Category Archives: Academe

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‘Gangsta’ Shakespeare

“It will be like catching butterflies in the dark,” a colleague of mine commented.

He was talking about my signing up to teach a course called “Shakespeare in Prison” at the Hampshire County Jail, in Northampton, Mass. It would have a total of 30 students, half inmates and half Amherst students, and focus on the sonnets and a handful of late plays, including King Lear and The Tempest.

“The endeavor is laudable but impractical,” my colleague added. “Language is an impediment. You will be di…

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Being a Subjunctive

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Teaching them who Buddy Holly was would be more valuable than trying to make them shun covertly inflected mandative clauses.

For grammar bullies “the subjunctive” is sacred ground. Reforms proposed for the British national curriculum in 2012 required teaching use of the subjunctive not later than sixth grade. People seem to think the subjunctive is a fragile flower on which civilization depends; without our intervention it will fade and die, and something…

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Sentences I Hope Never to Use

Trouble with the hardwareOne very specific desire I have is to reach the end of my life (a long time from now) without ever having used the phrase working closely with.

Nothing wrong with it syntactically or semantically, but it strikes me as a repellent cliché that drops like uncontrolled saliva from the mouths of self-justifying administrators under press questioning. A question like “What steps has your agency taken since the explosion and fire?” is answered with: “My office has been working closely with emergency au…

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An Exercise in Bad Writing

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The Cathedral of St. John the Divine from Morningside Park

An invitation came by email to contribute to a teaching volume. A brief piece, only a few hundred words long, was needed. Describe a favorite teaching exercise from your literature classes. The word “fun” was also used. I responded immediately. The previous semester I had asked my creative-writing students to do a simple exercise in class. They were required to produce bad writing.

Hemingway’s short story “Hills Like White Elephants…

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Making Categories, Breaking Categories

EDL-900x450Not long ago, I attended a conference at Radcliffe on “Ways With Words: Exploring Language and Gender.” The first, and perhaps most salient, thing to note is that this conference was packed. Cis men, cis women, trans men, trans women, gay people, straight people, old and young and in between — in between ages, genders, sexualities, you name it. Granted, this is academe, and we’re always eager to discuss the political dimensions of the new. But I was surprised at the breadth of interest in …

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Polysemy and Maturity

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Polysemous pachyderms (Tontan Travel)

Harvard is considering whether the long-established term “House Master” should be changed, because a group of Latino students has protested that it reminds them of the tradition of slave masters.

Professor Steven Pinker, of the same parish, made a Twitter comment on the controversy that has been retweeted hundreds of times already and deserves to be:

We should be teaching students: 1 All words have >1 meaning.. 2. Mature adults resist taking pointless offens...

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A Plague of Plagiarism

plagiarism[1]In academe, as well as in the republic of letters, plagiarism remains the unforgivable sin. The Oxford English Dictionary tells us that this dreadful word (and the activity for which it stands) has been in our language for four centuries, and further that it derives ultimately from “classical Latin plagiarius, person who abducts the child or slave of another, kidnapper, seducer, also a literary thief.”

Kidnapper of someone’s beloved words! No wonder we react so strongly.

The handbooks warn again…

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To Co-Author, or Not to Co-Author?

ucscgraphI noticed recently that I now have more than 100 co-authored works on my publications list. It occurs to me that this rather high number might raise questions or even eyebrows: Is it evidence that I am a pathetically dependent hanger-on, joining other people’s research projects because I can’t come up with my own? Or a domineering research-group leader stamping my name on every paper that the group produces? Or merely a gregarious person who enjoys intellectual interaction?

These are reasonable …

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The New Science

matt-damon-martian-trailer-lands-well-2015Neil DeGrasse Tyson tweeted that it was his favorite line from the film’s trailer: ”I’m going to have to science the shit out of this.”

It’s already the best-known line from Ridley Scott’s The Martian. You might have it on a T-shirt by now.

Vulgar, yes, but it’s also a good example of the rhetorical device called anthimeria, recently explored here.

The Martian is futuristic science fiction. But the education business has been sciencing for a long time.

Our word science  comes from Latin scientia…

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Them, Themself, and They

stan carey conspiracy keanu reeves meme - singular themself as a descriptivist plotThe Lingua Franca bloggers Allen Metcalf and Anne Curzan have written about the American Dialect Society’s laudable selection of singular they as Word of the Year. But they, like most commenting on the topic, have not addressed a pressing and, to a large extent unresolved, issue: the word’s corresponding “emphatic and reflexive pronoun” (in the words of the Oxford English Dictionary).

Dennis Baron and others have shown that they has been used to refer to singular nouns for centuries; the emphati…