Tall, Dark, and Mysterious

10/18/2004

Home and native land by the dawn’s early light

File under: Character Writ Large, Home And Native Land, I Read The News Today, Oh Boy. Posted by Moebius Stripper at 4:43 pm.

I wanted to comment on Diana Moon’s evisceration of a particularly egregious FrontPageMag.com article, because her characterization of US/British sentiments could be applied almost just as well to US/Canada ones:

I took one trip to Britain, in the summer of 1989. George Senior was a-comin’ fer a visit and the hot topic on every BBC show was “Is the special relationship still special?” Now, I knew what this special relationship thing was, but to see the anxiousness displayed on the British media was, well, surprising. Of course, I couldn’t help but note that when a British PM comes to the US, there is no such reciprocal anxiety…which might account for a certain resentment on the part of the British towards the overwhelming power imbalance…which I did not encounter.

Yeah, that about covers it, except that while the British are (from what I can tell) obsequious (in that formal British backhandedly contemptuous way) toward the US, Canadians are more passive-aggressive. My Canadian readers will recall Prime Minister Martin’s campaign this past summer, which featured the Liberal leader assuring us, in turns, that 1) we wanted so very much foster a close relationship with our good friends the Americans and by God we would under a Liberal government; and that 2) we’re not American, with their privatized health care and their Iraq war and their votes on abortion, okay, we’re Canadian, we’re different, THANK THE LORD GOD WE’RE NOT AMERICAN. Witnessing the US presidential campaigns from my vantage point north of the 49th, I found myself thinking more than once - the Republicans are calling Kerry a flip-flopper? They have no idea. But anyway, similar dynamic - wee Canada sitting up north, chewing its nails and assuring itself that if it behaves properly (and unlike those brutes the Americans, it always behaves properly, it’s Canadian for heaven’s sake!) then the US will love it. Meanwhile, south of the border, the US making its decisions and formulating its views pretty independently of anything Canada thinks. (Independently, that is, when they’re not trying to piss us right off.)

I was reminded of this last night, watching an unintentionally hilarious CBC piece about Machias Seal Island, one of four (!) disputed islands that lie on blurry segments of the Canada/US border. According to the US, the island is part of Maine; Canada maintains that it’s property of New Brunswick. The latter doesn’t sit terribly well with one John Norton of Kennebunkport, Maine*, who leads puffin tours of the island. His family has been in Maine for hundreds of years, apparently, and the last five generations of his family have fought for the US government to take Maine’s property claims more seriously. He defends the island with a righteousness that makes me kind of selfishly glad that the US troops are all tied up in Iraq for the time being. Meanwhile, Canada has had a lighthouse on the island since before Confederation, which seems like a pretty strong case for Canadian ownership; but at the same time, our federal government actively allows its fishermen to fish off the Island coast before the Canadian fishing season has started…as long as American fishing season is underway. Cakes and consumption, Canada.

In any event, Norton is adamant: “Eye lead puffin tours of Machias Seal Island, YOU. ESS. AY,” he enunciated from his boat, with all the passion and clarity of a stage actor. He then continued, “Canadians are very smooth…they can stick the knife in your back and twist it around” - cue crude arm gesture - “and say ‘thank you’.” Norton’s family has run the puffin tours for generations, but he still feels threatened by New Brunswick (that’s threatened by New Brunswick, for those of you keeping track), and he won’t back down: “Canada,” he announced, “will have to shoot me in the head” - this he demonstrated visually by pointing his finger at his head in the classic “shooting self in head” position - “to keep me off this island.”

From there we met Paul Cranford, a Cape Breton fiddler and writer who’s worked as a lighthousekeeper on Machias for the last decade. “It’s Canadian territory,” he told the camera calmly, and chuckled, “though I know John Norton thinks otherwise. Sure,” he continued, “the island is disputed…but there’s no real animosity.”

And then the camera cut to Cranford walking through the overgrown Maritime fields against a backdrop of Celtic music, which it then showed him playing on his fiddle.

And that right there, ladies and gentlemen, is Canada/US relations in a nutshell.

* I’ve been to Kennebunkport, and I would postulate that there is no one else in the entire state of Maine - save perhaps his family - who’s anything like John Norton. Mainers make Canadians look unfriendly and impolite by comparison. Tell an average Mainer that there’s an island disputed between Maine and New Brunswick, and you’ll probably get an answer along the lines of “Oh, is there? Well, you can have it, you know, if you want it. Is there anything else you want? Another island maybe? Really, just let us know.”

Back to basics

File under: Those Who Can't, Queen of Sciences, I Read The News Today, Oh Boy. Posted by Moebius Stripper at 11:35 am.

The other day, I wrote about my university math students not knowing their times tables or how to add fractions. (By the way, you should go read the excellent comments to that one, which I will reply to eventually - where did all of my awesome commenters come from?) A few days earlier, Erin O’Connor, an English-prof-turned-high-school-English-teacher, posted an English teacher’s equivalent: grammatically ignorant English students. There are plenty of parallels:

Most high school students these days are not on the grammar curve at all. The parts of speech are largely mysterious to them; the rules of punctuation and agreement are likewise unfamiliar. Semi-colons, colons, and dashes do not come into play in their writing because they do not know what they are for…

Don’t get me wrong. Kids today are as smart, creative, and sharp as ever. Their grammar deficit is not their fault. They can’t be blamed for what they were never taught. It’s increasingly unfashionable to emphasize grammar and the rules of syntax in school, the reasons ranging from the hang-loose notion that the rules of usage are confining and binding and irrelevant anyway since language is a living, breathing thing, to the feel-good notion that grammar is boring and mind-numbing and kids will be turned off to reading and writing forever if they have to learn it.

The notion that “language is a living, breathing thing” doesn’t apply to math; math is seen as boring, and in need of sexing up (hence the skipping over the basics), and all of the people I know who love math and actually do see it as living and breathing are absolutely militant about making sure that the basics of math are taught. But just as the parts of speech are mysterious to Erin’s students, the whole notion of quantitative data is foreign to mine. Two of my commenters from the previous post confessed that they, too, never learned their times tables, but both are comfortable with math. But I was appalled not at the fact that one of my students didn’t know off the top of her head that 3x8=24; rather, what appalled me was that she lacked the ability to figure out the value of 3x8. She left her calculator in her car, and therefore she would not know how to compute that quantity. She could not count groups of eight (or three) on her fingers. She could not make eight and eight and eight marks on a sheet of paper. Not only did she not know what 3x8 was, she did not know what 3x8 meant. And this is the real issue; students not getting the basic, basic aspects of what mathematics means.

Year after year, I’m reminded that my students, almost to the individual, are nigh incompetent when it comes to word problems. There’s this basic inability to translate quantitative data into useful equations. I’ve taken to reminding my students at the beginning of every section of word problems, “an equation is a relationship among quantities. So we need to figure out what quantities we’re interested in, and find relationships among them.”

I make a point of emphasizing this because, based on my students’ “solutions” to word problems on tests, their thought processes are something akin to the following:

Okay, let’s see, this question says that it takes me twice as long to get 25 km upstream, with a current of 3 km/h, as it does to get downstream. Okay, so I have a 25 in my question. And a 3. So I need an equation with both of those. How about…25+x=3? No, because 25 is bigger than 3. So - 3+x=25. No hold on, there’s something about “twice as long”, so…multiply something by 2? 2(3+x)=25? Yeah, let’s try this, that’ll work.

My students, almost to the individual, have little idea how to relate word problems to mathematical equations. The parts of math, in other words, are largely mysterious to my students, and it’s a crying shame that this is still the case in university.

[Timely update - Joanne Jacobs reports that LA schools are beginning to teach algebra in elementary school. The article is annoyingly contentless (what are these algebra games the kids are playing? Inquiring minds want to know), but dammit, it’s about time; I’ve been suggesting this for years. It’s completely ridiculous that every single first grader knows that two dogs plus three dogs equals five dogs, but then in seventh grade they’re completely perplexed to see that 2d+3d=5d.]