Saturday, January 26, 2013

Stuck -- Writer's Poke #402

I’ve taught English to college freshmen for the past fifteen years. What have I learned by being a permanent resident of the English 101 classroom? I’ve learned that while my thinking continues to evolve, I shouldn’t expect the thinking of my new students to have evolved with me. That is, first-year students tend to have first-year thoughts. No surprise there, really. After all, each batch of students is experiencing English 101 for the first time. 

What I find more interesting, however, is the nature of topics that students continue to select. When we’re working on a general research paper topic, unless I specifically provide them with topics, students will naturally pick the standard topics – global warming, marijuana legalization, gun control, abortion, etc. These standard topics haven’t changed much in the past 15 years. The only standard topic that has changed somewhat is gay marriage. Students still write on the gay marriage topic, but the way they write on the topic has changed.

For the other topics, not much seems to have changed in 15 years. Unless I direct them otherwise, students still take the basic sort of positions (“for” or “against”). It makes me think, “Has nothing about the topic of, say, Global Warming really developed in the last 15 years? Are we still at Square One with this issue? Having dealt with the topics for 15 years, I realize that the topics have changed, but they must change at a snail’s pace, because my students don’t seem to notice the changes that have been occurring in their lifetimes. Then again, I guess, why should they notice? Most issues do seem to remain at a standstill until some sort of tipping point is reached. Once an issue, like gay marriage, “tips,” then the way students react to the issue noticeably changes.

Is it unreasonable to expect more students to be out ahead of the tipping? Maybe so. First-year students tend to be fairly conservative, actually. The college experience is supposed to make students more “liberal,” and maybe that’s true, but I would suggest that it’s not “liberal” in the sense of politics; it’s “liberal” in the sense of being able to see beyond where we are or where we’ve been. It’s “liberal” in the sense of being able to see where we are heading, and being willing to do something about it. 

Being liberal means being willing and able to sense movement, and being willing to move before some outside force requires you to move whether you want to or not.

What moves you?

“Civilization is a movement and not a condition, a voyage and not a harbor.” – Arnold J. Toynbee

Friday, January 25, 2013

Flesor's Candy Kitchen

Devon Flesor was my Freshman English teacher at Eastern Illinois University. Now she's a soda jerk running her own Candy Shop in Tuscola, Illinois.


Two Lessons -- Writer's Poke #401

I don’t remember the names of every professor I’ve had, but two names have stayed with me for the past 20 years.

When I was a freshman in college, I had Dr. Jay Hammerski for Chemistry and Ms. Devon Flesor for English. That Spring semester, I also had classes in History, Psychology, and Botany, but I don’t remember the names of my professors in those classes.

So why do I remember Dr. Hammerski and Ms. Flesor? 

The second day in Dr. Hammerski’s class, he said, “Okay, get out a piece of paper. Pop quiz time. Question #1: What is my name?” I remember that students just looked at each other in disbelief, and I’m not kidding when I say that the entire class let out an audible gasp. Not only did he expect us to know his first and last name, but he also expected us to spell it correctly. Turned out that over half of the class didn’t know his name. They certainly did after the quiz, and I’m sure that most of the class, like me, still remembers his name. It was an important lesson in respect, but I can also freely admit that learning his name might be the only thing I retained from taking that class.

Ms. Flesor never gave a pop quiz like that. What she did give us with a Reading List. This list contained 117 novels, and from it I picked Frankenstein for the term paper assignment she required. I didn’t stop with Frankenstein, however. That semester opened up what would apparently become my lifelong love of reading.

I remember being impressed that Ms. Flesor had read every book on the list, and I started to highlight each book on the list as I read it. Although I still haven’t read every book on her list, I still have the list, and I credit this list with pointing me in the right direction. Not only do I remember Ms. Flesor’s name, but I also remember her as the person who taught me to love reading. 

What lessons do you teach people? How do you most want to be remembered?

“My father taught me to work; he did not teach me to love it. I never did like to work, and I don’t deny it. I’d rather read, tell stories, crack jokes, talk, laugh – anything but work.” – Abraham Lincoln

Practice Caring -- Writer's Post #400

Make me care.

I ran across this three-word piece of advice to writers last night, and I thought, “Of course. What else is there?”

This morning, after having a chance to sleep on those three words (so to speak), I’m reminded that there is plenty of good writing out there, but not everyone cares about it. So, it may be the writer’s job to make readers care, but the writer cannot do it all by himself.

It’s like an English teacher presenting grammar material to his students. He can see it in their eyes. “Make me care.” How? How can he do it? Learning grammar will never be like watching a Die Hard movie. It will never be like playing Halo. And it will never be like making a great dunk or jump shot. 

Perhaps, then, the statement must be spoken by each individual for him- or herself. When we’re not interested in something, don’t think it has any direct meaning or value for us, we need find ourselves a mirror, look ourselves straight in the eye, and tell ourselves straight-up, “Make me care.” We have to find a way, each of us, to connect.

Caring develops. With practice.

What’s the best way to make yourself care about things you’re just not that interested in?

Excellence can be obtained if you:
… care more than others think is wise;
… risk more than others think is safe;
… dream more than others think is practical;
… expect more than others think is possible.
-- Author unknown

Thursday, January 24, 2013

What Is Wrong with Scientists? -- Writer's Poke #399

As I was listening to the new Helloween album (a very good album, by the way), I had a thought fly through my mind. “I bet this is the sort of music that Neanderthals could appreciate.” The thought made me smile. No one will ever know what sort of music Neanderthals might like, but wouldn’t it be neat to imagine them head-banging on the walls of their caves in Northern Europe?

But if one Harvard scientist has his way, perhaps we can discover what sort of music Neanderthals like to rock out to. Professor George Church is looking for “adventurous volunteers.” Sorry guys, he’s looking for female volunteers. His idea is to embed the DNA of a 33,000 year old Neanderthal into a human embryo. 

Then, just put the said embryo inside that adventurous female, wait nine months, and watch the mad-capped fun of science play itself out. Remember Phil Hartman’s “Caveman Lawyer” character from Saturday Night Live? Maybe in 25 years, you can have your own caveman lawyer representing you at your divorce. All thanks to Professor Church, and the magic of science.

So, is this a bad idea? If this an example of what gives science a “bad name,” or is it a fruitful scientific experiment? And just what sort of music do Neanderthals like, anyway?

I bet when Neanderthal kids would make a snowman, someone would always end up saying, “Don’t forget the think, heavy brows.” Then they would get all embarrassed because they remembered they had the big husky brows too, and they’d get made and eat the snowman. – Jack Handy


Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Languages Ltd. -- Writer's Poke #398

Last week I started watching a show from India called Shakira.  What immediately interested me about the show was the dialogue. Characters speak Hindi one moment and go straight into English the next. They switch back and forth between languages even within the same sentence.

This is apparently quite natural in India, but for me, it is quite jarring. I don’t speak Hindi, and so I’m listening to the dialogue, but I’m also watching the subtitles on the screen. Stranger still, the English dialogue doesn’t always match the English subtitles. So, here I am, watching a show that’s only partially in English, and even the parts in English are being “translated” into English for me.

It makes me think about how the process of thought works. I assume that most of us think in words. When we want to think in images, we can do so, but if I wanted to think about my car, for example, I would think “my car” to call up the image of my car. I wouldn’t simply bring a picture of my car to mind.

But what is it like to think in two or more languages simultaneously? Does each language draw from a different set of images? If I spoke German and English, for example, would I only have access to the “my car” image in English? And would I only have access to “beer” or whatever in German?

When I was in Europe last year, I liked to go into non-touristy places, like grocery stores, to see how people would talk to me. Sometimes they knew right away that I was an American, and they immediately talked to me in English. Other times, however, I was in a grocery store in Iceland or Denmark, and people addressed me in Danish or Icelandic. When I said I only spoke English, they would immediately transition into speaking English (assuming they spoke English) without missing a beat. And yet, I have to assume that one’s ability to think is limited by one’s vocabulary. If your vocabulary in English is weaker than your vocabulary in Russian, or whatever your native language might happen to be, doesn't that mean you’re a stronger thinker in Russian? 

To get back to Shakira for a moment, it seems like the characters move effortlessly between languages, but is that really the case? Or, is it that they switch languages when the context of what they are thinking about dictates they do so? That is, their ability to think in each language is actually in some ways limited, which is why they don’t speak every word in Hindi or every word in English? They don’t have complete access to either language, and therefore they patch together two languages to serve the purpose of one complete process of thinking?

How would you explain your thinking process? Do you think more in words or images? If you know more than one language, what determines which language you use?

“The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” – Ludwig Wittgenstein