The fire next time

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The latest PhD comic:

As John McIntyre explains, "You've got to be carefully taught", citing Stan Carey's "Mind your peeves and cures".


  1. nonpoptheorist said,

    May 22, 2010 @ 4:27 pm

    " the Irish teacher in the 1950s who scissored out errors from student papers and required the students to take a shovel and bury them out behind a shed. Though this is an extreme example….." [McIntyre]

    Extreme? In the mid 1980's I had a German class where the teacher required minimum 12/20 on weekly class tests. If you scored less, you joined a queue at the front of the classroom to get a whack from a plimsoll. There followed a 45minute respite after which you repeated the test. Failure resulted in another whack on the backside and then you got to repeat the same test over and over and over, with the same punishment till you passed it, in 45minute segments, on the following Saturday afternoon.

    Needless to say, I became a moderately successful 12/20 student and never aspired to more in his class! My skills with German grammar and maybe my whole outlook on languages was tempered by this teaching experience. When Germans look confused when i speak to them, I frustratingly tell them all the words were sort of there, just in the wrong order, gender or whatever, but if I can understand their bad English then why can't they understand my bad German!

    Additional note: The French teacher next door (thankfully we only had to do one additional language!) reportedly had a cricket bat with a popular French cartoon character carved in back to front to punish his students who failed in their tests!

    [(myl) See Ali G's brilliant interview with Sir Rhodes Boyson.]

  2. Sili said,

    May 22, 2010 @ 4:43 pm

    I didn't grade, only correct, and by the time I did so I had been cured of my prescriptivism, so I only tried to help when I really couldn't decipher the student's meaning.

    Girls With Slingshots had to make a print of this strip much like Queen of Wands Gramma Grammar Nazi (and the Chainsaw of Natural Selection). Peevers love to find their peeves validated in the arts. But artists gotta live, so I forgive them.

  3. Jonathan Badger said,

    May 22, 2010 @ 8:09 pm

    But I thought you agreed that there were rules to grammar — just not the rules that typical grammar guides claim there are.

    [(myl) Suppose that "typical grammar guides" were absolutely correct as a description of a somewhat artificial written standard that students need to learn as a supplement to the language that they already know. (And anyhow, standard spelling and punctuation rules do have that status.) The question is, are trips to the woodshed and angry paper-burnings an appropriate or effective response to error?

    As the cartoon illustrates, linguistic mistakes (in spelling, in adhering to the genuine written standard, or sometimes in obeying the hallucinated principles of self-appointed authorities) are often the occasion of much stronger emotional reactions than (say) calculational mistakes or factual errors. The psychology of this "word rage" — peevology — is the subject of much spectulation. The most obvious hypothesis, namely defending the value of hard-won cultural capital, doesn't explain the difference in intensity between word rage and the response to (say) mistakes in algebra or in historical dating.]

  4. John Lawler said,

    May 22, 2010 @ 10:16 pm

    There are rules (in the sense of things you gotta do and others you gotta not do, all of which you have to learn individually) in written language. But that's technology, and that's normal for technology (see Unix™, Windows™, etc. for examples).

    In spoken (i.e, real, natural) language, there are rules also, but not that kind. No native speaker normally violates the rules of spoken language, which have to do with things like deleting subjects or objects or adding prepositions. For instance, no native speaker ever says
    *I see at him,
    *He looked the cow,
    because the rules of spoken English require that see, if transitive, take a direct object, whereas look, if transitive, requires the preposition at before its object.

    These are the rules that native speakers learn before they realize they're learning anything (and therefore get perfectly), while non-native speakers find them among the hardest to learn. But native speakers, since they never learn anything about the real rules, tend to get misled by the peevers, and therefore can't help the non-natives with their English. Too bad.

  5. Camilla said,

    May 23, 2010 @ 6:19 am

    It might have less to do with "defending the value of hard-won cultural capital" and more to do with a reaction to the perception that the student is not trying hard enough. While I have stopped short of lighting essays on fire, I recognise the annoyance over spelling mistakes (and the very related — to my mind — failure to format the essay according to department guide lines). Both are arbitrary rules, but they are not difficult ones to get right (unlike, say, calculations or facts or a good analysis of a text), and there is therefore less of an excuse for getting them wrong. Like a poorly written e-mail, it appears as bad manners or lack of effort.

  6. Bloix said,

    May 23, 2010 @ 1:11 pm

    "Forgot to put their name on the test."
    This is a joke, right?

  7. Russell said,

    May 23, 2010 @ 1:31 pm


    Have you ever graded a stack of student exams?

  8. Stephen Nicholson said,

    May 23, 2010 @ 2:02 pm

    I have a hypothesis about this: math and science are acknowledgely hard subjects, while writing is not. It's been my observation that few people people think less of a person who is bad at math or science, but a person who is a bad writer is assumed to be stupid. In theater, movies, radio, TV, etc… talking or writing in a poor or non-standard way is a shorthand for showing the audience that the character is stupid. (E.g. Charlie at the beginning of Flowers for Algernon, and Grimlock from the 80s Transformers cartoon.) Because writing isn't considered hard, mistakes aren't as tolerated because the mistakes are characterized as basic and simple and the people who make them are either stupid or careless.

    The exception to this is having a learning disabilities like dyslexia. However, many people are suspicious when a student claims to have a learning disability, and the existence of learning disabilities is controversial.

    On top of this, if a student is using formulas and doing calculations, it's likely that they are being tested on their ability to remember the formulas and apply them. But if a student turns in a paper, it's more likely that they are being tested on something other than their ability to write. The writing is a medium and mistakes in using it are considered basic things they were supposed to learn in their freshman writing composition course (or back in high school, or even earlier).

  9. Bloix said,

    May 23, 2010 @ 2:34 pm

    @Russell – I'm referring to the singular "their," which is a high-profile peeve for grammar authoritarians.

  10. Sili said,

    May 23, 2010 @ 2:34 pm

    I have a hypothesis about this: math and science are acknowledgely hard subjects, while writing is not.

    Writing, easy? You've got to be kidding.

    But of course, far too many people do think that speaking English makes them experts on usage – or 'grammar' as they like to call it.

  11. Stephen Nicholson said,

    May 23, 2010 @ 3:24 pm

    @ Sili: I should clarify. I don't think writing is easy. A lot of people don't seem to acknowledge that writing is hard. Sure, writing like Shakespeare might be hard, or getting published might be hard, but general writing does not seem to be considered hard by the general populace.

  12. Chris said,

    May 23, 2010 @ 3:45 pm

    @Stephen Nicholson: And simultaneously, just getting words on paper seems to be terrifically hard for many people. I've known quite a number of people who can talk with tremendous intelligence and fluency about a subject, but who groan, sweat, and procrastinate if asked to write a paragraph about the same subject. Suggested reasons include the relative slowness of writing compared to speech, the fact that many people feel 'out of practice' at writing something they perceive to be 'official' or 'formal,' and (most often) the feeling that writing strongly reminds them of school, when anything that didn't meet the teacher's (seemingly arbitrary) ideas of how things "should" be written resulted in red-pencil corrections and (sometimes) public mockery.

    I've heard it said that random, arbitrary or unpredictable negative reinforcement is far more powerful at discouraging behavior than the continual, predictable kind. I don't know if that's true, but it would account for the disproportionate fear of making writing mistakes.

    Another factor that I think enters into it is that mistakes in English — unlike mistakes in math or fact — are commonly seen to have a strong moral component to them, such that someone who makes such mistakes and is made aware of it feels they have done something morally reprehensible. I have no idea where this comes from, and I don't know whether it's also true in other languages.

  13. nonpoptheorist said,

    May 23, 2010 @ 5:51 pm

    @Chris, although the theme seems to be about negative reinforcement behaviour, I find positive reinforcement in the fanfiction and slash communities to be more than interesting. Especially when all too frequently poor writing is often followed by a series of back slapping by those concentrating narrowly on choice of character pairings and the level of demeaning behaviour the writer can portray from the depths of their minds Whilst I know writers who win awards in the area, it is sometimes hard to separate the good from the bad without trawling through masses of painful writing. If only they could add pure writing proficiency ratings, maybe it would make my spare time more enjoyable. But I wonder if that is really the point? Maybe the current attempts to censor the written word will release me from my 'research' here.

  14. ellael said,

    May 23, 2010 @ 6:37 pm

    @ Chris: "Another factor that I think enters into it is that mistakes in English — unlike mistakes in math or fact — are commonly seen to have a strong moral component to them, such that someone who makes such mistakes and is made aware of it feels they have done something morally reprehensible. I have no idea where this comes from, and I don't know whether it's also true in other languages."

    Well, I think francophones could give English speakers a run for their money, considering that both France and Quebec have government bodies set up to ensure that people are using French correctly/enough.

  15. Nijma said,

    May 24, 2010 @ 12:46 am

    Hitting a student is highly illegal in my state (and others as well). Those who are "mandated reporters"–usually those in social services or teaching–who witness such an "assault and battery" and fail to report it to the proper authorities may be equally liable and can lose their jobs as a result.

    My academic coordinator says if a student doesn't learn, it is the fault of the instructor.

  16. maidhc said,

    May 24, 2010 @ 3:41 am

    I teach technical subjects to students who are mostly not native English speakers. If I am asking a technical question, I normally do not grade for grammar and spelling. What I find interesting is how clear the distinction typically is between students who understand the concept but struggle to express it in English, and students whose muddled English is just a symptom of muddled thinking in general. Occasionally I mark a student down because I didn't understand their answer, but when they explain it to me I see what they were trying to say. But this happens about once every couple of years.

    BTW, when I say "normally", I mean that in technical subjects there are words that have a specific technical meaning. Misusing such a word is a technical error, not an English usage error.

    I agree with Camilla that learning to follow directions is an important skill for students, the lack of which does merit setting the paper on fire. Suppose you hired someone to design a parking garage, and he gave you a design for a beautiful library. Should he get paid?

    Stephen Nicholson, Chris, I have encountered some students who reveal in conversation a depth of knowledge that they seem to be unable to put on an exam paper. I have even asked such people if they think they have a learning disability. The response I get is typically "maybe, but that's just the way I am". If students are professionally certified as having a learning disability, they are entitled to receive assistance of various sorts, but some don't want to bother jumping through the hoops.

    Bloix, I gave an exam last week. While the turning in of exams at the end of the exam period is usually rather chaotic, I do attempt to eyeball the exams as they are added to the pile, and I did catch one without a name and return it for increased annotation. The worst is if more than one student doesn't put their name on the exam.

  17. Stan said,

    May 24, 2010 @ 5:07 am

    Thanks for the link, Mark. Linguistic peevology could be fuelled, at least in part, by the considerable social pressure to conform — even to a dubious norm or ideal. A belief in the relative superiority of one's social status may contribute if it bundles a belief in one's moral authority. A commenter to my post suggests that taste-policing has its roots in historical access to literacy.

    @nonpoptheorist: Oh, there was physical abuse too. A follow-up comment by the original storyteller describes how the teacher (she of the scissors-and-shovel technique) used "a very heavy, very long flat stick" at a time when corporal punishment was inflicted "freely and often gleefully".

  18. Sili said,

    May 24, 2010 @ 5:54 am

    It would appear Zach Weiner felt a need to top fire and withholding of sex as punishments for usage differences of opinion.

  19. Nick Lamb said,

    May 24, 2010 @ 12:02 pm

    When teachers tell you they'll make you repeat the test until you pass, they don't mean it.

    I am very stubborn, and I don't remember rote material very well. Six repeats was enough to convince my English literature teacher of this, despite the promise that we'd continue until I got it right. (We were to memorise and recite a specific poem). And I have the maximum grade to prove just how relevant this stupid exercise was to the course as a whole.

    Doubly ironic because, I think, though memory is dimmed by the passage of time, the poem in question was Wilfred Owen's most famous, in which case the title (and the last line) are not even /in/ English. Not that I was any better at memorising rote material in my Latin class.

  20. Anonymous said,

    May 25, 2010 @ 8:10 am

    @nonpoptheorist: the out-and-out erotica, as found in (now mostly in due to spam problems) was frequently reviewed on a multi-dimensional basis. i think the dimensions were story, eroticism, and writing. i'm reasonably sure i've seen some fanfic sites that do likewise…

  21. Zwicky Arnold said,

    May 25, 2010 @ 6:59 pm

    The use of rubric in the title of the cartoon might not be familiar to all readers. It's a specialization of older senses in a bit of teacher jargon (not yet in the OED, and apparently relatively recent). For a brief discussion, see this posting.

  22. bloix said,

    May 25, 2010 @ 10:00 pm

    maidhc, I don't doubt that the occasional student forgets to put his or her name on a bluebook. I was commenting on the fact that this grammar-stickler of a teacher uses the singular their – "their name on the test" – unaware that it's an error. At least, it is to grammar-authoritarians, although the hosts of this blog staunchly defend it. It was amusing to see an error in a rant about errors.

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