Learning How to Spell: The Reading You Will Always Remember

It hurts, but it's necessary.
It hurts, but it’s necessary.

February 12, 2014

My class today revolved around learning how to peer edit papers. These students are not professional writers, and some of them have had to take the class before, so aside from myself and the Writing Center, I want them to feel comfortable asking each other for help. The lesson, then, revolved around teaching them how to critique and take criticism.

It was simple enough. First, find something in the paper that works. It could be the dialogue, the story itself, or even just the title, but it must be genuine praise, not just cheerleader fluff. Then, you need to point out an actual shortcoming in the paper. And be specific. Is the ending vague? Does it try to cover too much ground? Finally, end with a second positive.

While this may feel like some sort of self-help seminar, the purpose is to make the writer receptive to criticism. Hearing that there are good things in the essay and not just hings to fix is essential, especially for insecure writers. Writing is one of the most stressful activities a person can partake in, so knowing that some parts of the work work is essential. A person can get friend focusing on the things that need to be changed, the mistakes that slipped through the first and second drafts, and even just the amount of work needed to polish an essay for submission. I know.

That little bit of positive feedback can make the difference becoming bitter at the process and learning to enjoy the small victories.


Enjoy the silence by AquaSixio on deviantART

And I’m not asking for too much when I ask students to find something good in each others’ essays. Rarely will anyone find a piece of writing so unbearably bad, so insulting to the senses, that at least one positive thing can be said about it.

In my life, I’ve come across two. I’ve read hundreds of essays, countless books, and I’ve only found two.

The first was actually a student essay back in college. To say that the essay offended my sense of storytelling by taking a story and purposefully twisting the reader’s brain around metafiction with all the grace and subtlety of a rocket-powered brick to the face would be an understatement. Chaos theory states than an infinite amount of monkeys writing at an infinite amount of typewriters will, given an infinite amount of time, write the complete works of William Shakespeare. This essay, however, was a twelve monkey, half hour job. It’s the only time I’ve ever thrown a piece of writing. Its aura offended me.

The second was a novel I had to edit in order to compensate for a small car accident I caused. Instead of having to get insurance involved, the other driver asked me to edit her novel. It took me a good half hour to get past the first page. It was a mess, both grammatically and structurally. The story began with two retired men who won the lottery and drove around the country getting into small adventures. It ended with said men recruiting a dog groomer, a bartender, and assorted folks into a black ops mercenary outfit running operations in Colombia. It may sound like the kind of thing that could work on paper, but it’s not. Not by a long shot. The story would have made more sense if alien ghosts had appeared midway through to explain how reality was being melted by a giant toddler with a magnifying lens.


sketching :) by BeauDeNoir on deviantART

Being a reader is more than just editing and finding mistakes. It’s about providing a little support to go along with those criticisms.

Except for the odd writing like those two mentioned above. Writing that bad needs to be burned and buried at a crossroads.

For now, let’s enjoy the sights and sounds of The Daily Show destroying the GOP on something that shouldn’t be this difficult.

A Letter to Present and Future Students

Just try it...
Just try it…

February 10, 2014

Dear students,

I’d like to believe I’m a fair teacher, one that is willing to work with you to help you pass. I don’t believe in unfair advantages like extra credit or undeserved extensions. I do, however, believe in working with you, explaining through different methods, using office hours and email discussion to help you reach the proper level of understanding and confidence to write. That is my goal.

And mistakes will be made. This, too, is inevitable, but it’s part of the process. Writing is about making mistakes, trying out new sentences, new approaches, telling the story a different way in order to better get across to the audience. Writers who are afraid to make mistakes never grow, they never improve, and in the end they become wrecks as far as the profession is concerned.

That being said, there is one thing I will not tolerate.

Dishonesty.


Lies: He Comes by RidgeviewxKid on deviantART

Every one of us who calls him or herself “writer” most likely started out imitating others. We copied style. We copied story. We copied tone. But few of us would ever take something copied word for word and call it our own. There is a special level of hell for plagiarists. It’s right between the level where they keep Kardashian fans and people who serve Natural Light at parties.

Accidental plagiarism is also a thing. Students forget quotation marks but have a proper citation. A student thinks he paraphrased something but it was still too similar. Again, these are mistakes.

But knowingly stealing words and trying to pass them off as your own?

I’ve had students lift paragraphs from Wikipedia and sites with sample essays. If it was up to me, the forms outlining their dishonesty would have been sent to the Registrar and the Honor Council ten seconds after I caught their deceit. That is a choice to try and lie and cheat. It’s an insult to the trade.

But the department says we need to give them a chance to explain or fix the mistake, especially if they’re freshmen.

Fine.

But to everyone else, or those who think they can pass off this sort of work in a final draft, please pay attention.

Are you listening?

I will come down on you like the hammer of an angry god.


Holy War by stevegoad on deviantART

I will rain holy fire on your academic record. The ruins of Sodom and Gomorrah will look the Elysian Fields compared to what I will do your grade in my class. Your lies smell like sulfur, and I will exorcise your demons from the digital database with holy water and a sword cast from the church bells of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral. I’ll make that essay look like the ruins of Alderaan. You did it because you ran out of time? You forgot? Well, guess what? I’m teaching a full load and have a wife with a baby on the way. I take time out of my evenings and weekends to put together a class designed to make it easy for you to pass if you put forth actual effort and respect the craft, and if you show me something you did not write and think you can get away with it, then you’re wasting my time, time I could be happily spending with my family.

You’re too young to know the kind of pain I will inflict on your soul.

…All I’m saying is, please don’t do it. The paperwork’s a bitch.

Okay?

I think we’re going to get along great.

And yes… I’m back.

Sincerely,

Your Professor

The Final Randomology Post

I GIVE UP!
I GIVE UP!

April 1, 2013

After a long week of soul-searching, I’ve realized that I’ve made a terrible mistake. This entire website has been an exercise in futility and I’m going to pack it in.

I’ve realized that it truly is impossible to fight against the forces of conservatism and ignorance. They are just too strong. They have talk radio and major news outlets and they can scream really loudly. And that scares me. I don’t want people to think I’m a baby-killing pagan communist anymore.

To that end, I will do the only rational thing. I will shut up. For good.

This website will stand as a monument to my stupidity and hubris. How could I have thought for a second that I could make a difference?!

I should apologize to Glenn Beck for years of mocking him and thinking he was insane for thinking there was some vast conspiracy at work. There has to be. It makes perfect sense that he alone would have the vision to put together this web of lies that are ruling our lives.

I should also apologize to Fox News. I know I’ve said they’re the spawn of evil and deception in the world, but they’re not. I mean, they say everything so loudly and repeat it over and over again. It has to be true, right?

I’d like to apologize to the American Right Wing. I know you guys just want to make sure others can’t worship or lives their lives as they see fit, so I think you should just go ahead and do that. It’s exhausting hearing you.

But most of all, I want to apologize to my students and everyone who thought that writing, and critical thinking and expression could make a dent in the world. This is a cold, hard reality and it needs equally cold and hard people. Compassion, understanding, and curiosity have no place in it.

So, there you have it. Randomology is dead. And it failed. I’ll see you…

Well, I won’t. Just…

Bye. I’ll be leaving on a bus later today and heading to Alaska so that I may sit at the feet of Sarah Palin and learn a thing or two.

Raising the Bar Hurts Students?

Raising the bar

February 27, 2013

As I get ready for another SAT class this weekend, I look around Facebook at friends who are also teaching and I come across many familiar sentiments. Some teachers want to grade hard but are afraid. Others are not sure if incompetence qualifies for plagiarism. It’s fine. No teacher has all the answers, but one old friend recently put up the following:

Student complained after seeing her grade on blackboard that I am ‘too harsh’ of a grader when it comes to papers.
My response?
“Despite what you might think, it is actually perhaps of greater importance in science than in any other field that you be able to effectively, clearly, and accurately communicate your findings in writing. I’m not trying to be harsh, I’m trying to help you improve.”
I offered to meet with the student during office hours, gave her the location of the writing center and linked two good science-writing websites for tips. Hopefully that helps!

People sometimes accuse me of being a grammar Nazi, of being too harsh, and of expecting far too much from my students. They’re only in high school, they say. They’re not AP and magnet program, they say. It’s onl;y their first year in college, others say. These are average, every day students.

Well then what the FRAK is wrong with wanting to raise the average?!


Writing. by ~Frost-Wolf17 on deviantART

Look, I understand that not every student will finish high school and go on to college. I understand not every college student will pursue a Masters. I understand that even at the graduate level, most people probably won’t be reading stories and analyzing literature.

But could we please, for the love of all that is good and holy in the world, please agree that making sure we can all communicate clearly, and maybe even sneak some critical thinking into what we’re doing, is a GOOD thing? I’m not going to push them so far that the whole class fails, but I don’t want to make it so easy they don’t learn anything new. And if a few of them have to think harder to get it, I’m more than happy to sit with them and explain the concepts to them.

Take my SAT students. They come from private schools and public schools. Some are getting ready to apply for college. Some are a year ahead. I’m treating all of them like potential college students, and I work with college students, so I’m VERY much aware that the current crop, and even the graduate level, is woefully unprepared for the rigors of higher education when it comes to writing.


Padlocks with writing by =angela6331 on deviantART

I went out of my way to learn this all the way back in middle school. I majored in it. I have a degree and career based on it. Fine. I get it. I don’t expect my students to put together sonnets in fifteen minutes or even an entire seven hundred word essay in under an hour. But I would like them to at least have the proper foundation to make themselves heard and understood.

It’s not just English classes. Like my friend said above, science requires very precise language, but as I’ve seen, scientists are also very fond of clutter. Better to cut it off at the source, don’t you think?

Not every person is a writer. I know that. But I’m not a NASCAR driver, yet I know how to signal, avoid danger on the road, and do basic car maintenance if needed. Why shouldn’t everyone know how to write clearly and communicate properly?

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to get ready for a podcast in two hours. Hello, wine!

In the meantime, let’s enjoy a good little set of jump scares with the trailer for The Conjuring.

You’re Better Than You Think

Somewhere under all that ink lies an actual work.
Somewhere under all that ink lies an actual work.

December 19, 2012

With the semester ending, it’s time to look back at the students and the work they’ve done recently. I can recall all those sessions over the last five months and I’m once again struck by a virulent belief in the school population.

Kids, listen to me because I’ve said it before, but I’m going to say it again.

You’re better writers than you think. I’ve had nearly every tutoring session and class start with someone saying how bad he or she is in regards to writing and school work. In a way, they’re right. They lack the knowledge of structure and fallacies. They’ve never been exposed to these concepts before.


Writing by ~Likethenight94 on deviantART

But VERY few people are bad writers. If all you need is to learn format and some grammar, those are mechanical issues. Those are things that can be learned. But everyone has something he or she wants to say. One of the biggest secrets about writing is that good writers aren’t necessarily “good writers.”

They’re good editors. A good writer can look at something and figure out what works and what doesn’t, what should be rewritten and what should be expanded. A good writer can place him or herself in the mind of the reader and see how a particular piece of writing. Most of the freshmen I see can understand that their writing is not the greatest. However, it’s when they stop trying to fix it that they become “bad writers.” Sure, it helps to have a good imagination and come up with an original idea, but that’s not all of it.

Editing and rewriting as just as important as finishing that first draft. Learning to recognize what works and what doesn’t work is important. No first draft is ever perfect. Hemmingway said it best. First drafts are always shit.


Day 100: A Writer’s Workplace by ~umerr2000 on deviantART

But that doesn’t mean the first version is the last and the best that can be done. Sure, a professional writer can probably spit out something akin to a first-year writing student’s final draft on the first go, but that’s practice and training.

I was once asked to check a novel for a college professor. The novel was 800 pages of the worst drivel I have ever read. Ever. For anything. The plot was nonsensical. The grammar was terrible. The characters were unoriginal and completely unbelievable. Let me put it this way. One character who started out as a dog groomer eventually became an elite commando heading into South America after getting some lessons on the firing range.

And it was supposed to be based on true events.

It does go to show, however, that while editing and revising are important, it’s the imagination that’s important. Good writing starts off with a good idea, then gets polished into the final product.

Most students I see have a good idea to start. Maybe they don’t realize it, but they do.

So stop beating yourselves up for not being “good writers.” There are writers and writers who don’t try and give up. It’s the same as anything else in life. Some people have innate talent. Training and persistence, however, go a long way.

And now, let’s clear our minds with the full-length Star Trek Into Darkness teaser. Can you say, “Squee”?

Writing Advice from Warren Ellis

On a scale of 1 to 10, this man is awesome. (Original image by Gage Skidmore)

Warren Ellis is one of my favorite writers. One of his most popular creations, Transmetropolitan, is easily one of my favorite works in any medium. He’s also a wonderful man with a prolific online presence who was kind enough to respond to a few questions via email, so here is advice from one of our great modern artists.

Teachers, writers, students, and anyone with any interest in creating art, please pay attention.

1) Independent publishing has taken off in the last several years. You yourself work through Avatar Press, but you’ve also worked for the big labels. Under what circumstances should artists go at it alone or indie and when is it best to look to work for a big outfit?

Indie publishing’s been around in American comics since the 60s.  This isn’t a new thing, and there have been several peaks in indie comics over the decades, some bigger than the current situation.

Ultimately, Marvel and DC aren’t interested in publishing your original work.  Simple as that.  Make your decisions based on whether you intend to paint someone else’s house, or build your own.

2) Opinions differ on writer’s block. Some writers say to just work on something else. Others say to focus on the problem until you crack it. Others don’t even believe it exists. Your thoughts (and possibly remedies)?

Writing is writing.  If one thing isn’t working, move on to another thing, or some correspondence, until you’ve solved the problem.

3) What’s harder? Starting or finishing a story, and why?

Finishing it, by far, because it requires you to ensure that you closed everything you started, and have connected up every loose wire you threaded, and generally that the thing has to make sense.  I always slow down towards the end of a job because I have to make sure everything’s tidied away.


Good Morning Sinners by ~lerms on deviantART

4) You and your work are known for discussing transhumanism. You’re also known to be quite vocal in your fiction regarding your points of view on everything from religion to politics. How can a writer get something so dear and close to his or her heart out in a story without sounding like a preacher? Or do we NEED to be preached through fiction?

I have no issue with being preached to through fiction.  Some of my favourite books — some of the world’s favourite books — have strong opinions that they aren’t shy about firing.  I’d rather read a good book with passion and vigour to it than a piece of brilliant prose styling that was about nothing because it was terrified of offending someone.

5) My classes range from 7th-grade writing camps to undergraduate college courses. The biggest problem my students face is the fear of being heard, of someone calling them out for their opinions. Often, though, they’re just afraid they’re not good writers. What would you say to students who are afraid of writing, of having their opinions heard?

If you prefer not to have your opinions heard, or, indeed prefer not to project any kind of personality or worldview whatsoever, you will probably be very successful and make a lot of money.  It will be my opinion that you have betrayed the role of the writer, but, you know, you probably don’t care about that.  What we say through our fiction is reportage: we explain where we think we are today, and what we think it looks like.  The joy of fiction is that we can explore this by creating characters that we don’t agree with, and characters who contain only facets of our opinions, and therefore by writing we can discover what we truly think about things.

Don’t be afraid of not being a good writer.  None of us start out as being good writers.  Be afraid of not being an honest writer.  At this point in your career, being honest to your work is far more important.  Write every day.  Find out what your voice is.  Find out what you think about things.  Finish pieces.  Hate them.  (Believe me, you will.)  Then read them again, and learn lessons from them, and then write something else.

Warren Ellis is frequently found on Twitter. He may or may not be insane, but it works for him. Thanks for reading, and I’ll see you Monday, folks! In the meantime, enjoy a short fan video of Transmetropolitan‘s own Spider Jerusalem explaining how voting works.

Students Without Rules?

Anarchists! Every last one of them!

August 27, 2012

We’re back!

Well, by “we,” I mean “me.” It’s just one person behind the sleek internet experience you are, uhm, experiencing right now.

Let’s start with why one local school district just failed an English class.

Here in Laredo, Texas, schools will no longer have rules. No, that’s too negative. We can’t have teachers telling kids not to do things. It’d be like setting boundaries and stunting their growth. We can’t have that! Instead, the United Independent School District of Laredo, Texas will now implement “expectations.”

For example, instead of “No running in the hallways,” our students will now be encouraged with statements like, “Our students walk down the halls.”

You get it? It’s positive reinforcement. The kids will do better because they have freedom and can do whatever they want while at the same time feeling shame when they don’t meet “expectations.”


Student by ~mirchiz on deviantART

I really hope I don’t have to tell you why this is a dumber idea than Kim Kardashian thinking she can have a music career. Or Snooki thinking she should be a mother. This is stupid, and I know why the district is doing it. Ever since the Penn State scandal broke, schools have gone ape trying to make sure they don’t do anything that might make a child feel uncomfortable. We have to make sure kids have a great time at all costs. I understand the need for proper training, though. I had to undergo training for dealing with minors. It included signs to watch out, for that may indicate abuse in the home or even at work. It included the chain of supervisors that needed to be notified of such signs. It also laid out in very clear language the kinds of things that were expected of me as an employee of a public education institution. And I learned a few things I didn’t know…

But the idea that kids can do fine with “expectations” but not rules is fucking stupid.

Let me put it this way. Are there consequences for not meeting “expectations?” I’m sure there are, so in the end, what we have is “rules” by another name. An expectation reminds me too much of that scene from Office Space. You know the one.


office space by ~WolfsEye157 on deviantART

There’s a big gap between personal drive and what is expected at work. A student will follow “expectations” as long as said expectations are easy. Kids, I’m sorry to say, with very few exceptions, are not motivated to learn on their own. It’s the same problem of “unschooling” I talked about almost two years ago. A child has no incentive to follow an “expectation” unless he or she wants to follow it.

On a larger scale, it’s the same problem I have with Objectivism and libertarianism: the idea that we can have near-total anarchy and people will comport themselves because it is expected of them. Let me be blunt. People are morons. People are selfish. Companies have no incentive to be humanitarian if they can corner the market and keep making money at the expense of others. Students, likewise, have no incentive to follow a suggestion if there are no consequences.

I’ll be damned if I ever tell my students that I “expect” them to pay attention. Oh, no, buddy. They will pay attention or suffer my creative wrath. After I told them I wanted them to stop leaning back on the back two legs of their chairs, I made it clear it wasn’t a suggestion. This was an order.

If I saw anyone lean back, I would get behind them, grab their chair, and pull them back just enough to make think they were about to fall. There was a consequence. I was not asking them. I was telling them.

Rules exist for a reason. Unfair, unjust rules, must be fought, of course. A rule must have a purpose. Replacing all rules with “expectations”? That’s just asking for trouble. Eventually, a good student won’t have to be told to cheat or run in the halls. Until then?

They’re still kids.

Now, let’s clear our heads with one of the later episodes of MST3K and a personal favorite of mine: Space Mutiny.