things best not said

A polite person knows some things are best not said. Unsolicited comments about a stranger’s looks or how bad the food tastes when one is invited to dinner at a friend’s house. The old joke in which a wife asks her husband if he likes her new dress or her new hairdo probably fits in here somewhere inasmuch as speaking the truth in such matters is dangerous.

One of the things best not said–it took me a while to learn this and I still haven’t learned it–is telling your parents (who have both taught writing in high school and college) that you don’t understand why you have to take English classes in high school and college. When my parents asked why, for a prospective writer, my grades in English courses were lower than they were in other courses, I said that I seldom paid attention and that when I did, I didn’t agree with my teachers.

E.g., I thought diagramming sentencers was crap. So I never did it well. And my grades reflected this.

My example to my parents was that since my Spanish teacher’s children were bilingual, they were not expected to take basic Spanish courses because they were already fluent. My folks thought that made sense. Then I said, I’m already fluent in English. Why am I forced to take it?

The first answer was that taking it made me better and the second answer was that, like many liberal arts courses, English courses taught people how to think. I might have said that I was already fluent in thinking, though what they meant was organizing one’s thoughts, creating a hypothesis, and defending it. I agreed that was important, suggesting that rhetoric was the place or such things, and possibly courses with titles like advanced exposition. The trouble was, basic English courses were always part of one’s general education requirements and were prerequisites to the advanced English department courses.

Why can’t I just talk to the teacher for 30 minutes to show I’m already fluent, get an exemption, and move forward? This argument never went anywhere because putting it into practice was like fighting city hall.

I was always a rebel. Still am. I still don’t like the English requirement for native speakers of English or the habit of literature teachers basing their approach to novels by forcing us to accept what they think each novel means rather than on what we get out of reading it. There’s a reason I think why most college graduates read very little as adults: the lit courses ruined it for them.

I taught college-level journalism for several years. One thing I knew better than to tell my department hard was that I really resented having those courses placed within the English department. They belonged in a journalism department. And, as I taught students how to write news stories and features stories, I grew tired of “fixing” the problems that had infected them from English 101 and 102. The fact that I grew tired of  the 101 and 102 BS was another thing best not said.

In the old days, a liberal arts degree was considered valuable to prospective employees in many careers. It got you in the door. Now, more people are taking a technical school approach and asking why they can’t just take the courses they need to excel in their career of choice. My thought is that approach will keep you from learning anything about civics, history, and the other disciplines that make us (so to speak) well-rounded citizens. If “they” asked me, I would say stop teaching English to those who are already fluent in it: what kind of joke is that?

“They” never ask me and I’m not surprised.

–Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell

Publisher: Thomas-Jacob Publishing

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Oh no: Somebody kicks open a classroom door and shoots the teacher

In these messed-up times of school shooters, one might believe an active crime scene is in progress if somebody kicks open a classroom door and shoots the teacher. It’s hard to imagine now that people kicking open the doors of an English or journalism class were doing it on the teacher’s behalf to prove how unreliable eyewitness testimony is.

I’d heard about the practice from my father who was a college journalism dean. So I was surprised when my college English teacher did it. I knew the minute the door flew open that the entire argument and shooting were a staged event, so I took notes while it happened rather than doing the natural thing by just trying to stay out of the way.

Eyewitness testimony seems like it should be flawless. English teachers don’t care about the science behind the reason why such testimony is usually terrible even though it puts a lot of people in jail.

After the “bad guy” left the classroom and the professor stood up and said, “No, I really didn’t get shot,” he asked us to spend the next 20 minutes (without consulting any other student) writing down what happened. Of course, the professor knew what happened: he had a script. The video camera in the back of the room “knew” what happened because it had a tape of the event.

Each of us was asked to stand up and read our account of the event. Suffice it to say, what we think we saw was wildly different. Then the professor played the videotape, proving–with a smirk–that most of the students didn’t have a flue what happened.

In “real life,” my professor didn’t have a globe.

My account was spot on. The professor was ticked off and asked how I perfectly recorded the sequence of events correctly. I told him that his little skit was as old as the hills so the minute it started I knew it wasn’t real. I took notes rather than reacting.

He wanted to give me an F for “cheating,” but he just couldn’t quite do it, and–in fact–he seemed relieved that I wasn’t calm and cool under fire because I was a macho cop but because I knew I was basically watching a play.

The other students were not astonished when I turned out to be the “perfect” eyewitness; they were not only embarrassed because they had not only been fooled by a skit but couldn’t even remember what really happened.

Naturally, no teacher would create such a skit today unless s/he left out the guns and the threats. So maybe some guy just kicks open the classroom door and says, “I ain’t got no bananas” and then gets into an argument with somebody who supposedly ordered them on his/her cell phone. Lacks punch, doesn’t it?

What the teacher proved, and what many defense attorneys would like to prove, is what effective authors already know: seeing is not believing. Knowing this, we can stage our short story and novel scenes accordingly. We can use to our advantage the characters’ probably faulty memory–as well as the readers’.

Malcolm

The tag line on Campbell’s website is “In Magic is the Preservation of the World.” That tells you all you need to know about his novels.