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Sunday, November 30, 2008

The Big Ideas of Algebra, Part One

Earlier this month I participated in a fascinating two-day seminar on The Big Ideas of Algebra, taught by Deborah Hughes-Hallett and sponsored by Teachers as Scholars. Although I undoubtedly talked too much, I figure that that was because I had a lot to contribute. Nevertheless, I learned a number of valuable things from the seminar, and they will be as useful both at Weston High School and at the Crimson Summer Academy. Mostly this was a matter of focusing my attention on things I already knew and believed but wasn’t thinking much about. In particular, I am now convinced than ever that we need to pay a lot more attention to symbolic literacy (understanding the symbols and combinations of symbols used in algebraic expressions) and to the distinctions among expressions, equations, and functions. Because of my linguistics background I have always believed that one important way to look at mathematics is that it is a language — in fact, that’s probably what got me to make a smooth transition from linguistics to math — but I hadn’t thought enough about the implications of that point of view when teaching math.

In addition, among the other matters we talked about in the seminar, we discussed the assignment of partial credit for work in solving a problem — more on this later, but it definitely reflects one’s views on what the big ideas are — and whether the study of algebra is distinct from (and prior to) the study of functions. More on that later as well.

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Friday, November 28, 2008

"Opportunity, compassion, honor, excellence, Davidson"

I saw this catalog the other day, and I found the cover strangely appealing:

Davidson Bill of Rights

I’m not sure which part I liked better: the “Davidson Bill of Rights” at the bottom, or the list of words at the top, terminating in “Davidson.”

(It was actually a Davidson College catalog, BTW.)

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Thursday, November 27, 2008

The Girl of His Dreams

If you can’t travel to Venice in the real world, the next best thing is to travel vicariously in the novels of Donna Leon. Formally speaking, these novels are squarely in the mystery genre, but Leon devotes as much attention to her locale (Venice, of course) and her characters (primarily Commissario Guido Brunetti and his family) as she does to the plot of the mystery. Some readers might find this balance disappointing, but the books are much the richer for it.

The Girl of His Dreams is the latest in Leon’s Brunetti series. The characters continue from Blood from a Stone and Death at La Fenice, both of which I read last year; the stories are independent. This time we have a lot about religion: the Roman Catholic church, Catholic priests, and a somewhat vague alternative but Christian religion that might be a cult or at least a scam. The teenagers are a little less stereotypical now, perhaps because they’re older. There is also a continuation of two themes from Blood from a Stone, ethnic prejudice and the presence of foreigners in Venice. This time the foreign group is Gypsies, who have fled from the former Yugoslavia during the conflicts there. Political issues infuse the novel, ranging from the treatment of Gypsies to the word itself to the Venetians’ attitude toward the Church. Leon’s pace is fairly slow and deliberate, but the book is never boring. Do read it.

A small linguistic note:
Leon is an American living in Venice, so she wrote the book in English, though Italian and Venetian are sprinkled lightly throughout to add an air of authenticity. The linguistic issue arises when two characters decide whether to call each other by the familiar or the polite second-person pronoun. I’m familiar with this issue in French and German, and I’ve asked Spanish-speakers about it in Spanish, but I don’t know much about it in Italian. Nevertheless, I understand that an Italian author could simply make a point by having a character say “tu” or “voi.” This distinction is nearly impossible to translate into English, thereby requiring some sort of circumlocation or paraphrase. But the English-speaking writer can simply have her characters say something like, “Shall we call each other tu?” or even “Shall we use the familiar form of the pronoun?” The latter, of course, would be unbearably pedantic and implausible, so we have to assume that the reader will understand “tu” from context or from familiarity with other Romance languages.

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Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Meme abuse

What’s a meme? Well, those of us who have spent too many years on the Internet (from its inception in 1969, actually, when it was called the ARPAnet) and those of us who have read The Selfish Gene, by Richard Dawkins, know what a meme is. Although the Wikipedia article on memes is far too long and leaves a lot to be desired, it definitely includes the correct definition:
A meme...comprises any idea or behavior that can pass from one person to another by learning or imitation. Examples include thoughts, ideas, theories, gestures, practices, fashions, habits, songs, and dances. Memes propagate themselves and can move through the cultural sociosphere in a manner similar to the contagious behavior of a virus.
That’s clear enough, so why is the word used incorrectly these days by so many people, some of whom should definitely know better but most of whom have never learned what a meme really is? Many writers seem to think that a meme is an informal quiz or questionnaire that is passed around by email or by the Web, often of the “you are a _____” variety. Now you can see both the similarities and the differences here: Do they propagate themselves, or do users intentionally transmit them? Are they cultural ideas and behaviors, or are they questionnaires? The word is definitely losing most of its import these days!

As a teacher, I suppose I’d better cite some sources for this claim. I’m sure that some of my colleagues would be aghast that I cited Wikipedia as my source for the correct use of a word, but so be it. As for the current incorrect use, I am reluctant to cite either email messages or websites of friends — for obvious reasons — but I can probably find similar use by strangers without much effort. Let’s see... most of the initial hits from a Google search actually lead to the correct usage (much to my surprise), but I’m sure I can also find the usage I object to... OK, here are a few:That’s enough. You get the idea. What’s up here?

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Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Reading the OED and The Professor and the Madman

I have recently read two unconnected but closely related non-fiction books: Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages, by Ammon Shea, and The Professor and the Madman, by Simon Winchester. Probably I should have read them in the reverse order, but it was Shea’s 2008 book that impelled me to go back and read Winchester’s, which was written ten years earlier.

As the subtitle to Shea’s book suggests, he successfully took on the self-assigned task of reading the entire Oxford English Dictionary in a year. You may wonder why anyone would do such a thing — one of my colleagues would uncharitably claim that Shea must have too muich time on his hands — but never mind, the book is well worth reading on several counts even without a compelling answer to that question. First of all, any reader has to be simply astounded that anyone could accomplish such a feat: it has a fascination similar to any story of the accomplishment of a long-lasting unlikely challenge. Second, the details surrounding the endeavor are of interest to any compulsive reader (not that I would know anyone in that category), ranging from Shea’s physical arrangements for the effort to the effects on his eyes, his body, and his relationships. Third, Reading the OED does not merely recount the story of what Shea did but also includes lots of notes on many interesting words that he encountered along the way. Definitely a niche book, I suppose, but go read it if you’re a lover of words and dictionaries. And if you didn’t grow up with a dictionary in every room, it’s never too late to start.

Winchester’s book is much more of a popularization. Basically it tells the tale of two men in Victorian England: James Murray, “the professor” and the principal editor of the OED for decades during the creation of its first edition; and Dr. William Chester Minor, “the madman” and the most prolific contributor of source material to the OED over the same decades. I wish this book had been around during my father’s life, not only because he was a lover of words and dictionaries but also because of one of the stories he used to tell as a psychiatrist. It concerned a visitor to the large mental hospital where my father was the director; the visitor stopped to ask for directions from the first person he saw, and the reply turned out to be detailed, complex, and accurate. It turned out that the person giving directions was a patient in the hospital. When the visitor expressed surprise, the reply was, “I may be crazy, but I’m not stupid.”

I’m sure you’ve heard that line before in other contexts, but this (probably apocryphal) story is the context for it that always sticks in my mind. It continued to resonate for me in The Professor and the Madman, where Minor is portrayed as a deeply paranoid schizophrenic who spent most of his adult life confined to the Broadmoor Asylum for the Criminally Insane, as a sentence for shooting a man whom he had mistakenly believed to have broken into his apartment. Winchester tells the entwined stories of Murray and Minor, but mostly Minor’s, which is the more fascinating or the more sensationalistic one, depending on your view of such things. In any case, I did find it fascinating, but I wish there had been more details of the lexicographic procedures used for researching a writing a gigantic dictionary in pre-computer days. If you’re not a dictionary lover, read it for the story of Minor’s life and mind; if you are a dictionary lover, read it not only for that story but also for the account of how the OED was constructed. And, in either case, read it as intellectual history: Winchester’s portrait of the times provides more than just a glimpse of what was happening in Britain then.

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Monday, November 24, 2008

Spanish foods?

Following up on yesterday’s footnote, I need to mention another linguistic annoyance: the misuse of the word “Spanish.” Yes, it correctly describes the language that is spoken not only in Spain but also in much of Central and South America, but it’s not the right word for the culture, the food, or the people — unless, of course, you’re talking about Spain itself. For the Western Hemisphere we have the perfectly good words “Hispanic” and “Latino.” Anyway, my local neighborhood convenience store changed owners recently, and now it advertises “Spanish & American Foods,” as you can see in this picture. (I couldn’t find an angle that would avoid the intrusive stop sign, but you can still read it pretty well.)

Spanish food

Needless to say, I found lot of Latin American items inside the store but very little food from Spain. They do, however, primarily carry the Goya Foods brand, and it’s of interest that Goya was indeed founded by a couple from Spain. Goya, however, clearly uses the words “Spanish,” “Hispanic,” and “Latino” correctly on their website.

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Sunday, November 23, 2008

Midsummer Night's Dream

Kudos* to the Weston High School Theater Company for its outstanding production of Midsummer Night’s Dream the past three nights. Among the excellent cast, I first want to mention Katherine Donahue (Helena) and Anna Been (Hermia), who were exceptionally effective against each other (and sometimes against the male leads) portraying convincingly fierce women. You’ll say that of course girls are always stronger than the guys in high school drama productions, but in this case that wasn’t quite true: far and away the best performance was given by Brian Cowe in his amazingly intense, madcap rendition of Puck. All I can say is, “Wow!”
*I can’t refrain from observing that “kudos” is a singular noun, and it irritates me when I hear or see a reference to “another kudo” or the like. If only more people studied Greek, they would know that of course κυδος is simply a third-declension neuter noun in its nominative singular form. Now I know that it actually looks misleadingly like a second-declension masculine, but... OK, OK, end of rant.

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