Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Foresight in Hindsight

I taught journalism on the college level for awhile in the 1990s, then I was sidetracked by other things.

(I liked the way Robert Redford used that word to describe, in "The Natural," why he had been away from pro ball for so long. I think it frequently applies to life in general.)

Nearly a year ago, I returned to the classroom. I've been teaching journalism again, and I've also been teaching developmental writing, which focuses on the fundamentals of written English (subjects, verbs, prepositional phrases, dependent and independent clauses, etc.), at the local community college.

As the start of my second year there approaches, I've been thinking about what I learned last year and how I can improve what I've been doing.

That isn't quite as easy as it may sound because there are many differences between being a professor at a four–year college and being an adjunct professor at a community college. I can't always apply what I learned in the classroom then to what I'm doing now.

Last year, I spent the summer preparing to teach classes that wound up being canceled just before the school year began because enrollment in those classes wasn't sufficient.

It wasn't that way when I was teaching in the 1990s. In those days, I knew what I would be teaching long before the semester began. My classes were never canceled because enrollment didn't reach a certain level.

Anyway, I hope I'll be teaching journalism again this fall. It remains to be seen if I will.

I do know, though, that I will be teaching developmental writing again — because it is required unless incoming students meet or exceed a certain grade on their placement tests — and I've been thinking about what I learned from teaching that class last year.

I think one of the most important things I have learned has to do with expectations.

Some of my students are foreign students for whom English is a second language, and they compare the rules of their native language to the rules of their acquired one. That is their frame of reference. It is how we human beings process information. We compare new knowledge to that which we already have.

For others, I think it's a simple matter of applying logic — if something is true in one usage, it must be true in all usages. Same sort of thing, really. It's all based on past experience — and the knowledge of previous outcomes.

I was thinking about this the other day, and I was reminded of an old episode of I Love Lucy in which Lucy, who was expecting the couple's baby, decided that everyone who came in regular contact with her child — Ricky, Fred and Ethel — had to speak nothing but perfect English.

Ricky, whose native tongue was Spanish, resisted, but Lucy made her point by asking him to read out loud a story that worked in several words that had similar spellings but different pronunciations — all in just a few sentences.

The spelling was o–u–g–h. It was pronounced differently, of course, depending upon which letter(s) came before.

Anyway, the story Ricky read was about a woodsman. It spoke of how he cut boughs (pronounced bows) from trees.

All this cutting made his hands quite rough (pronounced ruff). Also, apparently, all this cutting released a lot of junk into the air, which gave the woodsman a hacking cough (koff).

There were other sentences that contained words like enough (enuff) and through (threw). I'm sure you get the idea.

Ricky mispronounced each word and got increasingly frustrated. Spanish isn't so complicated, he protested. A sound is always the same. It sounds the same. It is spelled the same.

Many of my students last year (and, I am sure, many of my students in the coming year) would sympathize with Ricky. Why must written English be so complicated?

Well, the main reason is that the British Isles were occupied by different conquerors over the centuries, and elements of those languages were absorbed into the evolving English language. In English, you will find words with roots from all corners of the globe — primarily from the civilizations that actively occupied Britain at different times but also from cultures that were more like bystanders.

Each contributed words (and whatever linguistic peculiarities came along with them) to the language.

As a result, you have to work a little harder to make sure that you do things correctly in English. One must apply, as fictional detective Hercule Poirot put, the little grey cells. One size does not always fit all.

I tried to make this point with my students last semester by contrasting written English with other subjects — and I unexpectedly learned a couple of things about the shortcomings of the modern educational system.

In math, I told my students, when you learn the multiplication tables, you know that they will never vary. The answers will always be the same. Two times three will always equal six. Three times three will never equal six.

You can count on it.

In chemistry, I told them, H2O is always the chemical formula for water. It is never the chemical formula for anything else.

You can count on it.

Those examples made my point, but I wanted to add one more for emphasis. In hindsight, I should have stopped when I was ahead — and launched into my discussion of the peculiarities of the English language.

In history, I told my students, events always happened whenever they happened. When you commit an important date to memory, it doesn't change. The years in which the American Civil War was fought will always be between 1861 and 1865. The year of President Kennedy's assassination will always be 1963.

To drive home my point, I said to my students, "If someone says '1776' to you, what do you think of?"

I was shocked that no one, in a classroom full of people, raised a hand to indicate that he/she knew the answer. I thought everyone knew the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776.

I still think it is a good point — even if the modern education system doesn't seem to be producing high school graduates with adequate appreciation for their history. I mean, even if those students don't know those dates, they are facts that you will find in any history book.

English is much more ambiguous. It isn't as certain as a mathematical equation or a chemical formula or a date in a history book.

But that is what makes English, both spoken and written, a living, vibrant thing.

My students want written language to be a simple, fill–in–the–blank proposition, like the mathematical formulae they learned when they were younger. Logically, they know that only three times two will equal six so if they are asked to complete something like this — 3 X ___ = 6 — they know that 2 is the only possible answer.

But the rules are different for language. My students seem to have trouble understanding that the very same word may be a noun in some uses — and a verb in others.

For example, take the word run. Ordinarily, that is a verb — They run in the park.

But it can also be a noun — for example, when it is used as part of the names of events or when it is used to describe the act of scoring (particularly in baseball). Under such circumstances, it becomes a noun.

The same thing applies to spelling, punctuation, all that stuff. You've gotta use your brain.

If I can get my students to use their brains, I feel we're moving in the right direction — even if there is still much to be done on the basics.

That's the way I feel about the people who are in charge of the debt ceiling negotiations in Washington these days.

Creative solutions are required. Everyone — the president, the speaker of the House, everyone in Congress — needs to put the interests of the nation ahead of everything else.

I'd like to get all of them to look beyond their limited horizons.

They might not be able to resolve the situation once and for all — but, at least, they could deal with this crisis and move beyond the roadblocks.

Our problems, as John F. Kennedy said, are man made. Therefore, they can be solved by men.

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