Tuesday, April 27, 2010

1775 wasn't what Sarah Palin thinks it was

Here, Keith Olbermann brings Sarah Palin into direct competition with the likes of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams over the role of religion in government.  Guess who wins...

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Liberty University does it again

PZ Myers at Pharyngula has alerted us to the fact that Liberty University's commencement speaker this spring will be Glenn Beck. I'm not certain whether this constitutes educational malpractice, as I wrote about last month, but it can't be a good thing for LU's students.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Sucking the fun out of language

Last week a friend (thanks, Bob) sent me this link to an April 19 New York Times interview with the physicist Sean Carroll, whose new book From Eternity to Here explores the physics of time. I found his comments on time interesting; more about that later, perhaps. What I want to focus on first is his complaint about the unpopularity of physics:
Whenever you say you’re a physicist, there’s a certain fraction of people who immediately go, “Oh, I hated physics in high school.” That’s because of the terrible influence of high school physics. Because of it, most people think physics is all about inclined planes and force-vector diagrams. One of the tragedies of our educational system is that we’ve taken this incredibly interesting subject — how the universe works — and made it boring.
My impression, after teaching linguistics for over twenty years, is that this pretty much applies to the study of language as well. People spend years in the public education system having the fun and wonder of language sucked out of them by "language arts," "English," and "English composition" teachers. These teachers do this by focusing on things that really have little to do with language, such as spelling, punctuation, "correct" grammar, and so on. The result is that when they arrive at college, students have been so thoroughly mystified (in the Marxist sense) about the nature of language that they have real problems approaching the subject from the perspective of scientific linguistics.

Here are a few ways that this mystification manifests itself:
  • Confusion of language with writing. We live in a hyperliterate society. So, for most of their school careers, what students learn about "language" is really about the writing system. They carry this training into linguistics by insisting on referring to symbols of the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), such as [p] and [a], as "letters." This leads them to say that the "first letter" in the English word pot ([pʰɑt] in IPA)  is aspirated. For some, taking points off never helps.
  • Confusion about parts of speech. The definite and indefinite determiners (the, a) are "adjectives"; the my in my homework is a "possessive adjective" (actually, it's also a determiner); etc.
  • Confusion of grammar with social rules. The classic example here is, of course, the "don't use double negatives" rule, which is a rule about social acceptability, like not farting in public, and has absolutely nothing to do with English grammar as constructed by linguists.
  • Confusion about the meaning of linguistic diversity. Language arts programs focus on creating unity out of the natural diversity of human language by molding students into producers of some idealized, homogenized version of "standard" English. Instead of seeing diversity as one aspect of human creativity, students come to believe that non-standard usage results from lack of education, mental deficiency, laziness, etc.
These examples of mystification, and others, show up every semester in my linguistics classes. What does it mean? Apparently, there is little or no change, no progress toward enlightenment, in the way children are taught about the nature of language in the K-12 system.

One might conclude that the function of language arts education (perhaps most education) is the assembly-line production of interchangeable, unimaginative, and obedient carbon units, prepared to serve a predatory capitalist system that works best when its victims think that important elements of their world, like language, cannot be investigated and interpreted except by the standards of the Masters.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Where the kleptobureaucrats rule: an update

On February 28 I posted about a friend and colleague who taught a short-term course during the Christmas recess for which his university refused to pay him. The university's stated reason for withholding pay was that, since only two students registered for the course, the course should have been canceled.

My friend, realizing at the time that having only two students enrolled might jeopardize the course, tried repeatedly to contact his Dean's office and get some official word as to whether the class would run or not. However, it was Christmas break, and he was unable to get a response, and so he went ahead and taught the course. At the end, the course was still listed on the university's web site, my friend posted grades for the students, and they got their three credits from the university. He waited to be paid, but no pay (a mere $1200) was forthcoming. My friend pursued his case onward and upward until, finally, one of the highest administrators at the university actually argued, over the phone, that my friend should have "camped out" at the Dean's office back before the start of the class.

I learned today that the university administration has finally agreed to pay my friend. But instead of the almost laughably low $1200 he had been promised, they're going to give him $600. They actually sent him a memo with the $1200 crossed out and $600 written in by hand! So, basically, the university stole what they consider to be one-half the value of my friend's labor.  And that brings me to the real purpose of this post: The university in question is the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.

One might be tempted to see this situation as some kind of anomaly, but it isn't. This is Louisiana, home of the "big easy." Consider the news that Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal blackmailed his Democratic Attorney General into supporting the round of totally mindless and morally bankrupt lawsuits challenging the legality of President Obama's recently passed Affordable Care Act. That's right, blackmailed: Jindal told AG Buddy Caldwell that if he joined in the lawsuit, his employees would be immune from the budget cuts Jindal wants to use to reduce the size of state government. This earned Jindal "Worst Person in the World" for Tuesday, April 6:

No, these aren't anomalies; these are manifestations of a dysfunctional culture.