Thursday, February 26, 2009

The Endangered Humanities

An article in the New York Times discusses the sad state of the humanities in higher education these days. The number of students majoring in literature, history, the arts, and philosophy has been dropping since the mid-sixties, apparently because students and their parents perceive the study of the humanities as a luxury, and not a practical choice for a career-minded student. This seems odd, considering the fact that most of the lawyers I know, for example, majored in English. Defenders of the humanities point out the importance of critical thinking and a grounding in ethics for people in all lines of work. Maybe that's what's been missing lately on Wall Street.

Reading and vocabulary; skimming

Sometimes students have a hard time reading a text because it contains so many unfamiliar words. Frequently teachers tell students to look up the words they don't know. But if there are a lot, it slows the reader down so much that the process of looking up all the words can discourage a student from reading at all.

Other teachers encourage students to keep reading when they run into a difficult word. Sometimes the meaning will emerge from the context. But if the student is an ESL student, for whom English is not the first language, this may not work. What is a good compromise between looking up every three or four words and reading very slowly on the one hand, and reading without any comprehension on the other?

Maybe a compromise would be to encourage the reader to read the text as well as she can without using a dictionary, underlining the words that she doesn't know. Then once she has a general sense of what the text is about, she could go back and start looking up some of the words. It may be clearer which words are the most important to understand, and which are not so important.

The truth is that fluent readers skip words and even whole passages when they read. I have found that the people who read the most give themselves permission to skim and skip. Other people have never gotten over their childhood training that one must read every single word of every text that one reads, and they feel guilty if they don't. But you are in charge of your own reading: read what you want to out of any given text! Even assigned texts can often be skimmed profitably. I think it's better, if you have limited time, to skim an entire text rather than just read a quarter of it or less.

Sometimes students come in the writing center having written an essay about a text that they never finished reading! I try to teach them to skim: to read the first paragraph in its entirety, the first sentence of every following paragraph, and the last paragraph in its entirety. Some students have never heard that this is "ok."

The past unreal conditional

Yesterday at HCC I learned about a tense that I hadn't heard of before: the past unreal conditional. A website called English Page explained more about it. It says:

"The Past Unreal Conditional is used to talk about imaginary situations in the past. You can describe what you would have done differently or how something could have happened differently if circumstances had been different."

Some examples are:

  • If I had owned a car, I would have driven to work. But I didn't own one, so I took the bus.
  • She would have traveled around the world if she had had more money. But she didn't have much money, so she never traveled.
  • I would have read more as a child if I hadn't watched so much TV. Unfortunately, I did watch a lot of TV, so I never read for entertainment.
That's pretty straightforward. But what intrigued me about the past unreal conditional is that the phrase itself is almost like a little poem, very potent with meaning. The past IS unreal, in the sense that what really happened is almost always invisible to us, and what we think happened is what becomes our past: our story about the past. And many times our story about the past is not real; it's more imaginary than real.

The "conditional" part for me refers to the way our stories about the past condition the present. We see the present, as it were, through the lens of our stories about the past. But also, the technical grammatical meaning of "conditional" here also applies: we constantly think about how things might have been different. If only I had done things differently in the past, I could have avoided all this trouble in the present, etc. But that's unreal too: we did it the way we did it, and that's the reality of it.

I also thought about how the phrase "the past, unreal, conditional" reminded me of Faulkner's famous saying, "The past isn't dead. It's not even past." I think Barack Obama referred to that phrase in his famous speech about race. People think that Faulkner said it, but he actually made one of his characters say it. Gavin Stevens says it in Requiem for a Nun, talking to Temple Drake about her own terrible past, which she is now trying to put behind her. (The prequel to Requiem for a Nun is Sanctuary, one of the most bleak novels Faulkner wrote.)

I thought that if Faulkner were living today, and if he were teaching English at HCC, Faulkner might say, "The past isn't even past. It's actually the past, unreal, conditional." But Faulkner thought of the past as being almost the most real thing, the thing that governed all his characters' lives. However, at the same time, the characters' past always exists in the form of stories. Absalom, Absalom! begins with Quentin Compson sitting in a darkened living room with Rosa Coldfield, hearing her long, confusing story of her sister's marriage to Thomas Sutpen. She is not necessarily a reliable narrator, and her bitterness and hatred of Sutpen are evident from the beginning. So how "real" is this story of the past?

All our stories may be unreal and conditional, but we can't do without our stories. Our minds work by creating stories about the past. We can't stop doing that, but we can meet our stories with understanding, rather than necessarily believing all of our painful thoughts about them.

List of books for Seventh Graders

I work for a tutoring business called Learning Squared. Today the director, Sylvia Bryant, asked me to make a list of books that would be appropriate for seventh graders. The seventh grader in question is a girl, but this list includes books that boys might like too. If you can think of any more that your seventh grader(s) particularly liked, please let me know.

Here is my list, compiled in part from my own memory but also from a great book called The Well-Trained Mind, by Jessie Wise and Susan Wise Bauer. The ones with an asterisk are ones that I've read and that I approve. ;-)

J.K. Rowling, the Harry Potter series
*C. S. Lewis, The Chronicles of Narnia
*T H. White, The Sword in the Stone
*Defoe, Robinson Crusoe
*Christina Rossetti poems, especially "Goblin Market"
*Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
Sense and Sensiblity
*Mark Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
*Robert Louis Stevenson, Kidnapped
Treasure Island
*Alcott, Little Women
*any Sherlock Holmes stories
*Kipling, the Jungle Book
H. G. Wells, the Time Machine or The War of the Worlds
*London, The Call of teh Wild
Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables
Agatha Christie, Murder on the Orient Express
*Margaret Mitchell, Gone with the Wind
*Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, The Yearling
*Isaac Bashevis Singer short stories
*Toni Morrison, Beloved, or any other novel by her
Isaac Asimov
Pearl Buck
Willa Cather
*Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden
*Jules Verne, TWenty thousand Leagues Under the Sea
*Dickens, A Christmas Carol
*Brink, Caddie Woodlawn
*Field, Hitty: Her First Hundred Years
*Forbes, Johnny Tremain
Speare, Calico Captive
*Hurston, Their Eyes were Watching God
*Gipson, Old Yeller

The Two Rs

I teach reading and writing at the primary, secondary, and college level. This blog has been set up to discuss ways of teaching reading and writing better, and also to talk about the reading and writing that teachers do for their own pleasure.