Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Stress of Mediocrity

Grad school wasn’t easy for me. Nearly all the students were twenty-two; I was eleven years older. Moreover, during the fifties, I’d attended a small Catholic college in Kansas. Now it was 1969, and I was still a hick, totally out of my element.
            One story suffices to illustrate this. For each of four quarters, the American studies program required all graduate students to attend a weekly seminar. The text we studied contained essays by a wide variety of philosophers, social scientists, and other pundits from varied disciplines. They examined the ideas, inventions, and happenings that had influenced American culture.       

            Mary Turpie, head of the program, facilitated these roundtable discussions. I greatly respected her. Unsure of myself, I longed for her approval. Despite that, I seldom spoke in the seminars. The other students proposed concepts that were beyond me. They argued passionately, with great certainty. I felt like a bumbling child in their midst. And so, not wanting them to see just how stupid I was, I said nothing.
            This went on for nearly a year. Then, at a seminar in the third quarter, one of the female students made a definitive statement about the essay we’d read for that class. I listened closely to her argument. When she finished expounding, I felt sure I understood her point of view.
            Across the room, a young man began to speak. Ah! I thought, what he’s saying is the exact opposite of what she said. What a discussion we’ll have!
            As he ended his monologue, I prepared myself for a debate about the differences between these two opinions. To my amazement, the young woman said, “That’s just what I was saying! We’re in sync.” The other students nodded their agreement.
            I sat, befuddled. I’d listened closely, thought I heard two different viewpoints, expected a great discussion—and all along their positions had been the same. Unquestionably, I wasn’t meant for graduate school. I didn’t have the necessary brain cells.
            The next day, Ms. Turpie summoned me to her office. I was sure she'd suggest I drop out of grad school. What a disappointment I must be to her. Always before, I’d enjoyed sitting next to her desk to discuss the next classes I’d be taking. Always she spoke softly. Listened intently, her head slightly tilted. She reminded me of a true lady.
            At these meetings, she never offered a snack, but in my imagination I saw her sitting forward on a floral couch offering me a cup of oolong tea and a warm scone, oozing butter.

            That day, she wore a straight gray skirt and a white blouse with a Peter Pan collar. Over that she wore a forest green cardigan with the top button fastened. On her feet were brown low-heeled shoes.
            We looked at one another for a moment. Then she quietly asked, “Dee, why don’t you ever speak up in our seminars?”
            “I have nothing to say.”
            “My dear, you have so much to offer those younger students. You’ve taught in all kinds of classrooms. You’ve been in the convent. You’ve worked at editing and publishing. You been in the inner city and taught students there. You have a great interest in black history and linguistics. And you have, I think, a fierce sense of justice.”
            All she said might be true, but in my mind it had little to do with knowing what to say in her seminars.
            “You have so much to offer,” she continued, “so why don’t you? You could help these students understand life in a broader sense. Their experience is narrow. Insular.”
             Sighing, I reminded her of the seminar the previous day. She nodded encouragingly as I recounted the exchange between the two students.
            “And what did you conclude from that?” she asked.
            “I’m stupid.”
            “No, you were right. They did make opposite points.”
            “Then why did they say they agreed?”
            “I think she wants to date him.”
            My mouth fell open. I’m sure I gaped at her. Dating? That was a reason for denying what you’d just said and agreeing with some boy? Dating?
            “Why would you think you’re stupid?” Ms. Turpie asked.
            “Well listen to them. They use big words. I don’t even know those words.”
            “Like what?”
            I gave her examples. She nodded and then, this woman, this lady, who looked as if she ate scones and drank tea and read Agatha Christie mysteries, said, “Dee, what you need to realize is that all they say is mostly b-s.”
            Again, I gaped, then giggled, and finally guffawed. To hear that lady use that term made my year.
            Ms. Turpie grinned. Then she, too, broke out laughing.
            I stayed in grad school. Who could resist the lure of such a program director?

Room by nokhoog_buchachon
Scones by Clare Bloomfield
Both from freedigitalphotos.net

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Laughter in the Classroom

Graduate school was more than becoming involved in the peace movement, protesting the Vietnam War, and having two students take over a history classroom. In the midst of all this I took three classes a quarter. One of these was a literature course in which I studied the works of Hermann Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne.

            The professor who taught this class was in a publish-or-perish mode. To receive tenure he needed to publish a scholarly work the following year. As the class progressed, it became clear he was writing on the “heart of darkness” delineated by Hawthorne in his short stories and novels. 
            His teaching revealed his philosophy of education, and I didn’t agree with it. He would laugh at students’ responses, belittling them with a snide remark. Soon many students ceased responding to his questions.
            However, three female students in the second row seemed to have psyched out what he was looking for in a response. When they answered, he’d frequently wave them to a halt. “Wait! Wait a minute,” he’d implore, “while I write this down.”
            Then he’d pick up his notebook and transcribe their answers. This was, we all knew, the notebook in which he kept the jottings that would ultimately become part of his proposed book.
            The favored student would complete the convoluted answer. The professor would tap his pencil against the notepad and proclaim, “That’s the kind of answer that leads us deeper into the darkness of Hawthorne!”
            As weeks passed, I became more disillusioned with his teaching. I was learning about two great American authors, but this learning was happening in a classroom in which the professor displayed no respect for his students. He built no community among us.
            One day the professor told us that a student had complained about his teaching methods. “So what do you think?” he asked us. “Do you think I’m a good teacher?” Immediately, the favored ones assured him that he made learning interesting. He was brilliant. Articulate. Truly gifted. He beamed. They continued with their accolades. The other students looked down at their textbooks, awaiting the bell’s release.
            Finally, I’d heard enough. When I raised my hand, he called on me. I said something like the following, “Professor XX, it’s clear you know your subject matter. But when students respond to questions, you frequently laugh at their answers.”
            “Laugh? I don’t do that.” Then, glancing at the second row, he laughed aloud. When he looked beyond those three females, however, he saw that many other students had turned toward me with the thumbs up of approval.
            He looked confused. Bewildered. “I don’t do that!” he insisted. “What you say is ridiculous. Silly.” One again he laughed at the absurdity of my claim.
            “You’re doing it now. You’re laughing at what I said.”
            “That’s because it’s ridiculous,” he sniggered.
            The bell rang. All the students, I among them, rose to leave the room. Several thanked me for expressing their own concerns. Together, we observed the professor leave the building. He looked beaten.
            Studying at the library later that morning, I considered what I’d said. I hadn’t wanted to attack him personally. I’d wanted only to suggest that he consider his teaching style. I walked across campus to his office, knocked, and was told to enter.

            I opened the door. The professor sat behind a desk in the corner of the room. He looked up, rose abruptly, scuttled behind his chair, and backed into the shadowed corner.             
           “Please don’t shoot me,” he begged. “I’m sorry I laughed. Don’t hurt me!”
            The light bulb went off in my brain. Just a few days before two protesters had brandished guns and taken over a history classroom. Now, as the literature professor cowered before me, I witnessed the reverberations of that incident.
            “Professor XX, I don’t have a gun.” I held out my gun-less hands toward him.
            He shook his head back and forth, clearly distraught. His eyes pleaded with me.
            “I want you to know,” I said, “that I wasn’t talking about you personally today. I was talking about your style of teaching. It’s hurtful.”
            “I’ll give you an A,” he muttered. “Just don’t shoot me.” He reached for his grade book.
            “Listen to me! I don’t have a gun. I just want you to think about how you treat students. That’s all. Just think about what we feel like when you laugh.”
            He laughed then. Somewhat manically. And I left.
            As to his subsequent teaching . . . during the next week, he was somewhat obsequious in the classroom. The following week, less so. The third week, he was back to laughing at our answers. In the long run, nothing changed.
            As to my grade . . . I got a B.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Talk the Talk; Walk the Walk

(Continued from Saturday . . . )
My friends Jeanne and Jim became peaceful protesters of the Vietnam War in the mid-sixties. I didn’t become involved until attending the University of Minnesota in 1969-1971. There I met a returning vet whose story of rejection by fellow students angered me.
            I got involved then, hoping to convince others that we needed to end the war and welcome home the returning veterans with the recognition they deserved. The truth is that while I joined the peace movement, I never found a way to truly honor those who fought in that Southeast Asian war.
            By the spring of 1970, a group of concerned citizens in Minneapolis had produced informative leaflets on the war. I joined this group. After my last class at the university each day, I’d pick up a handful of leaflets at the central office and be given a route to walk. Then I’d ride a city bus to my assigned area and begin. The people I met had varied views of the war—for and against. Year by year, the Gallup polls revealed the public’s growing disillusionment with it.
         From a Wikipedia article, I’ve gleaned the following statistics about the waning support for the war:

·      The 1966 Gallup poll showed that 59% Americans believed that sending troops to Vietnam was not a mistake. Among the age group of 21–29, 71% believed it was not a mistake compared to 48% of those over 50.
·      In June 1966, the poll respondents supporting the U.S. handling of the war slipped to 41%; 37% expressed disapproval; the rest, no opinion.
·      By July 30, 1967, the poll reported 52% of Americans disapproved of Johnson's handling of the war; 41% thought the U.S. made a mistake in sending troops; over 56% thought the U.S. was losing the war or at an impasse.
·      In March 1968, the poll reported that 49% of respondents felt involvement in the war was an error.
·      By July 1969, the poll indicated that 53% of the respondents approved of Nixon's handling of the war; 30% disapproved; the balance had no opinion.
·      By end of 1969, 69% of students identified themselves as doves.
·      In May 1970, the poll showed that 56% of the public believed that sending troops to Vietnam was a mistake, 61% of those over 50 expressed that belief compared to 49% of those between the ages of 21–29.

            Thus, a number of people who answered the doors on which I knocked already wanted the war to end. However, others strongly supported its continuance. For example, one man said, “We need a war to have full employment. Without it, what would we do to keep the economy going?”
            The leaflets I held provided information about future jobs. Unfortunately, the leaflet’s author couldn’t foresee the technological revolution of the 1980s and ‘90s. The jobs mentioned—mostly environmental—didn’t convince anyone that the economy would grow if we weren’t at war.
            For several weeks, I distributed leaflets. At one house, an angry man sicked his German shepherd on me. The dog chased me down a whole city block. Only at its master’s whistled command did the dog stop snapping at my heels.
            A second irate homeowner aimed a twelve-gauge shotgun at me. “If you’re not out of my yard by the time I count three,” he shouted, “you’ve have holes peppering your lungs!” He paused a nanosecond, then muttered, “One!”
            Frightened, I rushed toward his picket fence, flung open the gate, and stumbled onto the sidewalk, just as he bellowed, “Three!” Racing toward the corner, I heard him laughing. Having dogs sicked on me and guns drawn happened more than once.
            Much of this changed on May 4, 1970, when the Ohio National Guard fired into a protesting group at Kent State University. Four students were killed and nine wounded, one suffering permanent paralysis. This caused an uproar on every campus in the United States. Quickly, students organized peaceful marches in many cities throughout the United States.

            On the designated day, I joined tens of thousands of students. We marched from Minneapolis to the Capitol in St. Paul. A sense of purpose and camaraderie united us. The shooting at Kent State, which some were already calling a “massacre,” kept us marching mile after mile, determined to end the war.
                                                                        (Continued on Saturday . . . )
Both photographs from Wikipedia.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Deep Commitment

(Continued from Tuesday . . . )
I found my first post-convent job in January 1967. Through my work, I met a couple who were already protesting the Vietnam War. One day each week, no matter what the season, they stood for an hour—in complete and utter silence—in front of the army recruiting office in downtown Dayton. Many others stood with them. Their silence spoke volumes.

You may wonder why I wasn’t standing there. I have no ready answer. Perhaps I was caught up in a freedom I hadn’t known in nine years. The people I met differed from those with whom I’d lived in the convent. They both intrigued and flummoxed me. The protesting couple did both.
Let’s call them Jim and Jeanne. Younger than I, they had three children, who ranged in age from a few months to about eight years. Jim, a master of understatement, had a wry sense of humor. He’d say something offhandedly; I’d miss the joke. His eyes would gleam. Suddenly I’d catch on and giggle.        
Somewhat sardonic about life, Jim was cynical about government and its underlying motives. But he was gentle with his children and interested in new ideas and new ways of looking at things.
Jeanne was what we now call “a stay-at-home mom.” Tall and lean, with a wide smile, she sprinkled four-letter words throughout a conversation. Prude that I was, I found this off-putting. Judgmental as I was, I thought she wasn’t a nice person—like myself of course. Not even my father when he’d had too much to drink had ever used those offensive words around me.
In fact, Mom and Dad had never allowed my brother or me to use even the mildest cuss words. They forbade “Hell” and “Damn.” When angry, Mom would say, “Oh fiddle-de-dee.” Once when teaching in Baileyville, Kansas, I dropped a pile of books on the floor. “Oh, fiddle-de-dee!” I muttered.
Good-humoredly, a student shouted, “When you say that, Sister Innocence, you’re really saying, ‘Damn’! Admit it! We all know it!”  The class laughed gleefully and so did I. He was right.
But I wasn’t able to laugh about Jeanne’s language. Hearing it, I found her wanting. Then life intervened. We were at parties together. She lived next to another couple who’d become my good friends. In other words, we were “thrown together.” And so the learning began.
Slowly I realized that first impressions are often useless and wide of the mark. She was the most tolerant, giving, accepting, open-minded person I’ve ever known. Her heart was open to the needs of others. She might drolly say something that started with a four-letter word but what followed was to the point. Her conversation encapsulated common sense. Soon, instead of flummoxing me, she intrigued me with her broad-mindedness. I found myself wanting to be more like her, just without the four-letter words.
            These then were the two friends who stood each week in front of the army recruitment center—in silence. They spouted no words. They placed no blame. They threatened no misdeeds. They simply stood. And their presence was powerful.
                                                            (Continued on Tuesday . . . )

Photo by dan from freedigitalphotos.com

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Becoming Politicized

(Continued from Saturday . . . )
My involvement in the Vietnam War protest began, as I explained on Saturday, while having lunch in Coffman Center at the University of Minnesota in 1970. However, it was four years earlier, in the spring of 1966, that I first learned about the entry of US military personnel into Vietnam.
            Still in the convent and teaching high school students in Baileyville, Kansas, I met Sam, a young Quaker. He taught social studies and history; I, literature and journalism. Together we directed the seniors in three plays. During lulls in play practices Sam shared news of the wider world with me. He looked askance at how the convent didn’t permit nuns to learn the news of the day.
            It was Sam who explained the whole history of our escalating involvement in Vietnam. He spoke of France and its colonization of French Indochina and of the siege of Dienbienphu in 1954—the year I graduated from high school.

            Throughout the spring of 1966, I learned more. Sam spoke of the Vietnamese peasants, Ho Chi Minh, the Viet Cong, guerrilla warfare. He detailed how the U.S. first got involved as “special advisors.” He explained “containment” and the “Domino Theory” of John Foster Dulles.
            One afternoon after classes ended for the day, Sam used a map to point out the 17th Parallel and the Gulf of Tonkin. He gave me a detailed history lesson: France leaving Vietnam in 1956; the use, by the US Air Force, of Agent Orange to defoliate the jungles so as to expose the Viet Cong; the arrival, in 1965, of the first US combat troops.
            By the time I left Baileyville in May 1966, I balked at our telling the Vietnamese people how they were to live or who was to govern them. By the following January, I was out of the convent and watching national news on television and reading editorials, newspapers, and news magazines.
            As the months passed, I observed, with great confusion, the unfolding story of Vietnam. What General Westmoreland, the politicians, and the president told the American people didn’t reflect what Sam had told me. An extremely intelligent man, he had a firm grasp of history.
            After leaving the convent, I’d checked his facts about French Indochina and its history in the 1940s, 1950s, and early 1960s. He’d been accurate in his portrayal of what had happened between France and the Vietnamese and how and why the United States got involved. 
            Slowly I realized that the president and Congress could and would lie to the American people. Or at least render the truth unclear and unintelligible to the citizens of our country. In today’s terminology, they’d “spin” the news.
            Soon I branched out to learn the differing views on the war. I did this by reading various magazines that were either right or left of our involvement. I quickly learned that what one read, what one watched on television, and what one listened to on radio was a strong influence on how one believed. To achieve a balanced view, I realized, a person had to examine both sides of any issue. That was a new thought for me. Up to then, I had simplistically believed that most issues or news stories had only one side.
            More and more I was becoming politicized. Still, I did little about my beliefs. Two friends I soon met did. I’ll introduce you to them in Saturday’s posting.
                                                (Continued on Saturday . . . )
Map from Wikipiki.           

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Meeting Angels Unaware

(Continued from Tuesday . . . )
By the spring of 1970, I’d sat in a classroom and witnessed two students protesting with guns. I’d also written letters to all the Minneapolis department stores, urging them to use black mannequins in their window and aisle displays. As well, I’d written to the two major newspapers, encouraging them to establish a policy of asking those who bought ads in their papers to employ black models.
            Now I was ready to slip quietly back into studying for my graduate degree. However, events intervened. Sharing a simple meal with a stranger led to the next step I took in working for social justice.
            One early spring day, while I was eating lunch in Coffman Center at the University of Minnesota, a young man sat down next to me. At the time, I was thirty-four. He was probably all of twenty-two. He diffidently revealed that he was a vet, had been home from Vietnam only a few short weeks, and now wanted to get his education. He spoke hesitantly of his time in that far away place.

            The wariness on his face told me he wasn’t sure how I’d respond to his being a vet. He’d met, as had I, a number of young men and women on campus who stridently disliked those who’d gone to Vietnam to fight. These other young people mocked the returning vets for letting themselves be misled. They accused them of being too stupid to realize that the government and the military had lied to them.
            As he spoke, I remembered the two protesters with the guns shouting that poor whites and poor blacks were fighting the war. To judge by his lunch, this young man clearly didn’t have much money. Perhaps he was one of the poor who had fought in Vietnam. Fortunately he hadn’t died there, but had returned home—possibly to poverty.
            What a return. To scorn and taunts. 
            I knew that some soldiers in Vietnam had been drafted. Of these, surely some weren't impoverished. I didn’t understand the ins and outs of all this, but I did know that this young man had been denounced for, as he said, “fighting for my country.”
            As we talked, I got more and more angry. I remembered the students I’d taught in the inner city. Would the war still be raging when those seventh grade boys turned eighteen? Would the poor of that school then become the ones fighting and dying?
         Four realizations, perhaps simplistic ones, struck me:
·      The Washington, D.C., policy makers were the ones who’s embroiled our country in the war. They’d sent young men away to fight.
·      Those who wanted to protest the war needed to protest the system and the entrenched belief in the domino theory, not the young men who’d gone off to fight. The angry—and fearful—youths were turning their backs, not on the old men who sent the young to Vietnam, but on the soldiers and vets themselves. This was unjust and wrongheaded.
·       Many young American men felt the call of patriotism and wanted to fight for their country when they thought it needed defending. They were willing to risk life and limb because of their beliefs. We needed to honor that, not ridicule it.
·      Unfortunately, going to war was a way to get a college education for someone who didn’t have money for tuition. We needed to fight poverty, not the North Vietnamese.

            In letters to the campus newspaper and to politicians in Washington I expressed my uninformed views. I also discussed my thoughts with classmates. I knew that I had no firm grasp of political science or the history of Southeast Asia. To counter this, I began to read a variety of newspapers, listen to the evening news, study the history of Vietnam. Finally, however, I, too, began to protest. I’ll share that story with you on Tuesday.
                                                            (Continued on Tuesday . . . )
More and more as I work on these postings, I feel the call to write for publication. I have several manuscripts ready to polish. All I need is time to do so. Given this, I’ve decided to post just twice a week from now on. My two posting days will normally be Tuesday and Saturday. This will mean that all of you will have one less posting to read a week in your busy schedules. I bet you find yourself grateful for that! 
          I'm also going to cut back to just two hours a day of reading other blogs, commenting, and responding to the comments on my blog. I know that this will mean I will miss some captivating postings, but I find myself longing to get serious about writing books: paper and/or e. I so hope I won't neglect any of your fine blogs. I'll try not to.

Both photographs from “The Vietnam War” in Wikipedia.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

A Poem for the Day

Hello All,
Daily life has caught up with me and I need to take today off from posting.
I’ll be back for my usual Saturday post. In it, I’ll share my involvement in the protest against the war in Vietnam back in 1969, ’70, and ’71 and my continuing quiet rather passive involvement in the Civil Rights Movement. That may end up to be two postings. Not sure right now.
            Today I’d like to leave you with a brief poem by Daniel Berrigan. The first paragraph of his biography from Wikipedia states that “Daniel Berrigan, SJ (born May 9, 1921) is an American Catholic priest, peace activist, and poet. Daniel and his brother Philip were for a time on the FBI Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list for their involvement in antiwar protests during the Vietnam war.”
            My parents gave me his first book, Time Without Number, when I was in the novitiate back in 1958. Here is a poem from its pages.

                                    is not something other:
a ridiculous pablum for the poet’s mind
until the wind sing it, or star bring it
ringing its name through the astonished night:

or on a March day, the selfsame crocus struggle
wildly into air, because its roots, through all winter’s leveling,
remembered their own name.
                                    Or the maple that shook its glory down
Puzzle strollers with its identical
And lovely form, four months later assumed again
Gradually as a morning.
                                    Such things somersault the mind
Backward, inward:
                                    I wonder who knew the stars
From flowers, before flowers were not stars:
Before trees spread between one and other, a growth
By night starlike, by day a flowering, and yet itself.

So, I’ll see you Saturday.
Peace as ever and always to all of you this day.

Photo by dan on freedigitalphotos.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

An Encounter with Protesters

(Continued from Saturday . . . )
My mother modeled respect with her response to everyone she met. Her attitude led me to become quietly active in working for social justice. Yet as an adult, I realized the bigotry deep within my psyche. That led to my teaching in the inner city and then to graduate school.
            A number of important Civil Rights events occurred during the years between when I left the convent in 1966 and the fall day in 1969 when I first walked onto the campus of the University of Minnesota.

·      Huey Newton and Bobby Seale organized the Black Panthers in Oakland, California.
·      The US Supreme Court declared unconstitutional the ban prohibiting interracial marriage.
·      Stokely Carmichael, who popularized the slogan “Black Power,” became leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
·      H. Rap Brown proclaimed, “Violence is American as apple pie.”
·      James Earl Ray assassinated Martin Luther King, Jr.
·      Race riots broke out in Newark, Chicago, Detroit, and other northern cities.

            The winter of 1969, I sat in many classrooms. In one I learned about William Labov and African American Vernacular English. In another I studied the dark works of Nathaniel Hawthorne. In still another I learned the woeful history of slavery in the United States. It was in that classroom that I first encountered protesters wielding guns.
            The professor had just finished his mesmerizing lecture on the rebellion led by Nat Turner in 1831. He’d detailed its results: between 100 and 200 black slaves and fifty-five to sixty-five white members of the militia and mobs left dead.
            Prior to dismissal, he shuffled his lecture notes. Just then, two students rose from their desks. Each held a gun. The man aimed his at the professor. The woman held hers steady while turning slowly in a circle and pointing it momentarily at each student in the classroom.
            “That’s what you did to us and here’s what we’re going to do to you,” the man shouted.
            Screaming, two women tried to lie down on the floor. Cursing, several men tried to stand but the guns were immediately trained on them. One man stumbled to his feet. Knocked over his desk and fell on the floor.

            I looked around at my fellow classmates—those now trembling, those holding guns. The man closed both doors to the hall. I felt there was no way to escape. The woman kept shouting, “Quiet!” as the rest of us sobbed.           
            At the time, I was almost thirty-four; my classmates were between eighteen and twenty-two years old. In their eyes I could see that this was for them, as it was for me, their first taste of violent protest.
            The two protesters began to shout. They didn’t like the university’s admissions policy. They wanted the United States out of Vietnam.
            Their words came staccato, like bullets from a machine gun: The war being fought mostly by the poor. The number of poor blacks in Vietnam. The number of poor whites. America’s way of getting rid of the problem of poverty. American’s way of getting rid of the problem of blacks. Kill off the young men. Send them to battle. The university not doing anything about this. Not protesting. The university welcoming white students who came to college to escape fighting and then belittled the returning poor from the rice paddies of Vietnam.           
            The words fell like acid rain upon the rest of us. In the hall, we could hear the students who’d been waiting for the next class to start. One opened the door. Saw the guns. Closed it quickly.
            The man rushed to a window and leaned out, watching intently. Time passed. The woman walked up and down the aisles pointing her gun at our heads and then aiming at the professor. He was encouraging them to keep him hostage but to let the rest of us go. Repeatedly, the woman shouted, “Keep quiet!”
            The time came when the man shouted, “They’re coming!”
            Then followed the entry of a policeman into the room, his hands raised. Placating words. Negotiations. An agreement for a meeting with the deans.
            The siege ended. The man and woman handed over their guns and were led away.

            I went back to my apartment and slept for twelve hours.
            Two days later, the class reconvened.
            I never saw the two protesters again. I do not know what happened to them or for them, but they opened my eyes to a new realization about the war in Vietnam. On Thursday I’ll begin to blog about my involvement in that protest.
                                                                   (Continued on Thursday . . . )           

First two photographs from Wikipedia.
Photo of empty classroom by criminalatt of freedigitalphotos.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Discovering the Work of Labov

(Continued from Thursday . . . )
In late August 1969, my dad drove me up to the University of Minnesota. Its sprawling campus straddles the east and west banks of the Mississippi. A vehicular and pedestrian bridge connects the two campuses. 
            For two years, I lived on the third floor of an old house located a few blocks from the East Bank Campus. It was there I took my first class in linguistics and learned about William Labov.
            By 1969, this now-famous linguist had already published several monographs on the  “Black English” spoken by the African American community in Washington, D.C. He had found there the same syntax and usage I had observed in Ohio.
            Explaining the intricacies of what is now called “African American Vernacular English” would take up too much space for this posting, but I’ve copied a few of the Wikipedia examples and pasted them here:

                        Phases/Tenses of AAVE
I been flown it
I done fly it
I did fly it
Past Inceptive
I do fly it
I be flying it
I'm a-fly it
I'm a-gonna fly it

Indefinite future
I gonna fly it

He been done work means "he finished work a long time ago."
He done been work means "until recently, he worked over a long period of time."
I been bought her clothes means "I bought her clothes a long time ago."
I been buyin' her clothes means "I've been buying her clothes for a long time."

Some of you may be interested in dialects and the history of the study of African American Vernacular English (AAVE). If so, you will find a wealth of information in the following:

      The third link reflects the comment Susan, a teacher, made on Thursday’s posting. She wrote that “one black student I had was a fluent writer, and the syntax was very much as you described. I wrestled with the question: should I cover her writing with corrections? should I let her write in her own fluent way? No easy answer.” I needed to address that same question when I returned to Ohio. Another reader, “Broad” from Great Britain, wrote the following comment on Thursday:

One of my dearest friends is a professor of English language. He has travelled all over the world assessing PhD’s in his field and has written many books. He does not believe that there is a correct way of speaking English and is fascinated by the development of language in different cultures and believes fervently that they are all important and relevant to understanding better the English speaking world. The trouble is that there is too much snobbery in the world of English speakers—speaking the “kings English” has become yet another way of separating and segregating each other when it could be a way of reaching better understanding.

Up to the time of William Labov’s pioneering work, sociologists were using the words I used in my Thursday posting: nonstandard and substandard English to speak of AAVE. To see how far we’ve come—at least in our dictionaries—look below at the entry from my computer dictionary. It provided this information for dialect.
I’ll sign off today. That’s more than enough for you to read! On Tuesday I’ll share additional happenings at the University of Minnesota that reinforced my quiet activism.
                                                    (Continued on Tuesday . . . )

1.     When a New York City cab driver calls out the window, “Hey, wassa madda wichoo?” he is using the vernacular, which is the authentic, natural pattern of speech among those belonging to a certain community.
2.     In some areas of London, on the other hand, one might hear the Cockney dialect, which is a form or variety of a language that is confined to a specific group or locality; it has its own pronunciation, usage, and vocabulary, and may persist for generations or even centuries (: he spoke in the dialect of the Appalachian backwoodsman).
3.     A teenager who tells his parents to “Chill out” is using slang, which is a very informal language that includes “substitute” vocabulary (“wheels” for car, “rug” for toupee), grammatical distortions, and other departures from formal or polite usage.
4.     Argot refers to the slang of a group that feels threatened by the hostility of society as a whole; it traditionally refers to the slang used by criminals and thieves, although it may refer to any peculiar language that a clique or other closely knit group uses to communicate with each other.
5.     At one time cant was a synonym for argot, but now it usually refers to pompous, inflated language or the hackneyed use of words and phrases by members of a particular class or profession (: the cant of the fashion industry).
6.     In contrast to cant, which can at least be understood, jargon is nearly impossible for the average person to decipher. This term refers to the technical or highly specialized language used by members of an occupational or professional group (medical jargon; the jargon of the theater).
7.     If you are frustrated because you can't understand the language used by a particular class or group, you're apt to refer to their way of talking as lingo, which is a term for any language that is not readily understood (: she tried to reason with the cab driver, but she couldn't understand his lingo).

Both photographs are from Wikipedia.