Friday, October 03, 2014

How To Define American Vocabulary Words

I had an interesting question from a student today. Three days a week I teach 11th grade English at a nearby high school. One of my classes is a resource class, which is generally neither here nor there, except that many of my students struggle academically.

One of the regular weekly assignments I have my students do is to define five vocabulary words. (They also look up a synonym, an antonym, and use the word in a sentence.) The words are probably a bit more on the complicated side, but I want to introduce my students to new words, and this is one of the ways I could think of to do so. We just finished the third week of vocabulary words, and before class, a student approached me and said that he had noticed that most of the words we'd been going over so far had their origins in the Middle East. This was an American literature class, though, he noted, so why were the origins of so many of these words of foreign origins? By no means was the student being disrespectful; he seemed genuinely curious as to why I would be introducing words of foreign origin into a class in which American literature was meant to be the focus.

I've been contemplating the student's comment. First, I'm not sure how many words originated in the United States. (I suppose if I were going to be pedantic, I could have made a comment about words originating from other American countries, given that there are two American continents.) I'm certain there are quite a few, but these words might likely be predominantly Native American words. I didn't consider this until much later, anyway. (And then there's the whole concept of English, of which there is more than one: There's American English and British English and South African English and New Zealand English and quite a few others, too, I'm sure. One is not more correct than another; culture and geography, among other factors, affect the growth and development of language.)

Nevertheless, I said that languages often shared words, and that words grew from other languages, but he didn't look convinced. So I asked him how long his family had been in the country. He wasn't sure, he replied, but at least as long as he had been alive. So, I said, theoretically your ancestors could have come from Germany or France, right? (He nodded.) Does your family having come from other places make you less American because of your origins? He said no, it wouldn't. I said the same would be true for words that came to us from other parts of the world. Even though they have different origins, they're now considered part of the English language. He seemed to accept that answer, but I'm not sure to what extent.

I got to thinking about how we do in fact define "English" words (or, for that matter, "American" words). If words created in one country are absconded and used by other peoples, is that word then still technically American or English? Are only words that have Anglo-Saxon roots English? Are only words that have Native American roots American (especially given that Native Americans did not originate in North America)?

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Fitting the Mold

On FaceBook, friend had recently posted a link to an article that advised what to do when one's child doesn't fit into the Mormon mold (the answer effectively boils down to "be kind"). Fitting in is a big thing here in Utah, and as someone who is neither LDS nor originally from Utah, or even this part of the country, I generally and quite often feel very out of place, even when people are friendly. The multiple assumptions include that one is LDS, and, if one is married, that one has multiple children. I am neither LDS (and for many, many reasons I can guarantee that I am not likely to convert), nor do I have children. As a result, once these facts come out, folks often either keep me at arm's distance, or ignore me outright. After four years here, I still feel like an outsider. The politics are not to my liking - they're a bit conservative for my taste - but I have found it difficult to find my footing here. A lot of that had to do with employment; adjuncting is not conducive to making friends (although I've taught at SLCC long enough now that I know my way around, and know quite a few folks). My having begun a new teaching job recently at a high school means that I get to see and interact with the same people on the days that I'm there, which is a nice change.

Ed and I married in our mid-30s. This is "late" by LDS standards, and even by Utah standards, where one is encouraged to marry and have as many children as soon as possible. There are theological implications for neither marrying nor having children, but if one does not marry or have children, one will receive these "rewards" in the afterlife. I wish I knew what the theological implications would be if one did not want to marry or want to have children. (In Catholicism, there is the belief that we are all called to different lives. Some are called to the religious life; some are called to marriage and/or parenthood; others are called to the single life. Each of these is individually valued, and one is not seen as preferred or "better" than the other.)

But here, I don't fit the mold. I am not LDS; I will not ever become LDS. I don't have children; I may never have any. (Well, it's all but guaranteed that I will never have biological children. We have never been through fertility treatments: I have no desire to put us through that, partly for financial reasons, and partly because of our ages; had we met and married 10-15 years ago, I might have felt differently.) Ed and I are trying to adopt, but I have never felt an overwhelming urge for children. I would absolutely welcome the experience of raising a child or two, but I do not feel that my life would be empty or incomplete without them; I do not feel I was "made" for motherhood, nor do I feel that parenthood is necessarily the epitome of one's existence. (I have heard other women say that their "ovaries ached" at the sight of babies; I cannot relate to this.)

Thankfully, I've had few conversations about this, but there are a few examples of disregard that stand out. While subbing this past January, I had a student teacher earlier ask me, in a very matter-of-fact manner, why I didn't have children. Before answering, I briefly considered asking her why she wanted to know, or asking her why there must be a reason why someone didn't have children. She struck me as young, and simply curious and open in the way I was myself 15 years ago; I know I'm guarded and not especially open about my private life with people I don't know, but it would not have occurred to me to ask such a question, mostly because I don't consider it my business.

At a faculty development event at another school, during lunch I sat down alone at a table; a teacher whom I didn't know sat down with me, and we chatted a bit. A third and fourth teacher sat down and ignored me. These three other teachers knew each other and immediately launched into a lengthy discussion about their children. The woman who had sat down first eventually turned to me and asked if I had children. I said I didn't; she paused and said, "...Oh." No follow-up questions, no changing the topic. After making a point of introducing myself to the third teacher who had sat down and hadn't so much as made eye contact with me, I left; I was completely ignored. This just drove home the point that there's a large segment of the population that needs to learn how to talk to folks whose background is different.

I have no idea how I'm supposed to fit into a mold I have no interest in fitting into. Not having children is not unpleasant; my life is not empty or meaningless. Being made to feel like I'm not worthwhile talking to, or that there must be something inherently wrong with my not having children, or that there's a wrong reason for not having children, does hurt me. Even after four years here, I am beginning to feel that I will never quite fit in.

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

A Take on the Common Core

One of my friends posted this video on Facebook, and I got to thinking.

Nye makes some good points. One of the reasons teachers tend to rail against the Common Core is because, depending on the specific school administration or school district, it can feel like we're pressured to teach to the test. (This is not something I've had to deal with myself, but I do know others who feel that way.) There can be little leeway in terms of assignment interpretation or the inclusion of activities or materials that could augment and strengthen instruction. Furthermore, teachers are often judged on how well their students perform on standardized tests, and are sometimes labelled as poor or weak if their students do badly; external and extraneous factors are not taken into consideration. The Common Core can be limiting and confusing, and doesn't always give teachers the ability to provide different or additional levels of explanation or instruction.

That said, I do think it's important that folks learn a broad curriculum that would include science, math, literature and writing, the arts, etc. I've seen homeschooling done well, and I've seen it done badly - folks who don't know their own limitations of what they're capable of teaching ("I'll teach physics AND chem AND advanced calculus AND graduate-level literature! Teaching writing isn't hard; I write all the time!"), or folks who don't think their kids should have to learn anything they don't want to (which can lead to multiple problems down the road, including a refusal to do something the individual doesn't want to do, poor basic writing skills, etc.). I can see why the Common Core is in place, but would like to see massive reforms take place.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Professional Choices (Or The Lack Thereof)

A colleague shared an article ("I Am Not Alone in Wanting the Respect I Deserve. That's Not Whining.") this evening; it was a response to another article ("Is That Whining Adjunct Someone We Want Teaching Our Young?"), written by someone who implied, or said outright, that adjuncts' complaints about the lack of full-time work, and/or their inability to get full-time work, is related to their (my) entitlement issues. It's unkind at best, as well as unkind and an oversimplification of the issues at hand.

People adjunct for a lot of reasons: Perhaps they had, or have, another carer and wish to augment their income, or they're interested in branching out, professionally speaking. Perhaps they're retired from teaching (or another career) and wish to continue working part-time because they enjoy teaching and/or working, and wish to maintain involvement and/or contribute and/or share their personal and professional experiences. And perhaps, like so many more of us, there simply isn't a full-time teaching job to be had.

Adjuncts are not paid well. I am absolutely not complaining about my job; I love teaching at a community college, and truth be told I hope to make a career out of teaching at this level. I am thrilled that I have any teaching job at all, although I find it ironic that I've found it easier to get jobs teaching at three different colleges (jobs for which I am theoretically unqualified or underqualified, given my lack of advanced degree) than teaching at the secondary level of education (something for which I have been trained and for which I maintain my teaching license).

I adjunct because I am paid better and work better hours than most retail or fast food or even in office jobs (there are always exceptions - something else that's a bit sad). I adjunct because I've had generally miserable experiences working in offices, and nearly any office job for which I would be qualified would be a job in which I am not interested, nor would it pay close to what teaching (or even subbing) pays. But mostly I adjunct because I'd rather be underpaid doing something I love than working in a job, however well paid, I hate. I refuse to believe that wanting to teach full time makes me whiny. I would like a full-time job teaching, at a single institution. A job with benefits, and one with regular hours.

I wish I could remember where I read this, but months back I read an article in which a history professor noted that he could not "in good conscience" advise his students to pursue graduate degrees (and the subject of a different rant is why "graduate degree" unilaterally means "Ph.D.").  History is, as I understand it, a very difficult field, and I could see that it might be difficult to apply a degree in history to other careers. However, the writer of this particular column ignored any teaching job that wasn't at a R1-level university. Nothing was said about smaller colleges; nothing was said about community colleges. I replied something to the effect that there are other options that history teachers might consider, such as community colleges, etc., and that perhaps not all history professors (or teachers of other subjects) were necessarily interested in R1 universities.

Another commenter replied that "though [Michelle] may not want to hear it..." before going on to agree with the writer. The other commenter noted that the thing to do was to just pick up and move to where the jobs are. My reply was that there are those who do not have that choice, something that was strenuously disagreed with, especially in the case of the other commenter, who noted that she lived thousands of miles away from her family. No mention of a spouse or school-aged children.

In both the case of the writer and the other commenter, though, this is willful ignorance. If one were interested in teaching at a large, research-centered university, I hope that if one has a spouse, that the spouse is willing and able to pick up and move - made difficult if the spouse is working and has his or her own career. I hope that if there are children involved, it's as easy as moving them. If there are elderly parents to consider, I hope that they do not need care. These extraneous issues were all entirely ignored by the other commenter. Situations must align very well in order for someone to be able to move stakes.

Perhaps the spouse is able to find employment elsewhere, and/or the new job would pay sufficiently to support the entire family. Perhaps there are no relatives that need care. And the children don't necessarily get a say in picking up and moving to another town, state, or country.  But to imply that if one wants a job then one simply moves is an oversimplification of matters at hand for many and shows an unkind disregard.

And to imply that people who adjunct should merely find other work (or stop "whining" and piece work together like so many others who don't work in academia) ignores factors that may keep adjuncts adjuncting. And, come to think of it, this mindset ignores issues those in other jobs face when it comes to low-paying jobs. "Just get another/third/fourth/fifth job" - how practical is that? How about one job that pays well enough to live on?

Friday, August 01, 2014

A Rumination on Rock Concerts

Ed and I went to a Mötley Crüe concert this evening; the band is retiring (after 33 years) and currently going on a final tour, appropriately titled "All Bad Things Must Come to an End." Alice Cooper was their opening act, which was highly appropriate - lots of costume changes and general loudness. We enjoyed ourselves tremendously; when we got home we contemplated various aspects of our only-somewhat-misspent youth, remembering the bad music we listened to, the weird friends we had during our junior high and high school years. It was a fun evening, but I had a few thoughts during tonight's concert.

("Poison" is one of the few Alice Cooper songs I know, and I rather like it, although we were remarking to each other that we both had a few moments of, "Oh, I know that song!" I had that reaction specifically during Cooper's "No More Mr. Nice Guy.")

For starters, as I was the only one actually sitting (because the cost of an actual seat was the same price as the cost of a non-seat on the lawn) while Mötley Crüe did their thing, I felt my chair vibrating because of all the bass. I realized I was rocking out wrong. Plus, I'm pretty sure that we shouldn't have been wearing ear plugs, even though they were really helpful.

("Dr. Feelgood" is the song I remember and know best.)

Second, at various points during the concert, I thought about an episode of The Simpsons in which Homer attends Rock-n-Roll Fantasy Camp; various rockers (Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Tom Petty, and others) teach Homer how to rock out. At the end of camp, Homer gets invited to their concert as an honorary roadie, although of course he misinterprets their invitation, usurps their concert, and starts to rock out, thus eliciting their anger. The rockers hop aboard a devil-shaped car and chase Homer around the stage. As mayhem ensues, Moe remarks that it's good to see the spectacle back in rock.

There were a lot of fireworks during the show, and quite a bit of fire as well. There was also a lot of beer, a lot of tattoos, a lot of big hair, and a lot of cursing coming from Vince Neil.  I almost felt over dressed and too well-mannered (except that every other concert goer I talked to was really nice).