Posts tagged ‘Academics’

pronouns

 

By Elizabeth Anne Hull

Elizabeth Anne Hull. Photo by Barb Knoff.

Elizabeth
Anne Hull
 

According to AAUW, since the 1990s, a hot topic in the field of college-level feminist/gender studies is dealing with gender-specific pronouns when discussing unknown persons. (Feminists don’t all read SF, so they might not realize that Suzette Haden Elgin’s Native Tongue addressed the situation from a linguist’s perspective in the previous decade.)

Pronoun/antecedent agreement is a perplexing grammatical problem that I’ve dealt with since I began teaching freshman composition at Loyola University Chicago in the late 1960s.

Loyola being a Jesuit university, you might well understand the conservative emphasis on grammar in assessing writing and assigning grades. In fact, the grading guidelines given us teaching assistants stipulated that a paper with too many mistakes in grammar, punctuation, spelling, and the conventions of Standard English — what we called basic skills — should be penalized in grading or even failed altogether, no matter how well that essay succeeded in other ways, such as organization, soundness of facts/research, clarity of thought, freshness of language, delightful sense of humor or other signs of original creativity, logical reasoning, and general effectiveness.

One cardinal sin of grammar was violating the principle that pronouns should agree in person and number with their antecedents and referents.

Mind you, it wasn’t a new problem then, either. A bit of history: this was one of the reasons that classes in English composition, usually known as 101 and 102 and sometimes called “bonehead English,” were introduced after World War II. Prior to that, professors could usually assume that only well-prepared students were admitted to colleges and universities (and legacies, of course, the sons of alumni, men who were happy with a “gentleman’s C”). From the late 1940s onward, however, GIs returning with their education benefits were enrolling in record numbers in pursuit of the American Dream

These were men (almost all were men) who, by and large, had never intended to go to college, but with the support of the grateful government and the encouragement of the American people, were willing to work hard and learn the proscriptive rules that prevailed in those early years. In hindsight, this may have been a large factor in the success of American enterprises in those years of the Greatest Generation.

Pluralizing the noun and using the plural pronouns will solve a lot of the agreement problems, but occasionally a singular noun seems essential for clarity, so I came up with my own solution, which allows the writer to be both grammatical and not seem forced. It’s simply to recast the sentence to avoid or eliminate the need for an antecedent. For example, instead of “Each applicant has to submit his own supporting documentation,” try “Each applicant must submit individual supporting documentation.”

Since English has many ways to phrase almost any idea, writers have the advantage over speakers in that they can reflect on both what they want to convey and how they choose to phrase the ideas. As true as it was in my youth and my first years of teaching, the mechanical aspects of writing are far less important than the other aspects of communication.

But it seems there will always be judgmental readers who are looking for reasons to reject the point the writer is trying to convey, and basic literacy skills are one easy way to eliminate those whose opinions we wish to ignore or discount. In my childhood, when someone rejected me, my mother always used to comfort me, “Consider the source.” But I still believe that it’s best not to alienate readers unnecessarily, and I will continue to try to avoid grammatical mistakes.

Spelling errors are another particularly easy way for those who disagree with us to reject what we have to say, because for the last several hundred years we have had standard spellings in dictionaries. Despite my tolerance for dyslexics, I admit I was comforted by fact that some young people are still trying to be correct in spelling in the age of texting.

In a record-setting regional contest of the Scripps National Spelling Bee, two outstanding students quickly eliminated the other competition and continued to spell word after word correctly. After they exhausted the list of over 60 words, local administrators requested that both children be allowed to advance to the national finals. But eventually the judges decided to continue the standoff, adding another 20-some more words, till seventh grader Kush Sharma finally beat fifth-grade Sophia Hoffman in an exciting match in Jackson County, Missouri. Let’s hope Sophia returns and tries again. The spirit of the Greatest Generation is not dead.

Rubik"s Cube

He was English, the fellow in the lobby. He had come from London the day before to see some kindred enlightened souls in Cincinnati, Ohio. Now he was on his way to certain other centers of adepts before reaching the Grand Canyon focal point of the Harmonic Convergence. (Not, thank God, on my flight.)

This flake was the kind I like least. He had learned every buzzword there was in every discipline known to man — his conversation was full of Descartes and expert systems and quarks — and had managed not to understand any of them. And when I managed to point out to him, for example, that “Cogito ergo sum” did not imply the existence of a Divine Being, he responded every time by shifting the universe of discourse to another subject, from molecular biology to Rubik’s Cube. (Lots of people, he told me loftily, could solve Rubik’s Cube; there was nothing remarkable in that. But when you had evolved as far as he had you could do it in your head. Actually, that sounded like a pretty impressive feat to me. But when I asked him if he could then take a real cube and quickly match up all the colors so other people could see, he looked at me with pity. Of course he could do that. But he would never bother. It would simply be too boring to him.)

There was another odd thing about him. I had noticed he was wearing earphones. In those pre-iPod days, I assumed it was some kind of industrial-strength hearing aid. It wasn’t. After a while I saw that he kept fumbling with some sort of gadget in a pocket, and discovered that he was taping everything we said. But before I could find out why he was doing that my transportation arrived, and I was out of there.

Of course, all of this is nonsense. I am not about to believe that when the ancient Mayans devised their calendar they were somehow able to foretell that a hot, wet Sunday in August would be the turning point for mankind. (If they were so smart, why did they let Cortes wipe them out?) I think the whole thing is pretty blackly, depressingly comical.

I also think it’s sad, though, because, my God, here are all those people who believe this nonsense, What’s more, they act on it. According to the papers some hundreds of thousands of people took anywhere from a few hours to a couple of weeks out of their lives simply to chant and relate to each and go, “ooooom.”

And if it happened again today, they’d do it again.

These aren’t bad people. They don’t blow up abortion clinics or sell handguns to teenage gangs. They don’t even put “Sarah Palin for President” bumper stickers on their cars; a lot of them don’t even drive cars, because they don’t want to add to the burden of carcinogens and acid rain.

All they want is to make the world peaceful, loving and as nearly stress-free as a human world can get and, gosh, I’m for all those things, too.

Even the airhead and the Brit, although their grasp on reality was tenuous, seemed sincere in saying that they wished no human being any possible harm at all, only the best of all that’s possible for everyone in the world. And if you add to them the Scientologists and the ests, the Moonies and the Hare Krishnas, the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the transcendental meditators — all the people, in the aggregate the many millions of people, whose deepest desire is to clean up the mess in their own heads and then go on to help others to do the same — what a dedicated work force we are allowing to piddle away its energies on fantasies!

Just imagine what it would be like if each one of them would, say, expend all that energy on some worthwhile social project (by which, of course, I mean one I approve of) — for instance, teaching remedial English to American high-school graduating classes, so that the kids would learn how to spell, punctuate and parse and my wife wouldn’t spend her time swearing to herself as she corrects their freshman compositions. Illiteracy would disappear overnight.

And we’re letting them go to waste.

Do you see what I mean about reality being less plausible than science fiction? None of us would dare make up a race as lunacy-prone as Genus homo for a science-fiction story. No editor would buy it. No reader would believe it.

The Harmonic Convergence wasn’t the only thing of interest in that summer’s Chernobyl. book tour.

Continue reading ‘Through the Harmonic Convergence, Part 3’ »

homophones
 

By Elizabeth Anne Hull

Elizabeth Anne Hull. Photo by Barb Knoff.


Elizabeth
Anne Hull

An important shibboleth of literacy when I was much younger was whether people could properly use, spell, and punctuate the common words to, two, and too. Likewise there, their and they’re, and it’s and its, and dozens of other often confused sets of words.

While a colleague and I were judging advanced-placement credit writing samples, she commented on how damaging spelling mistakes could be to the success of a short piece of writing, the kind on which we were making decisions of whether a student received credit and passed or faced the frustration of failure.

I’m very lucky that spelling always came very easily to me as a child, but I soon realized that it’s not the most important part of writing. That is, it’s necessary but not sufficient to achieve success.

A casual reader of a correctly spelled essay written in standard English grammar with conventional punctuation rarely notices its mechanical perfection. It’s the flaws that grab attention. We notice mistakes even more when we’re looking for a reason to reject what a writer is trying to say — when we dislike or don’t believe the point being made.

There are other ways to go wrong, of course, but to write effectively, you need to do a great many things right. Why distract your reader from your point with needless stumbling blocks to communication? Not everyone will agree with your point, even if you do such things perfectly and reason clearly and provide supporting evidence, but why make it harder to understand what that point is?

Yet I doubt that there’s a foolproof rule that governs the grammar of English that doesn’t have an exception. Wouldn’t people be better off if we could understand what our opponents really meant, in spite of the lame way they said it?

I was making elevator conversation with a stranger the other day on the to, too, two confusion, and my fellow person-on-the-way-to the-fourth-floor mentioned that the debate brought up tutus in her mind, because she taught ballet. Context matters.

How do we ever expect mere human beings to understand one another well enough to reach solutions to the problems facing our nation and our planet, such as how to solve the health-care situation in the U.S. or what can we do to mitigate the damage scientists predict global warming will produce?

Allen R. Sanderson

Allen R. Sanderson

According to the economist Allen R. Sanderson, writing in Chicago Life, about 40 percent of college graduates have taken at least one economics course and 5 percent have majored in it. Good news, you say? Maybe because you think that a clear understanding of the various flows of money can prevent our ever again having a crippling disaster like the Great Depression, or even a close encounter like what happened to us in 2008 again?

Maybe so, but the really bad news for economics professors, according to Sanderson, is that polls show that “there is no discernible difference in understanding basic concepts between those who have taken economics and those who haven’t.”

What economics teaches us spot on, nearly all the time, is how to use resources efficiently to maximize output. That’s probably a good thing if you’re a manufacturer and make a profit on every phoithboinder your plants turn out. Unfortunately for that view, most of us aren’t manufacturers, although maybe we work for the people who are.

We should pay close attention to the Occupiers, because what they want, they say, is simply fairness. Which economics does not measure.

And we might give an ear to old John Maynard Keynes, too, who said, “The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.”

Wouldn’t it be interesting if every college course in economics would allow now and then some random Occupier to tell them how money really flows, and what it accomplishes?

By the time the dozen or so of us hungry MidAmeriCon-goers got desperate about food we learned that the Kansas City Rot had spread through the whole city. The hotel’s own coffee shop would take no reservations before midnight, and their fancier restaurant had already closed its doors. Still, one person among us claimed to know a great restaurant no more than a block away. Since all of us were by then beginning to feel rapid emaciation starting to occur in our bodies, we headed there.

We had no trouble finding the place. Unfortunately, when we got to that great restaurant no more than a block away the doors were closed and the lights were out.

Bad luck; but it wasn’t a major setback because we could all see another restaurant a block or two away, and that one was brightly lit with hospitable-looking tables set out by the curb. But to get there required a few minutes walk, and as we were heading there people were coming out the door, looking disgracefully well-fed, and walking away. And the lights were beginning to go out and the tables were being taken in until, when we arrived, it was as dark and unwelcoming as the first place.

And that was only the beginning.

I don’t remember how many places we tried, but, one after another, they all declined our custom. In the few whose doors were open at all their kitchen had just closed and their chefs were on their way home, or they had run out of the ingredients for most kinds of meals entirely.

At last we found a restaurateur willing to take pity on us. Well, reasonably willing. The best the proprietor said he could do was give us a few wooden chairs and tables scattered around an unused dance floor, but, of course, one that was also lacking in musicians or ballroom-type lights.

By then our yearning for gracious service and perhaps a candle or two was outvoted by our famished condition. We placed the most cursory orders we could imagine, and then pleaded with the waiter to tell us what foul event had turned Kansas City hosts into misanthropes. The waiter, as well as his partner in the folded-menu business, helping our guy out because the plague had scared away customers, too, was pleased to fill us in. That’s when we learned that the precipitating event had been the 1976 Republican National Convention, charged with the task of nominating candidates for the Presidency and the Vice-Presidency of the United States, to do battle with the Democratic candidates for those same offices in the November elections.

Since the Presidential candidate they nominated was the incumbent, Gerald Ford, who hadn’t much wanted to be President in the first place and wasn’t particularly good at running a nation-wide election, since he had never experienced one of his own — and who went on in November to lose to a nearly unknown Georgia peanut farmer — they might as well not have bothered.

But, of course, they didn’t know that at the time. Exuberant after hearing themselves telling each other that they couldn’t lose, the delegates wanted to celebrate the impending victory. Celebrate they then did, and in the course of doing so they laid waste to Kansas City’s entertainment industry in a blizzard of bum checks and invalid credit cards and mouths that were adrool for food and drink, mainly drink.

Continue reading ‘Arrival, Part 3: KC in the GOP’s Wake’ »

Fred and Cathy

Fred and Cathy (Photo by Leah A. Zeldes)

Cathy Pizarro, Betty’s oldest daughter, who helps Betty and me deal with computer malfunctions and much else, came back to live with us years ago after her husband, Tony Pizarro, was hit and killed by an unlicensed driver in a stolen car in New York. Among other things, she took herself back to college, earning her first degree of Associate in Arts.

(We don’t know how we ever got along without her!)