Thursday, July 28, 2016

When Harry taught grad students

Harry in his post-retirement college days
Harry was like an advertisement for "intergenerational" programs. Those are organizations that pair school kids with elderly mentors, or connect young adults with seniors who want computer lessons. For my dad, it was natural to reach out to people in younger generations, to improve communication, to help bridge the gaps. In the following email to one young friend, in October 2009, he wrote personal details about his volunteer work with grad students at the University of Maryland.

There is so little communication between my generation and yours that, whenever there’s a breakthrough, as between you and me, it’s like a shot in the arm of hope and encouragement.  …

Some professors are quite adept at bruising the egos of young students. Later on, some bosses are even more adept at doing that. As a boss, I was never good at that; instead, I tended to soothe and massage young egos, and over the years I had a lot of young interns work for me each summer while they were in school and while we had an active program of hiring young interns. But I had a different kind of experience after I retired. For fifteen years after I retired (I retired in 1986 when it was fashionable to retire at age 65), from 1987 to 2002, I took courses each semester at the U. of Maryland. At the same time, I worked as a volunteer on campus teaching English to foreign students and for seven of those years, remedial English to American students working on advanced degrees.

Would you believe that Young Americans in their early to mid-20s, studying to obtain Masters and PhDs, had to learn basic English composition and even language skills, as well? That’s when I learned how to bruise egos and do some verbal spanking, so to speak. I could not understand how they could graduate from high school, nor could I believe they had actually obtained undergraduate degrees. And I let them know in no uncertain terms how backward I thought they were and what they had to do to write a thesis or a dissertation.

Incidentally, I had an intern one summer – a boy – whose job most of the time was filing newspaper articles in an alphabetized index system. We did not realize until after he was gone that he actually did not know the alphabet and had misfiled almost everything. When I realized it, I got in touch with his school and they (whoever) were smart enough to figure out that he was dyslexic and was really smart enough to cover up well enough to fool everyone through high school and get into college by faking his way. He really was a bright kid and talking to him you’d never know he had real difficulty reading and writing. As far as I know, they treated him – there is a standard treatment for dyslexia – and that worked out okay.

But, to get back to the kids I was talking about, they had no such excuse. They weren’t dumb kids. Most of them were pursuing advanced degrees in a scientific subject – physics, chemistry, math, electronics, engineering, etc. – they just had never been taught the fundamentals in English or had never been pressed by their teachers to do the work required.  

So I was helping them write papers on subjects far beyond my grasp, and if I was exasperated by their lack of English skills, they were exasperated by my lack of comprehension of their subject matter. I had to explain everything about composition to them and they had to explain verbally everything they were trying to say in their papers. I must say, while I learned a lot from them about those sciences, I don’t think they learned a lot from me about writing. I blame our education system from grammar school on up through high school for not doing an adequate job of teaching English and the associated skill of composition writing. Also reading, because in my experience, the person who does a lot of reading, books and essays of all kinds, learns how to write almost by osmosis. Reading is essential and I’m glad to see that you’re a reader and even like the same authors that I like. 

About writing, you (that’s a general you, not so much specifically you) have to cultivate your writing skills in many different ways, no matter what profession you choose to follow. One way to do that is to keep a journal. There are other ways, but I like a journal best. Not a bound journal – a loose-leaf notebook journal, in which you move pages around so you can keep subjects together. Thus, if you write something about say, the weather, one day, and then have some different comments about it a week later, you put the pages next to each other and wind up with different thoughts on the same subject in one place. You need not make comments in the journal every day – it’s not a diary. But you should make entries fairly regularly. And, those entries are for your eyes only – unless you want to share some of them with someone else – like your parents, or your grandmother, or maybe even me.

The purpose of writing your thoughts in a journal is not only to hone your writing skills, but to get into the habit of writing, of noting your observations on the world around you, on people or events, on your thoughts and feelings about yourself. Doing so has certain benefits, too – it clarifies in your own mind your thoughts and feelings. Often, we think we know how we feel and what we think about something or someone, but it’s all unclear in our minds unless we enunciate it or write it down, and then it becomes clear. And sometimes, when you write something like that, it may even surprise you because it does clarify your thoughts and you come to a realization about something that you were not fully aware of.

Idioms to ponder

While were on the subject of Harrys teaching, in September 2007, he wrote this brief article, I believe for his community newsletter.

I taught English to foreign students at the University of Maryland for fifteen years after I retired. The ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) Program at the school consisted mainly of graduate students who were fair at reading and writing, but needed a great deal of help in speaking and listening. Those of us for whom English is our native tongue simply don’t realize how many idiomatic expressions are sprinkled through our everyday, normal speaking language, or just how difficult it is for speakers of other languages to grasp the meaning of phrases that cannot be taken literally. Here are just a few examples of words or phrases whose meaning has no relationship to their literal meaning:

No doubt writing this article put a smile on his face
Double take
Fire eater
Handwriting on the wall
Make a scene
Out of line
Play second fiddle
Pull strings      
Top banana
High horse
Let your hair down
Life of Riley
Read the riot act
High hat

That’s enough to get the idea. Can anyone think of more? Actually, there are hundreds of such idiomatic expressions. It’s easy to think of them, but try explaining their meaning to someone who only sees the literal words.

Copyright 2016, Elaine Blackman

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