Wednesday, October 29, 2008

A Chat About English

Everybody is going to have to be patient while two English teachers talk shop here about language and the shoddy language training students get in the schools. I used to get students from area schools in college freshman English who couldn't write a literate sentence much less a paragraph or essay.

Mastery of language reigns the basic metric of education. No matter what else a person knows, he or she must first be at home in his or her language and be able to write and speak it literately.

A reader who is an English teacher sent me a message that I refer to in the first paragraph above but that I lost in my goofiness. I wish he or she would resend it. I would like to mount a copy of it in this place for others to read.

It's an important message that laments how poorly prepared the students who come into high school are in the English language. As I have often observed, I had the same experience with students entering from high school into my freshman-English classes. They would have passed English classes in high school but couldn't write a literate sentence much less an essay. This situation bewildered me. But I set about teaching them grammar, punctuation, and essay structure along with Shakespeare and Yeats and the rest of the gang that my course was supposed to cover.

I attack abuse of language wherever I encounter it. Review my defense of English to the head of Phi Beta Kappa below. I'd jump on the king of the world who abused the English language. The Bay Area Phi Beta Kappans will rebuke me. I will rebuke right back in more vivid language. lee

To: John Churchill, Kelly Gerald, various Phi Beta Kappa chapters, USF President, Eckerd President, and any others who come to mind

From: Lee Drury De Cesare of

The National One Arises for Phi Beta Kappa

John Churchill has become the top guy at national Phi Beta Kappa.

One reads that this new leader will take an “indefinite” leave of absence from Hendrix, his college. He sounds as if he plans to hunker down at National Phi Beta Kappa for the duration.

We PBK members in the hinterlands far from the centers of flossy scholarship wonder what kind of guy Le Churchill is. We can get a hint by doing some forensics on our new head’s writing.

Secretary John Churchill’s fall Key essay comes to hand. It begins with an imagined condescending response to a prospective logic student and then displays some logic gymnastics to remind the uninitiated how dumb they are about logic folderol.

Ungenerous arrogance stains the remark to the student and shows why philosophy-department Laputans reign objects of tart assessments for their conduct in faculty lounges. Our national Phi Beta Kappa leader mispunctuates the condescending sentence.

With Dr. Churchill’s put-down of an aspiring logic student, we enter the domain of solipsism.

Further evidence of this gentleman's self-involvement is that he chose as subject for the Teagle-Foundation-funded “Deliberation of Things That Matter” a discussion that resides in Secretary Churchill’s bailiwick. Why couldn’t it concern the slide of Hemingway’s reputation or how come it took more than a hundred years after its founding for Phi Beta Kappa to admit women and blacks? Answer: Dr. Churchhill knows diddly about these and wouldn’t shine in the discussion.

At the end of the Key essay, Secretary Churchill advocates doughnuts as salubrious to participants’ performance in the Teagle exercise. I submit that Secretary Churchill is not thinking of doughnuts for the gang but of doughnuts for lui-meme.

Be clinical, outback Phi Beta Kappa members. Take a look at Dr. Churchill’s picture to discover the root of this doughnut strategy. It comes from Dr. Churchill’s relation with food.

This me-me-me approach portends narcissism at national Phi Beta Kappa headquarters in the president’s office. The staff is in for a lot of fetching and toting. Picking up dry cleaning may be in its future.

To top things off, Secretary Churchill can’t punctuate and has a shaky grasp of grammar.

This pile-up of negative evidence against Le Churchill rouses critters in tropical-clime Florida chapters with litigious instincts to rebel prospectively.

One of this tribe, I will go first.

I suggest that national Phi Beta Kappa’s quixotic admission standards must change.

National Beta Kappa has turned down the University of South Florida’s pleas for a chapter for years while at some colleges and universities with chapters as much as forty percent of the invitees shun the invitation to join. National PBK should close out those 40-percenters and open slots for institutions eager for a chapter such as USF. If the students can’t afford the fees at USF, the Bay Area Phi Beta Kappa must hold bake sales.

Phi Beta Kappa should stop its prissiness in selecting new chapters. While turning down USF, Phi Beta Kappa recently granted a chapter to nearby Eckerd College despite whacko punctuation’s bestrewing the Eckerd president’s online message that also displayed the rhetorical felicity of zilch. Literacy on the school’s Web page should be a requirement for granting a Phi Beta Kappa chapter. Ditto for Phi Beta Kappa’s national secretary’s appointment.

National Phi Beta Kappa should not search out minute centers of academic preciosity as chic choice but should embrace large redneck centers of learning that succor blue-collar parents’ offspring such as USF. To avoid doing so is unpatriotic and snotty.

One wagers that an examination of the national staff’s academic credentials would reveal that its members come from such big-state, working-class schools, where the tuition was within their parents’ budgets, This socially and academically insecure preference for boutique colleges by national Phi Beta Kappa is nothing but tryin’ to get above your raisin’ as we say in Georgia.

For this conduct, my tribe of aunts and genealogy whackos at our yearly dinner on the grounds at the family cemetery in Burnt Fort, Georgia, would accuse the culprit of a college degree’s making him or her uppity and would avoid dishing out any chicken and dumplings or big slabs of peach pie with hand-whipped cream to this family snoot.

The bottom line is that avoiding big gallumpy universities for little boutique ones is un-American. The uncouth many are at the heart of democracy both out and in academe.

Two of my seven grandsons now go to USF. Hence, I do what grannies are born to do: urge that national PBK rethink its shunning of USF.

What’s a granny for if not to lobby for a Phi Beta Kappa chapter at the university that two of her precious grandsons attend?

I suggest a contest that invokes Dr. Churchill’s automatic phallic ad bacullum metaphor to settle this request. This ad bacullum aside is the sort that men produce from their instinct to remind women that guys rule the world. Will we ever see the day when men abandon such tiresome phallic prancing to subdue us women? Can’t the head of Phi Beta Kappa be sophisticated enough to avoid it? Didn’t he take any psychology classes along with the logic hieroglyphics he parades in the first paragraph of his Key essay?

I suggest that national Phi Beta Kappa field a team to compete with USF in a punctuation smackdown. I shall offer my services as USF coach.
The USF team will mop up the floor with the national Phi Beta Kappa punctuation weenies, especially if punctuation-challenged Secretary Churchill insists on a team slot. In defeat, National Phi Beta Kappa must bow to the victor and bestow on USF a tardy PBK chapter.

Then my two grandsons will have a chance to become members of Phi Beta Kappa and even to become its national secretary. This is the reflected glory for which we grannies yearn.

Employers today beg colleges and universities to give them graduates not who can deconstruct Spinoza but who can write literate sentences correctly punctuated. Our Phi Beta Kappa secretary flouts this request in his own practice. He must start a review of his grammar primer in between ordering national staff around. This move may fend off impeachment rumbling in the fens and the bogs of the academic world from those of us who pick fights about literacy as diversion.

The decline in intellectual rigor that allows the secretary of Phi Beta Kappa national to circulate a badly punctuated missive with blowzy grammar to members nationwide provides evidence of the academic slide in the country.

Alas, alack, and weladay for the oldest honor society in the land to show such crude evidence of its joining forces with literacy barbarians.

I offer this missive as letter to the Key editor for publication in the time-honored tradition of academic vitriol’s honored place in our society since Phi Beta Kappa’s founding in 1776.

Lee Drury De Cesare
Chapter Sigma of New York


Excerpts from the Churchill message with corrections:

At the beginning of one semester a student, eager to enroll in the course, told me she wanted to take logic in order to learn how to think.”

“Eager to enroll in the course” is a restrictive adjectival prepositional phrase modifying general noun “a student.” Commas should not surround it. A comma would be well after “semester” since there is a long compound prepositional phrase beginning the sentence.

If(p, then q) and then q…but If(p then q) and not-p….

Unless the notation of logic has some exotic rituals of punctuation, then there should be a space between both if’s and the parentheses signs. This is a small punctuation civility that the president of Phi Beta Kappa should observe.

“especially the ad baculum: ‘If you…nose.’”

Usually a whole sentence precedes a colon. In your sentence, the colon were better a comma.

As a feminist I defy this penis-invoking metaphor. It must be the author’s way to remind women that men celebrate being guardians of the mighty phallic apparatus that rules the world in war and in rape. To an accusation of feminist paranoia, I answer that I have found being paranoid condign attitude to macho pretensions.

“People don’t just disagree about what the facts are, they disagree about what the facts mean.”

A comma splice ranks remedial-English mess-up. One expects a member of Phi Beta Kappa to recognize a sentence. If he does not—and especially if he sends messages to the membership as secretary--the fellow should review his grammar primer perhaps in study hall.

“And much of argumentation consists of trying to get the other person to take agreed upon facts as we do.”

The above models one of several instances in which Secretary Churchill omits a hyphen between two-or-more words acting as single adjective before a noun. This device helps the reader comprehend more easily.

It helps when people are polite and civil, and when they not only wait their turn, but also take their turn when it comes.”

The redundant comma after “civil” splits compound adverbial clauses. The redundant one after “turn” splits a compound verb.

“On the other hand, there are issues about protracted, perhaps intractable disagreements.”

The nonrestrictive element needs a comma on each side.

“There is learning to cope with frustration—frustration at the social level (‘He’s not even listening to me!) and epistemological frustration (‘No one could ever know that!)

The writer owes readers an end-punctuation period after the close of the parentheses.

“So much can go wrong that has nothing to do with logic, narrowly conceived.

The redundant comma cuts off a restrictive past participial phrase.

And so much of what goes right does so because of factors affecting our social and even animal nature.

“Factors” gets an apostrophe for possessive before the gerund. I have an interesting fight with the editor of the North American Cambridge English Dictionary on this issue ( I think I carried the day. I ratted him out to those Oxford Dictionary guys in England who wear rump-sprung tweeds and perpetual looks of superiority.

And so much of what goes right does so because of factors affecting our social, and even animal, nature. It will be important to remember this the next time we are tempted to wander off into an abstract analysis of reasons and conclusions.

The pronoun "this" has no antecedent: the reader has to infer one. Requiring the reader to provide an antecedent for a pronoun ranks sloppy writing.

Secretary Churchill's Key essay:
Deliberating, Again

I used to teach logic. At the beginning of one semester a student, eager to enroll in the course, told me she wanted to take logic in order to learn to think. I suppressed the catty comeback: "Oh, no. If you don't already know how to think, you'll just fail logic." The unspoken retort does, though, lay bare something about the notion of a course in logic. It is true that if you can't think, you'll do poorly. So what are you being taught?

Some of an introductory logic course amounts to learning a kind of notation that formalizes what we can already do: If(If p, then q) and not p, then not necessarily not-q; but If(lf p, then q) and not-p, then not necessarily not-q. And if Socrates is man and all men are mortal, then. ... But what I enjoyed most were the so-called informal fallacies: the heap argument, the slippery slope, and the various ad hominem arguments, especially the ad baculum: "If you make that claim again, I'll punch you in the nose."

It is in these murkier regions that the human element of logic emerges. When people make cases for the things they hold true, arguments take on a distinctly human cast. People don't just disagree about what the facts are, they disagree about what the facts mean. And much of argumentation consists of trying to get the other person to take agreed upon facts as we do.

The word "deliberation" is rooted in a Latin word for weighing. We weigh facts, trying to assess their meaning. How much do we know and understand about that process? That's the question we decided to explore in Phi Beta Kappa's project called "Deliberation About Things That Matter," funded by the Teagle Foundation.

We asked several Phi Beta Kappa chapters to partner with a curricular authority on their campus - a dean, an honors program, a curriculum committee - to examine that question. How do people learn to deliberate? Can it be taught?

We wanted to draw on the variety and inventiveness of the chapters themselves, and so we placed no further restrictions on their designs. The chapter at a major state university in the southwest added follow-up discussions to a major speakers series that was integrated with a curricular reform exploration. Chapters at several small liberal arts colleges formed consortia of faculty who developed deliberative teaching and learning styles for their courses. Another chapter melded the deliberation project into a semester-long orientation series for new students. We had explicitly encouraged such blends, hoping for lasting effect.

We learned that coffee and doughnuts can be important. That's a symbolic statement gesturing toward an interesting array of human factors that seem to conduce to good deliberation. It helps when people know something about what they're discussing. It helps when people are polite an
d civil, and when they not only wait their turn, but also take their turn when it comes. Listening sympathetically to the opinions reasons of others turns out to matter a lot.

At a more profound level, there are issues about protracted. perhaps intractable disagreements, persistent uncertainties, and learning to live with clear resolution. There is learning to cope with frustration --frustration at the social level ("He's not even listening to me!") and epistemological frustration ("No one could ever know that!")

What has been most interesting so far - and we are a long way from having weighed these reports fully - is the importance of the matrix of human interaction within which deliberation occurs. So much can go wrong that has nothing to do with logic, narrowly conceived. And so much of what goes right does so because of factors affecting our social, and even animal, nature. It will be important to remember this the next time we are tempted to wander off into an abstract analysis of reasons and conclusions. Evidence matters, but so do doughnuts.

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