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September 2010

Three on English

"Failure to communicate: The inability of many students to write clear, cogent sentences has costly implications for the digital age".

When you teach English to college students, you quickly realize two things.

First, many seem to have received little writing instruction in high school. I initially noticed this as an undergraduate English major at Yale, where I helped peers revise their papers. I saw it again in graduate school at Tufts, where I taught freshman writing classes. And it has also struck me at Babson, where, for the past two years, I have instructed first-year students.

The second thing English teachers realize is that correcting students’ papers is tremendously time consuming. I constantly do battle with myself to spend less than 20 minutes on a paper. At meetings, instructors are often urged not to exceed 15 minutes, but I frequently end up spending double that. This can be a genuinely frustrating experience: 50 papers stacked on the coffee table, 10 in the finished pile, and an entire afternoon gone.

"Do You Speak College Slang?"

Eble—an English professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill—was kind enough to share her latest slang list with me. She’s been collecting such lists of “good, current campus slang” since 1972 in her undergraduate English classes. The lists are not just about collecting new slang, but about seeing what older slang is still in use, so I wasn’t surprised to find familiar terms like “absofreakinlutely,” “alrighty,” “blow off,” “craptastic,” “food coma,” “hammered,” “hook up,” “preggers,” “splitsville,” and “tramp stamp.” Though slang has a reputation for being ephemeral, some terms do stick around for decades—look at what a run “cool” has had.

"Perversely in praise of the passive voice".

Most of what you've heard about the passive voice is true: It's wordy, weaselly, and wimpy. Much academic writing, in particular, would benefit from recasting into the active voice. Some scholars are evidently fearful of sounding too lively and perhaps actually being read.

But occasionally the passive voice can be useful

"A Teaching Moment"

Joan Wickersham, Boston Globe, 9/3:

Recently I met a composer and asked how he got started. Was he musical as a kid? Not really, he said. He’d had a teacher in high school who assigned all the kids to write poems. “Everyone except you,” she’d said, pointing at him. “You write me a piece of music.” Forty years later, the composer was still mystified at how the teacher had known to send him in that particular direction. But he remembered the joy of writing that first piece of music, and the startled sense of excitement he’d felt at being so accurately and deeply seen.

A lovely piece.

New conservative campaign slogan: "The more you know about Washington, the less you'll like."

Al Gore's Internet may yet save us all:

But Rep. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee suggests I have the wrong word for the Republican base. The word, she says, is not enraged, but "livid."

The three-term Republican deputy whip has been campaigning in Alabama, Colorado, Georgia, Mississippi, Missouri, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and South Carolina. We spoke by phone about what she is seeing, and she sounded like the exact opposite of exhausted.

There are two major developments, she says, that are new this year and insufficiently noted, but they're going to shape election outcomes in 2010 and beyond.

First, Washington is being revealed in a new way. The American people now know, "with real sophistication," everything that happens in the capital. "I find a much more knowledgeable electorate, and it is a real-time response," Ms. Blackburn says. "We hear about it even as the vote is taking place." Voters come to rallies carrying research—"things they pulled off the Internet, forwarded emails," copies of bills, roll-call votes. The Internet isn't just a tool for organization and fund-raising, it has given citizens access to information they never had before. "The more they know," Ms. Blackburn observes, "the less they like Washington."

Hooray for us

In the NRC rankings of Ph.D. programs in economics, just released yesterday afternoon, NC State's program ranks as high as 39th in the U.S.

(Why "as high as"? Because the new, super-improved rankings now have confidence intervals attached. We could rank as low as 78th.)

But--and it's a big deal in these parts--we're basically tied with UNC-Chapel Hill, interval (38th to 71st). If this were one of the lesser fields of human endeavor, like college football or basketball, NCSU students would be out TP'ing Hillsborough Street.

Link via Greg Mankiw. (Who teaches at Harvard, where they have three econ. Ph.D. programs ranked in the top 30.)

How to avoid Mancur Olson's grim prediction

Matt Miller, Washington Post, 9/22:

The late economist Mancur Olson, in his classic study "The Rise and Decline of Nations," warned that advanced democracies eventually grow encrusted with powerful interest groups that hijack government to serve their narrow economic ends. Inefficiency reigns. Growth languishes. . . .

Is there a way to break this fatal interest-group stranglehold? Olson said war or depression could wipe society's slate clean, but that's a bit grim as a strategy. The better path is to promote entrepreneurial innovation and harness capitalism's bottomless capacity for finding new ways to deliver more for less.

"Why the rich are angry, and why you should worry about it"

Makes some fine points including this one:

For there to be an economic recovery in this country, some people are going to have to create businesses that grow and create jobs. If those businesses grow enough because customers want what they are selling, the entrepreneurs who created them become rich, just like Apple's Steve Jobs or Google's Sergey Brin.

The President or the press can insult those people or try to jack up their taxes and give their money away to other people. But if we want recovery and growth rather than redistribution and recrimination, a better approach would be to stop treating rich people as though they are the cause of America's problems and start concentrating instead on what can be done to create more of them.

Darn right. Reminds me of an old story. Two poor, down-on-their-luck people are talking. One says to the other, "I hate the goddam rich." The other one says, "I don't." The first one asks, "Why not?" And the second one replies, "No poor man ever offered me a job."

F. A. Hayek is strongly endorsed by . . . Slick Willie

Hayek, The Fatal Conceit: "The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design."

Bill Clinton, 9/21: "Do you know how many political and economic decisions are made in this world by people who don't know what in the living daylights they are talking about?"

Idea, quotes, and link provided courtesy of The Amateur Economist.