Wednesday, October 21, 2015


This sodality blog has been dormant for a season, though Barbara has valiantly posted on our Tehoming instincts and Matt has offered spiritual reflections on desert and on gazing heavenward (both at Ascension and Epiphany). Previously, we sodalitiers had offered sporadic and eccentric musings on various points of the Liturgical Year; more derivative than original, such posts were intended to highlight favorite feast days.[1] Such articles will undoubtedly crop up from time to time as the spontaneous overflow of who-knows-what recollected in tranquility (apologies to Mr. William Wordsworth for that phrasing).

Some other ideas for posts might be:
  •  reviews of books or other resources
  • QuickTakes from our weekly discussions on- and off-topic
  • a series offering some glimpse into the life, work, and perspective of individual sodality members (perhaps “How I Pray” interviews, or reflective essays on their work in the light of faith[2]).

What would you like to read? Let me know.
That’s enough of an editorial headnote[3]. Here is my reflective essay on what some colleagues call “stewardship of words.”
“Save the rhinos. Extinction is forever.” So reads a sticker on the bathroom mirror near one of my classrooms. I keep thinking about this during teaching prep. Not because of the eco-rhetorical appeal for charismatic megafauna: I have not mustered any particular sentiment, fellow-feeling, or activist thought concerning the rhinoceros—but extinction, yes. And the foreverness of it, yes. A different kind of extinction, though, is one of my greatest and deepest fears:[4] cultural extinction, intellectual extinction. I also fear the Age of Conshush, as I will explain later.
  •  Everyone has a right to follow their own conshush.
  •  She conshushouslly insisted that no one can force someone else’s conshush.
  • 595154-jiminy1 super
    Jiminy Cricket
  • It needs to be a conshush decision in that it has to be conshushual.

I fear the death of ideas: strong, resilient, and adaptable as ideas are, they cannot survive the loss of their habitat. They do not live in the wild. They do not live in books, though we can find some record of where they have roosted and nested and bred from the signs and material evidence they leave in the written record. But ideas are human creations, by God’s great grace in permitting us to be little makers in His image, sub-creators. Our ideas can only live in human minds, minds that are awake and cultivated (as with that “constant and assiduous Culture” and daily weeding of the mind that Joseph Addison discussed). Since the human mind is in a mortal body, ideas will die unless they can live on in other minds. Behold! How fragile are the humanities at any given moment!

Ideas feed on words: when words are killed or diseased, ideas flatten, shrivel, gasp, swell, shudder, constrict, and die. Words do die regularly; it’s an inescapable part of the ecological dynamics of language. But when a new linguistic disease is introduced, when whole ecosystems of words fall ill in one season, then the death rate and the statistical models for ideas must certainly change: I write today to raise awareness for the plight of a cluster of words and ideas that are in acute danger of extinction now. How fragile is this handing over of ideas, this traditio! How quickly ideas and traditions could go extinct without even being listed as “endangered”!

My ecological analogy is not meant as a mere metaphor. I believe language truly is a resource as precious as any of our natural resources. Marilyn Chandler McEntyre has also made this point: “like any other life-sustaining resource, language can be depleted, polluted, contaminated, eroded, and filled with artificial stimulants.” She elaborates on the consequences and our responses to this in a book I sometimes use for class discussions, Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies. No doubt dead and dying ideas distort and disease the host mind, but that is beyond my scope here. Moreover, I am not an intellectual historian; I don’t study the history of ideas, nor even of one idea. Nor am I setting out to write something on the “problem with young people today”—not the Closing of the American Mind a generation ago, nor the Coddling of the American Mind now, nor yet edutainment, nor selfie culture, nor relatability. Instead, I offer my impressions from my field notebooks, if you will. I know my observations are limited to the little corner of the world I work in, though I do have a surprisingly large sample from my small purview. Since last fall, I have taught ten of my own college courses, assisted with five discussion sections, and read nearly a thousand (placement) exams. Thus, compared to my previous five years of teaching in my doctoral program, I have seen a staggering 8-10X the amount of student writing this year.

This large volume of student writing has been written at the first-year college (freshman) level—or placing into it. Aside from the placement exams, I’ve seen each student essay develop from initial fumbling, to first draft, to submission draft, to final revision draft; I’ve checked in on various other stages in between. I haven’t taught upper-division courses in a while; I remember fondly the best papers I read, especially in elective courses that had really captured student interest, but those haven’t looked like the last 3000 course assignments I’ve graded. There is no need here to detail the grading rubrics or comments that I give or the pedagogical recommendations at my two institutions; suffice it to say that I know the student writing process in all its messiness.

I also know that I do not see students’ best work, for at least two reasons: firstly, what they turn in to me is all more or less coerced writing, since no one chooses first year composition as worthwhile in its own right, merely a requirement to be “gotten out of the way” if one hasn’t tested out of it; secondly, to quote the textbook I use “As we struggle to master new ideas, most of us write worse than we do when we write about things that we understand. If that sounds like you, take heart: you will write more clearly when you more clearly understand what you are writing about.” The nature of college writing is that students are forced to write about things they are still struggling to grasp.

Yes, first-year composition (FYC) papers present a distorted picture of undergraduate education today. I understand that. But I am alarmed by one trend I’ve seen in my classroom, and my alarm waxes greater and more urgently every time I see the same thing in the wider world outside my classroom. It’s not that I’m surprised to find typos, nor even the kind of typos that spell checkers miss, nor that students mistakenly use the wrong word, nor that misplaced politically-correct sensitivity can led to confusion: the alarming problem is that some such corrections can become uncorrectable. It’s one thing to circle “for all intensive purposes” and discuss changing it to “for all intents and purposes”—the student heard a common expression wrongly, as I hear song lyrics wrongly so often—and perhaps another round of revision will eliminate the clich├ęs and filler words altogether. It is very different to find oneself repeating this conversation several times for one course: “I circled the word ‘distress’ so you could replace that with the word you mean.” “You know what I mean.” “I truly don’t know what you mean. Do you find the beach distressing?”

If students don’t know (and don’t know that they don’t know) the word they want to use, nor the word they actually did use, nor similar words; if they can’t distinguish as readers or writers between two different concepts; if they are passively resistant to further instruction on these points—then surely they are functionally illiterate, even if they go on to be awarded a baccalaureate degree! My students “know not what they do”: as much as we lose our ability to distinguish between words, our ability to think is diminished. (Eskimos and other Arctic peoples have hundreds of words for snow; surely they can think far more extensively and intensively about snow than I can! By comparison, how many names and titles do we have for our Lord and our Lady? And how carefully might we use those as tools to help us think more about divine matters?) My students’ paucity of vocabulary is nowhere more painfully evident than in the verbs used to respond to a book, article, or other materials: merely the verbs “like” and “dislike.” How flat is such thinking! Fortunately, by the end of the term, they do make good progress on this point. 

In teaching, I can usually call out some distortions, inversions, and so on that crop up in our public discourse and committee-speak. I’d rather face an inversion than entrenched murkiness.This is the different, more incorrigible problem: to illustrate it, I will choose one cluster of words. My freshmen students choose to write about current events and political discussions, concepts that come up in other intro courses, and their extracurricular experiences or concerns. Every term, students’ own choices for paper topics include
  • healthcare, women’s issues, reproductive rights, parental rights, vaccines, and autonomy: questions of individual choice, collective responsibility, and conscience clauses.
  • first-year psychology (one of the most popular majors): questions of (un)consciousness in decisions and human behavior, Big Five personality traits (including conscientiousness)
  •  sometimes related to either of the foregoing categories, sometimes not: consensual sexual relations, consensus in group dynamics or political activity.

In the past year, I have seen all of these “con-“ words confused, and my circling or writing WW (wrong word) on graded work seems to some students to be utterly arbitrary. Sometimes there are multiple levels of confusion in one sentence. Stop for a moment and think up sentences that would draw on 3-4 of these concepts; there are indeed crucial points of contact between and among these ideas. Now make them into a verbal smoothie and taste the horrid sludge. It’s strange, because it’s seemingly a little problem, a surface-level correction, just a word or two to tweak in a sentence while revising for clarity and precision.

Sometimes in the context of a sentence the correction would not be a simple substitution; sometimes the sentence makes no sense with any existing word—utterly incomprehensible; far more often it is a murky confusion of these several ideas, none of which the poor student has been able to grasp fully. This is far, far more effort and more time-consuming to grade than the honest typos, or stylistic infelicities, or translation difficulties: it is the most alarming and least rewarding to attempt to correct, because students often still fail to see the problem. Yes, there is always some slippage of words; poets use such slippage to brilliant effect--but they and their readers must work through it, not simply pretend muddy waters are clear.

In the Age of Conshush, any vague impression of mumbled phrasing will do—the prefix con- followed by a sibilant, a syllable or two, and a closing sibilant. Conscience, conscious, conscientious…fade to conshush. Even the dictionary does not help if students are not willing to distinguish [there are 12 entries for “con” alone]. Conscience is defined at first as a “consciousness of morality”; Conscious, awareness in an “active and waking state” of mind, these are definitions 9 & 10 of the Oxford English Dictionary; the word originally meant sharing in knowledge, awareness, and so on. Trace both words back through other romance languages to find they draw from con-, with and scire, to know (the word that also gives us science, as well as decision, incision, excision—a cutting off doubt, cutting into, cutting out). In class and in student meetings, though, there is no time for this; students do not even stop to think how the words are used now, to find and think about any examples of them in print, nor do they care about previous developments.] As my alarm grows, I think how all dictionaries now are descriptivist and how digital editions even of the OED are more quickly changed than previously: these new meaningless uses will become the useable meanings very, very soon. These will gum up the political machine even more, hamper evangelization efforts, and hasten our doom. What should the history books say about the decline and fall of our technologically conceited civilization? Some insufferable future historian addicted to wordplay might sum us up:
First they were conned; then they were shushed; they couldn’t help conning and shushing others until the end of their days.
These poor students do not share in knowledge, are not aware; they are not sufficiently con- scire. They are sadly lacking in consciousness, conscientiousness, conscience—and, remember this is a required course, and college is all but required—consent. In a Catholic context, last week we saw that even some synod fathers were confused. (Samuel Gregg’s article at Crisis Magazine today is worth reading, especially the section starting with “conscience doesn’t create its own truth.”; Cardinal Arinze’s interview is also helpful.)

Sometimes I wonder why God bothered to reveal Himself to us in our feebleness, pettiness, frailty—and with our genius for distorting messages and words. Our Lord founded His Church to redeem sinners, and He put it in the hands of imperfect, sinful men; He gave to sinners the power to forgive sins. God entrusts us with the responsibility for cultivating and correcting, even though we ourselves are in need of such correction—surely a mystery! In my own case, He gives to a very slow and clumsy writer the responsibility to cultivate better writing. As the Year of Mercy begins, I should remember that my repetitive and sometimes disheartening work can really be a work of mercy: “All the ordinary deeds of every day to relieve the corporal or spiritual needs of others are true works of mercy if done in the name of Christ.” Of such is the kingdom of heaven.

Please pray for me as I write in my small way:
 “And knowing the whole world stiff with the crack of doom
I pick up my pen and correct and make notes and write small
And go on with the task of the day, seeing unseeing what hangs over all
The awful eyes of our Lady, who hangs so straight upon the crooked wall.”[5]

Would you please comment? And consider writing a post reflecting on your own work and faith?

[1] The most  noteworthy development in those posts is not the writing itself but the development of a collaboration between TMR and scovich. This collaboration has grown in other ways than drafting and editing sodality posts: this week, it will become an all-encompassing collaboration, lifelong and life-giving. It will be a formal contract, indeed, elevated to the dignity of a sacrament, signifying and conferring grace. Deo gratias.
[2] Matt’s last few posts are examples of this. I’m sure he could expand more, but he does have the courtesy to be brief for the sake of busy readers—whereas, today, I seem to expect readers to clear their calendars to make time to read.
[3] I have been an inactive editor for some time; if any sodalitier wants to take up the position and email address, I’m sure that can be speedily arranged.
[4] As Tehomies know (because they spent six months studying John’s Apocalypse with me), I fear many things. And I feel the burden of the past and the responsibility for the future. My childhood fear was that future archeologists would not be able to read anything from my era because they would lack something like the Rosetta Stone; my current fears might include that they would understand my era all too well—and I wouldn’t wish that on anyone.
[5] From “Crooked” by G. K. Chesterton

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