Saturday, February 28, 2004

Activism for Something That Shouldn't Need It
I realized that I rarely say anything about the outside world on this blog. Maybe I'm just really self-absorbed, maybe I'm just too busy to really pay attention to much in detail, maybe I'm just trying to use this time writing to live inside my own brain for a little while instead of always having to be turned "on" and outwardly focused on my students all the time. But for all that I might be busy, I do actually hear and read the news, and as my mother forever notes, I'm an opinionated person. So here's my opinion of Bush's latest farce of presidential leadership.

Here are some questions I give you: Why do people have such a hard time letting other people live their lives? Why are some people so convinced that homosexuality is wrong? Why do so many people appear to think that homosexual marriage in particular is a bad idea? And why in the name of all things rational and sensical would the president of the US (or rather, his advisors) think that it makes political sense to propose a Constitutional amendment to legally define marriage as being strictly between one man and one woman, specifically making it impossible for homosexuals to marry, and thus writing discrimination into the very foundations of the legal system of our country, the so-called bastion of tolerance, the great melting pot of all cultures? Why is the "leader of the free world" trying to lead us backwards into less fortunate times in history, as if none of us ever learned anything from past mistakes?

Seriously, it has never made any sense to me at all, from the first time I can remember thinking about it, that people would have a problem with homosexuality. Why should it offend other people if two other people fall in love with each other, and happen to be of the same sex? It strikes me as a lot worse if we demand those people settle for a relationship that conforms to social norms outwardly and leaves them miserable, angry, and bitter. The world already has enough of those. Likewise, why do people get so upset if they even think someone of the same sex thinks them attractive? I have tried over and over to explain to some people that they should accept it as a compliment and treat it like attentions from anyone else they aren't particularly interested in dating. This explanation seems very reasonable to me, but it doesn't seem to work for everyone. I don't think I'll ever understand the apparent visceral reaction they have.

Beyond that, let's just look at the idea of marriage. The very basis of marriage has changed drastically from what it used to be. It is no longer necessarily a contract for economic survival, the production of a new generation to make a familial workforce, a political binding of families. We now have the luxury of marrying for love, companionship, and joy, which truly is a recent phenomenon. (For an excellent history of marriage, try reading What is Marriage For?, by E.J. Graff.) What right have we to deny the current status of marital binding to homosexual couples, just because it wasn't an historical viable liaison?

There is nothing that will prevent homosexual couples from living together, from loving each other, from having lives, so why resort to such petty denials? You'd think that conservatives would prefer to see homosexuals married, so they would be bound to living "upright," monogamous lives, just like heterosexuals, but no. They'd rather see LGBT couples as completely separate, sub-class citizens, unworthy of basic rights. Perhaps denying them marriage makes the idea that such unions are immoral easier to believe. If they were allowed to get married, they might appear legitimate. Heaven forbid.

This is such an obvious issue to me, I cannot believe that Bush will get the amendment approved. However, the general populace of the world proves its stupidity over and over again, so I'm not just going to allow my disbelief dissuade me from doing anything. I'm actually going to take some of my poor grad student stipend and give it to the Human Rights Campaign's Million for Marriage drive. They're trying to raise $1 million to stop the amendment, as well as get 1 million names on their petition. I can't do much, but I can do this.

Thursday, February 26, 2004

Not Kidnapped, But Well-Fed
In the end, we didn't go to the scam presentation. NDI is a recognized scam, as Google reports. Mark also looked them up and discovered that their prizes weren't all that great after all, so he decided we should go out to dinner instead. We went to the Evergreen Grill, which I do suggest if you're ever in East Lansing. It is one of a collection of buildings on that street that confuses me every time I go past, though. It is in an old post office, the community center is in an old middle school, and the courthouse is in a modern office building. Some buildings are just obviously meant for one thing, and it's disconcerting when they aren't actually serving that function. So anyway, I'm haven't disappeared, so you can all rest easily.

Notification in Case of Kidnapping
This is a notification to let all of you lovely people out there know that if you never hear from me again, it is because I was kidnapped by a cult and brainwashed. Please try to rescue me, as I do not want to have drink the Kool-Aid.

What am I talking about? Here's the story so far. A few days ago, I got a very plain postcard-type mailing, which said it was from the "Prize Redemption Center" and contained a claim number. There were instructions to call an 800 number within 24 hours of receiving said notification, and nothing else. I had never heard of this place before, I have no idea how they got my name (although I suspect it was from someone selling the MSU mailing list), and it was all very strange.

Mark said he would call them, just to find out what it was all about. He called this afternoon. This is apparently a company that does "direct online advertising," which wishes me to attend a 45 minute meeting at a nearby hotel, and then they will give me a prize. Apparently, the smallest prize they are giving is a 2-person, 3-night stay in a Holiday Inn. Other prizes include a $500 gift certificate to Amazon and a Sony plasma TV. They asked if "I" would like to bring a friend, and Mark is sufficiently curious that he thinks we should go, so at 7pm this evening, we are on our way to the unknown.

Therefore, if you do not hear from me again, send out the search teams. I don't want to be kidnapped by spammers and made to do their evil bidding for the rest of my life. Alternatively, they might give me a present, and Mark might get to ask them lots of obnoxiously smart questions about their databasing. We shall see.

Tuesday, February 24, 2004

I seem to have launched a personal crusade in my methods class this afternoon. I held forth for some time on why content-based foreign language learning is better than fracturing it all into "skills." I've talked about this before, but it obviously bears repeating. The idea that you can adequately teach a foreign language to people by individually teaching them "speaking/listening," "reading/writing," and "grammar," each in a different class is, well, stupid. Language is not that easily divisible. It is a whole and complete system, with each skill adding to and building off of others. If we fracture the skills this way, students will never learn to use all of their language abilities in tandem, as they are meant to in a communicative framework. Excuse me if I missed something, but isn't this the point of learning a language, communication? I don't know why this seems an unusual idea to many ESL teachers, but even my professor tonight seemed to think it an interesting perspective. As it keeps coming up, I figured I should write something about it.

A few weeks ago, I had another TESOL student come and observe my class, and then he emailed me to ask for my "philosophy of teaching writing." Here was my response:

Mostly, I try to emphasize that English should be used for communication. As much as they can, I encourage the students to try to *think* in English when they are writing, because this will increase the fluency of their writing. Eventually, it will also help their speaking fluency. All English language skills are tied together, so even when I am teaching writing, I am also teaching speaking, listening, and reading.

I also don't want the students to concentrate too much on making their grammar perfect, or on finding a new word in their dictionary. I discourage them from using their dictionaries in class, though I can't forbid them from using the dictionary at home. If they become too reliant on their dictionaries, it often leads to them choosing the wrong word because they don't really understand it, breaking the flow of their writing, and keeps them from having confidence in their speaking ability, because they think they don't know any of the right words. I tell them again and again that being able to make themselves understood with the words they do have (to talk around what they don't know) is more important than using big words they don't really understand, and what's more, their audience doesn't understand.

Especially at the lower levels, students need to have some feeling of confidence that they can make themselves understood. I want them to write about things that are important to them, that interest them. If they can't use English to say anything personally interesting, they will stop practicing English, and all my work will be for nothing. They only need to pay attention to their grammar if it makes their writing unintelligible. Small mistakes will become smaller and less frequent as they practice writing over and over.

This semester, I have assigned the students to update their blogs on a regular basis. Since this is on the internet, and not connected to MSU, my hope is that they will continue to use their blog after they leave, to practice writing.

This afternoon, we were presenting our ideas about how we would structure a hypothetical high school program to integrate 75 Japanese high school students into an American high school due to their parents being sent to the US for business. All groups had content-based classes for these students. But after we were done presenting, one of the TESOL students in class asked how this would help students pass the TOEFL. I think this cuts to the heart of the problem, in that English teaching has become so regimented and obsessed with passing standardized tests, it has stagnated in many countries. Other foreign languages can be taught in a much more varied way because teachers still feel there is room for innovation. I posited that test-taking skills can be taught just as well in a content class as they can in a specific grammar class. I mean, that's what all AP classes in US high school do; we practice for the AP tests with the current content of the class, which teaches us the skill in a way that can be generalized to any content matter posed on an essay test.

After class, I talked some more to the professor. She said she had never taken a content-based foreign language class, which makes me wonder if foreign language instruction in the US has changed that much, and which also leads to the question of why foreign languages and ESL (which is really just a foreign language that happens to be taught to foreign people in its native context) are treated so differently. I also pointed out that the best foreign language textbook I ever used, Genki: An Integrated Course in Elementary Japanese, had a unifying storyline, even though it was covering all those basic grammar and vocab exercises that all foreign language textbooks must cover at the very beginning. Oddly enough, it's the same theory they used when setting up Sesame Street originally, that of having a unifying storyline broken up by short tutorial segments.

So why is this idea so radical in ESL? Why do I have to feel like I'm on a crusade to change the very foundations of the field? To paraphrase Sesame Street with regards to ESL and other foreign languages, "One of these things is like the other."

*cough, cough*
Should you find yourself possessed of a sudden urge to buy me books, who am I to stop you? (Alternatively, you could just be curious to see what books I want to read.)

Saturday, February 21, 2004

Not So Painless
Today I got to take another step in my journey to discover the joys of adulthood. For the first time, I visited a tax professional. Oddly enough, this is entirely because last year I didn't have to pay taxes at all. The US, you see, has an agreement with Japan that if a US citizen earns income in Japan and is taxed in Japan, said citizen does not have to pay US tax on the same income. This would all be terribly convenient if it weren't for the fact that I paid the tax anyway, and then the IRS didn't sent me a refund. As near as I could tell, I followed all the relevant instructions. I filed for an extension, so I wouldn't actually be filing my return until after I had lived in Japan for more than 330 days, which is what it takes to establish proof of residency or whatever it's called. Then I sent my application for extension and my check for my estimated tax (which I shouldn't have done) off to the IRS back in the good ol' US of A. I got a cancelled check back from them after they deposited it, or cashed it to have a party to celebrate ignorant citizens who pay taxes they're not supposed to, or whatever it is they do with tax payments. When I got home in August, I filed my real return, and have never heard back from them since.

Hence, this year I decided to turn to the professionals. Good thing I did, too, because I still divide my years according to the school year, rather than the tax year, and I would have completely forgotten that half my income from 2003 was earned in Japan, and half here. Even the H&R Block man started to look confused as he pondered all the various forms he would need to fill out, not to mention how he was going to find out where my money from last year has gone. I'd feel sorry for him, except it's his job, and he'll be charging me money when he gets it all figured out. There's no possible way I'd be able to sort this all out myself. Which I suppose I've already conclusively proven, as the IRS has my $1000 from last year and I don't.

So let this be a lesson to any Americans out there reading this: if you go abroad, don't even try to do your own taxes when you come back. If you let someone else deal with it entirely, living and working abroad won't start to seem like it might have been more trouble that it was worth.

Friday, February 20, 2004

Well, that was painless. I had my first meeting with Bob, the associate director of the ELC, who is thus my boss. He was on sabbatical last semester, so I hadn't really talked to him much before. Anyway, he observed me teach on Tuesday, so today we were doing the post-observation meeting. Basically, he had nothing bad to say. He said he thought I asked good questions and elicited answers well from the students. I got the two students who came in a few minutes late involved immediately and well. I encouraged good discussions, had good pacing, and I gave him good reasoning for the amount of time I gave students to do their reading in class. I am cool. Go me.

Fun Stuff to Start the Weekend
Want to take a quiz? Here are some good ones.

Are you Dixie or Yankee? (Dialectically, that is. 0% is Yankee, 100% is Dixie.) I'm 83% Dixie, in case you were wondering. Please note, this has nothing to do with accent.

What book are you?
I got:
"You're Siddhartha!
by Hermann Hesse
You simply don't know what to believe, but you're willing to try anything once. Western values, Eastern values, hedonism and minimalism, you've spent some time in every camp. But you still don't have any idea what camp you belong in. This makes you an individualist of the highest order, but also really lonely. It's time to chill out under a tree. And realize that at least you believe in ferries."
(A lot of people at Grinnell were getting eerily fitting things on this test.)

What country are you?
I am apparently Mozambique or the UN, depending.

One Good Thing in KOTOR
On genuinely funny thing in Knights of the Old Republic, which I neglected to mention yesterday, is all the conversational options for the Jedi knight playing the straight Dark Side. Mark beat the game on the Light Side last night, so now he plans to go back through and be evil. I may be more inclined to stay in the room this time just to get to see him say things that are just sarcastic and evil just for the sake of being evil. I was going to give some examples, but neither of us can remember any right now.

In Googling for KOTOR dark side quotes, I scanned some Star Wars discussion boards. I determined that this person just wasn't paying attention. Allow me to quote: "When you interact with NPCs the characters express themselves so damn well. Ithorians speak ithorian, rodians speak rodian, twi'lek speak their own language too, but even still they all perfectly express their sadness or confusion or excitement by their tone of voice and body language. Voice acting is top notch..."


Thursday, February 19, 2004

Games for Non-Gamers
Somehow, I have managed to become friends with predominantly computer science majors, or at least computer science/math/hard science oriented people. Maybe it's a sort of symbiotic relationship, with my exposure to them allowing me to learn all sorts of science stuff that's deadly boring otherwise by osmosis, and I keep them practicing their ability to communicate with the technologically-impaired. Works for me. It means my computer always works and they all think I'm smart because I can speak Spanish.

The other side of this is that all of my friends read a lot of sci-fi (yay! me, too!) and play a *lot* of video games and RPGs (not me so much). I did grow up in the Nintendo generation, and I rock at Tetris and Super Mario World on the old school GameBoy, but I never felt the need to move beyond that. I have played role-playing games, and one was even a good one with my friend Matt as the GM, which is generally accepted as the mark of a well-run game, but in the end, I'd rather read a book than "participate" in the plot. I never was a fan of "choose your own adventure" things.

Last year, during some of my ocassionally excessive free time at work, Will got me hooked on reading Penny Arcade. Even though I don't care about playing the games, Tycho is a most entertaining writer, when he and Gabe start bickering they are hilarious, and by reading the news posts and associated comics, I actually ocassionally sounds like I know what I'm talking about when the subject of games comes up (frequently). At the very least, I know what other people are talking about.

Anyway, the point is I spend a lot of time watching other people play video games. My time spent doing this has increased exponentially since the introduction of an XBox into our abode. Hence, I now present two game reviews from the perspective of a person who will never play them.

Deus Ex: Invisible War
Mark loved this game. He spent hours filling me in on the plot of the first game, just so he could then explain why the reference back to the previous game in the new game he had just seen was funny. I didn't mind, because Mark's an amusing guy, which is why I keep him around. Really, I liked this game, too, for entirely different reasons. First, I am a very visual person, and this game panders to those who like their eye candy. I always found games with movie quality cut-scenes sprinkled amongst the ugly game rendering really irritating. Maybe they solved this problem long ago and I'm dating myself by saying that, but whatever. Deus Ex doesn't have this problem. The animation is just as good in the regular game play as it is in the cut scenes. The complexity of the multiple storylines was fun even for a person not playing to follow.

Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic
Mark is currently playing this game. It annoys me. A lot. The art isn't as good. The camera view is third person, rather than first, which means it kind of floats around behind the main character, so you get to see her all the time. (Mark chose the female scout character, but all females of any ability or race have the same body with a different head attached.) And she's irritating. I hate to say it, but whoever did the art on her was either a man with fantasies, or a woman shamelessly pandering to men with fantasies. As kick-ass as the female main character may be, whenever she stops moving, she adopts a hipshot and swaybacked position, calculated to show off her chest and hips as much as possible. As a person of the female persuasion myself, I can tell you it's a really stupid way to stand, particularly if you're about to start fighting, and uncomfortable to boot. When she walks, she looks like a robot mincing on high heels, trying to get the maximum swing out of her hips and rear. Also, said rear is shaded wrong, so it appears disproportionately big from behind, but fine from the side. The only way to make the character move like a human being is to make her run everywhere.

Then there's the voice acting. In the Star Wars universe, as I'm sure we all know, there are many different races of aliens, and they all have their own language. Some of them have kindly learned English, or Galactic Basic, or whatever it is. However, all of the extra, unimportant characters you run into from the same race have the same voice actor, so it's like you talk to the same person over and over and over again. Whether he's a slimy merchant or an honest person begging for your help, he has the same intonation. This is much worse when you are talking to someone who speaks an alien language, because they only ever bothered to record 3 phrases in each language. These 3 phrases just get played over and over in succession, no matter what translation shows up on your screen. Any time the main character engages in a lengthy dialogue, it's like hearing a broken record that's horribly out of sync with what the words appearing on the screen want you to believe is being said. There's one mission in which you discover a stowaway on your ship, and you have to figure out her language because it is non-standard. That's one of your action choices, "Try to figure out language." So I actually tried, until I realized they were completely unrelated. If I could have gotten Mark to do it, I would have turned off the sound on this game long ago.

I'm not totally dissing the game. It's got some good stuff going on in the plot, but the sound annoys me so much, I frequently have to leave the room for my sanity. I don't think LucasArts is likely to hire me for the publicity department any time soon.

So there you go, some totally useless information. Enjoy!

Tuesday, February 17, 2004

Another Reason to Hate the Big 10
Okay, it was kind of annoying when they repeatedly pre-empted West Wing for televised Big 10 basketball, but hey, I shouldn't be watching TV anyway. I could deal with it. But now they have to take up ALL the parking at MSU. All the non-card entry lots. On weeknights. When I have to go to class.

I'm from North Carolina, so it's not like I am unused to fervent basketball fans. However, what little interest in basketball growing up in NC managed to instill in me applies only to the ACC, not to the Big 10. I do not care one tiny bit about this conference. And thus, my good humor and tolerance for people trying to charge me $7 to park just so I can go to my friggin' grad school evening classes is non-existent. So for all you MSU event parking attendants out there, don't try to stop me from parking in my graduate assistant space just so some stupid basketball fan can park there. The basketball fan can walk from his dorm. *I* have to go to CLASS, which is what the university is THERE for.

Also, I would appreciate it if you would not block the exit side of the parking lot driveway so you can charge the people coming in, as I would like to get out, go home, and leave all you idiots behind.

I hope Duke beats you all. (For those of you not from Raleigh, that's an insult. Traditionally, I am "anyone but Duke.")

Monday, February 16, 2004

You may have noticed that I added a link to Ask the Pilot over on the side there. I figured I should, since it is the only thing I make absolutely sure to never miss when my Salon newsletter comes in the email everyday. Since I got back to the US, I haven't had nearly as much time to peruse the news, looking for stories of the strange or irritating, and so most of my Salon newsletter goes unlooked at. Never, however, Ask the Pilot on Fridays.

Part of this is no doubt because of my father, one of whose main clients is GE Aircraft Engines, and who has a long-standing fascination with planes in general. We used to have a picture of a jet engine test cell as the desktop image on our home computer. When he came back from business trips to the various plants, we got to hear stories of how they frequently repair worn-through holes in the jet blast deflectors (or reversers) with flattened Coke cans, or how that one plant somewhere else once used frozen chickens to test its aircraft windshields before they realized they were supposed to be thawed, and all sorts of interesting stuff. He gave me an appreciation for the more technical aspects of flight, and is another avid fan of Patrick Smith.

Another part of this is of course just flying itself. Ever since I went to Grinnell, I have joined the ranks of the experienced airline traveler. I flew back and forth between Grinnell and Raleigh 4 times a year during my first two years, before I took my car to school with me. I flew to Taiwan with my mother, first class on the way over, coach on the way back. I flew to Chile for my semester in Santiago. I flew between the US and Japan 3 times during my year on the JET program. I flew to Germany via Kuala Lumpur, and then to France. And every time, I loved it. No matter that Delta lost my luggage irrevocably during my first fall break and I will never trust Comair with checked baggage again. No matter that the girl behind me from Lyon to Berlin barfed all over the back of my seat. No matter that the people in front of me were blocking my view of the movie screen with their constant making out on our way back from Taiwan. Those things can never even come close to defining the act of flying for me.

For me, flying is seeing the lights of ViƱa del Mar at night as I flew home from Chile. It's seeing the wrinkled, tree covered contours of the Appalachains between Cincinnati and Raleigh. It's seeing the sudden tips of snow-covered mountains breaking through the cloud cover over what was certainly the ocean not long ago, but is now Alaska and Canada. It's the infinity of shapes clouds can take. It's the fascinating destination map on a long-haul flight in between movies. It's the knowledge that I can go anywhere in the world. It's giant airports with fun gate changes; it's tiny airports with oversensitive metal detectors; it's counting flight attendant uniforms on a layover; it's being kissed on the cheek by the cute Australian when we both got off the same plane in Arica and I never saw him again; it's seeing people I haven't seen in so long, and then saying good-bye again; it's taking me away from one part of my life and on to something new.

The latest Ask the Pilot was about how long-haul flights are getting longer, and all the things that airlines will be doing to make people comfortable on those 14+ hour flights. You ask me, that sounds like fun! I like long flights. It's fun to absolutely have to watch movies, read, curl up in a chair, and look at fascinating things out the window. And soon I get to do it again! Because my beloved daddy's frequent business trips have racked up enough SkyMiles to get me a free ticket to Japan and my brother a free ticket to Colorado, and still have some left over. In just 3 weeks, I will be taking the Great Circle over those fabulous mountains to Japan to see everyone in Sendai again! Danola and Sharon have reportedly been fighting over who gets to keep me. I can't wait! In the meantime, I'll look forward to reading more fun flying columns from Patrick Smith.

PS - If you feel you have lost the joy of flying, I suggest this year's Thanksgiving column.

Saturday, February 14, 2004

It has occurred to me, and probably you, my intrepid and undoubtedly dedicated reader, that my current blog is not nearly as interesting as my previous one. I do not believe, however, that this is truly due to the fact that I no longer live in that land of endless fascination that is Japan. The main cause, I believe, is my current lack of objectivity about my own life.

I've always preferred to watch things from the sides. I like standing back, finding the patterns, fitting things together in my mind. This includes my own life. In Japan, I had a lot of downtime to allow my mind to assimilate and sort through all sorts of information and observations. Everything was new and fascinating, but I was able to pick through it all to find things of genuine interest.

It is not that my life in Michigan is not interesting. True, it's not as exotic, but that's mainly just a matter of perspective. The real problem, strangely enough, is that I have too many things taking up my time and not enough time to sort through them all. It all becomes a big blur when I find a few moments to think, a swath of days that are my unsorted life. There are so many topics to think about, and whatever happens to be on top at the time is what I end up writing about. The result is a less cohesive whole, which irritates me. I hold myself to standards, after all, even if no one else particularly does. Or perhaps others do, and they stopped reading long ago out of boredom.

As I said a few days ago, originally I had intended to write mostly about my studies, with sidenotes on living in Michigan, etc. But the truth is that I hardly have any time to think about my classes in between thinking about what I'm going to teach the next day, what I need to grade and how soon, what it was that I was supposed to meet with that student about, how I'm going to fit karate in this week, whether I've forgotten to do any of my own homework assignments, and when I'm going to take my taxes to the accountants down the street, because I still haven't gotten my refund from last year. Really, I'm just lucky that my classes aren't that demanding on my brain, because I'd never survive if they were.

I realized tonight when we were driving around looking for somewhere to eat that I really like being a passenger. I have no objection to driving, despite my father's early fears that I'd never get my license and have to be chauferred around for the rest of my life, but it doesn't really give me a chance to look at things. Nor does it really give my mind some passive time to just sit around and cogitate properly. Walking is also good for this. I rather miss walking to and from work every day as I did last year. Those 20 minutes walking were often valuable time for composing well thought out blog entries. Come to think of it, walking home from middle school was often when I came up with some of my best story ideas and had some of the best conversations with fictitious characters, although I suspect this probably made me appear insane to passing cars. I also had a tendency to read while walking down the sidewalk, to the consternation of one of my friend's parents.

So I'm working on trying to find more reflective time in my life. Perhaps the results of such effort will show up here. Or perhaps this will only be a passing moment of reflection. I'm hoping for the former.

Friday, February 13, 2004

Hot For Teacher
On Wednesday, I left my hair loose when I went to the ELC's supplemental showing of the movie based on Nightjohn. It's not a day we normally have class, I was in jeans and a sweatshirt, it was late in the afternoon, I didn't think anything of it. No less than 3 of my male students proceeded to tell me that leaving my hair down made me "more beautiful" and that I should do it more often. It'd just be cute, except most of these students that I think of as being so young are actually my age or older than me, which is very strange to realize.

Today, a student asked if he could see me after class. Since I spent yesterday conferencing with another student about semi-serious culture shock issues, I was expecting more of the same. February is just all around a bad month to live abroad in the northern hemisphere, after all. Turns out, he just wanted to give me a box of Valentine's chocolate. This is even odder when you understand that in Japan and Korea, on Valentine's Day, boys never give anything to girls; it's always the other way 'round. I guess he caught on to American customs quickly. Or something.

Graham tried to say it was nothing by saying that his students all tell him he's handsome when he combs his hair differently, which made me feel less weird until I observed his class yesterday and saw that besides the two middle-aged married men, all of his students are young Korean women of the giggly variety. Mark is starting to wonder if he should be jealous, or perhaps start showing up around my classroom with a proprietary air.

Well, that was interesting. We were sitting in the Panera near one of the entrances to the Lansing Mall, finishing our soup and talking about one of Mark's computer science professors, as I recall, when suddenly there were sirens and someone ran through the doors and down the entrance hallway. We both thought, "Oh, sirens and you pretend to run from them, haha." But then two policemen ran through the doors as well, and yelled, "Which way?" The parking lot was full of police cars. We still have no idea what it was all about.

Wednesday, February 11, 2004

Jeopardy for Dummies
Since my return from Japan to a living situation in which I once again have access to my very own TV and am allowed to watch it on school nights, I have rediscovered my love of Jeopardy. I have much nostalgia for Jeopardy. It reminds me of times when I got to spend the night at my Watson grandparents' house in Raleigh, or visiting them in Florida. They love Jeopardy. My grandma would give me high praise when I knew any of the answers. It is a very cozy show to watch. (I have the same feelings about the NBC morning news show, for the same associations, except with that one, I wish grandma was around to make me toasted rolls and hot chocolate. It's not fair being the only even remotely morning person in this household.)

Anyway, yesterday I made Mark turn off his new XBox game long enough to watch Jeopardy and discovered that this week is Teen Tournament week. Do the clue writers of Jeopardy really have such a low opinion of teenaged smart people? Are teenaged smart people actually that dumb? Personally, I find it kind of depressing when I can answer every question on the board. The clue for last night's Final Jeopardy was "This series of over 200 books began in 1986 with the book Kristy's Great Idea." The answer was "What is The Babysitter's Club?" I guess neither of the guys had sisters, since only the female contestant got it right, but she sure knew it right away, just like I did.

When Mark protested that it was a horribly unfair question, I said I would have been equally able to answer had it been about the Dragonlance series, which is what all the guys the same age who bothered to read were reading back then. Mark said I am not allowed to use myself as an example of the norm. "You read a far wider variety of books, faster, and in greater quantity than anybody I know." I think that may be the biggest compliment he's ever given me.

Now I'm going to go read my book.

PS- I would like to also state my displeasure with the fact that the reason I will be reading my book for the remainder of the evening is that they have once again pre-empted The West Wing for Big 10 basketball. If I *cared* about the basketball game, I'd be at the arena. I don't, so I'm not. And really, lately, I've had quite enough of our actual president. I would very much like to watch a fictitious, intelligent, and witty one on TV for a while.

Tuesday, February 10, 2004

More Wisdom From On High
If you may recall, last semester our lucky MATESOL and linguistics departments got a lecture from Michael Long. Today, we got one from Batia Laufer. I'm sure most of you haven't got a clue who these people are, but let me just state that it helps having one of the pre-eminent names in the field of second language acquisition as our department head to draw all of these people. I am not kidding when I say they are big names in the field. It's very strange to actually be meeting in person the authors of all these articles I keep having to read for class.

Batia Laufer's talk was on the best methods for vocabulary acquisition in second/foreign language learners. While this may not sound so exciting to everyone in the world, we all found it to be a very entertaining talk, particularly because what she was saying actually corresponds to what many language teachers and learners know works, as opposed to something that research says should work, no matter how counter-intuitive. To explain in more concrete terms, Long and his colleagues would have us believe that the best way to correct students' grammar is to gently recast their erroneous utterances into correct English, the understanding being that said students will internalize the correction and it will not impede the flow of communication. There is little room in their view for explicit grammar teaching or correction.

The gist of Batia Laufer's talk on vocabulary, though, was that students learn vocabulary better, and retain it for longer, when they take a more intentional, explicit approach. This means that memorizing vocabulary lists works better than picking up vocabulary from context out of a book. The average person only learns 10 new words per book, which is itself hundreds and hundreds of words long. She offered lots of evidence for her hypothesis, and miraculously, her talk was quite short, which left plenty of time for question and answer.

During the question and answer session, someone asked what she thought about grammar teaching, as an extension of what she had to say about vocabulary, and she said, "Well, I wasn't talking about that here today, but since you asked... Yes, explicit grammar teaching has a place! Of course it does! I have tried to learn many languages, and I have to have a system. All my students are the same way." And then we all applauded. Yay for someone who supports explicit teaching as having a place!

These are the controversial subjects of my field. Fascinating, no?

Monday, February 09, 2004

To Sleep, Perchance to Dream
or How You Know You Spend Too Much Time At Work

When you find yourself dreaming about implementing a lesson plan, only to find that the students aren't discussing things right because you don't have enough of the appropriate photocopies.

When you find yourself watching Lethal Weapon 4 and thinking, "Why yes, that is a very accurate English speech pattern for a native Chinese-speaking immigrant to have."

When you find yourself listening to the radio and accurately identifying 80s rock bands from northern Europe who originally learned their English lyrics phonetically. (The Scorpions, in case you care.)

Further Siren Songs of Electronics
Yesterday, I occasioned to look back at an archive page in my Japan blog, and I reread my entry about the dangers of Laox. Yesterday afternoon, Mark went to Best Buy and came back with a new television and an XBox. Oh, and a DVD rack, which was really the only thing we actually needed. I think the logic went like this: We kind of legitimately needed a new TV, as the old one was really old, no longer able to change channels unless routed through the VCR, and the sound was routed through the stereo because the speakers weren't so great either. But if we got a fancy new TV, then we needed an XBox as well, because it can play DVDs at higher resolution (or something) than the PS2. Obviously. And if you get an XBox, there are of course games that must go with it. The house is getting quite geeked out now.

My only real contribution to the weekend's technological extravaganza was to convince Mark that we should get both Miyazaki's Laputa: Castle in the Sky and Kiki's Delivery Service when we were originally looking for a DVD rack at Target. Yay, Miyazaki! (For my more full review of Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli, see here.)

Sunday, February 08, 2004

Finally, I know what to call all my Kitty-chans. I got an email from Kamiyama-sensei, explaining their origin:

"I'm very happy to know that you liked the Kitty-chans. The types of the Kitty-chans are called netsuke. 'Ne' means 'root,' 'edge,' or 'end,' and 'tsuke' means 'an attached thing' or 'a thing to attach to something else.' Netsuke has a long history. People have been using it by attaching it to, say, their wallets or cigarette cases in old days (esp. In the 17th century to the early 20th century, when people wore kimono as their everyday clothes), because they would often carry them between the kimono belt and netsuke prevented their belongings from slipping out of it, and these days, not only to wallets but to cell phones as well."

Of course, I don't think they use Hello Kitty in the 17th century. The latest netsuke he sent me, the ones that look like little deer, were from Hiroshima, which is where the ninensei students went for their class trip a few months ago. Kamiyama-sensei got to go with them. In his own words,

"Ninensei students have a school excursion every year, and my students visited Hiroshima and Kyoto in late November last year. Hiroshima is famous not only for its Atomic Dome but also for its historically important shrine, which was first built in the year 593. The shrine is famous because it is placed in the sea. When the tide is high, it looks like floating. Since the shrine has been one of the best-known places for sightseeing, there are many omiyage or souvenir shops there. When I was wandering around, I happened to find a Kitty-chan goods shop and there I was charmed by the two netsuke. I hope you like them."

And I do, I do. I need to find a better way to display them all now. I don't think I can fit them all on my cell phone anymore.

Friday, February 06, 2004

Pick a Lane
Philosophically and theologically, I am all for taking that middle path. Go ahead, drive directly down the center line, if that's what floats your boat. You can draw good from all sides, extremes from none. It is an excellent thing, very Zen and all that.

But when you are driving in real life, in an actual car, made of steel and glass, you must pick a lane! Seriously, driving isn't really a metaphor for life, people. I'm not demanding that you commit yourself to some overriding philosophy for all time, nor trying to corner you into taking a position, nor forcing you to curtail your creativity of thought by demanding you stay between the lines of social conformity. I'm asking that you decide whether you want to be in the left lane, or the right lane, and once you decide on one, you need to stay there when I am trying to drive around you.

I know that curves are hard. Sometimes it's hard to be prepared for all the twists and turns life throws at us. But it's a street. You drive on it every day. The curves are immutable and unchanging. You are prepared for these. There is no cause for you to be unable to stay on your side of the painted line, no matter how many of those little curves there are in a row. You can take them slowly if you want to, I don't care. I just want you to stay in your lane.

I'm also not into lane evangelism. I don't think my lane is better than yours, and you should join me for the salvation of your driving soul. In fact, one might accuse me of being a segregationist. I don't want you to join me in the truth that is my lane; I want you to be happy in your lane, and stay there. If, however, you have decided that my lane is the place to be, show that you have put some forethought into this decision by using your turn signal. It's there for a reason. It's a signal, meaning it gives other people a clue about your intentions. It is a tool of communication, much like your cell phone, except when you use a turn signal, you are communicating with many people at the same time! I know this is amazing and perhaps miraculous, but you will come to see that it is true and good.

And so I say unto you, my brothers and sisters of the road, PICK A LANE!!!


Why I Love Grinnellians
I love Grinnellians. I shudder to think what my life would be like had I not gone to Grinnell. Sure, Beloit may have a Science Fiction Association, but after last summer's Great Plans Outage, we know that Grinnell is/was one of only two colleges in the country with an online community such as our beloved Plans. I keep in far better touch with people I only sort of knew at Grinnell than people I knew really well in high school, because of Plans. And I maintain that only on Plans, with a bunch of Grinnellians on the receiving end, could I post the following message and get back the correct response within 2 hours.

"Did anyone else ever read a short story about a group of people who moved to another planet/the moon, and each family was only allowed to bring two books, and they ended up with like 9 copies of Robinson Crusoe, and there was one little girl who brought a blank notebook, and they were really mad at her until they realized that she was right, that things would be much more interesting once someone actually wrote something in it, because then they would have new things to read? What is the name of this story? Who is it by? I read it in either middle or high school. Help!!"

In case you were wondering, the answer, provided by the lovely Ellie Sayre, is The Green Book by Jill Paton Walsh. Thank goodness for a huge community of like-minded, helpful geeks. I was having nightmares about going to the library and trying to get some poor librarian to help based on that totally unhelpful description.

Thursday, February 05, 2004

Black History Month for International Students
Well, I appear to have made myself sick. I shouldn't have said I needed a vacation. I cursed myself. As penance, I will actually talk about what I've been doing to teach my students lately, because it's actually not that boring.

At the ELC right now, we are running a One Book, One ELC project, linked to Black History Month, for which all the students will be reading Nightjohn. Last Wednesday, we had the kick-off event, which was a short discrimination simulation activity. When the students arrived at the designated room in the MSU Union, there were greeters at the door. If a student was shorter than Nigel, the teacher heading up the One Book project, they got to come into the room. If they were taller, they had a sticker put on their arm and were told to wait to the side of the hallway. In the room, the "nice" teachers were wandering around, talking to the students, getting them cookies and juice, basically being exaggeratedly gracious. In the hall, the "mean" teachers were telling the students they couldn't talk, sit, put their bags down, lean on the wall, or protest. If any student in the room noticed the students in the hall, the "nice" teachers just said, "Oh, they're doing a different activity. They're fine. Do you want any more juice?"

After 20 minutes, Pat decided that the students in the hall had come to the breaking point, and they were allowed into the room. As soon as they came in, they were offered cookies and juice as well, and almost all refused. Many of them were quite furious. We split into groups by class to talk about what had happened, and where do we see discrimination like this in everyday life. Pat, who is the student liaison/counselor person for the ELC, was careful to talk to all the students who had been in the hall, and apparently, my male student said he had been very angry, but felt better after he talked to me, so I guess I did a pretty good job with the debriefing. My female student in the hall is one of the lower level speakers in the class, but she still has a lot of good thoughts, so when she wrote in her journal, she indicated that she'd understood what was happening. The other students who had been in the room with the "nice" teachers for the most part hadn't noticed much was happening in the hall. For at least some of them, that made them feel bad once they heard from their friends in the hall.

This week, I showed the class the Brown Eyes, Blue Eyes video, so they could see the origins of the experiment, and perhaps gain a greater understanding of the concept of experiential education. I only showed them the first 3 parts, so they didn't see how the adults reacted to the experiment, which is more like what they went through, but I still think it helped them see a better context for it. Most of them thought it was a good idea for children to learn that way, but they were doubtful it could really work well with adults.

We've also been reading Nightjohn. The class is about halfway through the book now. It's a story about a slave girl who learns how to read from another slave, Nightjohn, who had escaped and come back to the South to teach literacy, but got recaptured. It is not an uplifting book, as it has rather graphic descriptions of the punishments meted out on slaves who tried to run away or were found learning to read. The class is going to have to read that part for homework this weekend, and I'm not sure how they'll react to it. So far, they have found the book rather challenging, as it is written in Black English, which, of course, they have never seen nor read. Honestly, I think this is all to the good, because it means they can't rely so much on bilingual electronic dictionaries.

They keep track of the number of pages they read, the time it takes them, any new words they learn, and thoughts the reading may have inspired in a reading journal. Hopefully, they will continue to keep the reading journal after we finish Nightjohn, and it will keep them reading things in English. The journal is part of their class grade, so I'm hoping it will enforce itself. Most of them have written things on their blogs about the video and discrimination, if you want to see what they are actually thinking. Some of them are rather erudite, in a non-native speaker kind of way.

Wednesday, February 04, 2004

Rescind, Retract, Rewind
Okay, I feel better after my rant. The thing is, I'd probably be a good teacher. I'm not bad at it, and I'd probably get better. But it's not what I really want to do. What do I really want to do? I'm not really sure. I found an interesting quote in the book I'm currently reading, which I've been thinking about:

"I don't know that I ever wanted greatness, on its own. It seems rather like wanting to be an engineer, rather than wanting to design something - or wanting to be a writer, rather than wanting to write. It should be a by-product, not a think in itself. Otherwise, it's just an ego trip."
-The Great Book of Amber, by Roger Zelazny

I've never been able to answer the question of what I want to be. I have no particular profession in mind, unless I could actually get that job as a Lego engineer, or maybe a puppeteer for Henson studios. Beyond that, I can't think of a profession I want. I also can't really decide what it is I want to do for the rest of my life, except learn interesting things. I want to have space for my creativity. I want to read good books. I want to learn new languages. I want to see new places, and perhaps live there for a while.

Maybe being an English teacher would allow me to live like that. It could be my easy answer. But I just don't feel that it would be truly fulfilling. I still don't think I'm one of those people who can have a 9-5 job, and then have a life. Not that such an attitude doesn't seem more attractive the more I have to bring my work home with me. I am living in a strange mental limbo. There are so many things I could be, so many things I could do, and I can't narrow it down, so I'm in danger of becoming apathetic.

I think I need a vacation.

Passive Aggressive
Right, so this blog was originally going to be about all the neat stuff I was learning in grad school, plus, you know, some of that incidental stuff that is my life. Hence the title (see above.) It was a good idea. I mean, while I was in Japan, I read Pinker's The Language Instinct for fun, and kept having flashbacks to my beloved linguistics class at Grinnell, wishing I had gotten to take Psych of Language and cognitive psych and all that other good stuff that I never found time for. (Oh, and Japanese history, but that's kind of to the side at the moment.) I actually underlined passages in Pinker, and quoted them to my Grinnell friends via the Plans community. I ran a little poll based on one of those passages to see if I could duplicate the results he mentioned. If I could find this much impetus and excitement from a book I was reading for fun, surely the knowledge grad school would reveal unto me would be that much better, right?

Not exactly. Turns out, Pinker wrote the best book out there seven years ago, and the program I'm in is not exactly what I thought it was going to be, so I spend far, far more time learning about teaching methods for teaching a subject I have no intention of teaching than I do learning about the cognitive processes of the mind with regards to language. The result is that I am becoming rather passive agressive in my approach to homework. It's like a return to high school, down to hearing my mother's voice telling me that by not doing my homework, I hurt no one but myself, not the teacher, not the class. Somehow, I don't think this is the attitude my program is trying to inspire towards those in the teaching profession. It doesn't help that I like all the instructors personally, I just don't like the classes.

My experience this year reminds me of a Joel On Software article Will had me read last year, on the real reason Mac and PC users revile each other's systems so much. It boils down to, not a huge advantage of one over the other, but rather a lot of very little differences in interface that a computer user doesn't usually even notice until they're suddenly gone or different. The sum of the little bits makes for the overall impression of convenience, and if any of those little bits change, suddenly, we're not happy. Overall, computers all do the same things, regardless of OS, just as, overall, every day of a person's average life is about the same. But if a bunch of little bitty things start to bug us, we build up a great deal of antipathy towards that type of computer, or grad program, or job, or city, or whatever. So the end result is that I may be learning some interesting stuff right now, but the little things like inconvenient class times that make it impossible to do anything more rewarding in the evenings, lots of focus on teaching when I want to focus on the thought processes the teaching is impacting, an obsession with having everyone learn to write a perfect lesson plan, etc., make for me being rather displeased with my first year of grad school. I've heard a lot of people don't like their first year, and I hold out hope for next semester, when there is only one non-linguistics class I have to take. I hope I like my linguistics MA better than this one.

Pity party finished.

Monday, February 02, 2004

Evil Be Gone
Our home is now very well protected from evil spirits. For Christmas, my grandmother gave me a witchball, which is a hollow glass sphere strung through with glass strands. When you hang it in the window, any evil spirits which try enter the house get trapped in the strands. Combined with the two Old World glass balls, or kugel, than Mark's mom gave us, which are purported to have served a similar purpose, the office should be well-protected. (Perhaps this will keep Mark's computer from becoming possessed again.)

See the pretty witchball.

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