Language: October 2007 Archives

I'm trying to figure out if aboriginal Australians count as black. I'm not asking if Australians call them black. Australians call people from India black. Aborigines are actually more closely related to Asians than they are to Africans, so even though some Australians, including other aborigines, are happy to use the word 'black' to refer to them, it doesn't tell us if aborigines are black in terms of what Americans mean by the term. I want to know if the word 'black' as it is used in the United States (or perhaps Canada, the U.K., or other places) includes aboriginal Australians among the group it refers to. (In case it turns out that people from different geographical locations would respond differently, it would be nice to know where you're from if you're going to leave a comment.)

Clearly Black Person

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In response to a question a couple days ago about whether he expects to be Swift-Boated, presidential candidate Senator Barack Obama said the following:
I have no doubt there will be some of that — trying to make me into this foreign, odd, clearly black person and to scare people," he said. "When people try to Swift Boat you, you have to respond forcefully, you have to respond immediately and you have to respond truthfully. ... We are prepared for whatever they will throw at us.
I know what I think he means by "clearly black person", and I know what I think he's trying to say. I'm curious what other people think, though. Can you paraphrase what you think he's saying? I'm not so interested at this point in whether this is accurate, appropriate, insulting, or offensive. (If what he's saying is what I think he's saying, it's possible that it's all four.) I'm simply curious what people think he means. What exactly was he trying to say?

A colleague of mine where I teach is sort of a stickler for assigning grades according to the traditional but now completely obsolete approach whereby a C is average. He seeks to have the median student in the class earning grades in the C range, with an equal number of people in the D range as in the B range and as many failing as earning an A. His argument is that this is what these grades have always meant, and grade inflation is a violation of the meaning of the grades.

It struck me today that this argument is very similar to the argument language conservatives give against gender-inclusive language. The English language has changed since the time the ordinary English speaker could hear a sentence like "Surely every moral man must be appalled at the judicial execution of the innocent or at the punishment, torture, and killing of the innocent" and not wonder what the author thinks about moral women and children. (The sentence is from Kai Nielsen's "Against Moral Conservatism" from Ethics 82 (1972), which my students had to read this week.) Gone are the days when a sentence like that could make it into publication in a top philosophy journal.

So too have the standards changed when it comes to what letter grades mean. A grade of a C just doesn't indicate merely satisfactory anymore. Students know this. Most faculty know this. You can pound your fists and complain about this sorry state of affairs, and maybe you're right that it's regrettable (although I see no reason why we should have to stick with any particular arbitrary assignment of letters to standards). What I don't think will ultimately pass muster is sticking to your guns and giving people grades in a way that's wholly inconsistent with what the standards in fact are by basing it on some system of giving grades that hardly anyone follows anymore. Doing so means you're not giving people the grades you think you're giving them. This is why I can't in good conscience follow my colleague's policy.

This is not to say that college students today are as competent as in the past, which may well not be the case. It doesn't mean the work that now counts as satisfactory is what should count as satisfactory. Those are completely separate issues. All I'm saying is that the meaning of the letter grades has changed in a way that those who hold onto the traditianal system of assigning grades have been resisting to the point where the grades they assign are dishonest, even if not deliberately so. Grade inflation may be a problem in other ways, but one element of grade inflation is simply a fact, and resisting it in the way my colleague does seems to me to count as academic dishonesty.


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I've decided to begin a running feature on things I discover in students' submitted work that annoy me or amuse me. Usually these will be pet peeves. Sometimes they will just be odd expressions or statements. I'll begin with one that I see very regularly, and it's not just in student papers but all over the internet. It's the expression "close-minded".

It amazes me how common this is, but it doesn't make sense. No one is saying that your mind is close to something, which is what "close-minded" suggests. Even if your mind is a material object (which it isn't), this isn't about having your mind physically close to anything. What people mean is that someone is closed-minded, i.e. their mind is closed. Somehow the 'd' has become elided in how we pronounce it, and people who don't read have spelled it the way they hear it. It has become so common a way of spelling the term that there are more Google searches for "close-minded" than there are for "closed-minded".

Dictionaries do unfortunately include both, and I'm not trying to say that this is incorrect. I think it's reached a point where I can't confidently say that. But it is nevertheless stupid and annoying that it's gotten to that point. The question is whether I can justify correcting it on students' paper.

Here's one suggestion. One of the things a college course involving academic writing should teach is how not to come across as ignorant or as a non-reader. If enough people will conclude that upon seeing someone write "close-minded", then it might be worth correcting for the sake of how viewers of the writing of the student in question will see it. But I think that argument might apply to things I don't think I should correct (e.g. the singular "they", which I eagerly encourage).



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