Archive for the ‘writing’ Category

I’ve been sitting here at home, pretty much self-quarantined since mid-February, wondering what I could do. I’m officially considered elderly (by everyone but me!); I have a compromised immune system; and these days, am dealing with a torn meniscus while I go through some cataract surgery and dental treatment that got delayed during the lock-down. Why the torn meniscus had to show up in the middle of all this, I don’t know – but a steroid shot in the knee has provided some relief, though I’ve learned that’s nothing you want to volunteer for lightly.
And yesterday, finally, I realized there are small things I can do – things I was already doing in the pandemic, but that now take on a new meaning and a new tone with our country exploding in pain. Among other things, I’m an online tutor for college students. We never see each other, but sometimes we’ll have live text chats or audio chats over the computer as we go through a student’s work. I never know who’s going to log on – the system serves universities all over the country.
Yesterday, one of my favorite students returned for a session. She has a fantastic sense of humor and we get along really well. As we were wrapping things up, I said, “I sure hope no one is making rotten comments to you just because you’re Chinese,” and she said thank you, and told me that was sweet. I realized the smallest of comments can go a long way.
No, I don’t know if a student who logs on is African American. I can pretty well figure out quickly if English is not their first language, but as for skin color – never quite sure unless they happen to say something. We aren’t allowed to ask or exchange any personal information. But in these very trying times, every so often I can figure out a way to inject a little extra kindness into a discussion or into my written reviews; I can inject a little extra encouragement, something positive in that student’s day. There are often lots of clues as to a person’s ethnicity and previous level of education. One of the advantages of not being able to see a student is that I can jump right over those clues and just plunge in, with the assumption that the student is a perfectly reasonable person trying his or her best to get an education and move forward in life. I assume it’s someone who can make a go of things given a little bit of hope.
So that’s my mission. I mean, I dearly love nagging people about spelling, grammar, vocabulary and punctuation; I get off on it. That’s my obsessive/compulsive side. But the sweetest rewards are when a struggling student – especially someone who plainly hasn’t had a good education until now, and who struggles with the language – says, “Thank you so much. You’ve really helped.”
And then what the hell does color matter? And why did it ever?

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The question mark on the title is because I’m hoping it’s not true.

I frequently told my students that the first thing any dictator (or would-be dictator) does is go after the intellectuals, destroy knowledge, and prohibit free speech. I told them their education was the one single thing that no one, ever, could take away from them. I was thinking of Mao Zedong’s “Cultural Revolution” years ago in China when I said that, and of similar instances in other countries throughout history. I  didn’t have a sense then of anything similar happening in this country, but I wanted the students to know the difference between what they had available here and what people in some other countries – such as North Korea today – didn’t have.

And yet in such a very short span of time, here we are – running into it headlong.

Those of you who have followed me on Facebook or even Twitter are probably aware that I’m avidly following the journey of Paul Salopek as he walks “Out of Eden.”  As National Geographic describes his journey on that same page, “Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and National Geographic Fellow Paul Salopek is retracing our ancestors’ ancient migration on foot out of Africa and across the globe. His 21,000-mile, multiyear odyssey began in Ethiopia—our evolutionary “Eden”—in January 2013 and will end at the tip of South America.”

Mr. Salopek often combines observations about our current western world with thoughts about the history of the places he walks. In the December 2017 issue of National Geographic, he write Part Six of his story, reporting from the Old Silk Road, a network of routes stretching from Kazakhstan to Uzbekistan and beyond in Central Asia. The Old Silk Road routes are ancient, used 2500 years ago for trade between China and the Roman Empire.

He is walking through a Muslim world, and writes, “The paradox of Islamic extremism today if that the historical caliphate that jihadists so desperately wish to resurrect would likely repel them. At the height of its power in the Middle Ages, the Muslim world flourished precisely because it wasn’t fundamentalist – it was tolerant, open, inquiring. The freewheeling and polyglot spirit of the Silk Road was one key to this. ‘Central Asia was a major center of learning at that time,’ says Shakzukhmilzzo Ismailov, a historian at the Khorezm Mamun Academy museum in Uzbekistan. ‘We produced many world-class scientists.’

“…But my interest in the region stretches back earlier – to a period spanning the eights to the 15th centuries,” Salopek writes. “At that time Silk Road entrepôts (ports, cities or trading posts) …rivaled or even outstripped Europe in intellectual achievement. This was the Arab Golden Age of science, art and culture…”

He goes on to describe specific achievements of the era, saying “The Silk Road’s noisy bazaars of alien products and ideas – Renaissance European, ancient Greek, Indian, Persian, Chinese – stoked this intellectual explosion. So did a new school of religious thought…which injected rationalism and logic into religious doctrine, fanning scientific inquiry. ‘There were practical reasons too,’ Gavkhar Jurdieva, an architect in Khiwa, tells me. ‘To survive in this desert you need farming. And to farm, you need to understand irrigation, and that requires engineering. We used math to feed ourselves.'”

Ultimately, Salopek writes, “It wouldn’t hold. Weakened by dynastic struggles,the caliphate began to crack at the edges. A purifying movement called Asharism took root against ‘outside elements’ of thought: This smothered most fields of scholarly research beyond religious study. The Mongols sacked Baghdad in 1258. The lights of a gilded era blinked out.”

As he watches modern-day tourists in the region, Salopek continues, “…I think about how few people in the world today know how a light bulb works. About the willful ignorance behind climate change denial. About the closing of the public imagination in the West and the resurgence of populism, of tribal nativism. It is an instructive time to be rambling the Silk Road.”

He wonders if, as Kublai Khan once asked of Marco Polo, our journey takes place only in the past.






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Jordan’s story

Jordan's winning photo

This is the photo that resulted in Jordan being named one of 10 finalists word-wide – and the only one from North America – in Sony’s international student photography contest.  Marylhurst University is extremely proud! Copyright Jordan VanSise, 2014.

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I’ve hammered my online students about their grammar, spelling and punctuation to the point that I’m sure they’d want to throw spitballs if we were in the same room together.

This book review and the author’s responses – http://bit.ly/hAwofG –  make me cringe.  This poor misguided author self-published her book and apparently waited for the accolades to roll in.  What she got instead was a reviewer  speaking the truth and asking her to face reality, which she seems either unable or unwilling to do.  She still swears by the quality of her writing.  The fact that her many e-mails in outraged response to the reviewer display even more typos and even more examples of bad grammar and bad writing just compound her original errors.  I end up wondering why on earth she would subject herself to such humiliation rather than crawl back into her home, work on her writing skills for a few years, then try again.

I’ve always thought that to write is to open a vein in your arm and let it bleed – in public.  You have to be ready, and brave; you must have something so finely crafted that even if people don’t really like it, at least they can’t tear it apart based on the most fundamental aspects of sentence structure and clarity.

I’m very gratified to read some of the responses to this author; certainly there are still people out there who care about the language.

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