Category Archives: Academe

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Correct/Incorrect Grammar-Test Items

An English teacher living in Jerusalem wrote to ask me to resolve a dispute about a test question. Someone had set a correct/incorrect test on the preterite (the simple past, e.g. took) vs. the perfect (e.g. have taken). This was the test item (the students were supposed to circle the correct form of the verb inside the parentheses):

I (have just received / received) a message but I haven’t read it yet.

 

Some of the teachers who discussed the quest…

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Lessons From ‘Stoner’

John-Williams-StonerWhen the writer Jim Harrison died last month, I came across the following quote from one of his books:

“I wasn’t very long at Stony Brook,” he writes in Off to the Side, “when it occurred to me that the English department had all the charm of a streetfight where no one actually landed a punch.”

I promptly put this quote up on Facebook. Those words appealed to me. They revealed the tensions that make academic interactions so very fraught, and they also told me that all the warring that goes on is…

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Let Us Edit Your Article

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You have to laugh at some of the spam you get, don’t you? Or maybe weep. Today I received a spam email from a proofreading and academic editing company. “We majorly specialize in proofreading academic documents,” it told me, with a majorly eyebrow-raising adverb (wouldn’t “mostly” have been better?). But before I had finished reading it I decided this one was a laugher, not a weeper.

Bafflingly, the company that sent the email (and I have decided it would be kinder not to name the company here)…

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Got Texture?

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Granular and unsweet.

When did comprehension become something you could rub your fingers over? When, in other words, did we begin to talk about textured understanding? When I think of texture I think of oatmeal, or good beach sand, or chenille bedspreads.

Writing in The New York Times about the Hewlett-Packard career of Carly Fiorina last fall, Michael Barbaro leaned on this now reliable modifier. “But lost in those dramatic accounts,” he observed, “is a textured understanding of how Mrs. Fiorin…

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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...