May 272015

Although I am sure there *are* professors who have estimated how long it will take their students to complete their assigned tasks – written assignments, presentations, homework activities, project research, and textbook reading – I doubt I know any who have done so. (My brilliant sister could be the exception that proves the rule; I am afraid to ask.)

I have written and/or revised literally dozens of course outlines and syllabi, and I have served on curriculum committees. Task completion time has never come up as a topic. The closest we have ever been to such a discussion has been when a faculty member has suggested that there seems to be a little much required of students in a particular class: “You want them to learn business reasoning, case study construction, advanced marketing techniques, and research strategy … in 14 weeks? How could a student be able to learn all that? Not only that, but how could a professor *teach* all of that?”

A colleague of mine asked her third-year communications students: How many of you have done the textbook readings so far this semester? Out of 35 students, no one raised their hand. No one had done more than crack open a textbook – a good one, too – that costs upwards of $150. After I heard about this, this Spring I asked my students a few questions:

  1. How many of you believe that your professors know how much you work? The answer: No student believes professors know how much they work, on particular assignments, or on school in general, or in life in general. (Almost all of my students have one or more jobs in addition to their school activities.)
  2. How many of you have done school-work *at your workplace*? Everybody who had a job raised their hand. Some raised *both* hands. Servers are writing reports in the kitchen; customer service reps are drafting spreadsheets in the stockroom.
  3. How many of you have been able to complete all of your assignments in one of your classes this year (including homework and reading)? No one raised their hand.
  4. What is the first thing you cut from your to-do lists in order to make it through your classes in one piece? “The readings.” This was unanimous.
  5. How do you expect to get by if you don’t read the textbook? Students hope that the lectures and the PowerPoint slides that accompany them will hit all the important points. (Note to world: They don’t, and can’t.)


I had been aware for a long time that students aren’t often keen to read their textbooks. That’s why my midterms and final exam are usually based completely on their textbooks, in an effort to force them to read. Some do, quickly. These tests are virtually always, though, their lowest grade of the semester, not just as an average but for almost every single student.

On my to-do list: Fix this.

Reposted from basil.CA

Photo by Bob Basil

May 212015

I recently finished a pretty good book, The Lexicographer’s Dilemma: The Evolution of ‘Proper’ English from Shakespeare to South Park, by Rutgers Professor Jack Lynch. It provides a helpful history of the English language dictionary (other European languages had dictionaries long before English did) as well as a lucid assessment of the debates regarding usage, grammar, and vocabulary that started almost as soon as Samuel Johnson published his founding, epic work.

In these debates Lynch finds himself, more or less, on the “descriptivist” rather than the “prescriptivist” side; that is, he believes that dictionaries and grammars ought to show how people actually use words and grammar, not how well-bred scolds believe they *should* use such things. The word “ain’t” is just fine with Lynch, for instance, as is ending sentences with prepositions, as is confusing “comprise” with “compose,” as is pronouncing “ask” as “ax” (as Chaucer sometimes did).

By and large I am with Lynch, although certain usages will always irritate me: using the word “nauseous” to mean “nauseated” rather than “nauseating,” for instance, and using “peruse” to mean “skim” rather than “to study closely.” Oh well!

No matter what your stance is in this debate, there is no question that, to be regarded as a professional in the English-speaking word, one has to have a very solid handle on traditional, modern grammar and usage as it has been prescribed in your school and as it is expected in most workplaces. You have no choice.

I’ve been an editor my entire life, and I find I still always need the big Chicago Manual of Style on my desk at home to make sure I am following the straight and narrow. But, what if I’m not near my desk – on the SkyTrain, for instance, or walking through Stanley Park with my notebooks (and iPhone)? Well, there is lots of good help online. I give you:

Very helpful, fun grammar websites:

The Oatmeal: Learning Grammar with Comics

“Chomp Chomp”: Grammar Bytes – Grammar Instruction with Attitude!


The Guide to Grammar and Writing isn’t *quite* as fun, but it is equally helpful.