Reflections on about and around

Catherine’s spending Bastille Day getting back to the US; I’ll be spending it visiting Gettysburg. One of our traveling companions has equipped us with copies of Michael Shaara’s Pulitzer Prize winning The Killer Angels: The Classic Novel of the Civil War. I finished it yesterday, and am now primed as can be for the theater of war and the dramatis personae: from Cemetery Ridge to Little Round Top; from Pickett to Chamberlain.

The book was a quick read, but was not without its distractions. The primary culprit was a preposition. Writing in the early 1970s, author Michael Shaara appears to be emulating the style of the previous century. Accordingly, the various generals and captains would “think on” the situation, “brood on” the best course of action, and “worry on” what would happen next. Oh, what a contemplative age that was! Nowadays, tellingly, we no longer think on things, let alone brood on them or worry on them. Would that that were otherwise!

But with a moment’s linguistic experimentation, I realized that there’s no obvious difference between thinking on things and thinking about them. What’s shifted, instead, are prepositions. In the arena of cognitive verbs, “about” has defeated “on.”

More recently, though, it’s “about” that’s under attack. For decades, fewer and fewer of us have looked about the fields and seen dandelions all about us; instead, we look around them and see dandelions all around us. But now the conquest of “about” by “around” has advanced from the spatial to the conversational arena. Today’s Americans are gradually ceasing to have conversations about things, or to examine issues about important topics; instead, we’re having more and more conversations around things: in particular, conversations around issues around particular topics.

So stay tuned: we may at some point now longer think about anything at all, but, instead, think only around things.

gasstationwithoutpumps on the two learning systems and grammar

Succinct and on the money:

Big chunks of grammar are rule-based learning, at least at the level of what distinguishes academic writing from casual conversation. The rules are articulated in grammar handbooks and can be consciously applied.

Grammar at the level of what sentences one can use in casual conversation is much more “information integration”, as it takes skilled linguists substantial effort to express the grammatical constraints in rules, and fairly complicated rule systems are needed for even crude approximations to grammaticality

That’s exactly right.

The principles Katharine and I teach in our curriculum can be learned–quickly learned–via rule-based learning:

  • End focus: put the most important information in the sentence last 
  • Known-new contract: start with information the reader already knows, proceed to new information he or she doesn’t know (or hasn’t heard you say yet)
  • Cohesive topic chains: many if not most of your sentences in a paragraph should have the same or closely-related grammatical subject (I think the most effective percentage in a fairly long paragraph is around 75%)

And see:
The most important research on learning I’ve read

The most important research on learning I’ve read

Someone has posted it on line, so here it is !

Deferred Feedback Sharply Dissociates Implicit and Explicit Category Learning
J. David Smith, Joseph Boomer, Alexandria C. Zakrzewski, Jessica L. Roeder, Barbara A. Church, and F. Gregory Ashby  Psychological Science 2014, Vol. 25(2) 447-457

I’ve been mulling this article since the summer of 2014, when it was published. It’s life altering.

Unfortunately, if you’re not in the field, reading the study isn’t easy. The press release is intelligible but brief. 

For the moment, the thing to know is that this study probably proves, finally, that we have two separate and distinct learning systems inside our brains.

Psychologists and cognitive scientists have been talking about “dual systems” and “dual systems theory” forever, but no one had nailed it down. Now they have.

The two systems are separate and distinct in the sense that if you turn one system “off” the other still learns. They’re “dissociable.” 

And: the 2 systems learn differently.

“Deferred feedback” looks at category-learning, but as far as I can tell these two systems learn everything, including physical skills. 
~

Compare and contrast

The chart below is correct (I believe), but it says nothing about the relationship between the two learning systems–which no one seems to understand yet. 

So, while I’ve put “vocabulary” under explicit learning, I’m fairly sure vocabulary can also be picked up via implicit learning. 

And given what I’ve seen in the L2 literature about grammar learning, it seems clear that some explicit learning helps with grammar, too–at least, with the kind of grammar you use in formal writing, as well as with learning the grammar of a second language.

Obviously, no one learns the conversational grammar of his or her native language at school. 

In short, the two systems seem both to compete and to support each other in some way no one has worked out.
~

Information-integration learning Rule-based learning 
“Life” learning “School” learning
Unconscious Conscious
Implicit learning: you can’t necessarily put what you’ve learned in words (& if you can, words come to you later) Explicit learning: you can put what you’ve learned in words
Intuition, everyday categories (good versus bad, dog versus cat), social rules, habit Formal concepts, theories, disciplines, etc.
Grammar Vocabulary
Learns relatively slowly Learns quickly
Can’t learn “offline” (learning stops after a “lesson” is over) Can learn “offline” (learning continues after a lesson is over)
Must have immediate feedback – students must know whether their answer was right or wrong after each answer or no learning occurs Can learn with delayed feedback – students can get their tests back days later and still learn from their mistakes)
Can learn several things at the same time (e.g.: can learn the orientation and the width of a stimulus) Can learn just one thing at a time (can learn the orientation or the width of a stimulus, but not both at the same time)

~
From the abstract:

Deferred reinforcement qualitatively eliminated implicit, information-integration category learning. It left intact explicit, rule-based category learning.

Teaching formal grammar is teaching vocabulary

Doug left this link to a post on the difficulty of searching Google when you don’t know what the thing you’re looking for is called:

What do you do when you want to look something up but you don’t know what it’s called? Sometimes you can just type what you know into a search engine and it will sort things out for you. I just typed “part of the car that covers the engine” and I got:

Part of the car that covers the engine pixelcity2_hood

[snip]

Sadly, things are not always this easy. Right now I know what I want to make but I don’t know what to search for. I know what it looks like and how it behaves, but not how it’s created or what you call it. In fact, I can even draw a picture of it. It looks kind of like a stained glass window.

Where college writing is concerned, not knowing the search term is a chronic problem.

It’s a problem because nobody teaches formal grammar any more. When I say “any more,” I mean not since the 1950s, pretty much.

My students have usually heard of “subject,” “predicate,” “noun,” “verb,” and “sentence,” but that’s about it.

So nobody can look anything up. Not on Google, not in a handbook. Especially not a handbook, which, unlike Google, doesn’t try to guess what your question is. 

Here’s an example.

In my first semester of teaching, I think it was, I wanted to know which was correct (in formal writing):

Do you mind my sitting here?

or

Do you mind me sitting here?

I was pretty sure “my” was right, but only because in years gone by I had always said and written “my.” But that was then. In recent years, I had started saying and writing “me,” so I wasn’t sure. (I take the fact that my usage had changed to mean that the rule was changing.)

I had no idea how to look up the answer.

I did know what the word “possessive” meant in the context of grammar, but I didn’t know what a word that ended in “ing” was called.

So I didn’t know to search forpossessives in front of gerunds.”

I eventually figured it out, but it would have been a lot easier if someone had just told me what a gerund was when I was 10.

Vocabulary is a good thing.

People should teach it.
~

Postscript

I’ve just skimmed Paul Brians’ page on gerunds and pronouns. I like this:

This is a subtle point, and hard to explain without using the sort of technical language I usually try to avoid; but if you can learn how to precede gerunds with possessive pronouns, your writing will definitely improve in the eyes of many readers.

It’s not wrong to write “do you mind me sitting here?”

But it does sound different from “do you mind my sitting here,” and it makes a different impression.

That matters.

When you teach writing, part of what you’re doing is giving students the means to control the impression they make.

Small miracles in deafness and autism

I’m overdue for an “autism diaries” update–as a few recent developments with J have reminded me. At a time when the world as a whole seems so profoundly screwed up, it’s nice to reflect on how far this one little guy (now 6 foot 5) has come.

J was born profoundly deaf–so deaf that a brainstem test revealed no auditory awareness whatsoever. As this news took shape (literally, in the flattening lines of an EEG screen), we had no idea about cochlear implants. As far as we knew, J faced a future of profound silence.

That vision was soon moderated by cochlear implant pamphlets and phone calls to the parents of implanted toddlers. But just how well an implant would work for J in particular remained disconcertingly uncertain. There was, in the late 1990s, simply not enough data for firm predictions.

Some three months after J was implanted, I played a chord on the piano while he was facing away from me, standing on a chair, engaged in what we thought was a passing hobby: turning on and off a ceiling fan. I played the chord and he promptly turned around and looked right at me.

But why, the speech therapist wondered a few months later, did he remain so oblivious to speech? Enter diagnosis #2.

J as it turned out, was not just “profoundly” deaf, but “moderately” autistic. Not only that, but “moderate,” in the context of autism, was pretty bad.  Unlike the “moderate” hearing loss we’d initially hoped for way back when, “moderate” autism (or so we were told) meant something much more debilitating: some language, minimal “splinter” skills, a lifetime of dependence.

Fast forward 19 years and, after several years of GrammarTrainer, an intense regimen of schooling (mostly in regular classes) and one-on-one tutoring by a variety of creative and talented lay people (and his parents), together with multiple-times-per-week outings all over the city and state, J is, according to two recent and thorough psychological exams, ….still moderately autistic.

But he’s also slowly making his way through college, majoring in computer science (and/or math). Though he lives at home, he independently gets himself to class every day, keeps track of assignments, exams, and schedule changes, meets with professors or TAs as needed, turns in his work, and participates in class and extra-curricular activities.

He’s even done some in-class presentations–and done OK on them. His grades aren’t perfect, and there’s nearly always a class or two that doesn’t work out the first time around and must be dropped at the last minute. But he’s managed to complete the English and Communications requirements, and has done well in two other courses you’d think would be huge struggles.

The first was linguistics. Assignments for this class included phonetic transcriptions of spoken English, and I doubted whether our profoundly deaf child could handle all the acoustic details. Would he hear the subtle air puff that accompanies the “p”-sound, but only when it occurs at the beginning of the word? Would he hear the difference between the “p” in “pat” vs. “spat”? I watched with amazement as J effortlessly completed these transcriptions, only then realizing how much of a miracle the cochlear implant really is:

spat [spæt]
pat [phæt]
potato [pəthéjtow]

The second course (still in progress) is psychology. You’d think a subject like this–with so much of its focus on emotions and social dynamics–would be particularly out of reach for a student with moderate autism. How accessible could concepts like oral fixation, or super-ego, or collective unconscious, or peer pressure, or social anxiety disorder, possible be?

As it turns out, there are two moderating factors. First, to the extent that psychology analyzes concepts that most of us have some intuitive understanding of, it makes those concepts more accessible to those who don’t. Second, a lot of psychology involves more accessible topics like neurology, cognition, and learning–some of which really resonate with J. Not surprisingly, he particularly enjoyed the chapter on cognitive illusions.

Still, it’s amazing to me to see (once I’ve laboriously worked through the textbook’s explanations with him) how quickly J grasps and generalizes concepts like operant and classical conditioning.

Just for the heck of it, I brought up this last topic in a recent exchange of text messages. I had headed out for the evening, having told J (when asked) that there would be no ceiling fans where I was going. A few hours later, he texted:

Where are you

?

I sent him this picture of the ceiling of my current location:

J’s response:

Are you blind?

Me, a bit confused:

Are you deaf?

J:

I thought you said no fans

Were there fans in the picture? I’d somehow not noticed them. I looked up and scrutinized the ceiling and yes, sure enough, camouflaged among the black ceiling lights hanging from the black ceiling were some black ceiling fans.

Me (a bit sheepishly):

Well, they’re not moving

And they’re not going to move.

J:

Ok but how many fans does the restaurant have?

?

Me:

3.

All off.

And they will stay off.

I then decided it was my turn:

Now answer my question:

Are fans

a. An unconditioned response
b. A conditioned response
c. An unconditioned stimulus.
d. A conditioned stimulus.

?

J (a short moment later):

d.

Me:

Conditional on what?

J:

I don’t remember.

It was years ago

It sure was.

Injunctions of yore

I may have jumped the gun re: Common Core and injunction-spotting:

David Mulroy, the author of the 2003 book “The War Against Grammar” and a professor at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, . . . asked his students to analyze the opening paragraph of the Declaration of Independence, without telling them what they were reading. One mistakenly interpreted it as, “When dealing with events in life, one should drop preconceived knowings and assume that everything that happens, happens for a reason, and basically life goes on.”
Modifying the Subject by Kate Zernicke – New York Times – 11/7/2004

And see:
Reading and writing in the second person 
Common Core in the 2nd person
Injunctions of yore