Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Grammar Pet Peeves

So I have this textbook for one of my classes (drier than dry), and it has adopted a "style" of punctuation that absolutely drives me nuts. Now, in the great grand scheme of things, it really doesn't matter, especially since it is consistent throughout. But it just irks me, and since I have no where else to really complain, I'm going to spout off here. Then hopefully I'll be able to get over it and ignore it for the rest of the semester.

This book has decided to put its initial quotation marks as single rather than double marks. So a direct quote would be, 'This is a direct quote.' Or 'This is a "quote within a quote."' Annoying. Especially since this is actually a collection of scholarly English essays. Come on, people. Hasn't anyone heard of MLA?

Another grammatical pet peeve - bad signs. If you are going to expose something to the public (like on a marquee, flier, etc.), please for heaven's sake, make sure it's correct first! Save the rest of us the pain and suffering. I could name countless times when this annoyance has popped up, but instead click here for a perfect (and amusing) case-in-point.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Institutions of Higher...Learning?

So, I was reading an AP newsstory today about a new study coming out indicating that colleges really don't teach students anything. According to the report, having tested students across the country when they entered college and two years later as sophomores, they found that there was no increase in critical thinking skills, complex reasoning, or writing.

Well, the writing aspect worries me a little bit because writing should be a part of every class regardless of subject area. But, according to the report, most of these students didn't have a single class that required 20 pages of writing (I understood that as a total amount, not a final paper), or 40 pages of reading per week. Now, I'm not expecting copious amounts of writing in many classes other than maybe English and history, nor do I think there will probably be much in classes like chemistry that are focusing more on the calculations/formulas. But, come on. Twenty pages?  That's less than a page-and-a-half per week. For any. One. Class.

However, the lack of increased critical thinking or complex reasoning doesn't really worry me much. And here's why: for the most part, the first two years of college are filled with general education classes. That means they are geared for the masses to give a broad-based knowledge. I'm the first to admit that there were some classes I took just because I had to, and I didn't really learn anything from them. Mostly a waste of time (and money), really, but I had to have that little letter listed on my transcript in order to get my degree.  So the study's testing results coming from the end of the sophomore year I think automatically skews results.

In other words, these students are not going to have themselves pushed or stretched until they reach the upper division classes, usually in the junior and senior years. So no surprise that these skills did not increase in the study. And me personally, I don't know that I "gained" any critical thinking skills in college; I think I probably just learned new methods of application for those skills. But maybe I'm the exception rather than the rule.

So what do you think? Are our colleges and universities failing our students? Or do you think they are doing an adequate job? Is the study flawed, or does it have something to tell us?

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Modernists Got It Right...100 Years Ago

So one of my New Year's Resolutions is to blog at least weekly. I know, I know. I tried that once and then failed kind of miserably by the end of the year. But that's what new years are for, right?

So, anyway, here I am, but I don't really know what to talk about. So I'm just going to kinda mention something I've been thinking about a little. So I'm working on my Master's and my current class is the Modern English novel ("Modern" not "Contemporary" -- think 1890ish through WWII). We've only discussed it a little bit, but we've examined a few novelists' philosophies on their art, and I have to say, they had it figured out a hundred years ago.

Be realistic. Henry James and Virginia Woolf believed that in order for literature to "live" and breathe, it must be realistic. That does not, however, negate  fiction. Fiction in some cases can be even more "realistic" than reality if treated correctly. It just means that the writing must reflect the accuracies of life (however you personally define those accuracies).

Trust the tale. D.H. Lawrence believes that literature should be separated from its author. Only when the author tries to remove him/herself from the writing can it really have a strong social impact. The author may write about moral topics, but he/she should not try to define that morality to the reader. Let the story carry the author's point by itself.

Play with words. Gertrude Stein advocated experimentation with language. Concentrate on the sound and flow of words more than the grammatical structure, and sometimes an alternate, equally provocative meaning will emerge.

Be aware of the new. Ford Madox Ford was a fairly successful author himself, but encouraged and supported the younger authors coming behind him in their art. He recognized the potential and allowed for an outlet for such names as Joseph Conrad and Ezra Pound. Thus Ford did what he did well, but also encouraged the success of those around him.

Imagine it. All the modernists emphasize imagination in one form or another. I do not believe anyone can write without some amount of experience coming into play -- even if that experience is reading a news article. After that experience, the imagination can take over and dramatize the events from the article into a new, personal, unique story.

Caveat: Anyone who knows much about the modernists will probably disagree with my brief analysis above, and that is why I publish a caveat. I will be the first to agree that many of these novelists are difficult to read, and their styles are vastly different from contemporary literature. And here's the difference -- the modernists did figure it out 100 years ago, but they each figured out a separate piece. The examples listed above focused solely on their piece of the philosophy to the detriment of the other pieces. For example, Stein experimented with language and punctuation so much that some of her writing is almost nonsensical. And we all know how difficult Pound can be to figure out sometimes. And although Lawrence says the author should be separated from his/her writing, he certainly did not do it himself. His sexual issues come blatantly through in his writing, and it makes it almost painful to read. Nevertheless...

So the summarized caveat is that they had it figured out, just not all put together. Now, zoom forward a hundred years to 2011, and the best literature is a balance of all the philosophies listed above.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Book Review: Three Cups of Tea

I read this book a couple of months back, but the holidays were so hectic that I didn't get a chance to post my review before now. And this was such a fabulous book, there was no way I wanted to neglect it.

Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace...One School at a Time is written by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin. It is Mortenson's memoir told from his perspective, but is actually written by Relin from extensive interviews.

The story starts out with Mortenson attempting to summit the world-famous mountain K2, but through various circumstances not entirely his fault, failing to do so. As he climbs back down the mountain behind his guide, he misses a turn because he is so weak and ill, and ends up in a tiny Pakistani village. The villagers, who barely survive on the mountain themselves, selflessly nurse him back to health. In gratitude to their service, he promises to return to the village with enough money and supplies to build them a school. This promise drives his lifetime career to building around a hundred schools (presently) throughout Pakistan and into Afghanistan.

The beginning of the story is a little bit slow and difficult to get into because there is so much background information to ground the reader. However, I cannot really think of anything in it that could have been left out, so instead you must just push through the first few chapters. These first chapters are not boring or tedious per se; they just read more like an informational text than a story.  But once Mortenson leaves the village to return to the USA, the driving presence of the story begins to emerge.

The true presence of the book is simply Mortenson's character: his tenacity, his determination, his refusal to accept no, even his pure luck. At times, he happens to be in the right place at the right time, or just say the right thing, but his personality is such that he knows how to further his situation, whatever it may be.

He stands out from other Westerners who visit the Middle East because he genuinely cares about the people he is among. He disregards their culture or religion and instead focuses on their characters. At one point in the story, he even asks a shopkeeper to teach him how to pray the Muslim way. (It is clear throughout the book that he is very spiritual and has a strong belief in God, although he never ascribes to any particular denomination; it seems he is Christian.)

He judges people upon their actions solely, calling some "good Muslims" or "bad Muslims," but only when a native has termed the individual as such before.  And it is all based upon how closely the individual follows the teachings of Islam. He respects the natives, and frequently seeks out some he can trust to help him with his business transactions and politics. Indeed, he tries as much as possible to make the natives the "face" of his organization, installing them into high-ranking positions.

Mortenson's perseverence stands out the most throughout the novel. When trying to build the first (and at the time for him, only) school, he lives out of his car as he tries to work as a nurse and find donors to help him fund the school. He returns to Pakistan after acquiring the money to purchase local supplies and finds that everyone else wants him to build his school for them. He refuses and eventually makes it back to the original village. After arriving, he is devastated to find they want him to build a bridge first. More time, more plans, more supplies, more money. And the Pakistani builder who acquired most of his original supplies for him has also cheated him out of the supplies. But he continues on and sets a precedent for future projects.

After learning the hard way, he only enters villages into which he is invited. He requires the villagers put in 50 percent of the costs to ensure their buy-in, whether it be in land, labor, or other resources. And he requires that the girls have the same opportunity to be educated as the boys. He has found that boys move away, but girls remain in their villages, so they are the ones who needed to be educated in order to raise the entire community.

There are more things to talk about in this inspiring story than I have the space for here. Mortenson is truly one of the world's great men. I would put him on par with Mother Teresa as far as character and service to those in the greatest need of it. His story of accomplishing great things through pure strength of will shows his readers that anything is truly possible if you believe in it enough. There is a definite reason why this book has become the talk of the nation, even including the military leaders fighting in this same region of the world.