Confessions of a Lapsed Grammar Cop

You know those people who, when faced with an offensive comment on the Internet, will point out its flaws in grammar and spelling rather than respond to the content? Yeah, I used to be one of those people. In my youth, I cherished my St. Martin’s Handbook as a Bible of all things grammar, and I took great pride in knowing all the comma rules by heart. I remember an assignment in sixth grade English in which we had to give a speech about our pet peeve. I chose improper grammar as my peeve. I took great delight in jumping on incorrect “your” usage anywhere I saw it, and I just devoured Eats, Shoots & Leaves.

Fortunately, that phase ended for me at about the same time I signed up for facebook, back in 2007. I dodged a bullet. Maybe it was coincidence, but maybe it was just disinterest after finding out that the Internet was full of people who cared much more ferociously about grammar than I did, unlike my southwestern Pennsylvania high school. I was a grammar hipster.

Whatever the reason, it’s come as a somewhat nasty surprise this year to find that I can’t instinctively explain to my students here why a comma is needed somewhere. Too often my attempt at an explanation ends with, “It just feels right.” But it doesn’t feel right to use my Native Speaker Card to finish discussions like that. It feels like cheating. So, I’ve turned to the one grammar handbook I have here, the oft-touted Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style. And oh my gosh, I wish I’d read it when I was younger! It has an elegance and a cheeky pretension that I would have loved back then. For example:

An expression sometimes merely enjoys a vogue, much as an article of apparel does. Like has long been widely misused by the illiterate; lately it has been taken up by the knowing and the well-informed, who find it catchy, or liberating, and who use it as though they were slumming. If every word or device that achieved currency were immediately authenticated, simply on the ground of popularity, the language would be as chaotic as a ball game with no foul lines. (Strunk & White 52)

But while I appreciate this book as a useful guide and a cultural artifact, I disagree violently with the sentiment that language is worth less when it doesn’t follow the rules. This attitude is a huge part of why reading comments on the Internet makes me want to vomit and/or become a hermit. The point of language is communication, and when you attack a person for every split infinitive, you’re not improving communication, you’re ending it. If I rejected anyone whose grammar wasn’t perfect here, I would have no one to talk to. I still value correctness, but I value interesting conversations more, and I think I’m a more interesting person when I’m contributing to those conversations instead of correcting them.

Just one more reason I don’t think EFL teaching is for me long-term.

Positive Vibes

Lots of happy things to share with you today!

[1] I have a confession to make. I’d been halfway considering buying a new pair of black boots for some time, something to wear to more formal occasions. I love my brown boots, but they are quite practical. Yesterday, an occasion that called for something fancier arose, and I took the opportunity to justify buying these boots:

And to pay way more for them than I have ever considered paying for footwear in America. Though, when you compare the $200 I paid for my other boots, these were a steal. I just wish I hadn’t waited til this late in the season! There have been great sales on winter shoes since after New Years, but I haven’t taken advantage of them til now. But, I’ve already worn them twice and I like them a lot, so I think I will get my money’s worth out of them. I guess I’ve become the kind of person who wears black leather heeled boots. I can’t quite compete with those Russian girls who wear six-inch stilettos on the ice, but I felt pretty badass today.

[2] My lesson plan was a hit today! It was a kind of last-minute thrown-together lesson on Mass Media, subbing for another professor who is on vacation in Spain. I wanted to talk about the media shifting from TV to the Internet, so I showed them these two clips covering the Occupy Wall Street movement last fall.

The first was coverage by ABC. The second was Dan Brown’s vlog take on it posted on YouTube. His video was particularly good, because in the second half he talks about the media shift from traditional broadcast media to social, participatory media, which was the point I wanted to get them talking about.

It was a group of fourth year students, and they were way more interested in it than I could have hoped for. I think they were surprised that I would bring in something so topical and so contemporary and so relevant to their own lives as the Internet. They were a little overwhelmed by how fast Dan Brown talks at first, but I think they were pleasantly surprised by this distinct variation from the usual language class fare. They even expressed interest in watching more of his videos. So that was unexpectedly gratifying. My fifth years are amazing, but I often feel they’re beyond my being useful to them.

[3] Ratatouille! It was totally worth it to hold out for zucchini to show up in the grocery store again instead of trying to substitute cucumbers, of which there have been an almost pathological abundance for the last month and a half. I made ratatouille tonight, my offering for the international dinner that Łukasz, Liv, Nils, and I are plotting tomorrow. I know, I know, “ratatouille” is French, but like I said to Łukasz, any food can be American. I’m also bringing back Linda Lang-Gun’s Sweet Potatoes for an encore.

The P-word

After reading 23 rough drafts from my second year students and finding just one that is [apparently] completely plagiarism-free, I decided to make the last half of today’s American Studies class about what I euphemistically called “academic culture” in the U.S. I’ve been struggling to get my head around the culture of casual plagiarism here, to see it from a less biased point of view, and understand the factors that go into making an academic environment in which the professors and administrators condemn this kind of blatant plagiarism, but in which literally 95% of students still feel comfortable simply copy/pasting their essay from Wikipedia. I framed my lecture this way:

There are two reasons you should write your paper yourself and not simply copy it:

1. The assignment was to write a paper. You have shown me that you are very good at reading, at comprehending what you read, and at choosing relevant information from what you read and putting it together. But this assignment is meant to test your writing skills, your ability to produce your own sentences and language.

2. If you go to study abroad in the United States or in Norway or Germany, you have to understand that this is taken much more seriously there. If you do this in the U.S., you get expelled. Maybe not the first time, but if you do it three or four times, you’re a goner.

That second one blew their minds. They seemed to take my talk seriously, and I tried not to make it too preachy. As I told them, I was trained from fifth grade in how to cite sources and use parenthetical documentation, and it’s not fair of me to expect them to figure it out in two weeks. But, I do expect them to produce their own sentences. So, we’ll see what I get when they turn in their final papers.


I went to the emergency response headquarters of Arkhangelsk today!

The call center workers are studying English in order to be able to respond to foreigners, and they got in contact with the English department at the university, to see if there were a native speaker who could help them out — that’s me! Today I met an Ira, three Olgas and an Anna, and they showed me around the headquarters, from the new rescue truck that they can’t use yet because it’s Czech and has to be outfitted for the severe weather in Arkhangelsk, to the rooms with bunk beds for the rescuers and firefighters to use during their twelve-hour shifts, to the honest-to-god fireman’s pole they use to get down to the trucks, to the canine unit and the rather excitable dogs who help find missing people.

It was awesome. They were all kind of shy and slow to speak as they were showing me around with their well-prepared speeches and notecards about their various units. But then we went up to the classroom and drank tea and ate candy and they asked me about America and about what other countries I’ve been to, and I asked them about what kinds of calls they get most often, how many days of vacation they get per year (40), and how many calls they get from foreigners. The answer was one. They’ve gotten one call from a foreigner ever. His phone was out of money, so the only number he could call was the emergency number, and he called to ask how to fix his phone. He spoke English, but his English was just as bad as the girl who answered the phone. So. I’m not sure why exactly they’re taking English lessons through the rescue service, but I’m not going to complain. They were all really nice and fun and I can’t wait to go back next month!

Story Map

I love maps. I don’t really understand them, and I’m not actually that good at using them, but I think they’re beautiful. They tell a story about how we think about our world, how we want it to look, where we see ourselves in connection with the rest of the world.

This week’s topic for the American Studies class I’m teaching was “Geography and Population.” No big deal. An hour should be enough to cover that, right? Right. Last week’s role-playing of the American government system proved to be enjoyable and successful as a super-condensed lesson plan, so I wanted something simple and interactive for this week as well. So I made a bunch of labels of major geographic features (Rocky Mountains, Lake Erie, Mojave Desert, etc.) and brought in my road map of the US, spread it out on a table, and invited them to gather around and figure out where everything went (with some help from me– one group guessed that the midwest was a forest).

That went well, but did not take nearly as much time as I had anticipated, so I improvised by telling them stories about everything. I told them about how horrible driving in Boston is and about the bells along the Camino Real in California. I talked about migration west and Manifest Destiny by describing the Oregon Trail computer game. I wish I could reproduce for you the gesticulations and sound effects I used to demonstrate the Gold Rush. They got a kick out of Seward’s Folly, because most of them knew that Alaska was bought from Russia. They surprised me by what they didn’t know– and what they did. Some of them had never heard of the Rockies, but one guy had heard of Jesse James, and most of them knew more about Route 66 than I do (though I am prepared to attribute that to the restaurant in Arkhangelsk called Route 66).

When we put down markers for the ten most populous cities in America, I took Los Angeles as a starting point for a story about my family’s geographic history, hopping from Arkansas to Denver to Pittsburgh, back to L.A., and then branching out to Oregon, Rhode Island, Illinois, New Mexico. They were really interested to see my family scattered across the map, but I think they were more interested because it was a story about me, a real person, instead of a list of facts about a monolith on the other side of the globe.

And the questions they had! They all wanted to know, had I been to Niagara Falls? The Grand Canyon? New York City? One group asked what my favorite place in the United States was. Another group wanted to know more about the Native American genocide. I am loving this class. On the one hand, I surprised myself with how much history I spontaneously remembered (did not even look up Seward’s Folly on Wikipedia last night). But on the other hand, I am going to learn so much this semester.

In search of a key

The key situation at SAFU is pretty absurd. All classrooms and offices stay locked all the time, until someone needs to use the room and gets the key. The default location for all keys is a little office at the entrance to the building called the vakhta, which Multitran translates as “watch” or “reception desk,” but which is really a kind of troll at the gate situation. Not to speak unkindly of the vakhtyory who work there and guard the keys– they are all perfectly pleasant. At the beginning of the day, a bunch of keys are taken to the dekanat, or dean’s office, which is now (due to renovations) on the second floor, where they sit in a little key tray made out of cardboard. The keys to some of the department offices, as well as many classrooms (but not all of them) are there for most of the day, and anyone, student or teacher, can go and get [almost] any key.

Even though last week was the official start of classes for students not in night classes, there weren’t that many teachers around in my department, or kafedra, due to the fact that the third years [I think] were on some sort of vacation, and a lot of teachers were on a different kind of vacation. There were several days I found myself the only English teacher in the building. Usually, the secretary opens the office on the third floor first thing in the morning, but she is also [maybe] on vacation, so it fell to me to find the key. A simple feat, one might think, but alas, it was not so. Apart from improving my Russian language skills, I have had to learn a whole new visual language of the kafedra key. Here, for your edification, is a basic phrasebook of key language:

  • Padlock on the door means no one has been there yet, and the key is [probably] still at the vakhta. You must go back down to the first floor to ask for it.
  • If the door is locked but the padlock is not there, someone has been here and has taken the key with them. A piece of paper stuck to the door will [probably] tell you what room they are in. It’s fine to interrupt their class in order to get the key from them.
  • If there is no one in the room indicated by the paper on the door, try the dekanat.
  • If it is not in the dekanat either, check the teachers’ lounge, the American Studies center, and the German kafedra. Sometimes people decide that those places are default locations for the key, or the secretary takes it there for a short break.
  • If it’s not in any of those places, go to the fourth floor and prowl for any English class. The teacher there probably has it and just didn’t mark their room number on the door. (This happens most often in the evening, but can happen during the day as well.)

Once I’ve found the key to the kafedra, there is still the matter of the classroom. Russian universities don’t work like American ones, where you have the same class in the same room every week. Room assignments change from day to day and week to week, all dictated by the dean’s office and announced each day on a posterboard schedule hanging in the hallway outside the English kafedra. Ostensibly this has to do with the general lack of classroom space and resources such as TVs and rooms with screens for projectors. But in practice, I’m often assigned a room with a TV when I don’t need one– and sometimes I don’t get a TV when I do need one, even when I’ve asked for it.

For example, last week I requested a room with a TV for my video class. But, because the class is still listed under Elena’s name, instead of mine, they weren’t able to give me what I asked for. So, I was left TV-less for the day. In a moment of inspired resourcefulness, I remembered that I’d used the flatscreen TV in the teachers’ lounge for this class before, checked the schedule to see if anybody else was assigned that room for that period, and quietly told the students to go there, without asking or telling anyone else. Success!

Earlier in the week, I was assigned the Swedish room, whose key, unbeknownst to me, can only be obtained by a teacher. Usually the students get the key and congregate in the classroom before I even get there. Not this time! In a crazy, haphazard, rule-free system, this one key has a special note on it warning that only teachers may touch it. And then, later, I was assigned a room that remained inexplicably locked despite the students’ efforts. I went to the dekanat; no key. I went to the vakhta, where I was informed that the room was the personal office of Andrea, the German teacher, and that they had a special note saying that only she could be given that key. I went back to the dekanat and explained this to them, to discover that they thought I was Andrea the German. They gave me a different room.

Dealing with this very free-form system is its own special kind of frustration, but offers its own special sense of satisfaction when conquered–especially when once you get inside the classrooms, you have the kind of engaging, enthusiastic, productive classes I was lucky to have this week. This semester is already looking good!

the English kafedra

So much I never knew about Groundhog Day!

I couldn’t pass up on the chance to share this bizarre American tradition in my night class today. My Pennsylvania spirit came out full force. And what fodder I got from the Groundhog Day website! I had no idea it was so thorough, so whimsical, so made of awesome. I only had one student, but I had her read the FAQ about Punxsutawney Phil and the Groundhog Day tradition, which includes such gems as

How often is Phil’s prediction correct? 100% of the time, of course!

How many “Phils” have there been over the years? There has only been one Punxsutawney Phil. He has been making predictions for over 125 years!

Punxsutawney Phil gets his longevity from drinking the “elixir of life,” a secret recipe. Phil takes one sip every summer at the Groundhog Picnic and it magically gives him seven more years of life.

Priceless! You never think about how wonderful and hilarious and stupid and treasured your own traditions are until you hold them up to the skepticism and rationality of your Russian students. After we read the FAQ and speculated about the veracity of its writers, we watched this newsclip:

To her credit, my one student expressed just as much skepticism about these reporters’ reactions to Phil as to the Inner Circle’s lavishing praise upon him. In any case, I certainly learned a lot about the history of my own state today, such as the fact that Groundhog Day has been celbrated since 1887! And that it has its origins in Candlemas traditions brought by the first Pennsylvanians (If we can believe anything that site says, that is).

We tried to watch the live stream (seriously, they have a freaking live stream of the events!) at around 3 pm, which would have been 6 am EST, when the festivities supposedly began, but it didn’t work, whether because my Internet was too slow, or there were too many people tuning in. I know a lot of people were probably glued to their computer screens, eager to find out the prediction! Later, I learned that he did indeed see his shadow, so there will be six more weeks of winter. Do you think that applies only to America? Or can I take this as a worldwide prediction? Honestly, I think only six more weeks of winter would be getting off easy up here in the Arctic.

I was slightly ashamed to admit, when a colleague asked, that I have never been to the Groundhog Day festivities myself, even thought Punxsutawney is only, like, two hours away from Greensburg. Someday! It’s on my bucket list! And now that I’ve dealt with -22° (that’s Fahrenheit, not Celsius, kids!), whatever weather Pennsylvania throws at me in early February should be a breeze.

Coming soon: Eurovision and Dima Bilan!