Thursday, August 28, 2008

Flash Drives

Also known as "thumb drives" (if you're very old, I guess, and have a very small thumb).

This has got to be one of the finest inventions of the computer age. I have three of them. The joy is that they're almost totally device-independent (which means they don't care what kind of computer they're plugged into) and quite stable and robust. You do need one (or more—I have three). But I do have some advice:

  • The worst thing about flash drives is that they are easy to lose. Protect yourself. Don't use a flash drive as your only storage place for important stuff. Make sure you frequently back up the drive (your campus server account is a great place to put flash drive info).
  • A flash drive is robust, but not indestructible. Don't run it through the washing machine. If it sticks out of the front of your desktop computer, try not to hit it. One of my students used his for a foot rest, and for some reason it stopped working.
  • They're very easy to leave in a computer lab. I've done it a lot myself. Try to get in the habit of checking any school computer for your flash before you leave. (By the way, you probably shouldn't put anything potentially embarrassing on the flash, just in case it falls into the wrong hands.)
  • You really don't need to spend a lot of money on one. The flash drives with incredibly large capacity were made to store a lot of music and/or photos and/or movies. If you're just storing material for college writing (and backing up your information), a $10 drive should be just fine.
  • Do, however, look at the physical size of your drive. Some of them have very large, bulky, and unnecessary plastic cases around them. Fat drives are a problem on some computers. Buy something slim. A few drives I've seen have a very short plug, combined with a fat body, so they can't even reach into all computer plugs. (I own one like this.) The answer to all these problems is to buy a very simple and cheap short USB extension cord.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Classifying Students

Warning! Politically incorrect message follows!

School begins in less than a week, and all the usual teacher stuff is happening. Department meetings are taking place this week to tell us at the last second that we have to change what we planned for the semester. Copiers are breaking down. Software for online courses is seizing up. Just the usual stuff. I've been at this game for a long time and I know who I'll be meeting this coming Monday. My students break down into several categories that are very obvious from the first week or so.

Top Students
Motivated, well prepared, eager to learn and able to write from day one. These students are often frustrated by my classes because the assignments and the lectures really are below them. Some of them write better than I do.

Bottom of the heap and see no hope
Students walk in and announce, "I can't write, and I never could. No force on earth can turn me into a person who can understand a written page or write something that makes sense." I think some of these people have been mistreated by previous teachers, and now they are making excuses for the lack of effort they will show during the semester. Until this kind of person loses this attitude, there's not much I can do.

Bottom of the heap and arrogant about it
These people come in several flavors:

  • "This class is a waste of time because I'll never write anything anyhow." These students don't understand the realities of the modern business world, but they are probably right about never writing anything again—though they will have to learn to say the phrase, "Would you like fries with that?"
  • "I learned it differently in high school (or somewhere else), so the whole English department is wrong." Let me ask you a gentle question: who is likely to know more—someone who remembers what was said to a class of 14-year-olds by a teacher with a bachelor's degree in general education, or a college lecturer with a master's or doctorate in English composition?
  • "My brand of English is the only right one, so most of what you are telling me is wrong." Whatever you speak—white Kentucky rural, black inner-city, or California surfer—is the only legitimate English? And the people who run businesses and colleges (and give out the money and power) are all wrong? Amazing! Good luck!

Most of my students are in the middle
Kind of OK about writing and grammar and all that. Kind of frightened. Not too sure about how to proceed. This is the easiest group to teach, so most of what I do is aimed here.

What you can do

Top Students: Don't tune out. Stretch yourself. Ask the teacher for permission to do things that might be beyond the basic assignment. Have fun with English composition.

Desperate and frightened: Spend a lot of time with people in the writing lab. Talk to your English teacher about your fears. Don't give up on yourself or take failure as part of your essential identity.

Arrogant: Lose the attitude. College is a waste of time for you if you didn't come here to be changed into something different and better. There's really nothing I can teach you if you're fighting every inch of the way. (By the way, you'll probably fail the course because doing the assignments right and on-time just won't be your thing.)

The ones in the middle: Sometimes you need to pretend you're in the top group: write imaginative stuff, have fun with the assignments, and ask for more intensive work. Sometimes you need to pretend you're in the "Desperate and frightened" group: visit the writing lab and learn to trust in your own abilities. Aim at getting really good at writing.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Daily writing assignments

Lots of courses have little writing assignments, perhaps a page or two at a time. Don't fret. They (probably) aren't going to be graded that tightly on grammar, though you should run the spelling/grammar checker when you write them. Teachers assign these things to find out whether you are actually doing the reading and to get you thinking the way the course thinks. Often these assignments are read very quickly, and the main benefit is to lubricate your brain for class discussion.


  • Actually write them and turn them in. They count for a grade.
  • Think of them as a time to practice the crafts of thinking and writing.
  • Try to think and write the way the course thinks and writes.


  • Be satisfied with a five-word answer. The teacher will think (with some justification) that you didn't give a hoot.
  • Use them as a chance to tell the teacher just what you think of this terrible assignment. The teacher probably thought the assignment was pretty good, and when you say it sucked, you are alienating the guy with the red pen. And there's the possibility that the teacher (and the source material if you had to do some reading) might really know something that you need to take in. Get humble. Figure it out. You aren't the caped crusader, riding in to fix everything that's wrong with the English department.
  • And finally, don't write that you can't figure out this kind of assignment. If you're truly lost, schedule an office appointment with the teacher. This sort of short writing isn't the place to complain about (or even glory in) your ignorance.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Why are titles so difficult?

I'm not talking about coming up with a title to your own essay (though that's pretty difficult for most students too). I'm just talking about basic punctuation. Hardly anybody (like maybe 10% of my students) can do it right, even after I show them how and give them quizzes to check their progress.

It's annoying because this is material that should have been learned in the third grade. It's not a matter of opinion, just a rule. And it has been the same for at least 50 years.

But nobody does it right, and after you read this, you won't either. I can't imagine why.

One More Try

Capitalization and Spelling
If you are referring to something someone else has written, do it their way. Don't fix or change the spelling. The ordinary rule for capitalizing titles is initial caps on everything except small words buried in the middle of the title. Got it?

Titles of big stuff
By "big" I mean books, newspapers, magazines, movies, and TV series. Italicize the whole title. Don't underline it. No quotation marks around it. And certianly don't give it everything: italics and quotes and maybe boldface. Incredibly hard, I know, but that's the rule. Just italics.

  • Will & Grace
  • Batman Begins
  • The Scarlet Letter
  • NOT Batman Begins or "Batman Begins" or "Batman Begins" or Batman Begins

Titles of small stuff
By "small stuff" I mean individual short stories, individual poems (less than book length), episodes of TV series, or articles in newspapers. This rule is even more difficult than the previous one. Put the title in double quotation marks. Not single quotes. Don't italicize or underline or boldface or anything like that—ordinary type.

  • "A Rose for Emily" not A Rose for Emily or anything else.

Ignore Microsoft

They are trying to bring a corporate Microsoft look to your papers (and probably a bit of Broadway too). Just do it the English department way. And ask someone if you don't know how. These rules are actually pretty well known (and show up in all the grammar textbooks).

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Your Bookshelf

I'm going to assume that you don't have much space, so here's a very minimum list of the books you need to have at college (in addition to the required textbooks)

There are several reasons you want actual books, not just online resources. The major one is that internet connections have a nasty habit of failing you at exactly the moment you need to look up "dialectic." They are also slower than having a real book, and don't encourage you to browse up and down the page for similar ideas.

Probably the most important reason is completeness. When I looked up the online discussion of "active and passive voice verbs" in our grammar book, I got a whole 150 words, just enough to tell you how to identify them and that you should probably avoid the passive voice. Hacker's handbook gives 3½ pages, complete with a discussion of places where a passive voice sentence is a better idea, suggestions for editing, and examples. The online resource had exactly one example (and one practice sentence). If you like "college lite," I guess the online grammar thingy is OK, but for those who actually want to learn something, a book is a much better idea.

A Dictionary
Yes, I know that some online dictionaries are quite good (my favorite is Merriam-Webster), but you do need a good, substantial paper dictionary. My favorite in this department is also Merriam-Webster

A Thesaurus
I like the kind that is not made like a dictionary. Roget's International Thesaurus has a system of index numbers at the back that takes you to pages and pages of related ideas, not just a near synonym.

A Grammar Handbook
You probably were required to buy one for Freshman Composition anyhow—but many colleges are going over to online versions. That's a sad thing, because you won't be able to use your handbook after the first year (and those online versions are notoriously difficult to use). Take advantage of the used book mess, and buy yourself a slightly outdated copy of a major handbook. (To give you an idea of price, one book goes for $75 new, but a used previous edition is $3.25.) Here are my recommendations, in order:

  • Rules for Writers by Diana Hacker
  • Little, Brown Handbook by H. Ramsey Fowler and Jane E. Aaron
  • Keys For Writers by Ann Raimes
  • Quick Access Reference for Writers by Lynn Quitman Troyka
  • Prentice Hall Reference Guide to Grammar & Usage by Muriel G. Harris
  • Scribner Handbook for Writers by Robert DiYanni and Pat C. Hoy

If you get into literature

MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers
by Joseph Gibaldi This is really the mother lode of information for English majors, and it's inexpensive! Buy the most recent edition.

A Bible
I'm listing this for literary reasons, not spiritual ones, though I think a habit of Bible-reading is a good one for you to have. A very large number of literary references and allusions go back to the Bible (almost always to the King James Version).

For many of the same reasons you bought that Bible. Get your Shakespeare at a used bookstore and find a "Complete Works."

A Literature Anthology
Get a slightly outdated college textbook used (I'm thinking of Norton or Bedford). You'll appreciate the "how-to" sections when you want to write about poetry or drama, and you'll use it to dig up works by some of the standard authors. Some of the more recent college texts are surprisingly unbalanced—one managed to get through English poetry without a single reference to anything Christian (which meant that John Donne and John Milton were forgotten). The standard works are a nice balance.

At the end of your freshman year, don't:

Don't assume that all of your writing is done with. Don't ditch all your writing books. There just might come a time when you need to write a job application letter or a lab report or a scientific paper. It always makes me sad when students figure that Freshman English is a little like chicken pox: makes you sick, but when it's done with you can forget it for the rest of your life. Maybe that's OK for the fools, but you have a duty to yourself not to be a fool.

Keep your basic library and assume that you'll have to write for years and years.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Apple Survival

I understand (from Apple advertisements, actually) that Apple is now the favorite college campus laptop. I think that's great. I have two Apples and love them, but if you have one, you need to be aware of some basic politics and/or technical issues.

Though Apple might be very popular among students, most campuses are run like big businesses, and have a very hard time ignoring Microsoft's clout. This means that many campus services are set up to work best with Windows and Internet Explorer (things like email, course download sites, etc.). To make things worse, apparently the newest Apple operating system (the one that's been out since October 2007) is different enough from the previous one that it simply doesn't work with some of these Microsoft sites. What to do?

  • Until recently, I would have recommended Firefox as a web browser, but it has trouble with PDF files (screen shots of printed pages). You should try Safari, Apple's built-in browser, first (and ignore warning messages about unsupported browsers). If you have trouble, you can always get Firefox. It's a free, stable download.
  • One of my college servers refuses to accept uploads from the newest Apple operating system, so I use a third-party uploader called Cyberduck.
  • Many of your professors still think that DOC and DOCX files are some sort of universal file format. They aren't, but you probably shouldn't tell the prof that. Instead, you can open them using TextEdit, iWork or NeoOffice. If you have to send anything TO these professors, make sure it's either a DOC or an RTF file.
  • Of course, if you're having trouble getting your Apple to talk to the University, you could simply go to a writing lab and use one of their machines.
  • You could simply buy a copy of the Windows operating system and set up your Apple as a dual-boot machine. I'd call this a last-resort answer because it costs money—and you'll have to invest in an anti-virus program and download an anti-spyware program too (because Windows is so vulnerable to those problems).

BTW: If you ever do a website of your own, please make it standard HTML, not something that requires the rest of us to buy a specific piece of equipment.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Using THAT Word

Every so often I get a student who thinks that (since we're now in college and we're all big boys and girls) it's OK to use the "F" word in an essay. Or some other troubling word, perhaps the "N" word. And I've had students appear in class wearing T-shirts with astonishing words on them (one had cartoons of women's breasts with cute little labels below them, classifying them).

Well yes, we're big boys and girls. In fact, we're bigger than that.

Two questions are really basic to all writing:

  1. Who is your audience? Perhaps some of the people in the room fit best into the "bunch of teenage drunks telling dirty stories" audience, but not all of them do. One in particular who doesn't is the teacher, the guy with the red pen. This red-pen guy also knows that he has a responsibility to protect the interests of everyone in the room, so a T-shirt that offends women, an essay that disparages a minority, or an essay that is generally offensive becomes a problem

  2. What are you trying to do to your audience? There are a lot of legitimate answers to this question: entertain, inform, persuade, and so forth. I doubt if "convince your audience that the author is insensitive and immature" is an aim you should pursue. And if nobody is on your side by the end of the essay, you can't accomplish any aim besides alienating them.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Scary Stuff in Essays

Cleaning out my files (I seem to do that a lot) I came across an essay that gave me the creeps. It gave me the creeps when the student first submitted it. The assignment was to produce a "Researched Opinion Paper." The student wrote a paper advocating torture and execution of sex offenders. Creepy enough when I say it that way, but the level of violence and anger in the writing led me to forward a copy to my supervisor and ask for his opinion. He thought that the student was just an immature blowhard. I hope he's right—we've seen plenty of media examples of people who gave out signals and then did terrible things to people.

Stuff I will report

Many students have been taught in high school that an English paper is the place to dump their deepest feelings and emotions—and that there's some sort of patient/counselor privilege in place, similar to what happens in a psychiatrist's office. Not so.

I'm going to refer anyone who seems to be sending signals about threats of violence and/or damage. If a student writes a suicide note or a threat to harm another person (or even University property), I'll send a copy to my supervisor for advice. It may turn out that the college has an interest in, for example, keeping a student from blowing up someone or something. These papers are not, after all, private messages. They aren't internal musings of a writer. They are public. Which brings up another issue:

Things you shouldn't write anyhow

Quite some time ago, a student wrote about being raped, then pleaded with me not to let anyone else in the class read it. I'm glad, in a way, that she trusted me and that she's dealing with her emotions, but that's not quite appropriate. I'd much rather have her talking to a counselor. I can't guarantee that the other members of the class who read this thing during peer editing will keep her secrets for her. I've had people discuss illegal acts, humiliating secrets, and stuff that's just too private. It's very tempting, when you discover the power of writing, to use it to begin a healing process in yourself. And I encourage you to do so. But do consider whether you want a couple dozen strangers to read your writing. If it's OK, then go ahead. If not, perhaps you should write something else for public consumption and put your private thoughts in a diary or journal. Not on a public blog.

On the other hand

This isn't to say you should always stay "safe." Last semester I asked my students to write a reaction to Andrew Sullivan's "The Conservative Case for Gay Marriage." One student wrote in support of Sullivan, and commented during class discussion that her father is gay and she wanted to make a statement in support of him. You don't have to "play nice" or always be safe. Just be sure that you want your writing to be read by a large group of strangers.