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This is killer-father again.
In class discussion we explored ideas that might explain the probated sentence. Because I require that students defend that sentence, I try to get them to see the story from angles they might not have thought of. One is the possibility that the judge felt prison would be too easy for the father to handle—certainly easier than having to stay in the house where he had shared such happy times with his son—and so chose probation as the harsher punishment. Another is the possibility that the judge saw the father as confused and well-meaning and therefore not deserving of prison, and saw probation as the more humane punishment.
To develop the latter, I try to walk students through a story that might explain the father’s claims that “any use of drugs is dangerous” and that he had to save his son from a certain horrible end. To do that, I remind them (or inform them) of the “This is your brain on drugs” commercial, all the Law and Order scenes of discovering teens dead in crack houses, and all the claims that marijuana use leads inexorably to addiction to “harder stuff.” Then I explain the idea of logical fallacies and present the “slippery slope” fallacy.
You know what that is: an argument or interpretation based on the claim that one step in the wrong direction is inevitably followed by a process of sliding downhill to a dire conclusion.
No matter how carefully I explain this, a lot of students make statements later that suggest they have a literal slope in mind and that people slide down it simply because it’s there.
My student has made this assumption:
“He worried that his son would fall down the slippery slope and end up in a world of drugs.”
Notice that this young man is going to take a regular tumble, not merely slide. I get the picture of a rather Jack-and-Jill hill, with the son just beginning to tumble down it toward a little drug city at the bottom. No shrubs or outcroppings offer handholds or brakes along the way; the tumbler evidently falls, without thought or effort, down a slick mudpath.
My student (and many like him) completely overlooks the term “fallacy,” substituting a presumption of fact. I enjoy figurative language, but this landscape is mixed and unrealistic.
Max Shulman, in his Dobie Gillis story “Love Is a Fallacy,” does a better job than I at demonstrating the whole idea of the logical fallacy. I used to teach it; I should put it back on the reading list.
No new youknewwhatimeant posts for the weekend. I’m tied up here:
If you’re within reach of Connecticut, it’s worth a trip!
Back with my Horrors on Monday or Tuesday.
We all know what he meant. And the sentence actually sort of says it. BUT!
I try to discourage students from beginning sentences with “There are” (or “there” plus any verb of being, seeming, or becoming). In a language the most common sentence structure of which is subject-verb-object, readers and writers alike generally place the most emphasis on the first two or three words of a sentence. The “there are” structure uses what I call a “place-keeper word” (Webster’s labels it a “function word” but I’m more basic) in the position of, and in the grammatical role of, the subject and follows it with a verb that is no more than an equal sign, a static rather than active word. So the writer blows the main engine of the statement as the reader idles, waiting for the noun that is the conceptual subject of the sentence to complete the equation and open into an adjective clause that may actually say something. There are times when such a structure is useful (voilà), but it is never interesting or energetic. And still my students, perversely smitten by sheer love of it, use it again and again—I’ve read essays where two thirds of the sentences began “There are” or “There is.” (A lot of the rest began “This is,” a weak structure for some of the same reasons and some others as well.)
Having begun “There are,” this student must stagger forward: “only so many chances.” How many? Well, perhaps we can accept this phrasing, which while refusing to state the limit at least establishes that a limit exists.
Now we have to make clear that these chances don’t merely sit waiting for something to happen; they are conferred, or conceded, or granted, or permitted. Let’s take the most boring of all the possible terms and say “given.” It doesn’t really matter: any choice here is going to have the same weakness, which is that it’s going to be a past participle of an action verb, which means the reader becomes curious about who is doing the conferring, conceding, permitting, granting, or giving. In other words, to the static sentence we have now added a note of passivity.
Instead of providing someone to do this giving etc., my writer has shifted his focus to another invisible unexpressed entity, one engaged in doing a present participle: “making mistakes.” Mistakes are being made, and chances are being given. By whom, and by whom? And the chances are evidently being given while the mistakes are being made, which isn’t what the student really had in mind, I don’t think. But consequently, we have to wonder if the chances run out before or after the mistakes have finished being made.…I suppose this suspense might be considered a type of engagement, something the sentence otherwise resists.
But he pushed through his sentence somehow, and now he’s done and can place that period, that dot of relief, and move on to another thought. Whew.
So what did he mean? Easy: Three strikes and you’re out. Or: Keep starting your sentences with “There are” and eventually the professor is going to run out of patience and flunk you. Or: Surgeons who can’t tell “right” from “left” are going to run out of patients.
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!
This morning just browsing through an old journal, I came upon a limerick (one of my favorite literary forms) on, I guess, spelling.
In haste because of end-of-semester grading and other rituals, I ask your indulgence as I present this 1978 ditty:
How strange this mysterious rite
Whereby some people learn how to write…
Because when Shakespeare wrote
He did not learn by rote:
Playwrights just get the writing rite right.
If this isn’t enough self-indulgence/ spelling whimsy for you, you might revisit my other masterpiece.
Mind your Ps and Qs!
This is hot off the presses.
This semester, second half of freshman comp, my students are responsible for putting together small literary anthologies on a theme of their choice. So that we can together explore the conventions, expectations, and delights of the various literary genres and thus so that students understand how to talk about the pieces they have chosen, I put together a small anthology of my own: this is called “The Common Reader.” Using (mostly) out-of-copyright texts, I assembled works that I love, to present a variety of forms, tones, and techniques as well as a variety of literary experiences; all students have copies of this little book, and we supposedly discuss selections in class. When we’re working with poetry they have 4 to 8 poems assigned in a week; with short fiction they have 2 to 3 stories per week; there is only one play in the anthology, and we not only read it but also watch a video of a production (directed by me some years ago) of the play, so we can talk about how various aspects of performance and stagecraft realize a dramatic text.
Considering the amount of reading I assign in my literature-survey classes, this is an amazingly light reading load, but I want to leave students enough time to do the searching and reading for their own projects.
So I blithely go into class. The school is considered “highly selective,” the students have presented strong high-school grades (and SATs) to get in, and the students describe themselves as highly motivated (and seem to be motivated particularly by grades, no surprise there). They all expect me to give them A for the course, and I do mean “give,” alas. Anyway, blithely, in I go, to talk about these wonderful works with my eager students.
Why don’t they want to talk too? Discussions always seem to be between me and three or four students, while the others sit there—perhaps writing some things down, perhaps looking fixedly at their desks or the floor, perhaps watching the conversation. I always start with “easy” questions, in order to lead from those answers into more sophisticated issues, but most students don’t seem to want to answer the easy ones. I assure them that yes, I do know the answers are obvious, but we have to start with them anyway. They still don’t answer. I suggest that they’re toying with me, feigning ignorance in order to have a secret chuckle at my gullibility. They still don’t answer. Finally, I ask how many have read the assignment.
Well, at least they’re honest. The hands of the talkers go up; everyone else just gazes at me, or the floor, with expressions ranging from guilt or challenge, through cheerful indifference, all the way to what looks like coma.
On the first day of any class, students ask if I give “pop quizzes.” I say I hate them, don’t believe in them, am not trying to catch students out, am not into punishment; then I say that on rare occasions I do feel the need to give one.
Last week I gave a quiz, but it wasn’t a pop quiz. The week before, faced with three whole short stories to read, almost all my students admitted to having read none. So on the Friday (it’s a Tues/Fri class), I told them that the next Tuesday there would be a quiz on that week’s assignment (TWO stories), and so they should be prepared to answer questions about the stories’ details, including vocabulary (an area where they have shown an amazing lack of curiosity or diligence all semester). And give the quiz I did. There were only two questions (of 20) that I considered challenging (“What color is Mangan’s sister’s dress?” and “What is a ‘come-all-you’?”). Most of the questions addressed these two stories, “Araby” and “Miss Tempy’s Watchers”; but I did tack on a few about the previous week’s stories, asking questions that I had also asked in class that week.
For “Araby,” one of my questions was “What is a throng?” (“I imagined that I bore my chalice safely through a throng of foes,” says the narrator.) A number of students answered that it was “a group of people”; only a few gave me an answer that I could give full credit: “a large group of people.” Of course I had hoped for “a crowd of people,” or “a mass of people,” since the boy is moving through a noisy, chaotic, crowded open-air marketplace at the time.
And then there were the other answers.
I feared answers that mistook “throng” for “thong,” but didn’t get any of those. I did get “a tool to pick something up” (tong, I imagine) and, from two students, “a musical instrument” (one of them explained more fully: “a large symbol or drum thing that you beat”). Okay, gong, throng, what’s the diff?
In the same story, the narrator’s aunt hopes that Araby, the bazaar the narrator wants to go to, is “not some Freemason affair.” Now, if you didn’t know what “Freemason” was, wouldn’t you take a moment and look it up? I got not one single correct answer to my “what does the aunt mean by ‘some Freemason affair’?” Here are some things a Freemason affair might be, according to my students:
- a lost cause
- a corrupting event
- running secret errands for an organization
- an underground secret society [maybe he looked it up sort of]
- a chaotic bizarre
- an unsupervised event
- somewhere with no rules
- some waste of time due to lust & desire
- a market where everyone runs around
You will also have noticed that a throng is a symbol that you beat, and a Freemason affair might be a bizarre.
Perhaps the Freemasons, or Masons, do seem like an underground society for students at a Catholic-affiliated school. Perhaps the school’s affiliation is also a partial explanation for my students’ knowledge of Bible stories and archetypes, a knowledge that I would describe as sketchy at best. And perhaps that’s why the parable of the Prodigal Son, which had been one of the previous week’s short stories, seemed so new to them.
We read it in the King James Version, which, I explained, was always the Bible translation preferred by readers of literature, partly because of its Shakespearean lyrical beauty and partly because it was the version most commonly read by the English writers of the 17th, 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries and therefore most commonly quoted or alluded to by them. I took time to talk about the meaning of “prodigal,” and I also lingered over the feast the father ordered up for his wandering boy: “the fatted calf.” “Mmmmm, veeeal!” I exclaimed. “Free-range!” And “Doesn’t ‘fatted’ sound more tasty than ‘fattened’?” Anyway, “Kill the fatted calf” is, after all, a phrase that has entered common parlance, even for people who might not remember the parable of the Prodigal Son.
Many years ago, after a class had left the room I noticed that someone had left a notebook behind. Curious to see what this good student had gotten out of a class session that I had found pretty interesting, I peeked in…and found every joke and anecdote I had used to lighten or illustrate the presentation, and not one other thing. So in the case of this quiz, I expected that “fatted calf” would have lingered in the class’s memories even if nothing else had, because I had made such a dramatic issue of it. Silly me, I thought I was giving them a gift in asking them what the father ordered killed for the feast.
- a lamb
- the best goat
- a fattened cow
- the fattest calf
- a fattened calf
- the fattest cow
- a pig
- the fattened pig
Four people got it right. I gave “calf” half-credit, whether it was “fattest” or “fattened.” “Cow” might be a reasonable answer, if the calf had aged while waiting for the son to return, but I couldn’t accept it anyway. “Lamb” is a really good guess if you’re talking about the Old Testament, because of all those shepherds. And maybe, just maybe, I can blame the school’s Catholic affiliation for students who would assume that a good Jewish father would ever order pig for dinner.
But at a Catholic-affiliated school I would have expected everyone to be able to define “chalice.” Many could; but I also got “a kind of drinking glass,” “a small cup,” and, remarkably, “a medallion worn as jewelry.” Is there some organization whose members wear a medallion that depicts a chalice? Could be, but if so, I don’t know of it.
Well, so much for my fantasies about my students’ eagerness, diligence, or playful refusal to admit their knowledge. I asked 20 questions and had expected to score each answer 5. Halfway through my first section’s quiz I noticed all the blank spaces and announced that each answer was worth 4 and I would give them the remaining 20 points for free, just for showing up (several students had cut the quiz). With that scoring policy, just four students, out of two classes combined, scored above 60.
If this is the future, give me the past!
Well, buck up, Prof. Maybe the quiz will have shaken them up a bit (although yesterday’s discussion of the play showed no such thing, even after they had watched it).
For now, I will just ride off into the sunset, proudly wearing my chalice, beating my thong, and hoping to dine this evening on the best goat before I engage in a waste of time due to lust & desire.
Four vocabulary quibbles in an eight-word sentence. Not bad.
“Unsuitable” is one of those words we’ve fallen in love with as a culture. It is so broadly applied as to be meaningless, almost as bad as “inappropriate,” its near-synonym: throwing your food on the floor is unsuitable; hitting your brother in the eye is inappropriate; bouncing checks is inappropriate; shaking your finger in someone’s face is unsuitable; using the wrong fork is inappropriate; calling your professor “Babe” is unsuitable; wearing hiking boots with a formal gown is inappropriate (unless you’re a fashionista); swimming naked in a public pool is unsuitable (ending a list with a pun is irresistible).
“Explicit” is one of those shortenings, a versatile word that now has acquired a specific meaning it didn’t use to have. A stand-alone adjective, this word used to require an adverb to customize it beyond its basic wonderful meaning (free of vagueness, unambiguous, fully stated), unless it itself was serving as an adverb to modify a verb or another descriptor, because some things should be explicit. “He was warned explicitly not to stick his fingers in the blender” would be a case in point. Otherwise, the description of a location might be topographically explicit, stage directions in a script might be directorially explicit, and books or films categorized as pornographic would be sexually explicit. But eventually, evidently, the preponderance of uses of “explicit” coupled it (oh, pardon me again!) with “sexually,” thus justifying dropping the “sexually” and just limiting the usage to mean “sexually explicit.” At least I’d hope that’s what my writer meant to say, because I would certainly hope articles and editorials in newspapers, even school newspapers, would be factually explicit, rather than dealing in vague assertion and innuendo.
I don’t think my student meant sexually explicit context, though. That would describe a school newspaper that was all explicit sex, with any news articles written in that context (and, presumably, “facts lingering throughout,” as I discussed in a post last week). Woo-hoo! That might create a whole new generation of avid newspaper readers! I don’t think “The Salem High Blue News” would get a second issue out, though. She must have meant “content,” not “context.”
And then we come to “defiantly.” Many of my colleagues blithely explain all student uses of “defiantly” as originating in the student’s typing “defi-” and AutoCorrect as immediately finishing the word “antly” instead of waiting for the “nitely”—or as being AutoCorrect’s correction for various misspellings of “definitely.” I’d be more willing to accept this explanation if no student had written “defiantly” for “definitely” before the invention of AutoCorrect, SpellCheck, or the word processor…but I know for a fact that plenty of students did. And I’ve heard enough students say that something was “deffly” going to happen that I wouldn’t bet on their ability to be sure which of the two words they meant.
In the (explicit) context of this particular sentence, I’ve also had experiences with student newspapers (as reader and as advisor) that would suggest the writer may have actually meant “defiantly.” I know the editors who announced a “Pubic Affairs Symposium” were laughing even before the paper hit the news stands, and the reporter who wrote that the new science building would have a lab for studying “living orgasms” held his breath until his “typo” actually got past the proofreader and into the article. Perhaps those writers should be considered playful or mischievous rather than defiant; but what looks like mischief now was pretty bold defiance Back In The Day, when dress codes were enforced in high school and censorship of student newspapers was not unexpected.
I believe my student did mean “definitely,” but she gave me an opportunity to imagine a wonderful defiant editorial board putting together a school newspaper that dripped sex throughout and throwing it in the face of the Assistant Principal with a “So Much For Your Censorship! Freedom of the Press Lives!” Of course the fact that the Assistant Principal would find it unsuitable was the whole point.
Sometimes my Inner Subversive and I would give a lot to go back.
Sometimes it’s fun to look a word up in a good dictionary even though you know perfectly well what it means. I did that just now, for “linger,” and found the most delightfully-worded #2 definition in Webster’s Collegiate: “to remain alive although waning or gradually dying.” Now, that is a definition I knew, but it’s not the one that has presented itself when I’ve read this student’s sentence on previous occasions: I usually think of those facts as being “slow in parting” (def. #1), like the party guests who don’t seem to pick up the cues from the yawning host and the tidying-up hostess (or vice versa, of course) and say Yes, they will have just one more, or who pause on the porch stairs to tell just one more anecdote. Thanks to this morning’s Webster’s Moment, I can now also see them as palely languishing on the couch, their grip on their drinks ever more tenuous, the back of the other hand laid weakly and elegantly across the brow, like so many Gorey ladies.
In today’s news climate and already-long election season, both definitions of “linger” would apply well to the facts in many an editorial or Op Ed—or political speech, for that matter. Plenty of opinions and beliefs, doing their damnedest to persuade the facts to go home or die; facts resisting, clinging to the banister or clinging to life but ultimately doomed to depart. At least in “newspaper editorials,” the opinions or beliefs ARE usually clearly stated, although not all editors go on to clearly state the reasons for those opinions. Op Eds usually offer reasons and sometimes even evidence. Political speeches might present pretty good arguments, or they might not go beyond ambiguous assertions of belief, with code words crowding out any lingering facts.
The reader’s job is to sort them all out, and perhaps to demand that the facts be permitted to stay as long as they like, or even to ask that more facts be invited to the party—and once there, that they be given all they need to stay alive.
The writer’s job, of course, is to choose her words carefully, letting the facts “inform” the opinions, or “support” the beliefs, or “explain” the situation about which the opinion is being uttered, rather than setting them to “linger throughout,” randomly interposing their fading selves among the clear opinions where they’re not wanted.
This is one of the strangest Horrors I’ve ever gotten. How in the world can “adieu” have gotten in there?
My mother used to like to recite a comic poem you won’t hear nowadays, alas, because of the Italian stereotype….But you can still find it online: “Giuseppe the Barber”—or, as I’ve just learned by looking for a copy to link to, “Mia Carlotta.” It’s a great recitation piece, and a good example of that once-thriving form, dialect humor. If you can put your enlightened attitude about ethnic and linguistic respect aside for a moment, give it a try. Come on, nobody’s here but us polli.
Anyway, Giuseppe might have written my student’s Horror, because he habitually converts the unstressed final vowel sound typical of Italian into an “a” that he attaches to English words. True, he attaches it at the end of the word, appropriately enough for the language conversion he’s attempting; but letters on the ends of words migrate to the beginnings of adjacent words more easily than Giuseppe could board a ship: witness English words like a nuncle/an uncle and an ewt/a newt. So let’s assume a wandering “a” for Giuseppe when he encounters the phrase “credit where credit is due.” Voilà. Or should I say Ecco.
But my student was not trying to translate from one language to another, although he managed to do so anyway. Why not “no credit where credit was ado,” if he felt the need for an “a”? Maybe he had never seen the word “ado.” What a shame, if so. It would make an interesting comment. Certainly when I was house-hunting, I experienced Much Ado About Credit. I’m not sure credit itself was ado, although later, running up to 2008, this might be exactly what we can say happened. At least for the mortgage-slice-and-dicers and the credit-card-sharks, credit was ado. Or maybe it was amok.
Thinking Back to The Day, I confess my student may have been accidentally onto something. One of the big issues in the Women’s Liberation Movement II was the difficulty women, particularly unmarried women, had getting credit. For them, credit was adieu, in a sense: A lady walks into a bank and says, “I want to get a loan.” Banker says, “Adieu, lady.” (Yes, oh sharp of ear, I was channeling Greta Garbo there for a minute.) This experience was shared by American blacks, and other ethnic or socioeconomic groups I’m sure. Thanks to the Civil Rights Movement, the Women’s Movement, and a somewhat reasonable Congress (ah, those were The Days!), those barriers were removed, for the most part.
Of course nowadays credit is adieu for us all, or for 99% of us, bringing a new meaning to the term “equality.”
Okay, back to grading. Warning: I have a lot to say about dialect humor, and I will say it one of these days. Meanwhile, if you haven’t looked at “Mia Carlotta,” go and do that. Enjoy all the fondly-reminiscing comments, too (including the two confused ones that identify the poem’s speaker as Spanish and “negro”!).