Tag Archives: academic alphabet

G, Great.

Great starts with G. Please don’t confuse GREAT with GRATE, we aren’t going to cook today. (That was grating but it got the urge to make that pun out of the way. Finished groaning? Good, let’s go on.)

In this academic alphabet, Great will also stand in for other often-used evaluative words, including, but not limited to the following: significant, important, pivotal, seminal. Most people who think, teach, and write about their thinking have some fond idea of being evaluated by their peers and successors as a great or significant, or important person in their chosen field. They’d like to be outstanding in their field, though they are not farmers. (Sorry, pun filter slipped for a moment there. Got it back. Let’s go on.) But what does it mean to be Great?

There has been some thought lately about what might or might not make a nation great. I’ve written previously in this blog about the Great Men theory of history. But no one seems to be able to clearly say what it is that makes a person great. Is it what they do? What they think? Who they influence? And why do we strive after greatness? Or do we strive after fame, and think that means we’re great? Is greatness equivalent to fame? Or is something else going on?

So many questions, and the answer probably is “it depends.” In the dictionary something or someone who is called great has qualities significantly above normal or the average person. So a great book is significantly above the average or normal book. A great thinker is significantly above the average or normal thinker. In order to figure out whether anything is great, we have to know what the average or normal level is for that thing. I’m not sure we do that well at all. What criteria do we use in our evaluation? Do we call something great just because we LIKE it? And, since no book or person or idea is perfect, what imperfections might topple the item from our pedestals of greatness?

I think it might be more helpful in historical writing (which is what I’m working on at the moment) if things were just allowed to be interesting, and we didn’t always have to argue that something was Super Significant or Great or Seminal. Are average or normal events not worth speaking of?

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Last summer I read a book called Woman as Force in History. I have an old, worn, paperback edition printed in the 70s (the cover design gives it away), but the book was originally published in 1946. In it, the author, Mary R. Beard, argues that women have always been part of history (the events that actually happen), they are just neglected or forgotten when the stories of what happened were written down. I will probably come back to Mary R. Beard’s views on history later in this alphabet. Today let’s talk about her use of the word FORCE.

As you may or may not recall, my first degree is in engineering. Aerospace engineering even. Rocket Science. This means I did a fair bit of physics, and even taught physics to high school students for a while. I keep finding physics words popping up as I read theology and history. I find I am not particularly fond of the way physics metaphors are slung about in these other disciplines. Beard’s title is my way into this particular rant.

I will concede that Mary R. Beard may not have thought of her phrasing “woman as force” as provocative or even having anything to do with some guy Newton and classical mechanics. She wrote this book in the shadow of the second world war, when forces deployed meant armies and navies and air forces. Air FORCE – that word again. Possibly she meant Woman as Force! to suggest an army of women acting through history. She does not, however, clarify her particular use of the term. I kept thinking of physics and F=ma and W=Fd and vectors. (To translate briefly: Force equals mass multiplied by acceleration and Work done equals force applied multiplied by displacement. One notes that if one combines the two equations, Work=mad. Hmmm.) Beard’s use of the term FORCE was slightly distracting and reminded me of all the other times I’ve seen physics metaphors that don’t quite work when one knows something about the physics.

Other physics concepts that have been more distracting than helpful out of context:

Quantum anything. Most recently, I’ve noticed a book called Paradoxology: Spirituality in a Quantum Universe. This appears (I’ve not read the whole thing) to take up the idea of quanta, discrete bundles of energy, and talk about this idea as if it explained God. The author is a woman of some talent and energy, but I’m not sure why she thinks it necessary to dabble in quantum metaphor, something physicists themselves claim is difficult to understand well. (I had a flashback moment when the author turned out to have written the songs and been part of the nuns singing on “Joy is Like the Rain” one of the few vinyl records available to play at camp when I was growing up.)

Uncertainty, as in the Uncertainty Principle (is the cat there?) or Relativity. These ideas are so often poorly used in general conversation and thought that I hesitate to talk about them here. Please do note that in physics, uncertainty applies at the atomic scale, that is, when things are very very small. Relativity applies when things are moving very very fast, at speeds approaching the speed of light. Despite what the movies say, we don’t know how to travel that quickly.

Centripetal and centrifugal forces. I encountered these two in a book I otherwise liked very much. I tried to find other words to substitute for them to get past the fact that I kept using physics to shoot down the author’s literary arguments because of his poor choice of metaphor. I think his arguments had merit despite the metaphors.

Possibly no one else finds the poor use of physics metaphors distracting. Let me know what you think. I think people should stop using these metaphors unless they know the physics.

May the Force Be With You.

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E…e…e…e… Epistemology!

Epistemology starts with E.

You know that is a good thing. But how do you know? That is the really big question isn’t it. How do you know? Epistemology. That’s how you know.

Now, if you google “How do you know” you find a movie, and apparently “That’s How you Know” is some kind of movie song. Knowing if someone really loves you is all anyone actually wants to know, at least on the internet. Epistemology doesn’t help with that. I bet you could do well if you wrote a song on Epistemology – there aren’t enough philosophy songs in the world. Oh wait! There’s a song called Epistemology!! Humph, never mind, it is mostly about love again.

OK, Epistemology, how you know. Words are part of figuring out what we know. Language is how we express what we know, but also how we find it out in the first place. Here is a long and interesting quote from Rowan Williams that plays around with language being part of how we know:

“Yet language is unmistakeably a material process, something that bodies do; so thinking harder about the oddities of language may help us see new things about bodies, indeed about ‘matter’ in general; it may open up for us some thoughts about how the material world carries or embodies messages, how matter and meaning do not necessarily belong in different universes. And the sheer diversity of the ways in which meaning is embodied and communicated should leave us with some puzzles over the way in which speech generates such a huge amount of apparently superfluous untidiness and eccentricity. Instead of moving calmly towards a maximally clear and economical depiction of the environment, our language produces wild and strange symbolisms, formal and ritual ways of talking (not just in religion), a passion for exploring new perspectives through metaphor and so on. Unsurprisingly, it also learns how to use gaps in its flow, moments either of frustration or of overwhelmingly full significance, moments when we are brought to silence, as part of its continuing search for an adequate response to what is ‘given’, the search for ways of ‘making sense’.” [From the introduction to The Edge of Words, Bloomsbury, 2014.]

E is for Epistemology, a word that stands for all the ways we explore what we know and how we know it. Words help us make sense of the world. Part of the way we know what we know is by talking about it. Epistemology: more than just another love song.

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D is for Dialogue, internal and otherwise

Self: So if I write this as an internal dialogue, is it really a monologue?

I: And if there are three internal speakers, is dialogue actually the word to use?

Me: But loads of people use dialogue for conversation between more than two speakers don’t they?

Self: Back up, back up, why on earth do we want to talk about this word anyhow? We should start there.

Me: Right, right. Ok. Why do we want to talk about “dialogue”? I? You seem to have some ideas about that.

I: Two reasons. First, I keep saying that my teaching style is “dialogical”. I want to unpack that a bit. Second, I’ve got this conference paper on dialogue in children’s books teaching the Bible and theology, and I think more research in that area could be interesting.

Self: Hmm. Ok, so let’s talk about the teaching style thing first.

Me: Well, what do we mean when we say our teaching style is dialogical? What does an ideal classroom look like when teaching is dialogical?

I: That’s just it. An ideal dialogical classroom is not ideal at all in many ways.

Self: Yeah, everybody talks at once, lesson plans go out the window in the first five minutes, and the same idea gets hashed over so much it is dead by the time class is over.

Me: But that just means that the ideal dialogical classroom is different from other ideal classrooms.

I: Sometimes I think it should actually be the DIOBOLICAL classroom, instead of the DIALOGICAL classroom.

Self: Ha!

Me: Don’t interrupt. An ideal dialogical classroom is one with a small enough class (possibly fewer than 15 people in the room) to have a real conversation about the topic to be covered. A real conversation involves people listening well to one another, not just formulating their own fixed response to the points being made. It also involves a lot of preparation by everyone involved, not just the teacher. And teachers in this case are really facilitators.

I: But that is most of the problem isn’t it? No one prepares adequately. I might be prepared as the teacher or facilitator, but if no one else is prepared then everything goes sideways.

Self: Does it actually go sideways or just in random non-predicted directions?

Me: That’s the other thing about dialogical teaching. We need to be prepared for the unexpected, and allow things to go sideways if sideways is where the conversation goes.

I: I guess the thing I find frustrating is when it feels like I’m doing all the heavy lifting and things actually don’t so much go sideways as nowhere. Sideways could be interesting. Nowhere is not.

Self: Yeah and in all those conversation books, the adult or teacher manages to keep things going, either by telling the children or students when to stop being ridiculous, or by giving the information in the actual lesson.

I: No, not always, there’s that one book where Mother and Mary are discussing what Mary has read. Those are more like the ideal Me described. Plus there’s only the two characters. But the adults in those books do direct conversations pretty obviously. Can teachers ever direct conversation?

Me: Why not? If a teacher is a facilitator, then the facilitator’s job is to keep conversation going and keep it going in the agreed direction. The trick is getting an openly agreed upon direction, instead of the facilitator having a secret agenda direction.

Self: Hmmm. We need to think about this more. Can we actually have a dialogical teaching style in a large classroom setting?

I: And can I actually say my preferred style is dialogical?

Me: What about those conversational books? Do they provide guidance for this kind of teaching, or is it all about adult coercion?

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That’s right, cite is today’s word, as in cite your sources properly. Always provide citations, not sightations. The trick with cite is it has homophones. They tend to throw people off their game. Let’s review these tricky sound-alike words.

CITE – the word for today, refers to listing or naming the source of a quotation.

SIGHT – has to do with seeing, and if it is a noun, it could be something that you see, often that is extraordinary. Tourists go see the sights of the place they are visiting.

SITE – has to do with a location in space, or cyberspace. An archeological site is the place people are digging. A website is a location in cyberspace.

To really mess it up, it is possible to cite the site you caught sight of the other day. Or you could sight-see at the archeological site you saw discussed in the article you cited.

One more time:

CITE – make references to books or other sources of information

SIGHT – the ability to see the things around you or (possibly) the things you are looking at around you.

SITE – locations in geographical or cyberspace.

Don’t mix them up.

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B is for Battling Books

B is for Battle. Why do books battle? Wherefore warfare in our metaphor? Of course, it isn’t only books that battle. People battle disease, notably cancer. What makes us so prone to warring metaphors?

Battling books came to life in Jonathan Swift’s Battle of the Books, a clash between Ancients and Moderns with no clear resolution. Since Swift’s account of this battle, fought in St. James’s Library, was published in 1704, we might now consider Swift’s “Moderns” rather out of date. Yet the battle over the Literary Canon rages on. Which books are big guns? Who should we read? How is ethnicity (or gender) involved (or implicated) in epistemology? How do we know what to read? Who do we trust to tell us what to read?

A couple of years ago, a friend asked me for a reading list. I’m usually happy to recommend reading, but I am reluctant to list things, as though that were some kind of Canon of Books To Be Read. Yet I get asked the question. This means that (some) people trust me to tell them about things that might be interesting to read. I am a fan of reading broadly, which means I like my reading to come from books both Ancient and Modern. New and old reading challenges me to think differently, to broaden my horizons. I don’t like fixed canons, though I do see the point of them. Common ground in reading gives people places to start in conversation. Instead of a battle, I’d rather the books (and their readers) sat down and had a real discussion, one that involved listening carefully and thoughtful replies, instead of entrenched positions and cutting remarks.

On the disease front, perhaps it would be healthier for everyone if we used life-giving rather than battle-drenched metaphor. Unfortunately the fighting words around disease are so entrenched (a battle-word if there ever was one), that I’m not sure what life-giving lively metaphor would even sound like. I’m open to ideas.

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A is the first letter of the Alphabet

A is for Authentic. Of course A could also be for Authority, Argument, or Agnostic, words which could all lead to profitable Academic discussions. I’m going to stick with Authentic as my A-word. Authentic things are true and real. Truth plus reality gives these authentic things weight. On the other hand, if something is inauthentic it has a hollow ring of fakery about it.

Why be concerned with something authentic, something weighty? Recently I saw a question posed in a header in social media that separated reality and truth from one another – do we care if something is true, so long as it is real? I’m not sure reality and truth should so casually be separated. Can something be real without being true? And if it were one without the other, would it be an authentic thing, something that carried solid weight?

As an example, lets compare two people called Harry – Potter and Prince Harry of Wales. Both are appealing people, well known and loved by millions. However, Prince Harry is authentic, and Potter is not. Potter is a character in a book and movie series. Because of the ongoing appeal of the series in print, on film, and online, Potter may seem very real. There may be true things to say about Potter and his world. Potter may even seem closer to the world in which you live than Prince Harry does. But Prince Harry shows up in our worlds from time to time, Harry in the flesh. He does things in the real world that Potter cannot do. He is an authentic human being, living and acting in the world, not a character in a fictional universe.

Of course there are many ways to spin authentic. I could argue that I have a more authentic relationship with Potter than with the prince, having read the Potter books more times than I care to admit, and never having met the prince. I could say I have a couple of authentic Canadian first edition Potter books. This sort of spin may have led to the question separating the real and the true that I saw on social media. I’m not sure we should do that in such an off-hand manner, without thinking about what it is we’re saying.

I find that I rather like authentic things, that have both reality and truth, that carry weight. Separating the real and the true diminishes something. So my answer to that internet question, “Does it matter if something is true as long as it is real?” is YES. Yes it matters to me. And I think it should matter to you too.


(This is an Authentic Alphabet Soup Monday Morning Blog Post. The authenticity is guaranteed by the capital letters.)

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