Saturday, March 05, 2011

a rainy bleak spring saturday in the house & that means i'm on this tiny computer which is ok for blogging but not really great for writing the novel, which i'd also like to do. the steady rain has left pools in the yard and water sogging up the valleys and heading ever so slowly down the slopes into the overtaxed sewer system. at home the dogs and the children are chomping at the bit as some internal clock is saying that it should be spring and time to get outside, but we can't.

yesterday, march fourth, was national grammar day, and i skipped it entirely both on this blog and the professional one where i really should parade out my views and make a public spectacle of it. the fact is that the mere mention of grammar practically gives me the hives as i'm steeped in the practice and study of it although there are so many moving targets i can barely focus on what i want. i am grammar coordinator of a large program which means dozens of tests pass under my eyes as a whole program of students study grammar forms and then struggle to integrate them successfully into their writing. there is a field-wide question of whether separating out grammar and teaching its forms discretely is actually effective and our program is not very clear evidence one way or the other; it is clearly not effective in ours (yet), but the profusion of saudi students gives us a huge disadvantage in that regard; they can reach the higher levels easily and still not know what grammar is...yet we continue to hit them where it hurts, remind them of what they don't know, and keep plugging away at it. then, i study the effects of new grammar technology on both their writing and their learning. as far as i can tell i am the only serious person doing work in this subject and it's a huge topic; my work is not very successful, but one thing i've learned is that the technology has a huge effect not only on their writing but also on their learning. and that also is a moving target; six people put "follow" tags on my blog and proceed to glean whatever wisdom they can off of what i say about its effects on international writers. i take my hat off to them; in several regards, they have made grammar technology much better than it used to be. for example, our students used to spell "definitely" as "definately" which spell-check would change to "defiantly" since it would always try to reverse letters before it tried switching them, so it was common to see the word "defiantly" in questionable locales; but, spell-check technology has caught on to the fact that the vast majority of time people really want "definitely" in this case, and has built in a better correction system; fortunately for our students, they also benefit from statistics that are based globally on all users. sometimes their mistakes are so unique or so unorthodox that the grammar technology has no way to comprehend them, but, as time goes by, the technology gets better at figuring out what things are based on the environment they're in; it's really quite a fascinating science. yet the vast majority of the teaching profession more or less turns its back, as if grammar will correct itself; it is on its own path, much like someone's pronunciation, and while you can point out key errors occasionally, you can't really alter a system that improves naturally at a general rate undisturbed by the things we make people do.

so this means that by and large i'm shouting at the waves, or making noise in a dense forest, and wasting my voice. what bothers me is that if the technology truly alters what people learn or the way they learn, or even as it alters what people say and the kinds of mistakes we do see, we are wrapped up in a sea of change with very little awareness of the nature of the changes around us. we accept it as natural, as part of the system, as what people create naturally, people and machine. what is in fact happening is that the various grammar-fixing machines including the grammar-check on your word program, are getting better simultaneously and picking up on each other's tricks, in a very competitive field, such that people's grammar is getting fixed at a much better rate and to a much higher degree than ever before; they compete, for example, to be the first to fix the their/there/they're dilemma by being able to determine what somebody meant to use based on the environment they put it in. similarly, they compete to be able to tell the writer to use its instead of it's, and they succeed, so that these errors too tend to disappear. but there are some errors they can't get rid of, like the sloppily made adverbials (trying to make a grammatical sentence, my nouns just didn't seem to match my verbs), which isn't much of a problem for our students, who don't even try these until the very end, and by that time they know more grammar than we do.

one son will go off to a basketball game this afternoon; that is good, because the salukis aren't getting enough customers these days, and he'll fill the joint with his noise and his enthusiasm for the home team. i meanwhile will stay home and fret about my upcoming presentation, about which i've done virtually nothing (except think, and write, and study a bit)...i'm somewhat at a loss about how to proceed. as one who studies this stuff i might need to come up with a little better outline of what people do and what teachers should do about it, and what really happens to international students when they try to write, and what we teachers could do to make it better, and ensure that our students learn things that the machines tend to suppress. all of this will go on my other blog which you are more than welcome to join in and follow; it also appears on my main professional blog which is where i really should make a bit more of a hoopla about national grammar day and all. i tried to make a survey, but couldn't even get teachers to fill it out; i tried asking my colleagues, but we're all so busy, i couldn't really find time, even, to interview them. i paid close attention as piles and piles of papers, both typed and untyped, came under my nose for grading. patterns? i've seen patterns. i feel like a whitewater rafter, seeing patterns but noticing that if i don't respond to them immediately, i'll be drenched; at the same time, we all seem to be heading for this big open spot where there's a dull roar coming from way below and the mist rises from water smashing against rocks.

new orleans is eight hours straight south, and it's mostly driving through mississippi; i'm driving to this convention because my wife will be on crutches and it will be quicker for me to get down there, driving, than going by train and having to wait for it each way. at the convention i'll sit by a computer and explain what i know, both how to get on these programs and use them to our advantage, and how to disable them if we prefer. people may care about what i say or they may not. for some reason they continue to invite me back to present; they must find something there that is useful to somebody. i think ultimately there is at least a book in there somewhere about the topic; the book would cover the entire picture, from what happens when the average person, or the average international, uses word and its accompanying grammar-check, to the sum total of influence of machine-translators, grammar-checkers, & spell-checkers on the entire population and its learning/typing skills & habits. i don't know if i'll write this book. i feel again like the whitewater rafter, wanting to wedge my oar against a couple of rocks.

mississippi i believe, will be full of that magnolia kind of smell, come mid-march, and i've been listening to my cousin who made a cd once that included "mississippi blues", an old song that talks about drifting down to new orleans to gamble and be bad. he himself lived in southern mississippi for a spell but then went back to arizona; i really miss him and actually like his version of the song much better than the others on youtube; his however is not on youtube (yet) and i'm doing very little to alter that pattern. i have friends down there; they'll come from around the world; they'll be going out on the town at night and there's a chance i'll find them, in that brief window of time, and hang around with them a bit. i badly need some motivational influence. i'm finding writing difficult, on this tiny computer, and it's not easier on the other one either; but, it's about time to pull everything together, get organized, get this car and shoot on down the river.

the phone rings and it's one of my alumni colleges; i actually went to three, each of which calls me regularly, and worked at another and a high school and they all call me regularly also. my answer is similar for each; i'm a loyal alumnus; i have eight children but i teach for a living so i have no money for their foundation; i fully support all my alumni colleges but what can i do? if i gave a penny to one of them i'd be obliged to be fair, or perhaps give to the one which needed it the most. all do, i'm sure. and it's tough times; they're breaking the unions in places like wisconsin that always took pride in having decent teachers.

the earth remains dormant under the cold drizzly rain that has held us for days, and i, at the end of another long term of fighting students who are essentially way over their heads, am very tired, trying to rest up for the final push. the boys will go off with their friends; this will be good, because i'll get better rest and maybe even get something done. i'll get used to this tiny computer, and maybe get something written on it. i'll finish up a term and get finals written and graded, grades on the books. the grasses and flowers will pop; i'll walk outside and notice. things will change; they have to. grammar days will come and go, but we'll get a little older, and with that, maybe a little better ready for the future.


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