kitchen table math, the sequel: 10/21/12 - 10/28/12

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

a teaching assistant at a "top university on the East Coast of the USA" grades a paper

Huddleston and Pullum (scroll down)

When I say "no accountability," this is one of the things I'm talking about: a teaching assistant who does not know what the passive voice actually is given the power to grade student writing.

the passive voice files

Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey Pullum on the passive voice:
In truth, the passive is very often exactly the right way to frame a clause in a particular context, and all competent authors use passives frequently. The people who recommend against it use it themselves, even while talking about how you should not use it. For example, in the act of explaining that you should "Use the active voice" because it is "more direct and vigorous than the passive", William Strunk and E. B. White assert that "Many a tame sentence . . . can be made lively and emphatic by substituting a transitive in the active voice" (see section 14 of their book The Elements of Style). Their sentence defies their warning; it contains an instance of the passive voice itself (can be made lively and emphatic).

The Secret Life of Pronouns and a pop quiz (part 1)

We've been talking, off and on, about students having trouble understanding anaphora.

Come to find out, pronouns, along with conjunctions, prepositions, and auxiliary verbs -- the so-called "function words," or "style words," as James Pennebaker calls them in The Secret Life of Pronouns -- are processed in a different part of the brain from "content words."

Function words are quite different from content words. For one thing, function words, according to Pennebaker, are almost impossible to perceive in speech. Which I assume means they are invisible in written texts as well.

Moreover, function words are extremely difficult to learn after the age of 12. Learning the content words of a foreign language is doable; learning the function words, not really.

And, last but not least, function words are highly 'social.' The meaning of a function word depends upon social context, and damage to the part of the brain that handles function words results in damage to social skills, too. Damage to the part of the brain that handles content words leaves social skills intact.

What might these findings mean for students who have difficulty understanding anaphora in written texts?

I don't know the answer to that, but I think it may mean, in part, that novice readers in college don't experience written text as written speech in the way fluent readers do.* The act of reading academic prose isn't for them a social exchange between a writer who is speaking and a reader who is listening  (a point that may be related to the argument Gerald Graff has been making for lo these many years).

Do students hear the 'voice' of an academic text? It's possible many do not. I can read Spanish and French fairy well, but I've never heard a voice in either language -- is it the same for English-speaking students who've read very little academic prose?

Do they know that academic text has a voice?

I wonder.

In any event, it seems clear to me that understanding pronouns in speech does not lead automatically to understanding the same pronouns in prose. And this problem cannot be solved by teaching vocabulary (although for reasons I'll get to later I think vocabulary instruction would help). Function words take their meaning from context.

I'm wondering whether the difficulty students have understanding anaphora inside academic prose works like this, at least in some cases:
  1. Students don't experience the reading of academic prose as a social exchange. 
  2. So students don't automatically interpret the anaphora used in academic text in terms of other words in the text, but instead assume that the meaning must be lodged outside the text somewhere
This may be a stretch. Still, reading Pennebaker in the wake of attending Morningside's Summer School Institute, I am coming to think that function words are an important piece of the reading comprehension puzzle.

Students who have no problem understanding function words in a face-to-face exchange do have problems understanding the same words in text.

Pop quiz:

How many function words exist in the English language?
How many of the words we use each day are function words?

The Psychological Function of Function Words by Cindy Chung and James Pennebaker
* Written prose isn't written speech; spoken language and (most) written language are radically different. But a good reader experiences written prose as a form of speech. A good reader hears a 'voice' in prose.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Parents Day


Colleges are even less accountable than K-12.

If that's possible.