What do we look for in an oral exam?

It’s that time of year when Human Situation students are getting ready for the final oral examination.  Since oral exams are rare and the students are largely freshmen, it’s understandable that they don’t quite know what to expect.  I posted something last year that turned out to be very helpful, so I’m reposting it now with a little freshening up.

First of all, if you’ve seen the rubric, you can tell that we are looking at the full range of texts in the semester.  At a minimum, you should have something to say about every text we read. We don’t expect total recall of the whole text of say, the Odyssey; but it is not unreasonable for us to expect you to remember the names of major characters, the general incidents and outline of the work as well as some details that were personally significant to you. We dwell on particular scenes in discussion and lecture, and we’d expect those discussions to stick in your memory. If you sound as though all you know could have been taken from Spark Notes, then we’re not that impressed.  You should really know who Polyphemus is, what the bow contest was, what’s so special about Odysseus’ bed or his scar, and whom Telemachus visits.

In a text like Plato’s Symposium, we expect you to retain the general nature of the speeches (yes, all of them) and how they relate to each other. We might throw a question at you like: why doesn’t the Symposium just end with the speech of Diotima?  It might be understandable that you’d forget the name Pausanias, but you should definitely remember the name Alcibiades and why his intrusion seems important. (And thanks to that last sentence, you will NOT forget the name Pausanias.)

Some of us are quite open to your challenging philosophical positions in the exam. For example, you might declare you find Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations to be seemingly inconsistent; however, expect immediately to be asked to explain the inconsistencies in detail.  It’s not enough to say, “I just don’t buy the argument.”  You should also be careful to review the meanings of words as defined in the context of the course. We might ask you, “What is yoga in the context of the Bhagavad Gita?” or “What would Marcus Aurelius think of kleos as a goal for virtuous action?”

If we are discussing the Hebrew Bible or a Christian work like Augustine’s Confessions, know that we expect you to engage them as texts. We are neither trying to convert you nor subvert your faith; but we are expecting you to enter into the terms and details of those books as texts. You don’t have to be a Christian or a Hindu to address a comparative question like, “How do Plato and Augustine see the nature of the soul’s desire as opposed to the Bhagavad Gita?”

Ultimately, the exam shouldn’t really be all that much about your memory of texts and arguments—it’s not a trivia contest. It’s a lot more about your engagement with the reading. So what’s the difference between a B- and a solid A exam?  Here are some observations.

  1. An A exam feels like the examinee has conviction based upon a thoroughly digested reading of the texts.  This means thinking through the arguments, pulling them apart, comparing them, and coming up with new ideas. Hopefully you have done this in your discussion sections and your papers.  All that previous work is fair to use for the oral final; use it, but build on it. Repetition doesn’t get you much.
  2. An A exam is not one where we have to walk you through the connections.  Sometimes the examiner poses a question that immediately draws two texts into play.  Once you see the connection, a lot of things should fall into place. But if the examiner has to map them out for you, then you get a lot less credit for the discussion.
  3. In an A exam, the examinee is often as ready to teach as to learn. While we don’t expect it to happen in every exam, the fun thing for us is that we sometimes learn to see things differently based on what students say in the oral final. This again reflects not just assimilation of information, but a new synthesis and digestion of all this from your perspective.
  4. In an A exam, there is solid textual detail that naturally comes forward.  While we don’t expect you to remember everything we might mention, we do expect some decent kind of recall.  However, when you offer of your own accord some detailed textual analysis, we can’t help but be impressed. That’s why memorizing some parts of texts is always a great fallback, particularly when they are central to your understanding of the text.
  5. In an A exam, the examinee holds her own without bluster.  This means that in the give and take of questioning, she keeps her poise but also allows herself to think, in order to add judicious insight and nuance to her answers.  One common mistake is to think we’ll read bluster and obstinance as conviction and certainty.  You can get marked down for simply riding one hobby horse through all the texts, so remember that this is a conversation, not a debate tournament.  Learning to concede points, to qualify claims, or to reflect on the implications of a line of reasoning are all part of critical thinking. There is more to critical discourse than talking fast. Sometimes taking a moment to ponder and formulate an answer to a good question looks quite respectable.
  6. In terms of the show ChoppedYou need to use all of the ingredients from the basket, but it’s not enough just to toss them on the plate. You need to transform the ingredients and give us a real sense of your cooking skills.

Lastly, these observations are not made as some kind of ideal of what an A exam should be.  These are actual descriptions of what A exams are like, from the point of view of the examiner. There really are people out there who will get an A.  It’s not easy to do, but people do succeed at this all the time. And we are always very proud of them.  Good luck!

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Theater: The Drama of Ourselves

A few years ago, I had the pleasure of working on a cd with John Lienhard that served as one of the premiums for the KUHF pledge drive that year. It was all centered on theater, and featured our Engines of Our Ingenuity colleagues Andy Boyd and Roger Kaza in addition to ourselves.

In case you missed it, the content is available online now here.

One of those many great things that comes from being a part of the Engines team!

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An Awesome Bit of Synergy

So here’s why I love my job. An awesome colleague, Ricardo Nuila, MD, came to us with a project: mounting a service learning trip to a clinic in Santa Ana Honduras run by an NGO, Shoulder to Shoulder. With the help of student assistants from the Bonner Leaders program, we were able to make this happen and selected 17 amazing students from the Honors College at UH—including Jonathan Adams, a Classical Studies minor and Biochem major (renaissance man!). We added to this crew a talented  young videographer, Abigail Hagan, who had gone with the Honors College before on a mission to Haiti, organized by my colleague Shasta Jones. In the end, Ms. Hagan produced this amazing video that reveals all that is so important about this endeavor:

Honors Service Abroad to Honduras, 2015 from Abigail Hagan on Vimeo.

We have just received another batch of applications from students eager to participate in this clinical project, and we see another crop of committed and talented young people ready to go, thanks in part to this video. When I see things like this happen, I think I have the best job in the world!

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New Book in our series with Ohio State UP

I had one of those funny moments today.  I received several new books in the mail, and I looked at one with the title Ancient Sex and thought—wow, who sent me this? Then I realized, “Oh, yeah, that’s the next in our series with Ohio State UP!”  Ok, it had been a long day. We sent it off for printing a few months ago, and I hadn’t seen the final design; the volume is very handsome indeed. blondell_ormand_ancient

The contents are dynamite. Ruby Blondell and Kirk Ormand have done a wonderful job in bringing together a team of scholars to tackle ancient sexuality from new angles (I know, sounds like some kind of erotic football, I should police my metaphors better). Here’s the blurb:

Ancient Sex: New Essays presents groundbreaking work in a post-Foucauldian mode on sexuality, sexual identities, and gender identities in ancient Greece and Rome. Since the production of Foucault’s History of Sexuality, the field of classics has been caught in a recursive loop of argument regarding the existence—or lack thereof—of “sexuality” (particularly “homosexuality”) as a meaningful cultural concept for ancient Greece and Rome. Much of the argument concerning these issues, however, has failed to engage with the central argument of Foucault’s work, namely, the assertion that sexuality as we understand it is the correlative of a historically specific form of medical and legal discourse that emerged only in the late nineteenth century.

Rather than reopening old debates, Ancient Sex takes up Foucault’s call for discursive analysis and elucidates some of the ways that ancient Greek and Roman texts and visual arts articulate a culturally specific discourse about sexual matters. Each contributor presupposes that sexual and gendered identities are discursively produced, and teases out some of the ways that the Greeks and Romans spoke and thought about these issues. Comprising essays by emerging and established scholars, this volume emphasizes in particular: sexual discourses about women; the interaction between sexual identities and class status; gender as an unstable discursive category (even in antiquity); and the relationships between ancient and modern sexual categories.

We’re very proud of our latest addition to the series Classical Memories / Modern Identities, and are of course always looking for new submissions.

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Confessions of a Spelling Bee Pronouncer, Part II

webster-dictionary-1828I understand the devotion to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary, I really do.  It is our American dictionary, after all, started by Noah Webster in 1806, the founding father who sought to save our language from the “clamor of pedantry” that surrounded the British approach to our common tongue. He argued for popular sovereignty over the language and refused to let aristocratic norms decide how we speak. It began in the appropriately American way: pragmatic, based on classroom experience, geared to the education of a broad swath of the public, not a thin film of upper crusties.  And it brought genuinely American words for the first time into a dictionary: skunksquash.  He learned 28 languages and mortgaged his home to keep the thing going. Noah’s word-ark brought us to a world of democratic, new-world English.

So the spelling bee powers that be are right to insist upon this dictionary as the standard for American spelling contests.  They are, after all, imminently democratic enterprises. A group of very diverse students compete over one thing we all have access to: our language. And it inculcates the basic value that language is power, a healthy thing for smart kids to learn.

But it seems to me an UTTER violation of the principles of democracy, popular sovereignty and common sense (that GREAT American value!) that these children, who have a hard enough time learning our antiquated, polyglot and sometimes simply perverse spelling, are “guided” in their pronunciation by the idiosyncratic respelling system still deployed in Merriam-Webster’s.  This is simply wrong, and it should stop. And I am very nearly serious when I say this.

Let me explain.  Around the world, people are learning English. More people speak English as a second language than speak it as a first language.  All these English learners have one thing in common: the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), which is in almost every learner’s dictionary of English.  It is the perfect antidote to our ridiculous system of orthography.  It is a rational, internationally agreed upon, universally used (if adapted a bit here and there), and now unicode system that covers the basic sounds of the world’s languages.  An IPA transcription will immediately give the lie to such travesties as the apparent similarity of food and wood, which do not rhyme because they contain completely different vowel sounds. You’ll see this right away when you see the IPA phonemic transcriptions: /fu:d/ vs. /wʊd/. What’s more: when a student learns the IPA, they can use that very same knowledge to learn French, or German, or Swahili. IPA is a kind of unicode to the sounds of the world’s many tongues. Why keep its knowledge from the young people of this country?

One answer a serious researcher has come up with is that empirically, casual dictionary users find the English-based respelling systems easier to use [1].  That’s a valid point, I guess; but only if you are thinking about access to English.  I would state again that the IPA is better overall if we want our students to learn more than just English, and to have a great tool to describe sounds that vary across the spectrum of global English.  I agree, this is more ambitious than just tracking what the casual dictionary user finds more helpful.

Now my true confession: this mostly annoys me because I struggle with unlearning the IPA in order to be a bee pronouncer!  The idiosyncratic symbols used in the wordlist I’m given tend to throw me off as I grow tired. I spend all day teaching Latin, so to be told the symbol ī represents the vowel sound in eye is a bit much. It’s not “long i” after all, but a diphthong, as IPA will show you: /aɪ/. And from years of reading German, I get completely flummoxed by ä representing the vowel in don, as in the Websterese: \nänə’jesəməl\ for nonagesimal.

This is not a major issue, I know. There are larger matters of concern in literacy today. I’m sure it would cost quite a lot of money to reconfigure dictionaries to the IPA after decades of respelling systems. But I say: let’s do it for the children…

[1] Helen Fraser, “Dictionary Pronunciation Guides for English,” International Journal of Lexicography 10.3 (1997):181-208.

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Confessions of a Spelling Bee Pronouncer, Part I

If you ask people who run spelling bees what the toughest job is, most will probably say the pronouncer. That might seem counterintuitive. After all, those kids have to get up there—on television in our case—and think on their feet with lots of competitive pressure and the anxious eyes of their families, schools, and communities on them. But they go up one at a time.  In contrast, the pronouncer’s job is a long marathon and has certain key requirements.  I will list these in order of importance in case you didn’t know. I’m really talking about the job of a regional pronouncer. Our bee is the second largest in the nation, and is broadcast live on KUHT, hosted by a bona fide television personality—Ernie Manouse. Mee_n_ErnieThere is an intense subculture of spelling in the greater Houston area, as serious as football or little league. The champions of spelling bees tend to become kid celebrities at least for a time, darlings of the chattering classes. Why journalists love champion spellers isn’t hard to explain; they are in the word business after all, and the unique devotion to words on the part of bee contestants is reassuring for us word nerds.

So here, in order of importance, are the requirements for being a spelling bee pronouncer.

  1. You have to love working with kids. This is no job for the weekend pedant. You are midwife to the contestant’s success, so you have to realize that from the start. If your thing is inflicting pain on children, then just become a pediatrician or a dentist.
  2. You have to be able to sit in a chair for over four hours without a bathroom break. A lot of people don’t realize this part of the job. It’s the hardest in many ways. So if you’re organizing a bee and looking for a pronouncer, remember: the bladder matters.
  3. You have to be a slave to the exact pronunciations provided by the dictionary;  your own experience, common sense, and/or professional expertise don’t matter. If you deviate the slightest bit from the first listed pronunciation, angry parents will appeal the outcome and you’re just making a lot of work for everybody. So just imagine you are like a lawyer for the dictionary, representing the Law as Webster’s New International Dictionary (2002) lays it out. (For my complaint on the pronunciation guide, skip now to part II.)
  4. You need the patience of a Job as the bee wears on, since the contestants will start to use every possible stalling tactic to negotiate the really tough words.  You will be asked to repeat the word again.  And again.  And again. And again.  Alternate pronunciations will be shopped repeatedly.  That word’s origins will be aired a half dozen times; its pedigree will be better known than the President’s. And the ridiculous model sentence will resound like a church litany over five minutes of intense competitive agony.  No hint of impatience can enter into your voice as you reread the definition for the tenth time—you can’t appear to be pressuring them.  Although the spellers are elementary to middle-school aged, it really helps to have extensive experience with toddlers. So again, a relevant interview question if you’re looking for a pronouncer would be: Have you ever taken a twelve-hour car trip with a three year old?

A few years ago, I was asked to be a pronouncer on KUHT’s regional bee after serving as a talking head for the commentary with Ernie.  I was able to watch my predecessor closely at work my first time in the studio, which was a help because I noticed right away the number one problem the pronouncer faces: fatigue.  The arc of your energy and the arc of your importance move in opposite directions.  Just when you are really getting tired, every single thing you do begins to matter more and more as the last five, four, three, two, one kids are vying for a trophy as tall as they are. Their parents are watching you like hawks; any slight error on your part will be fodder for appeal, so they can reinstate their child and protect the many hours of coaching they have invested in this contest. And these few highly competitive spellers that remain are going to wear you down. There is no rule about time in a bee, even when on the air. You are their only tool, their only hope. If they can just get something from you they can use, they stand a chance of survival, even victory—a chance at the big time Scripps National Bee!  So they are holding on for dear life, and will squeeze you like a lemon if they have to.

And who can blame them? It’s harder in many ways to lose at the end, after all. You can just begin to taste the victory—and your luck, because luck has a lot to do with it!  If you’re lucky, you’ll get one of those words you’ve never heard, but whose spelling you can guess at.  Take coracle, which rhymes with oracle (just remember it’s not like conical). You don’t have to know Welsh to guess at the spelling, especially since we don’t spell it in the Welsh way: cwrwgl. But then there are nightmare words whose spelling is a tremendous mystery: roentgen, dhauri, oberek.  If you draw one of those, you might as well paddle off in your coracle. A word doesn’t have to be long and technical to do you in; it just has to have one trick, one picky little thing that is completely inexplicable.  In a way, a word like weir is worse than a fancy word like basophilic (easy once you know there’s a Greek bit in there) or sympatric (same there). So where do these infernal words come from? How could anyone be expected to know them? Is it cruel of us to use them?

Here’s where I say in response: welcome to the English language. Spelling bees wouldn’t really be very sporting in more sensible languages where one spells in a manner that reflects spoken reality. Take Spanish for example. The only thrill one could get from a Spanish spelling bee might be whether a kid could land the silent h in hombre or (if you’re not in Spain at least) distinguish between casa and caza. But our massive, rolling wreck of a language has resisted both modernization in its spelling and abstaining from impulse to pilfer whatever it wants from the many other languages it has come into contact with. This means a kid has to master rules of spelling for a dozen languages, not just those supposed rules of English orthography, which themselves are based on Middle English, not Modern.

So, for example, she must learn her Italian spelling to know that spaghetti is spelled with an because this makes the sound hard; otherwise, it would be pronounced spajetti. Italian is sensitive to doubled consonants, so she’ll learn folletto though we’ll pronounce it fuh-LED-oh, butchering the vowels and ignoring those extra l’s and t’s. If she looks up consigliere, she’ll see the first pronunciation ignores the as do the Italians (gli is a sound precisely like our li in million), but she can be forgiven her preference for the second pronunciation, which throws in the g with gusto, making it unforgettable (though unforgivable to an Italian—saying consigleeairy may get you whacked). If she really does her homework, she’ll see the Italians write our sh as sci, as in prosciutto and sciolto. 

She must also know that scientific words are horrid Greco-Latin hybrids; so sophistication has a ph for an sound because its first element is Greek, even though the –ication bit comes from Latin (though its pronunciation in English is filtered through French). But in obfuscation there is no ph because the word is entirely Latin. A sensible language like Spanish has the beauty of consistency: sophistication is sofisticación, and spaghetti is espagueti (the doing in Spanish what the does in Italian), which reflects the real pronunciation of the word, since the Spanish tongue has difficulty loading up an sp without the springboard of an to run down. One feels so much more honest writing in a language like Spanish, which is less beset with little orthographic traps. You can learn the Spanish system of spelling in a leisurely hour.  In English, you’ll grow old still trying to figure out why led and lead sound the same, but bed and bead or red and read do not—and let’s not talk about read and read (i.e., the present and past tenses of the verb). We don’t bother to explain these things to college students any more than we would the tax code. They’re just facts of adult life.

For reasons no one can explain, we have resisted updating the way we spell our language for centuries.  We fought an entire revolution to free ourselves of the British Empire, yet the only daring we proved capable of on the linguistic front lies in the meek removal of in honour (what does it say of our founding fathers that there is now no in honor?).  Wouldn’t it have been far more useful to dump the silent consonants in nightknight, or right, or respell words whose consonants are pronounced, but in irregular ways, like rough or tough—which, from the model of through and thorough look as if they should be homonyms of rue and tow? Our famous American pragmatism and practicality clearly do not extend to matters of language. Linguistically, we’re still stuck in Downton Abbey, forcing a nation of peasants to spell like Lord Grantham.

In the meantime, we and the British have joined forces in stuffing the sack of our common language like cat burglars with items from around the globe.  On our side of the pond, we needed a word for caribou, which the Mi’kmaq tribe gave us; but lest we should be too sensible and call it a cariboo, we have decided to spell it as a Frenchman would. Hickory, hominy, and husky seem reasonable enough in their entry into English letters, as do pemmican, pecan, and persimmon. But head for Indian words south of the Rio Grande, and you’ll get Nahuatl and axolotl—thanks alotl! French orthography has made its mark on the Indian words from Northern states (as in Michigan and Chicago, which some benighted Brits have been known to pronounce as Mitchigan and Tchicago); and Louisiana has given us bayou (pronounced bye-yo by real Texans), roux (which resembles the bayou) and étoufée. But one has to revert to Spanish spelling rules for some basics in our neck of the Southwest: tamale, peyote, coyote—though as we know, they really rhyme with Tom Molly, pay oaty, and chi oaty.  Let’s not even talk about Nacogdoches, a place to which a seems to have run in hiding. Good thing proper names are not on the spelling bee list!

From their side of the Atlantic, the British have shopped for new words like consumers on Black Friday with money to burn. Now, if your Dutch is good, you’ll manage the joys of Afrikaans, with its aardvark, kraal, and laager; apparently in the rich soil of South Africa, the letter grows in great abundance.  There’s something called a boomslang, too, and a duiker and a meerkat; let’s not forget the healthy sounding hartebeest. If you blank out on Netherlandish orthography, don’t worry: your spellchecker knows these words (not one of them was queried by the WordPress spellchecker I used to write this, though it underlines Nacogdoches with alarm).  We are trying to forget apartheid, and we’ll let the British remember their war with the Boers, which for us is only interesting in relation to the origin of Boy Scouting. In India, the Brits pulled some good ones: avatar, bandanna, bungalow, cummerbund, dinghy, jodhpurs, jungle, khaki, mantra, nirvana, punch, pundit, shawl, shampoo, thug, typhoon, verandah and yoga. 

In their way, though, most of the words we have shoveled into English make more sense in their transliteration or wholesale adoption in native dress than English words whose spelling has simply expired.  Tycoon and raccoon are much more reasonable than night or through (which long ago sported throaty guttural sounds just like their German cousins, Nacht and durch). The French, who are all about tradition, still are honest enough to spell debt as dette, dispensing with the pedantry of the “etymological” spelling psychosis, which breaks with reality just long enough to insert a where there has not been one for centuries. This is only to remind you that it comes from the Latin debitum— which is utterly ridiculum. 

Now, imagine trying to figure this out at the age of 9.  To compete in our bee, you need this kind of knowledge, even though these words are of little use to a nine-year old. It’s a bit like learning to fly a helicopter in order just to take a written test in the third grade. My heart goes out to them. The effort required is extraordinary, which speaks again to their determination and passion for words. We adults know that passion is all about irrational devotion. In that regard, English is a cruel but very, very, very rich master. Which may explain the fifty shades of orthography it demands of us.

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Engines Hits 3000!

On Monday we had the pleasure of celebrating the 3000th episode of Engines of Our Ingenuity with a little party in a KUHF studio.  Fellow contributors like Andy Boyd, Michael Barratt, Haleh Ardebili, and Cathy Patterson joined KUHF personnel, including our current producer Paul Pendergraft and former producer Capella Tucker, for some cake and reminiscing. But it was really a celebration of John Lienhard’s great invention: a 3:25 radio featurette, a unique form into which we have stuffed almost everything on earth (and beyond, if you count astronaut Barratt’s episode from outer space) over the years.  We toasted John and his wife, Carol—who is well known to be the show’s longest serving editor and accomplice.

KUHF I came across this program in the early 1990s, when I first heard it broadcast over an NPR station in Virginia. I remember distinctly how I thought it unusual they would let an engineer talk about technical things like old World War I airplanes on the air. Then he veered into episodes about women in science, the insect empire, and the use of the first person pronoun. After a while, I wondered, “Who is this guy? And what’s this University of Houston, anyway?”

As fate would have it, I later ended up here at the University of Houston, where we are indeed interested in the way inventive minds work. I have greatly enjoyed the friendship of the man whose voice came to me decades ago across a continent. Many of us take inspiration from his continuing intellectual passion and, in case you didn’t know about it, his passion for photography as well. I think I’ve shared as many photos with John at this point as I have ideas about ingenuity.

I also felt honored to bookend his milestone 3000th episode with two of my own: 2999 Hannibal’s Grand Strategy and 3001 Archimedes to the Rescue.  John has generously trained many of us to make our work and interests available to a larger audience over the airwaves. While he set the bar high with his own episodes, he has always been quite encouraging of new talent. If there still is such a thing as the notional “Republic of Letters,” I’m pretty sure John could win its presidency in a landslide.

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