Sunday, October 30, 2011

Grammar and Aikido

This Saturday morning I was the only uke at Aikido -- just me and three instructors, all black belts.

"You look a little nervous, delagar," said the head sensei cheerfully, as he was strapping on his hakama.

"A bit," I said, doing my stretches. "I was just thinking, all three of you black belts, me over here with my lonely black stripe." (I'm a white belt, one stripe, nearly as low a rank as you can get.)

They all laughed. The lowest rank of them just got his black belt last month. Also, as I think I have mentioned from time to time, I am not an Aikido genius, and all three of these guys are -- the sensei who just got his black belt (we'll call him New Sensi) is one of the most gifted students I've ever seen. (I've been watching Aikido for about eight years now, since the kid started in it at five, so I watched him go from a white belt to a black belt.)

Over the past four months, New Sensei has been struggling to teach me, who is probably the least gifted of all his students. My brain may be very clever, but my body is an idiot. It won't remember how to do anything, and it certainly can't do anything twice in a row, or learn any sequence of events. Worse, when I have learned to do something with my right hand or right foot, frequently then in Aikido we have to do the same thing with the left hand or the left foot. And this is just impossible for me. I can't seem to transfer knowledge from one side of my body to the other.

Well! Especially for New Sensei, who finds learning sequences of events natural, who can do everything the first time he sees it, who can transfer physical sequences not just from one side of his body to the other but backwards and forwards and probably, for all I know, upside down and standing on his head, this was frustrating for him, trying to teach me (and Head Sensei made him spend a lot of time teaching me, Idiot Student, because that is how Aikido works -- my kid is spending a lot of time teaching the five year olds, down in kids' class).

Anyway! Saturday! I could see he had made a breakthrough. He has figured out how to teach me. He broke the steps of each throw and pin and body movement into micro-steps, and fed them to me one tiny bit at a time. Do this. Do this. Now this. He let me practice each one sixty times if I needed to, before we moved on to something else. He gave me a lot of reinforcement at each step. He didn't add anything new before I got that step. He treated me like the Aikido special needs kid I was, in other words, and it absolutely worked.

I recognized this, because this is what I do in grammar classes -- I mean, I have a few students, maybe eight or ten, each time I teach grammar, who are absolutely gifted, who grasp grammar on an instinctual level. But the rest just can't get it, their brains don't see the connections. They're grammar idiots. So I break it down: I go one steps at a time, I break the explanation into microsteps, I give them lots of reinforcement, I explain fifty different ways, I show them, from various angles, why they're having trouble with this point. And I practice, practice, practice with them.

And I don't assume they're idiots, just because they're idiots at this.

We're all idiots at something. That's a fact. You should hear my father the rocket scientist talk about movies.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Correlation is Not Causation

New post over at Science In My Fiction, on a subject I try to hammer into the heads of my 1203-1213 students every year -- the problem of untangling cause and effect.

It's a tricky one, even for those of us who think we're clever educated critical thinkers. Dr. Skull and I, for instance, duking it out with the kid recently. She doesn't want to learn to play a musical instrument; Dr. Skull wants her to learn one. He argues that learning to play an instrument well makes you smarter. She argues (we've made her a little lawyer, this kid) that correlation is not causation -- that maybe it's just that smart people tend to make good musicians. I have to agree with her that this makes sense.

It's something we want, though -- to believe that if we do this, that will follow. If I get my PhD, I'll have a job & finacial security & a happy life. If I wear my seatbelt, I won't die in a crash. If I wish upon a star. If, if, if. We're looking for a way to control what is, essentially, not within our control.

On the other hand, who can blame us? The anxiety that comes when we admit that our fates are outside of our control can be, in fact, a bit unnerving.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Kid's New Favorite Site

Many of these jokes I do not get.

But I'm told they're very funny.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

This Makes Me Sad

So I'm at Aikido last night, talking to another student while we wait for class to start. She's student teaching in a local school, just across the state line in Oklahoma, a first grade class. I was reading my grammar text, prepping the next day's lecture. She starts telling me about teaching grammar to the first graders.

"We're not allowed to call nouns nouns," she informed me. "We have to call them naming words. And get this: adjectives are called sparkle words."

"What?" I said. "Why?"

"Well, I get that nouns are the names of things. But what I don't get is why we can't tell them that they're also called nouns. Like, these are nouns. They name things."

"But," I said, stuck on her last clause, "sparkle words? Really?"

She shrugged.

"But not all adjectives sparkle," I protested. "But -- and what do you call adverbs?"

"Oh, we don't teach adverbs."

And then! Today! I'm teaching my 1203 students! It's grammar week in there too. We're on pronouns, the importance of clear antecedents, and when to use what case. So I give them this sentence:

Dave told Ethan and (I/me) the game was over.

and I asked them which pronoun was right.

Nearly all of them said I was the correct pronoun. So I showed them why me was correct -- that it was the object of the sentence; and that they would never say "Dave told I the game was over" -- and the cries of delight that rose in the room you would not believe.

I did the same thing with these sentences --

Both Sarah and (I/me) had dinner at the mall.

Ethan gave a ride to Sarah and (I/me).

--showing them the right pronouns, and why they were the right pronouns.

"You're the first one to ever explain this," one of the students said.

"That makes so much sense," said another.

"You know what my teacher in high school told me?" said a third. "She said never use me, no matter what. I got counted off every time I did."

I would put down the name of the high school he says he went to, but it is too depressing.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Oh Look!

The Bloggess and I are cousins!

Except Dr. Skull and I feel the same way about phones. Generally I just leave mine in the car until it runs down and then two or three days later we're like, hmm, wonder why no phone calls for a week now? Oh, yeah...

Hey Look

I posted about class issues in writing over on FanSci!!

You should go read it.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Instead of a Post... news!

I've had the flu all week, and am just beginning to recover. But! Look here!

EoTW is back! Best news in weeks!

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

We don't need no liberals and their arts...

Over on LGM, Erik has a post discussing the on-going campaign by the Right to gut higher ed.

Well, it's education in general, of course, but we're focusing on higher ed at the moment.

The present trope is that "We don't need any fancy-pants liberal arts education," that kids should be studying something at college they can get a job with, as if English, history, and anthroplogy did not lead to jobs: when in fact, yes, they do. (More on this in a moment.) As if the liberal arts were a giant waste of money, and only business schools and the hard sciences and tech schools paid off.

Now I have nothing against hard sciences and tech schools, which are excellent fields of study (business school is another fucking matter), but those are not the only fields worth studying, and not everyone is interested in or able to study tech or science. I speak as someone who has run up against the limits of her ability more than once -- most recently this year, when Aikido is teaching me about the different natures of intelligence.

I have excellent linguistic and abstract intelligence. Language is my business and I'm brilliant at it. I might even be a genius. I've certainly never met anyone who is better than me -- not yet, anyway, though granted the competition in Fuck Smith is limited.

What I'm not a genius at is physical skills. When it comes to getting my body to move is certain patterns, and remembering those patterns, I'm an absolute idiot. If you had to judge my intelligence by how clever I am in the dojo, you would think my IQ was about 89. I swear. I can't remember anything from one end of the lesson to the next, I can't do what I'm told two minutes after I have been told it, things that eleven year olds can do, I fail miserably at.

I'm fairly good at math -- and by fairly good, I mean I can get the math if you explain it to me slowly and I pay careful attention. If you evaluated my intelligence via my math skills, you'd think my IQ was about 110, probably. Bright, but not really promising. I would never, this is what I am saying to you, be able to make it as an engineer, or finish a chemistry degree, or -- probably -- a biology or geology degree, though I might have a better shot with those. Math degree? It is to laugh.

(I'm pretty sure I would also crash and burn in a business degree or an education degree, for other reasons.)

Whereas I sailed through the Comp Lit degree. I was the star of that program.

Because, despite what RW likes to argue, there are different kinds of intelligence.

And why does this matter? Why do we even care? Besides the whole a-mind-is-a-terrible-thing-to-waste factor? (Though that is true and we do care?)

Because we need these different sorts of intelligences -- these are all the different tools of the human experience, all the different ways of approaching the world, and they all are, in fact, important, no matter what Rick Scott seems to think. ("Why does the state need to have more anthroplogists" he demands.) When you have a problem, a hammer and a bigger hammer are not, in fact, the only tools you may need to solve that problem. You might, in fact, need an anthropologist. Or an English major.

Which is what major companies (like Wal-Mart) are finding out, as I learned from one of the presentations at the APA this weekend. Hiring business majors often turns out to be the wrong move. As it turns out, business majors aren't taught to reason, or to write, or to think for themselves. They're taught to memorize and to dress properly. It's English majors and other liberal arts majors who learn critical thinking and the other vital skills needed in the business world -- they turn out to be what the corporations need. (Though we may not be that interested in working for them, sadly.) Business schools have, according to the presentation I sat through, started trying to model their programs more on liberal arts programs, trying to mimic our success in turning out students who can think and write and be creative...Why not just let them be liberal arts majors, you wonder?

Yes, well. Different sorts of intelligence, again. If they could be anthropology majors, they wouldn't be business majors, would they?

My point! And I do have one. It's not destroy the business schools. Or the STEM programs, God knows. It's get the idiot politicians out of education.

Because seriously. What's their qualification for even meddling with this? Have they ever taught? Do they have a clue? When was the last time they were near a classroom?

Would you let someone who had never been in a medical school tell you how to run a hospital? Or someone who didn't know the first thing about the theory of flight start fucking about with your jet engine?

Go back to fucking up the country, why don't you, Rick Scott?

Or here's a better idea. I know a Sunday school looking for a pastor. Have at it.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Interrogating the Tropes: A Columbus Day Post

Almost all my writing, from my very first scrawl, when I was a tiny little novelist (and yes, the very first writing I ever wrote was a science fiction novel), has been what we call in the field "writing that interrogates," though obviously at eight I didn't know to call it that.

You see, basically, there are two kinds of writing.

(I crack myself up when I say things like this. No, obviously, there are not two kinds of writing. There are a bazillion kinds of writing. What I mean when I say things like this is, Let's pretend for the sake of this discussion that there are two kinds of writing.)

Two kinds of writing: Those that reinforce the standard tropes of the society, and those that interrogate those tropes.

Now what do I mean by tropes?

This is a word that just means turns, figures of speech, dohickeys, gizmos. I'm using it so I won't have to use the more specific words like ethics, mores, standards, ethos, norms, all those words that make me itchy. For tropes here, read things that make society work -- the unwritten rules, the warrants we all accept without (usually) understanding we're accepting them.

For instance: warrants in this society include (among others) that the two-parent family is the best family; that a child growing up and leaving home to start its own life is a good thing; that violence is sometimes necessary to solve problems; that people should work to support themselves; that material wealth is a good thing; that ambition is a good thing; that romantic love is a good thing; that love and loyalty to one's family is a good thing; that women loving their children is a good thing; I could go on.

Fiction can either support these tropes, these warrants, or it can interrogate them.

My argument is that science fiction should always interrogate its society's tropes -- bring them into question, ask why we hold them, and whether they are worth holding.

This is, of course, disturbing, especially when the trope in question is close to our hearts. (It's easy to interrogate a trope we despise. Men should be in charge of the household? Bah! I'll interrogate that one all day long! Romantic love is a good thing? Let me at it!! But women should love their children...well, um...) But as Plato pointed out to us, an unexamined trope is not worth holding.

As I think I have mentioned, I've been reading Sarah Blaffer Hrdy's Mothers and Others, which in fact (among other things) examines the trope of the two parent family, the notion (close to the heart of many) that the best of all families is the married man and woman raising children together. In fact, as Hrdy demonstrates, that is not how most children have been or are being raised in human societies -- ever -- and that is not the best way for children to be raised. The trope of the two parent family is an absolutely myth. Alloparents (a mother, a grandmother, aunts, older siblings, uncles) who raise children together turn out to be the best way, and the most common way, for children to be raised, both in pre-history, in hunter-gather societies, and currently. Children raised this way do better emotionally and nutrionally.

Further, apparently, this need to raise children this way -- with alloparents -- is the basis for all human society. Because raising children is such a pricey enterprise humans needed a giant society around them to do it. Despite what conservatives believe, in other words, it does not take a family to raise a child: it does, in fact, take a village.

My point! And I have one!

The best science fiction and fantasy should not support the warrants and the tropes of the society -- as conservative SF/F tends to do -- but should challange them, interrogate them, question them. The best SF/F should say, well, what if this happened, so that we had to do it this way? What would the world look like then? Or what if a society did it that way? Then what? Would that be better, or worse?

What if Columbus had not destroyed the American peoples? What would the world look like then? What if?

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Ain't No Racists Here

Dr. Skull taught Frederick Douglass in his WLIT today, and got into a discussion of racism with his class -- a road, as you know, that I too have gone down, often, in these parts.

His white students, he said, insisted racism was no longer an issue in America today. His black students laughed in disbelief.

Which brings me to this video: Part one, Part two. Required viewing, I think, for every American with his or her white privilege intact.

The best, and worst, moment, I think, is the kid who walked out -- who can't take surrendering her white privilege for two hours on a Saturday morning; and who quotes Martin Luther King Jr. while she does it.

As if.

Monday, October 03, 2011

My First Fan-Fic

Look! My very first Fan-Fic for Broken Slate! (Written by the Kid: she says I should explain to you that it is a My Little Pony crossover, though I told her everyone knows about the MLP: FiM universe.)

Ragnar slammed open the door to Harper's room. He ran up to Harper's worktable, stopping behind his shoulder.

"Harper, why did you insist on putting that cot on the committee? It is an insult to all Lord Holders."Ragnar paused. "What is that you're watching?"

Harper paused his handheld, freezing the strange animate in a blur of pastels. "Well, good morning, Ragnar. Should I fetch you some tea?" Harper said.

"What is that on your worktable?" Ragnar pointed to a purple fluffy thing.

"It's a disguised surveillance camera," Harper said. He stood up to his full height. "If you don't have anything important to say, could you please leave?"

Ragnar scurried out the door.

Harper sat down with an exasperated sigh. He unpaused his handheld, and music drifted from it:

I still wondered what friendship could be

Until you all shared it's magic with me!

Harper patted the Twilight Sparkle plushy sitting on his worktable.

"Twilight Sparkle," He said. "You are the best pony."