Tuesday, March 29, 2016

"Ain't Scared of Your Jails"

We are basing three classes this month on this program from the Eyes on the Prize documentary series. The film includes two case studies of nonviolent social change in the southern United States in the early 1960's, led by students of your age. The first case involves students challenging the businesses of downtown Nashville, Tennessee -- businesses who would sell goods to black customers but would not serve them at cafes and lunch counters.

The second case tells the story of the Freedom Riders, whose campaign was directed at the treatment of black passengers on interstate buses. The Supreme Court had already ruled that all interstate passengers had to be treated equally, but in violation of this ruling, some southern states still required black passengers and white passengers to use separate facilities. The Freedom Riders were both black and white students, who traveled as teams; the white students would insist on using the facilities reserved for blacks, and the black students insisted on using the white facilities. The campaign encountered a wave of hysterical violence, some of which is captured in this film.

Our Listening Comprehension class is not a history class, but I don't know of a better way of introducing you to such a wide variety of American English dialects than showing you this film. In comparing pronunciation and speech patterns, pay special attention to these speakers:
  • Ben West (mayor)
  • Diane Nash (student, movement leader)
  • Rev. C.T. Vivian (local minister in Nashville)
  • John Lewis (student, Freedom Rider--today a member of the U.S. Congress)
  • James Farmer (organizer of the Freedom Ride campaign, co-founder of Congress of Racial Equality)
  • John Patterson (governor of Alabama)
  • John Siegenthaler (a Southerner who served as special assistant to Bobby Kennedy)
  • Bobby Kennedy (U.S. Attorney General and brother of President John F. Kennedy)
  • Frederick Leonard (student, Freedom Rider; his story of the prison in Mississippi is to my mind the climax of the film)
The film is not subtitled, but you can find the transcript here. (If that link doesn't open, try here.) Discussion questions are below the video.

Discussion questions:

Eyes on the Prize, part 3 “Ain’t Scared of Your Jails” (first half)
  1. Why was the sit-in in Greensboro, North Carolina, a “direct challenge to southern tradition”?
  2. Ben West was the mayor of what city?
  3. When Leo Lillard tasted the water in both drinking fountains and asked his mother about the two fountains, why didn’t she answer him directly?
  4. Why did Diane Nash “so keenly” resent segregation?
  5. Rev. C.T. Vivian describes the workshops in nonviolence led by Jim Lawson. He says that the workshops taught people to “begin to take the blows” and respond with—what?
  6. John Lewis, now a member of Congress, described the first sit-ins of the campaign that followed the workshops. Why did the students dress “like they were on the way to church”?
  7. Diane Nash says that the waitresses were so nervous that “they must have dropped $2,000 worth of dishes that day.” Why were the waitresses nervous?
  8. Narrator: “The sit-ins continued without incident for almost two weeks.” Then what happened?
  9. Narrator: “Nashville’s mayor, Ben West, was faced with more than maintaining public order.” What was the challenge he faced?
  10. Matthew’s mother will never forget her son’s call from the jail. What did he tell her? Why do you think she reacted the way she did?
  11. What power did the parents of the jailed children use to resist?
  12. What happened on April 19 at 5:30 in the morning?
  13. What question did Diane Nash ask Mayor West? How did he respond?
  14. What did Mayor West mean when he said this? “I would answer it in the same way again because it was a moral question and it was one that a man has to answer and not a politician.”
Eyes on the Prize
, part 3 “Ain’t Scared of Your Jails” (second half).
  1. Why did Ella Baker recommend that the students form an independent organization?
  2. Why did neither major political party take public action at this point in the civil rights movement?
  3. What phone call did Robert Kennedy make and how did it benefit his brother John Kennedy’s presidential campaign?
  4. Who was the original target of the Freedom Rides, and why?
  5. Why were the Freedom Riders angry with the Federal Bureau of Investigation?
  6. After John Seigenthaler’s visit to Alabama, what did state officials promise? 
  7. What then actually happened as the Freedom Riders’ bus approached Montgomery, Alabama, and arrived at the station? (Frederick Leonard said "Whssssh, magic!" What was he referring to?)
  8. What was U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy’s response to the events in Montgomery?
  9. What was the situation when Martin Luther King addressed the people in the Baptist Church in Montgomery?
  10. What was the Freedom Riders’ next destination? How many riders were there?Why was there (quoting Frederick Leonard) “no violence in Mississippi”?
  11. The Freedom Riders were sentenced to a term of how many days at Parchman Farm (the maximum security prison in Mississippi)?
  12. What was the one book the prisoners were allowed to have? What seemed strange to the staff about the prisoners’ behavior? How did the staff respond to the prisoners?
  13. What decision did Leonard make, and whom did he tell about this decision?
  14. What did he mean when he said “Hurt Peewee more than it hurt me”?

Friday, March 11, 2016

It Ain't Necessarily So: Rules, Audiences, and Arakin

My contribution to the most recent "Dialogue of Languages and Cultures" conference:

If you were an American high school student in 2002 and took the Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test (PSAT) as part of your college entrance preparations, you would have been asked whether this sentence had an error:

Toni Morrison’s genius enables her to create novels that arise from and express the injustices African Americans have endured.

The intended correct answer was “no error” but controversy erupted when a high school journalism teacher publicly disagreed: the pronoun “her” cannot take a possessive phrase (“Tony Morrison’s”) as its antecedent, according to several manuals of usage. Ultimately the exam’s publisher, the Educational Testing Service, agreed to remove the question from its scoring process. [Denham/Lobeck 2012:231.]

If the venerable and authoritative Educational Testing Service cannot calibrate its tests correctly, what chance do our students have to navigate all the rules and exceptions of English usage? Here are three suggestions, based on my own classroom experience.

First, don’t teach “rules”; teach guidelines based on respect for the audience. There is almost no rule in English that great writers and orators have not broken, so we ought not to pretend that good English depends on rules. In the PSAT example above, Toni Morrison might not be the antecedent of “her” in a mechanical sense, but she certainly is in a notional sense. Pinker [2014:3714] resorts to no less an authority than the King James Bible for an example: “And Joseph’s master took him, and put him into the prison.” The key point is to avoid confusing the audience with more than one candidate antecedent: “Sophie’s mother thinks she’s fat.” (Again, Pinker 2014.) Who is fat, Sophie or her mother?

Among the many rules that are subject to being reinterpreted as common-sense guidelines, more or less negotiable in practice, are these:
  • distinguishing between “fewer” and “less”
  • distinguishing between “that” and “which”
  • avoiding splitting infinitives
  • avoiding beginning sentences with conjunctions or ending them with prepositions
  • knowing when to use “who” and “whom”
(Here readers can no doubt add many more examples!)

At the heart of this “guideline” approach is helping students develop a sense of their audience. In formal English speech and writing, correct use of “whom” is important because mistakes distract the audience and reduce the speaker’s credibility. In informal conversation, however, correct use might occasionally be distracting!

Suggestion number two: Let’s include these language controversies in our classroom materials, so that students get first-hand exposure to the issues and trade-offs involved. The Toni Morrison/PSAT story is a good case study. Steven Pinker’s recent The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century is an excellent introduction to these issues. [Pinker 2014.] Two Guardian articles based on this book (see Источники) can be used as short and convenient introductions for classroom discussion. Pinker’s work provides several advantages: For one thing, he strikes a sensible balance between blind faith in rules and completely abandoning them. He often shows how best usage is linked to cognitive psychology, reminding writers that the number of thoughts and paths our audience can hold in their minds at one time is limited, and why the most important freight in an effective sentence usually comes at the end. Don’t get in the way! Also, his writing is enjoyable -- a good model for the principles he advances.

Finally, let’s apply this audience-centered perspective to our existing curricular materials. In my paper for last year’s conference (“Three questions about cheating” [Maurer 2014:91]), I argued that even the relatively rigid format of ЕГЭ preparation lessons allowed critical examination of texts as well as student creativity in designing exercises and homework assignments.

The same applies to textbooks such as the Arakin series, Практический курс английского языка. In fact, with Arakin’s texts, the application of critical student involvement and awareness of audience is urgent. As a source of rules and patterns, Arakin suffers the same problem as any other typical textbook: in the words of one student, “We forget the rule three seconds after we close the book.” In general, students remember rules and patterns that they themselves discuss, compare, question, and practice. Last week, we had a long conversation with students on the differences between “ignore” and “neglect” [Аракин 2003:126.] Our interpretation of this difference was not the same as Arakin’s, but the priority is not deciding whose interpretation is superior; it is making the question memorable for the student.

Unfortunately, the Arakin textbooks are full of errors. (I just opened randomly to this one [page 118]: “He was dressed in the affection of wealth to which colored people lent themselves.” Disregarding the narrator’s questionable generalization for the moment, the word “affection” should be “affectation.”) But the most serious problem with the Arakin series (or, to put it positively, the most important opportunity to engage students in critical examination) is its separation from contemporary English-speaking audiences. The series claims to be “практический” but it is impossible to overemphasize how stilted, mannered, and class-bound some of the texts are. The vocabulary lists are good, but the texts, commentaries, and exercises give no hint of the inappropriateness of the language for the audiences that students are likely to meet. Some students already know that Arakin has defects, but it is up to instructors to redeem the material by inviting students to read it critically in light of real-world audiences.

Examples: By contemporary standards, R. Gordon’s description of female medical students [page 8] is offensive. This might not be surprising; after all, it’s a linguistic time capsule from three generations ago! However, there is no invitation to students to identify the offense and consider how to avoid it in their own communication. E.L. Doctorow’s excerpt [pages 118-122] and accompanying commentary and exercises seem completely tone-deaf to the condescending portrayals of black people (especially without the context of the original novel). The offensive term “coon songs” is given this strange, unenlightening definition: “White American Negro (Black) folksongs.”

All of these supposed defects could serve as take-off points for lively classroom discussions, encouraging students to identify problems in the text and propose or research solutions. We thereby strengthen our students’ ability to communicate clearly and confidently with their intended audiences, instead of fearfully navigating obstacle courses of linguistic and cultural rules … or forgetting those rules altogether three seconds after they close the book.


Аракин В.Д. и др. Практический курс английского языка. 4 курс. М:ВЛАДОС, 2003. 352 стр.
Denham, K. and Lobeck, A. Linguistics for Everyone: An Introduction. Boston: Cengage Learning, 2012. 576 стр.
Maurer, J. Three questions about cheating // Диалог языков и культур в современном мире / Материалы Четвертой Международной научно-практической конференции. Электросталь: Новый гуманитарный институт, 2014. с. 88-93.
Pinker, S. The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century. / Электронная версия. New York: Penguin Books, 2014. 368 стр.
Pinker, S. [Электронный ресурс] Many of the alleged rules of writing are actually superstitions // Guardian 6 октября 2014 / URL www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2015/oct/06/steven-pinker-alleged-rules-of-writing-superstitions ссылка проверена 24 ноября 2015).
Pinker, S. [Электронный ресурс] 10 grammar rules it’s OK to break (sometimes) // Guardian 15 августа 2014 / URL www.theguardian.com/books/2014/aug/15/steven-pinker-10-grammar-rules-break ссылка проверена 24 ноября 2015.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Group 401: We're meeting this week on WEDNESDAY, fourth period

(... but, unfortunately, Judy will be away. I hear that her visit to Cuba is going well.)

Please bring your Arakin textbook with you and any questions you might have about usage, context, and so on. We also plan to use a Fractured Fairy Tale to consider some excellent phrasal verbs, and we'll finish the Richard Branson interview. If we have time, I'm bringing a wonderful song as well.

We'll have our weekly tea and conversation hour directly after the class.

In the meantime, HAPPY WOMEN'S DAY! Here's Koko Taylor to help celebrate.