Sunday, October 28, 2012


Students, please be advised that school has been cancelled for Monday and Tuesday, 29 and 30 October 2012.  We will reschedule classroom activities later.  Check or call 212-594-4000 for more information.

Stay safe, and I look forward to seeing you next week.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012


Students, please be advised that the course calendar for the Fall 2012 ENG 101.117 class has changed.  Please review the amended document here, and come prepared for the new assignment.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Sample Descriptive Definition

Students, please find below an example of the kind of descriptive definition discussed here.  It offers a model of the kind of composition desired, if one on the short end of acceptable length (when formatted for submission as a paper, as discussed in "General Paper Formatting Instructions," here, and as distinct from how the piece is formatted for inclusion in the course blog).

Those who have been in my classes across several semesters know that I am fond of using riddles as a teaching device.  As I remark in "About Riddles," I find them useful for aiding students in developing skills in critical thinking and interpretation of evidence.  That they function so admirably in such a context is a result of the nature of riddles themselves, for a riddle is a verbal puzzle which relies upon tricks of language such as puns and figurative language to frustrate achieving easy solutions to it.  Among the more notable examples of riddles accessible to speakers of the English language are translations of the Oedipal Sphinx riddle; any of the riddles from the Exeter Book, such as Riddle 43; and the riddles in J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit.

The riddle of the Sphinx faced by Oedipus as he made his way to mythological Thebes is firmly ensconced in the literary history of Western Europe and the cultures that have sprung from it.  As Edith Hamilton relates the story, the Sphinx was "a creature shaped like a winged lion, but with the face and breast of a woman" that "lay in wait for the wayfarers along the roads to [Thebes] and whomever she seized she put a riddle to, telling him if he could answer it, she would let him go.  No one could, and the horrible creature devoured man after man until the city was in a state of siege" (269).  The riddle that so stumped the people of mythological Greece, was simply to ask the name of that creature which goes four-legged in the morning, two-legged at noon, and three-legged in the evening; the answer is an average human person, who crawls on all fours in infancy, walks upon two legs in full adulthood, and leans on support such as a cane in old age (269).  Despite the sexist and ableist phrasing in the original and in Hamilton's rendition of it, the riddle is one of the best-known to speakers and readers of English, and it works against it audiences.

The riddle engages both puns and metaphorical language to frustrate those to whom it is posed.  The puns come in the loose interpretation of the term "leg."  It can be applied to the arms of a crawling infant only tangentially, for while there are broad similarities in bone and muscle structure between the arm and the leg, but they are substantially unalike--except when the term "leg" is used as a descriptor for a means of transport.  A similar zeugma comes into play in applying the term "leg" to the cane or walking stick used by an elderly person to aid in walking, although that is not the only one; "leg" can also be used to refer to the supporting post of an inanimate object such as a table or chair, so that for the three-legged elder, the "leg" is both locomotive and a prop.  The metaphor is much more straightforward, situating human life as the course of a day.  The comparison is apt in at least two ways.  The light of the sun is diminished at dawn and dusk and brightest in midday, much as human capacities tend to be less at the beginning and end of "natural" life than in the midst of it.  Too, human life is notoriously brief, and daylight does not last long.  The combination of the appropriate metaphor and the multivalent pun, both verbal devices, serve to occlude the name of the creature being described, making the Sphinx's utterance prototypical of a riddle.

That of the Sphinx is not the only long-established major example of a riddle.  The Exeter Book, one of the most important collections of Anglo-Saxon verse, contains a number of riddles, as well.  One of them, labeled by editors and commentators fairly unimaginatively as Riddle 43 (the Exeter Book itself does not give titles or numbers to them), has commanded a fair bit of attention, not least because its referential language lends itself to interpretation as an obscenity.  The piece, although sexist and heteronormative due in large part to the social standards of the time it was composed, does engage in a fair bit of verbal trickiness to lead its audience away from the actual solution; it reads:
I heard of something rising in a corner,
Swelling and standing up, lifting its cover.
The proud-hearted bride grabbed at that boneless
Wonder with her hands; the prince's daughter
Covered that swelling thing with a swirl of cloth. (Williamson)
The answer to the riddle is "dough," but it is hidden in layers of sexually-charged language which depends on heteronormative sexism for its effect.  For the Anglo-Saxons, the kitchen--which is where work with dough would be carried out--was typically the domain of the wife, with higher-ranking women not exempted from labor within it.  As those who have themselves worked with dough, or who have seen others work with dough, know, it rises or swells when left at room temperature or heated slightly, and it is often covered with cloth to keep things from getting into it that would be undesirable to have in baked goods.  Too, dough is a boneless substance, so that the description of it in the riddle is accurate.  But that description also has heavy sexual connotations which do rely on heteronormative ideas.  It is true that certain parts of the body composed of erectile tissue do raise pieces of cloth which cover them, and it is also true that, in a heteronormative society, a bride would be inclined to grab at one such organ, while a prince's daughter, presumably more refined and discreet given her familial position, would be like to preserve modesty by covering "that swelling thing."  So while the answer to the riddle is not itself inherently sexual, the riddle does prey upon the attention people willingly and frequently pay to sexuality to lead them away from its innocuous solution.

Old English riddles such as Riddle 43 inform those in J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit; Tolkien was in his academic life a scholar of older Germanic languages, and among his duties as such a scholar was teaching Anglo-Saxon at Oxford University (Dougham).  The circumstances in which Tolkien's riddles are posed echoes those surrounding the riddle of the Sphinx; one of the participants in the game is subject to death for failure to respond adequately (73).  And like both Riddle 43 and the riddle of the Sphinx, the riddles posed in The Hobbit employ figurative language.  One notable example is the last posed by Gollum to Bilbo:
This thing all things devours:
Birds, beasts, trees, flowers;
Gnaws iron, bites steel;
Grinds hard stones to meal;
Slays king, ruins town,
And beats high mountain down. (77)
Most notable of its figurative constructions is its couplet structure.  Although it lacks a firm meter, it is simply and plainly rhymed.  Such patterns as rhyme serve to unify elements across lines and to aid the ability to recall the piece.  The yoking together of devouring flowers, steel meal, and a town coming down (which words are the rhymed pairs) creates disturbing images that are likely to distract the audience from arriving at the solution.  Similarly, the references to eating--"devours," "gnaws," "bites," and "meal"--serve to remind the in-milieu audience of the riddle that he is in very real danger of being consumed by the figure posing the riddle, and one can hardly blame Bilbo for having trouble thinking when he fears being eaten in short order.  They also serve to put the audience in mind of teeth, and while it can be argued that the answer, "time," has teeth, it is only in a metaphorical--not a literal--fashion.  Pointing up the toothiness of the solution forces the audience to consider physicality, and since time does not have an existence within the three dimensions of the commonly understood physical, imposing a physical description serves to lead the audience away from the solution--as befits a riddle.

In all three cases, as in the many others, riddles display a playfulness with language and a willingness to deceive the audience without actually being untruthful; at no point do the riddles actually say things that are not accurate, although their careful manipulation of connotations through figurative language hides what would otherwise be obvious answers.  Having such a definition of riddles that accounts for their core activities, rather than the surface trappings of any one riddle, allows for the broadening of understanding of riddles and the application of the kind of analysis performed on riddles to other works that display similar features--and that will help develop knowledge of verbal cultures.

Works Cited
~Dougham, David. "Who Was Tolkien?" Tolkien Society, 2002. Web. 20 October 2012.
~Elliott, Geoffrey B. "About Riddles." Geoffrey B. Elliott's Teaching Blog., 11 October 2012. Web. 19 October 2012.
~Hamilton, Edith. Mythology. New York: Warner Books, 1999. Print.
~Tolkien, J.R.R. The Hobbit. New York: Ballantine, 1982. Print.
~Williamson, Craig, ed. and trans. "Riddle 43." "Exeter Book Riddles." Broadview Anthology of British Literature. Vol. 1: The Medieval Period. Peterborough, Ontario, Canada; Broadview P, 2007. Print. 31.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Sample Causal Paragraph

Students, please find below an example of a causal paragraph of the type discussed here.  The prompt it is addressing ought to be fairly obvious.  That it is somewhat facetious should also be fairly obvious.

Were I to gain a comic-book-style superpower, it would likely be that of greatly enhanced speed.  As it is, I am quite a busy person, cramming many activities into a day that seems to be getting ever shorter.  Consequently, I already operate at a fairly high rate, so super-speed would be a natural and sensible extension of what I already do.  Were it to happen, I would likely get yet more reading and writing done, both for classes and for my own endeavors; both are activities I already do, and I would probably continue on in them.  Certainly, I would perform better in the dojo; some of the problems I have with such techniques as iriminage come about as a result of my moving more slowly than I ought to for the technique to work well, which super-speed would eliminate.  And I would likely turn to evil.  It would happen gradually; I would make mistakes, being human, and would attempt to rectify them.  In doing so, I would--because I am convinced of my own rightness as a rule--begin to see myself as set apart and, because more powerful, more deserving of obedience.  From there, I would work to enforce obedience, using my super-speed to facilitate that work; being able to move very fast makes it very easy to enforce consequences upon people.  It would inevitably lead to my moral end ethical corruption, and that would not be good for the world.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

About Riddles

Across several semesters and levels of instruction (remedial, developmental, and mainstream freshman composition; sophomore-level genre writing), I have used riddles as a teaching device.  What I have tended to do is take riddles, either pre-existing as from the Exeter book or generated by me, and embed proofreading errors of the sorts I see in student papers into them.  The riddles, thus adjusted, are given to the students, who are directed to do three things with them:
  1. Proofread the text of the riddle, either via proofreader's marks or a corrected re-writing, so as to make it conform to the standards of edited academic American English as defined in the grammar handbooks included in the standard course textbooks.  Students are encouraged to make use of the reference guides to aid them in making the corrections.
  2. Offer a solution to the riddle.  Students are told that the "correctness" of the answer is not so important as what happens with whatever answer is given in the next part of the assignment.
  3. Explain how the solution to the riddle they provide fits all of the clues given in the text.  Even if the answer is not the "right" one, a sound explanation of how the evidence in the text supports the answer provided is appreciated.
I tend to take the work the students do on the riddles as quiz grades, and I tell the students truthfully that I only actually grade parts 1 and 3 of the assignment.  That is, I am interested in how well they proofread and how well they deploy evidence to support their ideas.  In doing so, I offer the students practice with the surface-level concerns that need addressing (partly for mutual intelligibility, partly because of institutional concerns in several of the classes) as well as the kind of argumentation that their writing in the classroom and critical engagement with the rest of their lives will require.  In brief, the riddles give the students the opportunity to practice many of the things that a writing class is supposed to teach, particularly as the curriculum at my current institution figures writing classes.

In past terms, students have tended to struggle with the work early in the semester, but improve throughout the term, until by the end of the course, they are doing fairly decently--and they appear to be deploying the skills so practiced in their more formal assignments.  I have therefore viewed my use of riddles as a successful teaching practice, and have continued to do it.

Sample Summary

As with several other examples of summaries, this is derived and adapted from another blog I maintain.

An article by Michelle LaFrance and Melissa Nicolas, "Institutional Ethnography as Materialist Framework for Writing Program Research and the Faculty-Staff Work Standpoints Project," appears in the September 2012 issue (64.1: 130-50) of CCC.  In the article, LaFrance and Nicolas discuss institutional ethnography (IE), a method for investigating how workplaces form themselves and situate the people who work in them, arguing that it is a valuable means for interrogating institutional practices that are often overlooked. They outline the ways in which IE works to point out how institutional practices differ for people who perform different functions within an organization; they call it situated variability. To do so, they give a brief overview of the history of IE and of its undergirding concepts before situating it in relation to already-existing methodologies. Throughout, they deploy examples from their own experiences within institutions, using them to develop a particular ethos that speaks well to the common audience of the journal, and making the article a particularly effective call to use IE as another tool for those involved in the teaching of writing to look into how the context in which they teach influences the teaching they do.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Sample Process Paragraph

Students, please find below an example of the kind of process paragraph discussed in class and here.  The topic will, I think, be obvious.

Making coffee in a press is simple.  Doing so first requires gathering the following materials: a press, a kettle, water more than sufficient to fill the press, a convenient heat source such as a stove, coarse-ground coffee, a standard-sized coffee scoop or a teaspoon, and at least one coffee cup.  Once the materials are gathered, the water should be poured into the kettle and the kettle set upon the stove; turn on the stove under the kettle so as to heat the water until it boils.  While the water heats, open the press and insert the coffee.  Typically, one standard-sized scoop of ground coffee or two heaping teaspoons of it will suffice for every coffee-cup full of water being boiled; adjust to suit the size of the press you are using.  After the coffee is added, wait until the water in the kettle boils.  At that point, remove the kettle from the stove, turn off the stove, and pour the boiling water into the waiting, coffee-loaded press.  Then return the lid of the press to the body of the press, but do not push the plunger down into the press until at least ten minutes have passed, as the coffee will need to steep at least that long.  Once it has steeped ten minutes or more--adjust to suit the drinker's taste--depress the plunger as far as it will go down into the press and pour the hot coffee into the waiting cup.  There will likely be some silt from the coffee grounds in the bottom of the cup, but there will also almost certainly be excellent, strong coffee in the cup which is well worth drinking.


Students, please be advised that, due to the schedule shift, I will not be holding regular office hours today, 10 October 2012.  Please email me at to make an appointment.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Sample Descriptive Paragraph

Students, please find below an example of a descriptive paragraph of the type noted during lectures and here.  It does not address any specific prompt directly, other than to present an example of a descriptive paragraph.

In the Texas Hill Country, early spring is wildflower season.  In years when the rains have come, the sides and medians of roads and highways, the banks of rivers, and the few places where grass grows freely between the scrubby oaks and cedars upon the limestone hills where the coastal plains rise up into the Edwards Plateau explode into a riot of glorious color.  Reds, golds, oranges, and the lusciously white-capped blues of the Texas bluebonnet erupt almost overnight from the green places.  In the early morning hours, as the sun rises and shades the partly cloudy sky with royal purples and golds, noble reds, festive pinks, and a thousands hues of blue, those many people already upon the long and well loved roads in the open spaces that still remain between the sprawling cities see that the narrow ribbons of smooth asphalt upon which they race from place to place become bridges amidst the heavens themselves.  For the abundance and density of colors among the plants upon which the new-risen sun shines are mirrored only in the lightening morning sky--and in the dying evening, when the sun retires in splendor, and again the boundaries between the earth and sky are blurred as the eye follows the flower-bordered road off into the distance.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Sample Narrative Paragraph

Students, the paragraph below is an example of what is discussed here.  It addresses the prompt "Write a narrative paragraph illustrating some moment in your life, either experienced or observed."

I was standing on the open-air platform, waiting for my train in the cold.  It was pulling in, and I noticed that in the front car, there was a long bench that seemed to have no people on it, although there were many people standing in the car.  I had lived in New York City long enough by then to know that there was something wrong with the seat, and so I made not attempt to find my way to it.  Instead, I made for the second car, which was not so crowded.  But it seemed that the problem had decided to make itself mine, for  right behind me staggered into the car a reeking, filthy figure of a man.  He careened towards a seat that was already filled--fortunately not by me--and screamed obscenities at the tiny, elderly woman who was sitting there.  She started, yelping almost as a dog that has been kicked in the night by a sleep-fogged bathroom-seeker.  The man barked out a laugh and whipped around to scream again in the face of another, repeating the process again and again until a space had opened up around him and he could plop himself flaccidly onto the pale plastic bench, snickering at the aghast faces surrounding him.  There he remained until the next stop, when, smiling, he left the car to work his will again.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Sample Narrative Essay

Students, please find below an example of a narrative essay of the sort discussed here.  The example is on the high end of the requested length, when formatted for submission (which blog entries tend to prohibit; venue matters).  It addresses the prompt of the Fall 2012 term at TCI, which is to relate an incident in the writer's life or experience in such a way that it puts across a moral message or prescribes a pattern of behavior.  That which my piece recommends is fairly obvious--and to be expected from someone who teaches English, I think.

The week before, the forty students enrolled in American Literature I, a class focused on the writings of the United States and its forebears from the American Civil War and earlier, had turned in their papers.  The assignment had been to select a work not covered in the class but which derived from the time and area under study and to craft a critical argument about it, one employing at least one reputable outside source and containing a counter-argument (a line of argument somehow contradictory of the writer’s own thesis) and a rebuttal (a line of argument that undermines or overthrows the counter-argument).  All of the students in the sophomore-level survey were supposed to have passed two semesters of first-year composition.  They were supposed to have been able to put together thesis statements, to find and employ evidence, to explain how that evidence serves to support the thesis—in short, to construct arguments.  They were supposed to have demonstrated that they could carry out basic revisions of their work, ensuring that sentence flowed into sentence and paragraph into paragraph, that the words being used were those which ought to have been used rather than the most ornate and Latinate words available, and that the phrasings used in their papers were original unless clearly signaled as quotations.  They were supposed to have demonstrated a basic command of the conventions of standard edited academic American English, proofreading their papers at least once to ensure that their own names were spelled correctly and the titles of the works they referenced were treated as they ought to be.

When the papers were graded, however, they revealed that either most of the students had not been taught what they ought to have been or that they had forgotten what they had once learned.  Some discussed texts far removed from the area being studied, trying to use romance novels published in the twenty-first century to fill in for what should have been works written in the seventeenth through the nineteenth.  Others failed to include even a primary source, let alone an outside piece of criticism, or to produce a thorough argument.  Still others, fortunately few, thought to look online for papers that had already been written and submit them as their own.  Yet others were jerky and disjointed, the sentences within paragraphs having no real relationship to one another and the paragraphs not even attempting to connect among themselves.  One prominent example piled trite statements atop bombast atop cliché, vomiting multi-syllabic words onto the page in the hopes of hiding the fact that the paper said nothing about anything.  Nearly all, though, had shown that they had not taken the time to ensure that even their own names were spelled correctly, let alone that the titles of their works were handled well and that the other mechanics in their papers were even close to correct.

When the instructor read the first, the assumption was that one student had done poorly, and while it is hardly pleasant to begin a session of grading with an inferior piece of work, one student erring among forty is to be expected.  It is never the case that every student in the class does well on every assignment offered.  And when the second paper came up with as bad a grade as the first, and for many of the same reasons, it added to the frustration but did not elicit concern.  But when the third, the fourth, the fifth, the tenth, the twentieth, the thirty-seventh all made many of the same mistakes—mistakes that not even students in remedial English at the same university made—especially when the students who had written the papers had stressed again and again that they understood the assignment and had no questions, a deep and abiding anger grew up.  Having been misinformed, having had to read dozens of badly-written papers from students who ought to have known better—from students who had shown in discussion that they did know better—kindled a cold rage which chilled the room when, on the day appointed, the papers were returned.

Normally, the class would begin jovially, with those in the room chatting openly and laughing together, establishing the classroom as a site of enjoyment and the work done in it as a pleasurable thing.  But on that day, as the instructor entered, it was as if the light and warmth of the Southern spring had been drained out of the room.  For the instructor sat behind the desk for some minutes, not moving, not speaking.  The students, several of whom were attentive to such things, feared that something was wrong, for the instructor usually bounced into the room, a dynamo of energy for the material and those who had signed up to learn about it, rather than the icily silent glaring hulk that brooded behind the desk.

Their fears were realized when, as the official start time of the class came, the instructor looked up at the students.  In a low voice and from between clenched jaws came the words: “I’ve taught remedial English.  I’ve taught high school English.  I’ve even taught middle school English.  The papers you turned in to me are far and away the worst I have seen.  That you even thought these were close to acceptable is an insult, and you should be ashamed to have wasted my time and yours with…this.”  A scornful wave at the stack of papers on the desk, their pages almost dripping with red ink, was followed by more: “You have a week to fix these, and you had damned well better avail yourselves of it.  Get your crap off my desk and get out of my classroom.”

Without a word and without meeting the instructor’s eyes, the students grabbed their papers and made their way away from where the instructor sat seething.

The next week, the papers were better by far.