I’m about to tell you something shocking— the tile of this article is a sentence fragment. Are you wondering why? You’re not alone. It seems that English has become one of the most neglected of all subjects. Reminiscing on my high school days, I remember going to English class, writing an essay and getting it back with a check on the top. There were no red notes that indicated where corrections had to be made. I got the credit for the assignment if I even came close to answering the question, and it was pushed aside. It was sucked into the vortex of old essays never to be heard from again. I never got to learn from my mistakes. I recently took a look at some of my high school English papers, and I was shocked at what I saw. Masses of grammatical errors completely overlooked. There was only a note on the top of the essay that read, “Great analysis of the literature.” I appreciate the positive feedback, but what about the errors? What a load of poppycock. It seems that grammar did not matter at all in the grading of my paper. This may have made some people happy at the time, but now that they are in college, they are facing a problem that plagues many students. We get back a paper for our English class, and we are smacked in the face by a big fat note that says, “I had to reduce your grade, because you have a significant number of grammatical errors.” After the stream of profanity leaves our consciousness, we may be baffled by this occurrence. How could this have happened? Our papers in high school received good grades. What is this grammar the Professor speaks of? An incident like this can leave a student with a plethora of unpleasant feelings. The truth is that this is not fair. For me, it seemed like my high school English classes were only concerned with getting the students to pass the English regent exam. I never had a class that focused on how to write a clear sentence or how to use punctuation. As far as I can remember, I never learned about parts of speech either. I didn’t even know what an adverb was until I entered college. I had heard of them, but I had no idea what words were adverbs. Embarrassing isn’t it? I was so embarrassed that I took it upon myself to learn the fundamentals of grammar. Three years, long hours of studying, and twenty pounds of grammar books later, I have finally learned most of what I believe I should have learned in high school. However, I am still learning. Learning English, even for native speakers, is an ongoing process. The problem is that many of us feel that we got thrown to the lions once we entered college. While this may not always be the case for everyone, working as a writing tutor has confirmed my suspicion that many students feel this way. So what can we do about this? I personally would like see more workshops being offered that are devoted to grammar, not just for ESL students, but for native speakers as well. Remember, brushing up on grammar is not just for people who are new to the English language, because chances are that you may have a few questions you want answered. Look it up in a grammar book, or come to the Learning Center. I bet you will be happy that you did.
We live with a daily overload of culture and information: hundreds of channels and stations and newspapers and magazines. Books line our shelves, unread or half-finished. We buy pop albums for one song; our filesharing software is working 24/7.
When our nervous systems are so overloaded, how do we make sense of the cultural information we’re given? How do we find connections between disparate concepts?
The invention of the Cut-Up technique in the 1920’s (often credited to the poet Tristan Tzara who created an instant poem at a Dada rally by pulling random words from a hat) and it’s subsequent reinvention by Brion Gysin in the 1950’s has given us a way to navigate through this sea of information.
“Cutting Up” is simple enough. Pages from newspapers, magazine, novels, etc. are cut into strips and rearranged so that they form a new text, and this new arrangement is then retyped with certain words changed or added to improve readability. This new text ranges from the utterly incomprehensible to visionary.
But is there a purpose beyond creating gibberish? And if so, is that pay-off simply an occasional brilliantly poetic line?
As a Freshman Comp teacher, every semester, I’m confronted with the task of teaching Compare/Contrast essays to students who have trouble making connections between seemingly incompatible texts.
Before we compare or contrast, we first “cut up” the concepts.
We begin with two lines:
Then, we add the titles of the two texts we want to compare/contrast.
Next, we brainstorm, creating a list of words, concepts and short phrases related to each of the texts.
Finally, we draw lines, connecting similar ideas.
The purpose of the Cut-Up Technique is to create connections where none may be immediately apparent. A knife slices through layers of newspaper, creating new sentences; links are found between works of literature separated by hundreds of years. Pieces of cultural information are presented side by side causing us to see, concretely, relationships that, previously, appeared nonexistent.
- Stephen Gracia
Sept 29th, 2006
Current Mood: Erratic
Current Music: The Jesus Lizard : Destroy Before Reading
Is writing what it once was?
Today, where a book can be supplanted by an audio version or by simply hitting up the local Blockbuster, the reader is becoming an increasing minority. On campus conversations between patrons of a literature class all have the same underlying theme:
“Hey, did you read the novel for the midterm?”
“Nah, I’m just gonna watch the movie…”
Aside from the usual Film classes, movies are shown as part of many class curricula to ensure that the students absorb the material either by reading the book, watching the film or a little of both. Given the choice and the average attention span of the quintessential undergraduate, two hours of film-watching trumps often-countless hours of page-turning descriptive prose. I personally opted out of reading Pride and Prejudice for the umpteenth time, but when I realized that my options for a filmic lens into the writings of Jane Austen came in the form of endless remakes of said film along with such “masterpieces” as Clueless and Bridget Jones’ Diary, I decided that Darcy and Elizabeth were marginally more appealing in ink. No offense to fans of the aforementioned movies, but Alicia Silverstone and Renee Zelwegger make me want to slit my wrists with the rusty edge of a badly corrugated blade – and that’s me just being nice.
As a philosophy major, I looked forward to reading the works of influential thinkers like Kant, Hume, Nietzsche, Hegel and Mill – yes I know that looking forward to reading such texts is the equivalent to taping my eyes open and focusing them on impossibly iridescent light until blood vessels burst and I succumb to an aneurysm, but to each his own you Clueless fans out there – but never in my wildest dreams did I think that the Wachowski brothers (creators of the Matrix trilogy and more recently the adaptation of Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta to film) would be considered marquee in the realm of contemporary philosophy. Yet, that very allusion was brought to my attention recently when a student – who shall remain nameless for his own protection – spoke of the Matrix trilogy as a teaching of the principles of cause and effect. Now call me crazy; the effects – and assumed causes – in the Matrix can be replicated, but only after a voyage on a serious acid trip, and this is supposed to be my great lexicon on cause and effect, an existential question that has plagued man for years?
This tells me how far the enlightened man has fallen, but also that there is a distinct lesson to be learned here. The diminishing reader class is not cause for alarm, but rather the alarm itself because we now know why we’re all so screwed up. William Offenbaker once posted an entry on this blog stating that the writing acumen of the average student is on a steady decline and he’s right. How can you appreciate writing if you never encounter it? How can you appraise, adapt and critique writing if you refuse to read? I saw V for Vendetta recently, a movie I appreciated for its obvious filmic achievements, but one that shows why the movie is never as good or comprehensive as the book, which it is based upon.
For instance – for those yet to see this film and planning to do so, you should scroll down a bit further because I may engage in what some might call a little spoiler drivel – the film had to leave out what I consider a few crucial scenes because, according to the directors – those preeminent philosophers, the Wachowski brothers – they wouldn’t have “translated well to screen,” something that’s both understandable and simultaneously unacceptable if you wish to understand the full story. The principle characters had quirks about them that speak to the angels and demons within all of us, characteristics that are manifested by equally quirky actions a la the “unmasking” of “V,” and the soliloquy-like speech “V” gives to an unresponsive Lady Justice, all of which were unceremoniously cut out of the film. Yet the question remains: should these scenes have been placed into the film? The answer is a bit murky because on the one hand the graphic novel fans out there were crying out for more character development, but on the flipside of that were the movie fanatics who just wanted to see another Neo versus agent Smith epic fight scene.
I admit it would have been nice to see V play the jilted lover in his dialogue with Lady Justice, but the absence of this scene gave me something to complain about; it gave me a conversation piece with people who had either read the graphic novel or never knew that the graphic novel existed. The irony here is that I would have never missed these scenes had I not read the dark expositions of Alan Moore’s satirical mind and most people won’t know what they missed because they’ve never read the dark expositions of Alan Moore’s mind. I always used to hate it when my parents would try to get me to attempt something new and upon my refusal tell me I didn’t know what I was missing. Eventually I would try whatever it was they wanted me to try and more often than not I’d look at them and tell them that I didn’t know what I was missing and I preferred it that way, but at least I could now say that with clear conviction. Today’s generation of instant gratification doesn’t seem to understand what it took my parents most of my formative years to teach me; you have to know what you’re missing to figure out whether you want it or not. Ignorance is just the absence of effort and it takes minimal effort to flip the pages of a book, so pick one up damnit!
- Jason Wray
Current Mood: Whatever
Current Music: Godsmack - Whatever
The Doom That Came From Brooklyn:
Writing from a Place of Discomfort
Every night, on my way home from the Borough Hall train station, I pass beneath the window of an apartment once occupied by the great American horror writer H.P. Lovecraft, and I can’t help thinking about the writing process, or more specifically, the effect that a change in environment (mental or physical) has on not just our imaginations but on our writing skills as well.
Those who are unfamiliar with Lovecraft’s stories have at least witnessed his influence in countless modern horror films and novels. In fact, it’s impossible to have a conversation about modern horror, whether it’s Stephen King or Rob Zombie, without referencing the work of Lovecraft. He took the gothic horror of Edgar Allen Poe and the weird fiction of Ambrose Bierce and made it more blood soaked and more threatening. Gods and monsters, so alien to our human senses, skulked about in the depths of space, miles below the ocean and in the shadows of stately New England homes bringing madness and death to those who stumbled upon knowledge of their existence.
Lovecraft was born, raised and died in Providence, Rhode Island, but it’s the time he spent in the Brooklyn of the mid 20’s that is most intriguing and was, I believe, the turning point in his career as a writer.
When Lovecraft married Sonia Haft and moved into her apartment on Parkside avenue in March of 1924, he had already established himself as a pulp writer, contributing several stories to Weird Tales and being offered the position as editor of a companion magazine. His pulp stories, while well written, were also typical of the genre: gothic horror tales of dreams and the supernatural that barely hinted at the unique vision he would develop less than two years later.
By January of 1925, the marriage ended and Lovecraft moved into an apartment on Clinton street, and it was there that he wrote "The Horror at Red Hook."
During the 1920’s, Brooklyn was a scary place for a sheltered New Englander like Lovecraft. In his story he described Red Hook as "a maze of hybrid squalor near the ancient waterfront opposite Governor's Island, with dirty highways climbing the hill from the wharves to that higher ground where the decayed lengths of Clinton and Court Streets lead off toward the Borough Hall."
Having a thriving wharf area, this section of Brooklyn was home to wave after wave of immigrants who also both frightened and disgusted Lovecraft.
"The population is a hopeless tangle and enigma; Syrian, Spanish, Italian, and Negro elements impinging upon one another, and fragments of Scandinavian and American belts lying not far distant. It is a babel of sound and filth, and sends out strange cries to answer the lapping oily waves at its grimy piers and the monstrous organ litanies of the harbor whistles. From this tangle of material and spiritual putrescence the blasphemies of an hundred dialects assail the sky."
It is within these sentences that Lovecraft changed from a writer of Pulp stories to the creator of a mythos. Beyond the obvious racism and xenophobia something else exists in these lines, and that is Lovecraft’s first true encounter with a world that is entirely alien to him. Up to this point, most of his stories concerned themselves with vague horrors hinted at in dreams, and traditional monsters and spooks that fill the lore of any small American town, but this experience of living in Brooklyn placed Lovecraft among people who looked nothing like him, speaking words he couldn’t understand and inhabiting buildings completely unlike those of his native Rhode Island.
"Something unwholesome -- something furtive -- something vast lying subterrenely in obnoxious slumber -- that was the soul of 169 Clinton St. at the edge of Red Hook, and in my great northwest room 'The Horror at Red Hook' was written."
--HPL in a letter to Bernard Austin Dwyer, March 26, 1927
Every night, I walk past 169 Clinton, and I think about Lovecraft; I think about how he returned to Providence after a year of living in that apartment, watching these "enigmatic" people leading strange lives in a tangle of oddly shaped buildings, and how he carried with him the notes for his greatest legacy: The Cthulhu Mythos. Volumes have been written about the mythos, so I will not go into any depth here, but suffice it to say, Lovecraft built a world where alien monsters…some fungoid, some gelatinous, some huge and cephalopodan, some seemingly built out of pure madness…are called to interfere in our lives by strange and foreign sects who chant in a guttural tongue and dance obscenely in the night. What’s more, these unspeakable horrors are the architects of all life on earth, having built vast civilizations on this world and others, eons before humanity walked upright and who are not dead but merely sleeping in massive cities built with "strange geometry."
Brooklyn affected a profound brain change in Lovecraft, and he turned his very real fear and ignorance and isolation into a twisted cosmology; it’s an evolution in storytelling that would not have been possible in a quiet New England town. Lovecraft stepped into the strange and uncomfortable and emerged a better writer for it. Brooklyn became the city of non-Euclidean geometry whose monstrous buildings and twisting alleys suggested something both ancient and alien. It was a place that drove him into a deep depression the way his fictional cities of R’lyeh and those on the planet Yuggoth drove his protagonists into madness.
What Lovecraft teaches us about writing is to become uncomfortable as often as possible, to push ourselves in strange new directions in order to grow as writers. True inspiration does not come from stagnation; it comes from moments when you feel the most terrified, the most unsure of yourself, and for all his grumblings, Lovecraft admits that in the end, this terror (his terror) is all a matter of perspective anyway. In "The Whisperer in Darkness", after describing the cities on Yuggoth as being so alien as to "drive any weak man mad," he ends by saying:
"But remember - that dark world of fungoid gardens and windowless cities isn’t really terrible. It is only to us that it would seem so. Probably this world seemed just as terrible to the beings when they first explored it in the primal age."
Even in the most extreme discomfort, there can be a necessary shift in perspective, a way to incorporate the new and strange into a mindset, a way to write ourselves out of our own terror.
Current Mood: Stygian
Current Music: Joy Division - Atrocity Exhibition
Years ago when I was an undergraduate I had a wonderful professor who said to me, “Writing is like taking a journey, and like a journey, writing is about movement. Never stop writing because then you stop moving. And to do that is to allow your creativity and knowledge to both wither.” Her comment made me think a lot about my writing back then and continues to echo within me all these years later. The only difference now is that I pass these teachings and countless others on to my students; trying to give them the opportunity to take these baby steps to becoming better writers.
Writing is a journey. To write is to take yourself anywhere that you want to go and to explore. When writing we often think of the end, or the finished product. Instead what we need to focus on is the road itself. It is the exercise of writing that like learning to walk is best done one step at a time. All you need to do is be willing to move slowly and let the process of writing lead you where it may. Of course, when we set out to accomplish any goal, we have in mind a destination, an outcome. The very same is applicable to the craft of writing. We write to accomplish a task, whether it is to posit a theory on geopolitical corruption in a nation’s government or to simply connect with feelings that we have at that moment. And like walking—or setting out on a journey—writing too demands patience, practice, and perseverance. We must write often. The cliché still holds true, the more we work at a task the easier the task will eventually become. Journals, diaries, internet blogs, and small scraps of papers written on and folded to be thrust into our pocket forgotten are all steps to strengthening our endurance, our resolve for mastering more complex formal writing. In other words, these short personal strolls that we take with our creative minds train us to go one-on-one with our instincts, our intuitions about the world around us.
This semester I have the distinct pleasure of having a student, Serge Bachtin, in my English 1 class who has already begun his journey to becoming a more prolific writer. We were discussing the process of writing earlier in the semester and he was kind enough, and creative enough to pass along a piece of writing that he has done discussing how he views the task of writing. I was honored that he wanted desperately for me to read and respond to it, and as a result, I have decided to include here an excerpt that I find particularly enlightened:
Just like an artist has to constantly sketch, so that his/her wrist movements can become fluid, so does a writer need to constantly write. No matter the topic, he/she has to write… [because] the writing is the most important aspect of the art. This method keeps your mind ready and working, so that eventually you, as a writer, would be able to focus your ideas.
Serge’s concept of writing is very eloquently written, and paramount to the process of developing our writing. We can use any number of analogies to illustrate the importance of constantly practicing writing. Serge chose the art of writing, and I choose to draw the parallel of writing as a journey. Maybe we view our writing as ways of painting a written canvas bursting with the colorful memories of our successes, our failures, our hopes, or our dreams or maybe we choose to see these parts of ourselves as scenery, an environment of factual foliage and numerous trails which we have yet to traverse. It does not really matter. Whatever means we choose to propel us forward with our writing the outcome is always the same: It is not the destination reached that ultimately defines our writing, but what we learn on the journey there.
Peter L. Pampalone
Current Music: Savatage, "Hall of the Mountain King"
No matter what students major in when they begin their college careers, strong skills in reading and writing are necessary for their success in any subject. So why are these skills lacking in so many students? I’m not talking about CUNY here, I’m talking about the United States. Every day on TV, in newspapers, even in professional essays and political speeches, bad grammar is used. It is becoming pervasive in our society.
So how did this happen? What has changed since I was a youngster and received a quality education that taught me how to read and write according to standards? In asking myself this, I kept moving toward one explanation. It doesn’t explain all of the complexity of what is happening to account for the fall in standards and quality of education in America, but I do think it plays a role in students who have difficulty reading and writing. It is the absence of music and art education, that which was standard for me as a child and is being cut out of young people’s educations nationwide in recent years.
Music class was required when I was in elementary school. In Kindergarten we would sing simple songs without any real understanding of music, and up through third or fourth grade I couldn’t have explained my understanding of music or what I was learning in music class. It was a kind of learning that takes place below the surface, one that I took in to myself and understood at a deeper level than the verbal one. I understood rhythm and I developed a strong sense of it through singing. Yes, it was required that we sing in school—as I moved in to third and fourth grade music class was a singing class, and we did performances every year for the parents and community. Music class became more advanced as I grew older, and in high school I was still singing in the choir although by that point I knew I was a Bass voice and why I was categorized so, and I could read music and take cues from our director, Miss Vaia, whose standards were so high she had won the state choir competition in Ohio for over a decade straight. I still have my medals from the three years we won. She was a strict disciplinarian who would not allow any students in her choir if they weren’t committed to hard work. She taught me discipline and that no matter how much you struggle, if you just keep pushing forward you can accomplish anything.
I had learned some musical discipline prior to that because in the sixth grade I was given the opportunity to play the cello in the school orchestra. This great opportunity introduced me to the many layers that exist in musical compositions. I was never satisfied with knowing just my part—I wanted to know what everyone was playing and how to play everything. Secretly I wanted to be a violinist, but the funding was for a cellist because that was what they needed. So even though I sung in bass clef and the cello music was also in bass clef, I learned the treble clef as well so I could follow the violins. When I saw works that were written for a full symphony orchestra I could only stare in awe at the many levels of music that existed in the world, and wonder how anyone could keep them all together and apart enough to write such compositions.
One of the most important things that music taught me a la Miss Vaia is how to breathe. This knowledge has been vital to my whole existence. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve thought of Miss Vaia, who was all of about four feet eleven inches, and how she would come and poke me in the abdomen and tell me to stop breathing in my chest. She would make us hold our abdomens while we sang so we could feel our breath there. I still use her techniques today to deal with stress and difficult life situations. Shallow breathing is always my first sign that I am feeling stressed and taking time out to breathe into my abdomen and relax has helped me through all of my difficulties.
But music taught me a lot more than how to breathe, and along with the required art classes I took all through school, I developed an intuitive understanding of the freedom and discipline required to create. Art class gave me the freedom. Perhaps because I was never very good at painting, sculpture or drawing, I didn’t take art as seriously as I did music. So it didn’t teach me the discipline music taught me, but it did show me the freedom of expression required to create anything. In art class I didn’t care if I was perfect, so I could let down my boundaries and allow myself to express whatever I wanted. In music I controlled my expression while in art I lost that control, and the two qualities together, control and loss of it, I now understand are required to create anything.
So I moved on through school. In high school art wasn’t required anymore, and the funding was cut for my cello playing so I had to give it up. I maintained choir, and took on debate, acting and writing for the high school newspaper. It was easy for me to translate my skills taken from art class and my musical background to the theater, debate team and school newspaper. Granted, this wasn’t a conscious effort on my part—it happened automatically that my understanding of rhythm and layering in music easily transferred to writing. My roles in plays combined the freedom I felt in art class with the serious discipline of music—I could hear how my words sounded and evaluate and adjust the emotional timbres for the characters. I won a best actor award for a role I played with a British accent, and I have to admit the accent came very naturally to me due to my musical background. Public performance in debate and theater had no negative impact on me because by that point I was used to public performances and was as confident as I’d ever be in standing in front of a group of people.
But it wasn’t only creatively that I excelled due to my musical and artistic background. Academically I maintained honor roll status and excellent grades due to the discipline and effort I learned are necessary to anything through music. My reading skills soared due to my understanding of layering and how in novels and stories there are layers as in musical compositions—the difference for me being I could verbalize the layers I saw in literature whereas I never could those in music. In a book I could take the whole and see the parts and how they came together to make the whole just like I was able to do in music. If something was off in a work I read I would think, “the rhythm there isn’t right,” rather than “something is wrong with the wording there.” Further, I had an understanding of critical thinking that I didn’t even know I had. The layering in music easily exposed the layering of writing and made me able to see the various layers writers created to constitute their themes.
But imitation was harder than I thought. I can vividly recall the first time it all made sense to me. I was seventeen and was having one of the most difficult years of my life. The year before that I’d left an abusive alcoholic home at sixteen and ran away to New York City with a friend. After a few weeks at Covenant House I was sent home to stay with my sister. That didn’t last long, nor did staying with another sister, so I ended up staying with a friend of my sister’s in exchange for watching her kids while she worked. It was a lot of pressure for me, and I was glad for the escape choir and the breathing exercises from Miss Vaia offered me. My running away would make a good newspaper story my advisor thought, so I sat down one afternoon and gathered all my notes, written over about twenty slips of paper. I sat for a few hours trying to put everything together, but succeeded, as many early writers do, in just getting more lost, confused and frustrated. Then I had an epiphany. Staring out into the mid-afternoon sunshine I saw in a flash that music was the guide I needed for writing. But I also knew in the same moment that I couldn’t hold back, that I had to have the energy and excitement I’d felt when painting or sculpting—not fear of the unknown but excitement about what the unknown could create! I let myself go and honesty ended up pouring out onto the page like thick molasses onto silver dollar pancakes. Naturally, my critical abilities helped me to organize the ideas and create a second layer of meaning, something I’d never done before. But the real test of the article was reading it aloud and listening to the rhythm of it. When I was finished I knew before the article went to press that it was a great piece, and sure enough the praise doted on me after its publication proved my feeling valid. That was enough for me to know I understood how writing was accomplished, and to this day I continue to use the same process I discovered that day: writing freely, thinking critically and then listening musically.
Without music and art programs in the schools, where are students learning the pre-verbalized critical thinking and layering and rhythmic skills? Not only that, where are they learning to cut loose, to breathe, to be disciplined and undisciplined, to have confidence in front of a group, and finally—to write? Athletics, certainly, can give some of these skills—the Greeks knew the value of exercise to education better than nearly any other culture. They also knew the value of music and art. Their writers began with music, just as I did, and to me this is in part what it means to have a classical education. Music and art aren’t luxuries—they are fundamental to our understanding of other disciplines and the interrelationships between them all. Without music in the schools, it’s no wonder that students are graduating without knowing how to write. Long before writing begins and we begin to take it seriously, music can give us a brilliant understanding of what writing entails, and prepare us for successful lives as thinkers, writers and involved citizens. Not only that, but an early musical education builds our confidence and understanding of the world and will make us all, in the future, more successful and informed in every aspect of our lives.
It is the fourth student conference in under an hour and I am getting tired. Erica is taking English 1 for the second time and I can’t imagine where she finds the energy to keep going. When we sit down to speak, more out of laziness than pedagogy, I ask her how she feels she is doing. She is as bright as I am dull, carefully explaining to me that while in the past she would sit down and write an essay from start to finish, she has now realized that this is a mistake. What she needs to do is write down the points she wants to make, and then fill in the material. Then, she has to read it over and make changes: "I’m a really bad writer, so I have to be careful." We take out a few of her recent essays, and she points out to me the kind of mistakes she makes, and then how she corrects them. The sloppy notes I have made on her work are irrelevant. Erica points out a sentence that doesn’t make any sense, a sentence I had failed to mark. She smiles and tells me once again, "See, I’m a bad writer, so I have to be careful." On a certain level, both of us realize that she can’t trust me. I have not been catching all her errors and she is going to have to take over. She doesn’t seem angry, however, and while she does not pat my hand reassuringly, the gesture is in the air.
It is the beginning of morning and I have been staring at my computer for the last few hours. I have been working on a very long essay for over two months; I have written ten pages on an irrelevant passage and a full section of unnecessary background material. I keep reading through what I have written, searching for coherence, for argument, for all the elements that I have lectured on this semester. I am a professional, a teacher of composition. I discuss and edit, stand confidently at the front of the classroom. When people ask me questions, I do not blink when I answer. My essay is terrible. I have not outlined and I don’t know where I am going. If the proof is in the pudding, my pudding has not congealed.
You already know whose words are running through my head, have been since she first said them. I write them on the back of an index card, and pin it to my bulletin board: I am a bad writer, I need to be careful. I am jealous of Erica’s belief, of her confidence in her lack of ability. So I stalk her sentiments, repeating my new mantra as I walk my dog, as I meditate in yoga class. If I were a bad writer, I would deserve to be edited. My sloppy prose would have to be slashed through. If I were a bad writer, I wouldn’t be silly enough to trust a tired composition teacher. I would have to take charge; I would have to be careful.
When I was an undergraduate at Brooklyn College, I had to take Core 3 (People, Power, and Politics). I was required to compose a term paper in which I had to express an understanding of the political theories introduced in the course. I didn’t want to go the traditional route and write a mundane paper that would be just as painstakingly read as it was composed. I decided to write a dialogue between Malcolm X, W.E.B Du Bois, John Locke and myself in which we all discussed a specific issue—race and rights. My professor approved the idea and "Race vs. Rights" was born. I preferred to take this approach to the assignment because I wanted to express a thorough understanding of the respective theories. I also wanted to arrive at my own theory by exploring the others’. I didn’t think that a traditional paper would have allowed me to come to my own estimation in such a straightforward manner. Also, I wanted to have fun with the assignment and compose something that I thought my professor would appreciate and enjoy.
The sentiments presented in the dialogue are based on the aforementioned theorists’ respective political views as presented in class and in assigned readings. "The Second Treatise of Government" afforded the foundation for Locke’s comments, the book "People, Power, and Politics" provided the basis for Du Bois’s remarks, and a course packet that is no longer in my possession served as the foundation for Malcolm X’s deductions. Of course, my opinions are simply my opinions. Unfortunately, the source material is no longer in my possession (I took the course in 2001), so I can’t provide detailed citations, and I did not properly cite the material in my final draft (do not follow my poor example. You must always accurately cite sources). Nonetheless, I hope you enjoy reading it because I definitely enjoyed writing it.
( Race vs. RightsCollapse )
(This is) Not a Fragment.
Language is a tool that each generation uses to express and define itself, and as such, it is constantly refined and expanded, simultaneously shortened and added to. Some words shrink, while new ones are created.
If language did not mutate, did not change and grow, slang words would never fall out of favor, and dictionaries would never be updated.
How can there be objective rules to govern something so impermanent?
The subjective nature of language reveals itself in the rules and "not rules" we are taught in high school. The most egregious being to "put a comma anywhere you take a breath" which is simply a lazy teaching method masquerading as a rule. Everyone breathes differently, everyone pauses in different places – this is less a rule than a guide, part of a very basic map, and we must always remember that "the map is not the territory." *
The territory of the English language contains many rules just as a physical territory contains many roads, and both contain as many shortcuts. Shortcuts are easy; they’re fun, and they may get you to your destination via a quicker or more scenic route, but you cannot utilize a shortcut unless you know the established roads. You must go the long way at least once before you attempt to veer off an established path. You need to know the rules in order to break them.
Common Usage seemingly destroys this notion. It establishes the roots of error before the rules are even learned. Common Usage can best be described as a deviation from the established rules of grammar and syntax that becomes widely accepted and utilized in everyday communication, such as substituting "U" for "You", dropping the "g" from a word endin’…etc. This creates an untold amount of confusion in students who are clearly perplexed when you insist that there is a difference between "lose" and "loose", "further" and "farther" and "accept" and "except" and that the word they are trying to begin a sentence with is "Because" not "Cause" (as in "Cause the alarm was broken, I woke up late.)
For years, these errors were treated harshly. The use of colloquialisms was considered a symptom of an uneducated mind. Many attempts have been made to break students of these habits and to drill various grammar rules into their heads as if punctuation and subject/verb agreement could be learned in the same way we learn the multiplication tables. If this was the case, there would be absolutely no way for a non-English speaking student to learn English through immersion in the language.
Recently, I’ve taken to telling students that we live in a world of "Model Centered Grammar." This means that their overuse of contractions, commas, em dashes and ellipses are only wrong in context. The English Language is too large a concept to be governed by one strict set of rules. The notion that proper sentence structure and spelling are ends unto themselves rather than means to an end is a misconception that resides in most students and is only reinforced by teachers of grammar and syntax. When rules are broken, new models are created. A Colloquialism is only wrong in an academic or professional setting; it is not a defect in the thought process of a student which must be eliminated and replaced with "proper English." Proper English, is just another skill, a way to work within a specific model. Academia is a model, business writing is a model, poetry is a model, fiction is a model, cyber-communication is a model and each one requires a different set of writing skills in order to make all communication within that model rich and clear.
Words are not their meaning, they simply represent meaning, so it stands to reason that syntax, whether it takes the form of a fragment or a compound, complex, simple or run-on sentence, can only be viewed as successful if it manages to convey its meaning, and its success can only be judged within a model.
* Alford Korzybski
The Glowing Light in the Distance is You
Natalie Goldberg in her novel Long Quiet Highway writes, "Writing became the tool I used to digest my life and to understand, finally, the grace, the gratitude I could feel, not because everything is hunky-dory, but because we can use everything we are. Actually we have no choice. We can’t use what someone else had-a great teacher, a terrific childhood. That is outside ourselves. And we can’t avoid an inch of our own experience; if we do it causes a blur, a bleep, a puffy unreality. Our job is to wake up everything, because if we slow down enough, we see we are everything" (p.19).
This remarkably simple concept is one that is so lucid, so fundamentally barren of academia’s preconceived notions of written correctness that it may appear to be too idealistic for its own purpose. But is it? On the contrary, it is this simplistic ideology, which needs to be incorporated into the pedagogy of teaching writing in our English 1 classes. The students-and are we not all students when it comes to the task of mastering our own writing-need to become comfortable with the writer within before being able to utilize the very skills which we all possess as writers. Each of us, whether new to the task of writing or deeply ingrained in the process, have all experienced the pressures and, dare I say, lonely disconnection with the blank page. Students are expected in English 1 to produce well-crafted treatises on topics that are sometimes all too foreign to their experiences as writers. This in turn alienates them from what they might want to say, simply because the students have not honed their skills in a way that allows them, as writers, to familiarize themselves with the writer, storyteller, or critic that is embedded within each and every one of them.
This is where Natalie Goldberg’s idea of simply writing as an exercise and extension of ourselves proves to be the light of hope and creativity within us all-- students and academics alike. If we can take a moment to allow ourselves to write freely, without judgment from our greatest enemy, ourselves, we can become acquainted with our experiences, thus learning to use our knowledge, our happiness, our disappointments to bring a life and spirit to each piece of writing that we do.
Throughout the nearly ten years that I have worked both as a writing tutor and more recently as a professor, I have always stressed above all else that students need to be aware that it does not take a special skill to become someone who writes well, just a willingness to let go of all the apprehensions and false criticisms that stifle us as writers. Write what you feel, express what you see, share what you know, and question all that seems unclear; these are the benchmarks that each student should strive for without fear when writing. Each of us has a story (or stories) and each has a different point of view, and each student comes to a writing course, or any course, with a background of experience and information that is unique to the student. If each day we set aside just a few minutes to sit quietly and just write, free-write, we will begin to harness the faculties for writing, which each of us possesses. As instructors we need to set aside even ten minutes either at the very beginning or at the conclusion of our classes to allow our students to partake in this exercise in order to connect with their voices as writers with diverse backgrounds and experiences. By taking the approach of having the student tap into this background, it would seem to allow a broader and more enriched cache of topics for students to write about. This in turn affords each student the chance to get one step closer to identifying himself or herself as a writer writing. I have always made it a priority of pointing out the good parts of a student’s essay while not dwelling more than absolutely necessary on the not-so-good parts. I find that students respond quite favorably to this, and it begins to show in their writing. It is ultimately in this way that harnessing the ability to develop coherent, well thought out, expressive, essays in my opinion far outweighs preconceived notions of correctness for students. The more a student is encouraged to write, the more that student will write; this inevitably will facilitate the process for their grammar to correct itself, in turn creating a synergy of writing skills for each student-culminating in a student who writes both thought provoking essays as well as essays that satisfy the correctness factor. English 1 is a course designed to help students’ writing make the transition from high school to college. This course sets the groundwork for each student, regardless of prospective major, to acquire the skills to write well across any curriculum. Be it informal writing, narrative, compare-and-contrast, argumentative, or descriptive--the entire gambit of subdivisions that are encompassed in writing-being able to write well is the foundation that future success is built upon both in the classroom and beyond.
After all, the writer writing in each of us stands as our own legacy, the chronicler and narrator of our being. To this end, I will conclude with a mantra that I have written and pass on to all my students: I am writing for me. Writing is my tribute to myself, for all I have endured, for every memory that still plagues me, it is my meditation, my listener, my healer, it is me.
Peter L. PampaloneFall, 2005