Back to the Future

by Louie Crew

First appeared in English as a Discipline, or is There a Plot in This Play?
Edited by James Raymond. Tuscaloosa: U. of Alabama Press, 1996. Page 44-61.

© 1996 by University of Alabama; © 2004 by Louie Crew

Rome, Georgia. Summer 1960

In the summer after my first year of teaching, the headmaster summoned me to his office.

"Louie," he said, "a parent has complained about the list of six books you require returning juniors to read. He says he knows his son will learn to curse soon enough, but he resents paying good money to have you require him to read cursing."

Quickly I reviewed the books I had assigned, but I drew a blank. I was saving Catcher for the fall.

"`B.B.B.Bastard'" the headmaster stuttered the opening of the book with a wry smile. "Yes, I like All the King's Men, too," he said.

"Now first let me assure you absolutely that I will back you up in your decision to require Warren's book. Nothing I am about to say will diminish my support. But do you want some advice from someone who has been trying to do the same thing for forty years?"

I trusted him. He had given several books to me and we had often talked about our favorite poets.

"Can't you find some other book that will open the kid up just as well? Then you would get his father on your side instead of on your back. You might, for example, simply add two more books and ask the kids to choose their own six. Then let the father battle with his son, not with you."

I did just that. The kid was insatiable, read all eight, and later went on to read all of Robert Penn Warren's books. He battled with his father about Warren and with me about twentieth-century music. I practically forced on him Gustav Mahler's "Resurrection Symphony," and he reciprocated with a copy of Franz Joseph Hayden's Missa in Tempore Belli. "No music after the eighteenth century is worth my time," he insisted.

So the two of us entered the 1960s, deep behind the Cotton Curtain, segregated by great gulfs from much of our society and quite cut off from much that would later define us. Two years later, he went off to University of Virginia to major in English as preparation for a medical career, and I went off to teach in a liberal boarding school up north.

Thirty-one years later, a student in one of my composition classes wrote the following letter. The class shared electronic mail with a class in California and a class in Mississippi. A Mississippi student talked about the relative harmony of life there and imagined hostility in New Jersey. My student replied that New Jersey has a "racial inbalance [sic]." Natalie, in Mississippi, asked him to clarify.


When I say there is racial inbalance I am talking about the different races that are being mixed. Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, blacks, poor whites, etc. Yes, I am also talking about numbers and prestige. These different cultures are having a hell of a time trying to get along. People are dying on the streets from gunshots, stab wounds, and even vicious attacks. I won't deny that some of these attacks have nothing to do with racial background, but most are.

In my father's bar just the other day a guy walked into the bar and sat down in the corner away from everyone else. As I continued to look closely at him he had this fierce gleam in his eyes. From what I could see he must have been using drugs prior to entering the bar. I watched him become more and more impatient with himself. Suddenly he gets up and heads toward the counter, where there are people sitting down drinking. I followed him because I thought he was going to start trouble. Sure enough, he did. He tried to take this guy's money from the counter. The owner grabs him by the arm and they both get into an argument. I tried to mediate the situation, but the troublemaker did not want to understand. He yelled out "You son of bitch" in Spanish, and then says he's going to blow this guys brains out. At this point I just wanted to get away from the situation, but I couldn't. The "Mad Man" reaches for a gun with no hesitation. My only alternative was to act in a violent way to manuever this man somewhere where he could harm only himself. I grabbed the arm, reaching for the gun, and twisted it with an upward motion toward his head. I wrapped my arm tightly around his neck and headed out the door. He struggled for most of the way until I released him onto the concrete. The fact that he wasn't struggling made me scared. I took the chance to see if he really did have a gun, but I only found a knife. No, he did not die, thank God!

I used this as just one of the many situations I have encountered in my neighborhood. And I am a student who tries not to get into trouble. My question to you is. What about those who face this kind of war every day of their lives and they are just fourteen to eighteen years young! What kind of future do these kids have? Back to the bar incident and your question, the "Mad Man" was Dominican, the owner of the money was Rican and when I looked into the guy's wallet after he was unconscious, there was plenty of it, so I doubt he started the whole problem for the money.

Natalie, thank you for responding and wish to continue this conversation at some other time.

--Vin Man
Before this project began, Vin Man showed little interest in his work. At the computer, however, he changed. When he wrote this message, he was not aware that Natalie is Professor Natalie Maynor at Mississippi State University. He thought she was another student, and he wanted to impress her.

In an electronic message to a group of dozens of English professors, Professor Maynor described the effect of the exchange on her students:

Louie is right about the usefulness of e-mail with developmental students. For the first time, some of my students are beginning to see that their writing has a purpose: They *want* to tell Louie's students and Milton's students about life in Mississippi. If they were writing these papers just for me, they would realize the phoniness of the assignment. After all, I know what it's like here. I live here. Although their writing is still pretty bad, I believe that wanting to communicate is a much better first step toward improvement than is talking about writing.

Sitting here many miles from Rutgers, I have watched Louie's student Vin Man turn into a powerful writer. Some people would question my use of the word "powerful" in view of the mechanical errors in his writing, but I stand by that word choice. His account of the incident in the New Jersey bar was in fact powerful.

Others in my class knew that Vin Man was onto something. He piqued their curiosity and prompted constructive competition. His reputation in Mississippi helped immensely:
I'm writing to Vin Mans response to my communication about the K.K.K. marching in my hometown last summer. How did I feel when I saw the unfamiliar faces of this "group" marching down main street? Were people afraid of what they saw? Who were the police protecting?

It's rather difficult to say how I felt. When I heard that they were going to be marching, I felt it was a joke. The people who were discussing it were just confused. This is 1990, things like that don't happen anymore. Yes, I was very afraid. I kept thinking, What if a riot breaks out? Someone could get seriously hurt. I felt like our town had been raped. Strange people, who knew nothing about us or the way we live, were coming to our town using obscene language on our streets.

It was very tense, people were frightened. Mothers who had older children, seventeen or sixteen, were coming into our store asking if we had seen them. But the K.K.K. members weren't the only strangers in our town. Men were riding in by the pickup loads. You could tell by looking at them, they were there to try and start something. I felt very sorry for these mothers very obviously frightened for their childrens' safety.

Others were walking around laughing and having a good time like it was a joke or something. They were the ones who made me the maddest. They were to ignorant to see what was really going on. We could hear them talking as they walked by about if it was okay for the N.A.A.C.P. to march, the K.K.K. had every right to march. A lot of people were saying that someone in the K.K.K. was going to kill someone. But the thing they didn't understand is the K.K.K. doesn't have to get their hands dirty that way any more. They rely on the ignorance of the people they get stirred up.

I must commend the Police Department of my hometown. They were there to keep anything from going wrong. And as much as I hated seeing them do it, they marched with the K.K.K. to keep anyone from stirring up more trouble. You could look at them and tell they were just as frightened as everyone else.

The thing that really irritates me is people think it's funny now. But it's not. These strange people who know nothing about us came into our town and tried to start trouble. They were wearing the normal garb and didn't have to show their faces. I wonder how they would feel if someone broke into their homes and brainwashed their children.

"I'm really glad to see DS's KKK insights getting attention," Natalie wrote to me and to Milton Clark, our collaborator at the California State University in San Bernadino. "Interestingly," Natalie continued, "I sent [DS's paper] as one of three examples yesterday to my guru in our [computer center] since it occurred to me that he might like to see what my students are doing on the network. Here's what he said: `Very interesting. This was from one of your slow students? It isn't badly written at all.'"

"How will e-mail move students farther in the discipline of academic writing?" repeatedly asked the mathematician who chairs my developmental department. When he read DS's reply, he claimed to see a connection:


There is one point that this person made that really impressed me. He or she stated that the KKK doesn't have to get their hands dirty since they can "rely on the ignorance of the people they get stirred up." This is a powerful insight, one that I had not ever considered, but one whose truth is obvious. It seems to me that this point could be elaborated. For example, one could discuss the mechanism of how groups like the KKK play on the ignorance of people so that the people do the dirty work of the KKK. That is, it's an insight that is generalizable to other situations.

Wow, indeed. It is impressive how Vin Man's story has contributed to the richness of the transcontinental conversation among three sites of students. I think what I'm seeing was that your project could be used to stimulate the type of academic writing and responding that ought to be the direction into which CS students are pushed.

The persons we now teach bring diversity not anticipated by those who initiated me to the discipline of English when I entered college forty years ago. Because I was born to privilege, teachers almost never called to my attention the vast inequities that sustained my privilege. Huge portions of my community could not even drink out of the same water fountains or use the same public toilets, much less attend the same university with me. Only three faculty members at my undergraduate institution of five thoursand students dared even hint that anything was wrong with that system. Had any openly opposed the system, they faced being driven away.

The discipline of English in America, like U.S. law, has been shaped to serve those who oversee it. They give up control much more slowly in practice than in creed. I did not have to teach in Beijing to discover that it is much easier to talk about liberty than to assure liberty for all citizens: I learned that growing up right here in the United States.

Our pedagogy still needs to live up to the promises of inclusion that have shaped much else in modern life since the 1700s. Many English departments delayed almost a century and a half before they honored the nation's own literature, vis-a-vis, British literature, and they delayed closer to two centuries before allowing us to have an American dictionary on descriptive rather than prescriptive principles.

The march toward democracy and inclusion is much too slow. In the last forty years, by dint of very hard work, African Americans and feminists have forced opened the canon ever so slightly to include reality hitherto deemed unworthy of study. Hispanics and Asians still knock. But millions of all ethnicities are locked out.

During a recent Christmas I watched a father become annoyed as he spotted his daughter, a girl of about twelve, lagging behind to admire a pretty bauble in a fancy shop. "What are you looking at?!" he shouted as he grabbed her arm. "Look, Daddy, look, that pretty pocketbook." "Chile," he said as he tugged at her, "That costs so much you can't afford even to dream about it! You hear me! Not even dream about it!"

Vin Man, himself a Puerto Rican, is right to bemoan our racial "inbalances" and the violence and hopelessness that they encourage. The great liberating ideas of our discipline cost so much that millions of Americans cannot even afford to dream about them. The infant mortality rate in Camden, New Jersey, the second wealthiest state in the nation, approaches the infant mortality rate in Bangladesh.1 Nearby Latinos flock to the south Bronx only to discover statistics worse than those in most of Latin America.

As English professors we need the integrity to acknowledge how much we are privileged by these structures. We need the courage to reshape our own discipline to be more inclusive. We need the imagination to live out that vision with our students and colleagues. If we fail to try, we professors have little of value to profess.

Only slowly, and always reluctantly, has the discipline of English accommodated the cultures of new learners. Those who framed our constitution never anticipated full personhood, much less equal rights for key players in the decisions of Brown v. Board of Education, the Miranda Ruling, Roe v. Wade, or Hardwick v. Bowers. I fear that English departments will give equity to diversity in our curriculum only after two or three generations of each excluded group have had enough time to write the texts and enough enfranchisement that no one any longer notices the difference.

Meanwhile, as my headmaster counseled me back in 1960, we have to "find some other book that will open the kid up just as well," which may not be altogether bad. Reform rarely is a corporate act until the forces that drive the change are themselves fully in charge.

At our best, professors are pied pipers playing a strange, new, and seductive song. Eureka is our proper interjection, even when we are not present to hear it shouted in the privacy of a mind we have influenced. We plant; we don't harvest.

"As one who has taught for the past eighteen years," a stranger from my past wrote to me last year, "I am aware just how indirect an idea we have of what we accomplish there." Then he described his first day in my English composition class: "What was for you merely an introduction to the course and the establishing of authority was for me something unforgettable. You picked up one of the oversized ceiling lamps that had been left on the desk and calmly recited Wordsworth's "The World Is Too Much with Us" into it. From that very moment of hearing the spoken music, poetry has lived within me. That night I read aloud poems for the first time. I learned to read. Writing poems soon began defining my life. This book that I send to you with gratitude took most of the last fifteen years. I hope it offers you some pleasure."

It did. It also pleased Annie Dillard, who says on the jacket, "This is a powerful, moving poem. It travels deep as liturgy; it tells a story; it makes a rhythm as beautiful as that of any poem in English." I do not name the poet because I can take no credit for his achievement. For a moment I lived into my shaman role, into Wordsworth's poem. I doubt that anyone else there on that day remembers the occasion, or if so, the person probably remembers it as one of a series of examples of the wacky teacher. That was my discipline.

A few months ago I arrived for an evening class to whom I had assigned several poems. I began with the first in the series:


He ate and drank the precious Words--
His Spirit grew robust--
He knew no more that he was poor,
Nor that his frame was Dust--

He danced along the dingy Days
And this Bequest of Wings
Was but a Book--What Liberty
A loosened spirit brings--

--Emily Dickinson

"What does it mean, line one?" I asked.

Their eyes glazed.

"What does line 1 mean?" I asked again, gently but persistently. "What does it mean to eat the precious words?"

I decided to wait them out. For at least three minutes we sat in silence. Some nervously read the poem again and tried to get with it, but their hearts were not in the exercise. My own head swarmed with misgivings. "Have I chosen something inaccessible?" I asked myself. "After all, this is an adult evening class in Newark, the Calcutta of the West. Can Emily Dickinson open them up? Maybe I should skip this one and move to the next assignment by Baraka. Isn't this like the time I tried to share Gatsby with the lads in my class in the London slums or like the time my Hong Kong students could not understand Graves' `London Snow,' a poem they had chosen for state dramatic competition? Am I culturally out of touch?"

My own silence was terribly noisy, but suddenly it stilled. I reread the poem for myself and, like Jeremiah, suddenly I surprised myself by my own action. I tore the page out of my book and then methodically pinched a circle round the poem itself. Then I rolled the poem into a small ball, pitched it to the back of my throat, and swallowed it.

No one left that class until 10:30 that night, more than two hours after it was supposed to end. They did not stay with my theatrics, however. That catalyst was forgotten within a minute or two. Instead, the class talked about Eucharist! They did not have that word for it until I earned my salary with it near the end, but they had that concept, that experience, and Emily Dickinson connected them with it.

A student in his midforties broke the initial silence. "I'm eating words in my drug rehabilitation program all the time yet," with a new crescendo of eureka, "mere words are all I've got. They're all that stands between me and chaos."

Words are all we have. They stand between our discipline and chaos. Little is mere about them. Occasionally they become flesh. They can be Eucharist.

"Find some other book that will open the kid up just as well," my first collegial mentor had advised. "If they were writing these papers just for me," Natalie Maynor had written, "they would realize the phoniness of the assignment. After all, I know what it's like here. I live here. Although their writing is still pretty bad, I believe that wanting to communicate is a much better first step toward improvement than is talking about writing."

Syllabi will shift. Canons will expand or explode. Technology hourly grows obsolete. But epiphany remains forever. We cannot put epiphany into our syllabi, but we betray our discipline, our heritage, if we fail to expect it or do not even believe in it.

Some other way....

Edwin Friedman notes that shortly after Columbus discovered America, someone also invented the watch and the telescope. Within the next fifty years Europe experienced both the Reformation and the Renaissance. "Columbus did not discover just real estate," Friedman asserts, "but a new vision of who he was and of how he fit into the world."

Through cyberspace Vin Man in my class and DS in Natalie Maynor's class experienced a new way of fitting into the world and new visions of who we are.

In cyberspace I have had similar experiences regarding my own identity and my own fit with the world. In over three hundred of my one thousand publications I have addressed lesbian and gay community issues ; in many I have addressed issues concerning lesbian and gay academics. Yet even when I earned my doctorate in 1971, I knew personally only three gay academics, and they would not have been comfortable talking about lesbigay scholarly issues. Three years later, I co-edited College English (November 1974) for a special issue on "The Homosexual Imagination"--the first issue of any scholarly journal to address lesbigay issues from a lesbigay point of view. During the same period, the Gay Academic Union began. Dolores Noll at Kent State and Louis Crompton at Nebraska convened the new Lesbian and Gay Caucus of the Modern Language Association; Julia Penelope and I convened the Lesbian and Gay Caucus of the National Council of Teachers of English. In the course of those projects, I met several hundred lesbigay academics.

The word community is very important to lesbigays living at the margins of heterosexual culture. With community, like Columbus, we stake claim not to real estate but to a new vision of who we are. No lesbigay professor educated us into our identity: we discovered it, or as some argue, "constructed" it. The pace was slow, and unless you lived in urban centers, the isolation was fierce in the intervals between professional meetings. No wonder lesbigay scholars poured forth such an abundance of manuscripts: in addition to sleuthing and reclaiming our past, we were writing ourselves into community.

In the fall 1991 I announced through a few electronic networks that I was creating an electronic directory of lesbigay scholars. Within a few days I had assembled several dozen. About 250 are currently active in the Directory and almost two hundred others have been listed at one time or another. All new listings go to everyone in the directory; scholars cite their lesbigay publications and current projects. Most discourse circulates through smaller networks thus enabled. Only new listings and announcements of venues for lesbigay scholarship go to everyone. Even so, only those who use e-mail regularly can accommodate the flow: hence, when someone wants to collaborate, or needs to find a citation or has a similar task the person merely searches the directory,, finds a connection, posts a message, and rarely waits more than two days for a response. Most people respond within twelve hours.

The same month I co-edited the special lesbigay issue of College English, I published a newsletter for lesbigay Episcopalians called Integrity. Within a month we had a chapter meeting in Chicago. Within nine months, we had over three hundred people at our first national convention. We now have more than seventy chapters worldwide, most meeting as worshiping communities at least twice a month, many once a week. Most chapters publish monthly newsletters as long as our national one was at the beginning. At a time when mainline denominations are diminishing rapidly, we have brought at least thirty thousand people into or back into the Episcopal Church.

Last December I sent out to various religious discussion groups a sassy announcement: "Electronic Catacomb for Lesbigay Christians"

Attention Lesbigay Christians:
Tired of Being Fed to the Lions?

Put away your asbestos tenny pumps for a while and come to our prayer-lit electronic catacomb, LUTI. God is here, as the Holy Spirit, and here God dares to love absolutely everyone. You don't even have to speak or be known. If you need to, you may sit in the corner and lick your wounds.

Lo, everyone that thirsts, come, drink eternal water which Jesus revealed at Samaritan wells!

For a guide away from the Coliseum down the Appian Way, send e-mail with the SUBJECT: "LUTI, yes" to

H.R.H. Quean Lutibelle

No one will check your plumbing. In this space we know one another not by whether we are Jew or Greek, cut or uncut, male or female, straight or gay, pigmented privileged or pigmented vulnerable, but by whether we love one another. Come, be the church with us.

H.M.H. Quean Lutibelle
a.k.a. Louie Crew, Li Min Hua, Br. Thorn-in-the- Flesh
Founder of Integrity: The Justice Ministry of Lesbigay Episcopalians

The group had 410 communicants during its first ten months, some for short stays, some for the entire time. Once reaching one hundred, it did not go below ninety, even in the summer. The group generated an average of 1.3 megabytes of text each month, or approximately eighty double-spaced manuscript pages--an eight- hundred-page book--in just ten months. We have communicants from every racial group, from every part of the globe, and from virtually every religious denomination. While discussion is intense and people disagree, the catacomb markedly contrasts with other electronic religious forums: people allow themselves to be vulnerable about their doubts and their beliefs, and most manifest respect for the those who hold beliefs radically different from their own. No one is out to convert; the group convenes to share.

Cyberspace literalizes community--not just for my classes or for folks stalking the same margins I stalk. The Chinese student protest movement in the spring and summer 1989 was orchestrated largely through the aegis of soc.culture.china, a discussion group on the Internet. What official Chinese news networks would never have allowed, Chinese students at home and abroad effected through an imaginative combination of the abundant fax technology in China and the ubiquitous Internet outside China. Students in all parts of China would fax in Chinese script reports of actions at their isolated sites to friends studying abroad. The friends would quickly translate these documents into English and post them by e-mail to soc.culture.china, where a fuller picture began to emerge. In that way, for example, student leaders could know of growing solidarity all over the country, could even know whom to expect and when as the summer holiday began. Those who read these digests, faxed to friends in China the parts that otherwise they would not know (See Electronic mail on China, edited by Esbjorn Stahle & Terho Uimonen. -- Stockholm: Foreningen for orientaliska studier, 1989).

Assignments on the Internet can open us up to the wonders of our discipline as writers. Witness these:

  1. Locate the archives for soc.culture.china and download all postings for the week leading up to the Tiananmen Square massacre. Analyze your findings as a prelude.
  2. Lurk on a group where you would usually be a stranger (e.g., soc.culture.afghanistan; soc.motss [lesbigays]; or soc.culture.women and find a way to quantify evidence to support some of your hunches.
  3. Download a representative sampling of discourse on any group where those who use English as a second or foreign language post heavily. Develop at least two theories about error or rhetoric; then analyze the candid data you have gathered to support or refute your theories.
  4. Save twenty-five messages on the same subject from any group. Then write a thesaurus entry for each of the key terms in the common "subject." After you have finished your entry, in a separate report, list new terms and old terms--compared with the listing for these terms in Roget's Thesaurus.
  5. Study citation patterns on any group for a period of two weeks (i.e., who quotes whom): Write a paper on how "authority" seems to manifest itself in the group. Use a group outside your own discipline and field of expertise.
  6. Collect fifty signature files and analyze them. You should monitor at least two other variables. You might want to check how many of the quotations you may find in your system's online quotation dictionary.
  7. Choose any words or phrases that seem especially charged for you, e.g., neologisms, current political jargon. Then collect samples of these items from two or more contrasting user groups. Analyze.
  8. Use your expertise at the systems level of your mainframe(s) to snoop on usage patterns, e.g., who logs in most frequently, what tasks do you find them doing when checking at regular intervals, and so forth. Or study the file naming patterns of twenty and thirty users.
  9. Login remotely to a dozen libraries. Trap the login process. Then evaluate the ease or difficulty of each login.
  10. For a week monitor closely the clari (UPI) groups or the postings of any other commercial news service. Note patterns by which articles are withdrawn and revised or withdrawn hastily and never posted again. Analyze these editorial decisions from all angles.
  11. Do a cross-cultural comparison of the way posters from two different cultures discuss the same subject. For example, compare discussions of sex on soc.culture.christian with those on soc.culture.india
  12. Log into library catalogs on three continents and do a cross- cultural comparison of holdings on a culturally charged subject.
  13. Collect a list of verbs that stereotypically suggest authoritarian personalities--e.g., order, command, demand.. Collect random samples of extended discourse in two professional communities and analyze any patterns in the ways that your stereotype vocabulary appears. Did folks in one profession show up as more authoritarian?
  14. Using any commercial hypertext program, write a hypertext introduction to your major (or your dormitory or whatever else you can think of)
  15. Create a virtual experience of any poem.
  16. Using a spreadsheet, inventory every item in your dorm room or bedroom at home. Estimate the cost to replace each item. Then catalog these items by up to five categories. Write a paper about your values as reflected by how you spent your money. Use line graphs, bar graphs, and pie graphs, together with any other visual devices to make your point.
  17. Use the resources of the Internet to discover statistics on the way other persons with a budget similar to yours spend their money. Revise your paper in no. 16 to accommodate this information.
  18. Use ftp to retrieve any full-length novel. Search for the terms earth, wind, fire and water and collect the context for up to twenty examples of each. Read three chapters of a biography of the author and write a paper applying insights into the biography that have come to you from your nonlinear reading of the texts. How do words for the four elements infuse the fiction? What relations, if any, did the biographer draw between the author and the elements?
  19. Do a hypertext comparison of any ten to twenty terms of fundamentalism as they appear in the prose of David Koresh, John Shelby Spong, and Margaret Atwood.
  20. Write four exercises to help classmates/colleagues experience a treasure hunt for any Internet treasures that you have discovered on your own.
With these exercises I am trying to assign to the computer what computers do best and trying to assign to the student what human beings do best: Computers collect, download, gather, list, login, quantify, sample, save, and trap the process; people analyze, compare, contrast, evaluate, finish, lurk, note patterns, study, support, theorize, and write. Both computers and persons choose, find, monitor, post, and snoop.

I often assign myself such projects. I was startled to look at the spreadsheets I had prepared of my own expenses since I got my first personal computer in 1983, asking a new question, "Do I put my money where I claim my values are, and what shifts do I need to make?" That is not a paper I will publish! It is an assignment I need to do again and again, and the computer makes it much easier.

Many uses of the computer are just playful:

thirty-eight times: was. thirty- four times: unto. thirty-one times: be. twenty-eight times: Lord. twenty times: god, is. nineteen times: said. eighteen times: were. sixteen times: came, thou. fifteen times: hath. fourteen times: angel, not, thy. twelve times: child, days, Mary, things. eleven times: called, holy, name. ten times: unto. nine times: behold, me, my, thee, went. eight times: before, blessed, Elizabeth, pass, people, saying, son, Zacharias. seven times: city, fear, great, heard, house, I, Israel, Jerusalem, mother, shalt, womb. six times: according, David, father, ghost, man, spake, temple, upon. five times: about, after, also, among, day, filled, Jesus, Joseph, law, many, mercy, now, out, own, seen, spirit, up, wife, years. four times: accomplished, babe, because, brought, delivered, forth, found, good, hand, hast, hearts, highest, made, Nazareth, returned, shepherds, so, told. Thrice: am, art, away, been, both, call, come, conceived, country, custom, departed, even, every, fathers, Galilee, give, glory, go, incense, John, joy, Judaea, know, manger, marveled, named, old, one, order, peace, salutation, salvation, saw, sent, servant, sought, speak, strong, taxed, wisdom, word, ye, you. Twice: Abraham, abroad, again, age, answered, barren, being, believed, Bethlehem, born, bring, children, Christ, clothes, course, dealt, death, down, drink, enemies, espoused, ever, face, favor, feast, first, fulfilled, Gabriel, grew, haste, heart, hill, just, kept, known, laid, leaped, light, lo, looked, low, lying, manner, men, mighty, mine, month, months, most, mouth, multitude, night, office, over, parents, performed, power, praising, prepared, priest's, rejoiced, revealed, round, savior, sayings, see, set, shewed, sign, Simeon, sixth, soon, soul, spoken, stricken, swaddling, tarried, thing, three, through, thus, tidings, time, troubled, turn, understanding, visited, voice, waxed, well, whereby, wherein, while, whose, without, women, world, wrapped.
That is a word-frequency list of Luke's Christmas narrative. I call it "Christmas Deconstructed." Word-frequency programs are available everywhere.

For a more serious project I gave developmental students word-frequency lists for Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery." "You are anthropologists," I said. "Suppose you had only these lists as the remains of `The Lottery.' Obviously you do not have the evidence needed to reconstruct the story, but what evidence in the lists points to what you discovered to be the heart of the story?"

Some played with the puzzle pieces, never discerning any patterns, bored with it all. A few wrote their best papers of the semester, pursuing the patterns hidden in the stacks of evidence--the use of the word black and variants of laugh, for example. When these detectives wrote, they did so not only with the authority of insight but also with the weight of specific evidence, which they had made their own.

Trained as a linguist, I have delighted in the power of the computer to analyze structures. I wrote a program, STYLED.EXE, popular with the forum of professional journalists on CompuServe and with several reviewers. I do not pretend to monitor all aspects of style, but a narrow list of items that concern me with my own prose, such as pulse. Here is a graph of the punctuation patterns in the first five sentences of St. Paul's famous love passage,      

  1. ooooooooooo , oooo , ooooooooooo .

  2. ooooooo , oooooo , ooo , ooooooooo , ooo , ooo , oooooo .

  3. oooooooo , ooo , oooooooooooo , oooo , ooooooo .

  4. oooooo ; oooo ; oooooo ; oooooo ; ooooo , oooo .

  5. ooooooooooooo ; oooooo , oo , oo , ooooo .

               Periods:           5
               Commas:            16
               Semicolons:        5

Twenty-six punctuation marks of these kinds in a text of 155 words, i.e., punctuation for every five words.
St. Paul's Original

If I have all the eloquence of men or of angels, but speak without love, I am simply a gong booming or a cymbal clashing. If I have the gift of prophecy, understanding all the mysteries there are, and knowing everything, and if I have faith in all its fullness, to move mountains, but without love, then I am nothing at all. If I give away all that I possess, piece by piece, and if I even let them take my body to burn it, but am without love, it will do me no good whatever.

Love is always patient and kind; it is never jealous; love is never boastful or conceited; it is never rude or selfish; it does not take offense, and is not resentful. Love takes no pleasure in other people's sins but delights in the truth; it is always ready to excuse, to trust, to hope, and to endure whatever comes.

Corinthians 13:1-7. Jerusalem translation.
Contrast that vitality with the punctuation patterns of most beginning writers--or even some professional journals. STYLED does not create pulse but playfully invites it.

STYLED offers specific help with those of us who want to name our agents and to put actions into verbs--as recommended by my mentor, Joseph Williams. The program graphs the stylistic cholesterol in this passage by a department head. Boldface alone indicates words that possibly bury action. Boldfaced italics indicate forms of to be

  1. Implicit in what has been suggested above is the fact that the Department needs significantly to increase its expectations and its requirements. (22)
  2. Both sections of the Graduate Division now have completed the pioneering phase of their programs. (15)
  3. The programs are well established. (5)
  4. A satisfactory international recognition for the programs has been achieved. (10)
  5. The time now has come to build upon the initial successes of the Department's postgraduate program. (16)
  6. During the forthcoming triennium, postgraduate course work within the Department must be made more complex. (14)
  7. Students must be required to operate at more sophisticated -- at genuinely international -- levels of commitment and skill. (17)
                       Forms of "to be":6  (6 %)
                       Possible buried action:12  (12 %)
                       Total word count:99

     Forms of "to be":
     1--been   1--is   3--are   4--been   6--be   7--be

          Words that may bury action:

          1--Department   1--expectations   1--requirements   
          2--sections  2--Division   2--pioneering   4--international   
          4--recognition 5--Department's   6--forthcoming   
          6--Department   7--commitment

The report prompted me to revise the passage:
I have implied that the department needs to expect more, to require more. We have pioneered long enough. Now we must sophisticate our graduate students. During the new triennium, our students must demonstrate more skill. They must commit themselves to the more complex materials. The faculty must serve international, not parochial, standards.

An elderly woman approached me after I spoke at a cathedral in California this July. She introduced herself as the last female deputy elected but denied a seat in the General Convention, the legislative body of the Episcopal Church, in 1969; only in 1970 did we rise above an all-male convention.

"Do you remember a student you had long ago named Doug?" she asked.

She gave his last name too, but it rang no bell.

"In the last thirty-five years I have taught well over three thousand students. Doug--hmm. No. I am so sorry, but"

"Well, he remembered you!" she said, smiling persistently. "He said you led him to major in English. He told me again and again that you had taught him to value strong clear sentences. He graduated from the University of Virginia and later became the chief coroner in Washington, DC. He said he was the coroner preferred by the courts because of his command of English: he had the ability to convey complex medical jargon into something a jury could comprehend."

"Doug? Doug! Who went to the University of Virginia. But I taught him in my second year of teaching, thirty-four years ago. I thought you meant someone much more recent."

"Yes, " she said, "and I encouraged him many times to call you, but he would not. He loved you very much."

"I remember, yes, Doug, whose father objected to my assigning All the King's Men. Where is he? "Does he live here?"

"He told me that he knew I would see you some day, and he told me to tell you that he grew up gay."

"Doug? Where is he? May I see him? Does he live near here. Yes, he didn't like Mahler but introduced me to Missa in Tempore Belli...."

"As an Episcopalian, he was enormously grateful for your work with Integrity," she continued, as if she had escaped some disaster.

"He knows about that?!" I asked.

"Yes, and he was awfully proud of you. I met him at a healing service at church. I was only a stranger, and I don't know why he told me, but he said he was dying of AIDS."

"Doug! Doug! Who read every word of Robert Penn Warren! Not Doug!"

"We became very close." she continued. "He said to me many times, `Why couldn't I have had a mother like you?' I just did what any Christian would do. His mother preceded him in death, and his father wouldn't even speak to him after he told them he was gay. They cut him off completely and would not even allow him to come home. His father was so ashamed of him, even after he graduated from the University of Virginia and became a famous doctor. Look, here's a picture of the two of us together, and I've made a copy for you of his obituary. He told me he wanted you to have these. I am here by his mandate."

And now abideth syllabi, canons, and epiphany. But the greatest of these disciplines is epiphany.


1 In Camden County, the infant mortality rate is eighty-four per thousand births; in Bangladesh, 119 per thousand. See 1988 data in United Nations, 332. See also Center for Health Statistics, Mortality, D-33 and Natality, C-22. Both figures refer to deaths of infants under the age of one.

Works Cited

Center for Health Statistics. Mortality. Trenton: New Jersey Department of Health. 1988.

Center for Health Statistics. Natality. Trenton: New Jersey Department of Health. 1988.

Dickinson, Emily. The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson edited by Thomas H. Johnson. Boston: Little, Brown, 1960. Friedman, Edwin. "Healing Sick Institutions." Paper presented at a national symposium of Episcopalians at St. Louis, Mo., August 13, 1993.

Stahle, Esbjorn and Terho Uimonen, eds. Electronic mail on China, Stockholm: Foreningen for orientaliska studier, 1989.

United Nations. Demographic Yearbook. New York: United Nations, 1992.

Williams, Joseph. Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace. New York: Harper Collins, 1981.


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