Tag Archives: writing

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.

The Tales of Zeus: the Magnificent Yellow Guidedog

Greetings, all you non-furry humans of the interwebs; Zeus the magnificent yellow guidedog here, wagging my way into the blogosphere by popular demand. My human mom told me I could play around on this computer contraption while she’s busy working on her what’s-it-called…diss-diss-diss-er-t-tation. (Such a big word for a little puppy like me!). I’ve only been living with mom and going to school with her for five months, and I’ve already learned so many big words like: theoretical, literary, adaptation, and episteme-episto-epist-I can’t say that one. (Mom just came in: it’s epistemology). I don’t know what they mean, but between you and me, I don’t think mom does either.

Anywags, Mom and I have been a team for five months, and she’s probably told you all about the bad things I do like eating her shoes and trying to make friends with squirrels, but I bet she doesn’t ever talk about all the awesome tricks I can do (You humans are all such ingrates. Like taking one shoe is going to counterbalance the car I saved you from last week, Mom. OK, so it was more than one shoe, but that *was* a big car! Credit where credit is due, please).

I’m luckier than your average pup, because I get to travel everywhere mom does and be her eyes; I don’t know what’s wrong with hers, but I’m sure glad she needs MINE! It’s awful to be a puppy out of work in this unstable economy. It’s my job to help her find things—like stairways, doors, and street-crossings, and to keep her safe. I think I do a fairly decent job, but mom says I’m still learning and I’ll get better when I’m older. Hmph. I’ll have you know I’m almost 2 years-old—that makes me almost a grownup dog! And allow me to remind you about that car; just to put things into perspective, I weigh 61 pounds; that car weighs, like, a million. I put my little Labrador self between mom and that car, because that’s my job, and I do it well, so there.

Mom takes me to this place called THE UNIVERSITY, which is where her “work” is; she trains other humans—imagine that (but she calls it teaching. Whatever, same thing to me). How can you humans think you’re good at training dogs when you’ve got to train your own kind too? I don’t really like this teaching gig; I’ve got to lie down at the front of the room and just look like a yellow rug, and mom’s students—who I guess are like human puppies—aren’t allowed to pet me or talk to me, because I can’t be distracted when I have my harness on. I like wearing my harness because it tells people that I’m a special smart dog, and I get to leave my paw prints where other dogs don’t, but I have a really difficult time with the don’t-pet-me part. Sometimes people walk buy and pet me without saying anything to mom or even asking if it’s OK to pet me; then Mom thinks it’s my fault, because she can’t see that the human who can’t read the “don’t pet me” sign started it, and I get corrected. The injustice of it makes me want to growl! So a word to all the humans, if you see me or another guidedog on the street and think we’re cute (which none of us would disagree with) the kindest thing you can do is smile and keep walking. For one thing, it helps me to do my job and keep mom safe; for another, it keeps me from getting in trouble. I hate it when Mom yells at me, so please don’t give her a reason to do it. Also: if you leave me alone, or stop to tell mom what a smart dog I am without petting me, she’ll give me lots of praise and pets anyway, and Mom’s pets are better than anyone’s, because she’s my mom, and I love her like crazy!

The other thing I don’t like about mom’s teaching is that her puppies bring food, and they don’t share it with me because I’m not allowed to eat when I’m working. Geez, ever heard of a business lunch, Mom?

Speaking of food, I really must protest to this business of only eating twice a day. I’m a growing boy, you know. I think that in a gesture of acknowledgement to the English lineage of my breeding, we ought at least to have afternoon tea; I could really fancy a cucumber sandwich about now.

That reminds me: when Mom is working, she talks a lot about this English person…What’s his name…Colin something-or-other…oh right, Colin Firth. (I just looked him up on Wikipedia). She says he’s done a lot of really great work in literary adaptation (there’s another one of those big words) and she really loves teaching about him and would love for us to meet him some time and chat about his work. Personally I think he’d be more interested in me than in Mom, because I’m way cuter and smarter than she is. This Colin Firth person must be important, because Mom says if we ever got to meet him, she’d let him pet me if he wanted, EVEN THOUGH I’D BE “WORKING”, because he’s Colin Firth. Personally, unless this Colin Firth walks around with sausages (or cucumber SANDWICHES) in his pockets he’s willing to share, I’m not too fussed about the petting, really.

Anywags, Mom says it’s time for me to wash my paws and get ready to eat; I’m starving!

Bye for now then.

Licks and wags to all my human friends!


Never Give up on Your Dissertation, For It is Crunchy and Goes Well with Ketchup

A little over a year ago, my dissertation committee chair shared a link to a blog post on the Chronicle of Higher Education’s website: The Rule of 200by Erin E. Templeton. She presents what I think is a practical, accessible approach to the challenge of balancing the varied demands of a career in academia. She writes that in the swirl of semester activity,

We have to find a way to balance research with teaching and service, and that can be very difficult to do.

Often, because the research goals are long-term rather than immediate, they get the short end of the stick.

OK, I thought; she and I are at least on the same page; someone who actually gets it. After laundry-listing several techniques for increasing productivity in the writing department, including the “first half hour of the morning” and 750 words.com, Templeton admits

I am simply not a morning person, and I’m often so busy that 750 words seem insurmountable when I finally do sit down to write. At the end of the day after my teaching and service obligations have been met, I’m usually fried. So in order to maintain my writing pace (which is, albeit, slow), my
system is slightly different. Instead of writing 750 words, I follow The Rule of 200. It has gotten me through my dissertation and the writing that I have done since. There is no website or digital tool (save for your trusted word-processing program), and rules are pretty straightforward.

The Rule of 200 works like this: my document word count must increase by 200 before I am done for the day, no exceptions. 200 words is a modest goal. It isn’t even an entire page of double-spaced 12pt font. It’s a grocery list, an email, a series of text messages.

I could accept this; I probably write more than 200 words a day collectively via text message, Twitter, and Facebook complaining about the drudgery of dissertating; why not redirect that energy into a more productive channel? So I vowed to give Templeton’s tip a fair try, and a year later, I still follow the “rule of 200,” albeit with a few modest adjustments of my own. Firstly: I make whatever writing project I’m focusing on—dissertation, journal article, etc.—the first priority on my to-do list each day. While I am not a morning person and firmly believe that there should be a tax for perkiness, by the time I sit down at my desk, I’m usually too overly caffeinated to grumble about being vertical and mobile. Secondly: I usually allow myself one day—what I like to call my “get out of jail free card” day each week to set my project aside, mostly because, like my mother’s spaghetti sauce, all good ideas need time to simmer, and I’ve found that, at least for me, stepping away from something—covering the pot and turning down the heat, if you will, on the mental burner—allows me to return to it later with renewed energy, or at the very least, graceful resignation.

I found myself struggling to recall Templeton’s practical advice a few mornings ago when I noticed that as I went to update the file name of my current dissertation chapter with the date, I’m approaching the six month mark; that is, I’ve been working on this chapter, off and on, for nearly six months. Excuse me while I rummage in the pantry for my emergency chocolate supply; I’m dangerously approaching the depression point. The draft is, as a dearly-beloved professor of mine once described the difficult draft, “like a very slow, painful bowel-movement”. Normally recalling this analogy makes me laugh; that day it just induced the urge to cry, vomit, and cry some more. (I once described the process of writing a dissertation as like being pregnant; all I do is eat and cry). Obviously, I realized I needed some fresh inspirational material. I turned to Anne Lamotte’s visualization technique in “Shitty First Drafts”of taking all of the negative voices in my head, pretending they were mice, dropping them into a jar with a nifty little volume control, and pressing mute. This unfortunately proved ineffective. I took a walk to the lady’s room to relieve a non-existent urge to pee; I coaxed my guidedog outside for a few minutes of fresh air (as it turned out, he didn’t need to pee either). I returned to my desk and checked the word count on my document; I still had 130 words left to write before I could close the document for the day. I considered calling my boyfriend until, in a horrifying, Bridget Jones-worthy realization, I remembered that I don’t in fact have one. I rolled my shoulders a few times, said a quick prayer, put fingers to keyboard, and tried again. It was Friday, I told myself; if I could just write 130 more words, I could move on to bigger and better things. I tried Anne Lammote’s visualization technique again; no go. I tried pretending that if I wrote my 200 words, I would win a coffee date with the celebrity of my choice. This only inspired unproductive fantasies and a humiliating imaginary scenario involving an uncoordinated me spilling hot cappuccino in Colin Firth’s lap. Closing my eyes and massaging my temples, I waited patiently for the word fairy, who had apparently gone on holiday. Well, I’d just have to manage without her prolific pixie dust then. Laboriously I began to type, experiencing a sensation not unlike that of upending a nearly empty ketchup bottle to squeeze out what little there is left. I typed; I paused; I squeezed; I typed again; lather, rinse, repeat. OK, so this description is conjuring up the bowel movement analogy yet again, but I think my visualization is equally colorful and perhaps slightly less offensive.

In short (and because this post is considerably more than 200 words and funnily enough took far less time than the above exercise)I did in fact produce my 200 word count for the day, and I am now considering keeping a ketchup bottle on my desk to remind myself that however empty I might feel, sometimes all the brain-bottle needs is a little shake to get the juices flowing.