Archive for September, 2012

An Effective Title-Writing Strategy for Academic Papers

September 28, 2012


Here’s a fun and simple exercise to help students compose effective titles for academic papers.

1. Group students in threes.

2. Instruct each group to create a list of eight Type A or Type B titles (see below) for popular motion pictures.


Balloons: I’m not Leaving this House

Imaginary Friend: No Club for Wimps

Switcheroo: Freaky Mother/Daughter Situation

High Quality H2O: From the Bench to the Starting Lineup

He Nose Who’s Lying: A Man and his Puppet

3. Students turn in lists.

4. Instructor reads titles to entire class and has students guess which movies they refer to.

The title of an academic paper should inform the reader of the paper’s main argument.

Which of the following four titles best announces its paper’s argument?

Cars: Who Needs Them?

Automobiles: An Expensive Waste of Energy

Driving Down your Freeway

Why Automobiles are a Bad Investment

The first title, Cars: Who Needs Them?, tells us the what but not the why of the argument.

The third title, Driving Down your Freeway, might score a few points with old hippy teachers like me by cleverly referencing a Doors lyric, but it doesn’t provide any clues about the paper’s contents.

The fourth title, Why Automobiles are a Bad Investment, doesn’t reveal why cars are a bad investment.

Only the second title, Automobiles: An Expensive Waste of Energy, clearly expresses the paper’s topic and its main argument.

My two favorite strategies for wring a titles for academic papers are:

a) General Idea/Colon/Specific Topic (Argument)

b) Clever Quotation/Colon/Specific Topic (Argument)

Here are some type A titles from this blog:

Listening to the Whirlwind: Theodicy for Deists

The Perils of Bardolatry: Harold Bloom’s Limited Perception of Hamlet


Silent Murmurs: A Funny Teacher Story

Here’s one title where I did it backwards (oops):

An Amusing Teacher Story: Tammy’s Puppy

Here are three titles where I used a dash instead of a colon:

Cheese-Eating Surrender Monkeys—Some Thoughts on Courage and Freedom

What’s the Matter with Kids these Days?, Part 473—It’s all about the Music, Man

Holden Caulfield—Whimpering Little Phony

Here are some type B titles from this blog:

All the Suffering the World Can Feel: The Pain and the Glory of Graham Greene’s Catholicism

Genius Knows Itself: The Wonderful Words of Emily Dickinson

Not Only by Private Fraud but by Public Law: Thomas More’s Utopia and the Imperfectability of Human Nature

Ghosts of all my Lovely Sins: Some Thoughts on the Complete Poems of Dorothy Parker

The “Oriental Mind”: E. M. Forster’s Fatuous Caricatures of Indians in A Passage to India

Innocence: A Famed American Virtue Demolished in a Wicked Novella by Herman Melville

Faith Might be Stupid, but it Gets us Through: The Syncretic Collision in Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich


Of course, this is a blog, so I don’t always feel compelled to devise titles which are suitable for academia.

Here are some titles which include a clever quotation but no specific topic:

The Steaming Complaint of the Resting Beast

Natural if not Normal

This Business of Saving Souls

We Think by Feeling

Take it Decently

The Hemingway Defense

Famed American Virtue

For All They Care

Here are some clever titles that don’t inform the reader specifically what the paper is about:

Application #2

Hundred Dollar Rip-Off

In Praise of Clever

William Faulkner and the English Language

Men and Sports

Application #6

The Three Types of Irony and an Amusing Teacher Story

Celebrating the Violent Death of a Wicked Man

New Yorker Magazine Buries the Lede in Puff Piece on Education Secretary Duncan

nuh-NUH, nuh-NUH, nuh-NUH, nuh-NUH

The Island of Misused and Abused Words

What’s a War Junkie? Che v Zapata

Why am I so Goofy for Burn Notice?

I Wanna Hear

Me and Michael Medved

Confessions of a not-so-Old Curmudgeon

Negatory on the Neg

Poets at the Microphone

Teacher Knows Best–Not

Fantasy Christians

Seinfeld and Gilligan’s Island

Some Friendly Advice for Young Teachers in a World Poisoned by Power-Mad Bureaucrats and Clueless Billionaires

And my Thoughts on articles are book reports and other musings which do not necessarily contain thesis statements and thus do not require academic titles:

Some Thoughts on Joseph Sugarman’s Adweek Copywriting Handbook

Some Thoughts on Lyrics on Several Occasions

Some Thoughts on Where I Was From

Some Thoughts on The Spooky Art

Some Thoughts on Alfred Kazin’s America

Some Thoughts on Slaughterhouse-Five

Some Thoughts on Washington Rules

Some Thoughts on The Glass House

Some Thoughts on Primates and Philosophers

Some Thoughts on American on Purpose

Some Thoughts on The New American Militarism

Some Thoughts on The Death and Life of the Great American School System

More Thoughts on The Death and Life of the Great American School System

Some Thoughts on On Writing

Some Thoughts on the Efficacy of DARE-Type Programs and a Funny Teacher Story

Some Thoughts on The God Delusion

Some Thoughts on Streetball

On Redundancy, Oxymorons, and Grammatical Correctness

by Richard W. Bray

A Lesson Plan on Strong Verbs

September 15, 2012

Which statement is more likely to infuriate Dad?

Sorry Dad, but I wrecked your car.


Sorry Dad, but I demolished your car.

Which declaration evinces greater passion?

I enjoy fish tacos.


I crave fish tacos.

Which complaint expresses stronger indignation?

That slimy salesman confused me.


That slimy salesman bamboozled me.

In each of the above the examples, of course, the second sentence contains the stronger verb. But why?

Like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s famous observation about pornography, I don’t have a concise definition for what constitutes a strong verb, but I know one when I see it. Strong verbs can contain one or more syllable. Strong verbs can be Latin, Greek, Germanic, French, etc. in origin. There is no particular phonology for strong verbs—they can sound rugged or mellifluous.

An imprecise working definition of strong verbs is words that arouse a vivid image and/or a visceral emotional response.

A note on word choice

Effective writing is largely a matter of choosing cogent nouns and verbs. It is important to remember that adjectives and adverbs are weak instruments, not suitable for heavy lifting. Or, to switch metaphors, think of adjectives and adverbs respectively as spice and garnish added to improve flavor and presentation rather than to provide essential nourishment.

When you select ideal nouns, you can sprinkle on adjectives as necessary. (This rule does not apply to William Faulkner.)

Adverbs should be allocated even less frequently than adjectives. Strong verbs obviate the extensive utilization of adverbs. Stephen King admonishes: “The adverb is not your friend” because adverbs “seem to have been created with the timid writer in mind” (On Writing 124).

An exercise for recognizing strong verbs

1. Present the three examples of sentences with strong and weak verbs from this blog post to students.
2. Discuss the importance of strong verbs and the distinction between strong and weak verbs with the entire class.
3. Group students in threes.
4. Provide each group with a different nonfiction article between 500 and 750 words long.
5. Instruct each group to:
a) List all the verbs from the essay. (There should be at least one in     every sentence.)
b) Select by consensus the ten strongest verbs from the essay.
6. Each group shares their list of ten strong verbs with the whole class.

by Richard W. Bray

Didn’t MEAN it

September 12, 2012


I didn’t mean it as an insult
When I asked who cuts your hair
I think your hair is perfect
If that’s the style you’re gonna wear

I didn’t mean it as an insult
When I said your kids were foolish
It’s costing me a fortune
That my offspring are so schoolish

I didn’t mean it as an insult
When I asked about your age
Experience breeds wisdom
So you must be sage

I didn’t mean it as an insult
When I called your car a clunker
I’d save a lot of cash
If I got myself a junker

I didn’t mean it as an insult
When I said your house was small
I think it’s rather cozy
I should get one for my doll

It’s really not my problem
If you’re quick to take offense
You might be neurotic
Or maybe you’re just dense

by Richard W. Bray


September 8, 2012

Who pooped?
You pooped
Guess I gotta scoop poop

Call dog
Haul dog
Happy you’re a small dog

Who pooped?
You pooped
Guess I gotta scoop poop

Feel fine
You ain’t gotta scoop mine

by Richard W. Bray

Silent Murmurs: A Funny Teacher Story

September 7, 2012

Not my Uncle

Teaching junior high school is a lot like World War Iyou’re not allowed to leave your bunker and the students just keep coming at you in waves.

My uncle who taught Spanish and Social Studies at LAUSD schools in the San Fernando Valley for thirty years experienced many awkward moments in the classroom, but one episode stands out above all the others.

There are times when a teacher senses a silent buzz of commotion in the classroom: Maybe there was a fight in the hallway; maybe the teacher’s shirt is inside out; maybe someone is holding up dirty pictures every time you turn your back.

Once when my uncle was conducting a lesson, it was obvious that the entire class was on the verge of a giant giggle.  My uncle was sure that something was going on, but he couldn’t figure out what it was.  He tried all the tricks: swiveling his head back towards the class immediately after turning to the chalkboard, walking up and down the aisles, eyeballing potential troublemakers.  But the class remained eerily silent until the bell had rung and many smiling students had been dismissed.

My uncle thought, “Phew, glad that’s over, whatever it was.”  Then my uncle looked down and discovered the source of the commotion: Sticking out perpendicular from the middle of his zipper was a long, black pubic hair.

by Richard W. Bray

All the Suffering the World Can Feel: The Pain and the Glory of Graham Greene’s Catholicism

September 2, 2012


About twenty years ago I entered a Catholic church for the first time.  It was a funeral mass for the father of a colleague delivered at Our Lady of the Assumption, a small church in Claremont, California.  I felt almost suffocated by the large, bleeding Christ hanging from a cross by the altar with its dreary promise of agony.

My first thought was: “Someone should really cover that thing up.”

My second thought was: “How many times do they kneel during a service?”  Herb (an Evangelical from work) and I kept looking over at each other as we struggled to figure out when to sit and when to stand and when to kneel.  (I had not been expecting an aerobic workout.)  Afterwords Herb said, “Damn, I’ve never been in a church with so much kneeling.”

My third thought was: “These people are incredibly masochistic.”

Over the years I’ve attended masses in other Catholic churches for various reasons.  There is usually less kneeling than there was that day at OLA and crucifixes are generally less prominently displayed, but pain is always the dominant motif.  This has long perplexed me.

With the help of Graham Greene, I’m finally beginning to appreciate the allure of a pain-stricken God.  Perhaps the agony of Christ is the mechanism by which Catholics negotiate the incomprehensible chasm between the finite and the infinite.  (As the saying goes, a God who does not suffer is insufferable.)

Sarah Miles, the self-loathing, self–described “bitch and a fake” from The End of the Affair, Greene’s marvelously–constructed novel of wartime infidelity, is drawn to Roman Catholicism despite her strong misgivings (76).  Similar to my own revulsion for the celebration of physical pain in the figure of a massive, bleeding Christ right next to the alter, Sarah “hated the statues, the crucifix, all the emphasis on the human body.” Sarah was “trying to escape from the human body and all it needed” (87).

Sarah Miles’ lover, the God-hating utterly recalcitrant atheist Maurice Bendrix who narrates The End of the Affair, provides some cogent elucidations of Greene’s idiosyncratic variety of Catholicism.  Bendrix explains why agony is a much more substantial emotion than joy:

The sense of unhappiness is so much easier to convey than that of happiness.  In misery we seem aware of our own existence, even though it may be in the form of monstrous egotism: this pain of mine is individual, this nerve that winces belongs to me and to no other.  But happiness annihilates us: we lose our identity (36).

Along with fear, pain is the overriding, omnipresent truth of existence for all sentient beings.  Pain, as Emily Dickinson noted, has “infinite realms,” and “new periods of pain” are always foreseeable.  Pain has no ending, and its existence predates human consciousness on Earth by millions of years:

Pain has an element of blank;
It cannot recollect
When it began, or if there was
A time when it was not.

Nobody really knew how long a second of pain could be.  It might last a whole purgatory–or for ever(133).  Thus laments the Whiskey Priest, the forlorn and touchingly human hero from Greene’s novel The Power and the Glory.  The Whiskey Priest is the last practicing Padre in the Mexican state of Tabasco during the rabidly anticlerical governor Tomás Garrido Canabal’s reign of terror when Catholicism was banned and every church in the state was shuttered.

From Greene’s perspective, a hapless drunkard who impregnates a parishioner is the ideal hero in this fallen world because:

It was for this world that Christ had died; the more evil you saw and heard about you, the greater glory lay around the death.  It was too easy to die for what was good or beautiful, for home or children or a civilization—it needed a God to die for the half–hearted and the corrupt (97).

There is much paradox here:  We need a perfect God who is also human to deliver us from our imperfection.  And we also require our sin-hungry flesh in order to fully appreciate God’s perfection.  As the Whiskey Priest is “praying against [the] pain” of his own corruption, he comes to the realization that through death and resurrection, “[t]his is what we escape at no cost at all, sacrificing an unimportant motion of the body (66).

Alden Pyle is Graham Greene’s repugnant eponymous Quiet American CIA officer who callously perpetuates human suffering in the name of something he calls Democracy.  When explosives supplied by Pyle kill several civilians, he dismissively notes that “[i]t was a pity, but you can’t always hit your target.  Anyway, they died in the right cause (171).”  Pyle is truly monstrous because “he was as incapable of imagining pain or danger to himself as he was incapable of conceiving the pain he might cause others” (53).

Suffering is the cornerstone of Graham Green’s unique strain of Catholicism.  I am a devout deist who will never share Greene’s faith.  But, paradoxically, his novels inform my existential humanist perspective in ways that no atheist author ever could.  And all humanists would do well to remain cognizant of Thomas Fowler’s important observation: “Suffering is not increased by numbers: one body can contain all the suffering the world can feel” (TQA 175).

by Richard W. Bray