Archive for December, 2008

Professor Canada: The Joy of Learning and the Wealth of Language

December 30, 2008

     This posting is essentially an extension of a column from the “Sandspur” of December 31 about five English Professors at UNCP, a “Murderers’ Row” of faculty members who have won Board of Governors’ Awards for “Excellence in Teaching” within the past eight years. These awards, initiated in 1996, are given to  16 professors or instructors annually, one selected from each of the 16 UNC institutions. The award consists of $7500 in cash, a bronze medallion, and a citation. It is the most prestigious of honors for teaching excellence that can be attained by UNC professors.

      UNCP also honors the distinguished professor by having him or her carry the University’s Mace and lead in the academic processions at Commencement and at the Fall Convocation.  Furthermore, he or she delivers the main address at the Winter Commencement.

     I am inordinately proud, as a Chair of the Department (1970-1979) and then continuing on as Professor of English from 1979-1996, to have served with four of these outstanding colleagues.  The most recent and fifth honoree since 2000, Mark Canada, was my replacement in the Department, serving from the Spring of 1997 on.  I feel completely relieved now as I reflect again upon making the gut-wrenching decision early in the Fall Semester 1996 to retire, for my retiring made way for a teacher, researcher, writer, family man, and outstanding human being who otherwise, I feel quite certain, would not be on our campus today.

         At the moment I am writing,  Mark, recently promoted to the rank of Professor, is one of two candidates to replace Dr. Dennis Sigmon as Department Chair.  The other candidate is also someone I consider a dear friend, a comrade on the links several times, a colleague and an instructor and advisor who enriches those around her.  She is also someone who would, I am certain, be an outstanding academic leader.  I am relieved that I do not have a vote and I do not have to make this choice.

     For a full review of Mark’s application for the BOG award, I would direct you to “Google” him under his name.

     I wish here simply to observe that Mark is not only universally admired and respected at UNCP by students, colleagues, and staff, but he has brought to campus other remarkable credentials.  His primary interests in his research and writing have been the nexus of journalism and literature (particularly in the nineteenth century), the nature and the sweep of the English language, and the creative mind of Edgar Allan Poe.

     A native of Indiana and still a “Hoosier” at heart, Mark was an English and journalism major at the University of Indiana, graduating as a member of both Phi Beta Kappa and summa cum laude (“with highest distinction”).  He worked for three years as a “Copy Editor” for Indiana newspapers before moving to Chapel Hill as a Graduate Assistant.  He earned both his Master’s and Ph.D. there, the latter in 1997 a few months after arriving at UNCP.

    I would like to share with you some of Mark’s love of language and of learning as he expressed it in the application he completed for consideration for the “BOG” Award:

     “Language means everything.  Both our key to the world outside and the most human part of ourselves, language empowers and defines us.  Our parents remember our first words, and our children our last.  To know our world and ourselves, then, we must know our language. . . .  I strive to give students the guidance, the tools, and above all, the practice to become masters of their language.  By reading and writing  regularly,  engaging in discussions, and giving presentations, my students learn language by using it.  Along the way, they grow in other ways as well, as they interpret facts and opinions, collaborate in groups, conduct research, and explore their rich literary heritage. In short, my approach to teaching is to help students become their own teachers. . . .

     “Since my years in elementary school and junior high, when I dabbled in the underappreciated genres of game-show and soap-opera parody,  I have been fascinated by words and have delighted in putting them together.  I studied journalism in college and later went to work as a newspaper copy editor.  Although my interests eventually turned to creative literature and more sustained analysis, I value my journalism experience.  In addition to providing a unique opportunity to analyze language, this experience left me with a background and a deep interest in the means of written expression, particularly in areas such as typography, design, and First Amendment issues.

     “More than a decade ago, before we were married, Lisa gave me a simple clay coffee mug as a gift.  Although I don’t collect things, especially mugs, the message she painted on the side revealed how well she knew me even then.  It reads: “The glory of God is man fully alive.” For me, being fully alive means immersing myself in this glorious world:  wading in a cold creek in the Appalachian Mountains, eating a deli sandwich in Central Park, reading by a single light in a dark room, discussing books with interesting students or colleagues, pouring a Mozart symphony in my ears or singing along with Hank Williams, catching my little girl after she soars down a slide, and doing almost everything–except shop for fabric–with my wife.  If I collect anything, it is experience.  Inspired by my reading and by the infectious zest for life I have witnessed in my wife and daughter, I want not only to see, hear, and feel the world, but through my senses to know it.”

       Professor Canada’s intellectual and professional lives have been Marked by a love of language and of learning.  He has also left, is leaving, and will continue to leave the Marks of his love for language and literature, and for the experience of simply being fully human, upon all those for whom and with whom he works and plays.  (Please pardon the puns, but they can be aids to memory about this reMarkable man . . . .)

RJR

Some Matters of Usage

December 29, 2008

Three ” problems” (perhaps) to interest or entertain you for a bit:

(1)  I went lol as I read Nancy Armour’s AP story about the new record for NFL futility established yesterday by the Detroit Lions, my home town team when I was living in Detroit and working on my Master’s degree at Wayne State University (a fine school, I might add).

Ms. Armour’s quotation from comments made by Lions fan Adam Gadsby (who drove eight hours from Michigan to Green Bay to see the Packers win 31-21) were about as colorful as the New Orleans fans used to be in commenting on their hometown team by referring to them as “Aints” and wearing paper bags to conceal their identities (this was at the time that a young man played safety who was the son of Kansas friends of ours).

Mr. Gadsby said this, or at least approximately, according to Ms. Armour:  “As a Lions fan, we’re used to them stinking. . . . But they’ve never stunk as well as they’re stinking this year.”  Priceless.  Mr. Gadsby obviously knows his verbs and he also knows that “glory” is something that the Lions have little or nothing of (see Humpty-Dumpty again).

Now here are a couple of sentences I’ve come across lately in print that may well be challenged or condemned for misusage in the context or at least formal English:

(2)  From the December 27 “Observer” in the column titled “Animal Matters”:  “My dog has no interest in laying on the couch now.”

(3)  From the January 2009 “National Geographic” (one of the best-edited print publications of our time) in a feature article about Polar explorer Fridtjoj Nansen:  “Nansen was a strapping blond man,  fair complected, with a frosty stare and a truculent face that seemed slightly at odds with the refinements of his intellect.”

So pick your poison and let me know what you think about the usage in any or all of these sentences.

RJR

Are “N-Word” or “F-Word” or “S-Word” Words?

December 25, 2008

A while back I excited quite a bit of interest among the established bloggers on this newspaper site–as well as among readers of that previous blog–by suggesting that it was futile to try to use “words” like the three in the title of this post because they do not refer to anything existing either in the intensional or extensional universe, as “real words” supposedly do.

     “Real words” might be defined as words which have extensional meaning; that, they refer to something that has concrete, sensory reality.  These would be primarily naming words, or nouns, such as “rock,”  “cat,”  “Alpha Centauri,” “retina,” and “Elvis.”  We can often find agreement when we use this category of words reliably.  For instance, we would be corrected quickly if we referred to “Lassie” as a “cat.”  There are of course ladders of specificity into which we can place relevant, particular words: such as the pattern from most general to most specific with “animal,”  “feline,”  “kitten,”  “Princess.”  Biological categories illustrate these patterns very well.

        When we start throwing out words with primarily or exclusively “intensional” meaning, we start to also have more difficulties in communication.  What Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe means by “democracy,” for example, is likely much different from that what it would mean to Barack Obama, incoming President of the United States. Other words of this type would include “dismay,” “divorce,”  “decree,” “disorder,”  “dementia,”  and “darling,” but not “dandruff” or  Dorothy Dandridge.

        When we use “F-word” or “N-word,” we had better be in agreement with our cohorts or comrades or correspondents about what these quasi-acronyms mean.  When I am playing golf badly and hit a ball laterally right into the pond on # 5,  I do not like to hear the word to which the “word” S-word refers, and thus I ask for the “S-word” not to used within my hearing.  But this is a kind of superstition: if one doesn’t say the word that describes the bad act, maybe the bad act didn’t take place or can be rectified.

     In early civilizations, we often find that there are certain taboo words which are not to be uttered aloud or are to be avoided completely.  The ancient Hebrews, for example, had two names for God, only one of which was used in a public context.  If their enemies got access to the more potent word, they would also gain access to “Yahweh,” now usually transliterated to “Jehovah.”

       A very amusing cartoon, which sometimes depicts primitive fetishes, is Mike Peters’s “Mother Goose & Grimm.”  The December 14 strip is priceless. It exhibits Grimm using the word “butt” and being accosted by a censor, who says,  “Sorry, But you can’t say the B-word on the comics page.”  The spoofing goes on with “but” or “butt” and similar words being used a number of times: until the censor gives up in frustration.

      I also wonder what the latitude is in the local newspaper for using “euphemistic” equivalents for taboo words.  Coach Roy Williams, for example, is quoted frequently as saying “Dadgummit!”  Or “dadgum” as an adjective.  (Both, of course,in place of a strongly profane reference to the Allmighty.)

      And what about Williams’s frequent use of “frickin'” in place of what we journalists have become prone to, or forced to, call the “F-word”?

     Comments and suggestions?

RJR

. . . .

I Think I’m Getting Homonymphobia

December 23, 2008

The six or seven readers of this blog (maybe I’m being too optomistic) may be getting tired of my harping on the frequency of (AARGH!) homonym mistakes in either “The Fayetteville Observer” or other publications of note.  Well, news for you, I am not. Har.

Here’s the latest, and one that has appeared at least twice more in recent times.

This time, let me put you to work.

A story with the byline of a “Staff writer” in today’s (12/23/08) “Local & State” section reported the assault charges against a 17-year-old Jack Britt High School student for striking a teacher and a school resource officer on December 15.

A statement from Debbie Tanna, a spokeswoman for the Sheriff’s Office, according to the writer, had her making this comment about the teenager’s punching the teacher repeatedly:  “‘He just started [wailing or whaling?] on this teacher,'” Tanna said.'”

The question again arises also about the editing of spoken language.  Why?  Because these two words, though offered as homonymns, actually are in most American speakers’ dialect phonologically different.  So, did Ms. Tanna say “wailing” or did she say “whaling”?  What spelling, you think, did the staff writer choose? Or did she make an uninformed choice, which would not be a “choice” at all?

A sharp ear could distinguish the difference. But could the staff writer? Could I?  Could you?

Looking for some help here.  Thanks.

RJR

“Come into my parlor, your royal triteness”

December 17, 2008

        Sometimes as I read the local newspaper wherever I am living or visiting, I feel somewhat like the spider in the old children’s tale.  Or perhaps like the male bowerbird, you know the fellow who dresses up his parlor, or more like his bedroom, so as to attract the female bowerbird he’d give half his plumage to if she’d swoon and surrender to his blandishments.

      In any event, I seem sometimes like a copy editor who might, reading the story he or she had edited the evening before,  “Dammees! How did I miss that?”

      Well, so here ’tis my latest pet peeve in language usage, and it has been found twice in the last couple of weeks.  I will burden you only with one example.

      I’d like to ask you why my hackles rose when I saw this sentence in a story one Wednesday about a young man who had come out of a prison environment to become a happy, successful chef.  The story of this chef mentions his having written two books, one of which is projected to become a movie starring Will Smith. In talking to the local reporter, Chef Jeff says, “I don’t want to sound cliche [there should be an “accent grave” over the e in this word: I don’t know how in “WordPress” to capture accents and other such sophistications], but like Obama, it’s about change and hope.”

Who can explain to me what is wrong with one word in this sentence?  Secondly, what word ought to have been used?  And why?

 First in gets a candy cane from Santa Claus.

RJR

From the “Quotations File: Students and Others”

December 8, 2008

Over the many years I taught and advised students and read fairly widely and sometimes deeply,  I had access to and often clipped out or otherwise recorded the quotations I thought unusually perceptive (from my students) or useful guidance for my life (usually from the “Others”).  I am as privileged to share these with you as you may be to read them. Let’s hear from “The Students” first . . .

(1) From a frustrated ENG 203 journal writer in  1994:  “I am putting forth great effort to give you the kind of writing you want but if it is not stored within, it can not be taken out.”

(2) From a CMA 203 final exam essay:  “If you do not appreciate literature after taking this course, you probably will after taking his [my] class.  It is similar to the way we appreciate the law after getting a speeding ticket.”

(3) Comments I made in outline form as I returned Comp II students’ third theme assignment (a persuasive or argumentative essay):

1.  Were often not personal  (not related to the writer’s goals and values)2. Shifts in point of view: “you” to “everyone to “we” to “I”.  3. Research lacking in contexts, the latter confused with documentation. 4.  Development lacking:  persuasion requires strong proof.  5. Some exceptional essays [I named five students].  6.  Most students are not thinking for themselves.  They are lacking in opinions, convictions, principles, aspirations of a passionate nature.

(4)  ENG 203 journal entry:  “The advantages of having the violence [in Oedipus the King] occur offstage is for one it saves the director from having to get a new Oedipus each time the play takes place.”

(5)  From an ENG 203 paper comparing Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener to Faulkner’s Emily Grierson [“A Rose for Emily”]:  “It would have been difficult for Bartleby and Emily to have gotten together.  Bartleby would have preferred not to leave and Emily would not have to kill him.”

Now for a few of my favorite quotations from “Others”:

(1) Ernest Hemingway [A Moveable Feast]:  “You have always written before and you will write now.  All you have to do is write one true sentence.  Write the truest sentence you know.”

(2) Burt Reynolds character in the movie Hustle:  “Every man is in search of a white whale, and when you find it, it usually kills you.”

 (3) T.S. Eliot:  “To do the useful thing, to say the courageous thing, to contemplate the beautiful thing: that is enough for one man’s life.”

(4) Winston Churchill:  “Sometimes it is not enough to do one’s best; sometimes you must do what is necessary.”

(5) John Ruskin:  “In order that people may be happy in their work, these three things are needed:  they must be fit for it.  They must not do too much of it.  And they must have a sense of success in it.”

(6)  John R. in The Smithsonian, June 1979:  Education “is the only procedure that can teach us how frequently we respond to deep instinctive impulses of which our conscious mind is unaware . . . .”

What do you wish to add?  Welcome to my blog.

RJR

Personal Services Classified: The Erogenous Zone

December 2, 2008

     I’ve not in this blog yet introduced, so I believe anyway,  one aspect of language use that needs some attention as well as some defining.

       We are pretty well aware of such aspects of the theory and practice of language as syntactics (what may also be called “grammar” and has to do with how words are combined into sentences, the primary building blocks of language) and semantics (how meaning is expressed via the denotation and connotation of words, the combinations of words, tone and pitch and volume, body language, and so forth).

     In this post I would like to spend some time considering the theory of speech acts, pragmatics (how in a particular context of real communication language is shaped or governed by the interrelationship of the speaker(s) and listener(s) involved.

       This theory typically is built upon five levels or registers of discourse (Martin Joos developed this theory at length decades ago in a book titled “The Five Clocks”): from intimate to formal.  “Intimate,” for example, would include talks between lovers, between children and parents, and such as that.  “Formal,” at the other end of the scale, would include such speech acts as Commencement speeches and sermons.  One such that will get worldwide attention will be the Inauguration Address of Barack Obama on January 20, 2009.

    In between these would be such speech acts as casual, deliberative, and consultative.  And please note that all those who study and describe these categories use only spoken language as the basis for definitions and examples.

       Lately, I’ve been struck in casually reading the “Personal Services” classifieds in “The New York Review of Books” as to how widely and seductively the writers of the ads cast their words out.  They come at you like a net trying to get a “fish” that might help meet one or more of their evident needs: whether it be making money, finding companionship, or satisfying erotic urges.

         One realization I’ve come to is that intellectuals who read and write (or otherwise create) may be both lonely and also quite aggressive in seeking satisfaction from others.  (We do know, don’t we, that people who read a great deal are more active physically than those who read a little or maybe not at all?)

      Ads I’ve found in recent issues of “NYRB” (I hasten to add that I read these primarily as a scholar of language usage) that these ads have sometime peculiar intentions but also a passionate undercoating (one can almost hear the heavy breathing behind the composing of the ads).

Here are three examples (note that shorthand via acronyms is common in such ads, saving both space and money) that you might wish to study and comment upon as to their efficacy as “speech acts,” even though in printed form:

(1) AFFECTIONATE, SENSUOUS WOMAN OF LETTERS, slender DJF, loves foreign flics and classical music, seeks successful, caring “mensch” (55-65) for good times, good talk, and whatever comes of these. NYC (212) xxx-xxxx.

(2) SINGLE, SMART, PHYSICALLY ACTIVE DC-based artist/activist looking for fun, companionship with smart, 50-65 NS good guy.  I enjoy travel, hiking, reading, films, spending time with good friends.  Energetic, interesting, and very good company.  Looking for LTR. (301) xxx-xxxx.

(3)  SHORT, CRANKY, MIDDLE-AGED GUY with no money seeks F for adventures in Iowa, Italy, France, or Scandinavia.  Absolutely no Republicans! <www.crankyxxx.xxx)

One initial reaction: placers of such ads as these don’t seem so much to be desperate housewives or thwarted Lotharios as they are self-promoters and campaigners.

What do you think?

RJR