Word of the Week! Valence

Special thanks to Rita Willett, MD, Healthcare Studies and Department of Biology, for our word this week. This is her second nomination and, as a writer, I can say that nothing is more pleasing than “regulars” who read one’s work.

Dr. Willett provides a term that I knew though chemistry classes, indicating particular types of chemical bonds. It appears in many other fields, all of them indicating a bond of some sort. Scouting about with Google, I found a use from linguistics, where valence indicates the number of words in a sentence to which another word, especially a verb, can bond. An verb such as “give” has a valence of three; it makes no sense alone, requiring itself (valence of 1) as well as a direct (2) and indirect object (3), as in “give me the dictionary!”

Dr. Willett and her students encountered our word through NIH’s RDoC Matrix, a graph ranking psychological motivations and threats according to positive or negative “valences.”

At first glance, the word’s meaning in psychology drifts a bit from its use in chemistry or immunology, where it also indicates a binding action for antibodies or antigens. The use of the term in psychology dates back only a century, with the OED Online providing a 1917 example, but one from 1935, in a book called A Dynamic Theory of Personality, really captures the meaning well: “A certain object or event..is experienced as an attraction (or repulsion)… We shall say of such objects that they possess a ‘valence’.”

There, then, in our bond, much like that in other fields. One positive valence I found at the NIH site is, in fact, chemical. Consider the reward given by the brain when it releases dopamine. Get a “like” online (or a regular reader responding at your blog) and you get a little dose of it, naturally.

This is why I often critique smart phones, calling them addictive “dopamine dispensers” and banning their use in class. But I digress, perhaps to release some other pleasant brain chemical related to smugness or curmudgeon-ism.

Looking for images in the Creative Commons of “dopamine reward” led to all sorts of negative valences that had me fretting about wasting professional time, since so many images were simply the same drawing of a human brain with the areas highlighted that are linked to dopamine. On the other hand, laughter must be a positive valence, and short clips of Homer Simpson being forced to eat an infinite number of donuts in Hell came up too under “dopamine reward.” This led me to Homer having a nightmare about “The Planet of the Donuts” where he’s accused of eating half the population.

Find those on your own. Right now, my brain craves the positive valence of consuming a donut, a word I prefer to spell “doughnut.” Then the negative valence of guilt for eating two, not one. I hope the valences that influence your behavior are all positive, from getting enough sleep, rewards, and positive habits.

Correction 4/9/18: I had originally noted “valence” as the spelling for a type of window treatment. As Dr. Willett pointed out, that is a “valance.” I swear I saw it listed with an “e” in one of my dictionaries. Perhaps I need an entry for “ophthalmologist.”

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.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Word of the Week! Absurd

Isn’t it wonderful to have a day dedicated to playing jokes on each other? This post honors April Fool’s Day, a last vestige of festivals from Antiquity such as Saturnalia, where the social order turned upside down.

I began my hunt for the right word by a simple Google search, to find a synonym for “foolish.” Then, looking at “absurd,” I thought how absurd the nonsense word “google” is, having no etymology I could imagine other than a now-forgotten, and rather foolish, cartoon character. Thinking about Google, as well as using it did, however, give us a word for a very special day.My go-to for the history of words, The OED Online, suggests a dual French and Latin parentage for our word, with absurde indicating something “contrary to common sense.” That 14th Century continued into English, with the OED’s examples dating back as far as the 1500s. In Hamlet, we have this: “Fie, tis a fault to heauen, A fault against the dead, a fault to nature, To reason most absurd.”

Unless one is an Adsurdist artist, the absurd is, at best, done deliberately to have fun or make fun of others. Real fools, however, do not recognize their absurdity or even deliberately embark on foolhardy adventures. That sense of reason and absurdity being at odds stands today. That makes “absurd” anything but absurd in formal usage; so many terms drift but this one, like the fool who persists in foolishness, remains delightfully unchanged.

Next week we have a faculty-nominated word from the sciences. It enshrines reason to counteract our foolish pursuits. For now, however, be a bit absurd as you play harmless tricks on friends and family.

Update: This post troubled me because “absurd” does not seem to come from the word “surd” plus the “ab” affix. I found this list of words that employ “ab” in the sense of “away from,” as in “abnormal.” By coincidence, “ab” was the site’s “word root of the day.”

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! Equanimity

Special thanks to Rita Willett,  MD, Healthcare Studies and Department of Biology, for our word this week.  As with our word in the last post, “equanimity” is hard to say and even harder to spell, but it speaks volumes in print.

It provides just the right lexical item for a factious, even frightening time. The OED Online provides These definitions:

“The quality of having an even mind. . . .Fairness of judgement, impartiality, equity.”

Let’s try it in a medical sense, given our source: “Patients went beyond noting how the physician’s advice was medically sound; they emphasized her equanimity in treating the elderly with dignity.”

The term’s history reaches to the 17th Century, with public servant and private diarist Samuel Pepys using our word in much the same way we would today. If the term has fallen out of favor, I wonder if equanimity itself has waned? That virtue, as well as its signifier, deserve better.

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.

Image of Samuel Pepys courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

Word of the Week! Crepuscular

Dr. Ted Bunn, UR Department of Physics, nominated our word. I have always thought of the term in relation to the raccoons and possums, those banes of my chicken flock, or groundhogs, terrors of my garden. Without going into the gory details, let’s just say that as the light fails or grows, I have violently curtailed many of these creatures’ crepuscular activities. Such animals are usually only spotted at dawn or dusk, very rarely in broad daylight. The same goes for the red fox that helps me control their populations. It can best be observed at the verge of the forest at twilight.

Our word means associated with, or active in, twilight.  The Oxford English Dictionary Online has examples dating back as far as the 17th Century, and these add the sense of “indistinct” to the adjective in a way we would never say today, such as this beauty from 1860, “The crepuscular realm of the writer’s own reveries.”

For animals, the word makes sense; creatures that bet their lives upon not being spotted by predators going on two legs, four, or a set of wings need to do their foraging in dim light.

I like the word because of its “mouthfeel”: it creeps over the tongue like a critter in tall grass, slinking about for an unearned meal. As with similar words, we have a Latin ancestor, crepusculum. The verb and noun “creep,” however, come from much further north; there’s Anglo-Saxon ancestry there.  By accident both words could be used for similar situations, with an unknown animal creeping around on its crepuscular rounds, at least until the patient farmer or fox spots it.

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! Scruples

Here comes a word we often hear but rarely think about when we use it. When I think of “scruples,” I have always imagined someone like Dame Maggie Smith’s character from Downton Abbey, who had more scruples than teacups.

Griffin Trau nominated our word; he graduated in December, double majoring in Leadership and International Studies. Since then, he has enrolled in UR’s Master of Liberal Arts program and has one more year of eligibility on our Football team. According to Griffin, “This one is interesting for its root in Latin scrupus meaning ‘small pebble,’ or more figuratively ‘anxiety.’ The word is sometimes used in its historic sense in landscaping for the small pebbles used in driveways, paths, or buffer zones…you know, the ones that always end up in your shoes (that might be how the Romans came up with anxiety).”

In 2009, I walked the remains of a Roman road in Yorkshire, and it would make me anxious to think of little rocks in my sandals with miles to go to reach the next vicus or oppidum. In fact, my reading tells me that Roman roads were amazingly maintained. I’d doubt too many scruples vexed travelers.  Yet travelers today take their scruples with them, such as refusing to eat certain foreign foods or, in a gaff I long ago made in a pub, tipping where a local culture does not accept gratuities.

How we went from pebbles to moral or ethical sensibility is anyone’s guess. OED Online gives a first use as a noun, meaning a very small unit of measurement, from 1382.  That appears to have been lost, as well as its use as a verb. In that case The OED traces it to 1627, meaning to hesitate based on a moral or ethical principle. It also had a broader meaning to hesitate or doubt, usage that seems to have faded completely today. A fleeting adjectival usage appears as well, scrupling. Let’s not descend further into this as it would be, at best, a scrupling pursuit.

Proper usage today would be as follows, “She was a Countess from a well regarded English family, and she had many scruples about who should be admitted to her inner circle of associates.”Another native of England, Alfred Hitchcock, noted that “There is nothing to winning, really. That is, if you happen to be blessed with a keen eye, an agile mind, and no scruples whatsoever.”

A less morally fraught use would involve paying attention to detail, as with “After someone broke into his unlocked car, John became scrupulous about making sure he locked the car doors every night.”

Think of the two words we still associate with this Latinate antiquity: scrupulous and its shiftless sibling, unscrupulous. For the verb, I would scruple to use it in a modern sentence. That’s a pity. “Scruple” has a rich history and losing its verbal form robs the language of richness, since it adds a moral sense to our hesitation or anxiety.

That said, I am no scrupulous guardian of the past. Changes to our language as often enrich as impoverish. Yet I have scruples about many words we lose, for with them a scruple of nuance can vanish; it is the greatest thing I fear as our language changes.

See all of our Words of the Week here.

Word of the Week! Cyclopean

Welcome to a new feature at the Writing Center’s site. I (or a guest) will provide a new word regularly with some etymology as well as clarity about how to use it. When the word came not from my head but from our students, faculty, or staff, they will be recognized.

Our word of the week is “Cyclopean.” Thanks to student Haley Lawrence for providing it last semester in my Eng. 215 class, when we read the works of Howard Philips Lovecraft. Here’s a typically long-winded Lovecraftian example of the adjective:

“Behind the figure was a vague suggestion of a Cyclopean architectural background.”

The usage is from the story “The Call of Cthulhu,” and here it suggests buildings not only large, but inhumanly so, to the point of discomfort. So why the image of Ray Harryhausen’s  famous cyclops from the 1958 film Seventh Voyage of Sinbad?

A search through a few dictionaries shows a first recorded use in 1641 (OED Online). In that instance, humans shook in awe before “the Cyclopean power that which [sic] is the glory of Christ.”  The Christian savior qualifies as more than human, but the idea of a Cyclops, a one-eyed giant, seems lost here.  The OED also records a later usage for a telescope, certainly a one-eyed and powerful tool. That’s closer to that mythical creature who terrorized Odysseus until the wily Greek outwitted him.

The Cyclops of the epic poem was large, smart, and crafty in many ways. He was, most importantly, a rather domestic monster, keeping a herd of sheep and living in a large cave. I suppose the myth of the race of Cyclops led to all sorts of explanations for natural or ancient stonework as well as metaphors for contemporary architecture.

In Lovecraft’s prose, the term applies to large masonry of a sort that no human of his age might erect: blocks of Egyptian pyramids, The Giant’s Causeway in Ireland, and so forth.  Do not simply substitute “cyclopean” for “huge”: something must be huge to the point of inspiring awe. I’d call The Empire State Building or Hoover Dam Cyclopean; a McMansion or highway bridge, not so much. Imagine, 2,000 years hence, an archeologist writing “old New York staggers the explorer with the Cyclopean ruins of Midtown.”

My first print dictionary, a nearly antique Webster’s New Collegiate, adds another twist beyond one-eyed or large:  encyclopedia. The older term “cyclopedia” is a synonym for our familiar printed or online repository of information. It too is vast; think of what we mean when we say that someone has “encyclopedic knowledge” of a subject. One rarely sees printed encyclopedias any more, but if you spot one, consider how much shelf-space it takes and think of those one-eyed, inhuman giants of mythology.

Nominate a word by e-mailing me (jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu) or leaving a comment here.

 

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.

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.

 

wiki wabbit

logobugs bunnyfoia redacted

If you ever watched Bugs Bunny…

You might read the title of this posting with an echo of Elmer Fudd expressing his chagrin at one of our beloved tricksters. The relevance of this, if not immediately apparent, will be suggested in a bit.

 Wiki what?

The Oxford English Dictionary tells us that “wiki” is a Hawaiian word meaning fast, the emphatic form of which is “wikiwiki.” This phrase was first used to apply to a user-edited website called WikiWikiWeb composed by Ward Cunningham in 1995 – this was the first wiki. With 9,889,432 views per hour in English alone, most folks know about Wikipedia, but fewer understand what a wiki is or how to use one. Unlike traditional semi-static/gatekeeper websites that require complex software to create and are often controlled by a single person, a wiki can be built online, often for free, and designed so a limited or unlimited number of people can edit it easily.

I have been using Wikispaces for my writing workshops as well as for process drafting of research essays in my first-year writing courses. All changes are recorded in the “history” tab, so there is a complete record of who wrote what and when and this makes for a more thorough collection of drafts and revisions. Often the pages will have a “discussion” tab that is useful for writing workshop feedback, posting questions to readers etc. But wikis can be used for more than writing courses, they can be convenient and flexible group collaboration tools for any project, academic or otherwise. Browse the sites for Wetpaint or PB Works and note the varying complexity and features offered, or check WikiMatrix to find a handy tool for comparing a number of wikis of your own choosing.

Oh, and about those leaks….

In terms of “wiki-ness,” the Wikileaks website is not really a wiki since it is not editable by its users but its revelations certainly introduce an element of speed into the slower pace of partial diplomatic disclosure. Aside from speed, another aspect of wiki-ness manifest by Wikileaks is that of transparency and accountability – or at least the transparency and accountability of the powerful, since Wikileaks founder Julian Assange is less than transparent himself.

On a wiki, every user and every change are recorded, there is no way to hide and all information is immediately available to users. By contrast, FOIA information is laborious to obtain and is often heavily redacted, which is partly why these leaks evoke mixed feelings for me. Why do we subscribe to transparency so selectively? Isn’t one of our chief criticisms of North Korea its absolute lack of transparency? No doubt these leaks will increase tension, make negotiation more difficult and possibly risk some lives but it might also be argued that, in a WMD world, everyone’s life is at risk every day when governments are not transparent.

However, there is a surprising amount of government and institutional cooperation worldwide and a massive assault by individual hackers to shut down or shut out Wikileaks, a fact suggesting that the threat we feel from transparency trumps the value we claim to put on it. Or perhaps it is a measure of our faith in the goodness of what our leaders and institutions do in secret, but this doesn’t seem in keeping with our recent waves of anti-government sentiment, so the motivation of leak opponents is unclear to me. And now, these anti-leak actions have led to “Operation Payback” a barrage of counter-hacking by supporters of Wikileaks in what may be our first public cyberwar.

One thing is for sure: without that cloak of secrecy, with the knowledge that we were watching, powerful persons and groups at all levels would act quite differently, perhaps with more humility, responsibility and vision. As the ambiguous Wikileaks logo suggests, time is running out for our planet and it may just take some kind of digital trickster to stir things up. Ultimately such transparency may be what assures our survival.

thats all folks

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