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.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Cattle Storm Mini Mart

It is true! I saw it on Channel 7 - a mini mart that sells nothing but cattle storm... Or, maybe it is a mart that sells cattle storm minis (miniture versions of cattle storms)...

Or maybe its a mini mart that sells storms for cattle.

No, no, no... the cattle are pissed at "mini" (as in the word "mini" (probably because it is just a prefix or abbriviation for the word "miniature") so they are storming the (word) "mini," and there is this "mart" that sells nothing but that.

Yet again, if "storm" is seen as "a strong or violent outburst," the "cattle" (being huge and beastly, burly creatures) could be "storming" "mini mart!" (exclamation point added for emphasis) because they want to be mini, and they are looking for a place that sells it...

Come to think of it, it could just be some cows running into a store.

Thursday, September 10, 2009


I came across this little gem of a phrase today in Axlerod's Reading Critically when I was preparing for my composition class. It was a subheading of a chapter. Initially, the entire phrase was formatted as above in caps.; however, for reasons outlined in my previous post, I will refer to the phrase in lowercase.

The authors probably intended for the phrase to mean something like "this is how to come up with ideas for your writing." However, when subjected to interpolation and taken out of context (and word sense) as it is, "considering" could just as easily be seen as an adjective describing the types of "ideas" for the writing - "considering ideas," or "ideas of considering" for your own writing.

Yet, "considering ideas for your own" could just as easily be an adjective phrase describing the writing - it is writing primarily concerned with "considering ideas for your own." (This type of writing does not care about considering ideas for you. Rather, it recommends you do that on your own.)

"Own" is working particularly hard here considerating its (1) primary definition: Belonging to oneself. In this sense, the "considering ideas" are for your "own" (posession) = you get to keep the ideas. Or rather, (2) consider its secondary definition: Used to express immediate or direct kinship, where "own" could be "family" or "fruit of the loins;" - yes, this is "writing" regarding "considering ideas" for your own "fruit" (read: your flesh and blood).

But before you raise the issue, I am well aware that I completely neglected "for," a word that I have savored for the very end, for "for" is not only a preposition indicating "related to," but it could also be seen as a preposition meaning "because of," and in this case, the considering ideas are "because of" "your own writing:" indicating that the ideas under consideration are in this state as a direct result of the power of "your" writing (what ever kind of writing that happens to be).

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Slow Children At Play

For my first exploration in meaning, I have chosen a fairly common street sign, and one with obvious discrepancies in meaning, mostly for initial illustrative purposes - the sign that reads
"Slow // Children // At Play."

Now obviously, I realize that by putting the language of the sign into typescript, I have already begun altering its meaning because it no longer exists in its previous visual state.

Among the casualties of this occurrence are: the yellow background, the border, and of course the running stick figure (a tragedy in its own right). This particular running stick figure also has its own strange embellishments which make its loss that much more poignant.

Yet, from a less visual and more linguistic perspective, the loss of the capital letters in my rendition is perhaps the most direct impact of my disturbance of the language from its natural habitat. Yet, I felt that keeping the entire phrase in caps. would also alter the meaning too significantly, since the phrase would appear to be screaming "SLOW CHILDREN AT PLAY!" (exclamation point added for dramatic effect), and this would no doubt disturb our natural adherence to meaning. So, for the most unadulterated rendition of meaning, I have decided to refer the phrase with simple caps. at the beginning of each letter: "Slow Children At Play."

Now with the logistics of the phrase out of the way we can proceed with our interpolation.

Clearly, the purpose of the sign is to signal drivers to be aware and drive slowly as there may be neighborhood children about, playing, running and whatnot. In this interpretation, "Slow" is an imperative (although it is clearly missing a period), and "children at play" is a warning (although, again, it has the issue of periods and the larger grammatical issue of fragmentation as this phrase is missing a verb). Despite the obvious grammatical issues, I am sure that the repetition of this phrase in its familiar arrangement does serve the purpose of slowing drivers.

However, as many of you have no doubt already interpolated, the phrase could be reinterpreted with "slow" as an adjective referring to "children" if taken slightly out of its context. And while the phrase would not, then, slow drivers, it would then serve to alert them to the "special" presence of children (albeit insensitively).

And while this is a fine interpolation, it still could make better use of the words "at" and "play," which originally could be seen as a preposition and noun respectively - "at play." However, when "play" is seen as a verb and "at" as a noun. "At" becomes the object of the special children's' play - they are at-playing, or themselves playing with "at."

And in this sense, they themselves become a certain type of interpolator.

Back from the Dead

I decided to revive my blog but realized that it was far too gone for its own (or anyone else's) good. Though there were some good points, I came to realize that I didn't want to contribute to any of the other wasted space out there with an undirectional and unpurposeful blog. So I decided that I would slip Diagnosis of a Lovely Person eternallyinto its own sweet abyss and reincarnate it as Adianoeta (or literally "double entendre").

But I didn't simply change the name, I changed the purpose. I intend for Adianoeta to be a blog about meaning and disturbing it through definiative and literal alternative readings of segments of language. I hope to reread and literally challenge contented lines and poems, as well as pieces of found langauge from other books, signs, oral, etc... Privately, I have been doing this for some time, and I can't say exactly how it will work in writing, but we shall see in a series of experiments I have planned for the up-and-coming posts.