Archive for February, 2017

If Only

February 26, 2017


If only I was taller
I’d be in the NBA
If only you were perfect
I never would betray

If only I were lucky
Things never go my way
If only I were handsome
Love would never go astray

If only
Would just let me be me
If only somebody
Would love me just for me

If only life were fair
I never would complain
If only this world
Didn’t have so much pain

If only the past
Was something I didn’t know
If only you still loved me
Like you did long ago

by Richard W. Bray

First Day of College Composition Class—Syllabus, Tone, and Thesis Statement

February 19, 2017


I do more talking on the first day than I usually do. (Reminder: A teacher should always keep a lozenge in her briefcase. Better to have it and not need than to need and not have it.)

I spend the first day of English Composition class teaching about thesis statement and tone.

Of course, I go over the syllabus first. I always hated it when one of my instructors spent the entire first session covering every word of the syllabus, giving us a preview of each upcoming lecture, so I tell the students that they made it this far and they should be able to read a syllabus on their own. Instead, I focus on the required texts for the class, my grading policies, due dates for assignments, and my expectations for appropriate classroom comportment.

I stress the following sentence from my syllabus:

It is important to maintain a cordial demeanor which facilitates free and open discourse.”

In other words, in this classroom we need to be able to disagree with one another without being disagreeable.

I tell my students that it’s perfectly acceptable to say, “Professor Bray, I disagree with everything you just said for the following reasons….”

However, it is not acceptable to say, “Professor Bray, you are stupid and your mother dresses you funny.”

I beg my students to disagree. Please, I tell them, disagree with me, the authors we are covering, and anyone else in the class. That’s what we are here for, the free and open exchange of ideas. My students will receive no brownie points for agreeing with the instructor. This is true for the classroom discussions and also for their essays. Students are not graded on the positions they choose to take; they are evaluated based upon the quality and structure of their arguments and the style of their prose.

In order to teach students about thesis statements and tone, I select two short essays that vary in style and substance; usually I read them a serious article first (for example, Katha Pollitt on reproductive rights or Pat Buchanan on trade policy) and then I read them something lighter (a silly article by Jon Carroll about his cat, perhaps). Before I read the articles, I ask who can tell me what a thesis statement is, and then I type their answers into a machine which magically projects words onto a large screen for all to see.

Their answers will include:

An essay’s argument, an essay’s main point, an essay’s main point distilled into one sentence.

I tell them these answers are correct, but in my class it’s okay to state a thesis in two or even three consecutive sentences rather than trying to jam it all into one very long and awkward sentence with too many clauses and too many commas.

When I ask them where the best place to put their thesis is, they tell me it belongs at the end of their introductory paragraph. I say, “Correct.” (Good job, high school English teachers!)

This is the point where I tell them that different types of writing are bound by different types of conventions and expectations. For student essays (but not for other types of student writing such as journals) I expect them to follow specific conventions, such as placing the thesis statement at the end of the first paragraph and supporting their arguments with “evidence” (the quoted opinions of people who are assumed to know what they are talking about for one reason or another.) I tell them that the two essays we are covering today are written by professional writers for popular consumption. Such authors are under no obligation to follow any of Mr. Bray’s rules for academic writing. For example, fragments and one-sentences paragraphs can be very effective tools, but they are not generally acceptable in academic writing.  Furthermore, many professional writers believe that a thesis statement placed at the end of the introductory paragraph is a clunky device.  And I agree with them, but you will nevertheless be marked down substantially if you do not have a clear thesis statement in any paper you submit to me. However, in the essays we are about to consider, the thesis statement might be at the beginning of the essay, it might be at the end of the essay, it might be broken up and scattered throughout the essay, or it might not exist at all.

Next, I ask my students what the word tone means in relation to writing.

Probable answers include: mood, attitude, voice

I tell them that these are all good answers. I also suggest that they think of tone in relation to a person’s actual speaking voice. Many of the authors I teach are people I have seen on television so I can imagine how they would sound reading a particular essay. For example, in my head I hear how Pat Buchanan stresses and elongates the second syllable of “bamboozled,” one of his favorite verbs.

Then I ask my students for adjectives that could describe the tone of a particular piece of nonfiction prose.

I get answers such as: sad, angry, sarcastic, light, witty.

I tell them these are all good answers.

I inform them that my rule about tone is that is must be appropriate in relation to the chosen subject matter of and essay and also appropriate for the anticipated audience for an essay.

For example, if one is writing about 9/11 in a mainstream American news magazine such as Time, a witty tone would not be appropriate. Also, if one were writing an essay for young children about the adorableness of puppies, a sarcastic tone would not be appropriate.

(I briefly explain the distinction between sarcasm and verbal irony, something we will go into in detail at a later time.)

Lesson Plans

#1 Distribute first article.

#2 Instruct students to get out their writing utensils and number the paragraphs.

#3 Instruct students to look for and mark possible examples of tone and thesis statement as I read the essay aloud.

#4 Instructor reads the essays aloud.

#5 Allow students an additional seven minutes to look for examples of tone and thesis statement.

#6 Pair and share (if time permits and if you’re into that sort of thing).

#7 Review as whole class discussion.

An appropriate answer for an example of tone in the essay would be: “The author is using a verbally ironic tone in paragraph six when she says, “I just love it when my boyfriend leaves me dirty laundry to pick up.”

#8 Repeat steps 1-7 with second article.

#9 Instruct students to save the articles for later use with this exercise on strong verbs.

#10 Remind students that it’s going to be a long semester and send them on their merry little way.

by Richard W. Bray

shocks and stings

February 15, 2017


An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,
      In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
      Upon the growing gloom.

Thomas Hardy, The Darkling Thrush

Icy winds blast frigid cold
In this everywhere of snow
Little bird you are so strong
Light up the evening with a song
Is there no place you can go
To warm your fragile feathered soul?
How can you radiate delight
On this coldest winter’s night?
The greatest courage is to sing
In the face of shocks and stings

by Richard W. Bray

The piece of me that’s you

February 13, 2017


Another crazy turbid day
What can I do?
What can I say?

Whenever life gets
Wayward and askew
I always listen to
The piece of me that’s you

Science teacher
Says it’s true
I’m never
Far away from you

Way out in space
Connect right to
The human race

It’s nice to know
We’re part of every star
And the piece of you that’s me
Is never far

by Richard W. Bray

Johnny Backstab

February 12, 2017


Johnny Backstab killed his brother
At the tender age of four
Shanked him with a butter knife
And left him on the floor
His mother asked, “Now Johnny,
Whatever did you do that for?”
Johnny said, “He took my donut.
He won’t do it anymore.”

Beware those empty eyes
In Johnny’s lying little head
If he can’t get you with his knife
He will use his words instead
There’s not an ounce of truth
In everything he ever said
A thousand trusting souls
Lay in Johnny’s trail of red

Johnny Backstab is your neighbor,
He’s your boss, or he’s your friend
He is pleasant in your presence
And he never will offend
He’s beguiling; he is charming
He knows how to pretend
But if you don’t watch your back
He will get you in the end

by Richard W. Bray

Admit It

February 8, 2017


Since the Middle Ages at least, Western societies have established the confession as one of the main rituals we rely on for the production of truth
Michel Foucault

The public has a right to know
Whatever’s hiding in your soul
Don’t cheat the mob; don’t hurt your health
And please don’t keep it to yourself

Admit it
You did it
For all those years
You hid it
You’re holding out
Just quit it

Tell a teacher, tell a priest
Tell a shrink or call police
Tell a doctor, tell a nun
Let everybody share the fun

Reduce your stress
And just confess
We need to blame
We need to bless
Don’t make us beg
Don’t make us guess

by Richard W. Bray

Why do they do that?

February 6, 2017


Why do they do that?
Is he ever gonna change?
Did he get it from his family?
They’re all pretty strange.

Why do they do that?
He knows I can’t stand it.
I’ve begged for him to stop.
Will he quit if I demand it?

Why do they do that?
Does he like to make me mad?
Does he think it’s all a game?
He reminds me of my dad.

Why do they do that?
Is it something in his brain?
Why can’t I figure him out?
He’s driving me insane.

Why am I like this?
Wondering things I’ll never know.
Should I stop wasting time?
Should I learn to let go?

by Richard W. Bray

Robust Action

February 4, 2017


Strength is all
They understand
Be undaunted
Be a man

Be resolute
And stay the course
With muscular vigor
And robust force

Stout resolve
And rugged might
Are all you need
When you are right

Be diligent
And brave and strong
Send more guns
And drop more bombs

by Richard W. Bray

Last Day on Earth (A Love Song)

February 2, 2017


I dreamed the world was ending
So I called you up to see
If you wanted to spend
Your final day with me
You checked all your appointments
Lucky you were free
You didn’t have another
Place to be

We agreed to get together
In a warm and cozy space
A quiet little room
With a big fireplace
We didn’t want distractions
From the human race
With an asteroid approaching
From outer space

You threw your arms around me
You asked me why
I had waited so long
To give us a try
I felt so stupid
I wanted to cry
Then my alarm went off
And I opened my eyes

by Richard W. Bray