Dreamy Child Syndrome

It’s not that you’re unsocial: in some ways, you’re unusually socially sensitive. While you struggle to intuit what’s socially appropriate, you worry about the impression you make and about not hurting people’s feelings. You may have trouble interpreting facial expressions, but not tones of voice. You make eye contact, speak fluently, and tentatively engage one-on-one or in small groups—especially in imaginative play. The broader world out there, however, baffles you, and so you retreat. The more you retreat, the less you sponge up. As you grow older, you fall further and further behind your peers—in worldly knowledge, in vocabulary, in knowledge of social rules. Group conversations and real-world phenomena (everything from politics to pop culture) become increasingly difficult to make sense of. Things snowball.

Your refuge is a private world–of fantasy, of systematizing, of thought experiments, or, at its worst, of brooding and perseverating. Unlike the stereotypical introvert’s retreat to a library to gobble up books, your retreat is more deeply interior. You deviate from the introvert stereotype, but not from introversion in the word’s truest sense.

Except for fantasy and sci fi, age-appropriate texts become as hard to follow as the real world. When others address you directly or give you specific tasks, or you give yourself a task (painting, learning music), you tune in, but when the topics turn worldly and tap into your knowledge deficits, you start losing focus. Keeping your mind turned outwards is exhausting, and once you’re no longer immediately accountable, you relent. While teachers teach, or kids chat, or a show plays on TV, or your parents converse at the dinner table or read to you at bed time, or you yourself try concentrating on a book, you find yourself picking up only snippets and then free-associating back into your head—back to the rivalries between witches, to the phonemic categories of English, to the nature of infinity, to a replay of a plot line from Harry Potter, or to the question of why someone snubbed you at lunch.

Has any diagnostician classified this syndrome?

And why am I talking about it here, on a blog about language and writing?

I plan to spell that out more in the next few weeks, but (spoiler alert!) this post is my lead-in to a discussion about… the reading and writing sections of the new SAT.

Getting over my word-count mania

One of the best writing instructors I ever had gave some advice that, for many years, I took too much to heart. “Wordy,” “repetitive,” “you can reduce this passage by a third”—these were among Mr. C’s most frequent comments in the margins of our English papers. My takeaway: the number one priority in revising your work is to cut out as many words as possible.

To this day, I continue to cut. And even when I’m forced into virtual clear-cutting—say when my first draft is several hundred words over the limit—I’ve generally found what survives to be much improved: denser with active verbs and precise nouns, freer of fillers like “it” and hedges like “seems”.

At the same time, I’ve realized that one can take this too far. Does it really improve things to replace “on top of” with “atop,” or “the fact that X happened” with “that X happened”? Sometimes reducing words reduces accessibility. Mr. C. had noted that “the fact that” is, to use his words, “wordy, repetitive, and often a lie.” But “I enjoyed that the Eagles won the Super Bowl” sounds stilted, and “That the Eagles won the Super Bowl meant I didn’t have to teach yesterday” is just begging for “the fact”!

The fact is… that “the fact that” can greatly enhance readability.

So can fillers like “it.” Compare “that the Eagles won the Super Bowl thrilled the heck out of most of my neighbors” with “it thrilled the heck out of most of my neighbors that the Eagles won the Super Bowl.”

Hedges, too, can be crucial. Even those that seem to add no actual content—like “clearly,” “obviously,” and “apparently”—often hedge the existing content in significant ways. Consider the “obviously” in:

Obviously, the U.S. is not a company, but a similar model can still work.

Without this “obviously”, the writer would appear to think it necessary to tell her readers that the United States isn’t a company. “Obviously,” acknowledging their awareness, allows her to state an obvious premise without insulting anyone’s intelligence.

Or consider the “clear” in this review of Alan Moore’s Jerusalem:

The equivalent of Stephen Dedalus here — Moore’s stand-in — is a painter in her 50s named Alma Warren (her name is a clear play on the author’s)…

“Clear,” besides granting that the Alan Moore/Alma Warren connection may be obvious to the reader, casts the word-play idea as a judgment of the reviewer rather than as an explicit intention of the author.

Finally, consider the “apparently” below (from a recent CBS/San Francisco report on a robbery at a Walnut Creek Tanning Salon):

But apparently that wasn’t enough, because he then demanded that she also give him every bit of loose change in the register.

“Apparently,” too, adds little semantic content. But it distances the writer from the judgment that “that” wasn’t enough, attributing it instead to the robber. The irony that results makes those four extra syllabus totally worthwhile.

What I’ve been thinking about for the last 6 months (besides SentenceWeaver)

Some things that have been on my mind:

  • Catherine and my many recent conversations about the new SAT reading sections
  • Related thoughts we’ve had about SAT vocabulary challenges
  • Thoughts on verbosity and hedges (“obviously”, “apparently”).
  • The Dreamy Child Syndrome, aka Multi-Factor Introversion (not autism, and not in the DSM!)
  • Beyond background knowledge: other background variables in reading comprehension
  • How the Curiosity Mindset (or lack thereof) affects comprehension
  • Clues that “kids these days” are doing less and less careful reading
  • Clues that they’re getting less and less writing instruction
  • Thoughts on “Why do you think that?”, “Yeah!”, “It’s a good question”, and “one less thing to worry about”
  • The ongoing recovery of the English language from the Norman Conquest (or is it something more sinister?)
  • J’s adventures as a college undergraduate

For now, I’ll share the following email exchange—a sign, perhaps, of things to come:

E: Katharine, happy to meet with you. I will have my new assistant help us. Amy, can you help set up a meeting with Katharine next week?

E: I forgot to cc Amy.

K: Great—Thank you, E! Next week I am quite open Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday.

A: Hi Katharine. Just wanted to check in and confirm what action you’d like me to take.

If this is an entirely new meeting you’d like me to get on the calendar, just let me know “Amy, please schedule a meeting” and CC in the people you’d like to meet with.

Alternatively, if you’d like me to make any updates to an existing meeting, could you please resend this message in the original thread for that meeting?

For now, I’ll take no action on this.

Amy

E: Katharine, Thank you for your patience with my new assistant. I guess “forgot to cc Amy was not understood.”  So trying again. I will take over if it doesn’t work.

Amy can you please schedule a meeting with Katharine next week?

Thank you.

A: Hi Katharine,

Does Monday at 11:00 AM EST (Eastern Daylight Time) work?

Alternatively, E is available Monday at 2:00 PM or Tuesday at 10:00 AM.

The meeting will be a web conference.

Amy.

At this point I was ready to type an exasperated “As I said…”– but something made me to look back through this bizarre exchange.

It turns out that Amy, whose last name is Ingram, has an email signature that concludes with the following details: “Artificial intelligence that schedules meetings. Learn more at x.ai”

 

 

Active marketing for active learning

From my faculty inbox:

Dear Katharine,

The traditional lecture model is no longer the most efficient way for teachers to impart knowledge to students. With Wi-Fi, smartphones and laptops providing an endless supply of distractions, savvy educators must rely on new teaching methods for classroom engagement.

Our new Active Learning Handbook highlights how using active learning techniques can result in higher student engagement, improved grades and a lower dropout rate.

“Active learning techniques,” apparently, do not include active banning of smartphones and laptops, nor do they include old methods like active calling on students, active class discussions, and active writing assignments that require active listening to lectures.

A diminishing infection of casual speech by edited prose?

A colleague of mine once told me a story about the lingering effects of a psycholinguistics experiment on a college campus. Incentivized by the sticks and carrots of their department, the subjects of the experiment, naturally, were mostly undergraduate psychology majors. These subjects were induced, through subtle, ingenious prompting, to use passive voice constructions: to favor sentences like “I was induced by the clever prompts” over “The clever prompts induced me.”

Long after the experiment ended, its subjects continued–apparently subconsciously—to favor passive voice. Their habits spread like a contagious meme throughout the rest of the campus—and on into incoming classes. Years later, even after all the subjects had graduated, a higher-than-average use of passive voice could still be observed on this particular campus. Or so the story goes.

Apocryphal though it may be, it exemplifies a real phenomenon. Language, as a communicative system, also functions as a communicative disease. Before you can say “Jack Robinson” (does anyone say that anymore?), everyone is saying “impactful” or “yeah no” or “bad optics.”

Sources for these memes range from sitcoms to stand-up comedy to sports talk to management-speak to psycho-babble to political punditry. A smaller influence, but still significant, is written language. Though much of written language is more formal and complex than oral language, the vocabulary and language patterns we encounter in reading still potentially prime our word choices and phrasings in speech.

So what happens when reading habits change? What happens when your average person spends less and less time immersed in sophisticated, literary prose, thereby soaking in an ever narrower range of vocabulary and syntax? What happens when people spend less time reading carefully edited texts, where there are fewer mistakes in grammar and word choice than what is inevitable in spontaneous speech? Might this have an aggregate effect on oral language—on what all of us are collectively hearing and uttering and immersed in as listeners and speakers? Might the result be an impoverishing of vocabulary, a simplification of syntax, and a proliferation of linguistic errors in our everyday conversations–even among those of us who still spend significant time engaging with sophisticated texts?

It’s true that errors and simplifications have been around forever, but I wonder if they’re more common now than back when sophisticated, carefully edited texts reached more people. I wonder this when I see preposition disagreement and dangling modifiers and mangled phrases like “he beat me by a long shot” and “attribute hearing loss to language delays” everywhere.

I wonder this when I hear simpler words and word combinations replacing more complex ones: “reveal” for “revelation”; “fail” for “failure”; “push back” for “resistance,” “look-see” for “inspection,” and “nice to haves” for “desiderata.”

I wonder this when I hear “comparable” increasingly pronounced with the accent on the second syllable—compArable—making it more like the simpler verb form from which it derives, and evoking the way a beginning reader might read the word, especially if he has never heard it pronounced in what was once its standard pronunciation.

Again, errors and simplifications have been around forever, and these recent simplifications may simply be an innocuous continuation of a long-lived trend. After all, we’ve long had “move” for “movement,” “win” for “victory,” “find” for “discovery,” “dig” for “excavation,” and “talk” for “conversation.” But I’m wondering if what we’re hearing now is part of a bigger, more troubling trend: one that reflects the diminishing corrective influence on all of us of the kind of colorfully worded, precisely phrased, and carefully edited language that appears only in certain types of writing—and that depends for its survival on a critical mass of certain types of readers.

Accessibility vs. remediation: the unintended consequences of font tag deprecation

Nature abhors a vacuum—particularly when it comes to to-do lists and worries. No sooner did I complete the big SentenceWeaver upgrade and deal with (at least for now) the various bugs that have sprung up during beta testing than I found myself worrying about a whole new issue: one that potentially undermines the entire program. This issue stems from a certain shadowy, world-wide organization that has the power to cause widespread disruption to websites.

No, it’s not Korean hackers. As far as hacking goes, I’m not particularly worried. My content is copyrighted; my code is encrypted; whole directories are blocked off from all IP addresses except mine. Then there are my web host’s gatekeeping algorithms, which are so risk-averse that they recently started blocking the IP address of my main beta-tester. A few of the thousands of words he’s typed in, as it turns out, appear on my host’s list of key words that could theoretically be used in attacking the website.

(This list includes “from” and “where”: words that appear regularly in the sentences that users input as part of their grammar training. The offending sentence, the one that got my user backlisted, was “The boy and the girl will wash the car three days from now.” Once I became aware of the issue, the solution was a simple string substitution before and after the php calls to the database.)

No, the shadowy world-wide organization to which I refer is the World Wide Web Consortium, aka the W3C. This is an organization of organizations, founded at the MIT lab for Computer Science “with support from” the European Commission and DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency). Its member organizations, which must be “reviewed and approved” by the W3C, range from businesses to universities to “governmental entities.”

The W3C’s mission, according to Wikipedia, is:

to foster compatibility and agreement among industry members in the adoption of new standards defined by the W3C. Incompatible versions of HTML are offered by different vendors, causing inconsistency in how web pages are displayed. The consortium tries to get all those vendors to implement a set of core principles and components which are chosen by the consortium.

In service of this goal, the W3C has adopted new standards for HTML5, the latest version of HTML that all browsers are eventually expected to use (think psychiatrists and the DSM V). One of these new standards involves “deprecating,” or no longer supporting, any HTML code that the W3C views as purely “presentational” in nature (think Asperger’s Syndrome).

One of these deprecated elements of HTML code is the lowly font tag—the tag used to specify aspects of font text like font type and color. In the words of the W3C’s website:

The element is a non-standard element.

HTML5 classifies it as a non-conforming feature.

HTML5-compliant websites are instead supposed to be handling color via Style Sheets.

If your website’s presentational elements are static, that’s fine. Indeed, in most websites, things like font type, font weight, and font color don’t change when you interact with the site. But one of the things that makes SentenceWeaver special—and is, in fact, an essential part of its Feedback Algorithm—is dynamically generated font color, as we see in this video below.

The prospect of my entire program, within the next few years, losing an essential part of its functionality, first kept me up at night—and then propelled me towards a workaround. Implementing it took me about a day and a half, and though the changes in code, in the end, probably summed to just a few extra lines, it was a kludgy pain in the neck.

One of the problems with shadowy, unrepresentative organizations inflicting rigid standards on the rest of us is their tendency to forget about unintended consequences. What we see here with the W3C, in particular, is a failure to imagine all the creative ways in which web tools can be used. Deprecate something, however lowly and insignificant it may seem to you, and suddenly algorithms you never thought to think about stop working, perhaps requiring many hours and kludges to rewrite.

The best defense of the W3C’s rigidity has to do with accessibility for people with special needs. The more rigid the standards for webpages, the easier it is to plug in accessibility tools like screen readers. But in my world, this is yet another example of accessibility at all costs—of ignoring the tradeoff between accessibility and remediation.

In my writings on disability in the classroom, I’ve worried that the emphasis on accessibility—along with the proliferation of assistive technology—has diminished the urgency of actual instruction. If students can communicate all urgent messages via picture buttons on tablets, why invest so many hours in teaching them to communicate with words?

The W3C standards put a different spin on this tradeoff: in prioritizing accessibility over website dynamics, they’ve undermined at least one program that caters to special populations as much in terms as instructional needs as in terms of accessibility.