Descriptivists vs. Prescriptivists

Have I mentioned how much I love harm-less drudg-ery, the blog of Merriam-Webster lexicographer, Kory Stamper? I think I have some kind of girl crush on Kory. Or I want to be her. Well, no, I don’t want to be her, because then I’d have to deal with insane prescriptivists on a mission every day. (Lordy, the e-mails she gets!) Maybe I just want her to be my BFF. Anyway, her latest post is advice about how to be a sane and reasonable prescriptivist. (Nicole and Maggie, are you listening? Ha! I kid!) Go check it out and you’ll get a sense of her style and humor.

When you’re a medievalist who teaches Old English and Middle English, it’s really hard to be a prescriptivist, but there are some things that just plain irritate me. Note that I did NOT say “aggravate me,” though I’m getting over that one because someone near and dear to me (hint: it’s not Pippi) says that regularly, as do many other astonishingly smart and educated people I know. There are other things that bother me more (example: the developing “accusative I,”  as in “between you and I” — nails on a chalkboard!). But as Kory advises, it’s important to remember that such predilections are preferences and opinions, not necessarily facts. (Some linguists, for example, think the accusative-I is here to stay. But for pete’s sake, we were doing so well with the pronoun case system for over a thousand years, and I’d like to hold on to *some* truly Old English! Sigh.) And when I “correct” many student papers, I’m careful to say that words like “impactful” are non-standard; I never write things like “not a word.” (And, oh, by the way, I am certainly not immune to non-standard usage; apparently, all British-trained and some American-trained copy editors would have a fit over my using “like” to announce an example, rather than “such as.” I’ll happily change that in my formal writing, but this a blog and I don’t want to sound stilted.) But juggling the “isn’t language change fascinating?!” version of me with the “no, your career did not just literally shoot into the stratosphere — unless you’re an astronaut; and also, the stratosphere is not very high” version of me is sometimes difficult.

All of which reminds me of the time one of my senior colleagues, a(n)* historical linguist named Dorothy, wrote to me in an e-mail that she didn’t know how to balance her training as a(n) historical linguist with her inclinations towards prescriptivism in reference to student writing. My reply was two words long. Want to guess what those word were? They were:


Yeah, I know that’s not the first time someone used that phrase in reference to her, I’m sure, but in the circumstances it was just too, too perfect. I had to do it.

Anyway, for those of you who work with older texts (literary or otherwise) in English (or, hey, other languages) and are acutely aware of how language changes, how do you balance a recognition of that with a need to hone student writing to what is generally and broadly considered standard English (or another language), especially for writing?

*See what I did there? I tried to make everyone happy with that “a(n).”

Is academic identity institutionally driven? (Short answer: um, yes!)

I’m directing you to Dame Eleanor’s recent post on different attitudes towards/expectations of academia depending on one’s institution type because I could have written parts of it. Though Dame E and I have different personality types, RBU is very much like Dame E’s LRU — a strange mix of research-orientation and teaching-intensity.  And like Dame E, I’m often struck by the assumptions that come with institution type, particularly from those profs who’ve always been at one kind of institution, or whose jobs have always been at one type of institution.  Honestly, I find such assumptions an extreme failure of imagination, and get a little impatient with them. Dame E is much more patient than I, so go read her post and enter the discussion there!

“Working Classes,” higher ed, and the ‘should you go to grad school in the humanities?’ question

I’m posting a couple of links full of rich and meaty thought that are both about class and higher ed, but ultimately on two different, but related issues. Anyway, they’re discussions that I wish I could involve myself in, but I’m still kind of mulling them over too much to respond articulately. And in some ways, I don’t think I’m quite the right person to do so, anyway.  So I present them to my readers to take up in the comments or at their own blogs.

The first is actually one of Karl Steel’s posts over on Google+. You don’t need a G+ profile to read it, since it’s a public post (though you do need one if you want to comment). Here’s the link. And here’s a snippet to give you a sense of it:

In grad school … I used to think I was something special, by which I mean an interloper: working-class family; public schools only till starting the PhD; first person in my family to go to college…

I’m past it all now, but this feeling–call it ressentiment and you won’t be far of the mark–had gone sour long before I gave it up. I’m done pretending to still be a working class kid. Unless some catastrophe throws me back on my family resources (which = nothing), there’s no point is holding on to what I was, not on the edge of my 41st birthday and and not when things continue to work out all right.

The discussion in the comments is really active and thoughtful and worth reading, all of it. (This, btw, is one of the reasons why I prefer G+ over Facebook — the interface allows longer, richer discussion and you can link to public posts. It’s like a middle ground between social networking and blogging.  And word on the street is that the anti-pseudonym stance may actually change. But I digress.)

The other link I want to share, a blog post by JSench at his almost brand-new blog, is also about being working class in academe, but instead of being about professorial personae and backgrounds — and whether they still matter once you’ve seized the brass ring of a tenure-track job — it’s about the decision to go to graduate school in the first place.  It’s an answer to yet another of Willliam Pannapacker’s pieces on why no one should go to the hell that is the PhD factory (this time, for Slate instead of for the Chronicle of Higher Education). Pannapacker’s latest bothered me in ways I couldn’t articulate, but JSench does it for me, with wit and clarity and a perspective I wouldn’t totally be able to bring to it.  Here, let me quote from the beginning, middle, and end to give you a sense of it, but, as they say, you really should read The Whole Thing.  Here’s part of the opening paragraph:

I think it’s a good thing to break down whatever is left of the romantic vision of  humanities graduate school bohemia followed immediately by a career resembling your favorite undergrad professor’s. But if we’re going to banish the romanticism, let’s also get rid of the melodrama that Pannapacker and others offer in its place. Instead of sexy bohos in black jeans discussing Poe and Lacan over coffee, we’re offered a vision of an evil empire sucking the lifeblood out of talented twentysomethings until those twentysomethings are suddenly thirty and have nothing to show for themselves but debt and a cv that reads more like a record of exploitation than a résumé.

And here’s something smart and pointed from the middle:

Except I knew exactly what I was getting into. When you grow up in a family of working people you get to know a thing or two about how employers are not the best representatives of your interests. When you spend your college summers working on construction sites you pick up some things about the risks you take with your body and your mind when you take a job. When you’ve seen a steel company retroactively cancel the pensions and benefits of thousands of retired and laid-off workers, then you have an idea about secure futures and broken promises.

And here’s a part I really liked in response to the “you shouldn’t go to grad school because there’s no job guaranteed” argument:

In the neoliberal United States, no one is guaranteed a job with health insurance. Most people, not just humanities majors, face difficulty finding employment that pays well, is secure, and has good benefits. There are no sure bets. If you think business school is a sure bet, there’s someone there to tell you it isn’t. If you think law school is a sure bet, there’s someone there to tell you it isn’t. If you think culinary school is a sure bet, there’s someone there to tell you it isn’t. And if you think that the humanities deserve special ridicule in all of this, you’re wrong. If you think a Ph.D. in physics is a sure bet, there’s someone there to tell you it isn’t.

I think I was pounding the desk saying “Yes!” at that point, especially since I’d had a conversation this summer with an old grad school friend who tried to tell me that the moment he decided to leave grad school and do something else was when some venture capitalist type said to him, “You’re doing all this work and you won’t necessarily get a job from it?”  I could only sputter at the time at that — couldn’t quite express how that wasn’t a good framework for deciding to quit (and also, I really don’t think it’s why he quit at the time — he’s rewriting his history) — but if I’d had my wits about me, I might have said something like the above. Also, I would’ve pointed out that Mr. Capitalist must not be very good at making money if he’s so risk adverse.  But that’s neither here nor there.

Anyway, back to JSench’s post, here is what I really took away from this post, and what I’ll keep in mind when I advise my students, especially our MA students:

And so, please don’t tell your students that if they’re not rich or well-connected that they shouldn’t go to graduate school in the humanities. Tell them if you don’t think they are cut out for the work, and please tell them how difficult it can be at all points along the way. Also tell them that if they want to go to law school or culinary school. But if they still want to go, help them figure out how to be the person they think they want to be, how to become the person that will be satisfied. They will need skills. They will need to pass tests in practice and in academics. They will need to make friends, make professional connections, perform themselves in interesting ways, and they will need luck.

Overall, I think this post really hits closer to the truth about graduate school than all the “sky is falling! don’t go” hand-wringing and yet also counters the romantic notions our students sometimes have.  And I like that emphasizes the value of the experience and the degree in and of itself, which too often gets lost in these arguments (and I, for one, have been guilty of losing that).

Anyway, go read. And then come back here and discuss.  Or else respond on your own blogs.  And I, for one, am adding JSench to my RSS feed reader!

>RBOC – Gray winter day edition

>Blogging bullets:

  • You may have noticed that I have no blog roll. That’s because it was a Blogrolling blog roll, and Blogrolling has ceased to exist. That’s a shame, because it was a handy system (though the ads on it in the last year or so of its existence were annoying). But I cut and pasted the blogroll before that happened, and when I get the energy for it, I’ll repost an updated version of it.
  • I’m thinking of changing to WordPress. Those of you who’ve made the move, how hard is it to move the archive of the blog? What do you like/dislike about each platform?
  • I’m also thinking of claiming my blog as service/outreach when I do my 5 year post-tenure review or when I go up for full professor. Any opinions about that?
  • My partner has been known as Bullock on this blog because I named him in our Deadwood-watching phase, during which time he grew a Seth Bullock-style mustache and goatee. But Deadwood is long gone and my man is clean-shaven. Plus, even though “bullock” meant “young bull” in Middle English and that’s one of its meanings today, it also can mean a castrated bull, which is not the association I wish to project for my Bullock. (Though it is kind of a funny pairing with Virago.) But it would be confusing to rename him. I’m thinking maybe of just putting a “cast of characters” in the sidebar and explaining the origins of the name. Any other ideas?
  • I have been remiss in telling Pastry Pirate fans that she has long been blogging elsewhere. First she was in New Zealand, working and exploring, and now she’s working in Antarctica. No, really. I kind of think “Baking in Antarctica” should be the title of the blog, but since it started before her life on the Ice Planet Hoth (as I like to think of it), it’s called Stories That Are True.
  • Hey, cool, I managed to blog more than in 2009. Not exactly an awesome accomplishment, since I was really lame in 2009, but still an improvement. What should I blog about next?

Work/Life bullets:

  • Our Christmas tree is up, all the Christmas shopping is done, and all but one present is wrapped (because it hasn’t arrived yet)! Hooray!
  • On Thursday, I wired the deposit for the studio flat in Belsize Park. It’s non-refundable, so this makes it official. I’m going to be living, however temporarily, in a flat in London! I’ve never lived in a flat in London before! Heck, I’ve never lived in a flat before (American apartments, yes). How cool is that?!
  • The one-week rent for the studio flat in Belsize Park (the amount of the deposit) is just over my one-month rent in my awesome two-bedroom Rust Belt Historical District apartment and only about $175 less than our monthly mortgage payment. I’ll never be able to live full-time in a big, expensive city again — I’ve been too spoiled by the low cost of living here in Rust Belt. But hey, now I can afford 6-week jaunts there! So, I may live in Rust Belt, but I can better afford life in the big city in small doses. This is what I keep telling myself, anyway.
  • OMG, my sabbatical is half over!!! Ack!!!
  • Something I realized at the various holiday parties this week: asking me “So, how’s sabbatical going?” is as crazy-making for me now as “So, how’s the dissertation coming?” was for me once upon a time. Also, faculty on sabbatical don’t want to talk about work issues. Come on, people, surely we can talk about something else!
  • Bullock is grading finals. He just said to me, “It must be Christmas time, because a student just spelled Commerce Clause like Santa Claus.”
  • Bullock and I are going to BullockLand for the holidays (with Pippi). I spent Turkey Week in Cowtown with my side of the family and starting this year we’re alternating where we go for Christmas so that we don’t have to do the crazy-making hurryhurryhurry to get to one place and then the next. That makes my going out to LA to visit Virgo Sis and go to the MLA much less stressful (so does going to MLA just to go). Of course, so does being on sabbatical, because otherwise I’d be doing MLA back-to-back with starting our Spring semester.
  • Speaking of holiday plans, in case I don’t blog again before we leave:

>A blog of interest

>Ah summer. A time when I just don’t have that much of interest to blog. Sigh.

In the meantime, some of you may remember a certain piratically-inclined dessert and bread making friend of mine who blogged her Cookin’ School adventures. Well, she’s back to blogging at a blog called Stories That Are True. Only this time she’s in New Zealand. It’s a long story; I’ll let her tell it.

>For your distraction and entertainment needs

>I’ve been too caught up in end of the semester madness to blog. Btw, if I could single-handedly get rid of our rolling admissions for our MA program, I would. Who on earth decides on December 15th that maybe they should do an MA in English and that they should definitely start it next month? These are the same people who are asking all of you for letters of recommendation right about now. Oh, and they need it by Christmas, btw.

Anywho, since this madness is keeping me from blogging — and don’t forget the approximately 650 pages of grading I’m doing now — I thought I’d introduce you to a new blog. It only has two posts so far and they’re pretty damn funny. I especially like the top one, “Dude Who Never Comes to Class,” in which our writer wonders,

Are you the embodiment of the recurring dream we’ve all had? The one where you completely forget about a class for the entire semester and then somehow realize your horrendous mistake two minutes before the final exam? And you go to the test and have no idea how to answer any of the questions and wake up absolutely panic-stricken. Are you living that dream? If so, that really sucks dude.

It’s called Acadammit and you can find it here.

>For all *my* internet friends

>Amanda French wrote this awesome song for all of her internet friends, and I’m passing it along to all of you as an early holiday gift. Click on the link to go play it and/or download it. Feel free to pass it along to *your* internet friends, since, as she sings, “all my internet friends give things away / They just really like to make stuff even when it doesn’t pay.”

H/T Michael Bérubé

>On a lighter note: Middle English comics!

>Hey, did you all know there was a blog that translates newspaper comic strips into Middle English? Well I didn’t know until my friend the Funny Playwright (colleague Victoria’s husband) forwarded it to me. Get this: it’s called “Japes for Owre Tymes.” Bahahahaha!

The top post when Funny Playwright forwarded it to me was this one, which actually manages to make Lynn Johnson’s “For Better or Worse” funny. I don’t know exactly why, but it’s a *hoot* in Middle English. And I also dig the blogger’s self-description: “I am a bad-tempered English prof who spends far too much time not writing articles about Geoffrey Chaucer. Shame on me.” Te-hee!

But part of the reason I found this blog extra funny is completely accidental and idiosyncratic, but a story worth telling. This summer, when I was on the train to Windsor for my adventures in manuscript study, I sat across the aisle from a hodge-podge of 20-something travelers who had to have met in a youth hostel, given that they each came from different North, Central, and South American countries. Plus, they were clearly still in the introductory stages of “what do you do for a living” or “where or you from” conversation. Anyway, once they got the small talk out of the way, they all (or most of them) had a bonding moment over what is apparently THE biggest thing in Latin American television aside from Ugly Betty. You know what it is? It’s Dennis the Menace. No, I’m not making this up. Seriously. Dennis the freakin’ Menace. That’s what they said, anyway. And then they argued whether the movie or tv show came first. I decided not to get involved, partly because I was too confused.

So, back to “Japes for Owre Tymes,” after reading the current post, I went back to catch up with earlier ones, which is not too difficult now since the blog is nearly brand new. Anyway, the next most recent one is a Dennis the Menace panel. See, even he’s funny in Middle English! Now, go read the comments and you’ll see the first one is in Portuguese! Those Brazilian Dennis fans are *everywhere* man! I decided to use Babel Fish to translate what the commenter was saying, because I was curious to see if he was surprised it was a comic that’s been around since the ’50s. But no, this is what Babel Fish tells me he said:

… denis it is much more show in hq or livened up drawing, the film was not very legal! congratulations for posts and blog! Success!

I’m sure that’s a terrible translation. Or maybe it’s just spam. But it suggests to me that the Latin American Dennis is an illegal knock-off, which explains why I can’t find any info on it on the ‘net (though I didn’t try very hard).

Anyway, I think “Japes for Owre Tymes” is hilarious, even without random references in Portuguese to the worldwide popularity of that not-at-all-very-menacing scamp Dennis. How can you not like a blog that starts its life with a Middle English version of Mary Worth??