Tag Archives: teaching

The Philosophy Store

How funny it is, and tragic, the way most people invision the worth of a degree in the humanities. I remember when I graduated from Cal and the commencement speaker suggested that getting an English degree was like “planting an existential question mark on your forehead.” He was a writer in Los Angeles, a successful one at that, and though excited by the day, I remember being irked by that remark. I remembered this moment after reading an interesting article by English professor Mark Bauerlein on the cost of literary research.  Dr. Bauerlein even did a financial analysis on academic literary output, and while I agree with his argument to a point, it left me with that same irksome feeling.

For so long now, non-humanistic studies have been the focus of the academy. Universities put up state-of-the-art MBA facilities and add flat panels to their science wings, while the English and History folks huddle together in drafty, aged classrooms. I get it, resources go where the money is at. I suspect one of the reasons literary folks are often wary of new technology is because it’s the industry associated with the marginalization of literary studies. Why would an academic embrace something that pushes out her craft, symbolically, economically, even socially? And Dr. Bauerlein is right in that English departments can’t afford to bury their heads and pretend this negative cash bleed isn’t happening. But I wonder if we just aren’t getting the message out; maybe we need to create a marketing movement for the humanities? I don’t pretend to have the answer, but saying something about the value of English matters, I think.

One of my brilliant instructors turned our class onto a beautifully-written article by Mark Slouka on the ways in which humanities gets a bad rap, and how that devalued reputation has become the lynchpin for the sinking American educational system. Slouka discusses how “our [American] orthodoxy is economic” and without a cost-benefit analysis that makes sense, the intangible product of clear thinking becomes a luxury for which our citizens are no longer willing to throw down. Many, if not most Americans think like Slouka’s mother-in law, who when hearing her future son-in-law was earning a Ph.D in literature, queried: “A doctor of philosophy,” she said. “What’re you going to do, open a philosophy store?”

Like the English folks have been saying, I suspect along with the rest of the humanities crew, the value is not in product but in process. Slouka says it best:

The case for the humanities is not hard to make, though it can be difficult—to such an extent have we been marginalized, so long have we acceded to that marginalization—not to sound either defensive or naive. The humanities, done right, are the crucible within which our evolving notions of what it means to be fully human are put to the test; they teach us, incrementally, endlessly, not what to do but how to be. Their method is confrontational, their domain unlimited, their “product” not truth but the reasoned search for truth, their “success” something very much like Frost’s momentary stay against confusion.

They are thus, inescapably, political. Why? Because they complicate our vision, pull our most cherished notions out by the roots, flay our pieties. Because they grow uncertainty. Because they expand the reach of our understanding (and therefore our compassion), even as they force us to draw and redraw the borders of tolerance. Because out of all this work of self-building might emerge an individual capable of humility in the face of complexity; an individual formed through questioning and therefore unlikely to cede that right; an individual resistant to coercion, to manipulation and demagoguery in all their forms. The humanities, in short, are a superb delivery mechanism for what we might call democratic values. There is no better that I am aware of.

The value of clear thought, of cogent reasoning, of critical thinking is in a dire state if we cannot see the value of an education in English. It’s a critical underpinning for the educated, and its absence creates consequences far more devastating than typos. In The Demon-Haunted World, non-English major and cosmologist Carl Sagan closes his opus with the following:

If we can’t think for ourselves, if we’re unwilling to question authority, then we’re just putty in the hands of those in power. But if the citizens are educated and form their own opinions, then those in power work for us. In every country, we should be teaching our children the scientific method and the reasons for a Bill of Rights. With it comes a certain decency, humility and community spirit. In the demon-haunted world that we inhabit by virtue of being human, this may be all that stands between us and the enveloping darkness.






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Filed under Arts and Letters, The English Department, Writers on Writing

A Writer’s Guide to Procrastination

I’m not sure why certain things inspire me to write. Often it seems the things that inspire me the most haven’t much to do with writing, or anything else really. Client work is one thing— as a hired pen working on someone else’s movement, I’ve been known to get more fired up than the client. But when it’s my own stuff, my creative work, well, it’s a different story. Kind of like giving great advice to your friend about her love life, while wondering why you’re still single. So, on those days when the words just won’t come out, I usually just get outside and look around.

Some days it might be walking through Chinatown, passing all the colorful tourist shops and little alleyway tea houses…

… other days it could be seeing a new  statue,


… and still others, it could be something totally off-kilter, like shopping at Daiso. Have I mentioned how much I love Daiso? I love Daiso. All the colorful notebooks and bizarre beauty products and seemingly silly but somehow useful products (all less than three bucks, mind you—danger!). I know it’s weird, but Daiso makes me want to write.

(These are banana holders.)

The one common thread I find in the things, or places, or moments that make me hit the keyboard is usually aesthetic. Color, paper, texture, nature… they all nudge me in some direction. And roaming around the city in places I don’t normally go does the trick too, when I’m especially fidgety.

It’s funny, because when I teach, I tell my students—exhort them—to just write, write about anything. Write about the boy who broke your heart last week, write about how you’re the only twelve-year-old who knows how to jailbreak an Iphone, write about how much you love to play violin, hate your P.E. class, enjoy playing chess even though you know it makes you, in certain high school circles, a nerd. Just write. And yet when I sit down to do the very thing I insist my kids do, I go crazy. I can’t insist myself into writing creatively… try to make something happen when it clearly doesn’t want to. So, usually, I’ll find something to do until the words decide to line up and situate themselves onto a page. It can take a while, but somehow, they always seem to find their way.

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Grammar Fails and Crowded Cubicles

Sad but true: As a writer, grammar fails always make me giggle. It’s lexical Schadenfreude and I’m super guilty of it. Now there are some considered moderately passable, given the general state of the English language in the U.S. (word choice or subject-verb agreement boo-boos). Yes I may wince, but I let it go because no one else will notice and I look like a prissy nerd. Okay okay. I get it.

For sports, clearly. English? Not so much.

But when high-ranking universities have advertisements soliciting M.B.A. students have these kinds of errors, I take photos. Blurry photos, but yes. Photos. I take them (sorry the BART was moving…).

Now I know it’s hard to see, so let me transcribe the last sentence for you:

“All business programs are part-time and designed for busy working professionals who seek the knowledge and skills to accelerate their career.”

I read this the other night and winced so hard. Really, Top-Ranking-University-Who-Shall-Remain-Nameless? Their career? All busy working professionals share a single career? That’s one crowded cubicle.

Um, excuse me. Have you seen my Swingline stapler?

Somebody over there needs a lesson in number agreement, and possibly, a proofreader.

I know what you’re thinking. “Cyn– no one is going to notice that. It’s a small error…  not a grammar fail. RELAX Popper.”

No. I will not relax. This is not victorious scribe plastered onto a windshield for a tailgate party by a Zima-infused* frat boy. This is an ad campaign–an expensive ad campaign– for a top-ranking M.B.A. program by a UNIVERSITY.  Big difference. I’ll write about grammar fails and context another time because that is a topic altogether different.

I know what your thinking. “Cyn– everyone makes typos. YOU make typos in this silly blog, and you’re a writer!”

Yes. That’s true. I do. Because  I’m fallible and this is a work/life blog. Mistakes get made. Commas, occasionally, get spliced.  But when a client is creating a thousands-of-dollars campaign, and I’m in charge of the copy, it’s a different story. If after a series of rewrites and revisions I’m not sure about a grammar bit or a style choice, I look it up or consult a fellow editor. For large projects I might even bring in a second proofreader. Whatever it takes to make sure that the client’s image is congruent with the branding. That might not even require a “carping grammarian”... but if it does, I become one. (Bonus geek points if you know who came up with “carping grammarian”).

Hint: It was this guy.


And for an academic client… really. What else can I say? Students pay a huge tuition to ensure they get a good education. Tee hee.

Okay I’m done. 😉

* Does Zima still exist?

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Filed under Fun Stuff, The English Department, Uncategorized

Moments of Clarity and A New Use for Durian

Why hello there Kind Reader (how Miss Manners of me),

On my recent journey to Southeast Asia, I spent a few days wandering around the island of Lombok, mostly in the tiny town of Kuta. No, not the Hard Rock Cafe/Tijuana night club/Mecca for Drunken Aussies Kuta (that’s Bali). But Kuta Lombok: a quiet, mini-village nestled on the coast of the Indian Ocean.

The beach beauty defines language, but I’ll give it a shot. Powdery white sand meets cobalt waters…really, it’s almost stupid to try and describe it. The feeling of serenity and quiet that came over me was surprising–almost jarring. I became hyper-aware: my eyes couldn’t process what they were seeing fast enough to tell my brain what to think. I sat, quite dumbstruck, looking at this vast, pure expanse of exquisite nature and thinking: wahhhh? What is this? Where am I? It’s quiet, lovely, relaxing, and aside from a handful of other foreign gawkers, undiscovered.

The rest of Kuta? Not much is going on, really. My partner, Martin* and I hopped on a scooter and promptly got lost, meandering the hillsides where we found tiny villages, little enclaves of community living in the same way they have for centuries. Most are weavers, some are farmers, and some have little boys who, upon seeing a Western female, will promptly whip out their baby manhood and display it in all its tiny glory, straight up in the middle of the dirt road. Martin laughed and scolded the proto-deviant, which of course, the little perv couldn’t understand. I was somewhere between shocked, amused, and mildly flattered. I mean… what do you say? “Thanks Little Perv, for the creepy-bizarro greeting. Just gonna go over here now, and gouge my eyes out with a Durian.” But I digress.

My smelly, tasty weapon of choice.

Back in the village– well it’s technically a village but really just one dirt road with a few shops and hotels– I noticed a faded blue building with lots of Muslim girls and boys shuffling about out front. The sign was in Indonesian but I was sure it had to be a school. After a couple of hours I decided to walk by and sure enough, in traditional Indo-friendly fashion, I got my in.

“Hello!” It was a local man, possibly in his late twenties, sitting in the school courtyard with a few head-scarved female students.

“Hello!” I shouted back. “Is this a school?”

“Yes, please come talk to us.” So I did. Turned out he was the Math teacher, who spoke decent English. After a bit of chatting, well… I couldn’t help myself.

“Would it be alright if I came tomorrow and sat with the English class?” The girls mumbled to each other. Only one girl spoke enough English to understand my question.

His face beamed. “Yes of course! Please come and talk with the students! Yes yes yes!”

I was thrilled. So the next day I stopped by, and Martin, being bored, came along with his Iphone. The video is brief but you get the idea. Later (not shown) even the Math teacher sat in as student!

Sigh. I’ve been so fortunate to make a life with words. Writing, marketing, heck– I’ll even throw in acting. But nothing, nothing comes close to the feeling I get when I teach kids who are this excited to learn. Sort of like Kuta Beach: indescribable, beyond a physical beauty ever thought possible, effortless as air,  filling me in a way nothing else ever could.

Note: If you have trouble with the links… check out Popper Creative on Facebook where I’ve also embedded them.

* Thanks for the clips, Martin. (He still insists on Martin. One day I’ll get him to come out…)

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Filed under Arts and Letters, Fun Stuff, The English Department