From Round to Square (and back)

For The Emperor's Teacher, scroll down (↓) to "Topics." It's the management book that will rock the world (and break the vase, as you will see). Click or paste the following link for a recent profile of the project:

A new post appears every day at 12:05* (CDT). There's more, though. Take a look at the right-hand side of the page for over four years of material (2,000 posts and growing) from Seinfeld and country music to every single day of the Chinese lunar calendar...translated. Look here ↓ and explore a little. It will take you all the way down the page...from round to square (and back again).
*Occasionally I will leave a long post up for thirty-six hours, and post a shorter entry at noon the next day.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Syllabic Cycles—Introduction (a)

One year ago on Round and Square (23 November 2011)—Kanji Mastery: Radical 112 (Stone)
[a] Row RF
This is a multi-part introduction to the series "Syllabic Cycles." Click here for the other posts:
Syllabic 1               Syllabic 2               Syllabic 3               Syllabic 4

Back in the autumn of 1989, I settled into my seat in Haskell Hall at the University of Chicago just in time to see my professor, Marshall Sahlins, walking up and down the aisles and passing out handfuls of printed, stapled paper. Somehow there were not enough of these little bundles in my row, so I caught his eye and asked "Could you send a few more syllabi down this aisle when you have a chance?"

I wasn't exactly prepared for what came next. 

"Syllabi...that's funny," he exclaimed. "Next, we're going to start saying stadia and omnibi...that's a good one...syllabi..." 
[b] Units RF

It turns out that one of the most commonly spoken words in the academy had not invaded the Sahlinsian earspace. Either that, or he had such a finely tuned Latinate ear that he was not about to be involved in what is known in the linguistics biz as a "hypercorrection." You see, the old Marshall was right, at it turned out, and almost all of the rest of us who had been repeating this string of fake plurals (heard from our own professors all over the country) were wrong. 

"Syllabus" comes from the Greek, not Latin (at least not until the "modern" era), and does not require an "i" to form its faux masculine plural. I have read a whole bunch of drivel on the subject, but a little blurb on a "syllabuses v.s. syllabi" web page (isn't the Internet wonderful?) says it beautifully. It is written by a certain Mr. Morrison, who describes himself in one word: "teacher." It's good stuff, and I quote it here with enthusiasm.

          Syllabuses v.s. Syllabi  
          Both are in common usage therefore both are correct. However, since 
          syllabus is derived from Greek, just as octopus and hippopotamus are, 
          prescriptive grammarians would prefer syllabuses just as they would 
          prefer octopuses and hippopotamuses. If the etymology had been Latin,
          then just like alumni and foci, the answer would have been syllabi. 
          Nevertheless, English grammar is descriptive rather than prescriptive and 
          since there are two ways of saying it, you can decide. Unfortunately, 
          whichever word you choose, you are likely to irritate someone who uses 
          the other version and is convinced that his or her version is the only 
          correct one.[1]

Mr. Morrison, you are my hero. I, too, shall call you "teacher."
[c] Haskell Hall RF

Out the window go assorted octopi and hippopotami, as well as an axia or two, before we return to the clumsy old -uses ending. We have learned to avoid hypercorrection, and to remember that this rich, English language of ours has many sources. Surprising as it may be to some people (some of whom are defenders of unsplit infinitives), several of these influences have little or nothing to do with Latin.

And on that note, I have decided to give a playful little ungrammatical (or at least technically incorrect) title to this series. "Syllabic," of course, refers to syllables—discrete little parts of speech that can be divvied up, sliced, recombined, and reconfigured into all sorts of sounds that change the meaning (and tone) of, well, just about everything. Syllables are building blocks of peculiar strength. So great are they as a force in language that Chinese and Japanese use them to form the very core of their graphic language representations. Hiragana and katakana (I speak here of the Japanese syllabaries) contain, in forty-six sounds, the rich possibilities of spoken and written 日本語 (にほんご; ニホンゴ).

And it is on that note—the building blocks of knowledge and intellectual interaction—that I defend, playfully, my intentional misuse of the language in my title. This series will discuss the role of the syllabus in higher education. I plan to post many syllabuses of my own, and to make a few forays into those I have encountered over the course of two decades of teaching. The idea of "syllabic cycles" is simple at base. The syllabus itself is a map of time and work, as Hesiod himself might have said. It is a contract between student and professor, too. At least that is the way I see it. I never add work to a syllabus once it is in possession of my students. If I change things, it is only to cut back on something or other (a rather occasional happening, as most of my students would attest). 
[d] Mapping RF

The syllabus is a contract.

Not everyone agrees. I once team-taught a class many years ago at another college. I happened to mention that I regarded the syllabus in the students' hands was a contract. My co-instructor immediately jumped in and disputed this description. "It is nothing more for me than a lightly-sketched roadmap; I will fill in the details as we proceed." I bit my tongue at the time, but even now, twenty years later, it seems unreasonable. That is just my opinion, but, then again, the syllabus you hold in your hands the first day of class (or held in your hands on a first day of the semester back in the 1960s), has a whole passel of opinions from your professor. There are books that in her strong opinion you should read, not to mention papers to write, tests to take, and, yes, due dates.

The syllabus contains at least another interest for some of us. It is a window onto the professor's soul in more than a few ways. Is there just a little bit of reading, followed by a midterm and a final? That should tell you something (I'll leave the interpretation to you). What if there are fourteen books, three papers, and a final? You'll see a good deal of that in the coming posts, and it might tell you something else. In fact, the reaction of some students to my syllabuses has been not unlike one rider at the end of the first Tour de France climb up a Pyrennean pass in 1910. The route was mountainous, and the course dreadfully long, even if there were breaks for lunch, complete with wine and fine cheeses. "Assassins" shouted one tired, dirty, and angry cyclist. "You are all assassins."

I even have had some people contact me through my Beloit College web page and plead with me to be more compassionate toward my students. The reading load, they say, is beyond belief. How could anyone manage to handle all that work?

I don't see it this way. My approach to the syllabus, as well as coursework, requires a significant paradigm shift. That will take us a few more introductory days. 

I'll see you tomorrow.
This is a multi-part introduction to the series "Syllabic Cycles." Click here for the other posts:
Syllabic 1               Syllabic 2               Syllabic 3               Syllabic 4
[e] Etched RF

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