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Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Writing advice from Barbara Kingsolver

"I learned to produce whether I wanted to or not. It would be easy to say oh, I have writer's block, oh, I have to wait for my muse. I don't. Chain that muse to your desk and get the job done." — Novelist Barbara Kingsolver on her job as a technical writer
Last week I finished reading her book, "The Poisonwood Bible." While I don't have the time this week or next to give it an appropriate review, I will just say that it ranks as one of the finest novels I've ever read. The first 75-100 pages are slow-moving, but it picks up after that and for the next 475 pages. A riveting portrait of women's survival, a country struggling for independence and America's subterranean presence.

Ted Gup: "Attendance is mandatory"

CWRU professor, journalist and author Ted Gup has a terrific piece in the April 11, 2008, issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education titled, "So Much for the Information Age."

He begins:

I teach a seminar called "Secrecy: Forbidden Knowledge." I recently asked my class of 16 freshmen and sophomores, many of whom had graduated in the top 10 percent of their high-school classes and had dazzling SAT scores, how many had heard the word "rendition."

Not one hand went up.

This is after four years of the word appearing on the front pages of the nation's newspapers, on network and cable news, and online. This is after years of highly publicized lawsuits, Congressional inquiries, and international controversy and condemnation. This is after the release of a Hollywood film of that title, starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Meryl Streep, and Reese Witherspoon.

I was dumbstruck. Finally one hand went up, and the student sheepishly asked if rendition had anything to do with a version of a movie or a play.

I nodded charitably, then attempted to define the word in its more public context.
The timing of my reading this piece is interesting because I had just concluded a phone interview with a woman who was a native of England, but has lived in the states for 40-plus years. She was expressing her concern about the American educational system's lack of attention to civics, geography and basic world history.

Gup shares a similar concern, stating that for all its supposed connectivity, this cohort remains remarkably out of touch with the world.

In recent years I have administered a dumbed-down quiz on current events and history early in each semester to get a sense of what my students know and don't know. Initially I worried that its simplicity would insult them, but my fears were unfounded. The results have been, well, horrifying.

Nearly half of a recent class could not name a single country that bordered Israel. In an introductory journalism class, 11 of 18 students could not name what country Kabul was in, although we have been at war there for half a decade. Last fall only one in 21 students could name the U.S. secretary of defense. Given a list of four countries — China, Cuba, India, and Japan — not one of those same 21 students could identify India and Japan as democracies. Their grasp of history was little better. The question of when the Civil War was fought invited an array of responses — half a dozen were off by a decade or more. Some students thought that Islam was the principal religion of South America, that Roe v. Wade was about slavery, that 50 justices sit on the U.S. Supreme Court, that the atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima in 1975. You get the picture, and it isn't pretty.

These are college students at a prestigious university, presumably interested in pursuing journalism. And they don't know that Kabul is the capital of Afghanistan. Or that India is a democracy. Or that South America is largely Catholic continent!

Gup's point to his students is that attendance to his class is mandatory; it only works if everyone participates. The same, he says, can be said of a democracy.

High school—and probably middle school—history teachers should take the first five minutes of class weekly or even daily to have a current events quiz. Make it three to five questions, but use it as a test to see if students are reading, listening to or watching the news. Our democracy depends on an informed, engaged citizenry.

Word of the day
dunderhead: dunce; blockhead


Meg said...

I agree with discussing current events with students. And even though it may be a dirty word to some educators, more 'rote' learning would ensure kids knew when the atomic bomb was dropped or when the civil war was fought. I'm a fan of recycling the basic facts of our history often. It's imperative students have the background knowledge on which to build. I could say tons more, but it's not really my blog, is it? Anyway, great topic!

Wendy Hoke said...

Hey, Meg! You know you're welcome here any time. I've been meaning to give a shout-out to Prefers Her Fantasy Life!

Looking forward to sharing a few beers with you in Columbus in two weeks. I lost my boarding house since my sister moved, so I'll be joining you in the hotel. Sounds to me as if we need to rock KWF out with a bang! :)