, as the picture of those laws—a whole multitude of them—busily but fruitlessly looking for a chink in the stonewall (sorry for the new metaphor!) between themselves and victorious passage out there in the light of day.

I hope they keep trying. Well, at least I hope the ones that have broad public support keep trying. If at first you don’t succeed….

“A teacher evaluation program can get rid of the teachers who are allowed to stay because of sonority.”

Well, teacher evaluation is here revealed for its real purpose: getting rid of teachers.

My student knows which ones should go: those who are allowed to stay because they are “1. producing sound (as when struck); 2. full or loud in sound; 3. imposing or impressive in effect or style.” (Thank you, Mr. Webster, for your New Collegiate Dictionary, 1973.)

I’m not sure whether these teachers have been allowed to stay because they’re sonorous, or are being gotten rid of because they’re sonorous: the sentence isn’t fully clear on that point. And it’s an important distinction—I want to know if the next time something or someone gives me a clout on the head, I dare cry out.

Presumably she means that these teachers have previously been kept on the faculty because of their sonority. But why wouldn’t that be a good argument for keeping them into the future? After all, we need teachers who produce sound (especially if the ideas they give voice to are also sound, forgive the pun…); and if that sound is full, loud, and impressive in style, wouldn’t that make the lessons all the more memorable?

Students must not like teachers who disrupt their naps and phone calls with loud and imposing noise, because my writer is confident such teachers would get the bad end of the evaluation stick. (Perhaps they’d be struck by it, and yell “OUCH!” or “Oh NO-O-O-o-o-o-…” as they hurtled through the air and off the campus.)

Speech that’s “impressive in style” is part of a now-outmoded image of professors, gone with the showpiece lecture that even students not enrolled in the class would crowd in to hear (at my college in my day, Professor Schiffman on Moby-Dick was one such attraction), gone with the notion that the professor’s “opinion” is somehow more credible than the sophomore’s, gone with the “gentleman’s C”—well, gone with a lot of things of value and some things best gone.

So in with Evaluation, out with sonority!

Yes, I knew she meant “seniority.” Maybe Autocorrect was to blame. Or maybe she doesn’t know the difference between seniority and sonority.

I happen to think that seniority is also often a pretty damned good reason for retaining a teacher. When senior faculty go, institutional memory also goes. Most students are on campus for four or five years; nowadays, the same is true of many an administrator. Why things are as they are, how they got that way, what mistakes have already been made and don’t need repeating, what good ideas might be tried again, how the “mission” has changed: these kinds of information generally don’t wind up published for all to read, but remain instead in the consciousness of those who have had the experiences; and these kinds of information—the past—can be very important as an institution considers its present and plans its future. The value of a seasoned member of the community isn’t limited to academe; the same can be said for most enterprises.

My student probably meant “ONLY because of sonority,” only because they had been on the faculty a long time (or only because they were loud).

Perhaps she imagined that seniority can bring senility with it, and a school certainly doesn’t want a senile faculty. But I see no “only” in her sentence. Does she want teachers booted out as soon as they turn fifty? Or forty? Or when they become “senior citizens”? Hard to say. I’m not sure she knows. She certainly doesn’t say.

In fact, she doesn’t say “seniority,” either. So: teachers, keep your voices down! Try not to be too impressive! And if someone or something comes along and strikes you, don’t you make a sound. Limit your sonority and you may achieve seniority some day.


“Keeping an elected Board of Education would help felicitate…”

You know he doesn’t mean “congratulate,” right?

Here’s the whole statement:

“Keeping an elected Board of Education would help felicitate the improvements of public schools.”

Well, somebody ought to congratulate the public schools when they improve.

I’m a product of public schools. I believe in public schools. I believe that they are not only essential preparation for democracy in a diverse society, but also the actual experience of democracy in a diverse society. My public schools gave me an excellent education, but they also provided me with the opportunity to learn from fellow students whose strengths and backgrounds didn’t match mine. I learned to respect other kinds of intelligence; I learned to be curious about and to respect other cultures; I learned to appreciate the whole person, not just the part I was competing with. A prep school might have given me more constant academic rigor; but why should a kid have to endure constant academic rigor—where’s the creative space in that? A private school might have given me deep-immersion experiences with my social peers—but I was a middle-class kid, and my social peers are mostly whom I spent my time with in public school anyway. Home-schooling might have offered me the diverse and challenging world of my parents, both professionals and both very interesting people—but hey, I got that at home. I treasure my public-school education, and I believe in the idea of universal public education. I lament that politicians and deluded parents and socioeconomic inequality are wrenching it away from what it could and should be.


My student was looking at a city that wanted to experiment with an appointed Board of Education. I agree with him that letting the mayor more or less dictate the nature of public education was probably a big mistake. To me it smacks of Consultants, and I have had my fill of consultants hired to “fix” something they didn’t understand but had a product to peddle to.

So I applaud my student’s intended idea. But clearly he didn’t write what he meant. He meant, as we all can surmise, facilitate. Was it AutoCorrect or Spellcheck that insisted on a congratulatory role for Boards of Education, or was it a student who knew what he meant but didn’t know how to spell it, or didn’t actually know what the word was? If a Board of Education can’t facilitate learning, can’t facilitate growth and progress, can’t facilitate improvement, what the hell is it for? And my student is accidentally right, too: a good Board of Education, made up of caring and knowledgeable people from the community, would also be confident enough to give credit where credit was due, which means that yes, they would from time to time felicitate the educators and students for a job well done.

“It left my blood boiled in cold water.”

Another student trying to express extreme emotion.

It’s a hard thing to do. I’ve been reading and listening today as people try to put their reactions to the latest senseless slaughter into words; I’ve been trying to express my own reactions too. Our vocabulary of horror and outrage is too small, and our culture has exploited it too often to hype fairly trivial things; language is less adequate than ever. (When we hear this kind of exchange every day—”Is there any ketchup?” “Yeah, here.” “Awesome”—how to describe the Grand Canyon, a major tornado, or God? When passing a healthcare bill is equated with the Holocaust, how can we think about the real Holocaust? When someone beholds a redecorated rec room and says “Oh My GOD!” how will she react to something worthy of such a powerful invocation?)

I don’t remember what event or literary situation or vision occasioned this student’s effort at strong language, but for a reader like me he achieved exactly the opposite of what he was trying for: he got helpless laughter.

Of course I knew what he meant. He was reaching into his brain for a figure of speech and accidentally grabbed parts of two, rather than one intact one. “It made my blood boil”—I was filled with rage.  “It made my blood run cold”—I was filled with a chilling horror.  He jams those two opposite figures of speech into one impossibility: a boiling coldness. The discordia concors, or paradox, so popular with Renaissance poets (“That is hot ice and wondrous strange snow. How shall we find the concord of this discord?” asks Theseus in A Midsummer Night’s Dream) that the lover simultaneously freezes and burns with passion is seemingly invoked here. “I freeze, I burn,” indeed.

But that isn’t actually what he’s saying. He’s saying that his blood was boiled in cold water. Sort of the opposite of the frozen dinners that come in pouches, ready for immersion in boiling water to become a delectable treat: here perhaps the blood is in a bag and, by some miracle, immersed in cold water in order to boil. Maybe the water has some dry ice in it and will bubble and steam?

No, this would not have worked in my physics lab when I was a student, and it really doesn’t work on my student’s paper now.

I can certainly sympathize with his effort to express, his inability to express, an emotion—rage, most likely, not love!—that has filled him and shaken him. I celebrate his ability to feel emotion so strongly.

And I also sympathize that his teacher was ultimately unable to approve the wording as well as the emotion. Still, there it is.

“He went into convolutions.”

No, this is not a description of Mitt Romney’s recent explanation of his relationship with Bain Capital.

It’s a student summarizing the sorry facts in a case I sometimes ask my classes to write arguments about: a family who were devout members of the Church of Christ, Scientist, and had been arrested for manslaughter after their young son died of an ailment that could have been remedied easily by surgery. Do the parents’ religious rights trump the child’s right to medical care and the state’s interest in protecting the lives of its citizens? It’s an interesting conflict.

Students generally make some good points in discussing this topic, but they have a lot of trouble with describing the illness. I’ve written in earlier blogs about students’ difficulty with talking coherently about death; they also seem to run into trouble with various other physical situations.

In this case, the boy died of the consequences of a bowel obstruction. I haven’t assigned the topic in a while because I can no longer bear the suspense wondering which variation of this condition I’m going to encounter next: “bowel destruction”? “bowl obstruction”? (The fact that they have the specifics of the case, correctly spelled, on a sheet before them as they write justifies my unsympathetic reactions of hilarity, frustration, and exasperation!)

Anyway, the parents prayed over their little boy, and when their prayers seemed inadequate they called in elders from the church to pray with them. Every day the child’s condition worsened; and shortly before he died, he went into convulsions. Or, as my student imagines it, convolutions.

I have to jump in here and say that I haven’t assigned this case since the invention of AutoCorrect, so we have to accept these interesting variations as the students’ own.

Here’s Mr. Webster: “Convulsion: an abnormal violent and involuntary contraction or series of contractions of the muscles; an uncontrolled fit.” And here: “Convolution: a convoluted form or structure. Convoluted: rolled or wound together with one part upon another; folded in curved or tortuous windings.”

The words share little beyond “conv–ion” (also sharing it: convention, conviction, conversion, conversation, convocation—so what?), but Agatha Christie’s description of the convulsions that ensue from strychnine poisoning does seem to bring them together—the body arching almost into a hoop, rolled or wound together. In the situation my student is trying to describe, though, no strychnine is involved and “convolutions” is definitely not the right word, regardless of the question of whether the small intestine might legitimately be described as convoluted (it is folded back on itself in curved and tortuous—that is, “marked by repeated bends or turns,” nothing to do with pain—windings), but that’s the normal arrangement, not a pathology.

I think we have to rule out going into convolutions as a description of physical agony.

But it’s very handy for describing the behavior of politicians. Or, okay I admit it, professors.

I will stop with that, before I feel another convolution coming on.