Category Archives: Teaching English

News! News!

Regular readers of this weblog know that I have a good many opinions on a wide variety of topics. Occasionally, I’m even well informed on the subject. But it’s been brought to my attention that as a writer who is trying to get my work sold, some of what I put here may give offense to my readers. In fact, I can just about guarantee that something will offend everyone.

Now don’t get worried. I’m not going to change my ways. I’m just expanding–something like a Japanese conglomerate. Instead of making cars, cameras, and assorted crap, I’m adding a new weblog to my portfolio. Here’s where to find it:

English 301: Reading and Writing

The focus of that site will be exactly what the name suggests. I’ll discuss books that I’m reading, work that I’m writing, matters of grammar and style, and other such things. I may drift into music and movies, since I have no wish to be organized about it. In fact, it will be a lot like the composition classes that I teach, only freer in form. Politics, guns, silliness in the news, and all the other matters that catch my attention will continue here. Being free form, there’s likely to be some overlap, since I write about guns and enquire into the language about them and since English continues to be abused in public.

My hope is that my readers–you few, you happy few–will read and comment on both weblogs, but now you get a choice. There’s more of me, and who wouldn’t want that?

(The shifting in the Earth’s axis of rotation was from the collective raising of hands. . .)

I Never Thought I’d. . .

The winner of the “I Never Thought I’d. . .” contest in Real Simple magazine has been revealed, and lo! it is not I.  For those of my readers not familiar with this, writers were invited to submit an essay on the subject of a life change that they never thought would have happened.  The winner gets $3,000 (I could have used that), a trip to New York to have lunch with the editors (pass), and tickets to a Broadway play (myeh. . .).  Since I didn’t win, I feel free to point out that the name of the magazine, Real Simple, is grammatically incorrect.  It ought to be Really Simple, since the first word is an adverb that modifies the adjective that is the second word.  Of course, I insist on simplicity in language wherever it’s possible, so I’d ask the editors to call the magazine Simple.  But obviously, they don’t listen to me.

At any rate, for the benefit of my readers, here’s my essay.  Enjoy:

I Never Thought I’d. . . Teach English

Sitting in the back of the room in Expository Writing, I never imagined that one day I would teach the same subjects to students just like me. The class met on Tuesdays and Thursdays, so it was an hour and a half long, an hour and a half of listening to the one English teacher in the world who by his own admission did not want to be a poet. He read passages out of Thoreau and Annie Dillard that were filled with awe and precise description, then told us to write mechanical, five-paragraph essays. This was not the man that I wanted to be.

It wasn’t that this professor and his class were the deciding vote anyway. In my years of schooling, I had learned that the teaching of English was not a solid, manly enterprise. My English teachers in high school had all been women, except for one male flower child who was in an advanced state of wilt, and all they ever talked about were poems and feelings.

When they weren’t laboring over the niceties of commas and the finer points of fragments, that is. Oh, but there were a few other things that they taught me. I learned that Emily Dickinson was born in a room in Amherst, Massachusetts and never left it, Walt Whitman didn’t know how to count metrical feet, and Ian Fleming was not a writer worthy of my attention. A thesis statement must be the last sentence of the first paragraph, and it must be underlined. Language and literature is summed up in pairs of right/wrong answers—can/may, lay/lie, your/you’re, and so forth—except when we’re considering the fallacy of the false dilemma.

I admit that I wasn’t paying careful attention, though. Part of my mind was stuck on the usual teenage worries. Does that girl like me? Will my parents let me grow up? Is “Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2” the definitive song about education? Humming that song under my breath did get me through my senior year.

But that was only a part of what was occupying my thoughts. At that age, when I knew how everything worked but was in too much of a hurry to write down the explanation, I had my life planned out. I was going to be a physicist. I didn’t want to build a better bomb, although that fallback position was what I called job security. My goal was to invent warp drive. I was going to discover the Grand Unified Theory, collect my Nobel Prize, and work out the details of a starship’s engine long before my hairstyle had to change from Kirk’s to Picard’s.

Sadly, there was one small cloud on the horizon of my sunny plan: mathematics.

I had never been a brilliant student in that subject. Geometry and I got on as best friends ought to do, and I admired algebra. Long division, however, was an operation that I loathed. The reasoning behind the numbers made sense, and I particularly enjoyed it when I could see some bit of cleverness. What I didn’t like was interminable calculation. I was happy to do proofs all day long, but give me a pile of arithmetic, and I became rebellious.

I hung on until Differential Equations, the class after Calculus III. This was the summation of everything that I hated about mathematics. There were pages and pages of minute figuring, all with the purpose of finding the equation of the line through a set of data points. It was important—without this technique, there is no modern physics—but I just didn’t get it.

Now what was I to do? I could struggle on for years without ever gaining fluency. I had to accept that while I was in love with science, I didn’t speak her native language, so she just wanted to be friends.

I did like the humanities. Despite the best efforts of my English teachers, I enjoyed reading, so long as I chose what I read. History, that study of human conflict and achievement, fascinated me.

When I realized that the study of letters had something in common with geometry, I was hooked. I found, thanks to the prodding by my professors, that the text was something to be analyzed. It did not have to be only the subject of a game of Trivial Pursuit. How it made me feel was not nearly as important as what I could prove from the writing. Why does Hamlet hesitate? Why does Achilles allow Priam to recover the body of his son? These were questions that could be answered with evidence and reasoning.

So the humanities became my rebound relationship. I learned that grammar is not arbitrary; its rules made sense when I saw it being used by good writers, and those writers form a chain of influence that links generations of ideas together. Strangest of all, I saw that the best writing is beautiful.

I don’t know why I hadn’t understood this before. I had read Watership Down in sixth grade and contemplated its descriptive passages with astonishment. Shakespeare’s soliloquies wove complex thoughts into elegance. Could a relationship stand on beauty at the core?

Of course it could. The key to sustaining it was to be in love and share that emotion with others. After earning a Master’s degree in liberal arts, I found a job teaching English at a local community college. I tutored algebra students on the side. Call that a dalliance with an old love. As an adjunct instructor, I take what I can get. Still, living with English has been a rewarding relationship, if rocky at times. I eschew multiple choice or true/false testing, having promised myself that I would not repeat the errors of my teachers. (I’ve likely made a whole set of my own errors, but that’s inevitable.) My favorite moments are when I see a student learn how to join words together to create magnificence or discover the pleasure that is to be had in reading.

Teaching English has been a Bohemian marriage for me, and I have no regrets. Besides, as I work to get my science fiction writing published, I find that as long as the material is written in English, it’s fair game for me to write and talk about. My students are alarmed at times when I use a mathematical illustration to explain a point of literature, but perhaps that will awaken them to this revelation that I have that anything can be the subject of beautiful treatment.