Category Archives: Academe

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Why Well-Formed Nonsense Doesn’t Matter

I’d like to add one more point on the topic of my post “Computer Says B-Plus.” My modest suggestion was this: If a computer program trained on essays graded by humans could learn enough about the superficial form of academic prose to reliably assign suitable grades to newly presented essays (where “suitable” means “close to what a qualified human grader would have assigned”), that could put a useful tool in the hands of a diligent student who wanted to get anonymous, private, and patient assessm…

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Why I’m Asking You Not to Use Laptops

At a teaching workshop last week, a new faculty member asked me how I felt about students using laptops in the classroom. I replied, “I ask students not to use laptops in my classroom—unless a student tells me they need or strongly prefer a laptop to take notes (for any reason), in which case we make that work.” She looked relieved to have this endorsement of a learning zone with fewer electronic distractions.

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I am far from…

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Computer Says B-Plus

The mouth-filling abuse of Kathleen Anderson’s post on automatic grading (“Betray Our Students for Publisher’s Profit?”) is such a delight to read that I’m almost sorry to confess that I disagree with her.

Anderson was approached by an educational publisher’s representative about a plan to (i) gather a corpus of several thousand student essays, (ii) hire experienced instructors to grade them, and then (iii) apply machine-learning techniques to train a computer program that will grade further ess…

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Humanizing Academic Citation

Quote bubble copyThere was an “aha!” moment in my class this week that reminded me just how important it is to talk with students about the human conversation represented by academic citation.

This idea of an academic conversation on the page is far from new. More than 70 years ago, Kenneth Burke used the metaphor of the parlor filled with a heated ongoing discussion that we are choosing to enter and participate in as academic writers. Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein have structured their valuable book They S…

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Speaking Out Against Hate Speech (or Not)

usain_boltThe dinner-table conversation touched for a few moments on Usain Bolt, earth’s fastest featherless biped, who’s in Scotland to ensure a win for Jamaica in the men’s sprint relay at the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow (mission accomplished!). Apropos of nothing more than this brief mention, a 70-year-old guest at my table suddenly remarked with a scowl: “I don’t like Jamaicans.”

The conversation froze. Was this hate speech? The woman seemed serious: Somehow an entire nation of about 2.9 millio…

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Verb Agreement and Hurdling

Sally Pearson, Australian medalist in the 2012 Olympics

It isn’t easy to admit being wrong in front of thousands of readers, but Ben Yagoda took it on the chin.

He had written this clause (I mark it with the asterisk that linguists use to signal ungrammaticality):

*The meaning of words inevitably and perennially change.

The incident reminded me of one of the worst features of the grammar advice so many university writing instructors hand out to students.

Certainly Ben’s sentence was ungrammatica…

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When Is a Novel Not a Novel?

I was taken aback recently to pick up an (unnamed) magazine for which I’d written an article and see my brief bio begin with the words: “Ben Yagoda is a novelist. … ” I am not a novelist, never have been, and have not (since the age of 15) even had any aspirations in that direction. This isn’t because I have any disdain for the form but rather the opposite. Loudon Wainwright III sings in “Talkin’ New Bob Dylan Blues” that he held off writing songs as a youth because of the mere presence of  Dyl…

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The True Secret of Office Packing

My all-time favorite Chronicle article, “Yagoda’s Unfamiliar Quotations” (mentioned here once before, in The Case of the Extra Word), is a reminiscence about a collection of unquoted quotables—memorable remarks by ordinary folk who never got famous.

You can pick up such remarks almost any day if you keep your ear tuned. Last week my partner, struggling to pinpoint why a friend’s outrageous name-dropping seemed illogical as well as irritating, burst out: “Status is not like pubic lice!” Nicely pu…

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Story Time

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Copyright MousePlanet Inc.

I’ve been working recently with a Romanian-German engineering student with business-school aspirations who is trying to improve his English writing skills. My student’s spoken English is excellent, and he can write fluently when talking about himself (in particular, about his rather impressive tennis career; the kid’s multitalented to say the least). But whenever he shows me a report, a formal letter, or a research paper, the work is a mess: The grammar falls apart und…

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New Book, Same Old Grammar-Babble

DSC_5529-2A complimentary copy of a popular book on grammar appeared in my mailbox recently, with a personal note from the authors. They express firm agreement with views of mine that they had seen in Tom Chivers’s article about me, and they say they hope I’ll like their book.

I wish I could respond positively. I don’t want to hurt the authors’ feelings, or condemn a well-intentioned project, or look a gift horse in the mouth. I wanted it to be good: I long to see a popular book on English grammar that ge…