Word of the Week! Referee

“Referee” sounds simple enough to sports fans, but in academic parlance the term has much the same meaning. The OED shows us the common link: many circumstances where a neutral judge or arbiter or official must make a decision.

When one submits work to a refereed (or peer-reviewed) journal, the arbiters are not just the editors of the journal, but a panel of informed professionals in the field. I found the University of Texas Libraries as well as my own campus library offer fine guides on this.

The verb “referee” is quite similar.

Please nominate a word or metaphor useful in academic writing by e-mailing me (jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu) or leaving a comment below.

See all of our Words of the Week here.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

Metaphor of the Month: Ivory Tower

This week we begin a new monthly feature. And the timing, in our second week of classes, is spot-on appropriate.

For new students who may have forgotten the concept, a metaphor is a type of figurative speech calling a person or thing something it is not, such as “John is a real skunk!” or the famous parables in the Bible, with the Kingdom of Heaven suddenly becoming a mustard seed.

Now on to our first academic metaphor.

We think, commonly, of “The Ivory Tower” being the haunt of cloistered academics.  Where on earth did that come from? French, actually. The OED Online traces the origin of our term to the second quarter of the 19th Century, from tour d’ivoire, as a place of sanctuary from the world and its troubles.  The image is older, going back to (thank you, Wikipedia) to The Song of Solomon 7:4:

“Thy neck is as a tower of ivory; thine eyes like the fishpools in Heshbon, by the gate of Bathrabbim: thy nose is as the tower of Lebanon which looketh toward Damascus.”

The similes and metaphors just pile up here, rather odd tools of seduction, and in this book of the Bible they get racy, fast. Have a look yourself.

In any case, I find it fascinating that none of the examples provided by the Oxford English Dictionary, as well as my antique version of Webster’s New Collegiate, show the drift in meaning to academia, especially toward the negative sense that political pundits often use to attack us. Only The American Heritage Dictionary sheds a little light (another metaphor!) on our phrase, noting a place of “intellectual considerations rather than practical everyday life.”

I have many colleagues who would argue that our business in the Ivory Tower is very much about everyday life, especially how to live it in a considered and enlightened way, but this post is no more an op-ed than it is a look at the Bible’s salacious metaphors. Yet that final definition gets us to the pejorative sense of the term. Other ages had Lotus-Lands. We moderns are only left with an ivory tower.

Please nominate a word or metaphor useful in academic writing by e-mailing me (jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu) or leaving a comment below.

See all of our Words of the Week here.

Photo by DAVID ILIFF. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0 of St. John’s College, Cambridge, courtesy of Wikipedia.

Word of the Week! Syllabus

For the first week of classes, I thought to feature a word appropriate to the season. So what is so special about that document, online nowadays, that lists assignments, schedule, and policies for a class?

Not much, really. In sum, it is but a concise summary of a subject to be covered, a compendium, a list. The OED Online dates modern usage to the 17th Century. In Antiquity the term may or may not have had the same meaning, so it may not qualify as a loan-word from Latin.

I came to like the term; it mightily confused me as a first-generation, first-year student at The University of Virginia in 1979. It was to be the first of many bizarre  terms that I encountered. Many of the new-to-me terms were Latinate, as alien as Hittite despite my four years in a Catholic high school where the priests could speak Latin. Consider that we “proctor” an exam, end four years of undergraduate work with a “commencement,” earn Latin-phrased honors such as cum laude, and labor in the Grove of Akademos, the source of the word “Academy.”

So as you peruse (or write! the hour is late!) your syllabi for the upcoming academic term, be on the lookout for other traces of academia’s Classical heritage.

The Word of the Week will appear every 2nd, 3rd, and 4th Monday of the academic year, with a new entry, Metaphor of the Month, for our first Mondays.

Please nominate a word (or metaphor!) useful in academic writing by e-mailing me (jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu) or leaving a comment below.

See all of our Words of the Week here.

Word of the Week! Subfusc

Once again, Dr. Ted Bunn, UR Department of Physics, nominated our word. This time he picked one that was completely new to me. As Dr. Bunn put it in an e-mail:

It can just mean gloomy, apparently, but it can also mean “the formal clothing worn for examinations and formal occasions at some universities.” In Dorothy Sayers’s novel set at Oxford, she uses it to describe clothing in dark, subdued shades, suitable for wearing under academic regalia. I always think of it on graduation day.

Only one of my American dictionaries has a brief entry, supporting Professor Bunn’s conclusion that the word is British English, not its American cousin. The OED Online provides both senses of the word given above, as an adjective or noun. The Latin roots are plain, sub + fuscus (dusky). We have a similar derivation in obfuscate and obfuscation.

As recently at 2006, the Times of London noted that “Undergraduates at Oxford University have voted by four to one to retain subfusc costume when sitting examinations.” They voted again to retain it in 2015.  There are other specificities for subfusc at Oxford. As I learned from this article about the differences between it and Cambridge, subfusc means “a kind of uniform of a black suit, white shirt and black robe, plus a black tie for men and a black ribbon for women.”
The customs surrounded academic regalia have crossed the Atlantic far better than the word itself or, for that matter, the often subfusc weather of the British Isles. While I cannot find meteorological examples of the word, it certainly works in that context.

The image of a subfusc sky with the light just returning is my own, taken at twilight in Kenmare, Ireland in 2011.  The academic regalia of Oxford comes to us courtesy of Wikipedia.

This blog will continue all summer, so nominate a word by e-mailing me (jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu) or leaving a comment below.

See all of our Words of the Week here.

Word of the Week! A Priori

Yes, I know it is two words, but you will hardly ever encounter this phrase or its counterpart a posteriori outside academia. Inside it, the Latin term speaks volumes and appears often enough to merit recognition in the blog. The phrase occurs as adjective and adverb. I often run into it, casually, as a noun. That usage does not appear in my references (but I like it anyway).

I first puzzled over a priori concepts (and had more than a few of them toppled)in the early 1980s, when I was an undergrad at The University of Virginia.  As I came to understand it then, the term meant “principles we assume to be true with out any further questioning,” an idea that I came to see as fundamentally at odds with academic inquiry. A priori ideas were, in my graduate program at Indiana heavy with postmodern literary theory, lampooned.

I suppose this a priori statement would get the founder of UVA, Thomas Jefferson, in trouble were he to write in an essay for some of my grad-school classes:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

That Declaration gave us one of the most famous a priori statements in recorded history and began a revolution that one hopes has not ended. But wait. It appears that I need more schooling before I make any claims a priori.  I assumed something, and as a student once said in class, ” ‘assume’ makes an ass of ‘u’ and me.”

When I open the pages of The American Heritage Dictionary, my sense of our phrase comes third. Instead, the reference book gives “proceeding from a known or assumed cause” pride of place. The OED Online puts my sense of a priori second, as “in accordance with one’s previous knowledge or prepossessions.”  The dictionary also provides a clear 1862 example, “Reason commands us, in matters of experience, to be guided by observational evidence, and not by à priori principles.”

We have lost the accent over the “a,” but I lost more in my reasoning without further investigation.  Both reference works imply that a priori ideas do not provide the final word for anything. They are, instead, merely presuppositions for making future claims. That works well with fundamental principles of academic reasoning. H.W Fowler’s classic A Dictionary of Modern English Usage links a priori reasoning to deduction. Mr. Holmes would be proud of us.

A priori reasoning works well outside revolutionary manifestos, the Humanities, or detective work; it is, in fact, essential in the natural sciences. In physics, bodies near the Earth fall at 32 feet per second per second. It was not until Galileo’s era that we came to understand how gravity is related to the mass of a planet and would not be the same on other heavenly bodies. Empirical evidence followed.  That new scientific principle became, then, a new a priori concept for those working in the field.

With the end of the semester nigh, consider the a priori concepts you have had challenged or overturned in your life’s journey. More will follow, a posteriori when learning new ideas. I leave that up to the reader to learn, along with the meanings of a posteriori.

This blog will continue all summer, so nominate a word by e-mailing me (jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu) or leaving a comment below.

See all of our Words of the Week here. If  you want to read more about whether Sherlock Holmes employs deductive or inductive reasoning, have a peek here.

Images courtesy of Wikipedia.

Out, Damned (Gravy) Spot!

gravy spot

Image courtesy of “Make your Own Bar-B-Q Sign

Imagine an orator making a speech after a formal dinner, and imagine the speaker doing so very well. In the end, however, a large segment of the audience never recalls the content because of the large gravy spot on the speaker’s tie or blouse.

The speaker lost the audience. So what are the sorts of small errors that make otherwise sympathetic readers stop reading? A general list may be nigh impossible, but I will take a stab at what most perturbs academic readers of student prose. In doing so, I won’t focus on the fatal flaws of novice writing: sweeping generalizations, sentence fragments, lack of support for claims.

  • Confused words. One does not hear the difference, in speech, between the homonyms “here” and “hear,” but in writing, such gaffs make the writer look unprofessional, if not ignorant. See our Center’s list of “Commonly Confused Words.”
  • Overstatement. One study or source does not conclusive proof make, even if it is a valid source or study. Academics expect an abundance of supporting evidence, including admissions as to where more study may be needed or the limitations of a source. One might write “the 2011 study only considered effects on male college students at private universities” as a way to present such data.
  • Names. Student writers often use both first and last names for sources. It may be appropriate to cite a full name on first reference or for clarity when, say, two Smiths have been cited. But in most cases, in-text sources need only a last-name reference. A graver (gravier?) spot is to misspell the name of a source. I once had a reader of an article stop on page one when I did this, back in grad school. He said “after that I did not trust your prose any longer.” Ouch.
  • Format errors. APA, MLA, Chicago, and similar are not systems of fiendish torture. Writers use them to get work into a format needed for a particular journal or conference proceeding. I frequently see errors with a misplaced parenthesis, italics and double quotations both used for titles of sources, and the like. A first cousin of this problem can be adding blank lines between paragraphs, odd indents, and other mechanical gaffs. When in doubt…ask the prof!

These “spots” come to mind right away. Got more? Let me know in the comments section.

And The Students Stop Blogging?

At the very time that I feel most comfortable teaching with blogs, I read that blogging is on the decline among the very demographic I teach.

I like Twitter and other sites for short notices, but few ideas can be expressed in 140 characters. Perhaps “the unexamined life is not worth living” by Socrates would fit in a Tweet. The Apology would not.

As usual, I’ll blame what I call a life of constant interruption. My Neo-Luddite side, and it is a prominent side, finds some cold comfort in the warnings of writers and thinkers such as Nicholas Carr, Mark Edmundson, and Sven Birkerts. Even tech-savvy Sherry Turkle’s book, Alone Together, warns of the shallowness of our “social” networking habits.

I look out for such writing, so I quickly ran across Gregory Palmerino’s article, “Teaching Bartleby to Write,” in the January 2011 issue of College English. Palmerino writes of his “students who would prefer not to remember to hand in writing because of their complex and distractable lives.”  Such students rarely linger in my classes after the add/drop period; the writing is plain on the syllabus about the consequences of Bartleby’s passive-aggressive preference of preferring not to do.

While I do find a kindred spirit in Palmerino, I part ways with his resistance to new technologies in the writing classroom. Blogging provides one excellent example of a type of writing that demands focus. Distraction here, in a post, can be as fatal as it would be in a short story or analytical essay.  So far, however, none of my students Tweet or use Facebook status-updates for any sort of serious discourse.  I doubt they ever will.

In print and online, we who cherish nuance and complexity in language need do something. Rejecting the new is not the answer.  So for now, my students, at least, will keep posting to blogs and replying to each other.

The Curse of the B Minus: Writers, Teachers, Failure

Creative-Commons image courtesy of targuman’s Flickr photostream

When faculty believe that they have failed as writing instructors, why do they fear that outcome? We might dread poor evaluations, angry or quiet classrooms, or–the worst fear of all–that we have let down students on their journeys to attain something like wisdom.

I say “something like” because no university education or series of excellent assignments can impart wisdom. At best, I might lead writers to see how poorly they are served by unsupported generalizations. In fact, I often try to do no more than that, plus get writers to pay attention to their own words, in the course of a semester.

Assignments might fail, even the pilot-year of  new class. But faculty members, like their students in a writing-intensive course, can learn from failure. Perhaps not enough time in graduate school goes into examining the psychology of designing assignments and conducting class, but the hard lessons of failure should be added to the curriculum. I never once did the sort of role-playing exercises that Ryan and Zimmerelli propose in their training manual for peer tutors (106-110).  Had I done so, in the presence of a faculty mentor, I might have avoided what occurred my first semester teaching writing.

It might be a counterpart to a book that is making the rounds, The Blessing of the B Minus.

At Indiana I was so terrified teaching my first class that I broke into “flop sweats” in the classroom that night in Ballantine Hall.  That got better fast, but one event sticks with me to this day. I had a student named Ellen who was a talented writer, a product of one of the best high schools in the state. But Ellen never pushed herself as hard as she might. She got an easy A on my first essay, a short diagnostic piece that counted little toward her final grade. The exercise intended to point out to me which writers had trouble with remedial issues; Ellen had none.

We Associate Instructors had been schooled in Elbow’s ideas and had read Nancy Sommers’ “Responding to Student Writing,” a 1982 masterpiece that changed my philosophy of writing commentary.  We had not, however, discussed what to do with a writer who had never before received a B- on anything. Anything.

Ellen appealed that grade, her second of the term, to me, and I patiently sat down to show her why the project did not match expectations for academic writing. She was crushed, despite my assurance that the second paper would count no more than 10 or 15 percent (I forget) of the final grade. Never before, she noted, had she gotten anything lower than an A.

She thanked me, gathered her books and papers, then left the ready-to-be-condemned building that housed the AIs. I was a terrible undergraduate until my last year, so I watched her with real puzzlement as she strode off into the Hoosier twilight.  The next class, she was absent. And the next. Indiana was not Richmond, and I had no way of letting an advisor know. There were no e-lists or other means of communications, beyond a land-line phone.

I thought the student was gone from campus, perhaps ill, until I crossed paths, literally, with her a month later. She crossed the street to avoid me, and did so again once or twice. Bloomington is a small town, so when I never saw her again, I wondered if Ellen had left the university. And was it my fault?

She got an F in Eng. 131 since she never withdrew.

Steve Sherwood’s article for writing tutors, “Apprenticed to Failure: Learning From the Students We Can’t Help” provides signal advice for teachers as well as for peer tutors. Sherwood advocates Peter Elbow’s advice that we should create “Evaluation-free zones” on our campuses (qtd. in Sherwood 53). We faculty might enable writers to practice for very low stakes, at first, in order to learn the idiosyncrasies of our academic fields or our personal preferences.

I should have done that. I should have done many things. Now I do them.

It is easy to say, and be smug while saying it, that a B- is not a life-changing experience, but I do wonder what became of Ellen.

Works Cited:

Ryan, Leigh and Lisa Zimmerelli. The Bedford Guide For Writing Tutors. New York: Bedford, 2010.

Sherwood, Steve. “Apprenticed to Failure: Learning From the Students We Can’t Help.” The Writing Center Journal 17.1 (Fall 1996): 49-57.

Wonderful Wordle

Wordle is one of several tag cloud  sites that can be fun to play with and may have useful potentials for writing and reading.  A tag cloud or word cloud image functions like a visual concordance that reveals word frequency through font size. Most of these sites have various tools for adjusting the image, font, orientation and number of words processed so that a variety of “readings” are possible. Here’s a word cloud made from our WAC Program page that portrays writing as the foundation of a program involving curriculum, consultants and faculty. Other permutations of this image left the word “writing” looming ominously above the other words, perhaps suggesting a potentially crushing descent.

Wordle WAC

And here’s a word cloud I made with Maria Rajtik’s newsletter submission “Feedback: A Grade is more than a letter”

 Rajtik essay

Word clouds can also enhance literary discussion. One word cloud I made for Gilman’s story “The Yellow Wallpaper” surprised me by demonstrating that the name of John was the most prominent word in the story even though the tale is about a woman being subjected to the “rest cure” of the celebrity Dr. Weir Mitchell.

Yellow Wallpaper

Others have been Presidential Inauguration speech word clouds to provide interesting insights into their rhetorical patterns and even the economic prognostications of Fed Chair Ben Bernanke have been fed into word cloud generators to see what comes out. This new digital tool could be usefully applied to famous speeches, editorial essays, mission statements and even personal writing. To create effective word clouds Smashing design magazine suggests a few “good practices” .

Here is a word cloud of the first 100 words of “The Richmond Promise”

wordle-richmond-promise.jpg

A Word cloud of Sarah Palin’s Tea Party speech is revealing…

Palin Tea Party

What texts come to your mind for word cloud analysis?

Check out these other word cloud sites and start your own experiments:

Free online word cloud generator

TagCrowd

Tagxedo

Many Eyes

Emerson’s Pedagogy – radically relevant

            rows of desks     rows of desks   rows of desks

As some American scholars continue to drag their feet, preferring to hunker in their bunker of familiar disciplinary and practical entrenchments, the exciting rush of the Digital Revolution reminds us that the wisdom of Ralph Waldo Emerson continues to shine through the smoke of battle with practical pedagogical insights that demonstrate an increasing relevance in the digital age. Though bold thinkers and creative educators like Sir Ken Robinson are beginning to re-assess traditional pedagogical perspectives & practices, the rusty residues of the Industrial Revolution continue to stain and restrain the eager minds of our students who often arrive full of enthusiastic hopes for a humane educational experience only to be disappointed by increasingly mechanistic and inflexible institutions that are unconsciously shaped by a kind of educational Taylorism.

factory school

 In his “American Scholar” address to the Phi Beta Kappa Society of Cambridge in 1837, Emerson writes “Perhaps the time is already come…when the sluggard intellect of this continent will look from under its iron lids, and fill the postponed expectation of the world with something better than the exertions of mechanical skill.” Here Emerson seems to be suggesting that America has much more to offer than physical manufacturing and industrial development. But in the digital age, a re-ordering of his last four words here might suggest a more relevant contemporary hope for something greater than mechanical production. Emerson had not seen Ford’s mass production assembly line, but his emphasis in this essay and in “Self-Reliance” indicate his awareness of the dangers of homogenizing conformity and robotic (re)production when it comes to learning.

In his address, Emerson mentions “laborious reading” and seems to anticipate the objections of traditionalist complaints about the risks of reduced rigor whenever anyone strays from strict disciplinary boundaries and practices. Radically, Emerson argues that a college education should involve something more important and inspiring than mere content delivery, mechanical productions or laborious achievements:

“Of course, there is a portion of reading quite indispensable to a wise man. History and exact science he must learn by laborious reading. Colleges, in like manner, have their indispensable office,–to teach elements. But they can only highly serve us, when they aim not to drill, but to create; when they gather from far every ray of various genius to their hospitable halls, and, by the concentrated fires, set the hearts of their youth on flame.”

Yet if we polled students across the country, I would bet that the group of students with a glowing passion for learning would be relatively small. Perhaps we could call this the “enthusiasm gap” – that gulf between the lofty educational hopes of our students and their dull and sometimes humiliating encounters with the dry, distant, “rigor” of an outmoded or unplanned pedagogy that often crushes those hopes. Sometimes the authoritative deployment of the word “rigor” can be an excuse for petty meanness or simply a distraction from a more serious intellectual and creative rigor mortis that can develop in a protected and powerful elite. This is a “rigor” that will never enkindle the flames of enthusiastic learning or evoke a desire for education.

The etymology of “educate” includes the idea of drawing forth or drawing out of a student his particular genius, it is not simply the disciplinary stamping and rigid reproduction of pre-approved perspectives and forms of expression.  It’s not hard for students to recognize the disconnect between institutional lip-service to values like “free expression” and “passion for learning” and the stifling realities of their everyday experience.

Many students desperately want to learn, but they rightfully resist a high-pressure non-stop assembly line approach to teaching that cranks out slick but somewhat identical mechanical productions devoid of genuine student input and engagement. Some of these students accept their disillusionment and re-group to successfully “play the game,” but other students drop out – or worse.

It seems that good old Emerson was way ahead of the curve when it comes to pedagogical insight and in our digital age, his ideas are more relevant than ever.