Throughout History …

March 22, 2012 Leave a comment

Why is it that students love to start essays with phrases like “Throughout history …” or “From the beginning of history …”? Last week I gave a lesson on introductions where students had to guess which of the sentences I’d put up should go in the introduction of an essay, which should go in the body, and which should not go in the essay at all. One sentence was “From the beginning of history, people have always played games” (this was a hypothetical essay about games, by the way). At least half the students wanted to put this in the introduction and looked vaguely hurt when I told them that it shouldn’t go anywhere, in any essay because it is not a good idea in academic writing to inform the reader of the blatantly obvious. Unless you are some radical, ground-breaking historian, if what you are saying is true for the whole of history, it’s something we already know. After all, we’ve had the whole of history to get used to the idea.

A few days later, I had them in the lab writing the introduction of their essay, and while wandering round I prevented a handful of students from inserting the whole of history into their introductions (note that I have no gripe with qualified historical statements like “since the industrial revolution” or “throughout the twentieth century”). Now I am reading the drafts they produced and I am still finding sentences like “Throughout history, people have played many games.” Were these students asleep in the lesson? Did I fail to get the point across? Is there some lure of history that they simply find irresistible? Or, as I suspect, is this another of those cliches that are actually taught ? I haven’t yet seen this in a writing textbook, but it is so bad that it would not surprise me if I did.

Note: I was going to finish with a witty comment about those who don’t learn from history being doomed to repeat it, but then I found out that this is not what George Santayana actually said.

Categories: Writing

Job Opportunities

March 19, 2012 Leave a comment

Bilkent University in Ankara has vacancies in both the Preparatory school and my own programme, FAE. Details are at

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Touching Lives

December 13, 2011 Leave a comment

As educators, we love the thought that from time to time we touch someone’s life. There are countless novels, films and TV episodes where that one special teacher made a difference to some student’s life, often propelling them from ghetto to boardroom. Well, I have my own, heart-warming story to tell.  A student came up to me after class and said “You know, this course has changed me. I’d never been interested in online games before, but because of what you said in class, last weekend I went to see my friend and he set me up with a World of Warcraft account.” See, I too have touched a life.

Categories: Classroom

Article article

December 7, 2011 Leave a comment

I’ve just published an article about articles on infobarrel: Making Sense of English Articles. This is based on the lesson I give in almost every EAP course I teach, which uses simple set theory to give students a feel for articles, rather than giving them a load of different rules with dozens of exceptions.

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The Menace of Mobile Devices … and Paper

October 19, 2011 1 comment

Students text each over on mobile phones. Students pass each other notes on pieces of paper.

Students use mobile phones to cheat in exams. Students use paper to cheat in exams.

Students play games on mobile devices in class. Students doodle on paper.

The clicking of keys on mobile devices is distracting. The rustle of paper is distracting.

There is not yet a mobile equivalent of the paper plane or a scrunched up ball of paper thrown at the back of someone’s head.

The solution is obvious: ban paper in class.


Categories: Classroom


October 14, 2011 Leave a comment

The difficulty undergraduate students experience in constructing  titles is matched by their enthusiasm for them. In my ENG 101 courses, I tell students not to attempt titles but simply to copy the essay question or task, but many cannot resist the urge to display their title-generating skills; thus instead of “Under what circumstances do online actions have the same moral significance as their offline counterparts?” I get “Right and Wrong”. Sparse and eye-catching, this might make a good title for a Restoration comedy (though even then it would probably have continued “OR The Virgine and the Foppe, A Comedie in Three Acts“). In ENG 102, they have to write a term paper, so there’s no question to copy, and they have to write their own titles, meaning that I have to do something to show them the difference between the title of an academic paper and the title of a novel. It was fine as a title for Stephen King, but an academic paper needs something a bit more informative. (There again, Mr. King wouldn’t have sold many copies if he’d had titles like “Morphogenesis of clown-spider hybrids: an ethnomethodological approach to American small-town hysteria.”)

What I did today was to present them with a list of titles for the kind of papers I might expect to see in this course (which is all about social networks and virtual worlds, by the way) and say whether they were good, bad or indifferent.

  1. My term paper
  2. Portrayal of oriental cultures in online games: a comparison of Guild Wars and Age of Conan
  3. The Matrix has you
  4. “Welcome to the desert of the real”: Baudrillardian themes in The Matrix
  5. Gender-switching in online role-playing games
  6. Effects of social networks on teenagers
  7. Sex as symbolic exchange in Second Life
  8. Celebrity tweeting and viral advertising: social media as self- and brand-promotion
  9. Why you should keep your kids away from online games
  10. The Matrix vs Inception

After a few false starts they got the idea. One thing that came out immediately is that students didn’t realise how long academic titles can be; quite a few students rejected number 2 because it was “too long – more like a sentence than a title.” This was a good opportunity to teach what I call “the academic colon,” which is not indigestion caused by Cambridge banquets but a convenient way of splitting a title into digestible chunks. Frequently, as in example 4, it’s a way to have your cake and eat it, combining the attention-grabbing style of a novel or magazine article title with the serious-sounding detail that tells a potential reader “There is citable content here.” As I told my students, the hard part of academic publishing isn’t getting your work published (that just requires the patience to go through the submission process with enough journals) but getting people to read it once it’s published. With essays submitted for courses, the problem isn’t getting someone to read it (they’re paid to do that); it’s getting them to come out of their grading stupor and really pay attention, but I didn’t add that part.

Categories: Classroom, Writing

Shameless Self-Promotion

September 15, 2011 3 comments

My article on online feedback should be coming out in Modern English Teacher soon.

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