Friday, September 12, 2008

Parvum Opus 293 ~ Into the Morass with Eink


Number 293


Into the Morass

So much is done online in schools today that grade books have disappeared, but I managed to acquire a couple of old partially used ones for my new classes. It really is more convenient to put pen to paper as you walk around throughout the day. My classes are with foreign students ~ oops, must say “international”, for some reason “foreign” is offensive ~ but the old classes of these grade books were made up of the usual American college freshmen. One teacher wrote personal notes once a month for a semester in the back of his or her book. These grade books date back to the early 1980s, but the teacher’s musings are timeless.


What a MORASS of ignorance! Where to begin to untangle the muddle [of] their lack of analytic skills, their desolate.... But is the morass in their writing or in my thinking tonight?


The debates redeemed the whole class for me.


What vast quantity of WILL churns in the spirits of the 18/19 year old! I felt mine at 16/17, but my first time to go for drunk was 19.


Bless ‘em all. It all worked out. They all did some good quality thinking and writing. Well, most all.

Rather odd to equate “going for drunk” with will, but that might explain the instructor’s thinking morass on the night of 1-31. I’m glad it mostly all worked out. Just think, those students are now in their forties, and for all we know, have lost their will entirely.

See You in the Funny Papers they used to say. The Sunday comics section in most papers usually has a page devoted to kids’ comics, and maybe little games and educational tidbits or something. Last Sunday in the Cincinnati Enquirer, a syndicated item of advice to teenagers on that comics page had a question, supposedly from a teenager, about how to be cool. The answer from one Jok Church offered Quentin Crisp as a fashion icon who understood how to “be yourself”. I’ve enjoyed Crisp’s writing. He was smart and funny. But I don’t know that a man who changed his name and wore makeup then told people to “Be yourself” is precisely the role model to be presented to teenagers whose psyches are so unformed that they can’t even pick out their own clothes. My fashion advice to kids is to think about something else, if that’s at all possible for adolescents entangled, as the earnest English instructor said, in a morass of ignorance while seething with will.

A More Modern Morass

From an ESL professor, today:

I was called to testify as an "expert witness" regarding the language proficiency of a Mexican man who is in the country illegally and showed an invalid social security card to get a minimum wage job at a temporary service employment agency. Instead of simply deporting him, the federal prosecutor wanted to first send him to prison for two years and THEN deport him! (What a waste of the taxpayer's money that would be!!)

I was asked to evaluate his literacy skills and level of English proficiency. (He's a beginner ~ restricted to basic survival vocabulary and a few cognate words.) I spent 2 1/2 hours at the jail interviewing and testing him ~ with the aid of a translator. The case hinged on the fact that he can barely read Spanish, let alone English, and certainly would have been unable to comprehend the complex legal language on the document he signed indicating he was eligible for work. The agency had the form available in Spanish but didn't use it, and no one read the form to him or offered translation, even though the agency places hundreds of Latinos with limited literacy in minimum wage jobs. ... The jury accepted the argument that someone with minimal English couldn't understand the legal implications of what he was signing on a form where he was simply applying for a job. NOT GUILTY!

No doubt the man had some inkling of where he was and why he was there, and that it wasn’t legal, whether or not he could read English or Spanish. Of course it would have been idiocy to put him in prison; the entire case seems like a waste of time. He’s illegal, send him home. But at least English teachers have some practical use.

All the News That’s Fit to Ignore

It’s still 9/11 as I write. This morning my class worked on a lesson about reading newspapers, so I brought in three newspapers just to look at the front page headlines. The Cincinnati Enquirer had a big story on the front page (above the fold) on a firefighters’ 9/11 memorial service, with a large photo. USA Today had a big story on the front page (above the fold) about an air controller who was on duty when the planes struck the twin towers, with a large photo. Today our class went on a field trip to a local television station, where they were preparing reports on various 9/11 memorial activities in the area. The New York Times had nothing on the front page, not even a lead into an inside feature. One of my students suggested it might be because the Times thought such a story might influence the election, and wanted to avoid that. I explained that in fact the Times does want to influence the election, and either the presence or absence of the expected remembrance on this historic anniversary would be influential.

9/12: Today the New York Times has a front-page photo with a link to an inside story remembering a policeman who died in the Towers.


William Safire has a good column on the word nuance as it’s used in recent political blather, along with catharsis and empathy. Nuanced speakers are “unclear, complicated” and thus over the heads of the average bonehead voter. Clarity is for the other side. As for empathy, it would be cathartic if politicians empathized with me.

Open Nose

I’ve written a couple of times about what having your “nose open” means, either sniffing the wind for a new lover, or having your nose busted open. Here’s another explanation, from Sharyn McCrumb’s Nascar novel Once Around the Track. A medieval torture technique was to slit open a prisoner’s nose before execution, thus “his nose is open” was used to describe painful and pointless suffering, as in hopeless infatuation. McCrumb is a scholar and I assume this is historically accurate, but that meaning has died out, as far as I know.

You Will Buy This Magazine

The cover of the October 2008 edition of Esquire magazine was flashing at me in Barnes and Noble, so I almost bought it, but instead I just read about it in the B&N Starbucks. A new technology from a Cambridge, Massachusetts company called E ink, using e-paper, uses a tiny battery to flash images and text from a paper-thin circuit inside the magazine cover. In cool storage the battery may last several months. This issue of Esquire is a limited edition, so you might not find it everywhere, or for very long. It is definitely a collector’s edition and I would have bought it except that the battery will eventually die, and I expect to see more of this technology on other magazines in the future. This issue is selling at the standard price of $5.95.


Trivium pursuit ~ rhetoric, grammar, and logic, or reading, writing, and reckoning: Parvum Opus discusses language, education, journalism, culture, and more. Parvum Opus by Rhonda Keith is a publication of KeithOps / Opus Publishing Services. Editorial input provided by Fred Stephens. Rhonda Keith is a long-time writer, editor, and English teacher. Back issues from December 2002 may be found at Feel free to e-mail me with comments or queries. The PO mailing list is private, never given or sold to anyone else. If you don't want to receive Parvum Opus, please e-mail, and I'll take you off the mailing list. Copyright Rhonda Keith 2008. Parvum Opus or part of it may be reproduced only with permission, but you may forward the entire newsletter as long as the copyright remains.

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