• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.

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Friday Fragments

A salute, fun with grammar and a long train home.

November 22, 2019
 
 

This has been burning up the interwebs for all the right reasons. A tip o’ the cap to Lauren Robel, EVP and provost at Indiana University at Bloomington. It’s her response to some hateful, stupid, racist statements by a tenured professor there.

The really impressive part, beyond grasping the concept that process and substance are worth keeping separate, is the way the school is basically quarantining the professor in question. He’s not being fired, but he is being shunned in really conspicuous ways. The university is publicly and obviously holding its nose while employing him.

The mandatory double-blind grading is a nice touch, and something that could make sense in far more contexts. The university will also run alternative sections for everything he teaches. Admittedly, I’m jealous of an institution that has enough resources to be able to run duplicate sections of everything a given professor teaches. But it’s probably cheaper than defending the inevitable lawsuit if they fired him, and it gives students who understandably don’t trust him a chance to avoid him entirely. If he gets tired of the scarlet letter and resigns, well, that’s fine, too.

This is exceedingly well played. From one CAO to another, nicely done.

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At a function this week, a colleague and I got the chance to nerd out about grammar. It’s good for the soul.

Anyone who tried to eavesdrop deserved what they got.

We agreed on the virtues of the Oxford comma, so that gave us some common ground. I admitted to a fondness for semicolons, which shouldn’t surprise longtime readers; she seemed a bit more skeptical of them, though she conceded that it’s great fun in a showoffy way to build lists that use semicolons to separate items that contain their own commas. (By this point, I’m pretty sure even the NSA would have stopped listening.) She’s much more profligate in her use of exclamation points than I am, but she makes it work.

I made an impassioned pitch for varying the length of paragraphs, analogizing the process to syncopation. She came back strong with a principled position against “font shaming,” which led to a digression on the rehabilitation of Comic Sans. (Apparently, Comic Sans is the easiest font for dyslexic people to read, since it doesn’t rely on interchangeable parts among letters. That’s part of what makes it well suited for posters.) She asked my view on starting sentences with “And,” with a strong suggestion of disapproval; I countered with a distinction between relatively informal writing, like blogs, and more formal writing. It’s OK in the former, but not in the latter, and almost never as the first word of a paragraph. Not sure I sold that one.

As a theoretical matter, I admit finding descriptivist arguments for language generally more convincing than prescriptivist ones, but I don’t think that rules out having fun with old rules. To return to the music metaphor, I don’t see the contradiction between allowing that there’s a nearly infinite variety of musical styles, each with its own merits, and still shuddering when something is off-key.

Wise and worldly readers, what’s your favorite grammatical quirk?

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The Boy will be home for Thanksgiving in a few days. It’ll be his first time home since August.

Prior to leaving for college, the longest he had ever been away from home was a week. This is a different thing entirely. He loves college and seems to be throwing himself into it in the right ways. And I’m thrilled for him to see him stretch his wings.

But for a little while next week, I’ll be selfishly glad to have him around again.

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