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.

Lost in translation

Alright, I’ve just watched the Orientation video for the famed French in Action class, and am left with two thoughts:

      1. Being fatigué (or fatiguée, in my case) is a lot worse than being tired. (see 15:23)
      2. Also, and related: it may not be possible for a person born and raised in central Illinois to be fatiguée, at least not in public.

Which brings me to my first question: how does one say “Great!” in French?

Or: Good!

As in:

Pascaline: Hi, Catherine, how are you?

Catherine: Great!

Or, alternatively:

Pascaline: Hi, Catherine, how are you?

Catherine: Good!

(Is it rude to say Great! (or Good!) in France? With the exclamation mark?)

That’s my second question.

Mysteries of the apps

Meanwhile, on Doug S’s recommendation, I’ve also devoted myself to Duolingo & Tinycards, which seem terrific and well worth my time.

But I’ve hit a snag:

  • I’m stuck on the difference between bonne soirée and bonsoir
  • I can’t figure out the meaning of Duolingo’s color coding, or its skill charts, or the rules that govern when I get to move on to learning words for food; nor do I know what an ‘xp’ goal is or what “60/20” means in relation to my xp goal, or whether it’s good or bad that I have “6 hours left.” Six hours left till what, exactly?

The plan seems to be for me to carry on learning (or “strengthening“?) Lessons 1, 2, 3, and 4 until a time to be determined, and not by me.

Maybe you have to know when to say bonne soirée before they let you learn the French word for bread.

Duolingo___Learn_French_for_free

Duolingo___Learn_French_for_free 2

Is there a Missing Manual for Duolingo?

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”

 

 

Common Core in the 2nd person

This morning, texting with Katharine about second-person reading & writing and why I’m suddenly seeing so much of it in my students’ work, I began to think that Common Core probably overdid the argument-with-evidence business:

The fifth point is about writing. Do people know the two most popular forms of writing in the American high school today? Texting someone said; I don’t think that’s for credit though, yet. But I would say that, as someone said, it is personal writing. It is either the exposition of a personal opinion or it is the presentation of a personal matter. The only problem, forgive me for saying this so bluntly, the only problem with those two forms of writing is as you grow up in this world you realize people really don’t give a sheet [I didn’t hear ‘sheet’ but that’s what the transcript says] about what you feel or what you think. What they instead care about is can you make an argument with evidence, is there something verifiable behind what you’re saying or what you think or feel that you can demonstrate to me. It is rare in a working environment that someone says, “Johnson, I need a market analysis by Friday but before that I need a compelling account of your childhood.” That is rare. It is equally rare in college, by the way. So a group of Minnesota professors got together and they very, very wonderfully created a program called “Ready or Not,” where they accepted essay submissions from around the state from high school seniors to see whether they’re college ready or not. Ninety-seven percent of what was provided to them was narrative and 97% of that was deemed not college ready. The core standards thus mark a shift. They do support training in narrative throughout K-12 but what they make primary as you grow is the ability to write an argument based on evidence and convey complex information. This is an essential shift. [emphasis and some punctuation added] – David Coleman “Bringing the Common Core Standards to Life” | April 28, 2011

2nd-person writing, I think, is entry-level argument.

Or, more to the point, 2nd-person writing may be what New York state teachers and textbooks counted as argument once the Common Core shifts-and-standards crash-landed onto their home planet from the heavens above.

Advice is always (usually?) an argument, at least to some degree. When you give a friend advice, you are asserting that your take on the world and the way people ought to comport themselves is a) different from what your friend is doing now, and b) better.

It’s an argument.

I wonder whether New York classrooms shifted from personal-narrative writing to personal-advice writing (and reading?) in response to the new standards.

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

Reading & writing in the second person

Speaking of what we’ve been doing for the past 6 months ….

I hadn’t taught freshman composition for two fall semesters while Katharine and I were working on the textbook (and I was working on my neverending basal ganglia project…)

When I got back to the classroom last September, I found something new: my students seemed to have spent an inordinate amount of time in K-12 reading and writing in the 2nd person.

I’m never surprised to see a lot of first-person papers — not given how many personal narratives K-12 students have been producing for the past … how many years has it been?

Twenty?

Thirty?

Twenty at least. Twenty that I know of personally because I lived through them.

That reminds me.

My neighbor told me about her then-8th-grade son’s reaction to being assigned a personal narrative about an “afternoon memory” or some such. He had been writing personal narratives since 3rd grade, and now it was 8th grade and time to write a personal narrative about an afternoon.

He told his mom: “I’m running out of memories.”

We cracked up over that one. Kids are so sweet.

Anyway, back on point: I’m never surprised to see first-person writing in freshman composition.

But I don’t remember ever seeing so much second-person. This fall, reading my students’ work, I felt as if I were seeing as many “you’s” as “I’s.” Maybe more.

To some degree, that was my fault. I was teaching a brand-new course, and the first two topics I assigned left themselves open to advice-giving.

But I saw the same thing in reading, too.

My students always find college-level texts challenging. This semester, however, I encountered a form of comprehension error I hadn’t noticed before.

My students would hopscotch through a sentence, lighting on some words and not others, then repeat the process with the next sentence and the next until the end of the paragraph, where they would fashion the words into an injunction.

“You should be yourself.”

“You should set goals.”

“You should write the way you talk.”

Things like that.

This is in no way a criticism of my students! They haven’t been taught to read college-level prose, and all of a sudden here they are, in college, reading college-level prose. They don’t complain and they don’t balk; they put their heads down and plow ahead. I admire them.

I’m not complaining or balking, either. I love teaching these students.

Instead, I’m writing this post to report a college-reading issue people may not have picked up on.

I have a couple of takeaways that I’ll circle back to tomorrow.

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