Tag Archives: education

Mark Twain and the Magic of Reading: a Reflection on International Literacy Day 2015

One Saturday afternoon, while languidly grading essays on my couch as the rain pelted my windows, I received an unexpected jolt of surprise when a student’s essay informed me that, apparently, Mark Twain was the author of the Wonderful Wizard of Oz and Oliver Twist. As a Victorianist, I found the latter particularly amusing; apparently I have been reading all the wrong books. Once I had indulged in a brief chuckle over what Dickens might have thought of this misappropriation of authorship, I kindly made a notation in the student’s essay, correcting the mistake—or misinformation.

When I shared the story with several friends and colleagues, they expressed incredulity at the error, exclaiming, “These students went to high school, right?”
“Yes, presumably,” I answered. “but we can’t know where they’re coming from and what their educational experiences or access might have been like.” It’s easy to arch a brow in astonishment or weap in despair over such student errors, and I’m the first to admit that many English teachers spend hours in such comiseration. Yet while this serves as our coping mechanism to maintain relative sanity during grading marathons, such moments should also provide a sobering reminder of our responsibility as educators not to chide students for what they don’t know, but to broaden their knowledge base as we share our own.

As I scribbled a comment in the margin of my student’s essay, a memory suddenly dislodged itself from the fog in my brain. I saw myself, 7 or 8 yrs old, sitting on my grandmother’s lap while she regaled me with the story of Huckleberry Finn, from her memory.

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, image source Wikimedia Commons

Growing up, I lost count of the number of times my grandmother told us how important it was to get an education, because she never had the opportunity to finish college.
“You’ve got to study,” she used to say. “You have to learn, because you have to go to college.”

So-called “lack” of formal education notwithstanding, Grandma was perhaps one of the most well-read peple I have ever known. She always had a book with her, and was always ready to share her stories.
“What are you reading, Grandma?” I’d ask, sneaking into the living-room on the nights she used to baby-sit, after I was supposed to be in bed, to find her sitting by the lamp, bent over a thick volume with close-printed pages. “Isn’t it boring?” I’d ask. “There are no pictures.”
“The pictures are in your mind,” she’d explain. “You have to use your imagination.”

And that was when it all started. That was when I began to understand that, tucked between sheets of paper were entire worlds—worlds where people fought battles, hunted for buried treasure, faught crime, made friendships, fell in love, lived, and died as many times as I wanted them to. They were there to talk to me, to tell me their stories over and over again; all I had to do was open the book. Before I even picked up my first Mark Twain book, Grandma had told me the story of Huck’s journey with Jim and his adventures (and misadventures) with Tom Sawyer. It was Grandma who introduced me to O. Henry, master of the American shortstory. “Tell the one about the Red Chief,” I’d beg, for the 10th or 20th time. It was Grandma who taught me the didactic value of stories; with Huck Finn, she taught me about the wrongs of slavery and the prejudice of the American South before I could pronounce the Emancipation Proclamation or even knew that there was such a thing. With “The Gift of the Magi,” she taught me about the enormous love behind the simplest acts and the meaning of selfless giving. She taught me to treasure stories for the lessons they taught me as well as for the hours of enjoyment they brought me.

I find myself reflecting on those memories today, when we celebrate International Literacy Day, because that love of literature, that passion for sharing stories, is the reason why I teach. I want to open the world of stories to students the same way my grandmother did for me, to be their guide through the magical land of Narnia or the packed throngs of Dickens’s London. I want them to know the wonder of traveling through time and living an entire life in the pages of a book.


Who are your favorite storytellers?

A Little Birdie Told Me: Academic Research and the Twittersphere

Amidst headlines about the ongoing violence in Syria, the 2012 presidential race, and people (myself included) griping about Facebook’s mandatory rollout of Timeline, I was fortunate to stumble upon this little gem in my Twitter feed: MLA Releases Guidelines for Citing a Tweet.
‘Great,’, I thought. ‘As if taking up arms against the persistence of plagiarism isn’t already challenging enough what with Wikipedia, Google, and the fact that the iPhone has shrunk the world of information to a pocket-sized piece of plastic’. Now we’ve got to contend with Twitter.

You would think that, having spent roughly half of my life becoming increasingly reliant on the Internet, that I’d be a bit less of a Luddite about this most recent acknowledgement of the extent to which internet technology has altered the way we conduct (and in turn cite) research. But the truth is, I needed a moment to pick my jaw up off the floor before I could actually process this information. Several cups of coffee later, with the gears of my brain grinding, I challenged myself to step back and evaluate the situation from a more technologically open-minded perspective. Let’s face it: I blog, I use Facebook, I tweet like a twit, and I’ll be much surprised if I am never called upon to address a question from a student about the correct method for citing a tweet. Thanks to the MLA, I now have a default response.

That being said, there remains the issue of what constitutes legitimate, authoritative sources, and the circumstances under which Twitter might be considered appropriate for academic research. Admittedly, I was hard-pressed to think of such scenarios; as a literature and writing teacher and a Victorian scholar, I’ve never encountered (at least not yet) such a scenario. However, I am aware that in recent years, scholars in my field, as well as fans, have taken to creating accounts on Twitter impersonating—for entertainment as well as edification—fictional characters and their creators, everyone from Wilkie Collins and the great Sherlock Holmes to Mark Darcy of Bridget Jones fame (though he hasn’t tweeted in months…not that I know this, because I don’t follow him or anything). To return to the point, if someone, whether a student or professional scholar, wanted to conduct research focusing on the use of social media such as Twitter for engaging with literature and encouraging the “iPhone generation” to read, this might be a scenario where citing a tweet might be academically appropriate.

To use another example, the course I taught last semester—Writing through Media—and the course I’m currently teaching—Advanced Argumentative Writing—both have a heavy emphasis on the usage of new media tools, including Twitter, as means through which to enrich our writing experiences and create new spaces for readers and writers to interact with one another. I’ve just assigned my Advanced Argumentative Writing students an essay addressing this very topic, and in a context where one is studying the trends of popular media, there might be cause for incorporating Twitter into the research and writing. In that case, the MLA has offered us a solution to a question for which, until now, teachers have had no standard, textbook response.

How do you feel about the acknowledgement of Twitter as potentially suitable for use in academic research? What situations can you think of in which such usage would be called for? How can teachers instruct students about how best to use Twitter as an academic tool? Is Twitter even an internet resource that can offer students legitimate, authoritative information, or should we teach students to treat Twitter as we instruct them to treat Wikipedia–a source of general (though not necessarily verifiable) information?

The Scoop on School: or, Five Fun Facts Every Graduate Student Should Know

“So, any idea when you’re going to finish your dissertation?” my brother asked innocently toward the end of our conversation yesterday. Why, after three and a half years, people persist in asking this question is beyond my powers of comprehension. Quite frankly, you have a greater chance of getting a straight answer out of the president on any given day than you do if you ask me that question.

I’ve written before about the drudgery of dissertating and the direct correlation between the units of alcohol I consume and the number of times someone asks the above question in any social context. I even went so far as to commiserate with my committee chair over the nails-on-a-chalkboard effect this conversation has on my nerves. “They don’t understand. You’re doing fine,” she assured me several weeks ago.

Then last week, I was filling out my mandatory annual progress report and feeling reasonably accomplished with a forthcoming book chapter publication, a conference presentation, and my work for the English Graduate Organization…until I came to the question: “projected date of dissertation defense?”, and I just might have scribbled the words “buggered if I know” before realizing that this probably wasn’t the professionally-minded response the department was looking for. Then I remembered that in just a few hours, I would be sitting in a room full of fresh-faced, undergraduate English majors, extolling the virtues of graduate school (in other words, perjuring myself).

Perhaps that’s a bit of an exaggeration. The truth is, I love what I do. Not only do I get to read, write about, and (if I’m lucky) teach literature I love, but I occasionally get the chance to legitimate my fangirlish tendencies as “academic interests.” How many people can watch BBC 1’s “Sherlock” multiple times and call it research? But then there are the sleepless nights, the heart palpitations as a result of overcaffeination, and the threats to drop out of school and join a traveling circus as the wandering freak who can recite random passages from Bronte novels while balancing on one leg and spinning around with her eyes closed. (I’ve been contemplating adding a “special skills” field to my CV just to make room for that). The question that the uninitiated (in other words, non-academics) invariably ask is: how? How do you survive this masochistic mental torture?

So, I present for your edification: survival strategies: five facts every graduate student should know.
1. You will inevitably fall into at least one of these three categories: functioning alcoholic, caffeine addict, or chain-smoker. If you do not fall into at least one of these categories, you are in denial.
2. You will learn quickly that any grocery list is incomplete without three staples: peanut butter, cereal, and vodka. Running out of any of these items constitutes a nutritional crisis. Running out of any or all of these items the night before a seminar paper is due constitutes declaring a state of emergency. If you think you can write a paper in twelve hours without the sustenance of protein, fiber, and alcohol, you are deluding yourself.
3. Six hours of sleep will be a record-braking maximum from now until, basically, the end of your living existence, and you will learn to settle for half that on a good day (see number 1).
4. If, like me, you choose to live alone, assign at least one friend to be what I have affectionately termed your “Bridget Jones buddy”—the person who forces their way into your apartment when they haven’t heard from you in at least three days to make sure that you haven’t been devoured by wild dogs. Ideally, this should also be the person you would trust to clear your computer history in the event that you are eaten by wild dogs, or, in a twisted tribute to your love for Oscar Wilde, carried off by a severe chill. You don’t want your anonymously published fanfiction falling into the wrong hands. Trust me.
5. You will occasionally burst into tears for no apparent reason. This is normal, and as long as you have item number 3 on your grocery list staples near to hand, you will get past the moment.

Note: the above is presented as much for entertainment as edification. Evidence that these are universal truths applying to all graduate students remains inconclusive. All facts should be taken with a grain of salt…plus a slice of lime and a shot of tequila.

A Lesson Learned in Luke

It’s a very ancient saying, but a true and honest thought, that if you become a teacher by your pupils you’ll be taught.- The King and I

My students have an essay due tomorrow, so naturally when I logged onto my e-mail for the first time this morning, I wasn’t surprised to find desperate pleas for help. While I’ve told my students time and again that I can do little for them in the way of major feedback 24 hours before an assignment is due, I’ve resigned myself to the reality of always finding e-mails of the “What should I write my paper on” variety even with the deadline looming. (As an aside, I hate this question more than carrot raisin salad, or the sound of the alarm clock on Monday morning, or…insert anything unpleasant and double the wrath I feel toward it). Similarly frustrating are the students who will send me a draft of a paper the day before its due, asking me to “look it over”. Having been at this job for nearly five years, I think I’ve become fairly skilled at spotting the difference between the student who is genuinely struggling with her writing and the one to whom “look this over” translates to “correct my mistakes so I will get an ‘A'”.

When I opened my e-mail this morning, I discovered a message from a student with a nearly-finished essay that she wanted me to “look over”. I’m not unwilling to provide my students with encouragement and input during the writing process; let’s face it, for most of us, words don’t flow freely from our fingertips like milk and honey from the Promised Land. That said, there must be a practical limit to my kindness; if every student sent me a draft, and I responded to each one, I would effectively be grading it twice; not to mention, I would have little or no time to devote to my dissertation, lesson-planning, writing the book article I’m currently working on, and the myriad of other professional obligations that demand my attention. Then, of course, “teacher” is only one of many hats I wear; I am a friend, a daughter, a sister, an active church-member, and a writer—all of which come bundled with their own set of responsibilities.

With a fortifying sip of coffee, I wrote back to my student and promised a response by the end of the day; trying not to become overwhelmed with my to-do list before I even began to tackle it, I headed over to the U.S Conference of Catholic Bishops page for my daily dose of scripture.

Whenever I find myself struggling to answer the question of how my work in academia serves the Lord, I remind myself that Jesus was—and is—a teacher, and today’s lesson was one I was glad I didn’t miss. In today’s Gospel (Luke 17:7-10) Jesus challenges his apostles: “When you have done all you have been commanded, say,
“We are unprofitable servants;
we have done what we were obliged to do.” Here Jesus reminds us that to truly answer the call to serve others, we cannot merely do what is expected of us; we must go above and beyond the call of duty—work overtime without compensation, so-to-speak. (Though he also reminds us that our reward for all we do will be great in Heaven). I took that to heart as I thought about my work today, and I realized that so much of doing my job successfully demands going above and beyond the call of duty; doing more than what is expected of me, even when it doesn’t suit my convenience. How would it have been if someone with an unclean spirit had appealed to Jesus for healing only to have him tell them “Sorry, closed for business. Tell your demons to take a chill pill and call me in the morning.”? OK, so teaching students the value of sound rhetoric in their daily lives isn’t perhaps as monumental an achievement as, say, the Loaves and the Fishes trick or raising a man from the dead, but I think the idea here is that we’re called to live all aspects of our lives, great and small, with that compassion. True, I’m an imperfect human, and I’m not always going to get it right, but today I’m thankful for the reminder of what I’m striving for.

What are you thankful for today?

Spell-Checkers: the Dust-Buster of Word-Processors

“The computer is only as smart as its user.”
“A computer is a machine that makes very fast, very accurate mistakes.”

We’re all familiar with these expressions, and those of us who’ve chosen the honored profession of teaching are reminded of them every time we sit down to grade a stack of student essays. It’s hardly surprising that the time-saving concept of the spell-checker built into word-processors would be appealing to the iPhone generation, nor that in the age of texting, tweeting, and otherwise communicating in as few words as possible, that students have forgotten how to spell, let alone the value of proofreading. As someone growing increasingly accustomed to writing in academic jargon and battling daily with a word-processor that doesn’t recognize terms like heteronormative and liberatory, I’m constantly reminded that my spell-checker is only one useful tool that aids me in writing—my brain is the other.

I traditionally teach my students what I’ve come to call the “rule of 5”: that is, proofread any piece of writing at least five times. However, it’s become glaringly obvious over the years that to many, if not all of my students, running the spell-checker once constitutes the entirety of best practices in proofreading. The spell-checker, I insist, is the dust-buster of word processors—effective for tidying up your document, but you need something a bit more powerful to make it pristine and presentable. The “rule of 5” as I call it is more time-consuming than actually difficult.

1. Read through the document, spotting and correcting errors manually where you find them.
2. Run the spell-checker to pick up anything you might have missed, checking each change before you accept it to make sure that it is, in fact, the word or phrase you want to use. There’s a reason why the spell-checker offers changes as “suggestions”.
3. Read through the document a second time; when you do this, if you’re reading carefully, you will almost invariably make a few minor adjustments, especially if the spell-checker has insistently removed a comma where there clearly ought to be one, or protested a lack of subject-verb agreement where subject and verb are in fact co-existing quite peacefully.
4. Since you’ve made changes to your document, it’s best to run the dust-buster once more to check for stray crumbs.
5. Now that you’ve done that, read it through once more—preferably out loud—to listen to the flow of your sentences. If you have difficulty reading fluidly, you more than likely need to restructure any awkwardly-worded sentences.

Of course, it’s flat-out naivety on my part to expect students who consider themselves to have gone the extra mile if they run the spell-checker once to do it twice, to say nothing of manually proofreading their documents. More often than not, the results of such carelessness make me want to grind my teeth to splinters, but occasionally I’ll find a gem that offers me a moment of free entertainment in an otherwise tedious task. Allow me to share with you a few of my favorites:

1. When spelling out the number 6, students frequently insert an ‘e’ where they ought to insert an ‘I’. I admit, I’m hardly surprised to find such a slip in so many college students’ papers; calling Dr. Freud. Nevertheless, this is a supreme example of an instance where more than a cursory spell-check is necessary, since the spell-checker is most likely going to pass over the recognized standard word without considering the fact that it hardly fits within the context of the sentence. (Spell-checker minus 1).
2. “It’s a viscous cycle”; I typically run across this one in student essays dealing with the environment or issues of environmental sustainability. For instance: When we waste the earth’s resources, we create a viscous cycle that will continue with future generations. Hmm, a thick, gloopy, glutinous cycle; highly descriptive, I admit, but I think the expression you’re looking for is “vicious cycle”. (Spell-checker minus 2, in case you’re still keeping score).
3. In an essay about Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula, a student wrote that Jonathan Harker escaped Castle Dracula and was cared for by a religious covenant. Really? I thought he escaped to a convent. I wasn’t aware that he fled into the desert and struck a deal with the children of Israel to protect him against the evil King Vampire. (Spell-checker minus 3).
4. Also found in a student essay on Dracula: apparently, Dracula was written by Bram Stroker, not Bram Stoker, or so one of my students wrote. The blame here rests squarely on the shoulders of the student, as I’m fairly certain that the spell-checker would have sucked up that particular crumb (mine just did, anyway). I must confess I found this particular typo inappropriately amusing, and couldn’t help chuckling to myself when, upon reading the mistake, I recalled that Bram Stoker died of tertiary syphilis. I allowed my mind to dwell on the delicious irony for several moments before I continued reading.
5. I’ve saved this one for last, as it’s my favorite. Several years ago a student of mine wrote an essay about building accessibility for people with physical disabilities, and said essay contained the word “handicapability”. (I seriously considered sending this one in to the Reader’s Digest). If this were an actual word in standard English, the definition would probably look something like this: Handicapability: noun- the ability to be handicapped or to have a handicap. Well, now that I know I have the ability to be blind—that it’s all about exercising my potential—that really informs my understanding of my handicap. Really; let’s just take a moment to admire how this word effectively renders itself meaningless—the ability to be disabled.

As much as these errors amuse me in the short-term, I ultimately find them unsettling, especially today after reading this article in the Gainesville Sun about Governor Rick Scott’s not-so-brilliant plan to cut Liberal Arts programs (which typically include English departments and university writing programs)from the Florida state university system. What a brilliant plan, Governor Scott; let me know how that works out. What place, I wonder, does Governor Scott think sound literacy skills have in the well-rounded education, and where, I wonder, does he think students acquire such skills?
So, Mr. Governor, go ahead with this cut to the Humanities, but don’t come crying to me when your finely-educated college graduates can’t succeed in the professional arena because they lack even the most rudimentary of literacy skills to write a proper business letter.