Wednesday, July 16, 2014

What's all this about Word Crimes?

Today and yesterday I have seen conversations about grammar and syntax on every social network in which I participate. More people and a wider variety of people are having conversations about the appropriate level of concern we should have when it comes to grammar.

Several of those conversations were about how Weird Al's new song might have been a bit out of touch or insensitive by using name calling to demean people who don't speak or write correctly.

There was this piece at Slate on how several of the examples of poor grammar that Weird Al sang about are actually completely acceptable. And there was the Facebook comment that spawned this post, in which a friend suggested that calling people "uneducated" because they use non-standard grammar leads to the kind of argument that systematizes racism in schools and universities.

I understand that point of view, but let me repeat (and bold) the first line of this post: Today and yesterday I have seen conversations about grammar and syntax on every social network in which I participate.

That's kind of crazy.
And I think Weird Al's decision (or tendancy) to be a bit crass and insensitive is part of that.

Demeaning people and calling them names is bound to cause discomfort. It may even offend or disturb.

But I'm still happy Weird Al wrote "Word Crimes," because it's a goof. And people will talk about a goof. People will have a discussion about something presented as lighthearted.

Today, I've seen a few exchanges like this one:
"Oh, come on. Relax. Everyone knows what I mean when I say 'I could care less'"
"Sure, they know, but the words don't mean what you mean. Shouldn't words mean what they mean?"

That's an interesting conversation that normally only happens when I'm around comp/rhet people. It's a conversation that could lead a person to see the ways we construct language socially. But people need to have the conversation.

One way to shut down constructive conversation about sensitive issues is to bring harsh judgement into the mix.

Discussions revolving around race or class equality send people to their respective corners where they shield themselves in the armor of the political and cultural norms held by their communities.

If I tell a person that their emphasis on correctness can be linked to racism (even if that's true), that person is going to end the conversation. That person is going to go tell like-minded people that I think they're all racist.

Comedians poke and prod at sensitive issues and allow people to indirectly examine things that they would normally simply avoid. It's easy to name some who do this: Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, Bill Hicks... But even lighthearted Weird Al has songs that push buttons.

If teachers play "Word Crimes" to their students, it should not be treated like the latest incarnation of Strunk and White. The song should start a discussion: What attitudes towards grammar have you experienced at school, online, at home, with your friends...?

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

The average American's concept of geopolitics should be at least as complex as the Marvel Universe

A friend who keeps me up to date on conflicts and issues in Africa sent me this story about a tragic pair of attacks in Kenya and in Arusha, Tanzania.

In the body of the email, my friend asked, "Why is the Oscar Pistorius trial the only Africa 'news' on CNN? Also: This situation is totally out of control."

One person responded to the story by condemning radical Islamic violence and then by asking why peaceful Muslims are not more vocal in the condemnation of extremist acts of terror.

I don't disagree with those sentiments. Radical violence should be condemned. Peaceful Muslims would benefit if they had a more visible leader speaking out against extremism.

Nevertheless, this reaction is off key, and it demonstrates a tendency I see in a lot of debates about geopolitics. And maybe more importantly, it strengthens my friend's point about media coverage.

The news story covers a pair of violent acts in locations associated with international tourism.

In response, one reader jumped to the conclusion that an Islamist group is responsible for the attacks. But we don't know that. In fact, according to the article "police have blamed the Mombasa Republican Council (MRC)."

The MRC is not affiliated exclusively with any one religion. An older piece describing the group explains that the "separatist message preached by the Mombasa Republican Council (MRC) has spread through mosques, churches, markets, coffee houses, text messages and Facebook."

Of course, I'm not about to take the local police force's word for it either. They are not the most reputable police force in the world and they do have an ax to grind with the MRC. It very well may be a radical Islamist group who carried out the attacks. Such groups are active in the region.

But we don't know. That's the point.

And if my friend's updates about Africa have taught me anything, they have demonstrated how many intertwined layers there are to all of the conflicts.

To suggest that there is one group that is behind all the violence only makes the West less capable of engaging the region.

That makes my friend's question all the more important. "Why is the Oscar Pistorius trial the only Africa 'news' on CNN?"

Without any major outlets reporting these events, how can Americans make informed choices about what our country should be doing in Africa, or anywhere else for that matter?

The sad answer is this: We don't.

We look at violence in Africa and grumble, "F'ing terrorists." And we act like that label "terrorist" describes one homogeneous group. It's as though we live in a G.I. Joe world where the only people doing wrong belong to Cobra.

When I started that last sentence, I was going to use The Avengers and Hydra to complete the analogy. But I had to stop, because the Marvel Universe is actually a lot more complex than America's conception of foreign affairs. The Marvel Universe has a number of organizations and shifting alliances each dealing with conflicting purposes and goals (yes, knowing this is a result of having a 4-year-old).

I'm not saying the Marvel Universe should be the model for how American voters understand geopolitical events, but it would be nice if our conception of those events was at least as complex as the one presented in comic books.

Monday, July 07, 2014

Alexander Nazaryan's Op-Ed

The New York Times published an op-ed by Alexander Nazaryan today. It is a critique of the changes coming to New York public school's literacy instruction.
Carmen Fariña, has announced plans to reinstate a “balanced literacy” approach in English classrooms. The concept’s most vociferous champion is probably Lucy Calkins, a Columbia University scholar. In her 1985 book, “The Art of Teaching Writing,” she complained that most English teachers “don’t know what it is to read favorite passages aloud to a friend or to swap ideas about an author.” She sought a reimagination of the English teacher’s role: “Teaching writing must become more like coaching a sport and less like presenting information,” a joyful exploration unhindered by despotic traffic cops. 
Ms. Calkins’s approach was tried by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, but abandoned when studies showed that students learned better with more instruction. My own limited experience leads me to the same conclusion. But Ms. Fariña seems to be charting a course away from the data-driven Bloomberg years, perhaps as part of her stated plan to return “joy” to the city’s classrooms. 
I take umbrage at the notion that muscular teaching is joyless. There was little joy in the seventh-grade classroom I ran under “balanced literacy,” and less purpose. My students craved instruction far more than freedom. 
I'm going to have to do more digging before deciding where I come down on this.

In my experience, the students Nazaryan is most concerned about are looking for more direct instruction, but there are studies that show, when it comes to advanced language acquisition, direct grammar instruction is less effective than engaging in literacy acts.

It's a messy but important problem. One worth weighing carefully.