February 11, 2009

50 Cent Word a la Durkheim

All Sociology students read Durkheim.

As an anthro undergrad I read Durkheim. And now I am preparing a lecture & activity for Intro to Soc class based on an excerpt of Durkheim's The Rules of Sociological Method. Not my favorite read. I fought with each sentence. Some I fought with repeatedly. So many words to say something that could otherwise be much clearer... at least to my 2009 ears.

What a way with words they had in 1892-1895ish.
As one of the SOC students put it, "why can't they translate this into Modern English?"**

**1) I'm pretty sure this is a translation from French
    2) And it is in Modern English -- technically speaking (As opposed to Old or Middle English... go read the
      Canterbury Tales for a sampling of Middle English or Beowulf for Old English.)

I can say that the despite quibbling over the technicalities (see above**), I am not a fan of Durkheim's writing style, and I share my student's lack of enthusiasm for it. But it's not very inspiring when your teacher doesn't like the reading. As a reader, I am not known for my patience or attention to detail. However, I think that persevering when things get tough is really important. Just because we can read doesn't mean we should stop learning to read.

So, I pitched Durkheim's essay as a time machine disguised in book form. (Because it is.) I even provided a list of current movies representing the time period and a list of different historical events to contextualize the late 1800s. Yet I don't think the SOC students were having any of it.
On to the 50 Cent Word part: Durkheim brought up another familiar wordy phenomenon (other than spelling pet peeves.) You know when you are reasonably sure that you could use a word correctly or give an example of its use, but your mind goes blank when you are asked to give a definition for the word? Well, the essay was littered with those and a few completely out-of-my-ballpark words. So, surprise. Teachers have that experience too. It's just rare that students ask us to define a word. It's usually the teacher asking the student. That has to stop. Or the reverse should start. I'll argue it should go both ways. I don't use desideratum in every day speech... or ever, up to thank-you-Durkheim. (Long live online dictionaries!) To address this students of Introduction to Sociology are calling me on those words. And I thank them... and ask them to continue. (Which made me really nervous about the day I sprung ontology, epistemology, and 5 other ill-timed related -ologies of them.)

We call it the 50 Cent Word. Though with inflation and all we might want to refer to them as $2.50 Words. It started with me telling a story about a program I did at the Boys & Girls Club called 50 Cent Word. The gist of the program sort of a riff on the Pee-wee's Playhouse word of the day. But it became something more. Any time I used big, unfamiliar word the middle school kids there would inform me "that's a 50 Cent word" -- this was generally said while rolling their eyes or acting somewhat exasperated. And that was my cue to break it down a bit. I told this story to the sociology class. And now we collect words. So this is the list that the Durkheim essay produced: annul zealous ascending dogma indignation atrocities Sui generis immanence amalgam (*Check the opening scene in Parenthood with Steve Martin. Trust me.) aphorism ascertainable fathom substratum coalescence anatomical (* Anatomy anyone? The man was making a metaphor here.) morphological

Please be kind. My typo catching editor is on break. (So I'll post this now and inevitably be irritated by the typos I find tomorrow... but someone asked if I was still writing. I'm aiming for once a week - but last week was break, so I'm behind.)

February 2, 2009

The Blackboard Doesn't Have Spell Check.

The blackboard does not have spell check. I repeat: despite the riveted audience behind you, the blackboard* is not equipped with spell check. Neither is the dry erase board. We could have problems here.

(*Unless you are referring to Blackboard the online course platform. That is an entirely different animal with spell check.)

Spell check is a crutch. The extent to which it has become a crutch is revealed every time I am in front of my class writing on the board.

That doesn't look right...

"...Line please? ... Next letter? ... Anyone?"

My SOC students oblige me. They know already. We either agree to go phonetically, or they can tell me, "you put the i and e in Hierarchy backwards." ....Right, "i before e except after c..." How do my students feel about the collective role of spell check? (Not a rhetorical question folks.)

I really like students' help. I like the teamwork - that as a group we can become comfortable enough to work together. I also see something helpful about making it transparent that just because I'm the teacher by role does not mean I have some sort of encyclopedia/calculator brain or some magical equivalent. I use reference materials. I look stuff up. It's work. The every day sort. But I can't help that it still feels like a risk.

Otherwise, why would I be wondering 2 weeks later if I dropped the vague r in the word vernacular when I wrote it on the board? That would be the first r. It kinda gets lost with the stress on the next syllable. Not a high frequency word in my world either colloquially or professionally.

Random spelling related anecdote*:

If spelling is working for you, and you crave a challenge --- study another language. Preferablely one that uses the same symbols as English (or your first language), but uses them just differently enough to be confusing.

I started studying Russian in high school right around the time I had my first Chemistry class. In the Russian Cyrillic alphabet what looks like a H to an English speaker/reader is pronounced like an N sounds to that same English speaker/reader. Also, what looks like a P functions like an R sound-wise. (For example, ресторан is restaurant in Russian. Imagine saying restaurant with a Russian accent and leaving off the t at the end of the word... that is roughly how it is pronounced.)

So back chemistry class. All elements have an atomic number, weight, and a symbol that is one to three letters long. Two very common elements (and popular ones for test items) are Hydrogen (H) and Nitrogen (N). So for any of you current and future chemistry teachers out there - when a student consistently indicates an atomic weight of 14 for Hydrogen and otherwise seems to get the rest right... wonder if they are taking their first term of Russian. I'm quite sure that Mr. Waddell thought I was making it up.

Just a thought.