Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Will "Ze" Ever Be?

In my last blog (click here) about my support for standardizing the singular use of the pronoun "they," I glossed over one of the central issues, which is the use of the gender-specific pronouns "he" or "she."

Using "they" is not a perfect solution to this problem because there are times it doesn't make sense. 

"Each student must turn in their assignment by tomorrow" is a sentence where "they" flows seamlessly and does not cloud meaning. There are multiple students and each is turning in an assignment. The plural here makes some sense, even if it doesn't traditionally agree. This is how we generally speak, and most would not even notice there is a technical error here. 

"Erin must turn in their assignment by tomorrow" however, sounds strange. Even worse, what if we are still talking about Erin, but want to avoid "he" or "she" (perhaps we don't know Erin's gender, or perhaps we are uncertain of Erin's preferred pronoun): "They need to pick up their reading log at the library."  This is where "they" doesn't work. It's not a matter of agreement, it's a matter of defining who we are talking about in the first place. We are talking about one person here, not a group of people. 

Enter the latest gender-neutral pronoun "ze." It would be nice to solve this problem that easily. Ze is not the first gender-neutral pronoun that has been proposed, but it has gained some traction. The problem is, I don't see it being accepted anytime soon in common usage. The reasons are not because it is not practical (it is on every level), but because this type of fundamental change in language is difficult.

There are words like "blog," "crowd fund," and "tweet" that didn't exist a few years ago but were easily accepted and widely used now, but those are different because they stand for new concepts that needed words. Changing our use of common pronouns is an entirely different matter. It would have to be conscious, careful, and widely understood and accepted. In other words, a deliberate cultural effort.

In addition, the learning curve is high. When ze (subject) is used as an object, it is "hir" (pronounced here), as a possessive pronoun, it is "hirs" (pronounced heres), and as a reflexive, it is "hirself" (pronounced hereself). The use of these unfamiliar pronouns is not intuitive or currently understood by most. (As I type these words, auto-correct is doing its best to "fix" them.)

A change like this is not going to come easy, even in academia. When I offered it as an alternative to my first-year college freshman class at a very liberal college, not a single student adopted the practice, even though some were careful to give me their preferred pronoun on first roll call.

I believe a gender-neutral pronoun will someday be adopted by English speakers, and should be for practical reasons, but I would guess it will be decades from now. In the meantime, "they" is the best we can do.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

It's Time to Standardize the Singular "They"

I am a fan of the English language and all the messy rules that go with it. I resist change. In formal writing, I do not begin my sentences with coordinating conjunctions. I do not press "send" until I have proofread my text messages. Yes, I am one of THOSE people. I am, however, on the bandwagon to standardize the singular use of the plural pronoun "they."

Using "they" as a singular pronoun is, by far, the most common mistake in student writing, but perhaps it should not be considered a mistake at all, rather a better option than the clunky and binary "he or she."

Lately in class, I find myself telling my students that they can use "they" as a singular if they do it purposefully and consistently. I add "purposefully and consistently" because I am wired to teach correct usage, and "they" as a singular is still not widely accepted, especially in formal, academic writing. I want them to be aware of this and understand that they are deviating from what might be acceptable in other classes. (I also want them to be aware of how they are using language in general and not just writing what sounds fine in conversation.)

Besides the obvious binary gender issue, which is important to many of my students, there is one big reason why "they" should be an acceptable singular: efficiency of language.

Consider this sentence:

Kelly or Brennan will organize the committee, but ? or ? will need help with the finances.

The names Kelly or Brennan are gender-neutral, but require a singular pronoun, according to the rules (if it were "Kelly and Brennan," then the plural "they" would be the correct pronoun), so what if the writer doesn't know whether "he" or "she" is appropriate? Consider the sentence, written according to the rules, even if the writer does know the genders:

Kelly or Brennan will organize the committee, but she or he will need help with the finances.

Clunky. It would be easy to make a case for the plural "they" here instead of the "she or he," or guessing the gendered pronouns (or the untenable "...but he/she or he/she...).

The stickler on my shoulder says, "There could be a misunderstanding! Someone might think Kelly and Brennan are working together!"  Granted, the first part of the sentence is clear that one or the other will organize the committee, and the second half states that both of them will need help, but to me, the flow of the sentence with "they" trumps any confusion.

Also consider the most common situation where "they" would make sense:

If a student wishes to enroll after the deadline, he or she will need to take his or her petition to the academic counseling office.

There are a lot of extra words in that sentence and the flow is not good. Previously, if I saw this sentence in an essay written like this, "If a student wishes to enroll after the deadline, they will need to take their petitions to the academic counseling office," I would suggest changing "a student" to "students" rather than changing the pronoun "they" to "he or she" and "his or her." This is a cop-out, because it's simply a workaround to a greater problem. Now, I just let it be, because, frankly, the pronoun "they" works better.

It will be an uncomfortable shift for those of us who make our livings sussing out the small errors of the written language, but I suspect for almost everyone else, they will be surprised (if they give it any thought at all)  that using "they" as a singular was ever incorrect.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Group Writing Project Resources

I'm always looking for group writing activities. Writing is most often a solitary, even lonely, experience, so any time a collaborative project is useful, I'm on board. Here are three I intend to try this year:

First is an excellent group writing activity that is especially good for freshmen at the beginning of the year, and as a bonus, it integrates technology. This blog explains the professor's project for college freshmen, but it could be easily adapted for a younger crowd.

Faculty Focus Real-World Writing Project

Next is a video of group writing in action from a high school English teacher. It shows her whole process, which is easily adaptable for whatever topic you are addressing, and gives tips to make the whole thing effective. It's interesting that although it is a writing project, the teacher says that the discussion in the most important aspect of the activity.

Teaching Channel - High School Writing Lesson

Last is a fun collaborative poetry project from the Literary Maven. I'm not sure how I will work this into my curriculum yet, but I'll figure something out because it looks like a lot of fun.

The Literary Maven - Collaborative Poetry Writing

The group writing activity I use most often in my class is one on figurative language. I go over the definitions of six or seven types of figurative language and then show a piece of art. Groups have to come up with an overall thesis, then write one of each type of figurative language relating to the thesis about the artwork. It's easy enough to set this up yourself, but if you want my teaching packet, you can see it here:



Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Avoiding Plagiarism Handout for Students

Plagiarism is a big problem in my classroom, and it probably is in yours, too. I do my best to teach the concepts; the students know how to avoid blatant copying, but they are often tripped up on the finer points.

Recycle a paper from a previous class? Nope. But it's my own work! Still nope. Paraphrase a source without a citation? Nope. But they are my own words! Still nope.

I made this handout so there could be no confusion. For the first paper after my complete lesson on avoiding plagiarism, I have them attach this sheet and sign it.  Ignorance of the rules (meaning they tuned me out when I was teaching!) is no longer an excuse.

You can download it for free by clicking on the cover below. I hope you find it useful in your classroom!

If you would like a complete lesson plan that includes comprehensive handouts, a worksheet, and a quiz, click on the cover below. Two versions are included: MLA and APA style.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

High Interest Reading - Extreme Sports

Of all the original reading passages I've used in my classroom, the most popular, by far, have been on extreme sports. The appeal is obvious to the athletes, but even students with no interest in sports find the topic fascinating. Why would someone participate in such dangerous and extreme behavior? How did these sports start? What drives the athletes?

P.S. The man on the Slacklining cover is of my friend's son. He's a an out-of-the-box athlete who has also competed on America Ninja Warriors. He's only landed in the hospital once : )

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

The Top Five Reasons to Use a Seating Chart

Over the years, I've learned that seating charts are beneficial for older students, especially with larger classes. Although some would argue that after reaching a certain maturity level, students should have the freedom to sit wherever they want, I'm still a fan of assigned seating for the following reasons:

1. It makes attendance easy. It also makes it easier to monitor who comes in late and who leaves early. Tardy students can't slip into a back corner seat and hope you won't notice, and it's more difficult for someone to slip out early if he or she knows it will be obvious from the empty seat. It also alleviates the problem of attendance when there is a substitute.

2. Studies show that a carefully crafted seating arrangement can enhance learning, especially for those who are struggling.

3. Assigned seating creates structure and sets a tone of order at the beginning of the school year.

4. Students are less distracted if they aren't sitting next to their best friends or social groups.

5. Students get to know other students that are not in their social group, and loners or those who feel left out are not as isolated. This is especially enhanced when you assign projects to small groups sitting close together.

Of course with a batch of new students, you don't necessarily know who should be seated together for optimal academic performance, or who should be separated. Reserve the right to change up the seating chart at any time, or at times, I've even had a regular schedule for a seating chart shuffle, say once a month.

Depending on the class, the seating chart has been a life saver, or proven unnecessary in a month or two. Either way, it's a good start to the new year.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

New MLA Guidelines - 8th Edition

When I heard the MLA guidelines were changing, the emotion I felt is best described as "Ack!"  I have spent countless hours teaching and developing resources for the seventh edition guidelines, and re-learning and changing my resources seemed like a laborious task.

When I ordered the new book, however, and sat down to read it, I immediately lost that bad feeling. Although I was comfortable with the old guidelines, I immediately saw the wisdom in the changes. In-text citations are the same, but gone are the days of the nitpicky works cited entries, where each type of resource had particular, not necessarily intuitive, specifications.

In a nutshell, the new guidelines for the Works Cited page ask for the most important features of each source. What should be included is flexible, based on the purpose of the source, and any source fits into the general formula. With more varied sources available with technology, it's a plus that you only need to know the basics to figure out how to document the entry.

Here is the list of items you should find, if applicable, for documentation, for any source:

Title of source
Title of container (meaning the journal, magazine, search engine, television series etc...)
Other contributors (translator, editor, producer, etc...)
Publication date
Location (URL or doi)

Once you've got these items, you can easily put together the citation, and you can add any additional helpful information.

In the MLA Handbook, they include a handy chart that also shows what punctuation to use after each entry. I've re-created the chart with some modifications for my classrooms.

For detailed information, examples, and an overall great free reference source, go to The Online Writing Lab at Purdue University: https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/747/01/

I've also created a product with all the basics for the classroom: guidelines, examples, and charts for both in-text citations and the Works Cited entries. What I thought was going to be laborious turned into a labor of love!