Wednesday, December 17, 2014

war on passives

The Passive War; "The blind warning the blind about a nonexistent danger" by "Neurobonkers"...nice handle, eh? Good comments.

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grammar checkers

I'm going to start putting things here, instead of the previous site, which was http://thisisyourbrainonweblogs.blogspot.com. The main site for this presentation is here.

Wright, N. (2013, Dec.). Does grammar checkers work? Style Writer.

Though this is a commercial site (pushing Style Writer itself), it's interesting because the author believes that just trying to "correct" grammar is not only futile but also is the wrong approach. He's very critical of not only Word but also the similar ones, because they have very little to make them better than Word. It's the wrong approach, he says.

Krishnamurthy, Sandeep. A Demonstration of the Futility of Using Microsoft Word’s Spelling and Grammar Check.

Good bibliography of 'scholarly work'. Actually there's a dearth of scholarly work; I'm still looking.

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Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Toronto 2015

I've accepted an invitation to present an Electronic Village Classic at the TESOL 2015 Convention in Toronto, which brings up a number of other topics. The presentation is called For better or worse: Grammar technology and the language learner and in brief it shows how technology changes the student's process of learning, as well as the process of writing, the final product, etc. I often show free grammar-check programs and show what they do to the writer. Ironically teachers often stop by hoping to just get computers to fix the problems; it's as if nobody really wanted to deal with grammar in the first place. The site for the presentation is here though obviously it will need to be updated.

So here are a couple of other issues related to Toronto. First, are my good friends the Webheads going to be there? I hope so. Toronto is one of my favorite cities. The Webheads are my favorite people. This would be wonderful.

Second, do you need a passport to get into Canada nowadays?

Third, what about the SIUC reunion? I feel like I'm sitting on a lot of information, and I don't know what to do with it. Last year, I couldn't organize a reunion, because I didn't go to Portland; I'm not sure if they even had one. I have all these e-mail addresses in my inbox, and information from SIU alum...I need to forward it to someone. Nobody was interested in keeping track of people when I took it over, but I said, SIUC, your international alumni are your most valuable resource. Even now, what I have is a set of e-mail addresses bottled up in an e-mail box that has become impossible to maneuver, due to the fact that SIUC put it all on Outlook Express, and I can't seem to view the entire mailbox. There are hundreds in there, but they are deep on the inside, constantly covered up by more recent correspondence. Time to clean out the box, Tom!

But it's also time to dust off this presentation. I was pleased to be invited, pleased to accept; I hope it can happen. Oh Canada!

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5 Years of Semantics


My son's new poetry book...
I'm really proud of him!
Available on Amazon...click on the picture!

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Saturday, October 18, 2014

conversations with Siri

My 9-year-old son started a conversation with Siri this morning, so I listened in. First he argued with her and told her that he was not Jennifer, his mother, but Corey. Siri didn't believe him. But it didn't matter. Eventually he asked her if she was his friend, and she said, I'm not only your friend, I'm your bff. At this point I decided to listen more carefully. He asked her over for dinner, and she said, I already know where you live, but I don't eat much. He said, no problem, since I can't cook anyway.

Really, he was looking for someone to tell him it was ok to cheat. He asked her if it was ok to cheat. She said that one time she had cheated on a metaphysics exam by looking into the soul of the kid next to her. This I believe went over his head; he's only nine. So he asked her again if it was ok for him to cheat. She clearly has no moral compass, but it didn't matter; she said she couldn't answer that.

When I told my older son, he reported that some kid had asked her where the best place to hide a body was, and she'd said, "in the Terms and Conditions." This could actually be a story off the internet, but nevertheless it shows that people have become creative in the questions they ask Siri, and sometimes Siri is quite well-prepared.  It's made me curious about the kinds of questions anyone could ask her and what kind of responses might occur as a result. Clearly she's not prepared to notice that the voice talking at her is that of a nine-year-old, or a boy, unlike the voice she had heard earlier. She may not yet be programmed to set up different accounts for different speakers, thus using stored information from each to tailor her responses based on what she already knows.

I think it's conceivable that someone could get quite used to asking Siri a whole range of questions; whereas I don't mind asking her how to get to the Starbucks, I'm not used to asking her a whole range of other things. My son of course is clearly prepared to ask her all kinds of things. My point is that depending on how much time one has, and what one needs, Siri could be queried in all kinds of matters; the possibilities are infinite. I'm sure the people at Apple could tell us some of this. A little research might do wonders here!

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Friday, October 17, 2014

documenting the war on passives

To make a long story short, I am teaching a class in dissertation writing for international students. They bring me projects representing years of work, and they need help with the language required by their disciplines to get a dissertation accepted and passed. Sometimes their advisor tells them, "Using words like I, me, we, our, etc. is the mark of an inexperienced writer." One would think this is an injunction to use the passive, but there are actually several ways to deal with this command.

Other departments scorn the passive, or at least tolerate active constructions like "I will show that..." or "We found that..." In fact it could be said that there is a wide variety of dissertations being accepted at this university today, and essentially a wide variety of commands being given to internationals and others writing dissertations, so that you have to tease out of the dissertation writer what is expected, before you can reasonably assume that you are giving him/her good advice. As a dissertation proofreader I find myself knowing several grammatical ways of talking about what happened in a project, but not necessarily knowing which will fly within the department or, at a wider level, which will sound good in the field. The social sciences are the home of the war on passives, which basically overhauled the traditional paradigm and replaced what could be termed as expectation to use the passive with scorn for the passive; international students are in essence caught between. They don't know what Microsoft Word means when it encourages them to avoid passive in favor of active; they also don't know what an advisor means when he/she says to "never use I"...

We asked our students to provide model dissertations, and then we read them carefully. Most were accepted by Texas Tech in the last ten years. Not all had perfect grammar; in fact, a wide variety of grammatical mistakes were tolerated and in some cases, it was clear that grammar wasn't important at all, in comparison to the ideas or the study itself. The dissertation, though, is important; it represents a scholar's arrival in the field, the cornerstone of his/her expertise, authority, and reputation in the field, and it lasts forever as an ongoing record of scholarship and work.

My wife is a full professor in sociology, and maintains that the war on passives dates back to the 90's and has its roots in feminist theory. How can you remove the agent or the one who saw or did the action, when that agent will so clearly color the results? To her it was incredible that a professor who called herself feminist could still tell students to remove I from all writing, since it contradicted an ideology that insisted on taking responsibility and noticing the actor who found, collected, studied the data. Remember that it was tradition, the advice of the elders, to remove I, we, etc., from this kind of writing. Throughout various departments, tradition was maintained even as the content of studies became rigorously more modern, up-to-date, and radical. The professor in question had simply passed on traditional academic advice to writers, not questioning whether this advice might also change along with the adoption of modern ideologies and their integration into academia.

One can avoid I, we, our, my, etc. and still avoid the passive, which one's computer is now reminding us is archaic, undesirable. One does that by animating ideas, studies, and projects. This research concludes...This study found...This data show...etc. It's hard to tell whether modern language has made this kind of construction necessary, right, or even more common. Does anyone else cringe when studies become able to do such things? This kind of construction results, often, when the writer has acquired both the distaste for the passive (encouraged by Word grammar-check) and the traditional injunction against using the personal pronouns. Does this mean the formal academic writing now requires a certain detachment from reality, in the sense that you have to let inanimate actors do the work that they shouldn't do, or take on life that they don't have? I intend to find out.

My wife says another thing, however, that I found interesting. She said, it's not the dissertations that matter, since virtually anything can be accepted by a committee, and much of it is not read very widely outside of that committee. It's the journals that matter, and what they require. It's the journals that you should read, because they are setting the standards, and defining academic language as it is. Training to be a PhD student is essentially training to write and express oneself in a discipline, and if this process is not up to a standard, the newly-minted Doctor, who goes off to be a professor somewhere, may never publish again. My internationals are protected from this sad fate, mainly by being so good in what they do that they get a lot of help in the other areas, until they truly understand how to publish and keep publishing. It's interesting, and it's what keeps diversity in our world.

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Thursday, August 07, 2014

report from Lubbock, Aug. 2014

Another International Teaching Assistant Workshop just ended; this is the one 3-week stretch in which I teach absolutely full-time, but it's a whopper of full-time. There is SPEAK grading, Performance test grading, and six hours a day of teaching, all crammed into this three-week gig, and I more or less have to tell the folks at home that they're on their own. Some observations about the state of ITA's and Texas Tech will be found if you scroll down a little.

First, I want to say a little bit about the relative silence of this blog. In fact this blog didn't really move with me and my professional career to Texas Tech; it has stayed behind, really, as a repository of all good stuff that happened over an 18-year span in Illinois. But it's about time it moved, and I'll tell you why: I seem to be stuck in the process of converting all my interesting experiences into professionally-written, book-worthy ideas, and one reason is that I don't really use this blog actively enough anymore. Instead of pulling, bending, changing, etc., I just took a break and went into fiddling for a while. That has been successful; I have a band, I play bluegrass, I'm happy. But I don't intend to let my professional ideas rot on the vine back here. It's time I dredge stuff up and either publish it or drop it.

Now the nature of a blog is, it's fairly casual, and it's published, whether it's polished or not. I'm ok with that. If this is as far as some of these ideas go, that's ok. But I'm taking the red and gray of this blog and remaking it in the Texas Tech red-and-black soon, and that's because I want to keep it current, and keep using it instead of letting it collect dust. That's my first announcement. Look for some changes here soon in the design aspect. A person has to change once in a while.

Lubbock is at the searing peak of its summer; though we took a break for about a week in the mountains of New Mexico, I am now back crossing my beloved 19th street four times a day and in the process of so risking my life, I've decided to make sure that whatever feelings I have about language, acquisition, etc. I'd better get them in print sooner rather than later. So I'm thinking of devoting some energy to that process in the near future. And I hope you'll see evidence of the following: 1) a book about language as a self-organizing system; 2) a collection of essays and other writing about language acquision, and 3) a book or collection of writings about how technology and grammar intersect. I've been talking about these things for years. The heck of it is, I know where this writing is (on my blogs, in my Google docs, etc.), but it just collects dust where nobody sees it; if it were in book form, I could at least get it out there, where it might do some good. Not that anyone buys my books. But, books collect ideas under one cover. Blogs don't. Google docs simply maintain them. Books publish them.

Walked to the ITA workshop on its last day; walked home; walked to the pool, swam, and now I'm about too drained and exhausted to even do the multitude of organizational tasks I've set out for myself, for my afternoon and what little free time I'll have before the semester comes crashing in. But, I got some pictures uploaded, below, at my home weblog, and my lubbock weblog, and those are really my most immediate organizational task. I'm still finishing my ITA workshop blog, which has three entries. This last one has social media, teaching philosophies, and a tour of world cities. Most of all, in my opinion, it still proves that to me at least, the blog format is one of the best places to simply publish interesting stuff. Nobody takes it too seriously, yet by simply remembering a well-chosen URL, you always have access to the best of people's creativity, the things you can get them to say. Teaching philosophies, in particular, help them to crystallize their feelings about what they're about to do, and, since they are graduate students, they take their writing seriously and give you a good picture of various departments and issues of teaching within them. I'm proud of the work my students are still putting on blogs, and in this case I'll say one thing: in three weeks, all we could do was write the stuff and put it up there, really; we didn't worry too much about "revision." But, organization and perfection were less important than simply getting it up there. Students were coming and going the entire three weeks; this blog represents the time they spent in that classroom, discussing writing and the issues of social media, as well as talking about their own cities. I'm proud of that memory and will fix up the blog to reflect that, as soon as I have time.

Unfortunately, however, I lost the password and even the logon of the last one, which also held teaching philosophies, and this brings up an organizational nightmare of the blog world: one loses passwords, especially if one is ADD or trusts the old pen-and-paper method. I'm working on it, folks, I promise.

Which brings me to my last point. The CESL weblogs, also, are collecting dust, turning into a museum of the era in which we used them. Blogs are ok for that. I guess it's ok if people at CESL simply forget that they're there, and they sit there with all their beautiful pictures and show what people did way back in the early 20-aught years. I have them rigged, I think, so that if anyone jumps in with crude comments, I'll know. As they get stale, they move down on Google indices, and people are less likely to stumble upon them. But even now I use them. Students have research papers on them, and I call them up. They reflect the idea that you can take a corner of a public discourse environment, you can make an interesting project, and you can leave it posted indefinitely, for its creators to use, and for anyone to see and comment upon. If anything, it's making the web more civilized, and calmer. And that's no small change in today's world. My last organizational task is to link up these weblogs, so that one can more easily have access to them, or see them in the order that I'd like you to see them. Look for more on that, here.

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Thursday, July 10, 2014

new on Facebook

I am like everyone; I spend a significant amount of time on Facebook. My friends include a lot of former students, so they are all over the world, and thus I get caught up in the World Cup drama even when I'm not actively watching it a lot. But this post is about two other significant developments on Facebook.

The first is Facebook's own experimentation with using its feeds to manipulate your mood. Facebook can make you happy. Facebook can make you sad. Facebook can make you forget the vast majority of your friends, in favor of the ones it puts in front of you, in its relentlessly formulaic ways of deciding what your feed looks like.

Now I'm already a little jaded by the rest of the stuff Facebook has been doing, like using the margin to speak directly to everything it knows about me. The ads basically say, hey you 60-year-old who teaches ESL and likes the World Cup, click here! Facebook by the way is mad at me because I've still, after two years, not told it where I'm from, and that's because it's a rather complicated answer, but lately it started to make stuff up, and just say I'm from Lubbock or from some other town where I had a lot of friends. Wrong, Facebook.

People like me are mad at Facebook because it's using so much of what it learns in such a devious way. It's one thing to make a profile out of thousands of bits of information it's gotten out of me legitimately (what kind of idiot am I?) but it's another to basically take things I'm meant to see, order it in order to change my own feelings, and then go along like it is in charge, it controls my feelings anyway. The reason people are mad is that they suspect that it works...

But here's another trend I've got a bead on, and I'm not sure this one is entirely good either. I'm an avid follower of HONY (Humans of New York), in which some guy interviews people on the streets of New York and puts their responses with their pictures; because he has thousands of followers, people write in with comments immediately and constantly. My understanding is that he censors the comments, and still gets thousands of legitimate, non-hurtful comments for each post. He must spend his life censoring the comments, but in any case, what he has created is living, all-inclusive discussion forums that are alive, and in which comments tumble in just as you check your phone. If your phone gets Facebook, you can essentially participate in a texted discussion with any of thousands of strangers who are piping in on such subjects as what constitutes a crime, or when someone becomes immoral in divorce. Some of these I've found banal, but others have been fascinating, and it's only a matter of time before he or his competitors perfect the art, or use Facebook at another plane of participation. Hand it to HONY though: he did it first; he's in uncharted territory, and, for the moment at least, it's working.

I think Facebook-watching could be a full-time career. But I mean that in more of a sense that if you were critical about the stuff that happens every day, every week, you could use critical social commentary to alter the way our culture is moving; we're like a canoe on very fast rapids. Unfortunately, I'm more in the other camp. I watch Facebook with increasingly more of my time, and it's mostly just to keep a fairly wide collection of friends in my consciousness. For that reason alone, I still defend Facebook - it's made my social circle very wide, very interesting, very international. All that other stuff, well, I'm like everyone, I put up with it, because, basically, I feel powerless to stop it.

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Wednesday, June 18, 2014

World Cup 2014

A friend of mine said, "Why should I care?" to which I responded, some Texas high school just spent 60 million on a football stadium, and football kills people, it gives them concussions, and injures their legs/knees/ankles/feet for life, so any energy we can put into promoting soccer is in essence saving lives. Kids need stuff to do. It's not enough to say to them, don't do American football. You have to have something to replace it with.

More and more Americans are watching the World Cup and this is a trend that has been steadily increasing. I've been interested in the last three or four of them, but I haven't actually watched this one much, not having streaming video, or even television to speak of. I watch my computer and my phone to see the scores come in. I'm overjoyed of course that the Americans finally beat Ghana. I've said enough, since I have friends from Spain, Brazil, Mexico, all kinds of other places that are still in the race. I tend to like the African teams and the South Americans against the old European powers but that's based on a very old prejudice and not based on any real knowledge of real teams.

My friends who are abroad refer to the teams in plural, i.e. England are, Spain are, etc. I guess this reflects the fact that British English has won at least the soccer audience, whereas we purely American soccer fans (who call it soccer) are still a distinct minority, even an extreme minority. I don't care. The USA is good. It has a chance. It is still in the hunt. Go USA!

My friends also are quite critical of the officiating. I am fortunate in that regard, because I still don't know a foul from a wrongly-called foul. But I haven't been watching it either, so I lose even more of the fine discrimination of what is or isn't, what actually happened. How should I know? I can't make predictions based on what I've seen. I have no idea who is playing up to their potential.

But I can tell you this: When you win two, you are virtually guaranteed getting into the next round. When you win one and tie one, it gets a lot murkier, and this is important for Brazil and Mexico, because as far as I'm concerned Cameroon is still in it. And anything can happen, USA can even beat Germany. Not likely but possible. One other thing, Brazil is wet & rainy, and it might make people go bonkers or do stuff they wouldn't ordinarily succumb to. We'll have to see.

But I feel like Argentina. The whole nation goes bankrupt, goes under, things are bad, for us here in the US we are looking at another six trillion war, all for nothing, but who cares, it's game time or "match time" and it's time to head up to the local barber shop, and see what the guys are saying about this team or that, and whether "it is" any good...

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