Saturday, January 26, 2013


The new term of instruction at my current institution is underway, and I have already started getting work in from students.  As ever, I have questions about what I find in student writing, and while some of them are not entirely good to have to ask ("What are you thinking, here?" "Where are you getting this idea?" "Are you sure that this is a response to the prompt?" "Why did you give up the way it seems that you did?"), some of them are decidedly more interesting.

I asked one set of students to write a brief bit on what they expect to get out of my classes.  Among the many responses was a student comment about not wanting to do "sub-par" work.  I know that the phrase refers to work that is below acceptable standards, and I understood what the student was trying to put across.  But I was also taken by thoughts about the more literal meaning of the phrase.

Par, after all, is a benchmark score in golf.  In golf, is it not good to come in well under--i.e, "sub"--par?  So how is it that a reference to what is actually desirable became an indication of inadequacy?

I take it as a teaching moment, one in which I can reinforce how contexts change the meanings of words, how words change meanings over time, and that lack of attention to the details of language use results in confusion.  I also take it as a confirmation that my students teach me things.  Perhaps they do not always impart new information to me, but they do cause me to stop and ask questions that lead to interesting thoughts.  I have no idea if any good will come of them, other than the exercise in examining details and posing questions that they offer.  Maybe they will offer a model of how reading can lead to writing that leads towards an increased understanding of the world and the people in it.

I have written before about my attempts to coordinate sharing with students, here.  This is an example that will present me no problems, I think.

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