Metaphor of the Month! Shrinking Violet

Violet plantBy Leo Barnes

A shrinking violet is an exaggeratedly shy person. Since violets grow in the low herb layer of most forests, their rich purple petals are often veiled behind other vegetation. So the metaphor goes, getting a shy person out of their shell is as hard as spotting violets in a forest.

In pop culture, two figures – ironically highly visible superheroes – come to mind: Violet Parr and Salu Digby. Parr, the shy heroine from The Incredibles franchise, has the power of invisibility while Digby from DC comics is better known as her alter ego Shrinking Violet, and can shrink herself. How apropos!

Violet from The IncrediblesWhile we might often overlook shrinking violets, both popular media and real life remind us not to judge a book by its cover. Charismatic Atticus Finch may have endeared himself to readers in To Kill a Mockingbird but it was Boo Radley, the town recluse, who saved the day. In the Harry Potter novels, the unprepossessing Neville Longbottom was the one who ultimately killed Voldemort. In 2014, Ronald Read, a Vermont janitor and gas station clerk, donated six million dollars to his town library and hospital – money he had earned over a lifetime of frugality and investing. This from a man who barely graduated high school and was often mistaken for being broke.

While shrinking violets can be difficult to draw out, in my book a reserved nature is certainly better than an overbearing one. Sometimes shyness is endearing and, in the case of Read or Radley, even noble.

Editor’s Note: Thank you, Leo, for another excellent guest-post. I found a claim of first usage in 1820, followed by explosive growth on both sides of the Atlantic, here.

Leo’s in Indonesia for the summer, teaching English in Kediri in June as part of Dr. Leslie Bohon’s Global EFL program. I’m jealous!

The violets may have faded in my yard, but the blog continues all summer after a hiatus (a 2022 WOTW) for the rest of June. You might, however, see a loan-word from Irish here, mid-month.

As you enjoy your holidays, send words and metaphors to me by e-mail (jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu) or leaving a comment below.

See all of our Metaphors of the Month here and Words of the Week here.

(Overused) Word of the Week! Disconnect

disconnectReaders know how much I despise the noun “Society” and adjective “Super.” To me, these words indicate rushed or even lazy thinking.

While our super irritating adjective super crops up mostly in speech, society just cannot understand why using society as a noun without any qualification seems so evil in my classes.

There. I got to use them both. And I feel soiled. Now I have a third word to indicate half-baked thought: disconnect. Not as a verb, when it has a clear meaning, but as a noun. Consider this popular bit of student-think:

A serious disconnect emerges between how the two characters think of their grandmother’s past.

Just. Stop. It. I’m adding the word to my Pet Peeves list, which means writers lose 10 points and have a week to regain some or all of them by revision.

This will, I fear, be a losing battle, but consider all of the options: misunderstanding, rift, estrangement, rupture, breakdown, gulf, and so so many more!

My argument is less with the word than with the lack of variety and nuance it evidences in student work. So please, writers, slow down and consider (with a thesaurus and many examples, if you must) the power of synonyms.

Keep hope alive; Elle Magazine published an article lamenting the overuse of “super.”  We might be shouting into a hurricane, but civilization may survive, yet!

Send me misused or overused words, along with other good words and metaphors, by e-mail (jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu) or leaving a comment below.

See all of our Metaphors of the Month here and Words of the Week here.

Creative Commons image courtesy of The Noun Project

Word of the Week! “Analyzation”

I usually focus on words I like, but this one needs comment, if only to keep more students from using it. It cropped up in a midterm, and I marked but did not penalize it greatly.

Note that I used “penalize” rather than “punish.” The former word exemplifies “derivation,” where an affix (prefix or suffix) gets attached to a word to create a new one. Thus, from “penal” we get “penalize.”  I am not overly fond of words made with the “-ize” suffix, for no good reason other than their sound. Thus I do not put them in my list of faculty pet peeves. Like an ugly new car that gradually looks better over the  years, “-ize” verbs seem to beat down purists about style and usage.  I barely notice “penalize” now, considering it a less punitive synonym for “punish.”

Not so for “analyzation.” Consider its root: “analysis,” a word as old as Ancient Greece. The Online Etymology Dictionary supports that honorable origin. As with many “-ize” words, “analyze” provides us with a neologism that does powerful work. I use it as the soul of my courses where students analyze literary work. In fact, it’s the most powerful intellectual skill a student can hone in college, where I often tell writers “tell me what you learned. Even if I know the subject already, you can analyze what is new to you. That will then be new again to me.”

But the popular student word “analyzation” takes word-derivation a step too far, like a Rube Goldberg machine with too many steps to perform an action. A writer using our word simply makes a longer synonym for “analysis” that to a novice or careless reader sounds professional but actually, as in the title of a well respected essay by scholar David Bartholomae, merely provides another instance of “Inventing the University” rather than learning how we academics actually talk and write.

Moral: Never avoid analysis, but avoid “analyzation” at all costs.

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.

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.

New International Blog About Writing Centers

I’m really pleased to announce “Connecting Writing Centers Across Borders,” a new publication by Writing Lab Newsletter. It gives me great pleasure personally and professionally to collaborate with editors Muriel Harris and Alan Benson in working on the first postings for the blog. Some veteran colleagues such as Carl Glover have already posted their ideas.

Our focus, at the blog and a new column in WLN, will be international collaboration. The need is there, as writing-center initiatives are cropping up globally, often taking shape in culturally appropriate ways for their home nations. My own first post focuses on how technology from a center builds ethos and influence on campus.

One shoe cannot fit every foot, and as I learned in 2013 at the Conference for The European Association for the Teaching of Academic Writing, best practices vary widely and the US model of peer-tutor work is far from universal.

Using the new blog and column, we directors, tutors, writing consultants, peer mentors, and those doing similar work plan to share resources, stories from our centers, and advice to help our writers and each other.

Google Sites: Page-Level Permissions

Google What?

I do not often read Google’s blog about their documents features, but recently I was looking for an answer to a few questions about Google Sites, the tool that I now use for all of my course syllabi. Unlike traditional web-site builders, Google Sites is collaborative; this is common for wikis, web-site software long popular in K-12 education but rarer in higher education.

In doing my reading at Google’s blog, I found a game-changer for writing teachers. Sites has quickly become my favorite tool for a few reasons:

  • It’s free
  • It offers a navigational sidebar that I like from PBworks‘ wiki
  • It lacks obtrusive advertisements
  • It has the ease of use that Wikispaces offers, but appears even more familiar to MS-Office users.

To my knowledge, however, none of Google’s smaller competitors, and certainly nothing from the desktop-centric Microsoft empire, offer a creator the ability to grant permissions, by page, to those sharing a site. Google explains the reasons for this feature here.

Course-Management Software vs. Sites

For years, I’ve refused to use BlackBoard because it has made guest access so hard. In my field, writing & composition, faculty routinely share lesson plans and syllabi, so Blackboard never met my needs. Our Eng. 383 syllabus has become a model for many other schools’ training programs precisely because colleagues outside the class can find it with a Web search and view the content.

That said, I’m pleased that Blackboard, seeing what the competition offers for free, has given faculty a “public” option for Bb sites. But I’ve argued elsewhere that Blackboard is an overpriced “transition” technology in the age of social media and Web 2.0 shared applications.  Blackboard only recently added such technology to its product.

For now, Sites lacks the sort of testing features that Blackboard has, but I don’t use quizzes that way. It would be possible, however, to link to an online gradebook created with Google Docs. You can see the results (but not students’ grades!) in the latest iteration of my Eng. 383 syllabus, used for training Writing Consultants at the University of Richmond.

How the Collaboration Works

The process of granting permissions for a Google Site is a little tedious at first. I had to invite users to the site with “view” permissions…and they must have a Gmail account. But to my knowledge it cannot be one the University grants, either, as my site resides on the public servers at Google. Had I known this, I might have set up the site under UR’s rubric, but that change of service-providers had not occurred when I first set up my Google Site.

The nature of collaboration and the presence of multimedia in modern writing classrooms make something like Google Sites, with page permissions enabled, essential to how I teach. That said, Google still needs to add a few features:

  • The ability to archive the site locally
  • A somewhat more streamlined process for adding users.

Overall, however, this free tool is phenomenal, and I plan to recommend it to colleagues.

Image source: pre-Sites days in Eng. 103 classroom, late 1990s.

A Competitive Edge: Writing Consultants in the Job Search

This column was submitted by Steven Inglis, Writing Center Alumnus, Class of 2011.

This past summer I had the privilege of working as an intern at Nationwide’s Government Relations office in Washington, DC. As part of a team that functions as a liaison between the company, its clients, and the Federal Government, I quickly found that the skills I used and taught as a Writing Consultant were invaluable to my job. The more I thought about it, the experience gained writing, editing, mentoring, organizing endless drafts of papers, and working with clients (both teachers and students) provided skills that are applicable and transferable to any job.

Current Writing Consultants: many of you already have (or will soon be searching for) internships and job opportunities for this coming summer. Although this may seem like a long time from now, I encourage each of you to realize the value of the experience you are gaining and how it can be cited on your resume, in interviews, and finally used in the workplace. From my own experience, I can say without reservation that working as a Writing Consultant helped me most with the following:

First and most obviously, writing and editing. From simple e-mails to high-level industry documents and letters to Congressmen, my supervisors were impressed that I could not only draft an error-free document the first time around, but also demonstrate an uncanny attention to detail when peer reviewing. I could provide substantive recommendations on organization and presentation of an argument or message. This is something we work with daily as Writing Consultants, and a skill that is vital to a majority of jobs. Consider this: a 2004 College Board survey found that 86% of responding companies would frown upon poorly written job applications, and 80% of jobs in the most rapidly expanding service sectors required writing skills. This certainly lends credence to their claim that writing is increasingly a “gatekeeper” or “threshold skill” in the job market. For more, see Writing: A Ticket or a Ticket Out (CollegeBoard 2004).

Second, organization. Writing consulting will teach you how to stay organized during even the most hectic situations, which I came across frequently during my internship. I am sure many of you have experienced how stressful it can be to have sixteen drafts to read and track, sixteen appointments to set up, and professors to keep regularly updated, all on or near the week(s) you have your own midterms and essays to tackle. Stressful as it may be, this offers considerable perspective and helps build habits that can be carried forth throughout your career.

Third, communication. Writing consulting is a client-based process. It helps you learn how to communicate with professors on a professional level, as well as with other students at a peer and mentor level. Likewise, mature and respectful interaction with clients as well as coworkers is inherent to any and every workplace.

Although this list goes on, I feel the message is very clear. Rare is the occasion that you will encounter a job posting that leaves out key qualifications like ‘detail-oriented,’ ‘effective written and verbal communicator,’ ‘strong writing skills,’ and ‘highly organized.’ Indeed, as a Writing Consultant, you will continue to develop all of the above, which you can draw upon in interviews (to help you land the job) and in the workplace (to allow you to excel at the job).

As for me, I was happy to be offered a highly regarded full-time position with that same Nationwide office in August. Speaking from experience, I am confident that your work as a Writing Consultant will give you a significant edge in the job hunt and allow you to stand out as the “real world” approaches.

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.

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.