Friday, October 9, 2009

What does it mean to be literate?

(I believe) one of the most important goals of Freshman Composition (and of college for that matter) is the development of critical reading/thinking skills - skills that most poetry and criticism readers probably take for granted.

That said, I am always a bit surprised when I get to more critical work during the semester and my students seem relatively uninitiated. Typically, they can analyze/ interpret pictures or ads, but with texts, they rarely question the information they are receiving. For that matter, they often even have trouble summarizing what they just read, even when the texts are fairly straight forward and fresh in their minds. I am sure that some of this is due to lack of interest, but it also makes me wonder...

Suffolk has relatively strict admissions standards. All of my students have been through high school, know how to write and read words and sentences, and have undoubtedly written research papers and read some classic authors. I would be willing to bet that all of them have read some Shakespeare. I would not call them illiterate, but if they have trouble summarizing a simple argument, could I call them literate?

The National Institute for Literacy, and the UN would call them perfectly literate because they can "read and write a simple sentence." By these definitions, they have probably been literate since the second grade, and this is an achievement, but calling them literate by those standards really shuts the door on a whole range on literacy. In a sense, it says, "this is enough, you are literate," almost branding them "success." In these terms, the UN considers 80% of the world as literate. But reading and writing a simple sentence is really not enough.

It seems equally important to me that students also be able to understand simple sentences or even further, be able to think about them and grapple with them before literacy actually takes place.

Yet, understanding alone poses a pretty complicated problem that most readers of poetry face at one point or another, because understanding a line implies that "it has been conceptualized to a given measure." But this definition is incredibly sticky since "a given measure" is not "entirely," and "entirely" is really impossible. So what makes an adequate measure for understanding a simple sentence?

At the most basic, I think a reader would need to understand the direct meaning of a sentence implied by its word sense. Take this simple sentence for example:

The beautiful rose burst into season.

At its most basic, the sentence implies by its word sense that an attractive rose (the flower) blossomed (or opened up). The majority of readers, I think, would grasp this understanding of the sentence; however, rose also (literally) means "an ornament" and burst literally means both "to break open" and "to come apart." Season in this sentence is much more complicated because the most straightforward implication is that the rose flowered, or it was "in the season" of flowering. However, season could also be "fashion," as in the rose became stylish, and if burst is seen as "breaking," the rose can be seen as falling apart into a season. Even beautiful could be seen as "enjoyable" instead of "attractive," which further complicates the literal meaning of the sentence.

Yet, beyond the literal, in order for a reader to be truly literate, he or she would need to take into account the sentence's symbolic levels of meaning, and this complicates the meaning exponentially. Most people would agree that a rose (almost to a fault) is a symbol for love or passion. And in this sense, the sentence also means that love is beginning passionately. Or if season is seen as foul weather (implied by seasonably (ie, seasonably cold)), then the rose or passion could be bursting (breaking) into foul weather (reality). And these symbolic meanings are every bit as present as the literal ones.

Moreover, there is a rich history of "roses" in sentences and in writing, and it seems that to really understand the sentence, a reader would need to be aware of some of the major allusions -at least "a rose by any other name could never be as sweet."

And in this same sense, writing about roses blooming has definitely be done - so much so, that it is cliche. A literate reader would need to be able to identify a cliche or at least have a sense of what is cliche and what is not.

If literacy requires all this, then the majority of people around the world are probably not literate (I am barely on the cusp myself). And furthermore, there must be ways of reading and understanding by which even fewer of us (myself included) are literate. Shakespeare is read by almost all English speaking high schoolers, and most of them probably apprehend him on one level or another, but so much is probably lost that I am not sure it can be adequately called "reading" Shakespeare. By these standards, not many people (if anyone) probably can "read" Shakespeare. And that means we are all illiterate in one sense or another since his work is such a cornerstone of the English language.

Saturday, September 26, 2009


"... the practice of putting single words into italics for emphasis... is so vulgar; a well-constructed sentence should be able to carry a stress on any of its words and should show in itself how these stresses are to be compounded."
-Empson 7 Types of Ambiguity

Friday, September 25, 2009

"I hate it when I can't write what I read."

A student came into the writing center tonight incredibly stressed out about the MTEL exam she has tomorrow. We were discussing summary, and she had written a small summary of an article about the benefits of school breakfast programs.
As she was reading it to me, she strained at one part - struggling to dicipher the word (which frankly didn't matter because her summary was much too detailed as it was). She couldn't figure it out, so she said (under her breath and absent-mindedly), "I hate it when I can't write what I read."
But I loved it!
Of course, she meant "I hate it when I can't read what I wrote," but the way it came out was even better because she literally couldn't write a summary of what she had read. And as she was struggling, I thought a little bit about what I have read (specifically, Sidney's "Strephon & Klaius"came to mind). I wished I could write something like that.
So I said, "me too" (meaning I wished I could write what I read), but I don't think she really appreciated it.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Red Barn Sale

Out in Hadley today, I absolutely saw (at least one) red barn sale, as well as a plethora of other ingenious signs!
(Or, maybe I just wanted to post some pretty pictures).

Friday, September 18, 2009

Couples Retreat

I guess I first (subconsciously) noticed a commercial for the movie, Couples Retreat, a few days ago, but it never really registered until today. It seems that the movie will be funny enough, and I do like Vince Vaughn, but I can't seem to get over the title. I have been pondering it all day. Mostly, I suppose, I am confused by the title's lack of an apostrophe on the word "Couples."
I am fairly certain that the movie is about a couple going on vacation, so it would be natural to call it Couple's Retreat, or even Couples' Retreat if there are several groups of couples. However, the creators do not include the apostrophe in the title, and as a result, the title can have absolutely nothing to do with "couples" going on a "retreat."

In fact, without the apostrophe, the most apparent meaning of the title is with "retreat" as a verb and "couples" doing that action - retreating... Perhaps the creators intended this meaning, implying that the couples should "retreat" (from a bad vacation, or even each other). Maybe the creators even intended the title to apply to the audience (as in couples should retreat from this movie because it will give you a bad impression of love).

However, my problem is that this second (and less significant meaning) must have been intended as a play on the first (and most obvious) meaning. But that first meaning cannot exist grammatically, so the second play on meaning takes on a primary importance, yet it was clearly intended as a play.

WHICH MEANS....(and I hope they didn't do this, but I fear they did)... the creators dropped the apostrophe (primarily to make the second meaning possible), but at the same time assumed that their audience would still read the title as a possessive ("Couple's retreat") even without an actual apostrophe.

If this really is the case, then it is a unfair and tragic manipulation of language because it reinforces the (all to common) idea that apostrophes are unnecessary and it suggests that the average viewer is ignorant of language and easily manipulated. Worst of all, this decision happened to advance an (at best) sub par secondary meaning.

There is a good chance I will not be seeing the movie.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

It appears to be

I came across this common phrase while browsing Wikipedia in an entry called Antikytheria Mechanism, (which, apparently, is world’s oldest mechanical scientific calculator). In context, the phrase occurred, “it appears to be based upon theories of astronomy and mathematics.” However, the colloquial, “it appears to be” is what caught my attention. Clearly, the author's purpose was to mean something like “it seems” or “most likely it is,” but taken out of context, “it appears to be” is a multifaceted short phrase.

One of most intriguing facets that startled me immediately upon reading it resulted from viewing "it" and "be" both as nouns as opposed to their respective pronoun and infinative verb. This gives the startling effect of "it" appearing (or almost "materializing") to "be," or even just "appearing" (as if it were previously hidden). However, instead of materializing or coming into sight, "appears" could also be a performance (as appearing in a show), where "it" is performing for "be," or maybe even revealing part of itself (seductively) for "be," as if giving itself over to "be."

Perhaps, though, "to be" actually is in the infinitive verb tense (as in to be or not to be), and "it" appears
"to be" (in that Shakespearian sense - as in, existing, or at peace with its existence... it is). "It" is a very existential pronoun - possibly even "appearing" (as in showing up) "to be" in that existential state.