St. John’s College, the Great Books school

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If you’re looking for the best liberal arts education in the world, you’re looking for St. John’s College: Great Books curriculum, seminar classes, small residential colleges, outstanding teachers.

St. John’s has two campuses, the original site in Annapolis, Maryland (home of the U.S. Naval Academy), and the second campus founded in the 1960s in Santa Fe, New Mexico. In Annapolis you get leafy avenues, historic buildings, and East Coast charm. In Santa Fe you get high desert, adobe, incredible skies, and New Mexican cuisine. I earned my master’s degree in the St. John’s Graduate Institute (three summers in Santa Fe, one in Annapolis), but have long regretted not going there as an undergraduate.

There are no lecture courses: all are seminars with no more than 20 in a class. The teachers are called “tutors” and they “teach everything” just as the students learn everything: literature, mathematics, science, languages, music, etc. If you like reading books, and discussing big ideas; if you aspire to being a truly well-educated person; if you’re looking for intellectual challenges; then St. John’s might be for you.

Looking for a College or University

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1. Think about where you want to go. West Coast? East Coast? Midwest? South? Canada? Overseas?

2. Think about how big a school you want.

3. Do you prefer to live in a small town, a medium-sized city, or a large urban area?

4. Strongly consider a small, liberal arts college. Such schools exist only in the United States and offer, to my mind, the best undergraduate education. At a good liberal arts college you will be taught by professors from the best graduate schools in the country, and the world—professors whose primary interest is teaching, not research and scholarship. You will have access to these teachers in small classes (not cavernous lecture halls), giving you the maximum opportunity to benefit from them. You will be able to take courses in a wide variety of subjects, perhaps discovering something you really love and otherwise might never have even heard about. And at almost all such colleges, even those in remote locations, you will experience a rich array of art, music, and other cultural events and performances that would otherwise be available only to people living in New York or London or Paris.

5. Don’t take “college ratings” too seriously. You might attend Harvard College and discover that the two or three professors most important to your major field of study are people you don’t get along with at all. On the other hand, you might attend a very modest regional state college and discover that the two or three professors in your major field are wonderful, caring teachers who become important influences for the rest of your life.

My graduation speech

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I’ll begin with a story.

One of my former university professors came to see me years ago for advice about starting a garden in his back yard. As we talked, I realized that he had no interest in gardening: he only wanted giant broccoli and giant strawberries. So I said to him, “Find a really good produce market and buy giant broccoli, and buy giant strawberries. Then go home and do something you enjoy.”

I’ll let you think about that for a while, and then I’ll tell you what it taught me.

Commencement speakers are expected to give advice: the elders, scarred by their experiences but wiser, attempt to save the young from making the same mistakes they made—or pass on some ideas that have worked. It’s not a bad tradition, so I’ll stick with it.

First, take care of your body. Here’s the problem: by the time this seems really important it’s too late—you’re overweight and out of shape, with teeth that look like Swiss cheese and half a lifetime of bad habits to keep you that way.

You know you should floss your teeth and stay out of the sun, so do it! (Try a water flosser—better than normal floss, and more fun.) And stop eating garbage! Why do we believe that profits for food processing corporations mean good nutrition for us? Eat real food: vegetables, grains, meat and fish, fresh fruit for something sweet. Drink water. Don’t believe the milk lobby: go very light, if at all, on the dairy products. Above all, avoid sugar, a slow poison that is highly addictive and causes a host of diseases.

Exercising won’t keep you slim—you have to end your sugar addiction to do that—but you do need exercise to stay fit. You don’t have to buy a membership in a gym or run triathlons, however—working out a bit at home, every day, will do the trick. Find a form of exercise you really enjoy, and exercise regularly. You only get one body in this life, so treat it well.

Second, plan for retirement. As some of you may know, I’m a big fan of cultivating good habits: they make life so much easier and more pleasant. But I won’t advise you to plan your life. Leave some room for chance, for surprises, for unplanned adventures. I do advise you, however, to plan your retirement.

When I was your age, men typically retired at 65, puttered about for a couple of years, had a heart attack, and died. For such a man, living two years without a salary was not a big problem. (His wife, if she was lucky, lived out her days on her husband’s comfortable pension and a life insurance annuity.) Today, people who retire at 65 are likely to live another twenty or thirty years. By the time you are my age, it may be as much as forty or fifty years.

Even twenty years is a long, long time to live without a salary. So however you live your life, plan for your retirement. Buy property, and hold on to it. Put money aside from every paycheck, no matter how small it is or how many bills you have to pay. Every paycheck. Seriously.

Third, don’t vote for leaders who want to start wars, who try to divide people by making them afraid of each other, who want to keep the poor in their place and keep all the power for the rich and the corporations. We’ve had enough of all that, don’t you think?

Fourth, try to find something or someone to live for, besides yourself. Those of you who have had a positive community service experience will understand that the person who gives, gets a lot more than the person who receives. By doing something to help others, something to make the world even a little bit better than it was, you will give your life a richness and significance that no selfish endeavor ever will. The most important way to make the world a better place, of course, is simply to be the best person you can be.

If you’re not asleep yet, you may still remember my former professor who wanted giant broccoli and giant strawberries. The story became for me a fable about choosing a career. Gardeners love every part of gardening: planning the garden, laying out the paths, digging the beds, preparing compost, sowing seeds, transplanting, cultivating, watering, and harvesting. If they eat giant broccoli at the end, that’s nice; if not, they’ve still had all the other pleasures of gardening. If you work only for the giant broccoli, and you hate all the days leading up to that moment, you will be miserable. Instead, find something you enjoy doing every day—something you would do without being paid, if you could afford it. Then you will be happy in your work.

Sigmund Freud, asked for the keys to happiness, famously replied, “Love and work.” I’ve given you the best advice I have about work; for love, you’re on your own.

Thank you, congratulations, and good luck.

Research: what are ‘credible sources’?

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Students doing research for an Extended Essay, or in preparation for an IB English Interactive Oral, or for any other research project, need to use credible sources.

But what exactly is a credible source?

Basically you are looking for information written by someone who has some special training or expertise in the subject you are researching: a university professor, or a lawyer, or a doctor, or a carpenter, for example, all have expertise in certain areas. Note, however, that a physics professor writing about physics has a certain credibility, while a physics professor writing about politics has no more expertise, necessarily, than anyone else.

On the internet, avoid citing personal blogs by unidentified authors, or sites where anyone can post a comment. Such information may be right, or may be wrong; but as a source in an academic research paper it has no credibility. You may find more reliable information on sites with URLs that end in .gov (government sites), .org (non-profit organizations), or .edu (academic institutions like universities). Even here, however, beware: governments lie, or publish propaganda; non-profit organizations may still be biased; and since we know that university professors often disagree violently with each other, it would be unwise to accept without question what any single professor might say.

Wikipedia is inherently unreliable, because its pages can be edited by anyone. However, at the bottom of most Wikipedia pages is a list of sources used in writing the article, and these sources might be good places to look for credible information.

“Real” encyclopedias like the Encyclopedia Britannica might, you would think, offer more credibility—but think again. Can their editors be trusted more than Wikipedia’s editors? Maybe, or maybe not. Besides, encyclopedias of all kinds are little more than starting points for your research. Use them to gather some initial ideas and get an overview of the subject, but then dig in to their sources of information and go further.

Similarly, do not give automatic credibility to publications like the New York Times: such mainstream, “respectable” newspapers and magazines have been found guilty of printing misinformation on many occasions.

Going Further (2013)

For more (and sometimes different) advice on finding credible sources for your research, have a look at these links:

Mrs. Fitzgerald recommends these sites:

http://21cif.com/tools/evaluate/ – a script which helps students discuss and evaluate websites which was created by a joint project of the Illinois Math & Science Academy and the US Dept of Ed.  I use their tools often with classes.  (Go back to main page and choose Tutorials to see other useful resources).

http://www.lib.berkeley.edu/TeachingLib/Guides/Internet/Evaluate.html – a help guide for UC Berkeley students

http://www.vtstutorials.ac.uk/detective/index.html – EXCELLENT tutorial created by Intute Virtual Training and the LearnHigher project in the UK to help university students

http://www.ithaca.edu/library/training/think.html – a guide create by librarians at Ithaca College to help their students

http://www.classzone.com/books/research_guide/page_build.cfm?content=web_eval_criteria&state=none – brief list of website criteria created by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company

And Mr. O’Reilly has sent me these recommendations:

General
http://www.brad.ac.uk/developme/developingskills/literature_reviews/index13.php
http://www.library.cornell.edu/olinuris/ref/research/skill26.htm
http://www.uncp.edu/home/canada/work/markport/best/evaluate.htm

Internet credibility
http://mason.gmu.edu/~montecin/web-eval-sites.htm
http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/553/01/

Never Give Up: An Inspiring Story

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In the summer of 2011 came an email message from one of the first students I taught, way back in 1983 in a suburban public high school. Kathy had found me through a classmate’s Facebook page, and wanted to let me know what she had been doing for the past quarter-century.

Honestly, I remembered very little about her: the name, a face, not much more. Among 130 or 140 other students I taught in 1982-83, she had done little to stand out. Her first moves after high school, as she related them to me, were not filled with academic promise: an early marriage, and then the birth of her daughter when she would have been graduating from university had things been different. Once her daughter was a year old she began taking university classes, but a few months later she gave birth to twins with serious medical and developmental problems. For the next few years she dropped her university studies to take care of her children.

A decade passed. Kathy began working, but a “handful of years” in an office job convinced her that she wanted a different life than that. As she tells the story, “My employer was kind enough to allow me to cut back to a half-time schedule so that I could go to school full-time and qualify for financial aid, and [the university] provided sufficient resources to help me along.”

Finally, 28 years after finishing high school, Kathy earned her university degree in May 2011. Her daughter graduated in the same class at the same university. Shortly after the graduation ceremony, the university announced the hiring of its new president: one of Kathy’s high school classmates. “It has been a long, strange, and excellent trip!” she wrote.

She told me, too, about her senior thesis: an analysis of Charlotte Brontë’s 19th-century novel, Jane Eyre.

The senior seminar that was offered was on Jane Eyre and [Jean Rhys’s] Wide Sargasso Sea. Although many of my fellow students were enthusiastic about the Brontë novel, I was not. I am just not a fan of Victorian literature, I guess. Knowing I needed to produce a substantive paper to get the sheepskin, and being unwilling to write a piece that was merely a rehashing of other people’s research, meant I had to get creative. 

I followed my gut, which led me to interrogate the reasons for my dislike of the novel. I concluded that the tidy romantic ending was dissatisfying because the result was that Jane abandoned her dreams in order to spend her life with a man who was less than an ideal mate, a man who drove his first wife insane (according to Jean Rhys), imprisoned her, and denied her existence to the world. 

My paper developed into a close reading of contradictions within the novel, and an interrogation of the mechanisms that make it feel natural for young women in our culture to sucker for romantic conclusions that lead to unsatisfactory relationships and the short-changing of hopes and aspirations. Jane could have made a profound difference [as a teacher] in the lives of many boarding school students who were otherwise left to be victims of a defective system. Despite the fact that she thrice stated that her ideal was to run a school that would provide experiences opposite those she lived through at the Reeds’ and Lowood, she gave away the inheritance that would have allowed her to do so, and became dependent on a dark and brooding patriarchal master to whom she surrendered her agency and independence. 

My advisor told me that he had never seen anyone approach the novel from this angle, and that successful completion of my thesis could open up new discussions on the topic. I feel accomplished to have been able to provide a new take on an old subject for a professor who has been teaching literature since the early 60s.

Far too often, students and teachers are judged by grades and exam results. In truth, each of us is so much more than the grades we earn in high school. The grades and exam results tell us something about our recent performance on a narrow range of tasks given us by the school. But they tell us nothing about what we are, who we are, or what we may be and do in the future. “I can’t count the number of times I wished I had been a better student in your World Lit class”, Kathy wrote. Her poor performance in my class would have led unwise observers to conclude that she was not cut out for an academic future, or that if she did pursue a university degree, it should certainly not be in English literature.

Such unwise observers might also conclude that I had not done a very good job with Kathy, and that her poor results followed from my poor performance as a teacher. But grades and exams don’t tell the whole story. Sometimes the results of a teacher’s efforts remain invisible for years; often the most important effects of a teacher’s work are impossible to measure.

Kathy wrote, “I am steeped with gratitude for teachers like you, who taught me that education is not about having answers, but more importantly, it is about learning how and when to develop good questions. Kudos to you for having the fortitude to stick with [teaching], especially when some students do not always give their best efforts! You have been successful in creating a ripple that spans the vastness and touches the lives of others. . . . It does make a difference, even decades later.”

Students need stories like Kathy’s to remind them of what they can accomplish, given enough determination, patience, and persistence. Parents, teachers, school administrators, school boards, and politicians should be reminded of Kathy every time they forget that education is about much more than grades.

The Intentional Fallacy: it doesn’t matter what the author intended

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First: we can never know what the author intended. Even if we ask the author in person, we cannot know whether the answer we hear is sincere, or truthful. It gets worse: the author himself cannot know with certainty what impelled him to write this or that. Why did I eat oatmeal for breakfast? I could offer you lots of reasons, but in the end I have no idea what impelled me to eat oatmeal.

Second: it doesn’t matter. Literary biographers are interested in a writer’s life; literary critics are interested in a writer’s work.

E.M. Forster makes this point by distinguishing ironically between the real work—reading literature—and the associated activity of “studying” literature, which he calls “only a serious form of gossip”:

  • The personality of a writer does become important after we have read his book and begin to study it. . . . We can ask ourselves questions about it such as ‘What is the author’s name?’ ‘Where did he live?’ ‘Was he married?’ and ‘Which was his favourite flower?’ Then we are no longer reading the book, we are studying it and making it subserve our desire for information. ‘Study’ has a very solemn sound. ‘I am studying Dante’ sounds much more than ‘I am reading Dante.’ It is really much less. Study is only a serious form of gossip. It teaches us everything about the book except the central thing, and between that and us it raises a circular barrier which only the wings of the spirit can cross. The study of science, history, etc., is necessary and proper, for they are subjects that belong to the domain of information, but a creative subject like literature—to study that is excessively dangerous, and should never be attempted by the immature.
    • —E.M. Forster, ‘Anonymity: An Enquiry’, from his collection, Two Cheers for Democracy.

So we can all indulge in literary gossip, and we all can enjoy it. Tolstoy the man is as interesting, in his own way, as his novels. But we should not confuse literary gossip with literary criticism.

Because, in the end, it doesn’t matter what the author intended. All that matters is what the author actually produced. Mark Twain may have intended nothing more than a sequel to Tom Sawyer; whatever his intentions, however, he produced Huckleberry Finn, and as readers that’s all we care about.

‘Hamlet: The Happy Ending’

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Some of my students were devastated to discover that Hamlet dies at the end of the play, so I have obliged their tender sensibilities with this additional scene. —etm

—————————————————————————

Scene: Wittenberg. A room in an inn.

HORATIO
But how is this possible?!

HAMLET
‘Season your admiration’, good friend. In short, by a hair’s breadth and the grace of God. But sit you down, and I will lay it all out before you. Here, a bit of wine will do you good.

Horatio sits and grips his wine cup as though it were the last real thing in his universe.

HAMLET
I saw right away that to stay in Denmark meant certain death for me and those I most loved. I began with Ophelia, and together we wove a plan. Then came you, and the ghost. I wanted to tell you all, but feared to put you in danger should the king suspect you, and so I must beg your pardon, dear Horatio.

HORATIO
But I saw you die, with my own eyes. I saw Ophelia buried. I saw you kill both Laertes and the king, and I saw the Queen drink the poisoned wine. Have I gone mad?

HAMLET
Fie, fie! you are the sanest person I know. But eyes can deceive, good Horatio. What you saw was mostly theatre. Acting. Stage tricks I learned during my days with the players in the city.

HORATIO
Did no one die?

HAMLET
Only the king and, alas, old Polonius. That was the accident that nearly unraveled all my plans.

HORATIO
But my lord, you killed the king with the same rapier that only moments before you pulled out of Laertes. How can Laertes live, if the king died?

HAMLET
That was nicely done, eh? Laertes and I managed the rapiers very well. Of course, everyone was so alarmed by then, it was easy to beguile their senses with a sleight of hand. [Seeing Horatio’s incomprehension.] The rapier that seemed to kill Laertes was one I had from the players. The one I plunged into the guts of that villain was real.

HORATIO
May he roast in hell! O, my lord, you cannot know, nor I cannot say had I a thousand years, how glad I am to see you here before me, alive and well and smiling. [They embrace, both shedding glad tears.] Tell me, though, how is’t with the Queen your mother?

HAMLET
Still my mother, God be thanked, and no longer queen, I am glad to say. She was yet divided in her heart, though always loyal to me, but when Laertes told her of the king’s plan for the fencing match, all division ended and she became an eager player in our plot. And then, when the king did not stop her from drinking the wine that he thought was poisoned, all remaining sympathy was erased and she rejoiced in his death, though for the sake of our deception she could not show her happiness ‘til later.

HORATIO
And where are they now— your mother, Ophelia, and Laertes?

HAMLET
At home, such as it is, waiting to embrace you when I bring you there to greet them.

HORATIO
With all my heart will I greet them, each and every one. But what of Rosenkrantz, and Guildenstern? Do they live?

HAMLET
[Laughing] Aye, what a pair, those two! The king had no idea what actors they were. At moments they nearly convinced me of their villainy. They are in London, and from their latest letter it appears that they are making a name for themselves in the theatres there. Perhaps we shall go and see them, or better yet persuade them to return here and join us. We might make Wittenberg the centre of the world.

HORATIO
Does Fortinbras know you live?

HAMLET
Aye, aye, he was my back, had the fencing match not gone as I planned it. The great fool, he was just as happy to become king as I was to escape from that madness. Ambition, greed, grasping always for favours and power—what kind of life is that, Horatio?

HORATIO
Not the sort that I should want, my lord.

HAMLET
No, nor I. Shall we go to greet the ladies and Laertes? They await us.

[Exeunt]

Ugly word of the day: “societal”

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From DailyWritingTips.com:

 What’s the difference between social and societal? Not much, but enough that you may become the victim of social stigma if you ignore subtle societal signals.

Societal is the pedantic alternative to social. . . .

I couldn’t agree more, having read hundreds of teeth-grating essays filled with “societal” this and “societal” that. Please, please, please: just say “social”!

A Slow-Books Manifesto: Read books. As often as you can. Mostly classics.

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From The Atlantic, a piece worth reading by Maura Kelly. Here’s a taste:

Why the emphasis on literature? By playing with language, plot structure, and images, it challenges us cognitively even as it entertains. It invites us to see the world in a different way, demands that we interpret unusual descriptions, and pushes our memories to recall characters and plot details. In fact, as Annie Murphy Paul noted in a March 17 New York Times op-ed, neuroscientists have found plenty of proof that reading fiction stimulates all sorts of cognitive areas—not just language regions but also those responsible for coordinating movement and interpreting smells. Because literary books are so mentally invigorating, and require such engagement, they make us smarter than other kinds of reading material, as a 2009 University of Santa Barbara indicated. Researchers found that subjects who read Kafka’s “The Country Doctor”—which includes feverish hallucinations from the narrator and surreal elements—performed better on a subsequent learning task than a control group that read a straightforward summary of the story. (They probably enjoyed themselves a lot more while reading, too.)

Literature doesn’t just make us smarter, however; it makes us us, shaping our consciences and our identities. Strong narratives—from Moby-Dick to William Styron’s suicide memoir, Darkness Visible—help us develop empathy. Research by Canadian psychologists Keith Oatley and Raymond Mar suggests that reading fiction even hones our social skills, as Paul notes. “Dr. Oatley and Dr. Mar, in collaboration with several other scientists, reported … that individuals who frequently read fiction seem to be better able to understand other people, empathize with them, and see the world from their perspective,” she writes. “This relationship persisted even after the researchers accounted for the possibility that more empathetic individuals might prefer reading novels.”

With empathy comes self-awareness, of course. By discovering affinities between ourselves and characters we never imagined we’d be able to comprehend (like the accused murderer Dimitri Karamazov), we better understand who we are personally and politically; what we want to change; what we care about defending.

Yes.

Reading (Again): great advice for literature students

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I just came across this blog post by Barbara Kerley. Although aimed at people learning to write fiction, it matches exactly the advice I give to students in my literature classes, especially at the IB Diploma level, where they need to analyze how the authors’ choices and techniques produce the effects we see in the works.

Since Blogspot is blocked where I am, I will, with apologies to Ms. Kerley, reprint a big chunk of her post here so that my students can benefit from it:

Reading (Again)

Posted by Barbara Kerley

I got the nicest email the other day from a group of kids in Illinois who’d been reading my books in school. They sent questions. (And pictures! That was a treat for me to see all those smiling faces!) These kids are serious about wanting to write; they’re analyzing books they like and writing authors for advice.

One of the questions they asked was what writing exercises I’d recommend for young writers like them, and what kind of exercises I enjoyed doing.

I wrote back:

“I think one of the best things you can do as a writer is to REread other people’s books. When you read a book you like, read it again and look at how the author accomplished whatever it is s/he did so well. Satisfying ending? Well, how did s/he set that up? Exciting story? Well, what details or plot twists did s/he include? Characters you really care about? Well, how did s/he do that, specifically?”

I learned this tip years ago when I heard the wonderful author Nancy Farmer speak at a conference. She said when she was teaching herself how to write, she would read the same book three times. The first time she read it, she was so caught up in the story that she really couldn’t see how the author made it work so well. But by the third reading, she was able to step back, analyze what was going on, and learn from it.

Right. The first time you read a book, most of your attention is devoted to tracking who’s who and what’s happening. The second time you read it, you know who the characters are and what happens, so you can devote most of your attention to the details you missed the first time; you make connections you didn’t make before, and understand things better. The third time, you can really focus on the author’s choices and techniques and analyze how the story or play or poem is written.

At this point you might ask: what kind of book would I want to read three times?! Answer: a really good book. Supermarket thrillers can be read once, but after that? —there’s no reason to re-read them, because they are all plot, and once you know the plot, that’s it. A really good book, however, can be read multiple times, and each time it shows you something more and gives you more to think about. Or, as Susan Sontag wrote, “No book is worth reading once if it is not worth reading many times.”

Does reading great literature make us pessimistic?

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Here’s what David Carl, a teacher at St. John’s College, answered in an email message to one of his students:

In general, our encounter with great works should tend to make us hopeful, and therefore optimistic. I have the words of several authors in mind when I assert this, such as Montaigne (“The profit from our studies is to become better and wiser men”) and Wallace Stevens (“It is not what I am but what I aspire to be that comforts me”). So long as we believe that we are capable of becoming better people in the world through the work we do (whatever that work happens to be) it is difficult to have a fundamentally pessimistic view of our own existence.

If we believe that progress and development and improvement are possible for us as individuals (that it’s possible for me to become better than I currently am, whatever I mean by “better”) and we also believe that the work we do (the reading, the studying, the talking, the writing, etc.) can contribute towards that goal of “being better”, then I think it’s difficult not to be optimistic about the books and our work at the college. And if we don’t believe that we can become better than we are, then I’m not sure why any of us are here (or anywhere else) in the first place.

I would only add what Socrates says in Plato’s dialogue, ‘The Meno’ (tr. W.R.M. Lamb):

Most of the points I have made in support of my argument are not such as I can confidently assert; but that the belief in the duty of inquiring after what we do not know will make us better and braver and less helpless than the notion that there is not even a possibility of discovering what we do not know, nor any duty of inquiring after it—this is a point for which I am determined to do battle, so far as I am able, both in word and deed.

Thanks to Mr. Carl for permission to quote him.

Do university students learn anything? It depends.

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I am usually wary of stories in the U.S. media about education issues—almost always I find distortion and oversimplification.

This piece by the Associated Press is no exception, but it caught my eye, particularly these two findings from the report it cites:

_Students who studied alone, read and wrote more, attended more selective schools and majored in traditional arts and sciences majors posted greater learning gains.

_Social engagement generally does not help student performance. Students who spent more time studying with peers showed diminishing growth and students who spent more time in the Greek system [fraternities and sororities] had decreased rates of learning, while activities such as working off campus, participating in campus clubs and volunteering did not impact learning.

To which I guess one can only reply, Really? No kidding?

Chalk up another one to common sense, and write it on the wall next to your desk: If I study more, read more, write more, go to a better school, study real subjects, and don’t go out drinking every weekend, I’ll do better in school and learn more.

Might even work in high school . . . but we would need another scientific study to know for sure, eh?

The Blue Pencil Online: a literary magazine for students, edited & published by students

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High school writers looking for a place to publish their work should have a look at The Blue Pencil Online, a project of the Walnut Hill School for the Arts, in Natick, Massachusetts (USA). Their standards appear to be quite high, so for a young writer of real talent and ambition, the Blue Pencil just might provide the right sort of challenge.

For a brief article about the site and the school, see this page from the National Association of Independent Schools.

How to improve your English

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Students sometimes ask, “Mr. MacKnight, how can I improve my grammar?” Here’s how.

1. Read every day!

There is no substitute for daily reading. Choose books you like: if you don’t enjoy it, you won’t read. Students who are non-readers will never become fluent writers, because only through years of reading do we develop a strong sense of what sentences should look like when they are written down. Read every day!

2. Copy good writing

If you are reading every day, but want to accelerate your improvement by doing more, it is possible. Trying to memorize a grammar book won’t help. But if you are really determined, there is a good method. It may sound stupid, but it works.

Copy good writing.

I don’t mean, “imitate good writing.” I mean copy it, word for word, comma for comma. By hand. So that it’s perfect. As I say, this may sound stupid, but it will actually force you to slow down and pay attention to the details, and it will teach your muscles to write correctly.

Where to find good writing? Any writing you admire and enjoy will do, but here are two suggestions. First, try any essay by George Orwell. He died about 60 years ago, and he was British, so there will be an occasional word or phrase that may be out of date or unfamiliar. But he remains one of the two or three greatest English-language essayists of the 20th century. Second, try some essays by Paul Graham, who writes as a hobby, mostly, and usually about computer science. But he also writes on more general-interest topics, and he is an excellent stylist.

I suggest that you copy one paragraph every couple of days—two or three a week. Don’t try to go fast; aim to copy everything perfectly, down to the last apostrophe. If you keep at it, I guarantee that your grammar will improve. You will also learn about how to write a great essay.

Don’t use study guides!

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We’re talking about SparkNotes, Cliff’s Notes, York Notes, and all such similar shortcuts used by lazy and/or desperate and/or insecure students.

Inspired partly by an online discussion among IB English teachers and partly by my own students, I’ve added a page to my English A1 class blog that makes things as clear as I can make them. It begins like this:

Study guides WON’T HELP YOU! In fact they will harm you, in several ways:

1. They often are inaccurate and of poor quality.
2. They prevent you from thinking for yourself.
3. They encourage you to think – wrongly – that the goal is to discover THE ANSWER or THE MEANING and then regurgitate it on an exam.

The rest of the page is here.

SAT scores: not the last word

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This may surprise you:

[Students who don’t submit SAT scores when they apply to university], with significantly lower SATs, earn [university] G.P.A.’s that are within five one-hundredths of a G.P.A. point of submitters, and graduate at rates within one-tenth of 1 percent of submitters.

This comes from the former head of admissions at Bates College, in Maine, USA, but presumably would be generally true.

Great Podcasts #4: BBC World Book Club

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Harriet Gilbert hosts monthly interviews with contemporary authors that feature questions from both a live audience and BBC World Service listeners from all over the world. Recent programs have featured writers such as Nawal El Sadaawi, David Guterson, Toni Morrison, Derek Walcott, Alice Walker, Annie Proulx, and Chinua Achebe. Highly recommended!

As always, you can go directly to the BBC site, but the best way to ensure that you don’t miss a program is to subscribe via iTunes.

Summer writing help

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All of my Gr. 11—>Gr. 12 students in English A1, and all Gr. 10—>Gr. 11 students going into English A1 are invited to work on their writing this summer through email tutorials.

Just send me a paragraph as an email attachment. I will mark it up with comments and suggestions and send it back to you. You can then rewrite and repeat the process as often as you like either with the same paragraph or a new one. Current English A1 students may not, of course, use actual paragraphs from one of your World Literature assignments.

My email address, in case you’ve lost it, is ericmacknight AT mac DOT com.

Best wishes,

etm

Great Podcasts #2: Writers & Company

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Eleanor Wachtel interviews writers on her Canadian Broadcasting Corporation program, “Writers & Company”. She and Leonard Lopate are the two best interviewers I know. She talks with famous and not-so-famous authors, and their conversations are invariably interesting and informative. Few ‘media personalities’ are as well-informed as Wachtel. Older students in top-level literature classes will find these podcasts stimulating, sometimes challenging, and very worthwhile.

Subscribe via iTunes, or directly from the CBC web site.

On stories

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From the archives . . .

When we tell stories, or read or watch or listen to stories, we are (in part) searching for our own story: the story that will explain to us who we are, where we are going, and why; the story that will make sense of the world we live in, and our place in that world. To put it another way, through stories we both rehearse for the performances ahead (courtship, marriage, career, middle-age, death) and review our past performances, to see whether, with hindsight and the storyteller’s angle of vision, we might understand them better.

Our choice of stories, and the nature of the stories which really move us, can be understood as having something to do with the problems and questions that concern us personally. Fears of all sorts; doubts of our own ability, courage, or moral strength; questions about romance, marriage, parenthood–such elements arise in many different kinds of stories, from fairy tales and nursery rhymes to the most sophisticated novels and plays.

Northrop Frye, the great Canadian literary critic and teacher, once remarked that all stories may derive ultimately from one archetypal story about the loss of identity, and the search to rediscover it. According to other critics, death is the central issue of story-telling: we rehearse our own death endlessly, by reading about the deaths of others. How and when will we die? Will we behave admirably, or shamefully, when death is upon us? And, of course, what is death? According to this view, our compulsion to understand death, prepare for it, or escape from it, fuels our obsession with story-telling.

These generalizations about the nature of story-telling are no substitute for reading a particular text closely, and analyzing it in detail, but they may help you find a “way into” a story: look again at the issues I’ve raised, and see whether any of them are present in the story you’re reading now. These reflections about stories may also help you appreciate better the value of the detailed studies that you are forced to undertake in school: if your own story, your own identity, your own death are really at stake, then perhaps it is worthwhile, after all, to look very closely, and think hard about what you find.

—June 9, 1998

Ancient Greece, Modern Readers

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A man unknowingly kills his father and marries his mother, fulfilling a prophecy made years before. When he discovers what he has done, he gouges his eyes out with his mother/wife’s hairpins. A young woman defies the law and risks her life to give her brother’s body a proper burial. The general of an allied army agrees that his eldest daughter should be put to death so that he can lead the army in a war to defend his brother’s honour. A woman, abandoned by her husband, wreaks her revenge by murdering their children.

These are just a few of the more memorable stories from ancient Greek poetry and drama. Written 2500 years ago, they still capture our imagination. Students known to doze in class are suddenly awake and engaged. These Greek stories have amazing power.

Their power is not merely the power of lurid plots, as the brief descriptions given above might suggest. The Greek stories are often lurid, it’s true, depicting unspeakable acts of seemingly primitive ferocity. Some readers—Sigmund Freud, for one—believe that they enthrall us because they conjure our deepest wishes and fears. “Moderation in everything”, said the Greek philosophers, “nothing overmuch.” Reading their stories and their history, one can’t help feeling that they extolled moderation because they could never achieve it themselves.

But the power of ancient Greek literature is not merely sensationalist. As Aristotle pointed out, our experience of these stories as stories—not actual events—gives us the emotional distance we need to reflect on them, and learn from them. (Aristotle also asserted that learning is the highest—not the greatest—pleasure known to humans, which helps explain why we enjoy these sometimes horrific tales.) We are appalled when Orestes murders his mother to avenger his father’s death, yes; but we are also made to think, and that thinking can lead to the most profound reflections concerning law, society, duty, taboos, the relationships between children and parents, and on and on.

Moreover, the culture of ancient Greece, along with that of the ancient Hebrews, lies at the root level of Western civilization. We cannot really understand European culture without knowing the Greeks; we cannot know ourselves without knowing the Greeks; we cannot, in the end, claim to be educated without knowing the Greeks.

Unfortunately, the Greeks have largely disappeared from school curricula. In secondary schools, younger students have a few sanitized Greek myths thrown at them, usually along with a potpourri of Norse, African, Asian, and Amerindian myths, legends, and folktales. Older students rarely return to the Greeks, and if they do, the visit is brief: an excerpt from The Odyssey, perhaps. “Advanced” students may read Oedipus Rex or Antigone. For most, nothing at all. In universities, very few students read any ancient Greek literature.

Why is this a problem? A while back, I saw a television interview with Bill Joy, who was at that time “chief scientist” for Sun Microsystems. He had written a magazine article discussing the ethical problems raised by the prospect of having in the near future a million times the computing power of a typical contemporary computer, on every desktop. His article provoked a small storm of debate about how or whether we should try to control such awesome power, and in the course of that debate someone referred to the ancient Greeks. Mr. Joy was prompted to go back to the Greeks, to see what they had to say. His conclusion? “The Greeks”, he said, “understood all of the issues raised in my article”.

Writing about what he thought was a new problem soon to be caused by an astronomical increase in computing power, Bill Joy discovered that the essential issues involved had already been explored, 2500 years ago. Bertrand Russell, who remarked that all of Western philosophy consists of footnotes to Plato, would not have been surprised. It’s a tribute to Mr. Joy that he had the insight to raise these questions. I can’t help wondering, however, how much sooner he would have achieved his insights, and how many others would have foreseen the same problems, had a thorough exposure to Greek literature and philosophy been a part of everyone’s general education.

Greek philosophy, by the way, is not as scary as it might sound. Like Greek literature, it combines a surprising simplicity with amazing depth. The Greeks, in the infancy of Western thought, produced literature and philosophy that can be read and enjoyed by children, and re-read over a lifetime with increasing understanding and appreciation. Soon after his election as President of the United States in 1932, Franklin Roosevelt paid a visit to Oliver Wendell Holmes, the Supreme Court justice. Noticing a book on the table, FDR asked Holmes, who was then in his nineties, why he was reading Plato. “To improve my mind”, he said.

Plato wrote philosophy as literature. His dialogues feature a wonderful protagonist, Socrates, who delights his young friends and infuriates his opponents by asking seemingly simple questions they cannot answer, all the while professing to know nothing himself. The best introductions for secondary school students are the “Apology”, which recounts the trial and conviction of Socrates, and the “Crito”, in which Socrates refuses the opportunity to escape death by fleeing. Both will provoke vigourous discussions. My other favourite is the “Meno”, in which Socrates famously claims to to demonstrate his theory of learning by helping an unschooled slave-boy to learn geometry. The “Allegory of the Cave”, which forms just a small part of the very long dialogue named “The Republic”, is also a must-read. As is common in literature, the surface often deceives in Plato’s dialogues. It is not at all certain, for example, that Plato’s description of the ideal state in “The Republic” is really intended to be a blueprint for political reform. In the “Meno”, similarly, Socrates may not really believe that the demonstration with the slave-boy proves anything; he may simply want to convince Meno not to give up searching for the truth.

If your school is lucky enough to include philosophy in the curriculum, Plato will provide enough material for all the lessons the school could possibly offer. If not, I would argue strenuously for adding Plato to the reading lists for English. A dialogue, after all, is literature, and few alternative works will provide as much stimulation. English teachers who are used to finding ambiguity and layers of meaning in works of fiction will have no trouble finding them in Plato.

As for Greek literature per se, The Odyssey is first on my list. It can be read profitably, in different ways, by students at any grade level. The great myths–the Oedipus cycle, the story of the Trojan War, the Agamemnon/Orestes saga–should be taught in the middle years so that students can later read Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Euripides with the benefit of their earlier experience. Once their interest has been piqued, students can explore the lesser myths on their own and in groups, and then share their discoveries with their classmates in speeches, presentations, and written work. In Grades 10-12, students should read the full versions of The Odyssey, Oedipus Rex, Antigone, Agamemnon, and as many other plays as possible. Remember: if your students don’t read these great works in high school, it is almost certain that they will never read them at all.

For a teacher who has never studied Greek literature or philosophy, getting started teaching it can be intimidating. My advice is to start small, and go slow. Begin with a re-telling of The Odyssey, or a selection of myths, or a re-telling of the trial and death of Socrates. The response of your students will convince you that you’re on the right track.

A quotation for Natasha . . .

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. . . who complained today, at a moment when everyone was working in silence, that the class was ‘boring’:

Perhaps in the end the question one should ask of any scholar is what purpose he feels his work serves. I could claim great nobility of character and tell you that I work for the good of humanity. Or I could try to shock you and tell you that all I care about are the financial and professional rewards. Neither would be entirely false. I am, indeed, a bit of a romantic who believes, rather in the face of the evidence, that good ideas eventually prevail and make everyone’s life better. I am also not an ascetic: I will not sneer at a nice honorarium or a free trip to a pleasant location.

But the honest truth is that what drives me as an economist is that economics is fun. I think I understand why so many people think that economics is a boring subject, but they are wrong. On the contrary, there is hardly anything I know that is as exciting as finding that the great events that move history, the forces that determine the destiny of empires and the fate of kings, can sometimes be explained, predicted, or even controlled by a few symbols on a printed page. We all want power, we all want success, but the ultimate reward is the simple joy of understanding.

Paul Krugman

(New Times columnist, Princeton professor of economics,and 2008 winner of the Nobel Prize)

http://www.princeton.edu/~pkrugman/incidents.html

The challenge for students and teachers is to dig beneath the mundane routine of school and find the ‘simple joy of understanding’ in every moment.

Wordle: toy or tool?

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I just began playing with Wordle, a web app that takes any text and turns it into a graphic ‘word cloud’, with each word a different size based on how often it’s used in the text.

I tried it out with a student’s essay comparing two WWI poems: Rupert Brooke’s ‘The Soldier’ and Wilfrid Owen’s ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’. Here’s what I got:

sample

It’s easy to pick out words that the writer uses too often: two, way, and think jump out at me. She overuses understand as well. She could improve the essay just by reconsidering each of these words and either omitting them where they are unnecessary or replacing them with synonyms.

(The app allows multiple versions of each ‘cloud’, with different colours, fonts, and arrangements.)

It would be interesting, as well, to “Wordle” a professional writer’s work and see what insights it offers.

Early verdict: Wordle is a useful tool for writers—a simple way to see at a glance where editing is needed.

Diction

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Our diction—choice of words—can dramatically alter the effect of what we say or write, even though the literal meanings of two optional wordings are identical. My students and I often contemplate the effects of diction in literature, but today I found a nice example from the world of politics in an article about the current financial crisis in the U.S.

“The Times/Bloomberg poll asked respondents whether they believed it was ‘the government’s responsibility to bail out private companies with taxpayers’ dollars.’ A majority said no.

“The Pew poll, by contrast, asked respondents if ‘investing billions to try to keep financial institutions and markets secure’ was the right thing to do. A majority said yes.”

So, they’re for it if you say it one way, against it if you say it differently. A lesson for us all.

Source: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/blog/2008/09/24/BL2008092401517.html

Strunk & White's 'Elements of Style'

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The best little book about writing well has been given a new review in the Washington Post by Jonathan Yardley, including a list of available editions. 

Yardley also points out that Strunk’s original 1918 ‘little book’ is available for free online on Bartleby.com.

Students in Grade 9 and up, and especially anyone needing to write extended essays, TOK essays, World Literature essays, AP exams, and IB exams will benefit enormously from Strunk & White’s wisdom.

Read Yardley’s review first, then go to Bartleby.com. 

Commencement Address

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Graduates,

I’ll begin with a story. One of my former university professors came to see me years ago for advice about starting a garden in his back yard. As we talked, I realized that he had no interest in gardening: he only wanted giant broccoli and giant strawberries. So I said to him, “Find a really good produce market and buy giant broccoli, and buy giant strawberries. Then go home and do something you enjoy.”

I’ll let you think about that for a while, and then I’ll tell you what it taught me.

Commencement speakers are expected to give advice: the elders, scarred but wiser because of their experience, attempt to save the young from making the same mistakes they made—or pass on some ideas that have worked. It’s not a bad tradition, so I’ll stick with it.

First. Take care of your body. Here’s the problem: by the time this seems really important it’s too late—you’re overweight and out of shape, with teeth that look like Swiss cheese and half a lifetime of bad habits to keep you that way.

You know you should floss your teeth and stay out of the sun, so do it! And stop eating garbage! Why do we believe that profits for food processing corporations mean good nutrition for us? Eat vegetables mostly, a bit of meat and fish as side dishes, fresh fruit for something sweet. Drink water. Don’t believe the milk lobby: read up on lactose intolerance and do your bowels a favour by leaving the milk for the calves.

As you age, your metabolism will slow down and you’ll gain weight. You won’t lose it by exercising—you have to stop putting all those calories in your mouth. You do need to exercise to stay fit, but you don’t have to buy a membership in a gym or run triathlons—a few sit-ups and push-ups, every day, will do the trick. Above all, keep your abdominals strong. You only get one body in this life, so treat it well.

Second. As some of you may know, I’m a big fan of cultivating good habits: they make life so much easier and more pleasant. But I won’t advise you to plan your life. Leave some room for chance, for surprises, for unplanned adventures. I will advise you, however, to plan your retirement.

When I was your age, men typically retired at 65, puttered about for a couple of years, had a heart attack, and died. Their wives, if they were lucky, were left with a comfortable pension and life insurance annuity. Living for two years without a salary was not such a big problem. Today, people retire at 60 and are then in danger of living another 20 or 30 years. By the time you are my age, it may be as much as 40 or 50 years.

Even 20 years is a long, long time to live without a salary. So however you live your life, plan for your retirement. Buy property, and hold on to it. Put money aside from every paycheque, no matter how small it is or how many bills you have to pay. Every paycheque. Seriously.

Third. Don’t vote for leaders who want to start wars, who appeal to fear, who try to divide people by making them afraid of each other, who want to keep the poor in their place and keep all the power for the rich and the corporations. We’ve had enough of all that, don’t you think?

Fourth. Try to find something or someone to live for besides yourself. Those of you who have had a positive community service experience will understand that the person who gives gets a lot more than the person who receives. By doing something to help others, something to make the world even a little bit better than it was, you will give your life a richness and significance that no selfish endeavor ever will.

If you’re not asleep yet you may still remember my former professor who wanted giant broccoli and giant strawberries. The story became for me a fable about choosing a career. Gardeners love every part of gardening: planning the garden, laying out the paths, digging the beds, preparing compost, sowing seeds, transplanting, cultivating, watering, and harvesting. If they get giant broccoli at the end, that’s nice; if not, they’ve still had all the other pleasures of the work. If you work only for the giant broccoli you get at the end, and you hate all the days leading up to that moment, you will be miserable. Instead, find something you enjoy doing every day; something you would do without being paid, if you could afford it. Then you will be happy in your work. Sigmund Freud, asked for the keys to happiness, famously replied, “Love and work”. I’ve given you best advice I have about work; for love, you’re on your own.

Thank you, and good luck.

Writing in the Garden

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On June 13 about 35 students spent the whole morning in the SSIS Garden, just observing and making notes. Some sat and wrote; some walked around, exploring; others chased insects, or dug holes in search of earthworms. After lunch they sat in classrooms and wrote poems, stories, and essays inspired by their morning’s observations.

They wrote in Chinese, Korean, and English. You can read some of the English pieces on the SSIS Garden Blog. Have a look: I think you will be impressed.