Tag Archives: expression

Tense about helping verbs

I’m tense about helping verbs. It’s come to my attention that there are quite a few of these things and not everyone seems to agree about how many there are. Really? Fifteen or twenty-three or thirteen, and are these all the same modal auxiliaries? WHAT? Sweet Baby Jesus, help me. This is not a precise business, this thing they call the English language. What will I do? I’m stunned by my lack of understanding. Okay, not really. I knew I didn’t know anything about helping verbs, and it made me tense. Got a handbook, though, and some URLS to a few killer pages by grammar gurus.

We all use these words: rough, dough, slough, cough, yet the /ough/ sounds makes no sense whatsoever: rough /uh/; dough /o/ (that would be a long “o” sound); slough /oo/; and cough /ah/.  How does one explain that? Give me a pictographic language any day to figure out. English is crazy. “I before E except after C, or when sounded like A as in neighbor or weigh.”  What? You’re kidding, right?

Helping verbs–sounds so cozy, doesn’t it? Like these are better words than any others because they are helpers. They are the charity of the English language, making up somehow the gaps in need by “helping” us out when we need them most.

Here are some that seem to be prominent: am, as, are, was, were, been, be, can, has, shall, will, do, does, did, have, should, may, might, being, would, must, could, had. Helping verb specialists group these together in bunches sometimes. Egads. Each distinct grouping seems to have something special to help with, too. It’s not just about being helpful, it’s also about being specifically helpful, like the difference between a middle reliever and a closer in baseball. Maybe. I say if you can throw the knuckleball, you belong in the game anywhere.

I can’t teach verbs. I’m not even sure I ever say the word verb very often in classes. I teach thinking and acquisition of communication strategies through writing. I teach that one needs to read so much good writing and learn to recognize bad writing that one can produce what is good when needed. We talk about details and  work deep in text, but I don’t call anything a participle or a conjunction. Damn. Am I a traditionalist? Using models of good writing to teach writing? No, I’m not. I love Hemingway and Faulkner. And Dickens and Woolf. But I wouldn’t teach these authors to help people learn to write… not only. I teach them in literature classes and sometimes allude to the fact that prolific and famous authors can teach us a lot about writing: their writing processes, their work ethics, their struggles, their fears, and their ego-trips. Learn to write by doing what they do–nah–it’s too hard for freshman comp.

And now we know I can’t teach helping verbs… does knowing what a helping verb is mean one has “helping verb knowledge” or does that knowledge help me know about knowing language rather than writing in a language? How do I separate language from writing? Can I? Should I? I must.

I remember, not at all fondly, learning French (after having tanked in Latin, Greek, Russian, Spanish, Italian, and Japanese) and thinking: I’m not learning anything about writing in French. I’m only learning about how the French language is put together and about the various kinds of words and how all parts of speech fit together. I had to have it for graduate school, and it was lovely to listen to my teacher (from Belgium–he frequently got angry at us and ranted in French–it was as pretty as chocolate). But learning the parts of French was about acquiring content of language, not language for speaking or thinking. I was early on frustrated because I was only thinking in building blocks: the legos of language.

I wanted to read and think and write and couldn’t do it very well in French (I think I couldn’t do much beyond read at the 5th grade level). I’m not sure I cared about speaking… that would have meant I’d have to think on my feet and really do some fancy work linguistically. NOT what I wanted. I wanted to read and then learn to think.

I learned 500 verbs, and conjugated a ton of them. I remember manger: to eat. I couldn’t conjugate a French verb now to save my life. Shoot, I couldn’t conjugate an English verb. I had to look up what a helping verb was because I couldn’t remember. I do not write along in English and think, aha, here is the perfect spot for a helping verb. Now, I see it’s time to switch tense. I’m going into pluperfect subjunctive now… check me out! Didn’t I just use a helping verb? YIPPEEE. I’m righteous.

Do you even know what a pluperfect subjunctive is? I thought so. I had to look this up, too. Subjunctive has to do with a verb mood. VERBS HAVE MOODS? This certainly explains a lot about why I am so gushy and overwrought as a writer. My verbs are moody.

What do I do with this as a writing teacher? I can’t explain what I do as a writer, let alone how the language works. I KNEW it. I should have gone to A&P school. (Airframe & Powerplant… yes, that’s right, I was just moody, wasn’t I? It’s tangible work and that has its appeal. I mean, you make the helicopter run or you don’t.)

Now I’ve acknowledged that I really can’t remember a thing about how my own language is put together and only remember one French verb which I cannot conjugate and might have best been an A&P mechanic. And I feel like sometimes I am not a teacher of writing. What do I do?

As a writer, I think I keep doing what I’ve been doing: read a lot of really interesting writing across genres, compelling stuff that rivets me, find blogs that I think are witty, read science fiction whenever I can, read Victorian novels and poetry, read magazines like Smithsonian and National Geographic (and listen to heavy metal–that helps me write). And dream on. Or at least let my brain mess around with words in a variety of ways and formats online and off, in print and invisible, so that I can talk about how writing gets crafted. So MY writing might help me be a better writing teacher or teacher of anything with writing (which is everything I do).

Writing is built. Sometimes, it’s sloppy and people write like they talk and we all know that’s bad, very bad, way bad, burn in the afterlife bad. So those folks who do that need to do more reading–reading like a writer. Hello. How do we think people ever learned to write before now, before the giant freshman comp machine got started in the 19th century? By blowing ink on cave walls? Divine intervention and inspiration? By reading and talking about that reading and investigating that reading. Doh! Reading like writers. There’s an essay I’ve read a few times in Writing Spaces (Volume 2), “How to Read Like a Writer” by Mike Bunn. Try it on for size. It helps me think about how I can be a writing teacher without being able to say what a helping verb is. If there are such things as “helping” essays, then this is one, and Writing Spaces has a load of them.

While I’m tense about helping verbs and nearly everything else that makes up the English language, and I’m apparently woefully ignorant about helping verbs at least, there are a few things I know are right:

1) learning how a language operates is content;

2) learning how to write in a language is hard work and comes long after 1) and sometimes after you’ve forgotten 1);

3) learning to be a writer in a language is about learning how to think in that language; and

4) learning to write with ease in a language, having fun, playing with tone, and phrasing, fooling around with words, is about reading in that language and then finding a groove for what sounds good at a given time for a given audience in a given genre… and being able to do that as a writer, editor, reader of your own writing.

That’s art, not craft, and art is what happens after content is mastered, after craft is mastered, and art is way damn hard. Worth it, yes, but hard. Writing students should learn that. So.

What makes me think freshman, 18-19 year old students right out of high school, or nontraditional students out of college for 5-10+ years, have the content of language all figured out so that I can teach them about higher order critical thinking and advanced writing strategies? I would be wrong if I thought students were all set in content of language knowledge. I need to teach that, including, (oh help me) helping verbs, as I teach the thinking stuff… think first, own your knowledge, write, edit, publish. Repeat.

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Writing, dance, and math

Why don’t I teach dance, writing, and math together?  All three do the same thing: communicate.

Writing: expression.

Dance: expression.

Math: expression.

And there we have it.  Patterns, planning, movement, revision, stories, practice, rehearsal, communication, symbols, letters, signs, meaning. Word problems. Story problems. Honestly. Who writes about this intersection? Where would a logical place for such speculation be found? Here. Because I’m doing it right now. But where else? There must be interdisciplinary journals I’ve never dipped into whose authors write about the connections between math, dance, and writing. Perhaps a chapter in an open educational resource like Writing Spaces might be appropriate, if such linkage could illuminate something vital about writing for college students. Do we need to explicitly draw the lines between movement studies, writing studies, and mathematics? We might do well to shed disparate learning environments in colleges/universities.

Right this minute, I’m not sure what to do with this idea, so I’ll just keep wondering and wandering. If I take just a moment to envision the implications of all three subjects in one space, I can envision writing workshops in which math and movement are linked with writing projects in 2D, 3D, video, audio, numbers, words, paper.  I’d need a really big room with lots of space and computers and smart boards and cameras and lots of natural light. And an ash floor for moving around, lots of support and give–I love to dance on ash wood floors. And loads of mirrors. Dancers need to see dancing. Lots of paper, too. All kinds. And we’d need pens, crayons, chalk, paint, charcoal, pencils, ink, and a whole lot of “I don’t care how messy it gets.”  Younger students, older students, any students. We’d tell stories with everything we have.

Right this minute, as I’m writing, I’m listening to music. And, you may need to sit down for this one: phantoms dance in my mind’s eye with each note of every song, always, haunting me, calling me to move again, to see how words and numbers and counting and movement all come together, 5, 6, 7, 8.  Always someone is dancing when I hear music. Sometimes it’s me dancing, but mostly it’s someone else I choreograph for, someone else who dances now. When I was a dance major, I was required to take choreography. The course was called “composition” because we composed stories for our bodies to tell. I think we must have counted to 1 billion through the semester.  We composed.  We moved.  We moved others.  We counted, we moved, we composed.

Sharp intake of breath.

(That felt self-indulgent as I am just now working out the depth of the bonds in my mind between math, dance, writing, and, really did feel like I should inhale on the screen, for my own sake, and in case no one noticed THAT, I needed to reinforce the fact that I am just now working this all out here by drawing attention to the textual inhalation in a lengthy parenthetical–wish I could figure out how to use footnotes in a blog–I love Infinite Jest.  So. Skip ahead if you like because this next reference is so odd that it might make you, Gentle Reader, want to click away, though it does directly connect to baseball, mentioned later on: would Crash Davis, a faded/fading/starmaker/mentor/catcher in Bull Durham, call blogging self-indulgent crap like he did the works of Susan Sontag? It does seem self-indulgent, especially right this minute. But crap? I rather like to think blogging is a way to selectively unclutter my mind and explore ideas about writing which might lead to professional and personal happiness. Blogging: an online highway to happiness. Self-indulgent? Maybe. Crap? Hell no. Who cares what Crash Davis thinks anyway? He’s fiction.)

Back to my anaphora: “right this minute” (See how footnotes would have been so great here. I could have attached a footnote to the phrase at it appears a third time below and avoided another break in your reading, and my writing, and still kept this terribly pithy reference to rhetorical figures of speech in here somewhere–my favorite figure of speech is anaphora. The Wikipedia authors on the term say Charles Dickens was well-known to use anaphora. Of course. Of course it’s my favorite figure of speech.)

Right this minute, as I write, as I listen, as I dream, while I may be indulging myself in words and thinking, I know this, too: I miss quadratic equations. Oh, differential calculus, why did I let you get away? I loved you so much.

One day, long ago, when I used to say silly things like, “I love to read, but I can’t write,” I pasted a nine-page calculus problem on my dining room wall to figure out where I’d gone wrong. Something had been bugging me about the problem or formula–I don’t even remember it now–and I couldn’t find a solution for hours, perhaps days. On the wall, everything changed. I saw three things: a dance, a story, and the answer. The wall nearly came alive; the math certainly did. It was art, it was text, it was formula, it was freedom, it was the future.

I never said “I can’t write” again. I solved problems with numbers, text, movement–it was, for a time, all the same to me. I knew everything was story, everything was moving, numbers were everything. Math taught me how to think and wonder; dance taught me how to move, how to achieve control and exuberance together; writing teachers/tutors taught me how to be patient and persistent…all of which I needed to communicate through the symbols we call letters, arranged in words, arranged in sentences, in paragraphs, in essays, in books, on the web.

Are there texts on the intersections of these three disciplines out there and I missed them? Totally possible. Instead of exploring this topic by searching a marvelous library database this evening, I am reading two frivolous texts as I recover from my week: a book on the history of cocktails and a collection of short stories by Edwidge Danticat. (She might quibble with me about calling her writing frivolous–it’s not at all–but it sure occupies that space as I have a lot of other work I should be doing that I am purposely, and successfully, avoiding by reading those two books and writing here. Damn. Am I frivolous? What if I am? Damn again.)

Are writers writing about dance, math, and writing? Could be. Where are the dancing mathematician writers? You are my people.

I desperately wanted to study more about all three together in my master’s program in grad school, but I got sidetracked by bad knees, Samuel Beckett, then baseball. No kidding. The rhetoric, sociolinguistics, and mythology of baseball–not a bad thing but not THIS. Not writing, math, and dance. When all three meshed, I felt like there wasn’t anything I couldn’t do–a mind, body, spirit thing, perhaps, maybe, might could be.  Might could be it’s still a mind, body, spirit thing.

Math, writing, dance: even when I don’t consciously think about them, they weave together always, a tapestry of meaning wrapped snug around me like a smooth, thick, well-worn cloak in winter warming me to the core as I begin to think my education was never about getting a degree.

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Industrial Light and Magic at 35… and writing studies

As I watch a 35-year anniversary documentary about Industrial Light & Magic (ILM), I have begun thinking about the ways writing studies has changed in the same amount of time… or nearly so.

I’m thinking specifically about my life in this time, my writing, my education in literature and composition/rhetoric (better named writing studies?).  I was just called the “queen of change” on Facebook a week or so ago because I’m been listening to Bob Dylan’s “Things Have Changed” a lot and creating a playlist for Darwin because I’m teaching Darwin this semester (who doesn’t love Darwin and his big change?  Don’t ask.).  I embrace change because it’s poetic.  It’s life.  It’s my life.  It’s a way to live.  But change is very hard for many people.  Extremely hard.  Scary.  Still it can be incredible.

Many of the ILM folks in the documentary talk about the change that happened because of ILM’s innovations and the difficulty they encountered over the years in changing–they pushed hard to innovate and create opportunities for others to change and see the world differently.  Artists were reluctant to embrace the new computer generated art/characters/etc.  When one artist moved from the art department to the computer department, it was said she “went to the dark side of the force.” (Okay, settle in, it’s a long parenthetical: the documentary is a love letter from ILM to ILM, so I get that, but it’s not wrong–ILM has done amazing work–and do you know Edutopia?  A George Lucas-funded online resource for K-12 teachers.  I visited for years when I was designing curriculum for K-12.  I have been reading Owen Edwards for ages–a great writer/editor for Edutopia and Smithsonian–I like his work for both.  How does that happen?  A writer for Edutopia and Smithsonian?  His piece on making hot chocolate in Mexico was stirring in the Smithsonian.)

ILM changed my life as it did for many others–who hasn’t been affected in some way by Star WarsIndiana Jones and ____?  Transformers?  (Not the second Transformers.)  I still make references to these films and watch them with my son and students.  And the latest Star Trek?  It made me want to teach Star Trek and argument: race, class, gender.  And it was just what I wanted it to be: stunning.  I’m a creature of my generation and my generation is a visual one and my students loved the reading about writing, the thinking about the visual, and watching movies and episodes of Star Trek.  And my generation grew up on ILM.

(Are you still musing over the link between ILM/George Lucas/Lucas Films, Ltd. and an education online resource as great as Edutopia?  I am.  I always am.)

So in these past 35 years what sorts of changes have occurred in English?  Teaching writing in writing classes rather than teaching literature in writing classes.  Whole degrees in writing.  Master’s and PhD’s in writing.  This change is still frightening for some.  But like the ILM artists who feared CGI, but converted, or actors who feared blue/green screens, but managed to perform, so have many moved from literature to writing and many now can embrace the discipline of writing on its own.  But disciplinary change is not new.  Remember back at the end of the 19th century and early 20th century when ALL kinds of educated folk were up in arms over the ghastly change from classic Greek/Latin education in universities to a more practical education in vernacular…even, hush your mouth, studying modern literature?  It was revolutionary, roguish, daring. And women allowed in higher education, too.  Good heavens.  It wasn’t all that long ago.  Neither was allowing women to vote.  My grandmother was among the first women to vote in this country.

How hard was it for English literature professors to find validation from classics professors?  I wonder, but I wouldn’t be surprised at answers that included: hard, damn hard, impossible.

So change is hard.  And though lots of folks have moved from teaching writing about literature to teaching writing, not everyone has taken that trek.  Change theory is, perhaps, applicable here, especially as we are now, and for the last score of years, undergoing another change in thinking facilitated by the googleverse.  There are a number of theories to help us think about how change happens in communities, organizations, institutions.  Mostly the ones I know are social theorists, human performance improvement gurus, and instructional systems designer types.  But could such theories bring some peace to change within a discipline?  Sure.  Why not?  Kurt Lewin is a good place to start (that’s right, a Victorian, at least by birth); there could be worse places to start, but I like the historical, chronological, 20th-century sweeping approach to learning.

Back to the initial thinking: is writing studies/composition/rhetoric part of a big ol’ change in how the world goes round?  Like ILM is to special effects?  Sort of.  We do ask the world to see things in a different way than they have ever seen things before?  We say writing is worthy of study.  We ask people to understand it’s a field, a discipline, and they do.  Mostly.

Specifically, I think it’s the magic part that equates what we do as writing professionals in writing studies to the pros at ILM.  Hard work=magic in my experience.  ILM gurus break down the hardest possible tasks into the smallest possible pieces so that they can manage a system to create something complex and meaningful that we can all see.  We do that, too.  We demystify writing, break it down into smaller pieces so something complex and meaningful can be created… that we all can see. We ask students to pay attention to the person behind the curtain.

ILM gives us the ability to believe what we see–that is the magic they do.  We give students the ability to believe they have the skills to write or can acquire them.  It’s a kind of magic.

Change is hard; no one wants to do it; but when it’s done right, it’s magic; with open educational resources becoming a bigger player on the college scene, the magic is spreading.  Are we wizards?  Writing Spaces…like magic.  Maybe we are a little bit wizardly.  But we are definitely the people behind the curtain, too, showing students how they can make their own magic happen.

And may I say: what a fine documentary.  What a lovely way to spend an hour.  What a nice moment of joy and inspiration.  What a grand connection between special effects and writing.  Lucky me.  Watch whenever you can as often as you can.  I liked it so much I forgot Tom Cruise was the narrator.

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