Wednesday, March 3, 2010


I know I have been sort of remiss in posting lately... but I have been writing, I swear!

About a month ago, I had a piece published in the Hartford Courant about my latest addiction, the online quiz site called Sporcle. You can check out the piece here.

And today, I had a piece published on a cool site called The Faster Times. Described as "a new type of newspaper for a new type of world," The Faster Times attempts to redeem the dying art of great journalism. Really, an impressive site, with a great mission and some great content.

This week, the Faster Times folks were generous enough to publish something I wrote, a piece entitled "When Did Studying Dinosaurs Get So Complicated?" You can check out the article (and my goofy mug) here.

The "initial shiver of inspiration" (Thanks, Nabokov) for this article came from my nine-year-old son, who has long been a huge fan of dinosaurs. Not that that's particularly remarkable: he is a little boy, after all; he has to love dinosaurs. (I think there must be with some kind of dinosaur chromosome or something.)

Personally, I know I was fascinated by the things when I was his age. But as I read his dinosaur books along with him, I realized something strange has seemingly happen in the past thrity years: we have new dinosaurs.

Hey, I know, I know. How can there be new dinosaurs? They've been extinct for, like, six gazillion years. Then how do you explain all these new-fangled dinosaurs that appeared in my son's books-- dinosaurs I had never heard of before?

Parasaurolophus. Coelophyses. Troodons. And others whose names I couldn't even pronounce. (My son, of curse, had no problem with the names: I remember stumbling over a particularly prickly name while reading a book to him, and he said, slightly exasperated, “Daddy, it’s Compsognathus!”)

So I asked myself, "Where did these crazy things come from, anyway?" When I was a kid, there were maybe five dinosaurs: Tyrannosaurs Rex, Brontosaurus, Stegosaurus, Triceratops, and Pterodactyl. That was it--except for maybe an occasional reference to Diplodocus. Are paleontologists inventing new dinosaurs, just to mess with us?

All that dinosaur angst ended up inspiring the piece that eventually became the one currently appearing in The Faster Times, which is less about terrible lizards and more about the loss of childhood innocence. But I had some other dinosaur-related observations, ones that I ended up cutting from the piece, that I thought I could re-print here. (Ah, praise be the junk-heap that is the blogosphere!)

First off, while writing the piece, I found myself wrestling with one of those overwhelming questions: Why doesn't anyone talk about Brontosaurus anymore? Are you telling me they've not only added dinosaurs, but they've taken one away?

Well, I did some research (i.e. I checked Wikipedia), and apparently, the Brontosaurus was a grown-up version of Apatosaurus, which had been discovered first; thus, the name “Brontosaurus” became extinct.

That Bronotsaurus tangent got me thinking about Fred Flintstone, who loved nothing more than his Brontosaurus Burger after a tough day working for Mr. Slate. Then I started thinking about the Flintstones' bizarre longevity. I mean, they still make Fruity Pebbles cereal and Flintstone Vitamins-- despite the fact that most kids, I'd wager, have never actually seen a Flintstones cartoon.

Think about it: Magilla Gorilla, Captain Caveman, Snugglepuss-- they've all faded from the cultural consciousness. But as long as kids eat breakfast, the Flintstones will live on. Capitalism rocks. (I can't decide if that's a pun or not.)

Final observation that never made it to the final piece: about fifteen years ago, I went to the Museum of Science in Boston and saw a new exhibit for a dinosaur named...Ultrasaurus. And I distinctly remember thinking, “Oh, come on. Now they’re just getting ridiculous.”

I mean, honestly: Ultrasaurus? Doesn’t it sound like a Marvel Comics cartoon super-lizard or something? “An asteroid is careening toward the planet to wipe out dinosaur life as we know it. This looks like a job for—Ultrasaurus!”

Anyway, check out the articles. Till then, enjoy the Bronotosaurus Burgers.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

"Make It So!": Jean-Luc Picard and One-On-One Writing Conferences

Sometimes, I wish I could run my one-on-one writing conferences with my students the way Jean-Luc Picard runs his starship.

Who would skip a meeting, after all, with the no-nonsense, chrome-domed Captain of the Enterprise? Who would dare give Picard a “revised” draft that looks suspiciously identical to the one from the week before? Moreover, Picard wouldn’t delicately dance around the black holes in a student’s text; no, Captain Picard gives orders, not suggestions-- orders which he always punctuates with the ominous tag-line, “Make it so.” Granted, Professor Picard’s students wouldn’t gain much in terms of self-actualization, but in terms of a polished finished product, they’d certainly learn how to make it so.

Of course, while it would be easier to run a conference like this, it certainly wouldn’t be better-- for me or my students. But as an English teacher who meets frequently with his students in individual writing conferences, I always thought I could take something away from Picardian pedagogy-- namely, his commitment the so-called “Prime Directive,” which any card-carrying Star Trek fan would define as follows: when a Federation starship visits a new planet, the crew members can observe the indigenous cultures, but they cannot interfere with their normal evolutions. Basically, it’s the interplanetary version of the chaos theory-- the “if a butterfly flaps its wings on Jupiter” conundrum.

When I first started teaching in 1995, I used a model similar to the “Prime Directive” for my writing conferences: I saw myself as a visitor in these strange, new worlds my students committed to paper. And although I praised the things I enjoyed, or asked them to clarify moments of confusion, or perhaps helped them see untapped potential already inherent in their texts, I never introduced anything foreign into these worlds. We were simply having a conversation-- at least, that’s what I told myself.

And yet I couldn’t reconcile my understood role as “observer” with my recurring frustrations with conferencing. If I were truly just observing and conversing, why did I feel discouraged when the students didn’t incorporate our “conversations” into their drafts? Or when they did incorporate my suggestions, why the uneasy self-consciousness that they were pursuing these ideas for my benefit, not theirs? My students couldn’t win-- and because I couldn’t figure out why, neither could I.

Then I remembered my “Star Trek”: you see, the “Prime Directive” almost never worked. The Enterprise crew could never simply observe; their visits always seemed to affect change.

In a similar way, I could see that my comments artificially affected my students’ papers, that the gradebook gave me the power to influence their ideas; as a result, I could never have a true conversation with my students in conference, despite my best intentions and pretensions. Thus, for me, the “Prime Directive” model-- the ideal of instructor as detached observer-- proved just as unrealistic and unproductive as “Make it so!”

Here's the straight dope about conferencing, the plain truth that no English teacher really wants to admit: in conference, we're not simply observing; we're interfering in these worlds. We may try to maintain the illusion otherwise; we may preface a suggestion to a student by saying, “This shouldn’t influence your decision,...” but we can't resist the urge to make comments that can only influence his decision.

This charade manifests itself in other ways as well. For example, I talk about “audience,” but when you boil it all down, isn’t the person holding the gradebook the only one they really care about? Or in conference, I double-talk with comments such as, “Well, don’t do this just because I brought it up...”; but in reality, isn’t that what good students have been taught to do-- listen to their instructors?

The awareness of that power probably means I should abandon the ideal of “conference-as-conversation.” However, I can’t forsake the “conversation” model completely, because the alternative-- the overly-directive, “here, write this down!” approach-- is infinitely less appealing. So where does that leave us?

Somehow, we need to find a compromise: a one-on-one writing conference can’t just be a "conversation"; we need to give something to our students. We need to negotiate a place somewhere in between the two poles of “Make it so!” and the “Prime Directive.”

Some may blast this “compromise” as a cop-out-- that we’re being disingenuous with a student if we appear to be having a conversation when we’re really pushing her to think in a certain way through our leading questions. Perhaps with misleading prefaces such as “I don’t want to influence your decision...,” I am giving my students false sense of choice; on the other hand, I think the alternative-- eliminating choice altogether by saying something like, “You absolutely cannot write about this”-- has far more dangerous implications.

I started this entry with an example from science-fiction, but I'd like to end with an example from science-fact: the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. Now, I'm not a science guy, and I acknowledge at the outset that I have a vague-at-best grasp of the whole thing, but here's the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle as I understand it: we can never "see" an electron in its natural state, because the very act of observing it affects it, changes it. There's more to it, of course, but I think this ultra-ultra-ultra-simplification works as a metaphor for what I'm talking about: as teachers, we can't simply "observe" a student text; our very role as teachers affects it. And instead of fighting it, instead of trying to convince ourselves otherwise, maybe we should just accept that fact.

After all, that's something else I've learned from Star Trek: resistance is futile.

Friday, January 1, 2010

TISK (Things I Should've Known), Vol. 1

As with many great things, the idea started on Christmas Eve.

My wife had mentioned that her sister had made a stuffed artichoke for her and her husband to have for dinner that night. And because my wife knows me well and knows that I have never actually had a stuffed artichoke, she proceeded to explain the process of eating one; apparently, you take off a leaf, put it in your mouth, and scrape the bread crumbs off with your teeth.

(Later on in the week, a lively debate ensued as to the prpoer way to do this scraping business: my wife and her family always had the bread crumbs facing up and scraped them off with their top teeth, while my brother-in-law insists that you should actually have the bread crumbs facing down, and scrape with your bottom teeth. An unsolved mystery of the universe, I suppose. But I digress.)

Back to Christmas Eve. As my wife is explaining all this to me, I realize something: not only have I never consumed a stuffed artichoke, I don't think I even know what an artichoke looks like. If an artichoke every mugged me, I'd be hard-pressed to pick it out of a vegetable line-up.

And that's a fault, I decided. Not because I'm going to start eating artichokes, but because it seems that knowing what an artichoke looks like is something I should know-- if only because everyone else seems to know it.

And thus came the revelation: 2010 is going to be my year for learning things I should have known years ago. The simple things. Everyday things. Artichoke kinds of things.
And not only will I learn about these simple things, I'll write about what I've learned in this space, my poor, long-neglected blog.

First, some answers to some frequently-asked-questions about TISK (Things I Should've Know):

How philosphical/ existential are we talking about here?

Not philosophical at all. I'm talking factual information, not unanswerable questions like "Why did I have a girlfriend at home for my first semester of college?"

Does this have anything to do with you turning 40 later this year? This whole thing smacks of "bucket-list"...

It's not a bucket list. I'm not talking about things I want to do, just things I want to know. So don't bother cuing up your Tim McGraw.

Why write about this stuff? Why not just learn about it?

Partly to chart my journey, partly to resuscitate this blog, and partly to help me commit this stuff to memory. Personally, I've always found that the best ways to remember something are to write about it or to teach it to someone else.

If this is stuff hat everyone else supposedly knows, won't it be a little mortifying for you to advertise your ignorance on the Web like this?

Maybe, but it's the price I'm willing to pay for enlightenment.

Um, if it's just factual information posted here, couldn't someone just go to, say, Wikipedia instead?

Absolutely... except in those rare cases where the information is too basic and commonplace for even Wikipedia's standards.

In any case, above you will find a picture of an artichoke. (Turns out I did know what one looks like. Whaddaya know!)

Cross one off the list.