Saturday, November 29, 2008

Everybody Needs an Editor!

Let me start by saying I admire William F. Buckley, Jr., and was sad at his passing. We have subscribed to National Review Magazine since before we could afford it, as I am fond of telling people. But I have a love-hate relationship with WFB's writing. He is famous for his impressive vocabulary, and that is kind of fun, but I think he writes some of the worst sentences I have seen in print. In the excerpt below describing the religious background of the Reagans' son Ron, who became an atheist in his teens, the first sentence is perfectly fine, but I'm not sure what he means by the second. Does the "it is popular" suggest that the belief so described is faulty? What risk are people assured of being eliminated? Which people?

We do not need to assume that a familiarity with history recalls the Ninety-Five Theses of Luther, or the causes of the Thirty Years’ War. It is popular in quarters of young America to believe that deference to individual religious inclinations eliminates any risk of submitting to indoctrination.

The next sentence, in the next paragraph, is also fine. But the final sentence is just poor, violating my teacher sensibilities about the need to enliven prose and to use more active verbs and clear nouns, and not to turn verb phrases into noun phrases. Note WFB's use of the passive voice, which has its place, but in sparing doses:

When Ron Jr. went on to reject his father’s political positions, ruing the Reagan presidency, it was not necessarily the result of alienation from the family per se. Weight by the son to his father’s principles is here given, here withheld, after thought is paid to them, cursory or profound, and how they figured in the allegiances of the parent.

From The Reagan I Knew, by William F. Buckley, Jr.
At the National Review website November 26, 2008

So how would YOU fix that last sentence? Here is my try, preserving much of the language of the original:

The son thought-- sometimes cursorily, sometimes profoundly-- about his father's principles and about how they figured in his allegiances, and he gave them weight or withheld it accordingly.

I still don't like it much, though, so here's another try, with more freedom of vocabulary:

Ron Reagan watched his father's principles at work, especially in his allegiances, and, with a teenager's alternating deep and shallow thought, respected or cast off those principles accordingly.

So can you do better? I probably can, though the exercise shows me that WFB's words "principles," "allegiances," "figured," "weight," and "accordingly" were very carefully chosen! :-)

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Holistic Scoring Rubric

I elected not to include the following information on the new version of my web site, as it has probably been updated in recent times, and I do not do too much with GED preparation now. However, these guidelines are sound ones very similar to those used for the SAT and ACT exams, too. I hope you find them useful!

GED Scoring Guidelines

These guidelines were supplied to me in the 1990s by an instructor for the then-extant AOL Academic Assistance Center. Jane ( taught GED preparation courses in her community and was a great help as I designed [a GED prep course I used to teach online]. Most standardized essay exams are graded holistically by a small committee according to guidelines like these. I have seen similar ones for statewide exams for middle school and high school,
the CLAST exam, and two community colleges in Florida and California.

The following is quoted from the Scoring Guide section of the GED Teacher's Manual.

Upper-half papers make clear a definite purpose, pursued with varying
degrees of effectiveness. They also have a structure that shows
evidence of some deliberate planning. The writer's control of the
conventions of Standard Written English (spelling, punctuation,
grammar, word choice, and sentence structure) ranges from fairly
reliable at 4 to confident and accomplished at 6.

(6) The SIX PAPER offers sophisticated ideas within an organizational
framework that is clear and appropriate for the topic. The supporting
statements are particularly effective because of their substance,
specificity, or illustrative quality. The writing is vivid and
precise, although it may contain an occasional flaw in the conventions
of Standard Written English.

(5) The FIVE PAPER is clearly organized with effective support for
each of the writer's major points. While the writing offers
substantive ideas, it lacks the fluency found in the 6 paper. Although
there are some errors, the conventions of Standard Written English are
consistently under control.

(4) The FOUR PAPER shows evidence of the writer's organizational plan.
Support, though adequate, tends to be less extensive or effective than
that found in the 5 paper. The writer generally observes the
conventions of Standard Written English. The errors that are present
are not severe enough to interfere significantly with the writer's
main purpose.

Lower-half papers either fail to convey a purpose sufficiently or lack
one entirely. Consequently, their structure ranges from rudimentary at
3, to random at 2, to absent at 1. Control of the conventions of
Standard Written English tends to follow this same gradient.

(3) The THREE PAPER usually shows some evidence of planning, although
the development may be insufficient. The supporting statements may be
limited to a listing or a repetition of ideas. The 3 paper often
demonstrates repeated weaknesses in the conventions of Standard
Written English.

(2) The TWO PAPER is characterized by a marked lack of organization or
inadequate support for ideas. The development may be superficial or
unfocused. Errors in the conventions of Standard Written English may
seriously interfere with the overall effectiveness of this paper.

(1) The ONE PAPER lacks purpose or development. The dominant feature
is the absence of control of structure or the conventions of Standard
Written English. The deficiencies are so severe that the writer's
ideas are difficult or impossible to understand.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Argument: The Wisdom of Proverbs

In the Progymnasmata exercise Proverb Amplification students are asked to consider carefully the meaning of a particular proverb and go through a series of development points to explain it. In a follow-up assignment, I ask Tutorial students to argue for or against a particular medical or health proverb, like "An apple a day . . ." or "Early to bed . . ." This is a popular one:

A good surgeon must have an eagle's eye, a lion's heart, and a lady's hand.

Most agree with this proverb and do a decent job explaining its wisdom. But then I throw in an additional assignment with a twist: argue the opposite.

The best students should be challenged to argue against their own points. This does not develop hypocrisy but humility, logic, and empathy. For example, a student could argue first that the proverb about the surgeon's qualities is certainly true--he needs skill, courage, and delicacy. But there is an amelioration of each of these: sometimes good sense or the use of good tools can take over and get a better result than detailed knowledge of the minute or perfect eyesight; sometimes courage can become arrogance and needs to be tempered with humility; and sometimes a decisive, radical action is needed to save a patient, rather than a slow gentleness that allows life to ebb away. So in a way one could argue that wisdom and decisiveness overcome perfect coordination and a conservative approach.

In any meaningful argument we should fully understand the other side--in part to sympathize with our opponents even if we hold our own line, and in part to strategize the best arguments for our own side.