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Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Little Things

            The devil truly is in the details. The minutiae of completing a task are often just as important as the rest of it. When it comes to writing, getting the formatting correct, from the margins, page number position, line spacing, and even period spacing is essential. It’s tiresome, often mind-numbing tedium, but it needs to be done, and it serves a purpose. As authors we may not fully understand why agents and publishing professionals want manuscripts formatted just so, but they know.
            As a teacher, I have my own reasons for wanting things just so. There are reasons for why I want margins at 1 inch. Reasons why I want an essay double-spaced, and reasons I want one specific font. Most of all, I have a reason for why I want an essay stapled.
            It makes my life easier.
            I can grade more efficiently. I’m focused on the writing and not the format. Essays written in script are difficult to read. When there are no margins, I can’t write comments in them. Margins that are too big make me flip through too many pages. Single-spaced essays leave no room for comments and correction. There are reasons, and I become very cross when the little things are wrong.
            The devil is in the details, and when the details are wrong, the devil comes out.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Peer Critique

            In both writing and teaching of writing, peer critiquing is a big deal. It’s one of the hot topics in both worlds. There’s a certain knack of being able to critique another person’s writing. It’s an absolutely essential skill to becoming a better writer. Critiquing teaches a writer how to accept criticism and sharpens the eye for mistakes in his own writing.
            I use it when I write, and I’m eager for as much feedback as I can get, and happy to reciprocate.
            I don’t use it when I teach.
            As I said before there’s a certain knack to a critique. The fact is my students don’t have the ability to critique. They don’t know what to look for or how to make comments. They simply don’t have the level of expertise necessary to point out mistakes.
Furthermore, they’re too afraid of hurting an author’s feelings to offer valuable, necessary criticism. They mistake the content of the message for the tone of the message. Because of this they simply write something positive (I agree, I like what you said, this is good) and be done with it.
Consequently, when the writing moves on to me, I find obvious mistakes are shot throughout the writing, and that the peer experience has done nothing whatsoever to make them better writers. For an activity such as Peer critique, it’s a bit of chicken and the egg. What comes first, language proficiency or peer feedback?
I’m still looking for a way to make it work, but haven’t found it yet.

Friday, January 25, 2013

F3 Freak Weather

            On walking in I knew she was not happy to see me, and I’d never laid eyes on her before. Her waist-long braid bristled like a cat’s tail, and I was surprised it didn’t lash about with the same irritation.
            Hot, angry eyes blamed me for something. Nothing new there, but usually I know why I’m in trouble.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Not Change, Growth

            In the—now—old movie Wayne’s World, Garth proceeds to destroy a robotic hand with a hammer, proclaiming “We fear change.” Change is something that many people fear. Making things different, stepping out of the comfort zone, and interrupting routine is disruptive to life.
            Growth is a form of change, and it’s very disruptive. Yet it’s also necessary. In all things people need to grow, but no one ever said growth is easy.
            I’ve known some teachers who refused to grow. I took many classes from professors who stood behind a podium clicking through a presentation that was nearly 10 years old or reading aloud straiht from the textbook. They had no interest in disrupting their lives in order to try new things, to learn new techniques.
            Some writers, too, have difficulty accepting change. Learning how to write query letters, taming the unruly adjectives and adverbs, or receiving criticism gracefully are all challenges of the writing life.
            There’s quite a bit of academic research going into the idea of a growth mindset versus a static mindset. Of course knowing one mindset from the other is only part of it. Awareness is thought to be the best way to transition from static to growth, but there are no guarantees to getting someone to accept growth.
            Because we fear change.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Springing to Life

            Spring is underway. Once again, it’s time to test out new ideas in teaching. I learned a lot from last semester’s experiments. Each semester gets me a little bit more information, and a little bit closer to narrowing in on how to teach the students. It’s a slow, often aggravating process, especially when there are times that it feels like a losing battle.
            But this is a time of new beginning, of new ideas and experimentation. I’ve made changes. I’ve grown. I have high hopes that these changes will help the students in their understanding.

Friday, January 18, 2013

F3 Imprisoned

            I contemplated the contents of the box. It looked like a sugar crystal like I had grown as a kid. Except this sugar crystal continued to change its shape. It slowly went through geometric variations, forming cubic crystals, quartz-like spindles, prisms, tetrahedrons, and shapes-with-even-bigger-prefixes-attached-to-hedron.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Extending Technology

            My primary computer is a Thinkpad T61p laptop. It’s coming up on 6 years old, which is impressive for a laptop. When I got it, it had Windows XP and a mere 1 gig of ram. Now it’s got 4 gig of ram and a 640 gig hd, up from its original 120. I’ve upgraded it to Windows 7 pro, and tricked it out with lots of customized software. It still flies. It’s not a gaming machine, but I would put it up against today’s average systems and bet on it.
            The point is that the technology is waay out of date. According to every advertisement and most of society, it’s a useless antique. But I say as long as there are ways to make it relevant, it’s still serviceable.
            My current phone is a Nexus One. It’s got pitiful ram and hasn’t received an Android upgrade since Gingerbread, way back to 2.3.6. Nor will it get anything better from the powers-that-be. But it’s not useless.
            Even now I’m planning to root the device and bring it up to speed. The old phone still has life in it, and I’m not quite ready to relegate it to the scrap heap.
            My old X100e is the same, even though it’s got a short in its lcd ribbon, I’m going to replace it and get it running. Then I’m thinking of a nice linux installation to turn it into a home media server.
            The point is that technology’s shelf life isn’t as short as people might believe. With a little time and creativity, it can become useful again. When I do eventually replace my phone, I’ll probably turn it into a car-based mp3 player. It’s still got Bluetooth to connect to my transmitter, and the SD card has all the tunes.

Monday, January 14, 2013


            I love Star Trek. Original Series with its camp, The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and even Voyager and Enterprise had their high spots. Love them. I’m very much looking forward to the new movie. I’ve even heard there are rumors of a new series (though I desperately hope it will be live action and not an animated as rumor suggests).
            One of the main features of Star Trek is the technobabble. Anyone who has seen even one episode knows what I’m talking about: “Realigning the lateral sensors to detect phase variance.” We understand each word by itself, but put them together and it really doesn’t mean anything. They are words strung together with no real-world meaning. They really don’t need to.
            They’re a form of verbal McGuffin to move the plot forward. The audience doesn’t need to know exactly what it means when the anti-matter injectors have frozen and magnetic containment is at 28%. We can tell by the reactions on the TV that this is something bad, and the problem will need to be solved, usually by some other means of technobabble, such as flooding the injector assembly with Cryomecium in order to render the contaminant inert.
            Unfortunately, this past semester taught me that many of my students treat everyday words like specialized jargon or technobabble. They don’t recognize words such as frontier, wean, or peeks. When they encounter them, they gloss by them. In the fictional world of Star Trek, the nonsense technobabble words can be glossed over. The essence of the story doesn’t revolve around them. But everyday words that appear in stories, newspapers, or in news broadcasts are essential. Sentences hinge on the meaning of just a few words. An entire sentence turns on one word, altering the entire meaning.
            This is a problem that has been very hard to diagnose, and even harder to fix, especially at the level I teach at. I’m trying some ideas, but I have no idea if they’re going to work. It would be nice if this could end like an episode of Star Trek. I could use a bit of technobabble to save the day.

Friday, January 11, 2013

F3 Trafficking

            Having my own key machine comes with benefits. I slid the six-peak commercial bump key into the deadbolt up to the rubber washer. I used a little pressure to turn the key just a little, then rapped on it with my knife hilt. A few taps and the key turned.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Crime in Mythology

            Crime is old, as old as written language itself, and a favorite theme in the world’s mythology. Whether it’s the murder of Able by Cain, the theft of fire by Prometheus, Actaeon spying on a naked Artemis, or stealing away Helen of Troy, crime is everywhere, and in every variation.
            Not only is crime prevalent, there are some interesting features about crime that come forward. First and foremost is that there is no getting away with it. For the gods it’s a simple matter to look down at the mortal world to see the crimes, whether it’s Zeus catching Prometheus or the God of the Old Testament asking Cain some pointed, uncomfortable questions in what is not only the first murder, but the first murder investigation and interrogation.

Read the rest at 

Monday, January 7, 2013

New Class

            I’m teaching a brand new class starting tomorrow. It should be interesting. What I’m looking forward to most is a brand new student population. I get to teach upper division. These are students who want to be in the class, and while the class is mandatory for their degree, it’s not general education. They’ve also been through the ropes enough by now to know how it all works. I expect (I hope) they will be more motivated than those in freshman composition.

Friday, January 4, 2013

F3 First Interrogation

            “So, where’s your brother?”
            “He ain’t my responsibility. You want him, go look for him. He’s out with his sheep for all I know.” He leaned back, cocky. A little too cocky for his own good.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013


            I’m going back over Stephen King’s On Writing, which I highly recommend not only to aspiring writers but to English educators. In particular I’m thinking about the toolbox King talked about. Vocabulary, words, are an integral part of that toolbox, probably the most important part. I also can’t help but think how many of my students don’t have the vocabulary they should for the level they are at, and they have come to where they are without learning how to expand their own vocabulary, and how to use what they do know effectively.
            During the last semester I had an assignment about why essays are important to write, and how they should be graded. It was an experiment that bore some very interesting fruit, including a student who advocated looking up more advanced words in a thesaurus in order to impress the teacher.
            I felt my guts seize up even as my brain flashed to King’s toolbox. This was exactly the wrong approach to take. The nuances of meaning don’t come through in such a casual look at a thesaurus, and end up making the writer sound less intelligent instead of more.
            But this attitude told me something, as well as reading some articles about teaching and the crime scene interactive fiction project I ran: students don’t have the tools necessary to expand their vocabulary in the right way. It should be something of an osmotic process where people read, ponder what they’ve read, define new words from context, and assimilate them into a vocabulary.
            My students rarely read, and when they do the process is more akin to skimming than an immersive experience. Consequently, when confronted with unfamiliar words, they are skipped over instead of processed. They have no use for looking up words be it in a physical dictionary, online dictionary, or even using Google to define the word.
            So I’ve been brainstorming up a new type of assignment that would require my students to use dictionaries. I want them to become familiar with the process, to become comfortable and practiced with looking up words. They need to learn how to sound out words and properly look them up. They need to become aware that the word threw is the past tense of throw, and not a spelling for through.
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