Thursday, October 13, 2011

On Becoming Liberated

Dedicated to courageous teachers everywhere who make a difference in students’ lives

My fifth-grade teacher introduced me to women’s liberation in the mid-1970s. The concept was a new one to me and to my classmates, an ideology that some of the female fifth-graders, including me, quickly embraced.

The teacher, who emphasized the Ms. prefix to her name, read a chapter to our class each day from The Emancipation of Clementine. As an adult, I’ve searched for this book, without success. It marked an important turning point in how I defined myself, and I am sad that the book is lost to me.

This book was a coming-of-age story, detailing the liberation of a woman named Clementine. I’m sure the book was not a favorite of the boys in my class—except they did seem to take great pleasure in the bra-burning episode. For us girls, however, the book took on great meaning as the concept of equality burgeoned in our otherwise busy brains.

One spring day, which Ms. Teacher may consider her coup de maitre, some of the more inspired females exhibited our first liberating tendencies. We had no bras to burn; for that matter, our pre-pubescent bodies were not yet ready for that constrictive tether of womanhood. Instead, at recess, we set out to rescue a playground tire from the creek at the bottom of the hill where some pranksters had left it. However, since it had rained most of the preceding week, the ground was slippery, the tire muddy and heavy with water, and the creek bed flooded.

Nevertheless, liberated women that we were, and seeing no males equal to the job (or interested), four of us rolled up our sleeves and marched en masse down the hill to the creek and straight into the filthy water. We pushed and pulled and strained at that mud-laden tire, finally freeing it from the creek. We rolled the tire up the hill and laid it to rest in its original spot on the playground. We congratulated one another on a job well done and enjoyed the last few minutes of recess, even as we shivered with the cold and wet.

The school bell rang and we returned to class in our sodden clothes. We received several suspicious looks from our classmates, as well as the teacher, although nobody commented on our sorry state. As our clothes dried, our bodies began to itch, and our mud-stained fingers left tattle-tale marks on our papers and books.

When school let out for the day, the contingent of liberated women marched from the fifth-grade classroom for home, eager to describe our miraculous deed to our parents. Surprisingly, my mother was not as understanding as I had hoped; in fact, she seemed much more concerned with my soiled clothing than with the incredible blow dealt for feminism. Her scolding and her scornful expressions as I talked about our inspiration, Clementine, caused me to waiver in my dedication to the feminine cause.

The next day, our teacher began to read to us from a new book. I was surprised and disappointed, because we hadn’t finished hearing about Clementine’s feminist adventures. At recess, I discovered that all four mothers had called to discuss the “liberation event,” as it was quietly called, with our teacher, who had been reprimanded by the principal. From then on, liberation was no longer taught in our classroom, and Clementine’s story faded from the class’s collective memory.

It wasn’t until much later in life that I at last understood what our teacher had risked to introduce us to Clementine. Her willingness to put her job on the line to expand our narrow view of womanhood resonated with me. I remembered the elation the four of us felt as we outperformed the males by engaging in our rescue operation; I remembered the invigorating rush of adrenaline as we returned to class sodden, muddy, having achieved a goal we never before would have considered; I remembered the powerful feeling of working together as a group of females to accomplish a task that we had previously thought of as “men’s work.” In our determined march down the hill toward the creek, inspired by the story our teacher shared with us, we sowed the seeds of the women we would blossom into: potent women who would choose the direction of their lives despite (or perhaps, because of) the roles that society would otherwise attempt to impose upon us.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Show, Don't Tell: Using Scenework as an Alternative to Narration

"Show, don't tell." That statement is certainly good advice for every writer of fiction, but it is also good advice for every writer of descriptive and personal experience essays.

The key to the descriptive narrative is in the scenework: creating scenes using dialogue, description, and sensory details. It is not enough to narrate; you must engage your reader, must allow your reader to experience the pivotal moments of your essay as directly and powerfully as possible. On the other hand, when you use narration you create distance between the author and the reader.

Let's take a look at an example. The following paragraph is an example of narration, which merely tells the reader succinctly what is going on in the story:

My mother taught me to read when I was four, just a year before she died. She loved to read and passed that love of reading on to me. When I was a bit older, my father took me to the Carnegie library to check out books. I remember staring in awe at the towering stacks, and I was excited to learn I could check out as many as 12 books at once. Upon arriving home, I would crack the first book, only to return for more two weeks later.

Here's that same passage as scenework, which pulls the reader in through its brief exchange of dialogue, its description, and its sensory detail (note that nearly all the senses--sight, smell, hearing, and touch--are appealed to; only taste is left out because it wouldn't be reasonable to include here):

My mother taught me to read when I was four, just one year before she died. I can still see the faded olive cover of the graduated Winston Reader Primer I learned from, still feel the rough, knotty texture, still smell the musty fragrance of the book as she turned its yellowing pages. So began my love affair with books.

When I was six, my father took me to visit our Carnegie library. I stood, small frame bent beneath the weight of the heavy, echoing silence, and stared, awestruck, at the towering shelves overflowing with books. When I learned I could check out as many as 12 books at a time, I was elated. I staggered to the desk, arms loaded to my chin.

"That's an awful lot of books for such a small child," the librarian said, peering down at me with bespectacled eyes.

"I would check out more if I could."

She smiled at me, and my father ruffled my hair. Two weeks later, I returned the 12 books I had devoured, eagerly anticipating the next 12.

Both passages say essentially the same thing; however, the second passage is much more powerful. In this second passage, the author shows the reader what is happening, allowing the reader to visualize, smell, feel, and hear the scene, whereas in the first passage, the author is merely reporting to the reader what happened.

In order to write a more powerful essay, employ scenework; your reader will find reading your essay a much more rewarding experience.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Love of Language Lost?

I am impressed by Stephen Fry's delightful discussion about language. I encourage you all to click the link and listen to it.

Fry's monologue discusses the idea of prescriptivism--that there is only one correct way to speak. He indicates that "Context, convention, and circumstance is all." He abhors apostrophe police and people who write letters to broadcasters and newspapers that fret about a misused word or improper punctuation. He takes a more organic approach to language--that language spoken at home doesn't have to follow the "rules," and encourages us to delight in the music of language.

Stephen Fry, you are a god.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

How Do I Know So Much?

Okay, I know the title of this entry sounds a bit, well, arrogant, but honestly, I've had students ask me this question before. I teach Composition 1 and 2 (among other writing and literature classes), and I usually allow students to select their own topics. Allowing students to self-select topics makes them more interested in the writing and makes me more interested in reading their resulting essays (can you imagine reading 40 essays about the same topic, any topic? I can't.). It also leads the students to do better writing and thinking because they care more about the topic, perhaps even have a personal investment in the topic.

However, allowing students (mostly) free reign on topic selection means that my knowledge will be pushed to the limit. Not my knowledge of the English language or writing or research; they seem to understand that my knowledge is sufficient in those categories. No, it's things outside my degree that I know that they seem impressed by (or sometimes aggravated by).

For instance, I may have to point out to a student that she doesn't have a clear understanding about what a "bifurcated needle" is, and therefore shouldn't simply use that phrase because she saw it in a journal article about small pox without explaining it to the reader. Or I may have to explain to a student who is writing about the Berlin Wall that he hasn't capitalized the nouns properly in his all-German epigraph. Or I find myself commenting on a student's essay that organic doesn't necessarily mean healthy; rather, it is a term that indicates that the farm's processes have been certified organic by the USDA, and that some of the practices that certified farm uses may still not produce healthy (or happy) food.

So, small pox needles to capitalizing German nouns to organic food--that's quite a range. How do I know all this stuff?

The answer to that question is something that I desperately want students to understand: your education doesn't come solely from a brick building. Life is education...if you take the time to open yourself to it. And you can find education everywhere.

  • Read books. Lots of them. All different kinds. I learned about the bifurcated (two-pronged) needles used to administer the smallpox vaccine in a book I read: Gina Kolata's Flu: The Story of the Great Influenza Pandemic. I also learned about the Flu Pandemic of 1918, the Swine Flu debacle in the 1970s, and a potential terrorist-induced smallpox epidemic and what it would take to prevent and/or react to such an epidemic. It was a fascinating read, and I learned a lot that I had never knew before. Now, when researchers worry that the new Swine Flu might turn out to be as much a killer as the Flu of 1918, I understand what they are talking about.

  • Make connections between what you learn and what you know. I've never spoken German, never visited Germany, never even known any first-generation German. So how did I know that the German language capitalizes nouns? Well, that actually comes from a class I took on History of the English Language. Our English words have been influenced by many other languages, Anglo-Saxon (a Germanic language) being one of them. It was during this class I learned that German languages capitalize nouns, so I was able to point that out to the student. But then, I connected that to a question I had always had about Early American writings. You've probably seen them--words in the middle of a sentence strangely capitalized, even though they aren't proper nouns. Have you ever wondered, like I had, about why they were capitalized? It's a holdover from the Angl0-Saxons' influence on our language. Next time you see those strange capitalizations in the works of our Early America writers, notice that they are nouns!

  • Take a broad range of classes. I've heard students complain about taking a math course, or a writing course, or a statistics course, and the complaint is nearly always the same: "I'm going to be a ____________; why do I have to take this course, since it has nothing to do with my future career?" First, how do you know it won't have anything to do with your future career? What happens if you are an award-winning mathematician and you have to write an article on how you discovered the answer to a mathematical conundrum? If you don't know how to write, you'll look like a fool--in print, no less! Maybe you're going to write the Great American Espionage Novel. If you know nothing about biological warfare, how will you write convincingly of it? The point is, jump into each class and learn as much as possible. You never know when you will need that one bit of knowledge, and every bit of knowledge you glean about the world around you will only help you. Nobody ever died because they took a course that they thought was irrelevant to their future, but many students have said later they were glad they took a seeming irrelevant class, because it helped them to better understand some important concept. Your degree is designed to give you a "well-rounded education," to lead you into classes you might normally not take--and that's a very good thing!

  • Soak up and research your personal experiences. As you go through life, you gain wisdom and experiences. Think about what you've learned in your life. Obviously, the older you are, the more experiences you've had to learn from. But don't just accept your experiences; learn more about them! For instance, my on-and-off battle with cancer has led me to do a lot of research about nutrition and the food we eat, which has led me to better understand what organic means--and it isn't necessarily healthy. Much depends upon how the farmer has raised the animals and grown the food, and organic only means that a certain percentage of the food has to be organically grown according to the USDA's lenient criteria. As a result of my research, I've drastically changed the way I shop for food and feed myself and my husband; I now grow my own vegetables and herbs without pesticides and herbicides, and I've become an advocate for healthy food. And, of course, I was able to help the student who was writing about organic food get clarity on the issue.

  • Ask questions. You've heard the adage, "The only dumb question is the question that is never asked." So why not ask questions? We have no trouble asking them when we are children. I once babysat a young boy who was clearly in the "why" phase of his childhood. Anything that happened, anything I said, was followed by his question, "Why?" When do we lose our curiousity? Or are we just taught not to ask questions of authority figures as we grow? Slough off your concerns about "sounding dumb," "feeling stupid," "rocking the boat," and ask those questions! If your teacher uses a word you don't understand, ask him to define it for you (or look it up for yourself). If someone says something hateful to you, a great way to diffuse the situation would be to ask a question: "You seem really angry. What are you upset about? What can I do to help you?" Don't be afraid to ask your teachers or your boss why something is done a certain way, why you must use a certain citation style, why a statement is considered to be true. We learn by asking questions and receiving answers. Questions are an opportunity for you to grow. (Caveat: Tone will be really important when you ask questions. Be ever mindful of your tone.)
So, how do I know so much? I really don't, in the scheme of things. I have a smattering of knowledge in lots of different areas and an impulse to ask questions and research topics I don't understand. I always keep in mind the lyrics to A Piece of Sky from the Yentl soundtrack:

The more I live,
The more I learn;
The more I learn,
The more I realize
The less I know.
I'll never know everything, and I realize that I know so very little of all the knowledge available in the world. But I keep reading, making connections, taking classes, researching, and asking questions.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

My Name is Kris, and I Am a Biblioholic

I have been addicted to books for as long as I can remember. Friends and family tease me about the number of books I own (well over 2,000) and call me the Home for Wayward Books. But I don't just take books in; I love to read them. Many are one-time reads; others, like The Lord of the Rings set, I have read multiple times (I lost count on LoTR at about 18).

My taste in books is eclectic; I love autobiographies, science fiction, medical essays, classics, and more. If you named a genre or subgenre, I probably have at least one book from that category on my shelves. I've actually entertained the notion of labeling my books with the Library of Congress call numbers, but so far have sublimated my OCD urge and resisted.

My love for books was a gift left to me by my mother, who died unexpectedly from an aneurysm when I was five, just after my youngest sister was born. Here's a paragraph I wrote about learning to read, included as part of a handout I created for students about writing descriptive passages:

My mother taught me to read when I was four years old, just one year before she died. I can still see the faded olive cover of the graduated primer I learned from, still feel the rough, knotty texture, still smell the musty fragrance of the book as she turned its yellowing pages. So began my love affair with books.

Actually, the primer I refer to in this passage was one of two my mother used to teach me to read. I read them over and over again, completely in love with the stories, the illustrations, and the act of reading itself. I don't know what happened to those books; most likely, they were taken to the Salvation Army with her other effects after she died, or perhaps a relative took possession of them.

I do know that I have searched for those two books for more than 20 years. Every time I go to an antique store, I seek out the old books booths and search through the children's readers. I have sought the books online, but my search has been severely hampered by the fact that I can recall neither the titles of the books nor the authors. I can only remember the stories: one book begins with a story about rabbits: "See Father rabbit. Hop, hop, hop. See Mother rabbit. Hop, hop, hop." I don't quite remember any of the other stories, nor a lot of detail about this first story. I think the family of rabbits hop into a forest at some point, but my four-year-old's memories may be mistaken.

I did stumble across the second book just a couple of weeks ago. I was visiting family in Iowa, and my youngest sister and I visited a new resale shop in the area. While my sister was trying on clothes, I popped next door to the vintage book store. The shop had a couple of sections of children's readers and, as usual, I started pulling them off the shelves, one by one, and thumbing through them. Suddenly, I spied one that seemed familiar. (But after a while, they all seem familiar.) I opened it up to a story about the Gingerbread Man . . . and recognized the illustration! Immediately, I wondered whether this reader was indeed the second book I had hoped to find, the book with the story about the old woman whose pig wouldn't jump over the stile. I turned to the table of contents, and saw "The Old Woman and the Pig" listed! Nearly holding my breath, I turned to the story, and it was the story I remember, and the illustrations were like old friends. I had forgotten much, and yet just looking at these unique illustrations by Frederick Richardson lifted my spirits.

The book cost $20 plus tax, but was well worth it. The book is purely for sentimental purposes--I don't have any children to teach to read, but it is a connection to my mother as well as a symbol of how important reading is to me. I am still hoping to find the other reader with the rabbit story. If you have information about this book--title, author, etc.--please leave a comment!


Friday, April 11, 2008

Grammar Police: Our Duty is to Serve...Not to Serve Time

As regular readers of Professorial Musings will have noted, I'm appalled by the terrible typos, problematic punctuation, and grammatical gaffes that appear in ads, business documents, and on public signs. A colleague and friend of mine sent me a link today to an April 7, 2008, article on Gimundo titled "Man Drives Cross-Country, Correcting Typos." Apparently, 28-year-old college graduate Jeff Deck is touring America, correcting grammar as he goes.

He's my kind of guy. (Just a little young.)

He's doing what I've always dreamed of doing--correcting public grammar goofs so people don't mistakenly think that the mistake is the reality. While I admire his enthusiasm for the project, though, lessons learned in childhood conflict with my desire to make public people's mistakes:

  1. Don't deface other's people's property. My siblings and I were taught to treat other people's property with respect. Clearly, marking up people's signs--especially in a permanent way--is defacing property. It's quite possibly even punishable as a misdemeanor or felony, depending upon the value of what is defaced.

  2. Don't point out when other people are being stupid. This is a hard lesson for me to adhere to sometimes, and I'll admit that this blog occasionally pokes at people who haven't proofread very well. But to physically mark up a sign so that everyone can see the mistake, well, that's equivalent to posting a neon sign that says Stupid Works Here. And frankly, it isn't stupidity that causes people to make grammatical and other mistakes; it's usually simple ignorance of the rules. Why not find a positive way to instruct people instead of making people look stupid for not knowing or understanding the rules? Even people who work with language every day make mistakes and need to look up the occasional rule.
I will admit to having thought about correcting signs or offering unsolicited lectures about grammar. For example, it's difficult for me to walk through the vendor area at a craft fair and not stop to explain why the wood-burned house plaques should read The Smiths instead of The Smith's. Instinct cries out These errors must be corrected! Save our children from improper apostrophe usage! But I avoid that dark side and simply refrain from buying an improperly apostrophe-d plaque.

I did, however, relapse about a week ago. My roommate and I were dining in a local Mexican restaurant where I noticed that the whiteboard near the front counter announced the evening's Special's. As we walked up to the counter to pay our separate bills, I made my roommate go first in order to distract the employee at the register while I snuffed out the apostrophe.

At least I didn't deface their property, and removing the offending apostrophe only made them look smarter.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Dare I Try Their Services?

In my composition classes, I talk with my students about professional presentation: how they present themselves on the page will cause the reader to perceive them in a certain way. If their essays don't follow the conventional format or are chock full of sentence-level errors, the writers lose credibility with the reader.

I wish someone would talk with advertisers about this issue. I can't recall where I saw this advertisement recently--it may have been in Facebook. Read carefully and guess what went wrong: