Breaking, breathing

For now, I will be taking a break, putting on the brakes, pausing for a breather. Briefly, though! Blogging has been not just a good discipline for writing practice but also for thinking practice. It has offered me a place to “bookmark” books that matter to me and to reflect on my teaching, my environment, my garden, and on The Big Stuff–consciousness, values, aesthetics, culture.

Urged along by other poetry bloggers (see Poetry Bloggers), I have posted 60 times in 2018. I felt quite disciplined about that feat until I looked at my WordPress statistics and learned that, for example, in 2014, I wrote 74 posts. This year I was no more or less active than usual (say the statistics). My average number of posts per year over the decade is pretty close to 60. Respectable enough–there are other things to do.

The college semester has closed. We are now “on break.” And I want to take advantage of the gap by making a break with our family tradition, just this once, and to relish the pause my job contains when the students are off campus. I’m especially happy to be breaking bread with Best Beloveds this holiday season. Before the year closes, I plan to enjoy long breaths in high altitudes and to look at the Milky Way.

May your breaks and breaths be of the best and most nourishing kinds.


Dave Leiker photo
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Epistle as writing practice

I am often asked by my peers why “young people” do not come to college with exemplary writing skills. Because I feel protective of my students, I wish to defend them–not always an easy task. My first response is that they have not had enough practice in writing to develop adequate fluency, and I generally follow that by admitting that many of my students have never really read books for leisure or out of passionate interest and that they are quite adept at other forms of communication (social media, looking at you!).

Last year, I decided to spend one class period on epistolary writing. I recognized that one way I developed confidence in expressive writing was by writing letters. Lots of them. Every week to my parents, almost as often to my sister, to my best friends, to sweethearts, grandparents, anyone I cared about. Probably 30 years of letters, which later morphed into lengthy emails as the technology developed.

Letters. Who writes them any more? Certainly not today’s college freshmen, if my students offer any objective measurement of their generation.

The epistolary mode offers students a chance to exercise the use of second-person as a governing pronoun, a style that formal academic writing shies away from except in certain forms of persuasive writing–the opinion column, for example. Teaching my students NOT to employ “you” is such a constant effort that I thought letting them write letters would give them a much-needed break from prescribed academic conventions and allow them to loosen up their sentences a bit.

Before I assigned in-class letter-writing, I asked whether any of them ever writes letters. Not one hand went up. I withdrew from my tote bag a clutch of old correspondence (yes, of course I would be that person who keeps the letters people write to me). After flourishing an envelope–with a 29-cent stamp–I disclosed the contents, a ten-page, handwritten letter from a dear friend. The students audibly gasped. “How long did that take to write?” “Did you read all of that?” Sure! When long-distance phone calls were expensive, letters were social media. We couldn’t just snapchat a photo of ourselves standing on a pile of snow and caption it “Snow!” We’d have to send a photo. Or we’d have to describe without the visual–and this is a practice my students have almost never had to employ.

Lack of informal writing practice translates into lack of writing practice, period.

I even read passages from three letters aloud, and the students were impressed with the vivid writing…writing by “non-writers.” “You could write like this, too,” I told them. “You just haven’t needed to do it, and therefore you think you can’t do it.” Then I asked them to think of a person, a specific person, and come up with a reason or purpose to write to that person, and then just write. The response was amazing. Some of these students wrote more in 15 minutes than they ever have for an in-class assignment. Most of them enjoyed it! One student even said that “this old style of long form texting intrigues me” and plans to start writing letters to a sibling once a week.

Success!

~

Letter Writers Alliance is an informal site promoting the hand-written, postal-mail delivered epistolary correspondence. Members can sign up to find a pen pal or just browse the site for stationery, pens, letter-writing tips, etc.

Keeping the minutes on violence, with Lucille Clifton

Wow. I found this post by Lesley Wheeler worth re-blogging. It hurts my heart that she found so many of her students had experienced this kind of fear and violence in their schools. But it makes me pleased to be a writer if I can be in the company of people like Lesley and her students, facing what is horrible and difficult and discussing and writing about it. And reading, too–reading poems that face the “dark” in human beings can be as liberating and enlightening as reading poems that offer “hope” or balance. The heart does need rest now and then; thoughtful reflection offers more rest than many folks realize. Thank you, Lesley, for being a teacher.

LESLEY WHEELER

For a workshop on Tuesday, Election Day, one of my undergraduates submitted a poem based on the day he hid in a closet during a middle school shooting. A different student said there had been a shooting in her school, too; another described an active shooter just last week in the high school her sister attended; a fourth said a friend had died in the Parkland massacre. Stunned, I responded with something like, “Are you telling me that four out of the fifteen of you have had a near miss with a school shooting?” Then two more raised their hands. Six.

Gun violence in the US is insanely, horrifyingly prevalent; every new mass shooting refreshes the horror and also increases the number of Americans directly affected. A good friend’s father’s retirement center was recently in lockdown because of an active shooter. And when I described the workshop discussion to a…

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Grammar

 

Steven Pinker‘s early book, The Language Instinct (1994)–controversial among linguists, psychologists, social anthropologists and probably semiotics philosophers–is nonetheless relatively easy for the interested non-scholarly layperson to read. Pinker has since become well-known for his best-selling books, TED talks, and willingness to engage in lively debates on controversial topics such as violence in society and his claims for the embodied brain, scientifically-supported atheism, and rational culture. [Totally off topic, but I’m a great fan of his current wife’s novels and philosophy books–Rebecca Goldstein–what an amazing mind she has! Not that Steve Pinker is a slouch in that department, either…an intellectual power couple indeed. But I digress.]

The Language Instinct got me thinking more broadly about grammar, especially as the semester is about to begin and I’m once again wrestling with how to teach conventional writing skills to under-prepared, newly-minted college freshmen. I harbor no intentions of talking to them about linguistic theories. But I do want them to understand that they can already express themselves perfectly well verbally, with the help of body language (even students who are still learning English; even students who have told me that they have learning disabilities). The tool they need to succeed at the college level is the skill of writing that employs enough agreed-upon conventions–prescriptive grammar–to convey clear ideas to the standard reader.

Lots of assumed definitions there: who is the ‘standard’ reader? How many and which ‘conventions’ are enough, and who is it that agrees upon them? I have to let the students know that the answer is: “It depends.” They are seldom very pleased to hear it, but human beings are nothing if not adaptable.

~

After defending slang, split infinitives, the ‘verbing’ of nouns, and other shibboleths, Pinker–in a chapter denigrating language mavens (hence his Jeremiah example toward the end of this excerpt)–writes:

The aspect of language most worth changing is the clarity and style of written prose. Expository writing requires language to express far more complex trains of thought than it was biologically designed to do. Inconsistencies caused by limitations of short-term memory and planning, unnoticed in conversation, are not as tolerable when preserved on a page that is to be perused more leisurely. Also…a reader will rarely share enough background assumptions to interpolate all the missing premises that make language comprehensible. Overcoming one’s natural egocentrism and trying to anticipate the knowledge state of a generic reader at every stage of the exposition is one of the most important tasks in writing well. All this makes writing a difficult craft that must be mastered through practice, instruction, feedback, and–probably most important–intensive exposure to good examples…a banal but universally acknowledged key to good writing is to revise extensively…Anyone who does not appreciate this necessity is going to be a bad writer. Imagine a Jeremiah exclaiming, “Our language today is threatened by an insidious enemy: the youth are not revising their drafts enough times!”

Indeed, I agree with him here. Taking the time to read good writing frequently, and taking the time to revise carefully when writing pretty much anything (even a Twitter post) would go a long way toward improving anyone’s writing.

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Mergenthaler’s Linotype machine

We do need concise, standardized, well-revised written texts, especially when we are relaying new information, instructing others how to do something, or convincing our professors that we comprehend the fundamental theories of the coursework. That’s not “grammar,” the magical tool that my students think they somehow missed learning in grades K-12, it’s craft, attention, and revision–with a few prescriptive rules, enough to level the ground on which the we lay our communicative foundations.  The rest is work.

 

 

Connections

 

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August has arrived and a few of our incoming freshmen are on campus already, as well as students on various fall sports teams who need to get a jump on the competition season. It was quite awhile ago that I was a teenage person entering my first year at college, but each year our students arrive with the same anticipation and excitement I felt. They’re ready to exercise a little responsibility, a little freedom, and to make the kinds of connections–personal, emotional, and intellectual–that will affect the rest of their lives one way or another.

~

In the 1970s, science historian and television broadcaster James Burke created and hosted a show called Connections. I was a fan of the series because I loved the surprising ways discoveries, events in history, people, and accident led to innovations and the criss-crossing of continents and ideas. The interdisciplinary aspect of human culture, of science and the arts, fascinated me as a teen. Those networked ideas have shown up many times through my life.

Connections: The photo above was taken by my fellow student Steve Lohman when we were freshmen. Steve later attended Pratt School of Art.  We lost touch for a long time, and–I have forgotten how–I found his metalwork while I was looking for cover art for my book of poems The Capable Heart.

 

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Running Horse by Steve Lohman

Connections: I liked Steve’s wireworks, but I remembered him as a photographer. Granted, what a person pursues at age 17 or 18 is easily liable to change–but I was curious about how he started doing sculpture. When he mentioned he’d attended Pratt, I asked if he had ever met Toshio Odate, who taught there for years. “One of my favorite teachers!” said Steve. “I loved his class.”

Connections: My spouse took a job writing for a woodworking magazine, where he met Toshio, who wrote about Japanese tools and woodworking techniques. Meanwhile, Toshio was creating his own works of art at his home as well as mentoring many students. He’s now a long-time friend of ours. (Photo of Odate’s “Pride of New England,” below, by Laure Oleander).

toshio-pride copy

Connections: Neural networks, the embodied mind, the ways writing assists in psychological healing, the twists in a good novel’s plot, the turn in a poem, metaphor, surprise. The unexpected thrills us–unexpected connections fill us with curiosity and a kind of joy, as does the closure.

~

Connections: The commercial creation Thinkhub, invented for teaching, offers yet another example of connections. A cultural thinkhub project based in Toledo, midstory.org has produced my poem “River by River” as a soundscape: click here.

The project researchers found my poem in the anthology I Have My Own Song for It: Modern Poems of Ohio. Look around, folks–connections are everywhere, and we learn from them.

 

Jargon & rhetoric

This is a kind of continuation of my last post, in which I alluded to euphemism and jargon and the weightiness of words. Herein, I take the unpopular stance and argue that the Centers for Disease Control‘s suggestion that proposals avoid certain words is not entirely about censorship but about rhetoric and persuasion and in this case–given the makeup of the current Congress–was actually appropriate. This is a situation in which jargon–wording–makes all the difference in the persuasiveness of an argument.

The CDC needs to send its annual proposals for research, for agency budgeting, and more to Congress; and each set of documents requires Congressional Justification. If the Congress does not agree to certain proposals, those which have justification withheld will not be funded. (It is possible that many citizens, myself included, are not fully informed as to how these government-funded agencies operate.) Therefore, the possibly-skeptical audience must be convinced of the value of these proposals.

~ ~

letter I

 

f this were an essay for my students, I would prompt them to think about the audience for their arguments. A writer can employ jargon effectively to help persuade a skeptical audience. Use the terms of the discipline, I tell them. That usage may seem superficial, but it actually works to prove to the audience that you know what they are seeking; you are a member of that community, you know the lingo, you’re on that side and your research will advance that cause.

It may be that your research is something well beyond the audience’s understanding, but you know how to sound like one of them; so, chances are, they’ll get on board with whatever you are conducting.

Even if they have no idea, really, what it is you’re proposing. Even if what you are proposing in fact runs counter to the audience’s ideology, effective proposal writing can hide the fact.

The CDC, from what I have been reading, has not banned those seven words nor the research or public policies concerning them; instead, the agency is cautioning its researchers and policy proposal writers to avoid language that would ring the wrong bells in the ears of this particular Congress’s majority ideology. I see nothing wrong with that. In fact, as a person who guides others in writing arguments based upon research, I encourage it.

Gotta know your audience, or your proposal will fail no matter how excellent its logic, science, and methodology may be. I hope the resourceful writers at the CDC will find ways to convince our Congress to keep the agency and its research funded. A future Congress may be less sensitive to evidence-based information. In the meantime, use the jargon in proposals–whatever works! But use the best words, and the most clear and accurate words, in other forms of discourse.

#7words

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Fully human

A student who grew up in Viet Nam and arrived in the USA just two years ago scheduled an appointment with me for assistance in revising her final paper for Philosophy.

My job is to help her with her articles, subject-verb agreement, verb tense, and plural forms and uses, and when to use a capital letter for proper nouns. I also assist students like her with claims, thesis statements, and rhetorical structure–but I am not a “content tutor.” Of course, I often understand the content and find it interesting to observe how young people interpret, say, literature or philosophy.

In this case, Western philosophy, in English, as interpreted by a person raised in a culture quite different from the Western university system norm.

Philosophy 109 challenges many native-born and US-educated freshman students; taking this course as an English-learner with very little “Western” experience must be ridiculously difficult. So I first assessed how the course had been going for her, and she said, “So-so.” What had been most difficult? Note-taking, she said. With the texts she could take her time, translate, and eventually tease out the ideas; but class lectures were really hard. In addition, she struggled with the concept of opposition and rebuttal as structured in the philosophical argument.

 

Her assigned argument for the term paper was: “The arts, sciences, and philosophy are valuable because they help us to become fully human.”

The paper began with her assertion that the arts make us more fully human because they are beautiful to behold and inspire in us joy and appreciation.

“Is the best art beautiful?” I asked. She said yes, and I asked her, “Is it only art’s beauty that makes us human and good?”

“Not only,” she said, after a moment of hesitation. “Sometimes–sad is beauty. Sad is not good, but sad also makes us human.” She hesitated again and then went on: “I think good art, and good science, has both sides. I think this but it isn’t in my paper. Should I put it in my argument?” We agreed to work on a sentence or two that might express her interpretation more completely while heeding the general conventions of Introduction to Western Philosophy.

Sometimes, syntax is content.*

Without exception (well, almost), I learn so much from student interpretations of ancient concepts. Rather than rolling my eyes and scoffing at how little they know, I’m searching their perspectives for what it is I ought to know about them and their experiences. The stance of most older authorities is that young people must integrate themselves into our norms and conventions; but we will age out of our power base, at which point we’d be better off recognizing their norms and points of view and exercising our neurons by learning how to adapt to the next set of conventions.

Philosophy and the arts will stay around. I have no doubts about that. The ways in which human beings interpret them may change; all to the good–stasis would destroy philosophy and art, thus keeping us from our potential to be fully human.

~

 

*[You might want to read Sister Miriam Joseph’s classic text, The Trivium, for a deeper explanation of how to approach ‘mastery’ of the liberal arts and learning.]