“To Essay”

As I discussed my notes about their first big essay of the year with my college students this week, it became clear to me that nobody had ever explained to them why we write essays. They saw the exercise as a pointless waste of time.

So I got some more mileage out of my trusty copy of the Oxford English Dictionary. I read them parts of the entry for the word “essay.” Specifically, I pointed out the it entered the language as a verb, not a noun.

As seen below, “to essay” really just means “to try, to attempt, to practice, to accomplish.” Example sentenced: “The noble knight essayed the glorious task of eating a thousand fish tacos.”

Moral of the story: today, when we write an essay, we are trying, attempting, practicing, accomplishing…what? To prove an assertion, to describe a new idea to others so they can share in our experience, to communicate clearly about something important between writer and reader.

These are–and I say this with no sarcasm–truly crucial skills, demanding the very greatest of all our energies in both teaching and learning. The world needs these skills, and needs them to be developed and implemented widely.

So maybe the “noble knight” example isn’t such a joke after all.

 

oed

Advertisements

Throwing Away Essays

Yesterday I read an essay by a college freshman that began with the paragraph below.

“Alright class, pick up your pencils and write me an essay about something that will bore you to death”. Those are the words that my sophomore high school english teacher told us one day when he had nothing planned for our class. The entire class was in shock, but that statement was only the beginning. Each one of us wrote our essays and when that sweet sound of the bell rang, we threw our papers onto his cluttered desk and ran off, escaping the torture of listening to the clock go “tick tock” for fifty-two minutes. Two class periods later, I witnessed something I never thought would happen. I watched my teacher throw a pile of paper into the trash, but it wasn’t just any pile of paper, it was our essays we wrote just two hours ago. It was at that moment when I felt that teachers really didn’t care about our creative minds and our writing talents. It was at that moment when I felt that writing was just a waste of time and that teachers made us write boring essays just to keep their job.

There are at least four big red flags here: the unprepared teacher, the callous nonchalance with which he or she appears to address students, the nonsense assignment itself, and the almost immediate disposal of nearly an hour’s worth of student work.

I get the impression from the student’s lack of surprise that this kind of thing was not uncommon.

I’m completely stunned. This is outrageous. I sent this paragraph to the principal of the school in question, for him to deal with or not as he or she sees fit. I won’t say what high school this student attended, but I will tell that it is one of the relatively newer, richer schools in the valley.

I’ve mentioned before a department meeting I attended about a decade ago where an older teacher freely admitted that she refused to read student essays. I think that’s a deal breaker, and anyone with such an attitude does not belong in the classroom.

Yes, it’s incredibly frustrating and time consuming, but bottom line, it’s our job.

And using essay writing as time wasting filler and then simply discarding it is nothing less than education’s version of malpractice.

And the student’s “lesson” learned at the end of that paragraph…it’s just absolutely heartbreaking. I teach writing because I love it and I know it’s important. Too important and lovely to be screwed up like that.

I hope I can help this student have a redemptive experience with writing instruction and practice this semester.

Great Gravitas in Two Popcorn Flicks

We don’t exactly think of superheroes or science fiction when we think of Oscar bait, but two performances in mainstream pop movies of recent years have stuck with me. They both demonstrated a subdued gravitas which may have slipped past many people’s radar because the work was so naturally understated.

The first is Robert Downey Jr. in Captain America: Civil War. One of the complaints about the Marvel Cinematic Universe is that it has so many dead ends, and despite the continuous storyline, so many of its films still feel like stand alone fresh starts. That’s largely true.

An exception is RDJ’s work in Civil War. His portrayal of Tony Stark has been uneven, partly as he has explored the character himself, and partly as the varying quality of scripts has left him more or less to work with, but not only did the plot of Civil War bring to fruition all the character growth earned and lost over the course of several films, RDJ brought his A game to it, and gave an impressively nuanced performance.

We can really feel the weight of all that has happened in recent years in the MCU in this film. We can see this movie as a depiction of the age-old political struggle between collectivism and individualism, but Tony Stark is no bureaucratic stooge here: RDJ makes it clear that this man is finally just crumpling under the burdens that life has kept stacking on him. He needs escape. He needs rest. This is a man in turmoil.

Continue reading

Perspective

350 million is more than a third of a billion. There are more than a third of a BILLION people in the United States, representing by far the greatest variety of beliefs, backgrounds, and lifestyles in the history of the world. It’s impossible to fully conceive of what that number represents in the real world.

I point this out because the fear-mongering media outlets we might like–whichever they may be (they’re all basically the same business model)–love to magnify small exceptions so we can all have a loathsome Other to hate. No matter how insignificant, some marginal extremist presence that’s different from the audience any given outlet caters to will magically be made to seem like a looming threat to everything that audience holds dear.

But it’s all just smoke and mirrors. Because this amazing society is far larger than we can even comprehend, much less identify, quantify, and target.

Take that universal enemy, Westboro Baptist Church. Whenever they get up to their shenanigans somewhere, it’s a great opportunity for people of nearly all walks of life to bemoan the oppression this inhuman boogeyman represents, and to score some easy social capital by publicly proclaiming their intent to fight this evil army.

Except the total number of people in this group is only about somewhere between 40 and 70. That’s it.

To put that in perspective, this imminent threat to our sacred way of life consists of less than 0.0000002% of Americans.

The same could be said of any number of gross abominations against whatever flavor of the sociopolitical spectrum you prefer. They’re just tiny blips on the radar, footnotes that history won’t even bother to include at the bottom of any page.

The lesson, as always, is thus:

unite

Grapes of Wrath FAIL

Today a student told me that he’d ordered a copy of The Grapes of Wrath to read for my class, but the wrong book had been delivered. Turns out that some yahoo published a book with the same name as the Steinbeck classic. Maybe he thought he could get some sales through accidental purchases by students looking for school supplies.

There are clues that this is not the book you’re looking for. For example, it was published just a few months ago. Notice that people get the wrong book so often that Amazon suggests bundling this with another Steinbeck classic, Of Mice and Men.

But the reviews are priceless! Angry people feeling ripped off, confused people searching for meaning, and at least one reviewer who posted five-star praise about Steinbeck, for some reason.

wrath1

 

wrath2.png

The Essential Old Testament

This summer our family took a break from our regular Book of Mormon study so we could take our kids on a tour of the Old Testament. Both as someone who cares about deeply informed discipleship and as an educator who laments the loss of Biblical literacy in our society, I want my children to know the Bible better.

Thus, I put together a short version of the Old Testament, one that we could read and discuss together just during our time together during the break from school.

I wish we’d had more time–I had to skip the amazing Enoch material in Moses 6-7, as well as almost everything from the minor prophets. We missed several days, so we didn’t get it all done, and I updated the list now with a few different choices. Here’s my “essential Old Testament,” with some labels and explanations.

  • Abraham 3:22-28 / Moses 4:1-4 pre-existence
  • Genesis 1 / Moses 2 compare creation details
  • Moses 3
  • Moses 4:5-32
  • Genesis 4
  • Moses 5:1-41 Cain and Abel
  • Genesis 6-8 Noah’s ark
  • Abraham 1
  • Genesis 17 Abrahamic covenant
  • Genesis 37, 39-45 Joseph in Egypt
  • Job 1, 42 first and last chapters
  • Exodus 1-2
  • Exodus 3:1-4:17
  • Moses 1 great vision in the Pearl of Great Price
  • Exodus 4:18-5:23
  • Exodus 6-14
  • Exodus 20 The 10 commandments
  • Leviticus 26:1-13, Deut. 28:1-14 comparing covenant promises
  • Joshua 5-6 the battle of Jericho
  • Ruth 1-4 the whole book!
  • 1 Samuel 17 David and Goliath
  • Psalms 1, 3, 15, 19, 23, 24, 37, 82, 116 some favorites
  • 1 Kings 3 Solomon’s wisdom
  • Proverbs 1-4
  • 1 Kings 8 Temple dedication prayer
  • 1 Kings 17-18 The awesome ministry of Elijah
  • 2 Kings 17 the fall of the ten lost tribes
  • Isaiah 2, 5, 29, 40, 53, 55, 58 some favorite chapters
  • Jeremiah 42 & Ezekiel 33 prophetic warnings, literal and symbolic
  • Ezekiel 37 the gathering of Israel & the Book of Mormon
  • Daniel 6 the lion’s den
  • Esther 1-10 courage in a hostile society

 

“Rigorous Opportunities Throughout”

Today, I attended a teacher orientation at UNLV, prior to English 101 classes starting next week. Department leaders showed some slides, and one of them included the phrase “rigorous opportunities throughout.”

The phrase immediately struck me. Each word has the letter O twice. In the first word, they’re separated by one letter, in the second by two letters, and in the third by three.

That felt noteworthy to me.

We Need To De-Stigmatize Repentance

Scenario: you know you need to see your bishop and confess a problem because the loss of the Spirit is making you miserable, but you can’t, because you know that if you do, you’ll have to stop taking the sacrament, and people will see that, and you’ll be embarrassed.

And what if you’re called on to pray in a class, but you may not be able to–the shame!

And of course people will wonder what awful dirty evil thing you did. They’ll talk about it. They’ll treat you differently. Worse.

In short, your life could be ruined.

What a heartbreaking tragedy that anybody may ever feel this way. But those fears are justified–they didn’t just grow out of nothing in the minds of a paranoid few.

Too many times, we Latter-day Saints do in fact treat people badly because they have clearly Broken A Rule.

And that makes people less likely to go down the path to self improvement. Nobody wants to be a social pariah, or be judged, or looked down on at all.

The biggest tragedy here is that this behavior of ours towards those who are repenting should be the exact opposite of this.

A wise bishop once told a priesthood meeting that if anyone felt hesitant to come to him because of a major sin they’d committed because they worried he might lose respect for them, to not worry–he would have more respect for them because of their courage in confessing and starting up the path to forgiveness.

Continue reading

Ten Favorite Books: Fiction

This week a friend posited this exercise for a list: our ten favorite works of fiction. I then realized that I had never made such a list before. I scoured my record of everything I’ve read, considered only the perfect-ten A-plusses, and came up with these:

10. Tom Wolfe, A Man in Full

A tour de force of satire, and an absolutely perfect portrait of late 20th century us. A huge achievement in making us look at our warts in the mirror and laugh our heads off at them. By far the best American novel of the 90s.

9. Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomson, The Rule of Four

Incredibly fun puzzle mystery, without being ponderous or pandering. A flawlessly fun read.

8. P.G. Wodehouse, Code of the Woosters

The first Jeeves and Wooster book I ever read, and still the best. We all type LOL every day, it seems, but how often does something actually make us laugh out loud? This book did, many times.

7. James Clavell, Noble House

I didn’t think a 1000 page novel about a British business executive in Hong Kong in the 60s could be the most exciting, engrossing adventure story I’d ever read, but here we are.

6. James Joyce, Dubliners

A phenomenal achievement of the mind, this little collection of stories has history’s greatest difference between the simplicity of the narratives and the depth of the ideas.

5. Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights

The bleak setting, the haunted and violent saga, the elegantly complex plot and style: this is the greatest novel from 19th century England, which is saying a lot.

4. Larry McMurtry, Lonesome Dove

A surprise, just like Noble House. Who would have thought a long, rambling Western would also be the most humane, exciting, passionate celebration of life I’d ever see between two covers? I wish I could read it again for the first time.

3. Frank Herbert, Dune

The cover of the current paperback edition calls it “science fiction’s supreme masterpiece,” and if anything, that’s playing it safe. This majestic epic broke all the rules, and in doing so, wrote the ones we’ve been following ever since.

2. John Kennedy Toole, A Confederacy of Dunces

The one and only truly counter cultural book I’ve ever seen–a story so bogglingly original that it has endless surprises and challenges for everybody…and is genuinely funny on every single page.

1. Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace

It’s difficult to even begin describing the wonders of this super masterpiece. Let just one bit of praise suffice: this grand work has the best rendering of life’s very largest dramas and its very smallest details. One or the other would be enough to put it on this list, but it has both. Amazing.

Ten Favorite Paintings

The top 10-themed culture conversation continues between two old friends and I. This last week the category was simple: ten favorite paintings. I got to go back over my posts here on that subject, and I came up with this list:

10. Durand, The Morning of Life

durand

 

9. Van Gogh, Cafe Terrace at Night

cafe-terrace-at-night-2

 

8. Church, Country Home

004-frederic-edwin-church-theredlist

 

7. Bocklin, Isle of the Dead

bocklin

Continue reading

Our Way of Life

When I write about my church, it’s usually to analyze some aspect of belief or to defend it from critics. But today I just want to celebrate the beauty and joy of the kind of life practiced in the Mormon church.

For months now I’ve often looked back from the end of a day and thought of just how amazing it was. It’s crazy how many days make me laugh and smile and think, how many days have a little bit of me helping someone else and someone else helping me, how many days see me witnessing and participating in the best and hardest moments in an ever growing number of lives. This isn’t meant to say that any other way of life is worse than this or bad at all; this post is for me to simply say that the practice of Mormon discipleship is a truly wonderful way to live.

*****

For numerous specific anecdotes of exactly what I’m talking about in the daily lives of ordinary Latter-day Saints, please check out the series of posts tagged “on the sweetness of Mormon life” over at the excellent Junior Ganymede blog. Dip into any of those slices of homemade gourmet living and you’ll find your heart filled with a rich light.

The most recent entry:

An old cowboy bears his testimony. he is being released from the bishopric. It is his 3rd bishopric. He cries when he speaks. He say’s he’ll miss the friendship. His successor is a dirt contractor who “grew up rough.”

The first speaker says he’d been working at the temple a few days back. The Temple President came and pulled him from his duties. Unusual. “We need help in the baptistry.” There was only a father and son. Also unusual. They ran a session of baptisms for the dead and then confirmations for the dead, with just the Temple President and the speaker and the father and the son. Very unusual. The father was fighting back tears.

After, the Temple President explained. The son had turned 12 that weekend. A day or two later, the man received his 7-day notice that he was ordered to Afghanistan for one year. The temple had made special arrangements so he could do his son’s 1st baptisms for the dead.

*****

Or you could refer to this summary from the end of Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option for a remarkable parallel to the kind of life I have in mind:

IMG_20170529_131917258

Continue reading

Joseph Smith and Chiasmus: Means, Motive, and Opportunity

132This year marks the 50th anniversary of the discovery of chiasmus, an ancient poetic writing style, in the Book of Mormon. A great jubilee celebration is being held at BYU this week to commemorate it.

I’ve talked to a lot of critics of the Book of Mormon about this, and the most popular response is that chiasmus isn’t that hard to figure out or write, and that Joseph Smith must have just integrated it into his “hoax.”

But this really doesn’t make sense. Once we look at the situation critics propose in detail, we see that an authentically ancient Book of Mormon is more reasonable than their theory!

In short, critics have only weak answers for the “how” of chiasmus being in the Book of Mormon, and absolutely no answer at all for the “why.”

Let’s consider those three classic staples of investigating a crime: means, motive, and opportunity.

MEANS

Did Joseph Smith have the ability to figure out chiasmus and then duplicate it? For a critic to answer yes to this, they would have to agree with this scenario:

  • Decades before the term was even named by modern scholars, Joseph was able to discern this style from its fragmented, muted use in the Bible. There is no record of anybody else outside of professional scholars ever doing this.
  • Not only did he perform that amazing feat, but he found the writing style significant enough to notice and incorporate into his “hoax” manuscript.
  • Not only did he somehow figure all of this out, but he was able to create a huge number of these poetic narratives–several dozen, at least, and maybe hundreds–covering single verses, entire books, and every length in between, and he did so with clever word play and thematic coherence (consider the literally Christ-centered chiasmus in Alma 36, pictured above, for example).
  • Not only did he do that, but he appears to have done so with no notes, no practice, and with no review or revision to his manuscript. Certainly, all existing manuscript evidence supports this–the critic who would imagine otherwise has to invent hypothetical evidence.
  • Not only did he do that, but then for some reason he restricted its use primarily to that manuscript only–he later produced reams of revelations and other documents, like the books of Moses and Abraham, but none of these would ever use chiasmus again in anywhere near the degree or complexity with which it appears in the Book of Mormon. If it was so easy and he was so good at it, then why not?

Continue reading

Three Little Graves

gravesLast Memorial Day, my family and I were in a cemetery in Utah. I like cemeteries–they tend to be clean and quiet, and one can find clues about scores of great lives hinted at on the markers these thousands of strangers left behind.

On that particular weekend, all the markers that indicated that the deceased was a veteran were decorated with small flags, which made that visit even better.

But I stopped cold at this site and didn’t know what to feel besides sorrow. I had to take this picture.

The poor Krueger couple had three children, all of whom died in infancy. I can’t imagine a heartbreak like that.

And looking around that or any other cemetery, who knows how many more tragedies lie there, silently sleeping after a lifetime of toil and travail?

And those tragedies are part of lives that must have also had amazing triumphs, moments of sublime transcendence, all completely unknown to me, one visitor at random many years later.

Things like this keep me humble and grateful. It’s good to wrestle with the infinite size and scope of human life.

But let’s say a prayer for the lost Kruegers of the world. There is room in our hearts to have sympathy for the dead.