Category Archives: academia

Grammer matter’s bc other country’s know are language better then us*

Here’s a little lesson in humility for the following:

*  Every North American who sees no value in learning our own language well, let alone anyone else’s

*  Every North American who makes fun of people who come from other countries and struggle to live in our country, learn our culture, and speak our language

Over the years, I have led numerous grammar “review” sessions at various colleges and universities where I’ve been a professor. These sessions cover the three major problem areas for most people:

1. Apostrophes
2. Pronouns
3. Irregular verbs, especially transitive and intransitive (the biggies are lie vs. lay)

Did you notice how I put the word review in quotation marks? That’s because, for many of my students, it’s the first time they’ve ever heard it.

Of course there are other trouble spots. These are the main ones that lots of people get wrong, including many “professional” writers. Again, note my use of quotation marks.

In all my years of review sessions with hundreds of students, most of whom have come through our public K-12 schools, I have met only one student who already knew this material thoroughly — knew it so well, in fact, that he was able to stay one step ahead for most of the review session.

One student.

One.

Want to know where he’s from?

Iran.

 

 

*PS:  If you caught all eight errors in my headline, then you are probably either: a) as frustrated as I am at the appalling state of language instruction in the United States; or b) foreign.

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A paragon of professionalism

Pen poised, wits sharp, I nod in profound comprehension as my brilliant colleague, a science professor, explains the groundbreaking research he and his students have been engaged in. This is all familiar territory to me, having spent the past several years of my career reporting on some of the innovative technologies under development at the Notre Dame nanotechnology facility.

Paragon …

One of the things I like to reassure my scientist sources about right up front is my comfort level and professionalism with the subject matter. I want them to know they’re in good hands. That their prized investigative research  will be handled with the utmost sensitivity and intelligence. That they can entrust to me their most complex and advanced concepts, knowing that I will distill them into simple, easy-to-understand explanations without altering a single subatomic particle of their sense and meaning. I may be a journalist, I may be an English professor, I may be the writing center director, but I also have a head for grasping  complex scientific subjects and translating them into everyday language for a variety of audiences. (You can check my LinkedIn profile. I think it says almost exactly that.)

So here I sit, nodding knowingly, laughing appreciatively at his brainy-scientist jokes, scribbling furiously to get down some of his better quotes.

Heck, I even smile sagely when our interview is interrupted by a call on his cell phone and he carries on a brief conversation that goes something like this on his end:  “Pronto. … Sì… venti minuti … ” and a few other phrases I forget now but the point is I understand every word.

When he hangs up, I say, “Parli italiano? (Do you speak Italian?)” See? I even speak the same second language he speaks.

Yep. That’s me. Ever the consummate professional, right down to my high-powered demeanor and my businesslike attire: chic red sheath dress accented with pearl jewelry, ivory peach-skin jacket and  elegant ivory pumps.

… or paradox?

And, for the pièce de résistance, a big glob of spinach left over from lunch, wedged prominently between my front teeth. So every time I smile at him, which I do engagingly and often to demonstrate that I am right there with him, he can’t help but see it.

And which I myself don’t discover until I happen to glance in the mirror, several hours afterward.

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Simple pleasures

“Sssshhh; we need to use our inside voices,” I caution my students primly as we leave the sunlit campus courtyard to head back inside the building.

This is met with a burst of raucous laughter from my twenty- and thirtysomething students before we settle into a tasteful silence as we enter the hallways. Our decorum lasts mere seconds before we break into fresh merriment. They’re a witty group, and no one is exempt from the gentle barbs  … including the professor. (Lest anyone think we are using the fine weather as an excuse to goof off, I will add that the students have been sharing with one another their rough drafts for a final project, and the fresh air and green space helped to sharpen their mental faculties. Their comments on their classmates’ work are detailed, respectful and astute.)

“This is the best English class I have ever had,” Kaytlyn chuckles. “I’ve been telling everyone they need to try to get you as their teacher.”

I live for simple pleasures like this. A day warm enough to hold class outside, laughing loudly enough to disturb everyone  in the classrooms inside. An afternoon at the farmer’s market, chatting with the rosy-cheeked, suspendered Amish (Mennonite?) vendor about the absence of GMOs in the food he gives his chickens. And he shows me their picture: fat, glossy and smug, strutting around among patches of bright emerald-green grass. A simple meal of fresh, local, organic food in season. And a tree so beautiful on my afternoon walk it takes my breath away.

Spring took forever to get here, but today made it worth the wait. Well worth it.

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Poem-A-Day for April 15

Today’s poetry challenge from Writer’s Digest is to write a poem about some sort of infestation. Looking over some of the selections from earlier this morning, I find the usual infestations of insects and love/obsessions, plus some rather inventive ideas about infestations. Mine isn’t so much inventive, perhaps, as it is timely. This is about an infestation that is all too common in our schools.

Sign of the times

 
It could be just a hoax.
 
Some kid wanting a day off from school,
Or some kid who’s angry and doesn’t know how else to say it,
Or maybe just some kid writing stuff on bathroom walls
For no reason.
Who knows?
But it was in my inbox from corporate HQ,
And all the local schools are on alert,
(Although many have dismissed it as a copycat prank)
And most important,
My daughter had heard it, and was concerned.
 
And I don’t want my town to be next in the headlines.
And certainly not my daughter.
There have been so many towns
In so many headlines,
And so many daughters,
And so much national grief.
 
So today she has a headache
Which I informed her yesterday she would wake up with this morning.
That’s your story, and you’re sticking to it, I said.
Be consistent, and tell everyone you have a headache, I said,
Even your best friends.
And I thought, how ironic,
That the best proof I have today of my parental excellence,
Is how thoroughly I’ve coached her on how she should lie
In order to be safe.
 
 
 
 

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Poem for April 10

For today’s prompt, Robert Lee Brewer at Writer’s Digest challenges readers to write a suffering poem. “A person or animal in the poem could be suffering,” Brewer writes. Or, he adds, “The poem itself could be suffering.”

Here’s my response:

Homework assignment

 
She came to class today, hat pulled low over her ears.
 
He pulled her hair out in clumps, she says.
She should never have gone out with him, she says,
When she had a paper due about global food injustice.
She should have known better.
 
This is not the first time it’s happened.
It’s been a pattern since her earliest days;
Men coming in and out of her life like so many jackals stalking their prey,
Waiting for some small unguarded moment that will allow them
To seize the opportunity.
 
She doesn’t say it, perhaps doesn’t see it,
Perhaps is hoping against hope that someone else, finally, will see it.
There is another kind of injustice playing out here;
Something else she could write a paper on,
That is much more pressing than the human-rights abuses
Committed by faceless corporations against nameless multitudes.
 
This is a tyranny that is hers alone to explore,
And I will be asking her to walk across a field of broken glass
That lies deep within her own soul,
To embark on a treacherous journey
That no one ever volunteers to undertake,
And whose destination is far from certain.
 
Write me a paper, I tell her,
In which you tell me what you already know,
But no one has been willing to hear you say.
Tell me, I say,
Because so many have said everything is all your fault,
And you know and I know that it’s not,
Tell me all the reasons why not.
I’m listening. I believe you.
 
And in her eyes, terror and hope.
Her journey begins.
 
 

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A modest proposal

In which we address the problem of yet another misogynistic loudmouth

In the latest instance of a male troglodyte holding forth on the finer social implications of rape, University of Rochester economics professor Steven Landsburg recently penned a brief manifesto on the rape convictions of two high school football players in Steubenville, Ohio, that would make any self-respecting woman-hater’s heart swell with testosterone-laden pride.

In his blog,  Landsburg  asked whether the law should rightfully discourage acts of rape in which the person is unconscious and suffers no direct physical harm.  “As long as I’m safely unconscious and therefore shielded from the costs of an assault,” Landsburg reasons, “why shouldn’t the rest of the world (or more specifically my attackers) be allowed to reap the benefits?”

Groups such as Binders Full of Women and WORD (Women Organized to Resist and Defend) — as well as many students at the university — are outraged and have called for Landsburg’s ouster. The university, in true let’s-protect-the-macho-s*@theads-among-us fashion, has taken a self-righteous stand in support of its  professor and his right to academic autonomy and free speech.

So I have a another solution to propose — and it’s one of which I am certain Landsburg himself would approve, since I am literally taking him at his own word.

So the good U of R doesn’t want to fire him outright? Fine. Then how about we invite Landsburg to the next dorm party, ply him with sufficient drugs and alcohol to render him safely unconscious and therefore shielded from the costs of an assault, and then surgically remove his man parts? After all, why shouldn’t the rest of the world be allowed to reap the benefits?

We won’t even need any sophisticated equipment. A magnifying glass and a pair of tweezers should do just fine.

 

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Who says there’s no crying in the classroom?

He is tall, muscular, and handsome — a confident ex-soldier who only moments earlier was keeping a lively class discussion percolating along with his entertaining observations and quips. It’s the first day of the semester, and within the first few minutes I can see that he will be one of those students every professor loves to have in class: bright, engaged, friendly, funny.

In short, he’s the very picture of success by our cultural standards.

But now he is on the verge of tears. Not noisy, gut-wrenching sobs that would draw attention to themselves. These are silent tears that well up in his eyes as he toils away at the simple writing assignment I’ve asked the students to complete. I wouldn’t even be aware of them if he hadn’t asked me to come over to check his work. Up close, I can see them threatening to spill over, but I can see also that he is struggling with every ounce of his being to keep them in check.

He’s embarrassed. He’s  hoping I won’t notice them. So I oblige him by pretending I don’t.

Voices of failure

So, what was the assigned topic that has reduced him to tears? I asked the students to write about their deepest fears surrounding having to take a college English class. I gave the assignment knowing that it would open up a Pandora’s box of painful memories for my students: discouraging comments from other teachers, repeated failures in other English classes, the slow wearing-down of confidence until the student decides, somewhere deep inside, that “I just can’t do it.”

But that’s not why he’s crying at the moment. Right now, this veteran of fierce combat conditions is crying because he’s flat-out scared.

He’s scared that, even though he has answered every single one of my questions and formatted his writing just as I specified, he must be doing something wrong. Those relentless voices of failure that he’s internalized over the years insist that it must be so. And when I reassure him that he has done exactly what I asked him to do, he presses his fingers to his eyes, blinking hard to stanch the fresh threat of tears.

A regular occurrence

It’s a delicate business, this teaching at a community college. So many of our students arrive at our doorstep perfectly equipped to do the work as far as mental capacity is concerned, but so badly damaged by difficult life circumstances that I sometimes wonder how so many of them manage to muster the wherewithal to sign up for college classes, much less show up day after day, week after week.

Which is why I give a small, rueful laugh inside when I run across the occasional article by a fellow academic posing some form of this question: “How do you handle it when a student starts crying in front of you?”

The way the question is framed, it has a “has-this-ever-happened-to-you” quality to it. As if the notion that a person struggling with the everyday challenges of adult life might experience a meltdown here and there is something of a curiosity.

I don’t know where these other professors do their teaching, but in my realm, tearful students are a relatively common occurrence. I have regularly witnessed students shed tears of frustration, tears of relief, tears of sadness and loss, occasionally manipulative tears as an alternative to doing any actual work — and, more often than not, tears of sheer terror.

Nobody had ever asked

Consider the case of Tammy, a young woman who took one of my basic grammar courses several years ago. Defiantly decked out in giant hoop earrings and skin-tight animal print, she had all the swagger and bravado of the quintessential Tough Chick.  On the first day of class, she stalked past my desk without so much as a glance in my direction and found a seat near the back of the room, sullenly cracking her gum.

That steely facade held up for the first several class sessions. Then one day I noticed she was staring blankly at the wall rather than listening to the class discussion.

Suppressing my annoyance, I walked back to her desk and leaned over.

“Tammy,” I said softly so that no one else could hear. “Are you with us?”

A pair of wide, startled green eyes swerved from the wall and locked on mine.  “No, Professor Price, I’m not,” she whispered. “I’m trying, but I don’t understand a word of what you’re saying.”

And before I knew what was happening, her whole story came tumbling out, there in that classroom while the other students waited patiently: a whispered litany of failure after failure in her English courses because she could never understand what was being said.

And then she whispered the clincher:  “You’re the first teacher I’ve ever had who asked.”

The journey of a thousand miles

Thus began a slow journey that Tammy and I undertook together over the next several months, meeting after class, painstakingly breaking down simple classroom tasks into even simpler tasks. And over the course of that semester, we talked about all those voices she had internalized, voices that told her she would never succeed in English class, in college, or in life. We talked about possible ways to silence those voices.

And through it all, I could never really tell how much of it was taking hold.

Then came the final exam. I held my breath, knowing that Tammy often became so anxious taking tests that she  completely blanked out.

Sure enough, when I looked at her desk, she was staring at the wall with that blank look. But wait. No, not completely blank. As I looked closer, I could see that her wide green eyes were slowly filling with tears.

“Tammy,” I said quietly, and motioned for her to follow me out into the hall.  And we talked. We talked about the internalized negative voices. We talked about the importance of believing in herself. We talked about all the hard work she had done that semester. We talked for a solid half-hour, and when I sent her back into class, I told her she could take as much time as she needed.

She finished nearly two hours after her classmates, but she finished.

And the result?

I would love to report that she passed the test with flying colors. The truth, however, is always far more nuanced than we would like it to be. The truth is that she made an attempt to complete the exam. By objective measures, it would not be considered a good attempt, but I knew it was the best she had in her. I had my work cut out for me trying to find ways to give her even partial credit for her answers. I tweaked and twisted and bent the rules so far in her behalf they all but screamed in pain.

But in the end, she did not earn a passing grade on the test. She passed the class — barely — because I gave her lots of points for effort. But even so, I was pretty sure her failing grade on the exam signaled a failure on my part to help her get past her destructive self-talk.

Until the last day of class, when students were asked to write out their evaluations of the course and the teacher. There sat Tammy, struggling as always to put down some semblance of a cohesive thought on paper. When I saw what she had written in her halting prose, though, I knew I had my answer.

“God bless you, Professor Price,” she wrote. “No one has ever tried as hard to help me but you. This is the first time I thought I could maybe achieve my dreams.”

What’s a professor to do?

So with all due respect to my colleagues at colleges where apparently the students are an admirably stoic lot who barely bat an eyelash under stress, I return now to the question: What do you do when a student starts crying in front of you?

I don’t know what the others do, but I can tell you what I do.

I do whatever the student seems to need me to do. 

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