Monday, August 17, 2009

Admirable characteristics

This one's not exactly off-topic, but not exactly not. I found myself pondering (like one does on long car drives after long weeks) the qualities of people I admire. I considered my friends, I thought about historical figures, I contemplated fictitious characters infused with characteristics by their authors, I mulled over the authors of fictitious characters. (I'm NOWHERE NEAR out of synonyms for "thinking.")

What I decided is that I admire clever people: people who do clever things, people who do things cleverly. I don't mean showoffs--the guy who walks on wires between buildings springs to mind. I mean like the team that came up with the iPhone. My students are well aware of my affinity for the iPhone. I don't have one, would lose or destroy it if I did. But they're clever little devices. Facebook is clever, even if many of the people using it are not. I think that a lot of Cirque de Soleil performers are clever, even if they are showoffs.

But above all I like people who use language cleverly. By this, I don't mean politicians who can turn anything into a question about their latest amendment offered to the Farm Subsidies Legislation of the Day. That's not clever, it's self-serving. It also doesn't mean using big words because you can (and I say this unironically, knowing that I do it all the time. Unironically? Really, Cosby? Not even the spell checker recognizes it as a word.) That's not clever, either. At best, it's a play to seem smarter than you are. At worst, it's the active abuse of language, an attempt to make things more confusing.

What I DO mean by clever language use, I think, is this: using words in new and creative ways, successfully making words do jobs they hadn't originally been intended for, ordering words in beautiful ways. I like puns, for example. You can debate whether puns are clever or not, but consider: A hot dog vendor, fallen on hard times, can't make both ends meat. (As many of my favorite puns do, this one comes from Terry Pratchett's excellent Discworld novels. Each of them is a lesson in clever. This example is from The Truth.) Whether the end result is clever or not (and I think it's a hoot--and that may tell you all you need to know about me), the process to get to that joke takes a fair amount of cleverness.

Martin Luther King used language cleverly. Reading his speeches is nothing at all like hearing them, and I can only conclude that listening to a recording is nothing like hearing them live would be. But reading it, removing the time element from the equation, the cleverness underneath shines through. He wrote what I think of as High Oratory. He referenced literature, the Bible, historic works, the classics. A third of his speeches were metaphor. (I made that number up.) And yet, you don't have to know exactly what he's referencing to understand what he's talking about. "I have been to the mountaintop, and I have seen the promised land!" (Watching the video again gives me chills. It's 90 degrees outside and I'm shivering.) That's clever. In addition to being clever, he was also a teriffic presenter; he's always a joy to watch. In addition to all that, he was right. But being right wasn't enough to make him the historic figure he is. (Cf. 2:36 into the previous video--who is that guy?)

Ani Difranco uses language cleverly. (Never mind the "mister lighting person" reference. The hymnal reference is clever.) Joaquin Sabina uses language cleverly. These are the people who impress me.

So what place does this self-indulgent essay have on an otherwise professionally toned blog? Well, here's the next step in my reflection process (told you I had more synonyms): how does this apply to me, my relationship to my students and co-workers? Well, I'm easily impressed by cleverness, particularly in language use. That is, in part, why I became a language teacher. (Growing up, I found it easier to experiment with linguistic cleverness in Spanish. Harder to do well, but easier to play with.) That piece of self-awareness also suggests the kind of student I'm going to like instinctively, and the kind of student whose good qualities won't be so obvious to me. I can also increase my awareness of how I interact with students and their parents. It's AMAZING how often cleverness is exactly the wrong tactic. Also, I can use this to examine my priorities. Am I assigning a certain project because it's best suited to a given learning objective, or am I doing it because I think it's clever? And even when cleverness is appropriate, how I use it is important. Am I being clever at students, or am I providing students an opportunity to be clever?

In short, then: Correctness is more important than cleverness. The guy in the MLK video had a point, even if it didn't blow me away.

No comments: