GUMP (College Writing): Groupies

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First-year students have a lot on their plates.  There’s so much to learn, and so much to remember!  Fortunately, when it comes to remembering the names of their professors, they’re in luck.  After all, they only have to keep track of four or five of them.

The professors themselves, on the other hand, have a lot more remembering to do when it comes to names.  There are currently 26 students enrolled in each of my four sections of first-year comp this fall.  That’s a hundred and four names and faces I’m going to have to keep straight as I attempt to pursue and develop a meaningful, individual teacher-student relationship with each of them.

That’s one of many reasons I’ve gotten into the habit of putting my students in small groups.  With four or five people in a group, I can learn names and faces much more quickly.  It still takes me about four or five weeks to get them all straight, but before I started doing group work, the whole semester could pass by and I still would know only about half.

So I put everyone in groups, if not on the first day of class, definitely on the second or third.

We’re not talking occasional, spontaneous groups here.  We’re talking standing groups.

Here are some of the other benefits I’ve discovered:

  1. Small-group configurations give me more time to work with students more or less individually.  It simply is not possible for me to give any quality attention to twenty-five individual students in a fifty-five minute class period, but I can sure get to five groups and give all five a fair amount of (almost) one-on-one time.
  2. College can be a lonely place, especially for freshmen.  A standing small-group atmosphere gives students an opportunity to get to know each other over a period of weeks, during which a more comfortable and cooperative relationship develops than is possible with impromptu groups randomly thrown together for a single ten- or twenty-minute exercise.   Students exchange email addresses and/or phone numbers, and I also encourage them to create a Facebook group.  In a standing group, they feel less alone, and they know someone is going to notice if they miss class.
  3. Many students are terrified of asking “stupid questions” where the whole class might laugh at them, but they’re considerably less intimidated in a small group setting.  Working in a small group gives the “wallflowers” a chance to voice their opinions and ask questions without having to do so in front of the whole class.  Often, a shy student will ask a more outspoken group member a question, and the outspoken student, if the group doesn’t know the answer, will promptly throw her hand in the air and ask.
  4. The best way to learn anything is to teach it, and invariably, the students in a group will wind up helping each other to understand the material.  Group work encourages cooperative learning.
  5. Small group work in the classroom prepares students for cooperative and collaborative projects outside the classroom, whether in a corporate or other work environment or elsewhere.  We discuss issues of group dynamics and the students learn, in real time, how to anticipate and try to avoid the difficulties and inconsistencies of group behavior—and to cope more effectively with problems when they do arise.
  6. Small groups also create a positive type of peer pressure.  It might be easy for a student to lie low in a large class and hope she won’t get called on—the odds are generally with her in such a situation—but when she’s working in a small group, she doesn’t have that luxury.  Students who have trouble finding time to do out-of-class reading assignments are more likely to find a way to get them done when they know their group is relying on them to come to class prepared.

At the beginning of the semester, when I don’t know anyone yet, the groups are based on my roll sheet.  The first five students are Group 1, the next five are Group 2, etc.  (Groups of four or five are best.)  The students will stay in those groups for the entire first unit (about five weeks).  When they turn in the final draft of their first paper and I introduce the next major assignment, I change up all of the groups, making sure nobody is in a group with someone else who was in their Unit 1 group.  By the time we get to Unit 3, I know everyone well enough to set up very carefully-choreographed groups for the final project—and by the end of the term, everyone in the class has worked with and gotten to know everyone else.

It’s not so bad being a groupie.

GUMP: Demystifying the Semicolon

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Ah, the mysterious semicolon.  I rarely see them in student papers at all, and when I do, alas, they’re rarely used correctly.  Students tell me they avoid them because they don’t know how to use them.

So today I’m going to face the mystery head-on.

First, the basics:   You need to be able to identify independent and dependent clauses.  These are the basic building blocks of all sentences.

What is an independent clause?  It’s a group of words that constitute, and can stand alone as, a complete sentence.  An independent clause has a subject and a verb, but no internal punctuation.  For example:

I like cats.

He is extremely handsome.

The most important thing to remember about being in a relationship is that you have to be friends.

As you can see, the length of the independent clause is irrelevant.  (<– This sentence is not an independent clause.  Why?  Because it contains a comma.  As I just said, independent clauses do not contain any internal punctuation.)

OK, then what’s a dependent clause?  As you might have guessed, dependent clauses are dependent.  Because they lack either a subject or a verb, or both, they are thus known as sentence fragments, and you should generally avoid using them as stand-alone sentences.  (There are stylistic exceptions to this rule, but you have to know the rule before you can break it.  I break it quite frequently myself.  The first sentence of this blog post is a fragment, but that doesn’t mean all fragments work well as sentences.)

Here are some dependent clauses:

In the rain.

Although I wanted to.

The shirt.

Running really fast.

Each of these is missing either a subject or a verb, so none of them is a complete sentence—that is, none of them is independent.  Fragments work fine in day-to-day conversation, but in written English, they’re generally regarded as one of the Three Grievous Errors and should therefore be avoided.

OK.  As I said above, independent clauses and dependent clauses are the building blocks from which sentences are built.  If you can identify what’s dependent and what’s independent, you’ve got the basics of the whole written world at your fingertips.

So into the whole written world we go.

There are four basic types of sentences.  Yep, that’s right—only four.  Every single grammatically-correct declarative sentence you have ever seen is one of these four basic types.

Here they are:

  1. IC.                           Simple sentence: one independent clause standing alone; no internal punctuation
  2. IC; IC.                    Compound sentence: independent clauses separated by semicolons; no dependent clauses, no commas
  3. DC, IC.                   Complex sentence: any number of dependent clause(s) in any combination with ONE independent clause; uses at least one comma, but no semicolons
  4. IC; DC, IC.            Compound-complex sentence: any number and any combination of BOTH dependent and independent clauses, using BOTH comma(s) and semicolon(s)

You will note that although there are only FOUR basic sentence types, TWO of them use semicolons.  This means that if you don’t use semicolons, you’re limiting your use of language by roughly 50%.

But if you can identify dependent and independent clauses, then based on this little list, you now know everything you need to know to use semicolons correctly, and you can expand your range to 100%.

You can make any sentence in the world using a combination of ICs and DCs.  All you have to remember is a couple of very simple rules:

  1. All grammatically correct sentences must contain at least one IC.
  2. If you have two or more ICs in a sentence, you need to put semicolons in between them.

You can tell me right now whether or not the following sentences are grammatically correct:

IC, IC, DC.  Correct?  Or not?  (Not.  I’ve put two ICs together without a semicolon.  This is a comma splice, sometimes called a fused sentence, and it’s the second of the Three Grievous Errors.  This is never OK.)

DC, DC, IC, DC; DC, IC, DC; IC, DC, DC.  Correct?  Or not?  (Yes!  The sentence contains three ICs, but each is separated from the others by semicolons.  Semicolons are awesome.)

IC IC.  Correct?  No.  This is a run-on sentence, the third of the Three Grievous Errors, and like the comma splice, it should also always be avoided.  In real time, this would read something like this:

I love cats they are so funny.

IC, IC.   Correct?  No.  Two ICs can’t live in the same sentence without a semicolon.  What I’ve given you here is another comma splice.  In real life, it looks like this:

I love cats, they are so funny.

Here’s a little practice for you.  See what you can make with these models:

  1. IC.                                           (Simple)
  2. IC, DC.                                   (Complex)
  3. DC, DC, DC, IC.                   (Complex)
  4. IC; IC.                                    (Compound)
  5. IC; DC, IC.                            (Compound-complex)

Here are mine:

  1. IC.                           My cats make me laugh.
  2. IC, DC.                   Dogs are great companions, but I can’t live without a cat in the house.
  3. DC, DC, DC, IC.  Even when I’m grumpy, sick, or overworked, my cats can always cheer me up.
  4. IC; IC.                    I’ve had cats all my life; I could never name a favorite.
  5. IC; DC, IC.            Every cat has its own personality; contrary to popular opinion, most of them are not remotely aloof.

I should mention that there are other uses of the semicolon as well; for instance, they’re necessary in lists, where commas exist within the list.  One super-simple example of such usage would be a sentence like this:  “I went to Chicago, Illinois; Los Angeles, California; and Tampa, Florida.”

So now you’ve got all the basics of semicolon use.  Aren’t you dying to show off your skills?  Go ahead.  Give those models a shot.  I’d love to see some of your responses in the comments!

GUMP: LAY vs. LIE

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I did EFFECT vs. AFFECT last week, thinking someone had requested it.  I’m sure someone did, though I can’t seem to find any evidence of it.  But a reader definitely did ask me to do LAY vs. LIE, so I thought I’d take a shot today at minimizing the confusion about that one.

(Minimize, not eliminate.)

The thing with LAY vs. LIE, as with several of the other “mix-ups” I’ve addressed in the past couple of weeks, is that a great many English speakers don’t have a built-in “that doesn’t feel right” sensor for it, and even those who do often don’t know which one to use.  The result is that a whole lot of people just sort of use whichever one pops into their heads.

Don’t do that.  You need a system.

As I pointed out last week, the primary source of the confusion with EFFECT and AFFECT is that both words can be used both as nouns and as verbs.  So I’ll start with good news:  Although LAY and LIE are also used both as nouns and as verbs, the problem exists ONLY in their verb form.

LIE can be a noun, as in, “You’re not telling the truth!  That’s a LIE!”

And LAY can be a noun as well, as in, “I’m trying to figure out the LAY of the land.”

Nobody confuses these.  Nobody.  The problem isn’t with the noun versions.  It’s the verbs.

LAY is a transitive verb.  What does that mean?  It means it takes a direct object.  What does that mean?  It means you can’t just LAY DOWN when you have a headache.  If you do, you’ve chosen the wrong word.

You have to LAY SOMETHING.  That is, LAY is a verb you have to do TO something.

(You can snicker all you want, but by definition, a mnemonic is something that helps you remember things.  If you can remember that you need to LAY something, it’s working.)

If you have a headache, you can LAY your head on a nice, soft, down pillow, but you can’t just LAY down.

Hey, I didn’t make the rules . . I’m just trying to explain them.  Nobody said English was easy.

OK, so that’s LAY.

In contrast, LIE is an intransitive verb, which by definition CANNOT take a direct object.

Example:  My dog loves to LIE in the sun.  (Not LAY in the sun.)

I like to LIE in the sun myself, when it’s warm enough.  People in California are probably LYING in the sun even as I write this.  Me, I’m wearing a nice, thick sweatshirt right now.

When it warms up and I go out to LIE in the sun, I will probably LAY a towel on the ground first.

Note the direct object after LAY (the towel).

If you’re thinking you have a pretty good handle on the difference, pat yourself on the back.  But don’t get too smug, because I’m not done yet.

Why?

Because that’s all in the present tense.  And the past tense of LIE . . is LAY.

Sorry.  You can roll your eyes if you want to.  I’ll wait.

OK.

The past tense of LIE is LAY, and the past tense of LAY is LAID.

The good news is that the direct object rule still holds.

After I went swimming yesterday, I LAID my towel on the ground and LAY down on it to soak up a little sun.

If you can keep your eye on the direct object, it will all come together.

No lie.

GUMP: Effect and Affect

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Last week I was sidetracked by the pedagogical uses of my earlier dew point post, but this week I’m back on track with the common mix-ups.  A reader asked for a clarification of EFFECT and AFFECT, and I promised to provide one, and I haven’t forgotten.  So without more ado, let’s jump into it.

You may have seen the EFFECT/AFFECT problem addressed elsewhere.  Or anyway, I’ve seen more than one Facebook meme that does so.  These explanations usually oversimplify the issue by simply saying that EFFECT is a noun, and AFFECT is a verb.

This is wrong.  If it were this simple, most people wouldn’t struggle with these words.  Some still would, of course, but I feel pretty confident in saying that most wouldn’t.  I have a suspicion that the people who try to oversimplify it have one of four possible motives.   Either

1)      They’re lazy, or

2)      They’re unaware of the real differences, or

3)      They’re not confident in their ability to explain the real differences, or

4)      They assume their readers are not bright enough to understand the real differences.

I honestly don’t believe it’s #1 or #2.  If it were #1, they wouldn’t bother trying at all.  And if it’s #2, they’re in the wrong business.  Seriously.

So I figure it’s got to be either #3 or #4.  If it’s #3, then again, they shouldn’t be trying at all.  IMO, of course.  The very least they should do is qualify it and say that MOST of the time, EFFECT is a noun and AFFECT is a verb.  At least that would be accurate.

So I’m left with #4.  And I find that insulting, and so should you.  It’s arrogant.  A writer should have confidence in the intelligence of her audience.  And a writer should tell the truth.

And the truth is, it CAN be confusing, and it’s NOT that simple.

But I DO have confidence in people’s ability to understand the REAL differences, so without further ado, here they are.

For starters, BOTH words can be (and are used as) both nouns and verbs.

This is why they’re confusing.  Period.  So let’s try to relieve some of the confusion.

1A.  EFFECT is most often used as a noun.   Examples:

  • What is the effect of gamma rays on man-in-the-moon marigolds?
  • In many parts of the San Fernando Valley, the physical and psychological effects of the 1994 Northridge earthquake are still evident.
  • One effect of the earthquake was a pervading feeling of terror among local residents.

In all of these cases, EFFECT is a noun.  It means RESULT.  You can try substituting RESULT (or RESULTS), and you should be good to go.  One RESULT of the earthquake was . . . .  (See?  It makes sense!)

Another test is to try inserting an article in front of the word.  If you can say THE EFFECT or AN EFFECT, you’re on the right track.  You can’t add an article to a verb; if you do, you’ve turned it into a noun (in “the RUN for the presidency,” RUN is a noun, not a verb).

 

1B.  EFFECT is also often used as a verb, and this is where a lot of the confusion arises.  As a verb, it means to bring about.  Examples:

  • The chairperson was hoping her new team would be able to effect a change in protocol.
  • One of the foundation’s primary goals is to effect a better understanding of male and female behavior.

TESTS:  I can think of three ways to check for correct usage of EFFECT as a verb:

  • You’ll notice that in both of the above examples, EFFECT is preceded by TO.  This is because EFFECT, when used as a verb, is often used in its infinitive form.  You can try inserting the infinitive (TO EFFECT) and see if it makes sense in your sentence.
  • Try substituting TO BRING ABOUT.  (The chairperson was hoping her new team would be able to bring about a change in protocol.)
  • EFFECT can also be tested by adding ING, which creates a gerund (ex. “Effecting change is one of the candidate’s primary purposes in seeking political office”).  You cannot add ING to a noun.

 

2A.  AFFECT is most often used as a verb, and it can be used two ways.  Again, this causes confusion.

First, it means to have an influence on.  Examples:

  • The gloomy weather negatively affects (has a negative influence on) my mood.
  • A teacher’s demeanor in the classroom can often affect student success rates.  (It can also HAVE AN EFFECT ON student success rates.  Do you see the difference?  The first example (can affect) is a verb.  The second one (has an effect on) is a noun.)

Second, it means to adopt.  Example:

  • In order to impress people at the party with her sophistication, she affected a British accent.

2B.  AFFECT is rarely used as a noun, at least not in day-to-day conversation.  My thesaurus doesn’t even offer suggestions for AFFECT as a noun, but it basically means attitude or appearance.  It’s also sometimes used in psychology to indicate an emotional state, but honestly, this usage (as a noun) is very probably not where you’re experiencing your confusion.

Example:  I had a heck of a time coming up with any.  Let’s go with this one:

  • The patient’s affect was one of anxiety and exhaustion.

FYI:  When AFFECT is used as a noun, the stress is on the first syllable (AF-fect).  Hear the pronunciation here:  http://www.merriam-webster.com/audio.php?file=affect01&word=affect&text=%5C%3Cspan%20class%3D%22unicode%22%3E%CB%88%3C%2Fspan%3Ea-%3Cspan%20class%3D%22unicode%22%3E%CB%8C%3C%2Fspan%3Efekt%5C

I’m going to close this post with a little quiz so you can test yourself:

1.  I wasn’t sure how my new medication was going to (effect, affect) me.

2.  I was worried about the potentially negative (effects, affects) of my new medication.

3.  I hope this post helps to (effect, affect) a better understanding of the uses of EFFECT and AFFECT.

Wait for it . . .

Wait for it . . .

Oh, you want the answers?

Waaaaait for it . . . . . .

Ah, here they are.

Answers:  1. Affect.  2.  Effects. 3.  Effect.

How did you do?

GUMP: Pulling Writing Advice Out of the Air

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My post last Friday about the heat wave has provided some useful lessons in writing.

In that post, in case you missed it, I said the dew point, not the humidity, is to blame for our discomfort during a heat wave in these parts; and I received a comment arguing that it really is the humidity.

I’m always willing to admit when I’m wrong, but first I had to find out if I was wrong.  So I went straight to the horse’s mouth, and sent an email to the chief meteorologist at our local NBC affiliate:

Hi!

I posted about the heat wave on my blog yesterday, and I’ve received a response claiming that it really is the humidity, not the dew point, causing all the discomfort.  Is there any way either you or Matt might be able to find a moment to help clarify the difference?  If I’m wrong, I’d like to update the post with more accurate information.  Here’s a link to the comments in question (scroll up for the blog post itself):  https://melindahagenson.com/2013/07/19/pot-luck-yeah-its-hot/#comments

Thanks so much!

If you don’t live here locally, Matt is the junior meteorologist at the station.  Anyway, I received the following response late the following night:

Melinda.. Both dew point and relative humidity are closely related, likely causing the confusion, but in the end, it’s the amount of moisture in the air that makes us uncomfortable. The dew point temperatures would be more representative, because as you stated in the blog, you can have high relative humidity any time of the year and not feel so miserable. It’s because dew point is measured in degrees.. simply put, the temperature at which the air becomes saturated. The key is the relationship to temperature. Warmer air can hold more moisture, so the atmosphere has a higher water content when the dew point climbs. A higher moisture content and warmer air leads to the discomfort we feel.. conversely, higher moisture content at a low temperature would still lead to high relative humidity, but because the overall amount of moisture colder air can hold is much less, we don’t feel it the same way.

Hope this makes sense, and helps!

Darren Maier
Chief Meteorologist
WEAU-TV

It appears that what he’s saying here is that yes, the dew point provides an accurate prediction of the degree of discomfort we can expect, relative to the air temperature and the relative humidity. 

In other words, my commenter and I are both right.

But here’s the thing:  I didn’t mean to imply that humidity plays no role in human discomfort levels during a heat wave.  That was not what I meant at all.  In re-reading the post and the meteorologist’s response, I realized that I could, and should, have been clearer and more specific in my original post.

And here’s where the GUMP lesson comes in.  Two lessons, in fact.

The first is one that I did OK on.  I thought I might be wrong, and I checked my facts.  As writers, we need to keep an open mind.  We need to be willing to question our own assumptions, and above all, be willing to admit when we are wrong.  Have faith in our readers’ intelligence.  Even when you think you’re right, if you are challenged by a reader, you should check your facts before responding.

Stubbornness has no place in academia.  Remember,  A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.  –Emerson

Emerson does not mean we shouldn’t be consistent.  He means we shouldn’t be foolishly consistent—or in other words, we should not cling to an opinion in the face of information that brings its accuracy into question.

Which leads me to the second lesson, which I didn’t do so well on last week, and that is to write clearly.  Be accurate.  This should go without saying, but it bears repeating.  Do not assume that just because you know what you mean, your audience will too.  Always read your work critically before submitting it, and try to read as if you were a member of your own audience.  What questions have you left unanswered?  Where might you be misunderstood?  Most of us have had the experience of having someone say, “What did you mean here?  I don’t get this part.”  And when this happens, it’s not the reader’s fault.  It’s yours.

Or in this case, mine.

This isn’t a lesson in meteorology.  It’s a lesson in writing.

GUMP: Grammatical Mysteries Solved

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Most well-meaning people strive to use correct grammar in day-to-day speech and writing, but sometimes the “correct” usage is a mystery, and we just sort of guess.  And unfortunately, a lot of us guess wrong.  So for today’s GUMP post, I thought I’d address three of the most common grammatical mysteries.

1.  Should I use WHO or WHOM?

You do not automatically sound smarter when you insert a WHOM into your speech.  Whom has very specific grammatical rules, and it’s probably because so many people don’t understand those rules that the word is not in common use anymore.  When in doubt, use WHO, and you will rarely be challenged.

However, if you want to use WHOM correctly, try this easy test:

Consider whether HIM or HE will fit into the sentence instead, and you’ll know immediately whether you should use WHO or WHOM.  Just remember the M.  If he is the correct choice, you’ll use WHO (HE and WHO do not contain M’s).  If him is the correct choice, then you’ll use WHOM (HIM and WHOM both contain an M).

Example 1:

The lady who/whom crashed into my car was drunk.

Now choose:  HIM crashed into my car.  OR  HE crashed into my car.

The choice is obvious:  HE crashed into my car is correct.

There is no M in HE.

Therefore you need WHO in the original sentence:  The lady who crashed into my car was drunk.

Example 2:

I wasn’t sure who/whom I should thank for the gift.

Now choose:  I should thank HIM.  OR I should thank HE.

Obviously, I should thank HIM is correct.

There is an M in HIM.

So WHOM is correct in the sentence:  I wasn’t sure whom I should thank for the gift.

Another easy rule of thumb:  If there’s a preposition, you’ll use WHOM.  To whom, from whom, behind whom, under whom.  To WHOM should I address my comments?  To HIM.

(I apologize for the apparently sexist nature of this advice, but the mnemonic just doesn’t work with SHE and HER.)

2.  Should I use ME or I

One of the most common mysteries.  In fact, it was my mom’s #1 pet peeve.  Between she and I, we’ve been fighting it for years.  Her estimation of a person’s intelligence would plummet the moment the error emerged from that person’s lips.  Which is a shame, since many very intelligent people do it.  I’ve heard newscasters and even English teachers do it.

Did you catch the error?  Didja?  Huh?  It’s there.  Read that paragraph again.

If you didn’t catch it, chances are pretty good that you might even do it yourself.

The Mystery:  “Between she and I,” which appears in the above paragraph, is an error.  Similarly, “Tom is going to the movies with Mary and I” is incorrect.  So is “This is a picture of my dog and I” and so is “The university’s decision to change the graduation requirements affected the other students and I worse than most other people.”   It really bothers my mom and I when people do this!

The Solution:  You can check for correctness by taking the second person/other people out of the sentence.  Leave yourself in.

“Tom and I are going to the park” can be changed to “I am going to the park,” and you can see it works just fine.

But when you change “Tom is going to the movies with Mary and I” to “Tom is going to the movies with I,” you can see immediately that it’s obviously wrong, as is “the new requirements affected I.”  And “it really bothers I” is just plain silly.

It really, truly is correct to say “Tom is going to the movies with Mary and me.”  Or “This is my favorite picture of my dog and me.”  (Or even “me and my dog,” though technically, the other person should come first.)

3.  Should I use ITS or IT’S?

Here’s the thing with this one:  IT’S is ALWAYS a contraction of IT IS.

Always.  Period.  No exceptions.

This grammatical mystery exists because we have been taught that when you add an S in a possessive, you need to add an apostrophe as well.

Most of us know to add an apostrophe to show possession:  This is Melinda’s blog.

So when we use the possessive of IT, we often add an apostrophe before the S, perhaps without even thinking.

But stop and think about it.  HERS, OURS, and THEIRS are all possessive, too, and none of them uses an apostrophe.  Possessive pronouns don’t use them.  They just don’t.

So the check for this one is another simple substitution.   If you’re not sure which one to use in a sentence, replace it with IT IS.

IT’S hot outside” becomes “IT IS hot outside.”  Ahh.  Correct.

And “the cow chewed IT’S cud” becomes “The cow chewed IT IS cud.”

Yeah, that pretty much makes NO sense.  The correct choice here is ITS.

There!  Three mysteries solved!  Don’t you feel better?

I do.

GUMP: Rules of Engagement, Part 2

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As I said last week, first-year students often struggle with forming and expressing personal opinions based on assigned reading, and with reading comprehension itself.  Last week, in Rules of Engagement, Part 1, I discussed the reading comprehension issue and offered tips for improving both comprehension and engagement.

Today, Part 2 is about the other half of the problem: forming and expressing personal opinions.

The source of the problem is simple:  First-year students are not often enough trained to think critically, and thus many of them are ill-equipped to take a carefully-considered position on much of anything.  Therefore, when asked for an opinion, they too often fall back on knee-jerk reactions, and they often do so hesitantly, qualifying each statement with an “I think” or “I feel” or “In my opinion.”

This is because too many of them have been told, all too often, that their opinions don’t matter, and to “stick to the facts” when writing papers.  Students are too often led to believe that facts are solid, static, and unchanging, and that “education” consists almost exclusively of successfully memorizing them.

And in many of their K-12 classrooms, that’s fine.  Even in many college-level survey courses, the memorization of information is necessary to an understanding of that information.

But they need to do more than memorize.  Learning and memorizing are not the same thing.  And the thing is, facts are darned slippery little buggers.  Don’t believe me?  Let’s try a little challenge.

How many planets are there?  If you grew up in my generation, you’ll say nine, because we grew up knowing for a FACT that there were nine planets.  But then you’ll stop, confused, because Pluto, as you know, is no longer considered a planet.  And meanwhile, we also now know that hundreds of thousands, if not billions, of other planets are busily revolving around other Suns than our own.  There are many, many more than nine.  Nine, or even eight, is an overly simplistic, knee-jerk response.   The facts have changed.

Who discovered America?  If you automatically said Christopher Columbus, you might not know he never set foot on North American soil at all.  Most people know he took Indians back with him to Spain, but many don’t know he took them there to sell them as slaves—or that many argue this constituted the beginning of the transatlantic slave trade.  He also enslaved them right there on Hispaniola, sending them out to fill hawks’ bells with gold.  If they returned without sufficient gold, their hands were cut off.  Tell me again–why is he considered a hero?  And if we just ignore his geography and say he discovered the Americas (note the S), then I ask, Why do we consider it a discovery at all?  Just because Europeans didn’t know it was there?  Millions of people were living here already.  They certainly knew it was here.

My point, of course, is that the “fact” that Columbus discovered America and the “fact” that he’s a hero are both in wide dispute—yet a great many of today’s history textbooks persist in ignoring these debates, even though they’ve been raging for a good twenty years.

What’s healthier, butter or margarine?  Is coffee good for you?  Should pregnant women drink wine?  How many eggs should you eat per week?  The “facts” about all of these have changed multiple times just in the past few years.

Facts are slippery.

Yet K-12 students continue to focus most of their intellectual energy on memorizing them, in whatever shape they happen to present themselves in their classrooms and textbooks.

Students need to stop memorizing and start thinking.  Challenging.  Questioning.  They shouldn’t be taught to ask only WHAT, but more importantly, also WHY and HOW.  But even the answers to those questions generally constitute facts based on other people’s opinions.  When do the students get to form their own?  When will they be encouraged to form their own?

In too many cases, not until they get to college.

All of these problems have roots in what Paulo Freire calls “the ‘banking’ concept of education,” which itself is the result of the power struggle between teachers and students.

Many K-12 teachers are overworked.  Many, unfortunately, are uninspired.  Many are simply victims of a system that is the way it is, and has been that way for generations.  And as a result, many classrooms are run as hierarchies, wherein the teacher is the Information Provider and the students are the Information Absorbers.  As Freire puts it, “In the banking concept of education, knowledge is a gift bestowed by those who consider themselves knowledgeable upon those whom they consider to know nothing. Projecting an absolute ignorance onto others, a characteristic of the ideology of oppression, negates education and knowledge as processes of inquiry.”

College is all about, or should be all about, the process of inquiry.  All educators should nurture this process.

But too many first-year students are accustomed to being told to keep their opinions to themselves.  Too many of them are told, “Nobody cares what you think—just give me the facts.”

In other words, soak up everything I’ve told you, memorize it, and squeeze it back out for me on Friday’s test, unchanged, unchallenged, and without question.

Students who question, who challenge, who butt heads with the prescribed realities are often labeled troublemakers.  Many teachers will tell you the brightest kids in the room are often the most disruptive.

Surprise, surprise.

While it’s true that most college instructors will wince and squirm at every “I think,” I feel,” “I believe,” and “In my opinion” that appears in a student paper, that doesn’t mean we’re not interested in hearing what our students think.  In fact, most of us are very interested indeed in learning what our students think, and in nurturing their thinking processes.

But this is not to say we want to hear knee-jerk, canned, propagandized regurgitations of other people’s opinions.  We don’t.

Do not tell me a writer “does an excellent job” of blah blah blah.

Do not tell me you “completely agree” with someone else’s position.

Form your own.

If you can present that position in a paper without falling back on “I think” and “I feel,” and if you can defend it logically and cogently, then you will begin to develop confidence that your opinion matters.

Because it does.

 

The Freire quotes were taken from Chapter 2 of The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, which I encourage you to read in its entirety here:  http://www2.webster.edu/~corbetre/philosophy/education/freire/freire-2.html

GUMP DAY: Rules of Engagement, Part 1

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Much of the writing students are asked to do in college requires that they craft a carefully reasoned response to something they have been asked to read.  Assignments like this tend to present students with two separate but related problems:

First, many first-year students aren’t accustomed to being asked to form or express personal opinions.  In fact, they may have been told repeatedly to keep their opinions to themselves, since nobody cares what they think.

Secondly, in order to form an opinion about a piece of writing or an author’s position on an issue, one must first understand what one is reading.  This seems obvious, but the truth is, when faced with college-level material, many first-year students struggle with reading comprehension.

In Part 1 of this two-part discussion of ways to get around these two problems, I’m going to address the second problem (comprehension) first.

First, the causes of the problem:

Most K-12 students are encouraged to read, but they are not always taught to read critically or to engage with the material.  They therefore approach their college reading assignments with the same tools they’ve always known, which are the only tools most of them have.  These tools consist fairly exclusively of the eyes alone.  The brain is used primarily as a memorization tool, since what most students have learned is that they will be quizzed on the material.  The answer to Number Six on the quiz can be reliably found on Page X, word for word.

College writing assignments aren’t often like that.  We don’t expect students to memorize and repeat what they’ve read, or even necessarily to agree with it.  We expect them to understand, to think, to process, to analyze, and to synthesize—that is, to form their own opinions and positions based not just on what they’ve read today, but based on what they’ve read today in conjunction with what they’ve read before.

In order to do all of this, they must engage with the material.  And this requires comprehension.

Many first-year students approach college reading assignments the same way they read anything else: by casting their eyes over the material word by word, sentence by sentence, page by page, starting at the beginning and continuing through to the end, until their eyes have looked at each word in the document.  “There,” they say as they close the book.  “Glad THAT’S done.  I have no idea what it’s talking about, but hey, at least I read it.”

The reading tools they used in high school will not often serve them well in college.  Even students who like to read are often stymied when they’re presented with college-level material.

The following strategies can help students improve their reading comprehension:

  1. Skim the material before you read it.  “Skimming” does not mean running your eyes quickly over the whole document.  First, read the introduction.  (Note that the introduction may consist of more than one paragraph.)  Then read the conclusion (again, this may be more than a single paragraph).  Then read the first sentence (or two) of each body paragraph (this is where you’re most likely to find the topic sentences around which the body paragraphs will be organized).  The purpose in doing this is to give yourself an overview of the work as a whole.  What you’re doing is identifying the work’s central themes and arguments—what the author sets out to do, how s/he does it, and where s/he winds up.  Only after you’ve skimmed the work and have a basic understanding of its content and purpose should you go back to the beginning and read it all the way through.
  2. Read actively.  By this I mean, read with a pen or pencil in your hand (not a highlighter).   Put asterisks, question marks, exclamation points, and comments in the margins as you go.  Read the work as if the author were speaking to you personally, and write your responses in the margins.  “I disagree” is fine.  “WTF??” is fine.  “You’re an idiot” and “This is stupid” are also fine.  “Wow, I never thought of that before” is good too.  Or “Interesting!” or “Oh, this is like —!”  Remember, this is a conversation.  You both get to talk.  NOTE:  College textbooks are TOOLS.  You cannot learn to use a hammer if you just sit and look at it.  If you just can’t bring yourself to write in a book—say, the book isn’t yours, or if you can’t get past the idea that writing in a book is a sin—then us a pencil so you can erase everything before giving the book back, or as a last resort, photocopy the assigned material so you can write on the photocopy.
  3. Underline or circle unfamiliar words, LOOK THEM UP, and write the definitions in the margins.  Sometimes you can figure out the meaning of an unfamiliar word from the context of what you’re reading, but if that word shows up several times, you should look it up anyway just to be sure you’re interpreting it correctly.
  4. Reword sentences containing difficult syntax.  Unfamiliar sentence structure confuses readers more often than almost anything else.  Combined with unfamiliar words, it can make an assigned reading seem as if it’s written in a foreign language.  Well, guess what?  To many students, this kind of formal English is a foreign language.  How do you cope with it?  Go back to grammar basics:  Find the subject and the verb.  Be aware that the subject may not be at the beginning of the sentence, and it may not be followed immediately by its verb.   Pretend you’re listening to Yoda.  Difficult, it is.  Do it, you can.  Try to summarize the idea contained in the sentence to see if you understand it.  Pretend you have to explain it to someone else.

Can you add to this list?  What methods do you use to get through a difficult read?

 

Rules of Engagement, Part 2 will appear next Wednesday.  Stay tuned, and good luck!

GUMP/College Writing: A Few Words About the Five-Paragraph Essay

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I routinely begin my English 101 classes by asking how many students have been practicing their Five Paragraph Essay skills for the past several years in preparation for this day. On average, twenty-three out of twenty-five hands reach confidently into the air.

“How many of you like to write?” I ask.

Most of the hands go down. On a good day, I’ll get three or four hands in response to that one.

“Of those of you who don’t like to write, why don’t you like it?”

The responses are predictable and almost all run along the same basic theme: It’s boring.

I say, “OK—how many of you have never heard of the Five Paragraph Essay?” With trepidation, one or two students hesitantly raise their hands. Their eyes tell me they’re certain I’m going to say they don’t belong here, and to please move to a remedial class.

I don’t.

“Good,” I say to the minority. “You’re the lucky ones.”

Some form of bedlam generally ensues. Most college freshmen in the United States were first introduced to the five-paragraph essay in the fifth or sixth grade and have been practicing it with varying degrees of diligence and dedication ever since, having been warned over and over again that they will need this skill in college.

This is a lie.

In fact, the five-paragraph structure is simply inappropriate for most college writing assignments, and I’ve spent the past twenty years un-teaching it.

It’s endemic these days, but some of you may be wondering what it is. A five-paragraph essay is an essay that begins with an introduction containing a three-part thesis, followed by three body paragraphs that correspond to the three parts of the thesis, followed by a conclusion that reminds the reader of the thesis and the argument’s three main points.

Yes, it’s true that some instructors, even at the college level, require it. I tell my students that’s fine; if that’s what an assignment requires, then of course that’s what the students will produce. They already know how to do it. They can do it in their sleep. They’ve been doing it for years.

But what if they’ve been presented with an assignment that asks them to explain Newton’s Theory of Relativity and relate it to a personal experience? What if they’re presented with a writing prompt that asks for a ten- or fifteen-page response? How can they stretch five paragraphs out for ten pages?

They can’t. And if all they know how to write is a five-paragraph essay, they’re going to be in trouble.

Don’t get me wrong. The Five-Paragraph Essay has its place. It’s useful in teaching elementary arrangement, and it’s useful in teaching students to have, and stay focused on, a central idea or thesis. It helps students understand the basics of topic sentences and paragraph development, and it’s often useful in in-class essay exams where time constraints are a major factor.

But it limits creativity, it limits the writer’s ability to address the complexity of the issue being addressed, and it undermines a writer’s ability to revise at the global level. Worse, it encourages knee-jerk responses to complex issues, it requires that those complex issues be divided into three superficial and largely unrelated categories of “analysis,” and it simply does not have the flexibility or the range to adapt to the intellectual demands of most college-level writing assignments.

It also insults the reader’s intelligence by repeating its thesis and main points after a span of only five paragraphs, suggesting that the reader isn’t bright enough to recall what she just read.

It’s like riding a bike. Most of us start with training wheels, and that’s fine. But nobody rides with training wheels in the Tour de France. It would be ludicrous to even imagine scores of athletes showing up at the race with training wheels on their bikes.

And yet this is what happens every September when my English 101 classes begin. Confident students showing up, training wheels oiled and firmly in place, thinking that’s all they need to win.

And they’re wrong.

When my eldest son was in the eleventh grade, I went to Back to School Night. Six or seven other parents had shown up to hear what his English teacher had to say.

The first thing she did was introduce us to the course’s primary text. She handed out a booklet to each of us, and I read the cover with a hovering sense of dread.

“How to Write the Five-Paragraph Essay,” it said.

I raised my hand, and the teacher looked at me in surprise.

“Yes?”

“Um, you don’t really teach this, do you?” (I confess, I would not have made a great diplomat.)

“What? Yes! Yes, of course I do! Why wouldn’t I?”

“I spend my life UN-teaching this.”

“What? What do you do?”

I told her.

“Well,” she said in obvious relief, “Most of my students don’t go to college. If I can get them to do this, I’m thrilled.”

I could see her point. But all of my students do go to college.

And it’s no wonder so many of them hate to write. Wobbling around on a set of training wheels is boring. Nothing is more exciting than seeing them whipping around a tricky course with increasing confidence once those training wheels come off.

That’s what thrills me.

GUMP Day: Six Tips for Successful College Writing

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Most college writing is persuasive in one way or another. In order to be successful, such writing requires that its author attend to six different skill sets at once:

1. Try to say something worth saying. Don’t just argue that women have come a long way in the past hundred years. We already know that. You can talk about why this observation is important to your argument, but it shouldn’t be your argument. Avoid common knowledge wherever possible.

2. Keep your argument under control. It should progress logically, and it should contain nothing that is not relevant to its thesis (your thesis might or might not be directly stated, but you should always have one, and if your instructor requests that you state it directly, be sure to do so). Make sure your body paragraphs are focused on points that are relevant to, and that help to develop, your thesis.

3. Support all of your claims with carefully-reasoned evidence, explanations, and examples. Be sure to cite any borrowed ideas or material carefully, whether the information is directly quoted or not, using the documentation style your instructor has requested that you use.

4. Try to demonstrate a clear understanding of the complexity of the issue you’re addressing by acknowledging, conceding, and refuting relevant counterarguments wherever necessary.

5. Be aware of who your audience is, what they can be expected to know already, and what needs to be explained to them. Read your work out loud to see how it sounds; your tone and style should be appropriate for the audience you are addressing.

6. Your work should be clean at the surface. Be alert for typos and errors in punctuation, mechanics, usage, and grammar. If your paper isn’t important enough to you to proofread it carefully, your audience will see it as unimportant as well, and you will lose their respect.

Once you have a complete draft, it’s a good idea to read it through at least six times, once with each of these criteria in mind, making revisions along the way. Then, before submitting it, read it yet again. If you’re satisfied that you’ve done your best in all areas, it’s ready to turn in.

Good luck!

Evelyne Holingue

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