Monthly Archives: November 2007

A Little Too Good to Be True

Yeah, I’ll admit it; my semester hasn’t been all puppies and rainbows.

I’ve been a lot more casual with my students this semester. My classes have been smaller and, partly because of the more intimate environment that smaller classes encourage, I’ve been a little lax in my usual strict policies. I’ve let students hand things in late – in some cases, very late – and I’ve been willing to give a little more credit for in-class work and participation than I probably should.

Now, I’m getting to live out the consequences of that laxity. I remember my graduate school adviser warning me that, as far as classroom policy goes, “it’s easier to loosen up than to tighten up,” and he’s right – though I wonder how much loosening up is ever a good idea.  Anyway, I announced to my all of students, after the mid-term, that the second half of the semester would see the reinstatement of the policies outlined in the syllabus: late work won’t be accepted, being absent doesn’t excuse one from responsibility for the work for that day, and failure to focus during class time will result in reduced credit (or outright expulsion) from the class.

After I plugged in all the zeros that my literature students have earned for not turning in their work (of the eight kids I’ve got in the class, only half of them actually turned in mid terms, for example), fully half of them are failing. I told them yesterday that, if they emailed me to ask what they were missing (though they should KNOW), I would check my grade book, give them their list, and would accept their work no later than this coming Tuesday. After that, I said, I wasn’t taking anything in late.

Only one of them has emailed me, and she isn’t among the students in the greatest danger of having to retake this class again next semester.

This is a valuable lesson for me. I really do think it’s better – and more fair to everyone – that I start and maintain very clear, very firm policies about the work we do in my classes. Students who aren’t going to do the work anyway won’t do it whether I’m a hard-ass about it or not, and knowing that I’ve been fair and consistent from the outset will reduce a lot of MY stress, too.


Filed under concerns, frustrations, Learning, student chutzpah, Teaching

Grammar Wednesday

For two of my favorite men!

Falcon mentioned the other day that he’s not sure what the difference is between an objective and a subjective pronoun is, so I’m going to do a little refresher course for him – and, you know, for you, too…

Pronouns fall into three categories, if you will. First, we have subjective pronouns, which behave as the subjects of sentences. These are I, you, he/she/it, we, you, and they:

They went to the store, but she stayed home. They is the subject of the first part of that compound sentence – who went to the store? They did. She is the subject of the second part – who stayed home? She did.

Objective pronouns are, you guessed it, objects. They can be the objects of prepositions or the objects of verbs, but they don’t work in the subjective spaces. Objective pronouns are me, you, him/her/it, us, you, and them.

She thought she sent the letter to me, but it was delivered to him by mistake. Here, she is the subjective pronoun – she sent the letter – and I (in the form of “me“) and him are the objects of the prepositions.  You couldn’t put me or him in place of she in that sentence, because they are objects, not subjects.
Most of the trouble comes, at least for my students, when there’s more than one pronoun to be figured. The questions I had on the midterm that told me my students still don’t “get” it were:

Blank and blank left at seven o’clock.

a) her and me

b) she and I

c) her and I

d) she and me


Blank went to the banquet with Naomi and blank.

a) He and me

b) Him and I

c) He and me

d) Him and me
The way I teach students to figure these out is to take out all but one of the pronouns and work them one at a time. In the first sentence, for example, the students would take out the second pronoun and read the sentence. If they’d done that, they’d realize that the first pronoun HAS to be she because ‘her left at seven o’clock’ doesn’t make sense. Once they figured ‘she,’ they could take out the first pronoun and try the sentence again. Again, if they’d done that, no one would have answered ‘me left at seven o’clock,’ but I’m saddened by how many people got these wrong.

Finally, possessive pronouns show ownership, and most people don’t have much trouble with these beyond the it/it’s problem. Possessive pronouns are my/mine, your/yours, his/hers/its, our/ours, your/yours, and their/theirs.

Your best friend and mine don’t get along very well.

The other day, Bowyer (he doesn’t have a blog, so I don’t have a link) asked me a question about the capitalization – or lack thereof – of the word “Earth.” “There’s only ONE Earth,” he told me, “yet I see it in lowercase letters all the time and I’m wondering what’s up with that.”

The answer I gave him off the top of my head in the movie theatre where the question was posed was that when the word is being used as the proper name of our humble little planet, it should be capitalized. When it’s being used as a common noun, though, it shouldn’t. He disagreed with that on the grounds that one can only find earth on, you know, EARTH – dirt on Mars isn’t EARTH, he claimed, it is MARS. Regardless, though, my quick research has shown that my off-the-top-of-my head answer is backed up by the books and websites which proclaim such things:

Earth: Generally put in lowercase, but capitalize when used as a proper name.

In his garden, he enjoyed the feeling of earth between his fingers.

“You Earth creatures make me VERY angry, ” the Martian shouted as he pulled out his disintegrator.

Bowyer also asked about whether “president” is capitalized, and I gave him much the same answer as I did about “earth:” when I’m writing about a SPECIFIC president, I capitalize: President Lincoln, for example. When I’m speaking of a president in a non-specific way, I use lowercase letters: the president is, in my opinion, the worst thing to happen to our country in generations.


Happy Wednesday, Everyone!

photo credit


Filed under Grammar, Questions, Teaching

Either My Test Was Too Easy…

… or my composition kids have been paying attention!

The lowest grade from my composition class’s mid-term exams was a 70.  They STILL haven’t quite figured out the subjective vs. objective pronoun thing yet, and they still don’t know the difference between its and it’s, but none of them earned a failing grade.  For this, I am pleased.

I collect my literature students’ mid-terms tomorrow, and I’m really looking forward to them.  I gave them some GREAT questions about Frankenstein, and I’m dying to see which students chose which questions, and to find out how they went about making their way through the queries I gave them.

I’m tellin’ you folks – it’s been a GOOD semester!


Filed under admiration, Questions, success!, the good ones

Crossing Fingers

The “wish list” of courses for adjunct professors came out yesterday, and I gave Joe (Santa?) my picks.

I am having such a remarkably wonderful time teaching my literature course that I’m desperately hoping to score another one next term.  While I very often feel like a legitimate teacher in front of my other classes, nothing has felt quite so right as this lit. section; I really feel as though I’m in my element in this class.  Our discussions are rich and lively, my students – some of them, anyway – are starting to take risks with their thinking and are coming to recognize that there may not actually BE any right answers.  One of them – the only man in the course – has found a particular joy in the work and has really hit a stride in both the conversations we have in class and in the work he does on his own.

The students are starting to see, I think, what the point of literature classes is (or, at least, what the point of MY literature classes is): the shared experience of a story (or a poem or a play or a film or any piece of “literature”) gives us a common vantage point from which to interpret not only that piece of literature, but also other things in our world.  Rick used Frankenstein to think about advances in modern science.  Punkin’ Pie used Monty Python to better understand a book she was reading.  I used what I knew about Dante’s Inferno to help me figure out the lyrics to Sting’s The Soul Cages.  My point here is that literature classes – MY literature classes – aren’t about learning literary periods or how to discern the narrative style or how to reproduce iambic pentameter; for me, lit classes are all about how to make lit meaningful out in the world.  I leave my job energized and excited – I really feel like I belong leading discussions about books, stories, and poems.

The upshot is that I really, really want to keep teaching this class.  The downside of this desire is that it’s likely to turn into a broken heart: one of the full time professors takes all the literature courses (I’m pretty sure that this person doesn’t actually teach anything BUT literature.  There may be another post in here somewhere about how I don’t agree with the bosses’ decision to allow that to happen – I think there should be a range of teaching styles offered to TCC students, but we’ll get into that later…maybe).

There’s ONE class being offered that I have a shot at getting:  it’s on Monday nights from 8:15 to 10:30.  The person who takes the lit classes doesn’t take night sections, so there’s the possibility that I might be able to keep teaching my beloved  course.  I won’t know for a while, though – I’m hoping to hear from Santa soon.  Until then, I’m crossing my fingers and sending up wishes to the Universe.



Filed under colleagues, I love my boss, Literature, self-analysis, success!, Teaching, the good ones

Grammar Wednesday

Wow, you guys! I’ve been lazy about posting here, and I’m sorry. I’ll try to do better, I promise. There really is a lot going on in my professional life – I just haven’t made the time to write about it.

Okay; here’s this week’s Grammar Wednesday edition. Last week, Frumteacher asked about the distinction between “that” and “which” (and, by the way, you should go read her when you’re done here – she’s one of my (many) favorites).

I spent a decent bit of time this past week thinking about this question, and trying to discern if I had ANY clue about what the difference is between these two structures. I tried to be mindful of the things I said when I spoke or the choices I made when I wrote, and I found that the word that I use is determined entirely by my sense of aesthetics – I use the word which feels or sounds more correct (see? I did it there, even – I could have said “the word that feels or sounds more correct” but, for me, which works better there).

John, one of my linguist buddies (I LOVE my linguists! I learn so much from them!) sent me an email with a couple of links to check out during my investigation of the that/which question. While I suspect him of trying to head off at the pass any kind of prescriptivism on my part, I was really grateful for the information. One of the links he sent me was this one – Geoffrey Pullum writes on Language Log that:

There is an old myth that which is not used in integrated relative clauses (e.g. something which I hate) and that has to be used instead something that I hate). It is completely untrue. The choice between the two is free and open. The people who repeat the old story about which being banned do not respect the prohibition in their own writing (Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage points out a book by Jacques Barzun which recommends against it on one page and then unthinkingly uses it on the next!). I don’t respect it either — re-read that last parenthesis. As a check on just how common it is in excellent writing, I searched electronic copies of a few classic novels to find the line on which they first use which to introduce an integrated relative, to tell us how much of the book you would need to read before you ran into an instance:

  • A Christmas Carol (Dickens): 1,921 lines, first occurrence on line 217 = 11% of the way through;
  • Alice in Wonderland (Carroll): 1,618 lines, line 143 = 8%;
  • Dracula (Stoker): 9,824 lines, line 8 = less than 1%;
  • Lord Jim (Conrad): 8,045 lines, line 15 = 1%;
  • Moby Dick (Melville): 10,263 lines, line 103 = 1%;
  • Wuthering Heights (Bronte): 7,599 lines, line 56 = 0.736%…

Do I need to go on? No. The point is clear. On average, by the time you’ve read about 3% of a book by an author who knows how to write you will already have encountered an integrated relative clause beginning with which. They are fully grammatical for everyone. The copy editors are enforcing a rule which has no support at all in the literature that defines what counts as good use of the English language. Their which hunts are pointless time-wasting nonsense.

I also looked the question up at and found this:

that / which (restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses). The standard rule requires that you use that only to introduce a restrictive (or defining) relative clause, which identifies the person or thing being talked about; in this use it should never be preceded by a comma. Thus, in the sentence The house that Jack built has been torn down, the clause that Jack built is a restrictive clause telling which specific house was torn down. Similarly, in I am looking for a book that is easy to read, the restrictive clause that is easy to read tells what kind of book is desired.
By contrast, you use which only with nonrestrictive (or nondefining) clauses, which give additional information about something that has already been identified in the context; in this use, which is always preceded by a comma. Thus you should say The students in Chemistry 101 have been complaining about the textbook, which (not that) is hard to follow. The clause which is hard to follow is nonrestrictive in that it does not indicate which text is being complained about; even if it were omitted, we would know that the phrase the textbook refers to the text in Chemistry 101. It should be easy to follow the rule in nonrestrictive clauses like this, since which here sounds more natural than that.

Some people extend the rule and insist that, just as that should be used only in restrictive clauses, which should be used only in nonrestrictive clauses. By this thinking, you should avoid using which in sentences such as I need a book which will tell me all about city gardening, where the restrictive clause which will tell me all about city gardening describes what sort of book is needed. But this use of which with restrictive clauses is very common, even in edited prose. If you fail to follow the rule in this point, you have plenty of company. Moreover, there are some situations in which which is preferable to that. Which can be especially useful where two or more relative clauses are joined by and or or: It is a philosophy in which ordinary people may find solace and which many have found reason to praise. You may also want to use which to introduce a restrictive clause when the preceding phrase contains a that: We want to assign only that book which will be most helpful.

One thing that I, personally, have a problem with is the use of that to apply to people. I KNOW it’s perfectly acceptable and has been going on for centuries now, but I much prefer “the woman who ran the red light was lucky to avoid an accident” to “the woman that ran the red light…” It’s a personal preference thing for me, and I’m standing by it.

Happy Wednesday, Everyone!


Filed under colleagues, Grammar

Grammar Wednesday

A day late is better than never…

A few weeks ago, Organic Mama, being a native English speaker of the Canadian variety, confronted me with the very United States American practice of starting a sentence with the adverb “hopefully.”

“Why do you do that?” she asked, “the adverb isn’t actually modifying anything in the sentence. It doesn’t make sense!”

I said something akin to, “WELCOME TO THE USA!! Exactly where on your citizenship application did it disclose that we always make sense?”

Once I got past my snarky response (trust me; she’d have worried if I didn’t say something wise-assed and sarcastic), I started to really ponder the question. It’s a good one. O’Mama is right – when we say something like:

“Hopefully, the rain will hold off until after the parade.”

it’s clear to see that the adverb isn’t really modifying anything in the sentence. Even if we rearrange the words and say:

“The rain will, hopefully, hold off until after the parade.”

we’re still not modifying anything in the sentence with the adverb; the rain isn’t hopeful, and neither is the holding 0ff of said rain. It’s obvious to native U.S.A American speakers that the “hopefully” in these sentences is expressing the speaker’s (or writer’s) wish, but strictly speaking, the adverb is misplaced in the sentence.

My thinking about this led to the consideration of a bunch of other adverbs that we commonly use to start sentences:

Thankfully, there was someone there to unlock the gate when we arrived.

Clearly, you should get a couple of dancing lessons before you go to the audition.

There are, obviously, a number of reasons why you should consider skipping dessert.

In my above sentences, no one in the first was thankful, nothing in the second was clear and while the reasons may be obvious, obviously is not an adjective. This led me to thinking about how we close letters, as well: I end my correspondence most often with “warmly,” and I’ve seen people write “sincerely” or “affectionately,” as well.

My final analysis (though I hope it goes without saying that, for me, no analysis is ever final) is that these words are used to convey tone and mood rather than to modify a specific element of the sentence. When I say that “hopefully, the rain will hold off until after the parade,” I am expressing my wish that it do so – I’m adding a layer of meaning to the sentence, and to my intention for speaking or writing it – by my inclusion of that adverb, just as closing a letter with “warmly” conveys to my reader my affection and kindness toward them.  At least, I am hopeful* that my closing leaves my readers with those feelings…

Does this make any sense?

Thank you for your patience in letting me turn in my Grammar Wednesday a little late, by the way. We had a VERY successful trip to IKEA so, for me, it was worth the wait.

Happy Thursday, Everyone!



*didja catch that?  Tricky, aren’t I?


Filed under Grammar