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Sunday, December 28, 2003

 
Where's Dana?
December 24-25 - Chelsea, MI, with Mark's family
December 26-31 - Raleigh, NC, with my family
January 1-4 - Cape Cod, for Ellie's wedding, for which I am a bridesperson

Interesting tales to come:
-Christmas, Part I: Michigan
-Christmas, Part II: Raleigh
-New Year's: The Wedding

 
Quick Christmas Quote
My dad's younger brother, Bruce, about Mark: "I know he's disturbed... Not that that's a bad thing."

My other uncle Bruce, after meeting Mark for the first time: "He's tall, diabetic, interested in computers, and mostly left-handed. You came as close to having me as you could."

Tuesday, December 23, 2003

 
Image
There is a tiny little round gray and black bird perched on the side of our building right outside the window, pecking at the bricks and squeaking, while the giant, fat, fluffy snowflakes fall down behind it.

Just thought you should know.

 
Dwelling on Dwelling
"If we are all experiencing the world of sensory stimulation and overstimulation at different rates at different times in vastly different patterns, this information suggests that it is not just those with hypersensitivity or hyposensitivity wo are living 'in other worlds.' We must all, whether in subtle or dramatic ways, be experiencing very different lives even while sharing them."
-Patricia Stacey, The Boy Who Loved Windows

"I do not think anyone should be expected to defend the inner workings of their own mind to others. I become more and more convinced that telepathy would not work, as it seems more and more like everyone thinks on a slightly different wavelength, and we'd never be able to get them to match up. True communication is elusive; often the appearance of such is decieving. I think this true communication with others is a dream I may have to give up on. This is most unfortuate, as it has driven the majority of my pursuits in life, on one level or the other. I seem to be having to content myself an awful lot with the simple window dressings of communication lately, such as coherent, complete sentences, that nonetheless fall short of what I was trying to express."
-me, December 2001

"Thoughts on language: Actual spoken language is good for communicating hard, fast, establishable ideas, or even better, facts. It can state the obvious or the frivilous with comparative ease. Where is breaks down is in trying to convey the abstract, the emotional, the vague uncertainties of the depths of our brains where even we, the supposed operators of that mysterious and supremely personal organ, seldom delve. Perhaps it is a kind of giving up that I have turned to a manic study of foreign languages; I no longer concentrate on adequate expressing the inexpressable, but rather on facilitating the expression of the frivilously expressable as many ways as I can, since that is the most I can ever hope for."
-me, March 2002


 
Overheard
At Meijer the other day, from a woman with a seeing-eye dog: "You know, digitally remastered video just does nothing for me."

Seen on the sweatshirt of a math prof in the elevator: "Here's looking at Euclid."

From Mark: "In which manner henceforth, auburn McMoo?"

Sunday, December 21, 2003

 
Holiday Elves
Yesterday was a rather holiday-ish day. I made the traditional Chex mix on my own for the very first time, and it turned out just as addictive as what my mommy makes. I did discover that next time I should separate the mix onto two baking sheets, because really, 9 cups of various Chexes is too much for one pan. I guess that's why the recipe calls for a roasting pan. Too bad we don't have one. Why is Chex mix so addictive? It is a good thing that I only eat it in large quantities once a year. Besides, if I ate it any other time, I think it would lose its magic, kind of like when I realized that Dairy Queen existed other places than the beach and I could eat Blizzards anytime I wanted to. It's not quite as special anymore.

Also, Mark and I win the prize for the most over-engineered present design and wrapping ever. (Yes, that is really the present. No, it is not fake or from the Twilight Zone. It is merely Photoshopped to remove the ugly carpeting for your viewing pleasure.) This is what happens when I have no access to years' worth of collected boxes. We must resort to creativity to disguise the presents, and then creativity in wrapping them, so they appear nearly seamless on all four sides of the pyramid. Don't you wish you knew what was inside?

Saturday, December 20, 2003

 
Wintry Picture Post
Yesterday, Mark spent 9 hours reconstructing his desk in the office/library/study room of our apartment. I helped, but I also went to karate for 3 hours in the middle, so he did most of the work. This is what it looked like before, and this is what it looked like after. The most impressive bit is what you can't see. Most of those hours of reconstruction were given to Mark meticulously organizing all the cords and wires into little plastic tubes so they no longer become big tangled masses. Here is Mark sitting triumphantly in his new and improved natural habitat. Here's me stealing his chair for a minute.

Part of this new, wonderful set up is the addition of a KVM switch, so Mark can now switch the big monitor between being an auxiliary monitor for his laptop and being the monitor for the actual desktop computer. This is good because 1) it's really neat and a cool new toy for Mark to play with and 2) because it means that properly downloading all the digital pictures taken with his camera and getting them ready to post is much easier. Thus, I now have a ton of pictures I can post. Looky!

We have a Christmas tree.

We also have a garland with purple lights on top of our china cabinet of books.

For a few weeks now, it's been cold enough for the pond to really freeze.

And then, it snowed on top of it! Yay, snow!

A big fat birdie came and sat in the snow on the balcony for a long time.

Here's a better look at the birdie. I love being on vacation.

Hope you're having a good winter vacation and holiday season, too!

Thursday, December 18, 2003

 
Effective Habits, To Teach or Not to Teach?
The musings below, (for which I encourage anyone who might actually be reading this to send their thoughts on thoughts to me at linguisticlife@yahoo.com,) have led me to further thoughts that are actually related to my field of study. One of the last things we covered in my Methods of TESOL class was teaching reading and vocabulary strategies. For each section of the course, we had looked at various research studies into each category. Many studies have been done which compare the study/reading strategies of more proficient learners, the obvious idea being that by identifying these strategies, we can then teach them to other learners, and they will become successful learners as well.

There's a problem with this idea, though, which has been brought up by other researchers. Should we, in effect, teach these other students how to think? Should we assume that it is the strategies that make for success, rather than the converse idea that it is because the students are successful that they can make proper use of such strategies?

Everyone thinks differently. Even if all highly literate people share the same reading strategies, which is doubtful, this is likely a product of the inherent mental bent that causes them to have an affinity for literacy. If someone asked a math genius to explain to me his or her mental strategies for solving a complex problem, I doubt I would be able to force my own mental strategies into the same pathways. The strategies people employ to excel in their own ways are rarely things they learn to do, they are simply things they do.

While studying the effective habits of successful learners in various fields is quite interesting, I don't think it will be helpful as a way to produce more, equally wonderful students simply by teaching them strategies for learning. It will be good and interesting observational data, and probably useful as a predictive measure for what a child may be good at, but not a way to change thought patterns in students' minds.

Thus, my example of how I know how to spell things is just an example, not direction on how to do it. I just want more anecdotes from other people on what they can do, in whatever area. The human mind is an amazing thing.

 
Thinking About Thinking and Spelling
My friend Will is keeping a running list of the "100 Best Words of All Time" over at grinnellplans, (which, unfortunately, you cannot see unless you have a plan of your own, so take my word for it). The latest entry is "polyglot," with the definition listed as "a mixture or confusion of languages or nomenclatures." This is a true definition, but the one I have more commonly heard and use is "speaking or writing several languages" or "one who can speak or write several languages." The first time I remember this coming up was when I was taking my first linguistics class, and it was mentioned that "polyglot," one who speaks many languages, should not be confused with "linguist," one who studies language, although the two categories often overlap.

This got me thinking about analyzing language, and then a strange chain of following links from blog to blog got me to an entry on how people think, which is an old favorite recurring subject for my own internal musings. The author says something about how he used to think his thought processes were totally "prosaic," but now he realizes that, compared to other people, the connections he makes are actually rather unique. Which reminded me of how I remember how to spell correctly.

There are many people out there who claim that English has an utterly systemless system of spelling, they despair of ever spelling things properly, why can't we just have some logical, phonetic system that would be so much simpler, and they shouldn't be penalized for not being able to spell because it's the language's fault, not theirs. I did not understand this for the longest time. I thought I knew how to spell just because I read so much, and therefore anyone else who read a lot should be an equally proficient speller. Not so. My friend Kateri in elementary school, one of the few people who read as much as I did, was one of the worst spellers I knew. My dad was asking me how to spell words when I was only in second grade. Mark has me proofread most of his Techexplained articles. All well-read people, all not-so-great spellers. So my theory that just seeing properly spelled words in books made good spellers was disproven.

Well, maybe it was because I had a good shape memory. I could just remember the shape of the word, my visual memory providing me with the proper order of the letters. But a lot of people who can't spell for themselves can recognize a misspelled word in something else that they're reading, so that probably wasn't it either.

At some point, someone asked me to spell something for them, and I had to think for a minute, and I realized what I was doing. I link from the word I'm trying to spell to a related word, such as the verb form of the noun, or the noun form of the adjective, because often the other form has a slightly different pronunciation, due to the shift in syllable stress, and what is the evilly ambiguous English schwa becomes a more pronounced individualized vowel sound. Or I'll try to think of another word that I do know how to spell that has the same prefix or suffix. It's all a giant word web in my mind. A challenging word sends my brain bouncing from link to link to link, like a puzzle.

Maybe it makes me a giant dork, but I think spelling is fun. Whenever I write papers, I have a running competition with the spell-checker to see if it will catch anything that isn't a name or a word in a foreign language. It's all just a big mental game. It took me a while to figure out that other people don't think like this.

How do you spell things? Do you have a different mental quirk that's fun for you, but not for others? How do you do it?

Wednesday, December 17, 2003

 
Chameleon
Last night, we had dinner with Mark's aunt Inch. Well, his uncle Bruce was there, too, but we've had dinner with him before, so it really was more of a dinner with Inch that happened to be at Bruce's house. Inch is apparently given to asking broad, open-ended questions just to see what kind of answers she'll get. One of the ones from last night was:

"How are you the most sensitive?"

That was it, no added bits to tell whether she meant physically, emotionally, or what have you. What would you choose?

Mark chose the bottoms of his feet as the most ticklish parts of his body. He did explain that he is ticklish on every single external bit of of his body, including his teeth. He can tickle himself by simply rubbing the tips of his fingers together, which he demonstrated. I don't think I could deal with being that constantly ticklish myself, but watching him squirm is great entertainment.

I chose linguistically. All my life, I've been good at verbal imitation. My mom says that when I was a baby, I could sound exactly like the baby goats that our neighbors had, but when someone told me how people were supposed to imitate the sound of goats, I lost the ability. My dad always thought it was freaky that every Christmas after my cousin Adam got there, I'd walk around sounding like I was from New Jersey for a few days. If there is anyone around me with a distinctive speech pattern, I'll pick it up for the next few hours, at least. I turn into a verbal chameleon.

This extended to my social interactions, especially in high school. There were so many people around, and I had so many different classes with different people, little introverted me didn't want to bother with truly interacting with them, because that was stressful and tiring. Instead, I'd become invisible. Becoming invisible doesn't mean becoming silent, though; it means blending in. The best way, I found, to avoid a confrontation or at all probing conversation is to tell the person exactly what they want to hear. People generally have some answer or response they anticipate hearing, and they'll only really stop to take notice of you if they hear something unexpected. I turned out to be pretty good at anticipating those expectations. Outside of the very small group of people I actually liked in high school, I think I got through the vast majority of all 4 years there without ever expressing an opinion that was truly mine.

There are probably a lot of people who think that this kind of chameleoning into my social surroundings sounds insincere or dishonest. I don't know, maybe it is. I don't do it nearly as much anymore. But for a long time, it was my coping method for dealing with having to be social when I really didn't care to be. Introverts are not people without social skills, they are simply people who find exercising said social skills too often to be tiring. One of the best definitions of introverts and extroverts I've heard is that introverts are people who draw energy from being alone, and extroverts are people who draw energy from being around others.

So I suppose, in a way, I consider my chameleon powers to be a necessary power saving feature on the Dana Interactive Introvert model.

Monday, December 15, 2003

 
The Truly Educated Never Graduate
Q: So, what do you want to do after you get your degree?
A: Get another one.

A while ago, I got a brochure in the mail from St. Louis University about getting a master's degree in Spanish at their campus in Madrid. Basically, I could get another MA by spending a month in Madrid, three summers in a row. Three master's degrees in three years? Hell yeah. The prospect of spending three summers in Spain? Gee, darn, guess I'd find some way to force myself.

It isn't that I need another degree. I'm already scheduled to get two from MSU as it is, and yes, I do remember this. Some *cough*my mother*cough* have said that they think getting a third degree would be overkill and perhaps interpreted by some PhD programs as a sign of lacking commitment. Overkill I grant you, but it'd be fun, no? As for the other, I don't think an MA in direct continuation of my BA major would be a bad thing, and besides, it's tangentially related to linguistics.

Maybe it's just because I'm destined to be a perpetual student that I'm interested in this. During the summer is even convenient timing, if I had the money. I am inclined to think, however, that I am really interested in pursuing this because I am being driven insane by my current program. My assistantship only pays for 12 credits' worth of classes, which means I get to take 3 a semester, which is really all I can do while teaching anyway. But because there's only 3 per semester, and I want to get both degrees in 3 years, I have to take only the basic, required, stultifyingly boring TESOL classes. No room for foreign language anywhere in there. What, you're pursuing a degree in linguistics and you want to study foreign language at the same time? Surely you jest. How irregular.

I have taken a foreign language class every single semester of my life since I entered sixth grade. I studied German all through middle school, switched to Spanish in 10th grade, took Spanish and Japanese simultaneously in 12th grade and again during my second year at Grinnell, took Maputh√ɬľngun during my semester in Chile, took Spanish and Chinese simultaneously for a semester in my final year at Grinnell, and studied Japanese on my own while in Japan. All this focus on teaching ESL with nothing to stimulate my own mind is about to drive me crazy. Always before when I had to deal with a lot of other boring classes, I at least had my foreign language class to look forward to. I want to go to Spain and take classes that look like fairly close repeats of what I did at Grinnell just because I'd have the chance to actually exercise my own mind again for a change.

When I got back from Japan, at first it was a relief because I was suddenly, blessedly literate again. But soon I realized it felt like my brain was only running at half-capacity, because I was surrounded with pretty much nothing but easily, automatically understood English. I didn't have to concentrate to understand conversations around me, and as a result, the mundane was rendered... mundane. Communication with people in my everyday life holds no challenge, except with my students, and then it's a challenge to simplify my language enough to get them to understand, rather than reaching and stretching my mind to the limits for that half-remembered vocabulary word that I learned yesterday. When half the German department got into the elevator with me one day on my way to teach, I felt more at home in the only partially understood language flying around me than I sometimes do surrounded by English.

I came back from Chile feeling more confident in myself than I ever had before, knowing I could handle anything thrown at me. I came back from Japan to feel mostly frustratedly bored. Will I ever be satisfied living in my native surroundings again?

I think I'll just dream about running away to Spain right now.

Friday, December 12, 2003

 
Elegance and Style
On Wednesday night, we went to the French Family Fete, as hosted by Mark's aunt and uncle. The invitation, a fancy affair unto itself, said cocktails and dinner, beginning at 6:00. We got there at almost 8:00, after a long, circuitous adventure in driving all around a rather unfortunate neighborhood of Detroit, only to find ourselves, obviously, on the wrong Hendrie Lane, as the one we wanted was in Grosse Pointe Farms, which is an altogether different sort of neighborhood.

When we finally did get to where we were actually supposed to be, I was amazed at first, the neighborhood, and second, the house. Every house there was huge and decorated in style that epitomizes the word "tasteful." As Mark was attempting to navigate through the half-remembered neighborhood of part of his childhood, he casually muttered to himself, "Right, so the yacht club is over there, which means..." I felt a bit like I had stepped into a movie.

When we got to the door, we were greeted by a small Irish woman who offered to take our coats and get us something to drink. Mark says that this is the woman Henry and Hadley "have in" to serve at parties. Henry is Mark's father's brother, and in that generation of the French family, the boys all went to boarding school, and when at home, still dressed for dinner, so everyone at the party, including us, was dressed nicely. Mark's 10-year-old cousin Welling was in a coat and tie, even. At shortly after 8, we were all directed to the dining room to begin the meal.

The dining room itself was a sight to behold. It was painted a glossy crimson red, with white baseboards and molding. There were three round tables set up, two for adults and one off to the side in a nook for the children. Each place was set with a gold-painted plate, a red wrapped present centered on each one, and had an old-fashioned Christmas popper above the dessert fork in red and gold. The seats alternated male/female, with name cards, of course, and when we opened the presents, it turned out that all the women had gotten lavender-scented shoe stuffers, and the men tiny mini power screwdrivers. The kids got toys of some sort.

The first course was thinly sliced ham with two canteloupe slices laid flat to form a circle around the edges of the plate over the ham. This course was followed by the main course, deviled chicken with sides of pasta and salad. Hadley told us the chicken recipe was one said to have been served to the Queen of England. It would appear that the queen eats well. Dessert was a pastry cut in half, filled with peppermint stick ice cream, and topped with hot fudge. After dinner, we retired to the living room to admire the Christmas tree, discuss Hadley's art glass collection, and drink coffee.

Truly, I wish I'd had a camera, although it would have no doubt been gauche to wander around their house taking pictures, because the entire evening was overwhelmingly visual. There were also a lot of names I was supposed to remember, but I think the image of the dining room is going to make a more definitive and lasting impression.

Wednesday, December 10, 2003

 
Parallels
*Warning* This is what happens when I am not allowed to take any interesting classes, in a wider variety of subjects. The need to analyze like a good liberal arts grad comes bubbling up, and it has to come out somewhere. *Warning*

Raymond E. Feist is acknowledged by many, (or at least many in the small subset of the world I call my own,) as one of the staple names in modern fantasy literature. I read his books back in middle school, and I thought they were nifty. I bought a bunch of them, and checked out what I didn't buy from the library. My personal sci-fi/fan book collection is what some might term "vast." Just because it takes up a 7' shelf, too. I term it "adequate" and "pleasing." Now that I am back in the same country as all of my books, I decided to re-read all of my Feist the last time I was trying to decide on something new to read. This time around, more things are striking me.

As mentioned, I read these books back in middle school, upon my discovery of the genre. I hadn't read any Tolkien, or any other classic works, for that matter. I read anything and everything that seemed remotely interesting. And this is not the lead-in to saying that Feist now seems like a bad writer to me. He doesn't. It's just that his first book is not quite as original as I remembered it.

Really, now I'm reading his work after having read some truly, utterly outstanding writers, and after having read his own Rift War series all the way to the end, and it makes his first book look like what it actually is - his first book. It honestly had not occurred to me before that his main world, Midkemia, is a total rip-off of Middle Earth, except without hobbits. He's got men, elves, dwarves, goblins, dark elves, rangers, and another character who might as well be Strider. In the beginning, it's kind of like he's not bothering to really flesh out his world to make it stand out as original, because he figures his readers will fill in all those familiar old fantasy details. If he didn't obviously have something special in mind for his main character, had I only started the series now, as an adult, I doubt I'd have kept going. It's when he finally gets around to introducing the invading people from the planet on the other side of the rift that his series starts to stand out.

And it was when he introduced this second culture and had his characters begin to mix on both sides after being captured that the story begins to get truly interesting, but also when it started to give me bizarre flashbacks to what I had just written about The Last Samurai. Cross-cultural interactions offer much fodder for stories, and my mind likes to make links between disparate items. I've been fighting the urge to go through my senior Spanish seminar notes on orientalism, exoticism, and the portrayal of minorities and cultural mixing (usually in colonial settings) in Spanish cinema. If I'm not careful, I'll find myself writing academic papers for fun. That can't be healthy.

I'm glad I started reading the Rift War from the other side of the rift, with the Empire trilogy that Feist co-authored with Janny Wurts. His writing in combination with hers just seems so much more mature, the world far more fleshed out and original, the dialogue and character interactions more natural and refined. The most interesting thing about the two trilogies side-by-side, I think, is that they are separate, but with enough connections to make one want to go read the other side for more. It isn't necessary to start with Feist's original series on Midkemia, because that series only lightly touches on the intricacies of Tsuranuanni culture, all by direct explication from informants to Midkemian characters who've never been there. The same is true on the Empire side, where the main character is only lightly linked to the Rift War and never actually journeys to Midkemia. Both trilogies stand alone, but become more rounded when the reader reads both.

I wonder how many other series I have on that shelf that I'll find myself over-analyzing from the more removed perspective of greater age. I'm glad to be back with my books. They give my brain something to occupy itself with, much as they did in middle and high school. What strange things to equate graduate school with.

Other strange parallels in my life, beyond grad school = middle/high school and Feist = The Last Samurai include:

-Pat at the ELC, whose family all live in Sendai, also used to live in Homestead Apartments, my current abode.
-Mark's friend Gene's mother is Japanese and is currently teaching a course at Tohoku University in Sendai, which I noticed because she had written the phone number on the kitchen calendar for Gene and his sister to call, and I recognized the area code.
-And of course, these two things also link back to Japan, which links to cross-cultural interactions, which links back to the original point of this story, so now our circle is complete. The end.

Monday, December 08, 2003

 
The Last Samurai
On Saturday, I got to see The Last Samurai. When I saw the trailers for it in Japan, I had my doubts. It looked like a movie with huge potential for being screwed up, like some bad movie take on Sho-Gun. I say unto you now, it was not. It was, in fact, amazing.

As frequently happens with movies that I don't think will be good, and then it turns out they are, it's because the trailers incredibly simplified what the movie was going to be about, reducing it down to the thing they think is going to sell the most tickets. While this is certainly an understandable strategy, it often has a reverse effect on me. Another issue with this particular movie is that Mark has started kendo classes, and his instructor said that the way Tom Cruise is weilding a sword in one of the trailers is bad enough form he'd be lucky to cut the guy's shirt, let alone do any damage to the opponent's body. As it turns out, that was an anomalous shot, and the various swordplay critics I saw the movie with were all pleased.

While war and battle strategy is certainly central to this movie, since that is why Capt. Algren is brought to Japan to advise the troops, that isn't really the focus of the movie at all. The true focus is cultural collisions, as seen within Meiji-era Japan, certainly, but even more strikingly within the various characters themselves. The emperor is building his own modern army to put down the samurai rebels trying to make felt the equal importance of Japan's traditional past. The emperor's advisors all urge for Westernization, as is emphasized by their clothing and manner. They are the ones responsible for bringing over the American military advisors.

It is with Tom Cruise's character, Capt. Algren, that the story really starts, though. He has spent his life in the US military, fighting the Native Americans. He won fame by providing detailed accounts of the Native American cultures, which led to more effective fighting strategies to be used against them, but he feels only shame in what he has done. He admired the people he studied and their culture, and then he was ordered to destroy it. Arriving in Japan, he finds himself in strikingly similar circumstances.

It is when he is captured by the samurai in the first battle that things begin to change for him. The leader of the rebellion, Katsumoto, admires his fighting ability and decides to keep him alive, after soundly defeating Algren's unprepared troops. In Katsumoto there lies an amazingly complex mixture of cultures. He is a traditional samurai, following Zen, heading an anachronistic rebellion, living in a traditional isolated village in the hills. He is also an erstwhile advisor to the emperor, fluent in written and spoken English, and more open to a meld of cultures than any of the staunch Westernists currently counselling the emperor. He reads Algren's diaries from his time in the US army to gain knowledge and understanding of a man from such a foreign culture. He refuses to let the others around him reject Algren completely, but instead enforces their tolerance, which of course eventually turns to acceptance.

Through his "good conversations" with Katsumoto, Algren also gains insight into the samurai culture, which eventually leads him to make peace with himself. He rediscovers what it is to act in a way he feels honorable. He finds a middle ground between being American, being an admirer of Native American cultures, and being an honorary samurai. In some ways, he is every Westerner who has become enthralled with orientalism, every gaikokujin who has decided to stay in the homogenous society of Japan despite obviously not fitting in, every foreigner who found something in Japanese society that made them fell they fit in better there than at "home." When Algren returns to Tokyo after wintering in the mountains with Katsumoto, his colonel asks him, "What is it about your own people that you hate so much?" Algren doesn't answer, which is no doubt one of the most effective answers he could have given, as it forces Bagley, and the audience, to try to answer it for themselves.

In the end, Algren helps lead the rebels with Katsumoto, "to make the emperor hear" their voices. He tells the story of the soldiers at Thermopoli, 211 men who held off the Persian army long enough for the army to become so demoralized it was soon easily defeated by their next foes. Just before the samurai attack the Imperial Army, Katsumoto asks what happened to those soldiers. "Dead to the last man," replies Algren, and they grin as they storm over the hill. In the end, Algren appears before the Emperor, a Western man bearing the blade of the last great samurai, whose final wish was that the Emperor remember his ancestors, as well as considering the future. As unsure as the young emperor had been before that, he takes courage from this amazing act to stand up and say extreme Westernization is not right for his country at this time.

I cried at this movie. I never cry at movies. Ever. But I cried at this one. While the audience knows that the Meiji era was the end of the historically traditional, pre-Western Japan, it is still very powerful to watch the effects that such a period of change can have on the people living in it. All the characters realize that change is inevitable, but some of them are more concerned with making sure those changes also preserve the good elements of the past, as opposed to obliterating it all in the name of progress. It is, indeed, in keeping with the previous cycle of Japanese history, to incorporate elements of other cultures, but still keep a sense of what was actually Japanese, and in the end change the new things into elements that melded into the overall cohesion of Japanese culture. Had the Meiji emperor not managed to continue that tradition, Japan today might be a very different place. As it is, it shows itself to still be striving toward Katsumoto's perfection, with willingness to understand and change, but holding strongly to its roots as well.

In the end, that's all any society today can hope for. Global, but unique at the same time.

Saturday, December 06, 2003

 
One Down
There it goes. The first semester of grad school and teaching is very nearly over. Thursday was the last day of teaching, on Monday I turn in all my grades, and by Wednesday all of my own exams and projects are turned in. Whoo-hoo!

The past week was very full. On Wednesday, I had to attend my morning SLA class, then had two hours of downtime where it wasn't worth going home and coming back, in which I wrote my last post, then I administered two exams to my students, (the listening exam was watching "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" and answering questions, the grammar exam was 7 pages, 100 questions which I so enjoyed writing,) then I went home until 6, at which point I had to go back to campus to do my mock interview/practicum final, which in turn was immediately followed by going to the ELC talent show.

The talent show was funny, of course. Nigel's Level 3 drama class had written 3 original plays, "Frankenstein's Two Monsters" (a love story, oddly enough,) "A Modern Cinderella" (complete with cross-dressing!,) and "Black Out" (about a bunch of students studying for the TOEFL while the lights were going on and off.) The effort was impressive for the ELC students, but I think my students at the intensive English camp (February 15, 2003) in Japan were better actors. After all, my group got second place with their rendition of "The Pied Piper."

There was also a Korean rapper, who unfortunately had to perform without a microphone, due to technical difficulties. The judo teacher from my class was also supposed to perform, but the gym apparently didn't have any appropriate mats, so that was cancelled. The grand finale of the show was most of the teachers performing Nigel's very own "Snow White and the Seven Parts of Speech." Snow White was played by my co-teacher in Level 1, Amy, and was always referred to as having "enormous... knowledge of English grammar!" The plot was that an evil teacher had taken over the ELC and turned it from the English Language Center to the Evil Language Center. Snow White was an enthusiastic and dedicated teacher who could save them all. She was sent to hide in the ELC library with the Seven Parts of Speech. Each part of speech, of course, could only say a word corresponding to its name, so all 7 parts had to be on stage in order to complete a sentence. This was the biggest hit of the show, mostly because I think all the students liked seeing their teachers act ridiculous.

Thursday was the last day of classes for the ELC. I let my students off easy with filling out evaluations and then making Christmas cards and paper snowflakes. After class, we all walked over to the Marriott, where the ELC final party was happening at 3:15. It was an odd time to have a party with a meal, but there were lots of desserts, so I think everyone found something to eat, even if they didn't want a whole lot. The party mostly consisted of giving out attendance awards and outstanding student awards. Then there was a slide show that Alissa had put together from all the various classes' trips to Holt schools (October 2), to teach the elementary school kids about their cultures. After that, there was a lot, and I do mean a lot, of picture taking with students, as they all wanted to get their pictures taken with their teachers, individually, in groups, both, etc, etc. I wonder how many of them will be in my class next semester. Probably not many of the Level 1 students, since I think most of them were here on exchange programs. A lot of them thanked me for teaching them, especially for grammar, which I thought was kind of amusing, since they were never terribly enthusiastic about that class. It'll be interesting to see their evaluations of the class.

Now, though, I have to go grade their exams. *cackle*

Wednesday, December 03, 2003

 
Tolkien y Lewis
When I was on my semester abroad in Chile, now 2.5 years ago, I took a class on JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis. I found it very amusing to be taking a class on classic English fantasy literature in Spanish, and in fact, I have only read The Lord of the Rings in Spanish translation, for that class. I was the only non-Chilean in the class, and the professor loved me. The class lectures did not focus so much on the literary works of the two authors, but instead on their relationship to each other, their involvement in "los Inklings," and the influences of religion on their lives and writing. I now have tons of notes on the lives of the two, all written in Spanish, and it has turned out to be the class I got the most interesting information out of, even though the other 3 classes I took were the ones that counted toward my major and concentration. All hail the liberal arts education!

With this background, I was interested to find an article on Salon today covering exactly the subject of my Chilean course. If you're interested in reading it, I will say that it briefly covers a lot of the important points, such as both men's fascination with mythology, and in particular the role/appropriateness of Christian mythology in modern literature. I always thought it was kind of ironic, although perhaps more explicable for being as it is, that Lewis was basically the born-again, yet he was the one who decided that writing about Christian mythology and incorporating it into the fabric of his fantasy world was very important, while Tolkien was the lifelong devout Catholic who said that while Christian mythology was an equally valid vehicle of truths as other legends, it was inappropriate to include in a created fantasy world.

Really, though, all that religious rambling is an aside to the thoughts that seeing the article this morning truly sparked. It was actually rather serendipitous to find that Salon update waiting in my inbox this morning, because the subject of Tolkien was heavily on my mind after class yesterday afternoon. A couple of weeks ago, for Methods, I had to write a lesson plan focusing on reading. I decided to use Tolkien's Smith of Wootton Major as the main reading text, after one lesson of pre-reading activities getting the students interested by relating it to the now popular movies. I even had a fun worksheet where the students got to learn the dwarvish runes and translate the text on Bilbo's map. I liked my lesson plan. I may have gotten a little obsessed with it. I thought it would be a lot of fun.

But yesterday in class, my professor realized from something else I said related to a writing activity I did in high school that said Tolkien-based lesson was mine. She said, and I quote, "Oh, right the Tolkien lesson... I didn't want to say anything when I was grading it, but I was just totally uninterested." Gasp! Shock and dismay! (I suppose I might add that I did get a good grade, regardless.)

Don't get me wrong. I'm not one of those people who runs around insisting that everyone has to love Tolkien, that he's just the greatest writer of all time, that The Lord of the Rings is the highest work of literature in all the world, etc, etc. After all, I haven't actually read his main work in English, which many consider to be an act of heresy on my part. But from an English teacher's perspective, you can't diss Tolkien. The man was a linguist, and a philologist in particular. The man truly understood the power of a well-shaped sentence and the choice of just the right word. I chose Smith of Wootton Major because it is a children's story, and thus has somewhat simpler language, but the quality of the writing is not at all diminished by the use of easier vocabulary and simpler sentence structures. It is challenging enough not to insult the students' intelligence by having them read a children's story, and it allows them access to an actual work of literature by a famous author they have no doubt heard of, without the daunting task of actually trying to read the entirety of LotR, which is hard enough for some native speakers. This is a man who loved language more than most other human beings, and that love of English is what ESL teachers, or even just high school English teachers in the US, should be trying to transmit to their students.

On the other hand, it is also my opinion, backed up by personal experience, that teachers who don't appreciate science fiction and fantasy as a genre should not try to teach it. However much they may try to teach the work in question like any other work of literature, their disinterest or disdain shows through. I have a feeling that the way my 7th grade teacher tried to teach Ursula Le Guin's short story "The Rule of Names" ended up turning a lot of students off to the idea that fantasy could be interesting, which I'm sure was only reinforced by my 9th grade teacher's attempt at The Wizard of Earthsea. It was only when I took the sci-fi/fan literature elective at my high school that I found a teacher as interested in reading the books as I was. Ms. Woodbury proved that it was possible to teach sci-fi/fan to students in an inspirational way, even to the people who ended up in the class because all the other electives they wanted, like auto shop, were closed out.

So despite what my professor here may think, I maintain in the spirit of Ms. Woodbury that Tolkien would be an ideal author to teach to ESL or EFL students. Some people just do not have an appreciation for "popular" genres, somehow assuming that sci-fi/fan works are not actually worthy of the term "literature." I state now that this is due to a lack of education. If I am expected to sit through English classes extolling the virtues of Melville's god-awful Billy Budd and Faulkner's Light in August, then English teachers ought to have to try to gain an appreciation for the actual literary merits of works in the science fiction and fantasy genres. To have a professor stating her disinterest in class with a tone of voice suggesting that she obviously represents the majority opinion tells me again that US English curricula are unbalanced, and if we want our students to be motivated to learn English by reading on their own, we need more teachers who are willing to teach them about actually interesting literature. It can't all be textbooks and magazine articles in the foreign langauge classroom, or students just can't be expected to ever achieve the same level of language proficiency that they have in their native language, because their method for gaining new vocabulary and linguistic structures will have been stunted.

But people don't listen to me, and current ESL is stuck in this stupid skills-based, choppy, uninspiring teaching method, and it drives me crazy. So I write my idealistic lesson plans, and rant into the void on this blog. Maybe someone will read some Tolkien now, though. I'm fairly certain it won't be my professor.

Tuesday, December 02, 2003

 
Apologies and Excuses
Just hopping on for a minute to apologize for sparse updating this week. It's the last week of classes, so I have to give final exams, take final exams, turn in papers, attend the ELC talent show, go to the ELC final party and award ceremony, and on Friday, proctor a university English proficiency exam. So I'm kind of busy. After the 5th, though, I should be pretty much golden.

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