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How to Do School (7/26/20)

This is not an easy conversation to have – the truth about school can be a difficult pill to swallow. So let me start with a couple of stories.

Back when I was a sophomore in high school (Mountain View in Mesa, Arizona), I had an Algebra 2 teacher by the name of Mr. Smith. Now, I haven’t taken math in a long time, so I don’t know if this is still true, but back then it was common to assign students homework that was something like “do exercises 1-30, even numbers only”. Textbooks would often have the answers to only the odd numbered exercises in the back of the book. The theory was that the kinds of exercises would appear in pairs; in other words, exercise #1 and exercise #2 would be similar, so you could do exercise #1 on your own, check the answer in the back of the book, and do exercise #2 as part of your homework, and so on. I always thought this was a pretty cool idea. (Unfortunately I never bothered to do it like that, and like many people, complained about “not being good at math”).

Mr. Smith told us something else that has stayed with me for the last 21 years or so. He said that if we did every single problem in the book THREE times, that would could not help but get an A. It wasn’t that he would give us extra credit or anything, but rather that by doing every single problem three times, we would become so good at math that we would naturally get an A. And again, of course, I didn’t pay attention to what he said, failed the course, and had to repeat Algebra 2.

The point is that if you want to become good at a subject, you almost always have to actually do MORE than what the teacher assigns or expects from you. That’s a scary thought, since most of us simply don’t do that. But I have found that to be true over and over again.

A similar (and actually even more frightening) thing happened to me in college taking language courses. In first and second year Chinese, I did all the homework, practiced according to what the teacher recommended, and got A’s in these courses. Then, when I hit third year Chinese, I got absolutely slammed. “What happened?”, I wondered. I was supposed to be good at Chinese! Well, the truth is, I wasn’t really listening to my teachers. The whole time they had been trying to warn me that there is a difference between doing well in a language class and ACTUALLY learning a language. Chinese 1 and 2 may have allowed someone to skate by, even with an A, with only a little effort, but Chinese 3 began to require students to actually become Chinese speakers. The difference was significant.

My purpose in telling these stories is not to frighten you, but to tell you the truth about how matters actually stand. It’s nice to have maybe a little bit of “natural” talent, whether it be in math, Chinese, or whatever. But I could have become great at those things if I had only worked hard (see Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers and Carol Dweck’s book Mindset, both excellent resources). And it’s not just limited to school, it’s something that is true throughout “real life” as well. I have a job – does my employer require that I continually read books to become a better teacher? Yeah, maybe one or two a year. How many books do I actually read over the course of a year? Probably about 30, and I’m not talking about romance novels. (I’m not trying to flex here. That number is actually kind of low – I have to step up my game).

The point of all this is that if you want to do “okay” or even “good” in English class, I’ve devised a system for you to do that. It’s interwoven within the requirements of class. Do the requirements, and you’ll leave class with at least a C, guaranteed. But if you want to be great at English, take the system I’ve given you, and apply it over and over again. We don’t read every selection in our textbook. We don’t even do every question that is available for the selections we do read. And of course, we don’t use all of the six or seven textbooks that I have sitting around on the shelves of my classroom. And even more so, I certainly don’t ask you to do every question three times. But what would happen if you did? What would happen if you not only did every Think Question three times, but every Focus Question and every writing prompt three times? What would happen if you emailed me and said “can I borrow that other textbook you have Dr. LaBarge?” I wonder.

Answering Think Questions: The Checklist Follow these steps whenever you answer the Think Questions that are given to you for (just about) every reading selection. You can follow them as well if you decide to answer other questions (for example, Focus Questions) as well. If you do this right, you’ll improve your English skills greatly.

Step 1: Copy down the question. You may think it’s tedious or unnecessary to copy down the question that you are planning to answer, but it’s a practical way to go over in depth the question that you are answering. Reading something once, or even twice, is one thing, but actually typing or handwriting it out allows you to think about the question in a more detailed way. This is to your advantage.

Step 2: Label the question. Many times when questions are given for a reading selection, they actually consist of more than one part. In other words, a single question might actually have multiple questions embedded within it. Oftentimes, students forget to answer both parts of a question. Imagine a question like this, for example: “What is the theme of this story and when does the story take place?” How many questions are actually in that single question? Of course, the answer is two. So when I say label the question, I mean put a superscript marker that indicates the question part. I use a superscript A and a superscript B, so that the question, when labeled, will look like this: “ AWhat is the theme of this story and Bwhen does the story take place?” This will come in handy later.

Step 3: Begin your answer by restating the question. Use superscripts in your answer to indicate which part of the question(s) you are answering. Always begin by restating the question. This is yet more practice for you to go over what is actually being asked. As I mentioned in my video on this topic (here), by this time you’ve know actually gone over this question FOUR times: once when you read it to begin with, once when you copied it over, once when you labeled it, and now once when you’ve begun your answer by restating the question. Again, the reason this is so important is because the number one mistake people make is not answering the question, or answering the question in a way that shows that they didn’t actually read the question! And this is not just the case with Think Questions in a random English class, this is prevalent all over the place in the real world.

Step 4: (Actually) answer the question. This is a no-brainer – regardless of anything else your answer has, you have to at some point actually answer the question. But all the other stuff that is included, the steps before this one and the steps after, are also extremely important (otherwise I wouldn’t have you do them!). So we might say that Step 4 is NECESSARY, but not SUFFICIENT. What that means is that it is necessary that you actually give an answer to the question asked, that is to say that you MUST actually answer the question, but it is not sufficient that you ONLY answer the question. In order to be sufficient, you need all of the other steps too. So if combining Step 3 and Step 4, your answer might look like this: “ AThe theme of this story is love.”

Step 5: Support your answer by citing evidence. Supporting whatever answer you give is crucial, because it allows your reader (in this case, me) to know why you believe what you believe. There might not even really be a “right” answer to a question, but if you show me how you came to a particular conclusion (by citing evidence), then even if I disagree with your answer, I would still count it as correct. Crucially, if you can’t cite evidence to support your answer, then it’s likely that your answer is way off base. So at this point, your answer to the question might look like this: “ AThe theme of this story is love. This is because in paragraph 7 of the story, the main character says that ‘love is the reason life is worth living’.”

Step 6: Support your evidence with reasoning. This one is a little tricky, but it is essentially this: you need to tell me why the evidence you chose applies to the answer you gave. Otherwise, you’re simply assuming that there is a connection between the quote you gave and the answer. But again, I need to know that YOU know how these things are connected. So for the answer so far, you might say “ AThe theme of this story is love. This is because in paragraph 7 of the story, the main character says that ‘love is the reason life is worth living’. Since themes in stories are often messages about life in general, and the main character of a story often represents the author’s own feelings, it’s safe to say that when a main character expresses the idea that life is about love, then love must be the theme of the story.” Note that of all the steps, not only is this one the most difficult, but this one is the longest. Compare it with Step 4, in which the answer is simply “love”. Sure, you may get Steo 4 correct, but if you handed in your homework with only one word, “love”, it doesn’t tell me about your reading and analyzing abilities. That’s why all the other steps are important.

Step 7: Repeat Step 3 – Step 6. Now it’s on to the other part(s) of the question, and of course, you would label them appropriately: “ AThe theme of this story is love. This is because in paragraph 7 of the story, the main character says that ‘love is the reason life is worth living’. Since themes in stories are often messages about life in general, and the main character of a story often represents the author’s own feelings, it’s safe to say that when a main character expresses the idea that life is about love, then love must be the theme of the story. B The story takes place during the time period of…”

So the takeaway is this: if you follow all the steps and do them correctly you’ll almost certainly do well. If you use the labeling system (superscript A, B, etc.) then you won’t forget any part of the question. And lastly, although you’re certainly not required to do this, if you go out of your way to answer extra questions using this method you will improve your English skills dramatically.


The Problem with Hooks (4/7/20)

Every English teacher I’ve ever met seems to be obsessed with “hooks”, those first lines of an essay which are there to “grab the reader’s attention”. The whole idea of a “hook” for an essay and its purported importance is essentially a meme, and I mean that in a bad way. How do I know? There are two reasons: a) it’s something (one of the only things?) that students seem to remember long after high school, and b) it essentially screws with students’ ability to write effectively. If I’m correct, and students stop worrying so much about the “hook”, then their essays would improve.

First, let me just establish a little background. I have to ask myself, “Why do English teachers care so much about these hooks?” It goes without saying that English teachers both want people to read and like good writing. So I reason that they must think, “Well if good writing is good and people reading is good, then I should tell my students to make sure they have a good hook that gets people reading their essay”. These teachers are wrong.

When it comes to essays, a hook is functionally equivalent (in a student’s mind) to a headline in a newspaper or a clickbait link online. (A essay’s title is a better comparison to those two things, of course, but I have issues with titles too and for the same reason). Now, if you’re trying to sell newspapers or draw traffic to your website, that’s one thing. But think for a second: how many “good” website article links do you see out in the wild? In fact, the very nature of the headline or the link is such that in order to be attention-grabbing, it has to be borderline preposterous, hyperbolic, and often untruthful. That’s why they call it clickbait. That’s why tabloids are popular. (Don’t get me wrong, tabloids have their place, but they are not the same as a high school essay).

However nuanced a notion that a teacher has of what a hook actually is supposed to be, I guarantee that when students are told to use a hook to “grab the reader’s attention”, their minds naturally go to an association with tabloid-style writing. This is naturally confusing, because I think even students know that tabloids have a tendency to exaggerate, to put it mildly. And a student may think, “How on Earth am I supposed to grab a reader’s attention when I’m writing an essay on Charles Dickens? Who cares about Charles Dickens?”

Hence, in the (rare) case that a student comes up with a very clever hook to his or her essay, it is likely to stand at odds stylistically with the rest of the essay. A student ends up with AN ATTENTION-GRABBING TABLOID STYLE VERY INTERESTING HOOK followed by a serious analysis of themes and metaphors in the collected works of Shakespeare. This is ridiculous.

The truth is, the beginning lines of most essays are boring, and this is simply because essays are meant to be serious. For any technical work in general (and that’s what essays are), even a good opening line is still boring. Take one of my favorites, from Chomsky’s Syntactic Structures (1957): “Syntax is the study of the principles and processes by which sentences are constructed in particular languages”. I liked this line so much that I “borrowed” it for the opening of one of the sections of my own dissertation: “Syntax, as a branch of linguistics and cognitive science, is the scientific study of human knowledge of natural language sentence structure”. Boring? Yes. Functional? Also yes. Which is more important?

Perhaps, as well, a teacher, without meaning it, is accidentally extrapolating from literature over to essay writing. The teacher tells the student to write a “good” hook, but what kind of “good” writing has the student been exposed to? Think of it from their perspective. After all, it is a bit of a shock when, in a “traditional” English class, students are forced to go from reading high literature to writing analytical essays about said literature. They do this while in their minds they associate English class, as a whole, with literature. And since their teachers love literature, the essay that they write, they think, must be on par with literature. Although they might not internally articulate it the same way, their brains must be reeling: “So my introductory lines have to be intelligent and articulate (high-brow) while also ‘grabbing the reader’s attention’ like a tabloid (low-brow). Ugh, okay.”

And what about literature? Even if one attempted to fool himself and force a concession that the opening lines of a literary work and an analytical essay are the same thing, and that confused person were the most erudite librarian, he or she would be hard-pressed to find more than a couple handfuls of truly great opening lines in all the history of literature. Even then, these famous opening lines don’t “grab the reader’s attention”, at least not in the way students are thinking. And does any teacher bother telling students why Austen’s witty “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife” and Melville’s terse “Call me Ishmael” are both fantastic opening lines, despite being as different from one another as opening lines can get? God help the poor students who have to now add this paradox to what they think is expected of them.

Imagine being a student and not understanding how, why, and whether an opening line should be anything at all. All they know and may be able to articulate is that the opening line has to be “good” (spoiler alert: this is our fault, not theirs). Now, if they’re really unlucky, they’ll come across a line that shows wit, poignancy, truth, command of language, and poetic skill. Although Austen comes close, I think Dickens edges her out with “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”, or perhaps even Luo Guanzhong’s “話說天下大勢,分久必合,合久必分” (“It is said that empires, long united, must divide; long divided, must unite”, or perhaps more famously in translation, “Empires wax and wane”). These openers aren’t just good, they are exceedingly good, and mind-boggingly rare.

(As an aside, I remember being in 10th or 11th grade and a friend of mine found some throwaway novel in the library. He opened it up to show me the first line: it was “F**k!”. Now that’s an attention-grabber. We weren’t just enamored with it because we were thinking “Oh, look, a dirty word!” No, it made complete sense. Why would an author not start his novel like this? We were on a different plane of existence).

So while teachers sit at their desks letting little Johnny and Suzie work quietly, they think “Wow, isn’t literature amazing? I’m changing kids’ lives by introducing them to such great writing. I can’t wait to see what kind of creative hooks these students come up with!” Meanwhile, both Johnny and Suzie are thinking, “Can’t I just drop the f-bomb and get it over with?!” And if, after wracking their brains for minutes upon minutes, students come up with what they think is a “good” hook (or not, it doesn’t really matter since the end result is the same), they’ve expended loads of energy (a finite resource), with nothing left to do what really matters: the body of the essay.

I’ll reveal the dark secret: teachers want to see unique hooks because they’re tired of reading the same things over and over again. They have a vested interest in telling a student to make a “good”, unique, interesting, non-cliché opening line, all at the expense of practicality and reasonableness. And as such, by doing so they are acting in a way that is detrimental to students’ training as writers.

Students, the truth is simply this: your introductory sentence has to introduce the topic you want to talk about in a pragmatic, simple way that is not jarring or odd. It does not have to “grab the reader’s attention”. This kind of sophistry gives credence to a false creativity, shifting brain power exactly away from where it needs to be: the meat of the essay.

As English teachers, our jobs are not to create novelists (rare) or even master essayists (even rarer). Our job is to teach students how to clearly, cogently, and truthfully articulate their thoughts. The thoughts are in the theses and bodies of the works they create, not in the hooks.


Some Thoughts on "Young Goodman Brown" (4/3/20)

Standard disclaimer applies: I'm a linguist by training, not a scholar of literature. But there are a number of parts of this fantastic short story that I would like to attempt to shed some light on.

The main question that haunts me is why Young Goodman Brown decided to embark on his dark errand in the first place. In my own mind, I’ve narrowed it down to three possibilities: he’s either incredibly naïve/ignorant, totally faithless, or desperate.

Is Young Goodman Brown Naïve (Or Ignorant)?

Let’s start with the idea that maybe he’s naïve, that is, that he simply doesn’t understand the consequences of a nighttime meeting with the devil. Poking around online, I’ve seen a couple of explanations given for Young Goodman Brown’s decision to go on that fateful walk which amount to something like “he wanted to flirt with the dark side of life”. Maybe his life had been ruled by an oppressive Christianity and he had had enough, so he simply decided to find out what the devil had to offer him instead?

With all apologies to people smarter than I am, this seems ridiculous. This is a trait of teenagers rebelling against their parents (no offense), not one of a grown and married man. Okay, maybe I’m the one being naïve, as of course there have been more than a few adult men and women who have thrown off the restraints of religion in order to go have fun. But consider the fact that Goodman Brown does not embark on his errand with enthusiasm, but appears to acknowledge it as an unfortunately necessary chore. Consider too the fact that he hesitates multiple times with deep trepidation, and in fact firmly resolves to not go through with the meeting (the only thing that finally spurs him on is believing he hears the voice of his wife).

Imagine a high schooler who sneaks out of their room at night to meet up with a boyfriend or girlfriend (maybe you don’t have to imagine!). How do they act? They have a kind of nervous enthusiasm, and it is their desire which overrides their better judgment. Why would their parents scold them if they found out? Because the parents know that the potential consequences of sneaking out at night far outweigh the “rewards”. They know their son or daughter is naïve in making such a choice. Does Young Goodman Brown exhibit any enthusiasm or strong desire? Quite the opposite. He’s not naïve.

Okay, so maybe if Young Goodman Brown did not have the naïveté of a youth, he was simply ignorant. Maybe he didn’t know that meeting with the Devil was a bad idea (!). Maybe he didn’t know that this old man was the Devil. Both seem unlikely.

Recall that the old man mentioned casually that he made it from Boston to outside of Salem Village in 15 minutes. Goodman Brown doesn’t seem surprised, so that theory is out. And what about his ignorance of what the Devil represents and the potential harm of meeting with him? Shortly after the old man and Goodman Brown meet up, we’re introduced to Goody Cloyse, who turns out to be a witch. Goodman Brown is surprised, unhappily, by this. He mentions that she taught him his catechism. And if he’s received his catechism, then he certainly is aware of who the Devil is and the potential harm the Devil can cause. (And by the way, the fact that he is unhappily surprised that his cherished catechism teacher is a Satanist is another reason why we know Goodman Brown didn’t go in the forest that night looking for fun and thrills. If that were true, his reaction would have been “hey, cool!”).

There’s one more hold out response on the naïve/ignorant theory that deserves mentioning, and then we can put it to rest. Maybe Goody Cloyse was a bad catechist, and secretly taught to Goodman Brown as a child that the Devil is good, and to be trusted, hoping that someday Goodman Brown would grow up and join her in evil worship. But we know this isn’t true either. Why? Part of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s purpose in writing this story is to expose the hypocrisy of Puritan civilization. The story and its purpose only work if the residents of Salem Village do indeed pretend to be good Christians during the day, only to reveal themselves as Devil-worshipers in the forest at night. They have to be liars. Hence, Goody Cloyse would have had to have taught Young Goodman Brown according to standard Puritan principles, even if she would have felt otherwise in her heart. Goodman Brown could not have been ignorant.

Was Young Goodman Brown Faithless?

Another explanation I’ve seen floating around for Young Goodman Brown’s decision to meet the devil in the forest was that he had already lost his faith. This is a point that is brought up by some professional scholars on the matter.

Under this idea, Goodman Brown was neither naïve nor ignorant, he knew very well who the Devil was and what he represented, but simply didn’t believe that his religion was true, so he felt that he might as well go have a good time flirting with Satanism. Under this idea, I suppose, Goodman Brown wouldn’t see the Devil as posing a real threat, since if he lost his faith then he wouldn’t be worried about losing his soul. And so meeting up with this old man/the Devil would have been just a kind of thrill, done for kicks, or maybe to say “screw you” to all his fellow stodgy Puritans.

But I’ve already explained why this is false, and that Goodman Brown in fact didn’t have any intentions of meeting the Devil in order to “explore” the “dark side” of life – it’s evidenced from his trepidation and later reactions to various events. I would accept this idea more readily if the story had taken place before he was married – as if he’s out for one last night of fun before he has to settle down.

But Hawthorne chose not to do that. By the time the story starts, Goodman Brown is married three months. Okay, so maybe he is feeling the pressures of marriage and his religion, and decides to sneak away for a little fun. But again, we have to come back to his various reactions to everything and conclude that he couldn’t possibly have wanted that.

And it’s his reaction that are key. As I mentioned, one of Hawthorne’s purposes for writing this short story was to expose the hypocrisy of Puritanism. I’m not sure Hawthorne actually thought that Puritans were out at night conducting evil rituals, but I think he was disillusioned with religious people in general who say one thing in public and do another in private. But this purpose of Hawthorne’s only works if Young Goodman Brown loses his faith during the course of the story. What impact would there have been if Young Goodman Brown was already faithless at the beginning? In this way, Hawthorne may have had Young Goodman Brown stand in for himself as someone who lost faith due to his experience with hypocrisy.

You may know that there are three virtues inexorably tied to Christianity, as expressed by St. Paul, an early Christian writer: faith, hope, and charity. Maybe it’s the case that Goodman Brown had lost hope at the beginning of the story, and thus decided to go out and meet the Devil for a wild night. This is one opinion that I’ve seen expressed by a literary scholar (again, you may note that I am not directly citing that person – but know that I’m doing that on purpose). Puritanism is a pretty strict kind of Christianity, and one of its fundamental ideas is that there are only so many people who get into heaven. The thought behind the “Goodman Brown lost hope and turned to Satan” thesis stems from the idea that Goodman Brown must have thought, after getting married, that he lost his position as one of the “chosen ones”. (Theoretically, he could still have faith, i.e., believe in God, but have lost hope of ever entering heaven). I suppose this is somehow tied to the idea that since Goodman Brown got married (and therefore has had sex) that he is now “unclean”. I’m not an expert on Puritanism, but as far as I know, despite their strictness, having sex within marriage is perfectly fine. After all, that’s how they made more Puritans (they certainly weren’t intent on converting the Native Americans).

And lastly, it makes more sense for the story to progress the following way: for Goodman Brown to lose his faith (due to seeing unspeakable things), to lose hope in himself and his fellow humans, and to as a result abandon all charity towards them. Any plain reading of the text shows that this is exactly what happens.

Is Young Goodman Brown Desperate?

So if Young Goodman Brown is not naïve or ignorant, and not faithless, then he must be desperate. So what could he be desperate about? What would drive a man who by all accounts knows and understands how dangerous the Devil is to make a deal with him?

My idea, which is of course not mentioned anywhere explicitly in the text (otherwise I wouldn’t have needed to write this essay), so is complete speculation, is that he and his wife are having difficulty conceiving a child. In any ordinary case, if he and Faith have been married three months, she would already be pregnant. As I mentioned, Hawthorne doesn’t say either way. But I find the fact that he doesn’t mention it to be indicative of the fact that she is not pregnant. After all, when Young Goodman Brown thinks about Faith, and worries about Faith, he is worrying about her alone. He doesn’t say to himself “Oh no! Faith and my unborn child!”

Is three months long enough for Goodman Brown to become worried about not being able to have a child? Probably. Would this be reason enough to make him desperate? In many Christian cultures (and of course non-Christian ones), especially if they are very traditional, it can be a source of shame for a couple to be married and childless. In this way, “Young Goodman Brown” is the flip side of Hawthorne’s other very famous work, The Scarlet Letter. In The Scarlet Letter, a woman is shamed an ostracized for having a child out of wedlock. If I am right about my idea here, then Goodman Brown is afraid of being shamed and ostracized for not having a child, even though he is married.

So imagine this scenario: Goodman Brown marries a nice girl, and like all good Puritans, wants to start a family. After three months, though, his wife is still not pregnant. He knows that if things go on like this, his fellow Puritans will start to look at him strange, like there’s something wrong with him or Faith for their inability to conceive. (And this would be a good example of Puritan hypocrisy – no Christian should judge another because they can’t have a child). So out of desperation, he turns to the Devil. (Another example of hypocrisy – Goodman Brown thinks he’s doing the right thing by “protecting his family”, but in reality he’s doing the opposite). The Devil, who has worked with many of Goodman Brown’s family in the past, happily obliges.

The other piece of evidence that we may look at to suggest a scenario in which Goodman Brown and Faith are having difficulty conceiving a child is the scene in which Goodman Brown hears Faith’s voice in the cloud above him. The text says that “there was one voice of a young woman, uttering lamentations, yet with an uncertain sorrow, and entreating for some favor, which, perhaps, it would grieve her to obtain; and all the unseen multitude, both saints and sinners, seemed to encourage her onward”. In this quote I see as well a desperate young woman who is sad and needs a particular favor. She is uncertain of what she is doing, but follows this crowd through the sky anyway. What could this say but that she, too, made a deal with the Devil? She has the same desperation as her husband, and the same fear. Is it unreasonable to think that both would make a deal with the Devil, and not tell the other?

In the end, of course, Goodman Brown gets his family. It says quite clearly that by the time he died he had “children and grandchildren”. But he didn’t really get them – the trauma he experienced that night changed him into a hateful and bitter person, and from that moment on he was probably a difficult man to love.

I remember when I was young, I read a comic book (!) that had a story about a man who wanted to commit suicide (maybe comic books aren’t so good for kids!), but he couldn’t go through with it. He ends up making a deal with the Devil for the strength to commit suicide, which the Devil grants him in exchange for his soul. But even though the man now has the courage to do the terrible deed, when he pulls the trigger he finds that he cannot be killed. The Devil has made his body indestructible. Why? Just to screw with him.

Here, the Devil may have done the same. Young Goodman Brown wants a child, which the Devil ends up granting, but he makes it so that Goodman Brown is incapable of loving his children (and wife), and incapable of being loved. And so, throughout the story, Goodman Brown goes through the stages of losing all the Christian virtues: he loses faith during his interaction with the Devil, he loses hope when he sees that the town is full of Satanists, with his wife to be initiated among them, and he loses charity when he comes back to reality to live out the rest of his life.