Thesaurus obscurus

When I moved into my work office many years ago, I inherited a bookshelf with a few books on it. There was a battered paperback Volume I of The Oxford Anthology of English Literature; A Manual of Style, 12th edition (1969) from University of Chicago Press; The New American Bible for Catholics; a Catechism; a Bartlett’s; several old volumes of The Writing Center Journal; and Webster’s Collegiate Thesaurus from 1976. There was a dictionary as well.

Of these older reference works, the one that most entertains me is the thesaurus. The editors employed the alphabetical-style organization, reasoning that a “main entry of a concise statement of the segment of denotation in which a group of words can be construed as synonyms, a strictly alphabetical organization, and the entry at its own alphabetical place of each word that appears as a synonym at a main entry” would “minimize the consultant’s need to grope and guess.” *

But what puzzles me is the choice of entry words in this 1976 text. What college student, ever, would be searching for a synonym for entrammel? Or phthisis? Or incondite? [By the way, WordPress’s spelling checker does not recognize any of these words, although they are all acceptable English terms.] Exanimate may be an interesting replacement for “dead,” but why make it a main entry in the thesaurus? I was a college student in 1976, and I cannot imagine consulting this book in order to find a suitable synonym for drossy. “Worthless” or “pointless” would have sufficed in most cases–and why make the choice of inutile? Wouldn’t that impede the reader’s understanding? Or maybe not–the reader for university writing would have been a scholar, I suppose. brad-hammonds-flikr-books

I find myself wondering whether these choices reflect an era on some sociological level, and on what level that might be. My freshman reading list was longer and “more difficult” than the reading with which my current students are tasked, but those assignments were based on the assumption that we had read considerable canon literature in high school. Nonetheless, in the 70s, we were not scrambling to find synonyms for fainéant unless we were trying to paraphrase a source.

Maybe the answer lies in how long it used to take to get a reference text produced. Surely the research for the collegiate thesaurus would have taken ten years or more; and the text would have been edited by many persons and proofread, typeset, proofed again and again before getting to the printing press, being bound, and finally reaching bookshelves in college bookstores. Were college students in the late 1950s more likely to write using the word culmen or adit?

Honestly, I’m thinking: No.

~

These days, there are many online thesauruses; but they tend to give short shrift to English’s wide range of approximate synonyms, each with their connotations. My students’ papers often suffer from vague and random use of online thesaurus “suggestions.” The electronic thesaurus, like the dictionaries and encyclopedias online, fail in another important way: it turns out that groping around for a word or a meaning can lead to stumbling upon new words, new connotations, and interesting forays into the depths that our language has to offer.

Anyway, I appreciate an out-of-date reference text for historical and linguistic reasons and because–you never know–sometimes those archaic words inspire, influence, or appear in one of my poem drafts. Groping and guessing may impel a Parnassian to chivy exceptional words through the adit of English and wraxel with new expressions.

~~

* Seriously. Try to unpack that series of dependent modifying phrases. I even edited down the sentence!

 

 

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.

Not enough

The fall semester is about to begin, a very busy time for me and my colleagues. I need to be nose-to-the-grindstone, yet I have some deep and worrying concerns that distract me from the evaluations, curriculum preparation, scheduling, and staff meetings. Among the 40+ students who attended our university’s summer “bridge” program for college transitions, at least six openly expressed fears about being accepted and wondered how to deal with prejudice on and off campus. I am pretty sure they spoke for others who kept such fears to themselves.

We do not have answers for them. We can only say: Be yourselves, and be that well; say what matters, and say it forcefully but non-violently; and tell us if you feel afraid or need support–we promise we will stand with you.

That promise I take as seriously as any promise I make to my family members or best-beloveds–even though my students are “strangers” to me. I will intervene if I notice that they are threatened in any way. I’m a writer; I know that words, too, can cause harm.

And maybe that promise is not enough.

And maybe marching is not enough (read about marching here and here).

I am by nature a quiet person. But being quiet is not enough.

hate has no home

It is not enough. It is, however, a start.

Science & philosophy

The small, religiously-affiliated university at which I work graduates, percentage-wise, a large number of baccalaureates in the sciences although it offers a liberal arts-based core curriculum. How does that affect what coursework students must do? For starters, two Theology courses and one Philosophy course are required for graduation.

Three critical-thinking method, scholarly courses ought not to be more than a student in the sciences–or any other discipline–can handle; but I hear a bit of resentment among the undergrads. They question the necessity of abstract ethics classwork, wondering how such material will be applicable to a fast-paced, technologically-advanced, science-oriented career or life. Philosophy doesn’t seem to be a skill set to them.

SocratesWhile I fundamentally disagree, I take their point. With so much new information coming at them, info-savvy young people might well feel skeptical about what they can gain from reading texts by Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, or Aquinas.

Philosophy has been around for millennia, though; empirical science as we know it–with electron microscopes, satellite-mounted telescopes, petri dishes and x-rays–is brand-spanking new by comparison. The techniques we use today seem concrete and tool-like rather than theoretical; yet as every real scientist knows, the only way developments occur is through hypothesis–theory–claim–assertion–question–pushing the envelope of the known.

Which is what philosophers have been doing for thousands of years.

The budding scientists and medical-studies researchers I encounter seldom realize that without philosophy, science would not exist. Philosophers asked the “why” questions, came up with theories and categories, tried to see into a future that might someday have the technology to confirm or refute the theories they came to solely through human observation and deduction. Problem-solving skills. They were the scientists of their day, and the methods of thinking they came up with are those that contemporary scientists in all disciplines continue to employ.

http://www.isys.ucl.ac.be/descartes/images/Descartes.gif Descartes

Descartes, 1640s

A wonderful book on the way philosophy developed into biology (to take just one of the scientific disciplines) is Marjorie Grene and David Depew’s The Philosophy of Biology: An Episodic History.

The authors–a philosophy professor and a rhetoric professor–provide a history lesson in science, taking us by steps and by leaps into the development of a scientific (empirical) skill set as derived from insightful cognitive understandings of those Dead White Guys on whose thinking Western philosophy is based.

finch beaks

Darwin’s finches, 1840s

Now, I am not an advocate for a strict return to the Western Civ canon; I think university education should diversify into exploring (and questioning) other modes of cognition, culture, and philosophical approaches. Yet it seems to me imperative that students continue to study, and learn to value, the history of human thought. You can be a nurse without a thorough background in Aristotle’s categorical concepts; you can learn the drill about washing hands, donning gloves, and inserting catheters–all practical, concrete skills. You can understand the rationale for all of those skills; that’s true, and practical.

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Cajal’s drawing of a pyramidal neural cell, 1913

Nurses today, however, should have the thinking skills to solve unexpected problems rapidly and rationally, which is how things play out “in real life,” to deduce that something’s going wrong even when the readouts look stable, to recognize that the hurried intern added an extra zero to the number of milligrams of medicine prescribed. They need enough background in the history of medical care-giving to question a doctor or administrator when the ethics of a patient’s care seem to be at risk. These problem-solving skills are not only crucial, they are philosophically-based.

~

 

I will dismount from my high horse now. With all the disorienting information being bombarded at me these days, I need a poem to reorient myself. Here’s one by Mary Oliver.

Snowy Egret (by Mary Oliver)

A late summer night and the snowy egret
has come again to the shallows in front of my house

as he has for forty years.
Don’t think he is a casual part of my life,

that white stroke in the dark.

==

We shake with joy, we shake with grief.
What a time they have, these two
housed as they are in the same body.

 

Here we are

I frequently tell my composition students to break the task of academic essay writing into steps that work for them–very Aristotelian of me. Many educated persons were “taught to think” using this method, basically by bundling concepts together into categories. I tell my students that each person may develop a different approach. Sometimes traditional categories don’t work for a particular kind of thoughtful mind.

My own, for example. I have had to study to get to the “rational,” and it intrigues me (science mind! philosophy mind!). But the mythic and the discombobulated and the circuitous: my default consciousness heads into those places when left to wander without a focused task.

A student in my class asked me why I decided to teach college. The funny thing is that it did not feel as though it were a decision on my part. It was a series of steps that seemed unrelated at the time.

One perspective–I graduated with a Philosophy and English bachelor’s degree at the moment of the worst economic period since the Great Depression (the late 1970s). I was a good speller. I got a job proofreading. From there, a series of jobs, and periods without jobs, and marriage and children and a graduate degree and wanting to do a little part time work and teaching poetry workshops in schools…

grassesA

Another perspective–I became entranced with poetry as a young adult. I read and read, and I also wrote; joined a writing critique group when David Dunn shyly invited me to the informal weekly sessions in Brooklyn. Brooklyn was not fashionable then. I had a job that paid my rent, barely. I wrote constantly, and David encouraged me to read aloud. Ariel Dawson encouraged me to submit my work to magazines. Ploddingly, and without much confidence, I followed my friends’ advice. I learned to speak in public, to groups of people who might not always be open to what I had to say. Later, I raised two children. How like teaching these things are…

I was invited to teach. I tried it. There are tasks at which I am more competent, but I get by. Some of my students thank me.

I still prefer tutoring and coaching, working one-to-one with a student, side by side in the task of urging thoughts into clarity in the form of written text. Here I am. The semester has started. Wrench those random ideas into curriculum, work on word order and concise expression. Be with the student where he or she is. Start there. Be confident. The next step will evolve.

A series of seemingly unrelated events, careers, moves, ideas, loves–those are our human foundations.

And here we are.

Untitled-writer

Work vs. work

Untitled-writerOutside Academia: The Writer…

 

Lately, I have felt overly-occupied with my so-called day job. The work I do at the college is personally rewarding and pays my bills; I love the challenges it offers and the people with whom I work, but I am not what one would term career-driven. Even though I am employed by a university, and even though I teach (just one class a semester), in many ways–as far as scholarship, research, and poetry go–I remain “outside academia.” An interesting paradox. But if I over-extend at my office, I find less to say at my writing desk at home.

Poets Mary Oliver and Kay Ryan also spent most of their careers working at colleges without climbing the spiral stairway of academia’s ivory tower. Well-received, excellent writers–and Oliver even sells quite well for a poet–they aren’t “academics.” It is heartening to know that such poetry luminaries are, like me, not academics. I often wonder how they managed to balance teaching with writing poetry.

~

What I do “at work” where I earn a salary, and what I do when I “work” on poetry, seem quite separate to me, and I question whether one informs the other. I feel that being a poet does influence, though subtly, the way I approach teaching and tutoring. (It does not seem to have any influence on the way I do record-keeping, spreadsheets, or paperwork.)

By contrast, my day job at the college seems not to have much sway over my poetry; I write prose about teaching and tutoring, but my career work does not often appear as topic or substance in my poems. I notice, too, that Oliver and Ryan do not often write poems about their day jobs (both of them have retired by now–but still). In fact, I would venture that the way my day job affects my poetry is mostly as a time and energy drain.

~

I have challenged myself to write at least two poems a month that in some respect relate to my work with students. That prompt forces me to remember that I am not two separate beings, one at the college desk and one, pen in hand, on the back porch at home. I remain my whole self, and I place my whole self into both endeavors. I can work with that.