A Teacher's Writes

by Geoffrey Sheehy

Category: Quotes

A pool of preserved bison meat

I’ve been reading Pekka Hamalainen’s Lakota America and enjoying it, feeling like it’s a book I’ve been waiting for for quite some time. I particularly love this paragraph:

In the winter of 1703, Sicanu Lakotas walked above the bison, a thousand beasts under their feet. Beneath them they could see the broad faces and glimpse the massive bodies halted in mid-motion. There were rows and piles of them, a vast, jumbled pool of preserved meat. A lake’s ice coat had collapsed under a buffalo herd and then hardened again to seal the drowned animals in, leaving Sicangus a huge natural refrigerator of meat. Whenever they needed food, they could simply cut through the ice and bring up a carcass. The meat lasted an entire year. A Sicangu winter count remembered it as “Camped cutting the ice through winter.”

Debate can be a danger for the apologist’s faith

In the wake of the Ravi Zacharias news last week, I kept returning to this passage from Alan Jacobs’s biography of C.S. Lewis, The Narnian, where Jacobs assembles some of Lewis’s thoughts on the danger of apologetics for the Christian believer. I often quip, “You can’t debate anyone into the Kingdom”; in a significant sense, according to Lewis, it appears we can debate ourselves out of it.

“Worse still, we expose ourselves  to recoil from our own shots; for if I may trust my personal experience no doctrine is, for the moment, dimmer to the eye of faith than that which a man has just successfully defended.”

Two years later Lewis concluded a talk on ‘Christian Apologetics” for a group of priests and youth leaders in Wales with a word of confession and warning:

“One last word. I have found that nothing is more dangerous to one’s own faith than the work of an apologist. No doctrine of the Faith seems to me so spectral, so unreal as one that I have just successfully defended in a public debate. For a moment, you see, it has seemed to rest on oneself: as a result, when you go away from that debate, it seems no stronger than that weak pillar. That is why we apologists take our lives in our hands and can be saved only by falling back continually from the web of our own arguments . . . into the Reality—from Christian apologetics into Christ himself.”

Stevie Wonder: Letters are the most personal and intense form of communication

A few highlight lines from this gem of a note from Stevie Wonder:

I feel that next to being actually physically touched by someone, reading a letter is the most personal and intense form of communication that there is.

Reading a letter puts me on a total one-to-one relationship with the person who the letter is from. There is no interruption for me, like when you talk to someone in a room with other people—it inhibits the person communicating.

The ideas in letters that move me most are the ones that are the most honest.

David Brooks on the theory of maximum taste

I’m talking about what you might call the “theory of maximum taste.” This theory is based on the idea that exposure to genius has the power to expand your consciousness. If you spend a lot of time with genius, your mind will end up bigger and broader than if you spend your time only with run-of-the-mill stuff.

The theory of maximum taste says that each person’s mind is defined by its upper limit—the best that it habitually consumes and is capable of consuming.

A few years ago, I was teaching students at a highly competitive college. Simultaneously, I was leading seminars for 30- and 40-somethings, many of whom had gone to that same college. I assigned the same essay to both groups, an essay on Tolstoy by the political philosopher Isaiah Berlin. The college students found it easy to read; it’s not that hard of an essay to grasp. The 30- and 40-somethings really struggled. Their reading-comprehension ability had declined in the decades since college, and so had their ability to play with ideas. The upper limit of their mind was lower than it used to be.

In college, you get assigned hard things. You’re taught to look at paintings and think about science in challenging ways. After college, most of us resolve to keep doing this kind of thing, but we’re busy and our brains are tired at the end of the day. Months and years go by. We get caught up in stuff, settle for consuming Twitter and, frankly, journalism. Our maximum taste shrinks.

David Brooks at The Atlantic

Not Everyone at the Inklings Meetings Loved Tolkien’s Stories

Tolkien was excessively hard to please, even by his friends. I have mentioned his distaste for Williams’s writings and his frustrations with much of Lewis’s work. Dorothy Sayers’s famed fictional detective Lord Peter Wimsey inspired in Tolkien “a loathing for him (and his creatrix) not surpassed by any other character in literature known to me, unless by his Harriet [Vane].” These views made Tolkien the odd man out in what was otherwise an extremely simpatico group–with one significant exception: Hugo Dyson hated Tolkien’s stories so much that he would audibly groan and even swear as they were being read, whether by Tolkien himself in a mumble or by his son Christopher with eloquence; ultimately Dyson’s objections led to Tolkien’s fiction being taken permanently off the Inklings’ menu. Perhaps this was not wholly to be regretted: as Lewis writes in The Four Loves, if friendship “is not full of mutual admiration, of Appreciative love, it is not Friendship at all.” However, “it must not become what the people call a ‘mutual admiration society'”–a group in which strong criticism is ruled out. (204-05)

That’s from Alan Jacobs’s biography of C.S. Lewis, The Narnian. It is hard not to enjoy the way Jacobs approaches this element of Lewis’s life, beginning with this confession before discussing the Inklings:

The Inklings have been written about so much, and so reverently, that it has been hard for me to dismiss the temptation to ignore them altogether, as though I had never heard of them. (Imagine a book on Shakespeare that never mentions a play called Hamlet.) (201)

Surely it is that hagiographic love of the Inklings so common that makes the scene quoted above so amazingly funny to me.

I love it.

E.B. White on the Eloquence of Facts

You might suppose that the next few entries in my journal, covering the days when I must have been winding up my affairs and getting ready to sail on a long voyage of discovery, would offer a few crumbs of solid information. Not at all. From Friday morning, when I announced that I would soon be off, until the departure of the Buford, several days later, my journal contains no helpful remarks, no hint of preparation, no facts about clothes, money, friends, family, anything. A few aphorisms; a long, serious poem to the girl on Lake Union (“Those countless, dim, immeasurable years,” it begins); a Morley clipping from the “Bowling Green” about writing (“A child writes well, and a highly trained and long-suffering performer may sometimes write with intelligence. It is the middle stages that are appalling. . . .”); a short effort in vers libre written on Sunday morning and describing my boarding house slatting around in the doldrums of a summer Sabbath—that is all I find in these tantalizing pages. Mr. Morely was right; the middle stages are appalling. As a diarist, I was a master of suspense, leaving to the reader’s imagination everything pertinent to the action of my play. I operated generally, on too high a level for routine reporting, and had not at that time discovered the eloquence of facts. I can see why the Times fired me. A youth who persisted in rising above facts must have been a headache to a city editor.

That’s E.B. White from “Years of Wonder” in Essays of E.B. White. I thought of this passage when I read Jonathan Rogers’s recent issue in his newsletter, The Habit: “On Giving an Account of What You Have Seen.” In that, Rogers tells the story of seeing a young girl keep a careful record of what she saw at a concert and compares her work to his own when he was in college:

I have a journal I kept in college. It’s terrible, terrible stuff. At that time in my life I seemed to have the impression that “real writers” only wrote about big ideas. If I ever made reference to an actual thing that actually happened in the physical world where I actually lived, it was only to turn it into a metaphor for some philosophical or theological notion I had. That journal is intensely boring to read. There are people whose philosophical and theological musings are interesting to read, but twenty-year-old Jonathan Rogers was not one of them.

The sad thing is that I happen to know that my life wasn’t intensely boring at that time. I knew interesting people and did interesting things. I so wish I had had the writerly discipline of that little girl who brought her notebook and pen at the concert in order to make a record of the life she was given that day. Sure, “Here’s what I thought at age twenty” has a certain interest. But I wish I also had made a record of what I did at age twenty, what I ate, where I went and with whom, and how much I paid for gas.

That’s good advice from two writers who know what they’re doing.

What should one teach when teaching students grammar?

When I started out as a copy editor, I realized that most of what I knew about grammar I knew instinctively. That is, I knew how most–certainly not all–of the grammar things worked; I simply didn’t know what they were called.

Even now I’d be hard-pressed to tell you what a nominative absolute is, I think that the word “genetive” sounds vaguely smutty, and I certainly don’t know, or care to know, how to diagram a sentence.

I hope I’m not shocking you.

But at a certain point I figured that if I was going to be fixing grammar for a living, I might do well to learn a little something about it, and that’s precisely what I did: I learned a little something about it. As little as I needed to. I still, at the slightest puzzlement, run back to my big fat stylebooks, and likely always will.

I do believe, though, that if as a writer you know how to do a thing, it’s not terribly important that you know what it’s called.

I think Benjamin Dreyer’s point here is a helpful reminder for those of us who long for  our students to know grammar. Dreyer knows more about this stuff than anyone not named Mrs. Dussault*–he wrote a book about it–and he doesn’t consider himself a terminology expert. This raises a question of distinction: Do our students not know grammar, or do they not know the terminology? My students who are native English speakers all sound like native English speakers, which suggests they know English grammar. If knowledge of the parts of speech and the sentence is essential for literacy, then they write remarkably well. But if it’s not–and their skill suggests it isn’t–then maybe it’s not so crucial that I make them experts in identifying direct objects and predicate nominatives.

Granted, I think knowing the difference between direct objects and predicate nominatives is helpful even if one can’t name the terms–but that’s the teaching challenge: how can I convey the information so students learn the grammatical skill without bogging them down with the grammatical terminology?

What I don’t think is the answer is inventing new terms. Calling clauses “branches” doesn’t help students when the next teacher calls them clauses. But trying to reduce the number of terms we use can help; I have found teaching commas, semi-colons, and colons relatively well requires only one technical term: the independent clause. With it, students can master most uses of common punctuation.

*Mrs. Dussault was my 7th and 8th grade English teacher. More than 90% of what I know about grammar I learned from her.