Sunday, February 23, 2014

Carnival Coping: Books to Help with Homesickness

It's my favorite time of year: Carnival. It's a magical season of parties and costumes and satire and food and community. And parades. Lots and lots and lots of parades.

Or, rather, it's usually my favorite time of year. This year, it's not. Because instead of cavorting through the streets of New Orleans--where it's sunny and 65 degrees--I'm here in Illinois trying to keep from crying homesick tears out of fear that they will literally freeze as they run down my cheeks.

Basically, all of my friends and family are going out in public looking like this:

C & D getting ready for Krewe Delusion

And I'm not leaving my house because my front yard looks like this:

My front yard: a colorless landscape of frozen horror

My Mardi Gras-heightened homesickness has led me to reread a lot of my favorite books from and about Southern Louisiana. I've fallen in a whole new type of love with books from my childhood like Mike Artell's Petit Rouge: A Cajun Red Riding Hood (which you can read--and hear read--on YouTube) as well as Gumbo Ya-Ya: A Collection of Louisiana Folk Tales by Robert Tallant and Lyle Saxon. I've reread some of my favorite histories of the city (The World That Made New Orleans: From Spanish Silver to Congo Square by Ned Sublette and Frenchmen, Desire, Good Children: ... and Other Streets of New Orleans! by John Chase) and of the Carnival season (Lords of Misrule: Mardi Gras and the Politics of Race in New Orleans by James Gill). I've also gained a new appreciation for classics like The Grandissimes: A Story of Creole Life by George Washington Cable (available as a free Ebook thanks to Project Gutenberg!) and Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire as well as all things Kate Chopin.

Mona Lisa Saloy's Red Beans and Ricely Yours. Walker Percy's The Moviegoer. John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces. These are the books and writers keeping my New Orleanian heart warm through Illinois' winter.

So, I'm wondering: are there any books or authors that mean home for you? Are you a child of the prairie who reads Willa Cather when you find yourself missing Nebraska? Does reading Jamaica Kincaid help when you yearn for your Caribbean childhood? Does Sherman Alexie sate your hunger for Washington State (or, as my Washingtonian peers call it, God's Country)?

What do you read when you're missing Home?

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Mixed Metaphor: mix them like something that you can’t mix

Mixed Metaphor: mix them like something that you can’t mix

George Orwell disparages mixed metaphors in his  famous essay, Politics and the English Language, but we don’t have to regard the man who wrote Animal Farm and 1984 as someone who knows what he is talking about. After all, he was English, and therefore way too strict on our poor tongues—he wanted English to remain English and not become American. Well, this is America, and we will do what we want. Including mix our metaphors all we want, until they are all slushed up like cookie-dough. (We really don’t want to be British. I used to be an Anglophile and, then I became friends with a young Brit, who admits that people still say “Low-born” in England when referring to someone who isn’t tasteful. Horrifying.) Anyway, what is Animal Farm if not one very long mixed-up metaphor?

I say all this because there was an earlier post on this very blog claiming that mixed metaphors are bad. The post claims that Obama said in his inaugural speech “As we consider the road that unfolds before us…” and that this is wrong. I have to ask, how many people were listening to that speech, and thought, “Yes, yes, yes, OH WAIT! A mixed metaphor! That does not make sense! I’m so hung up on that, it is detracting from my speech-listening experience.”

The thing about mixed metaphors is often they are silly, but just as often they have a place. What could Obama have said in the speech instead? The previous posts suggests “1. Our country’s future is like a road that we will follow,” or “2. Our country’s future is like a map that is unfolding,” so as not to mix metaphors—but that would have distracted me, and I believe most colloquial listeners from the speech even more. It’s so formal that it sounds clunky. What’s with that—the future like a map? I can’t imagine it because I, like most people, live in linear dimensions of time and space, and maps are not linear. Or are we supposed to follow a road that doesn’t exist yet? It is much easier for me to imagine a road literally unfolding before me, and leading the way—there are enough movies that make these seemingly impossible mixed metaphors quite easy to see (for example Inception, or car commercials).

Anyway, speeches meant for the general public are meant to be accessible more than they are meant to make sense. Anyone who follows politics knows this. I once made a hobby of listening to the greatest speeches of all time—and they are great—but hardly make any sense. Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech has many mixed metaphors, but it is still considered by many (including me) to be the greatest speech of all time. In the speech King mixes metaphors like a blender mixes soup. For example he says, "Seared in the flames of withering injustice." Technically, you can't both sear and wither anything at the same time, but it is very strong language and it does the job better than "Seared in the flames of injustice" would do by itself. (King also says "rise to a path" in a very similar mixed-metaphor to Obama's.)

The thing is, is that while the psychical does not mix metaphors (nothing withers and sears), the human brain does. Most people have some degree of synesthesia which makes me think the word lollipop is purple and sounds like exactly what it is. Synesthesia might explain why we humans make any metaphors to begin with (Vladimir Nabokov had intense synesthesia, which partially explains why his writing is so lush) so why should we restrict our naturally mixed-up brains and thought?

Metaphors don’t need to be like lame superheroes who only get one power.  They don’t need to be like that speeding bullet guy, or that guy who talks to fish (so lame I don’t even remember their names) instead they can be like the greatest superhero of all time, who is both a bird, and a plane: Superman.

If that hasn’t convinced you, read Alice in Wonderland, if you hate it, okay, that’s fine, but you are never allowed to say anything “Looks delicious!” again. Instead you will have to say, (with a British accent) “That looks, good sir and/or madam, as if it will taste quite palatable upon my taste-buds.”

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Common Core in Doubt?

For all the education majors out there, or anyone else interested in education, here is an article from The New York Times about New York's difficulty in implementing Common Core curriculum. I found especially troubling one teacher's comment that students no longer want to come to school.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

The Professors of Plagiarism

Plagiarism is a huge concern for everyone involved in college writing: students, professors, admins. For students, the nature of the concern varies--some of us are concerned with unintentionally stealing someone else's work, while some of us are worried about being caught for actually stealing someone else's work. Teachers and administrators are usually more concerned with creating assignments that make plagiarism difficult and finding tools to catch offenders.

For me, plagiarism seems like too much work. Including a citation is much easier, in my opinion, than trying to paraphrase another person's work while simultaneously removing all signs of that original work from your own. And, as far as buying papers goes, I just wouldn't trust anyone else's work. If I got another person to write a paper for me, I'd have to check it over and edit it before I could be comfortable turning it in for a grade. More than that, I'd want to be sure it wasn't glaringly different from work I'd already submitted to a professor. On top of that, I'd be worried that my own work wouldn't live up to the paper I'd paid for. I'd be stuck buying papers for the rest of the semester.

Like I said, it sounds like more work than just, you know, doing your own work.

So, even if I weren't a broke graduate student with two kids to feed, I doubt that I'd shell out $200 for a paper from is a paper mill. But it's much more advanced than that one kid you knew in undergrad who sold his old papers to students at the community college. As evidenced by its title, this company claims to exclusively hire out-of-work academics to craft papers for current students. In a recent piece over at, Rebecca Schuman sums it up like this:
Unemployed Professors purports to hire exclusively casualties of today’s academic job market to write all the essays, so that students can spend their valuable time attending racist frat parties.
Schuman goes on to question the morality of in terms of the immorality of plagiarism (that's just wrong, y'all), but in terms of the arguments the company uses to justify its own existence. The company admits that writing essays for cash is unethical. In fact, they admit that it's "incredibly so." But "because the academic system is already so corrupt," they're "totally cool with that."

It's an interesting, albeit illogical, argument--academia is corrupt, so students need not be held accountable for their work. I can see it as a good jumping off point for an argument essay in a Basic Comp class. Though, the professor might want to include in-class revision and peer review as part of the assessment--just to be sure that an unemployed professor didn't write the final paper a student turns in.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Nerding Out In Your Spare Time

According to my spellcheck, "nerding" is not a verb. Sorry if you were looking forward to using it without being thought a fool.

Okay, this post is about what people who like words and need to get out more can read/listen to/watch/play in their spare time instead of getting out more.

Everyday you can play games at Merriam-Webster  (my spell check says Merriam-Webster should be spelt "mermaid"), but more importantly you can look at the word of the day and astound your friends when you use simpatico in a sentence, as in, "You and I are simpatico in our interest in language."

You can also test your grammar and/or vocabulary with With free-rice, you can feel doubly-satisfied with yourself when you pick the right answer because you essentially just donated 10 grains of rice to someone in need of it just by being a nerd.

Alright, say you got bored learning new words with, and now you want to lay back and rest your eyes. You can listen to an audio book while your eyes are closed. Librivox has many books from the public domain, recorded by volunteers, available for free on their website.

Okay, last, but certainly not least, is for when you are tired from a long day of school, and all you want to do is go to more school. You can pop a beverage of your choice and throw on an English lecture. My preference is ItunesU, which takes many of the other lectures from around the web into their archive. You can download the lectures and watch them whenever you want without relying on a poor internet connection. There are also yale courses and youtube courses. Actually, there are a ton of free courses to be found if you just search for them.

I recommend the Standford Structure of English Words course from Itunes U. It is taught by William Leben, who is one of the people who helped invent the word "Swiffer" (which my spell-check also says is not a word).

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Humor in the Writing Center

Kurt Vonnegut: A guy who knew how to make people laugh.

Recently, I have spent a lot of time thinking about the place of humor in Writing Center consultations. I think of myself as a pretty funny guy, and I try to bring that humor into my consultation sessions. It is something that I do naturally (humor was highly valued in my family), but I have also seen many other consultants laughing with writers. In fact, I would go so far as to argue that laughter is one telltale sign of a strong session.

Although my experience mainly includes Writing Center work, I believe that humor also plays an important role in instructor-student conferences as well. The best conferences I have had with professors included a lot of laughter.

Humor, when used successfully, has the ability to smooth over human interactions often fraught with anxiety. Students come into the Writing Center nervous about their work, frustrated with the assignment/class/world, scared about what their self-perceived inability to write might mean for their future careers--the list goes on. The consultant must struggle past these initial barriers in order to aid the student with her writing.

And that's where humor comes into play. Humor allows a way in for the consultant. It alleviates the fear the student might be harboring as well as alleviating the anxiety the consultant might be feeling from working with an anxious writer. This allows the consultant to figure out which of the writer's many anxieties are about her writing and which are about issues outside of her control.

When I think back on my own sessions, I see that humor serves another function. Laughing and telling jokes early in a session builds a certain amount of trust and camaraderie. It signals to the writer "We're in this together." That trust becomes very important later on in the session when the consultant begins to critique the student's writing. The camaraderie built early on, through humor, forms the basis of trust necessary for a fruitful conversation about how the student might improve her writing. Humor, fundamentally, is about trust, and trust is integral to a successful consultation.

Of course, humor sometimes goes horrifically awry. During my undergraduate days, I waited tables at the Old Spaghetti Factory. One evening, a man mentioned that he and his family were from Minneapolis. I immediately put on my best Fargo impression and said, "Oh, 'Soters, eh? Thanks for comin' down the road, there." No laughs. No smiles. Just stares colder than a Duluth winter. I felt my tip melting away; I don't think I said another word to the table.

There is a danger to using humor; the joke might go horrifically awry. However, I believe the potential benefit justifies the danger. If I were a student, walking into a Writing Center full of laughter would set my heart at ease.

I am interested in hearing about what other people think about using humor in peer-to-peer or instructor-to-student consultations. What works? What doesn't? Any good stories?

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Sports Writing for English Majors

Over the course of the semester, I have made frequent, yet subtle, attempts to encourage my fellow graduate students to share my love of sports. I provided my colleagues with a detailed synopsis of the previous day's Seahawks game each Monday morning. When FIFA announced the World Cup groupings, I took up class time to explain the announcement's importance. When college basketball started up, I taught my classmates my favorite cheer: "Go, Gonzaga! G-O-N-Z-A-G-A!" I figured English majors would like all of the spelling.

Alas, few of my colleagues have joined me in my absolute and total love of sports. While my friends quote their favorite lines from whatever movie won the Superbowl of Indie films, I watch rugby highlight clips and a video capturing Randy Johnson exploding a bird with a well-timed fastball. Although those in my cohort congratulated me for Seattle's victory over Denver, it was with the same tepid enthusiasm with which I treat the pizza coupons that arrive in my mailbox.

So, I am now attempting a new way into their hearts. I will bring sports to the people through literature. One of my favorite blogs, The Airship, recently posted a list of the best sports books of all time, and I wholeheartedly agree with their decisions--especially number five. Also, the blog Narratively put up an interesting story about the extraordinary efforts that go into a live NFL television production. And, if you do not want to do any further reading, I watched Moneyball for the first time over the weekend, and it was awesome and does not require expansive baseball knowledge for enjoyment. (If you understand the terms "ball," "player," and "money," you'll be fine. Also, Philip Seymour Hoffman, may he rest in peace, plays the coach.)

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Beware the space invaders!

I've got more than a few grammar, usage and punctuation pet-peeves and crusades. For example: I'm anti-Oxford Comma (I see it as our patriotic duty to, as one of my professors puts it, man the barricades of American English against the British). Yes, OC proponents, I understand that serial commas add clarity. And I really do appreciate the JFK and Stalin meme. I just don't like the final comma. #SorryNotSorry.

There are other things that get my proverbial goat. It drives me bonkers, for example, that some people still maintain that we shouldn't be allowed  to wiggle around gendered pronouns by writing things like "the student took out their notebook." And I have night terrors about people who use quotation marks to add emphasis in writing. Air quotes are bad enough in conversation; do we really need to sully the wonderful world of writing with them?

Anyway, as many writing faux pas as there are to rail against, there is nothing that sets off my reading and writing rage more than double-spaces after a period. Those gaping valleys of white space after every sentence! The page just frittered away on nothingness! The waste! THE HORROR!

So, I was quite pleased when I read Farhad Manjoo's PSA about why you should never, ever use two spaces after a period. Giddy even.

Take heed, friends. Let us resist the hoard of space invaders--lest they find their way into all of our t e x t s .