Putting Foreign Students First?

Green River College from above

Community college in Washington State increasingly relies on international student revenue, but some faculty worry it is moving away from its mission of serving local residents.

AUBURN, Wash. — Green River College’s main campus sits on a forested tract atop a hill.

The suburban Seattle institution is the 10th-most-popular choice of community college for international students coming to the U.S. Here at the college on a hill, macro trends in higher education are visible on a micro level: international students are coming to the U.S. in greater numbers, and at younger ages. Their tuition dollars come as welcome relief to public colleges that are under pressure to become more entrepreneurial. Profit centers exist uneasily within institutions with public service missions.

There are other ways in which Green River is distinct. Faculty have taken two votes of no confidence in President Eileen Ely, and another, in November, in the Board of Trustees. The faculty union has gone since June 2014 without a contract, though a tentative agreement for a new one has been reached. The elimination of a program (auto body) headed by the former union president has heightened the distrust between faculty and administrators, as has an ongoing prioritization process that will rank academic programs into one of five quintiles.

Administrators are looking for ways to close a projected $4-5 million budget deficit, caused in part by a new state allocation formula under which Green River stands to receive a 5 percent funding cut — about $1.3 million based on current levels. The college has become increasingly dependent on international student tuition as enrollments of Washington State residents have declined and the proportion of the operating budget that comes from state appropriations has fallen (56 percent in 2015-16, down from 62 percent five years earlier). Faculty in turn have concerns about the administration’s allocation of resources, including its choice to spend large sums derived from international student tuition on capital building projects.

Amid the acrimony, international students come — 1,746 of them last fall. Paying more than 2.5 times the tuition of Washington State residents, international students have, since 1987-88, contributed about $75 million toward the college’s general fund and its capital projects budget and changed the composition of its classrooms.

“It was really twofold,” Ely said of the development of the college’s international program. “It was, one, a financial benefit to the college, but it was also for educating our students on globalization … making sure if we’re training students for tomorrow’s workforce — and it is a global world out there and a global economy — that they have the opportunity to work with international students in the classroom.”

“It really is a win-win,” Ely continued. “When you walk through our campus nowadays you almost can’t tell an international student from a domestic student because from the local school districts alone we have students coming in with 138-plus different languages.”

Faculty say they welcome the international students, but worry about the balance. They ask: Are international students being privileged over local students for the financial benefits they bring? What is the appropriate scope and scale of a quasi-privatized unit to recruit international students within a public community college?

“We certainly understand the importance of having international students on the campus and what that can bring to the campus, but to me the primary mission of a community college is to serve the needs of our immediate community. I worry that we are moving away from that,” said Mark Thomason, the chair of the social sciences division and an instructor of history.

“Our college is a public, taxpayer-funded institution,” Vik Bahl, an English instructor who co-chairs the Green River Diversity & Equity Council, wrote in an op-ed shared on Facebook. “Should we just turn it into a private, for-profit entity? How should taxpayers in our community respond to the fact that President Ely and members of the BOT are clearly willing to sacrifice the obligations we have to students in our local communities in order to chase the unaccountable dollars they can generate from international students?”

Green River’s International Student Profile

The tensions between faculty and administrators at Green River — where faculty members have formally objected to what they describe as “arbitrary administrative decisions,” the “dismantling of shared governance” and “unethical and irresponsible fiscal management” — go far beyond issues specifically related to international students. But Green River’s growth in international students means they are a critical part of any conversation about the character and trajectory of the college.

Green River is not a new entrant to international student recruiting — the college created a dedicated international student program in the late ’80s — but its international enrollments have grown by more than 1,000 students over the past 10 years, from 592 international students in fall 2005 to 1,746 in fall 2015. Going forward, the college is aiming for what Wendy Stewart, the dean of international programs and extended learning, called “stable and moderate growth” in international enrollments, on the order of 3 to 5 percent per year, and greater diversification in terms of the countries students come from.


The students come mainly from East Asia. Slightly more than half hail from China and Vietnam, the top two countries of origin.

About 40 percent of Green River’s international students come for its high school completion program, in which students as young as 16 can take dual credit toward a high school diploma and a two-year college degree. The college requires 16-year-olds to live in homestays, while students 17 and over can live in Green River’s apartment-style residence hall.

Roughly 85 percent of Green River’s international students are transfer bound. As is the case for many American students, they come to the community college as a stepping-stone on the way to a four-year U.S. university. Green River has negotiatedconditional admission arrangements with 31 U.S. universities, including three University of California campuses (Davis, Irvine and Santa Barbara), and has a staff of six full-time international student advisers, plus an advising director, to help with degree and transfer planning, as well as visa-related issues. Two additional advisers, one full-time and one part-time, work with students in the college’s intensive English-as-a-second-language program.

Another 85 percent statistic: that’s the proportion of Green River international students recruited through agents. Green River has been at the forefront of a national effort to normalize agency and commission-based recruitment of international students. American colleges are barred under federal financial aid law from paying per capita commissions for the recruitment of domestic students. While the prohibition does not apply to overseas recruiting, critics of the use of agents argue that a commissioned payment system incentivizes application fraud and creates a conflict in which an agent could be tempted to put his or her financial interests ahead of the best interests of students. Proponents of the practice counter that commission-based recruitment can be done ethically when colleges find trustworthy agency partners and are careful about the procedures they put in place.

Green River’s vice president of international programs and extended learning, Ross Jennings, is of the latter school. He sat on a National Association for College Admission Counseling task force that in 2013 recommended that the group lift its ban on commission-based international recruitment (which it subsequently did).

Jennings said Green River pays recruiting agencies a commission equal to 15 percent of a student’s tuition for his or her first three quarters. For a student taking a full-time, 15-credit load, that equals $1,485 per head.

“We’re utterly unapologetic about the use of agencies,” said Jennings. “There are force multipliers for us because we can’t be everywhere.” Further, Jennings said that a relationship between the college and an agency serves as a quality control check.

“We still do admission — no one does admission for us — but they can screen the kinds of students we want to get.”

Green River, as is typical for community colleges, is an open admission institution. International students who don’t achieve the required score on standardized English proficiency tests can start in the intensive ESL program, which enrolled 429 international students last fall, or about one-quarter of the college’s total. Green River has a mandatory international student college experience class, which covers U.S. classroom expectations and academic success strategies, and also requires all international students to participate in a structured peer mentoring program calledFoundation for Success.

Green River’s international students earn higher GPAs than their American counterparts. In spring 2015, the average GPA for international students in college-level courses was 3.16, while it was 2.84 for domestic students.

‘A Cadillac Product’

International students account for 16 percent of Green River’s student body and nearly a quarter (24 percent) of the college’s full-time equivalent enrollments. Just the academic (non-ESL) international students account for 20 percent of FTEs.

Because more than two-thirds of Green River’s international students study business or STEM-related fields, their representation is particularly high in certain courses and sections. Ajay Narayanan, an instructor of physics and astronomy, said it’s not uncommon for 20 of 25 students in his introductory physics classes to be international. That kind of concentration of international students, some of whom struggle with English, has compelled him to change the way he teaches, he said.

“I used to do a lot of project-based learning. I would assign projects to students and have them work through a free-form assignment where they might build a project and write an essay describing how they built the project. That became extremely time-consuming, just having to give them extra instructions, describe everything that is in the handout several times over so they can follow it,” Narayanan said.

A task force on international student teaching and learning formed in 2010, shortly after Ely arrived at Green River, made 21 recommendations, including the development of a mandatory college experience class for international students — since implemented — and the creation of a study group to examine “the impact of international students on access and classroom dynamics with a focus on: (a) percentage of international students in any one section, (b) the perception that international students are limiting access for domestic students in classes, (c) registration process for international students,” among other issues.

An international education committee, headed by Thomason, the social science division chair, is charged with being a liaison between the international program office and the college’s Instructional Council. The committee did not meet last fall, Thomason said, because faculty have opted not to do uncompensated committee work until the protracted negotiations on their contract are complete.

On the instructional side, issues surrounding prerequisites and international student registration have been particularly vexed. Regarding the former, the social science division has pushed to raise the English prerequisite on its courses: faculty would like to require students to have placed into or otherwise be eligible to enroll in English 101, the introductory college-level English course, as a prerequisite for taking social science classes (this means that students couldn’t take, say, an introductory economics or history course until they demonstrated readiness to enroll in college-level English). The science division already requires eligibility for English 101 as a prerequisite for its courses.

Derek Brandes, the college’s vice president of instruction, vetoed the social science division’s proposal. Though Jennings, the vice president of international programs, said he did express to Brandes his concern that upping the prerequisite could delay graduation for some students, Brandes said his decision had nothing to do with the international population. Rather, he said he opposed an increased prerequisite because it would create a barrier for (domestic) minority students who “are getting trapped in developmental and precollege classes.”

“What’s happening is these students are getting frustrated,” he said. “They don’t feel like they’re progressing, they’re getting buried by all the prerequisites we have on courses — the prerequisites got put on because of the international mix — but those students domestically are struggling and if you look at our achievement gaps as a college, there are huge gaps in [university transfer rates for] our Hispanic and African-American population,” said Brandes. He added that there are a lot of models in which students “are getting great gains in their developmental and precollege education when it is embedded in content they are interested in.”

“My division’s stance on all this is we want students to succeed,” said Thomason. He shared GPA data from 100-level social science courses showing that students who were eligible for English 101 generally outperformed their counterparts who weren’t, sometimes by substantial amounts.

“The 100-level courses that we teach here, they’re transferring into the University of Washington. The standards need to be the same. And if students don’t have college-level reading and writing they’re going to struggle,” said Thomason. He believes that opposition to the prerequisite proposal on the part of the international program office likely played a role in the decision to reject it, despite Brandes’s statements to the contrary: “to deny that international programs had anything to do with this, I don’t believe that,” Thomason said.

Tawnya McLaveyTawnya McLaveyIt’s this kind of distrust and disagreement that contributes to the perception held by some Green River faculty that the international program is the tail wagging the dog that is the rest of the college. The practice of reserving two to three spots in certain classes for international students is especially fraught, with some faculty feeling it’s unfair to local students who can’t register for those saved seats. Jennings thinks otherwise, saying “a three-place offset is a pretty small concession to address a huge disadvantage international students have” in registration, the disadvantage being that they can’t take math and English placement tests — and therefore register for many classes — until they get to campus. “We have no other way of having any classes guaranteed at all for international students,” he said.

The larger question of whether international students are being privileged over local students is pervasive at Green River. “International or study abroad students anywhere in the world receive a level of support commensurate with their financial contributions and special needs,” Jennings said. He recalled that when he was an exchange student at the American University of Beirut, a private institution, “we had two weeks of Arabic training in the mountains of Lebanon, we had excursions, we had field trips, we had a special adviser. We had housing arranged for us before we came. The local kids did not have that.”

Those kinds of specialized services are paid for out of the (higher) fees international students pay, Jennings said. Without them, he said, the students won’t come — “and the cultural and financial benefits they confer to their institutions would not exist.”

Steve Kinholt, a mathematics instructor, uses the analogy that Washington State resident students are in coach while international students are riding first-class. “I think the administration in our current environment is portraying the faculty as being opposed to international programs, and we are not at all,” Kinholt says. “We’re just a little bit wary of the number of students who are coming, the fact that we’re being asked to reserve seats for them as well.”

“I’m thinking we’re going to have local parents saying, ‘Hey, my child wasn’t able to get into your class either. Why don’t you reserve seats for the local high schools?’”

“They’re buying a Cadillac product, so they get Cadillac services,” said John Avery, an instructor of English for speakers of other languages (a program for immigrant and refugee students that is separate from the intensive English program for international students).

“I know that our international programs is proud that they’re able to offer that,” Avery said. “But the primary mission of this college should be to serve the local students, and not just be running a side business, which is sometimes what international programs amounts to.”

A Changing College

Green River is a college with a changing financial model and student demographic. It is also one in which the administration and the faculty differ on a vision for the future. Jennings thinks the international program is “caught in the crossfire.”

“Green River’s international program reports directly to the president, and so is a target of suspicion by some for its reporting to administration, rather than faculty,” he said. “Reasoned debate and discussion about every function of the college, including the international program, is quite proper. The reasonableness of debate, however, has sometimes been compromised by passions excited by discord and positions of solidarity in the present climate of disharmony between faculty and administration at our college.”

In a climate of disharmony, scrutiny of how the college chooses to spend the large sums it generates in international student tuition is perhaps to be expected. In 2013-14, Green River’s international program brought in about $18.9 million in revenue. After accounting for expenses for the self-supporting international program office — including salaries and benefits for staff and intensive English program instructors, recruiting travel, and agency commissions — the net income for the college was about $11.4 million.

About $4.9 million of that went to the general fund to pay for costs of instruction and operations. The academic year of 2013-14 was unusual in that the college made a $20 million-plus drawdown from international program revenues held in reserves to pay for capital building projects.

International Program Revenue and How It’s Used

2012-13 2013-14 2014-15
Income $17,394,594 $18,861,958 N/A
International Program Operating Expenditures $7,450,557 $7,504,659 N/A
Net Income $9,944,037 $11,357,299 N/A
Support for General Fund, Permanent $3,015,000 $3,500,000 $3,500,000
Support for General Fund, One-Time $1,264,534 $1,434,184 $2,083,654
Support for Capital Projects $608,628 $20,210,878 -$931,198
Total Support for College $4,888,162 $25,145,062 $4,652,456

The intensive spending on capital projects at a time when faculty feel their programs — and jobs — are on the line has been another source of tension at Green River. There’s been a flurry of construction — a newly completed trades building, a section of which would have housed the eliminated auto body program; a new classroom building in downtown Kent, about a 15-minute drive from the main campus in Auburn; a new student life center that’s under construction; and a new building intended to house aviation, among other programs.

In the written rationale for their no-confidence vote in the Board of Trustees, faculty singled out this last project as an example of the administration’s questionable financial decision making: “It was intended for flight simulators to be moved into the new building, but the building will not be large enough,” the document states. “Instead, the college will seek to rent additional space in Auburn for the flight simulators. Construction began in 2015 to build an inadequate building that will cost the college millions of dollars over the next 20 years and the college will still have to rent additional space to house the flight simulators.”

Allison Friedly, Green River’s spokeswoman, said the plan all along was to house the simulators elsewhere. “It’s classroom space,” she said of the building under construction. “It’s adjacent to a building that we would like to secure for our flight simulators, but there was never any intention of putting flight simulators in that building.”

In any case, Jaeney Hoene, the faculty union president and an English instructor, said, “It seems absurd to invest money in building a building that is exclusively for aviation and not to make sure that it can house the things aviation needs.”

“Most of us would generally say if the college is having the kind of budget crisis that they say it is, then it was probably not a project they should have taken on. But if they were going to do it, to make sure it was actually serving the needs that existed would seem to justify it better,” she said.

Hoene would like to see a greater proportion of international student tuition go to the general fund to pay for instructional costs shared by international and domestic students. In 2013-14, about 26 percent of gross international program revenue and 43 percent of net revenue went to the general fund. Those percentages should, however, be interpreted in light of the fact that close to a quarter of the college’s international students are enrolled in intensive English classes that are paid for out of the international program (and not the general college) budget.

“The college has a great deal of international money that it’s choosing to put into capital projects and other things that it’s interested in doing while shorting what it needs to put in to balance the operating budget, and consequently they are canceling programs and this year they’re threatening to cancel others,” said Hoene, in reference to last year’s cuts to the auto body and geographic information systems programs and the ongoing program prioritization process.

Ely said revenue from international programs helped the college to avoid cuts to programs after the 2008 recession, when funding from the state dropped and other colleges across Washington’s community college system were slashing their offerings.Data from the Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges show that between July 2009 and September 2011 the system’s colleges closed more than 560 programs and opened 213 new ones.

“As we have gone up and down economically, with different recessions that we’ve experienced, the international program has been very beneficial in helping our domestic student population,” Ely said. “In many instances, if we did not have the revenue stream coming in from the international program we most probably would have had to cut additional staff, offer less classes, possibly less programming.”

She added, of the spending on buildings: “When you look at what’s happened with capital funding at the state level, we don’t even qualify for another capital project until probably 2021, and that’s just being awarded the project. Then you look at six to seven years out to have a finished product. At Green River we’ve elected to use some of our international dollars to move forward and to replace some of our aging buildings.”

“In the times of decreasing appropriations,” Ely said, “domestic students are benefiting from those dollars.”

At the same time administrators are sensitive to the criticism that the college has given preference to international students for the dollars they bring. In an op-edpublished in the Auburn Reporter last May, Ely wrote, “Unfortunately, the authors of this line of argumentation have forgotten the mission of the college: ‘to ensure student success through comprehensive educational programs and support services responsive to our diverse communities’ … Green River’s mission does not distinguish between international students and domestic students.”

​“In some ways we’ve had to redefine what ‘community’ means here,” said Friedly, the college spokeswoman. “The community colleges were originally started as being small places that were closer to home so people didn’t have to commute. But as President Ely said, we’ve grown into a global community at this point, and to think that the only people you’re going to deal with are the people who grew up in the same area that you grew up [in] is not exactly the most modern ideology you can have.”

Why You Should Discourage Your Children from Writing in Techspeak

by Tamara N. Jones

Techspeak is the use of common acronyms and abbreviations in lieu of fully spelled out words you wish to communicate. For example: ADN – Any Day Now, CWYL – Chat With You Later and WE – Whatever, you get the point. Are there times when it is helpful to use shortcuts? Yes! For instance, I find myself using it when I am about to go underground and know that the time I take to say “See you in five minutes”, I can say “cu in 5”. Under circumstances such as this, using shortcut works in my favor. But for children, using techspeak as their primary written communication with friends and family every single day, it is not advantageous to their developing mind. As a matter of fact, it endangers their cognitive development. According to professor S. Shyam Sundar and Drew P. Cingel, in their article Texting, techspeak, and tweens The relationship between text messaging and English grammar skills, adolescents, 13-17, are more likely to use “techspeak”. This habitual way of writing not only “rob[s] this age group of a fundamental understanding of standard English grammar”, but also affects their performance on grammar assessments. Though text messaging technologies are useful and convenient, there is “a general relationship between messaging and adolescent grammar skills”. One of Sundar and Cingel interesting findings is relationship between messages received and messages sent. It seems  adolescents adapt their language based on the messages they receive. In other words, if the message they receive reads “lol gr8 4 u” they are likely to respond in techspeak as well.

One of the most troublesome findings in their research is that adolescents are not able to successfully code switch. Most adolescents cannot switch from techspeak to correct English in the classroom. This is problem as there is an upward trend in using technology in classroom to teach adolescents and techspeak has now found itself in the classroom and “these adaptations carry over into standard writing practices”. One particular fallout that Sundar and Cingel do not cover, and I suppose it is because it is not within the scope of their research, is this written adaptation can carry over in speech. I often hear adolescents speak in techspeak to each other. With techspeak and slang, it is nearly impossible to understand what is being said. Sadly, just like in writing, these adolescents do not see that there is a time and a place for everything. When speaking to your teacher, saying “omg teach” is not the proper or respectful way of communicating with someone in a position of authority. It muddles the boundaries, if not, erase them.

How can you prevent your child/children from becoming  a victim? Require that they communicate with you in standard English. As the research noted, adolescents are likely to respond in the similar way the message was received. This includes avoiding conjugations. Write “it is” instead of “it’s”. Just as techspeak is a form of habit, standard English can also become their new habit at least when communicating with their parents and other adults.

An Emoji for Word of the Year?

This is Oxford's Word of the Year.

More than words. 😂

The Oxford Dictionaries word of the year for 2015 is 😂. It’s an emoji. The reaction to this news has varied from 😱 (it’s the death of language!) to 😏 (it’s a lame publicity stunt). Emojis are not words. That’s something Oxford itself agrees on, defining the word as “a single distinct element of speech or writing.” We don’t speak in emojis or write in emojis, at least not the old pen-in-hand way. But in real-world conversation, we don’t rely solely on words; body language is said to make up 55% of communication . So perhaps the emoji is the digital equivalent, enhancing the tone of our message beyond words. If so, is it possible to distill the huge gamut of complex human emotion into a series of comic faces?

And why the “face with tears of joy” emoji? Oxford said it “best reflected the ethos, mood, and preoccupations of 2015.” Is this the same 2015 defined by climate change talks, terrorist attacks, and a migrant crisis? These seem at total odds. However, together with Swiftkey, a mobile tech company, Oxford found 😂 was the most frequently used emoji of 2015. Could it be our tears of a collective clown? Or perhaps it is no reflection of our moods at all. Instead, emoji-speak is a self-contained discourse and we tailor our conversations and emotions to fit its limits. And this is the crucial shift that Oxford has acknowledged with their choice.

Seeing comes before words.

Using images in communication is nothing new. The first sentence in John Berger’s Ways of Seeing proposes that we understand images before words. “Seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognises before it can speak.” So the popularity of emojis in digital conversations is not so surprising. Perhaps it allows us to return to a pre-linguistic form of expression and understanding.

This return to the dialogue of images is clear from the rise in photographic platforms like Instagram, Pinterest, and Snapchat. Berger goes on to say that “It is seeing which establishes our place in the world; we explain that world with words, but words can never undo the fact that we are surrounded by it.” It’s always a challenge to explain our world with words. But even a photograph is taken from an angle chosen by the photographer. Emojis are constructed by a certain group of people and used by people in a certain way. They are not as pure and simple a medium as they appear.

A picture paints a thousand words.

Emojis are loaded with meaning beyond the sum of their parts. Almost a century ago, Ferdinand de Saussure, a pioneer in the field of linguistics, wrote that language is a system ofsigns, and words are only part of this system. For Saussure and other semioticians (studiers of signs), anything at all that forms meaning is language. Meaning is coded in so much, from the clothes we wear to traffic lights changing color.

A word is a string of letters that is assigned a meaning, and this meaning is arbitrary to the word. In English, the word for a canine is dog. In French, it is chien. But both words signify the same object. However, images have a more natural relationship to what the are signifying. A photo of a house reflects the image of the house. In this way, emojis can transcend words and be understood across all cultures.

However, as emojis increase in popularity, their meanings become more layered. Roland Barthes, critical theorist, explored these layers of meaning and the idea of connotation. He used the example of a dove. A picture of a dove is the sign, while the bird itself is what is being signified or denoted. We link the image of the dove with its connotation: the concept of peace. This is as arbitrary a relationship as words have with their meanings.

In emoji land, new connotations are emerging. For example, the eggplant 🍆, has become more than a picture of a vegetable. It is now the phallic emoji. And not to be used in the wrong contexts.

Liberation through limitation.

The limited choice of emojis is inextricably linked to their success and personalities. We are confined to the images available in order to express ourselves. How often do we actually laugh so hard that we cry? Probably not enough in real life, but apparently we are digitally hysterical. As Casper Grathwohl, president of Oxford Dictionaries, explained in announcing the decision, “Not only did we see a dramatic spike in usage of ‘Face with Tears of Joy,’ we felt the character captured a sense playfulness and intimacy that embodies emoji culture itself.”

The same images are reproduced over and over again, like emoji clichés or speaking through kitsch. Out on an emoji farm called Unicode in California, new crops of emojis are grown and their limits are established. Anyone is able to suggest new emojis to Unicode. Each proposal must include a case for the new creation and is then put to a committee who decides its fate.

The medium is the message.

This well-known phrase was coined in 1964 by communications philosopher Marshall McLuhan. Although the quote is often misunderstood as meaning that the vehicle is everything and the content is irrelevant, McLuhan actually meant something quite different. He used the example of a news story about a crime. The message, he says, is not the story itself, or the delivery, but the sense of fear that evolves from hearing the story. It’s noticing these “messages,” or shifts in culture (the “ground,” as he put it), that is crucial.

So perhaps Oxford Dictionaries, in naming an emoji as the word of the year, has noticed the McLuhan message—the shift in our discourse. Acknowledging this shift allows us to monitor and check the effect it may create, good or bad. Once viewed as juvenile and left to the kids, emojis have now been adopted by politicians. In a recent tweet, Hillary Clinton called for people to describe their feelings on student loans in three emojis. Even so, few politicians would use an emoji on a matter of serious public concern. Even Clinton’s emoji attempt received criticism for treating the topic of debt with flippancy. Emojis are light and playful, and can imbue an otherwise serious message with irony or wit.

Esperanto reincarnated?

It’s strange that these emojis, which have been around since 1999, have surged in popularity in 2015. This year, we have seen global political upheavals and threats, a huge migrant crisis, and the effects of climate change. But, as in any time of trouble or war, escapism is sought through art and culture. During World War II, musical films surged in popularity; Hollywood produced seventy-five musicals in 1944. So perhaps it’s not surprising that we are adopting this universal discourse in an effort to lighten the mood. The language of emojis allows us a certain tone that we cannot grasp through words or other imagery. And what’s more, in its transcending of cultures, emojis are a unifying language. This digital expression can fuse together cracks in failing traditional systems: a reincarnated Esperanto.

Image rights:
Copyright 2016, Grammarly, Inc.

A Harvard linguist reveals the most misused words in English

Some languages, like French, have an official body that decides how words can and cannot be used.

English, as a flexible, global language, has no such designated referee.

Therefore, there is no definitive answer to whether you’re using a word “correctly.”

It’s all a matter of taste and context. But there are opinions. And some count more than others.

Steven Pinker is probably as good an expert to ask as anyone. Helpfully, the renowned Harvard linguist and best-selling authorrecently wrote a book, titled “The Sense of Style,” that aims to help readers improve their use of the English language.

If you’re in the market for an update to , old Strunk and White, it’s probably a good buy. But if you just want to spot-check that you’ve not been making embarrassing language mistakes for years, a monster list of 58 commonly misused phrases covered in the book that recently appeared in the UK’s Independent newspaper is probably a good place to start.

Here are some highlights:

  1. Adverse means “detrimental.” It does not mean “averse” or “disinclined.” Correct: “There were adverse effects.” / “I’m not averse to doing that.”
  2. Appraise means to “ascertain the value of.” It does not mean to “apprise” or to “inform.” Correct: “I appraised the jewels.” / “I apprised him of the situation.”
  3. Beg the question means that a statement assumes the truth of what it should be proving; it does not mean to “raise the question.” Correct: “When I asked the dealer why I should pay more for the German car, he said I would be getting ‘German quality,’ but that just begs the question.”
  4. Bemused means “bewildered.” It does not mean “amused.” Correct: “The unnecessarily complex plot left me bemused.” / “The silly comedy amused me.”
  5. Cliché is a noun, not an adjective. The adjective is clichéd. Correct: “Shakespeare used a lot of clichés.” / “The plot was so clichéd.”
  6. Data is a plural count noun not, standardly speaking, a mass noun. [Note: “Data is rarely used as a plural today, just as candelabra and agenda long ago ceased to be plurals,” Pinker writes. “But I still like it.”] Correct: “This datum supports the theory, but many of the other data refute it.”
  7. Depreciate means to “decrease in value.” It does not mean to “deprecate” or to “disparage.” Correct: “My car has depreciated a lot over the years.” / “She deprecated his efforts.”
  8. Disinterested means “unbiased.” It does not mean “uninterested.” Correct: “The dispute should be resolved by a disinterested judge.” / “Why are you so uninterested in my story?”
  9. Enormity refers to extreme evil. It does not mean “enormousness.” [Note: It is acceptable to use it to mean a deplorable enormousness.] Correct: “The enormity of the terrorist bombing brought bystanders to tears.” / “The enormousness of the homework assignment required several hours of work.”
  10. Hone means to “sharpen.” It does not mean to “home in on” or “to converge upon.” Correct: “She honed her writing skills.” / “We’re homing in on a solution.”
  11. Hung means “suspended.” It does not mean “suspended from the neck until dead.” Correct: “I hung the picture on my wall.” / “The prisoner was hanged.”
  12. Ironic means “uncannily incongruent.” It does not mean “inconvenient” or “unfortunate.” Correct: “It was ironic that I forgot my textbook on human memory.” / “It was unfortunate that I forgot my textbook the night before the quiz.”
  13. Nonplussed means “stunned” or “bewildered.” It does not mean “bored” or “unimpressed.” Correct: “The market crash left the experts nonplussed.” / “His market pitch left the investors unimpressed.”
  14. Parameter refers to a variable. It not mean “boundary condition” or “limit.” Correct: “The forecast is based on parameters like inflation and interest rates.” / “We need to work within budgetary limits.”
  15. Phenomena is a plural count noun — not a mass noun. Correct: “The phenomenon was intriguing, but it was only one of many phenomena gathered by the telescope.”
  16. Shrunk, sprung, stunk, and sunk are past participles–not words in the past tense. Correct: “I’ve shrunk my shirt.” / “I shrank my shirt.”
  17. Simplistic means “naively or overly simple.” It does not mean “simple” or “pleasingly simple.” Correct: “His simplistic answer suggested he wasn’t familiar with the material.” / “She liked the chair’s simple look.”
  18. Verbal means “in linguistic form.” It does not mean “oral” or “spoken.” Correct: “Visual memories last longer than verbal ones.”
  19. Effect means “influence”; to effect means “to put into effect”; to affect means either “to influence” or “to fake.” Correct: “They had a big effect on my style.” / “The law effected changes at the school.” / “They affected my style.” / “He affected an air of sophistication to impress her parents.”
  20. Lie (intransitive: lies, lay, has lain) means to “recline”; lay (transitive: lays, laid, has laid) means to “set down”; lie (intransitive: lies, lied, has lied) means to “fib.” Correct: “He lies on the couch all day.” / “He lays a book upon the table.” / “He lies about what he does.”

It should be noted that while it’s always good to polish up your writing, one of the joys of language is that it isn’t fixed in time. It evolves. Nor is there a single “correct” style (in English, at least).

You’d neither connect nor impress if you chose your words like an Oxford don at a rap battle (though, actually, someone please make that YouTube video), and you’d be unlikely to get a job at an investment bank today speaking like Shakespeare.

Why is this important? It’s easy to get too caught up in being perfectly “correct” and become a tedious language snob. Remember you probably want to come across as intelligent and thoughtful, not uptight and pedantic. So don’t get so worked up over the little things that you miss the larger point of good writing — to communicate clearly and engagingly with your chosen audience.

“Teachers! Please Do Not Make Your Students Use Synonyms for Said,” I Blurted

Photo by Syda Productions/Shutterstock

My fourth-grade English teacher employed a list of words he called “D.N.U.’s,” for “do not use.” It was about a dozen words long and included get, nice, very, and thing. If he saw one in our papers he would flag it and make a tutting sound, although he didn’t always notice. The point, I assumed, was to make us think about the words we were using—to elevate our writing above the leaden defaults of a 9-year-old’s communicative needs.

According to the Wall Street Journal, this reasonable pedagogical technique has spawned a movement. And as with so many essentially humane causes before it, that movement has metastasized into a perverse and deadly totalitarianism. Its chief proponent is California middle school teacher Leilen Shelton, whose manual Banish Boring Words has, according to the Journal, sold 80,000 copies. Among the words Shelton has declared dead: said.

“You might use barked,” she said. “Maybe howled. Demanded. Cackled. I have a list.” She certainly does. On the cover of Banish Boring Words—Amazon’s No. 1 best-seller in the Elementary Education category as I write, although that might reflect a surge of interest from the Journal story—is a crude cartoon of a boy thinking, “Instead ofsaid I could use … snarled, professed, argued, cautioned, remarked, cried.” A Canadian school district similarly offers a list of 397 “verbs to substitute for ‘said.’ ”

To which anyone who has ever had to read a slush pile or a self-published autobiography will thunder, cry, retort, rejoin, or fume: No. No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. Replacing the word said with “colorful” or “lively” synonyms is a ubiquitous symptom of bad writing. Individual instances are usually redundancies: “I’ll never cheat again!” is recognizable as a promise without “he vowed” after it. But a procession of she explained and he chuckled and I expostulated—the reporting verbs that clog your dialogue when you follow the “never say said” rule—is worse, because they force the reader’s attention away from the content of the writing and onto the writer’s hunt for synonyms.

“There are so many more sophisticated, rich words to use,” Shelton told the Journal’s James R. Hagerty. “ ‘Said’ doesn’t have any emotion.” The assumption here is that emotion is a desirable quality in every word of a sentence, that a rich word is always more appropriate than a plain one. You don’t have to invoke Hemingway, who made a fetish of plain words, to recognize that successful writing modulates the lavishness of its diction for effect, rather than cranking the dial all the way to maximum floridity and leaving it there.

Defenders of these restricted-word lists might argue that they’re an intermediate step for writers-in-training: First we’ll teach students to vary their vocabulary, and then to modulate their tone appropriately. The problem is that, on the evidence of all those slush piles, step two never takes place, and Shelton’s students go out into the world commanding and boasting and suggesting in the belief that they’re making their writing “more sophisticated” rather than less.

I once tutored a high school student who had written, in a biographical essay, the blameless clause “After becoming a teacher.” Her own teacher had “corrected” the phrase to “After achieving success as an educator.” This person was failing as an educator, as is the Powell River Board of Education and Leilen Shelton and everyone else who teaches this destructive rule.

Your Name Affects Your Opportunities In Life

Frazer Harrison/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

People tend to stop caring about their names once they get past certain life landmarks: getting teased for an unfortunate last name in high school, agonizing over a nickname in college, wondering if a spouse should change their name. After all, it’s just a name. Right? Wrong. Psychological studies have proved, time after time, that our names have a real impact on our fiscal, educational, and personal success.

Which is what makes the recent trend of bizarre baby names even more confusing. Many European surnames evolved from occupations — Glover, Baker, Smith, Abbot, Draper — and the plethora of first names that now exist is actually a pretty modern phenomenon; according to a BBC report, until 1800, 50 percent of all men in England shared the same four first names. You were most likely named after your parent, or a common saint. Looking to celebrities and book characters for inspiration is a very modern preoccupation, as is wanting your kid to be “different”. As we’ll discover, for some kids, that can actually backfire pretty badly, with far-reaching consequences for future education and success. You’ve got to be wise when you’re naming your kid.

As somebody who’s named her cat Eglantine (after Angela Lansbury’s dignified but clumsy character in Bedknobs & Broomsticks), I’m not one to talk. But at least Eglantine won’t have to navigate preschool, college acceptance, resumes, or changing her maiden name. What’s in a name? As it turns out, rather a lot.

1. You Earn More If Your Name Is Shorter

A large quantity of research has gone into what many adults worry about: is their name holding them back from professional success? According to a survey done by an online job search site, perhaps. The top-earning names for men among the site’s six million members were Tom, Rob, Dale, Doug, and Wayne, while top-earning women were called Lynn, Melissa, Cathy, Dana, and Christine. Seeing a pattern? Shorter — albeit, “whiter” names, which we’ll get to in a second — seem to be the key to a successful career. Five letters, in fact, was the optimal length.

Forbes, which analyzed the study, pointed out that the most common names among “C-level executives” (that is, CEOs, CFOs, CTOs and other big guns at the very top of any company ladder) were names like Lawrence, Marc, Denise, Cindy, and Sarah. Commonality didn’t guarantee you a top-level salary, though; having an easy-to-pronounce, familiarly short name did. Part of this may be that shorter names are seen as more sociable, because we as humans like easily understandable bits of information. It could also be that giving yourself a nickname makes you seem more “human” and less Christian Grey.

If you think this is nonsense, the study even put it in cold hard cash: every extra letter a C-level executive had in their name above the five-letter “ideal” cost them $3,600 in earnings per year.

2. A “White” Name Is More Employable Than A “Black” One

This famous but seriously upsetting bit of information comes courtesy of a 2003 study that demonstrated just how much harder it is in America to get employed with a so-called “ethnic” name. The study, “Are Emily And Greg More Employable Than Lakisha And Jamal?”, sent out resumes in response to Wanted ads in Boston and Chicago. The resumes either had a stereotypically “white” name or a stereotypically “black” one, and were of either respectable quality or high quality (you know, sterling references, lots of experience, the things that make a resume shine). The results were pretty sobering.

“White” names received 50 percent more callbacks for interviews than “black” names, and even if “black” names were attached to the really stellar resumes, they still received a seriously low level of interest. “White” names on the awesome resumes, however, got a 30 percent jump in callbacks. The scientists pointed out that having a “white” name equated to having eight more years of experience on your CV.

In case you were wondering if things have changed since 2003, a 2014 research paper found that employers are just as racially discriminatory now as they were then. It’s a seriously unfair world, and white privilege and racism are very real.

3. An Easy-To-Pronounce Name May Get You More Promotions

A 2011 study found something interesting: if your name’s easy to pronounce, it may help you get ahead. And that applies to both first names and surnames. Apparently we form more “positive” impressions of words that we can pronounce and process easily; our brain rewards the name for being easy as opposed to driving us slightly nuts.

The study pointed out that even drugs with simpler names are seen as safer and more effective than ones with complex names. The scientists did experiments with name association that proved that people “like” shorter names better in others — and found that people with easy-to-pronounce surnames tend to have higher-up jobs in law firms.

4. A Last Name At The Beginning Of The Alphabet Might Help You Get Into College

There’s a caveat on this one: it was done in the Czech Republic, where names obviously differ in some significant ways from America, complete with cultural associations. But a study, done in 2007, found that if your last name is at the beginning of the alphabet, you’re more likely to be accepted into both application-only high schools and into college.

It’s likely this is because, in some places, applications are processed alphabetically, and that quotas are filled early on, leaving spaces few as the alphabet progresses. Of course, this depends on how your college processes applications, so don’t count on it helping you out.

5. Highly-Gendered Names Influence How You Do In School

It seems that social expectations of gender actually have a predictive role in how a kid behaves, at least when it comes to their name. According toresearch by Northwestern University reported by TIME, linguistically “feminine” and “masculine” names actually may predict a girl’s interest in more male-dominated subjects like math and science. Studies of twins showed that girls with less girly names were more inclined to stick with STEM subjects.

And there’s a flip-side, too. The studies also showed that boys with stereotypically “feminine” names, like Ashley or Courtney, often exhibited significant behavioral problems in middle school, likely in response to bullying. Poor kids.

6. Keeping Your Maiden Name May Earn You More

In an interesting revelation from 2011, a Dutch study revealed that people assess women who keep their maiden names as smarter and more career-focused than those who don’t. Part of this is likely the result of social change and evolved expectation: there’s a clear statistical link between high levels of education, marrying later in life, and the practice of keeping maiden names.

So it could just be a case of (albeit highly-problematic) connect-the-dots. But the research also found something more concrete: women who hadn’t changed their names earned higher salaries overall, often by up to $6,000 more a year. It seems that public perception about maiden names may be keeping married women who remove theirs from reaching their full earning potential.

7. Using Your Middle Initial Makes People Think You’re More Intelligent

If you’ve ever read an academic paper by “Professor A. E. X. Whatever” and wondered why they felt the need to cram every little initial into their title, there may be an answer in public perception. The practice in academia often comes from an attempt to distinguish your name from similar ones, butresearch in the European Journal of Social Psychology has revealed that using the initials of your middle name actually makes people think you’re smarter.

People rated essays as better-written and more intelligent if the writer was given a middle initial, or three. I didn’t know this before I started to go by my initials, but I’m pretty damn glad I did now.

Images: Evelyn Giggles/Flickr, Giphy, QuickMeme

Stop Blaming Poverty for Educational Problems

Annie Holmquist

Last week the news hit that U.S. student scores in math and reading had dropped. In stark terms, this news tells us that only 40% or less of American 4thand 8th grade students are proficient in math and reading.

These poor results are excused by a number of issues, poverty being the most prevalent. But according to a recent paper from Michael Petrilli and Brandon Wright, the poverty excuse doesn’t exactly have a leg to stand on.

When Petrilli and Wright compared U.S. poverty rates with those in other nations, they discovered that the U.S. numbers may be rather misleading. Apparently, the U.S. calculates student poverty by using the relative poverty rate, which excludes income from government transfers. When these government transfers are accounted for, poverty dramatically declines and the U.S. poverty rate isn’t as high as it appears (chart).

What does such a finding mean? Petrilli and Wright explain:

“What it does show is that poverty can’t explain away America’s lackluster academic performance. That excuse, however soothing it may be to educators, politicians, and social critics, turns out to be a crutch that’s unfounded in evidence. We need to stop using it and start getting serious about improving the achievement of all the nation’s students.”

If poverty isn’t necessarily the main culprit in America’s poor performance, then what is? How can we bring high quality education back to American schools?

4 Strategies For Remembering Everything You Learn

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chalkboard teacher black white

If you’re going to learn anything, you need two kinds of prior knowledge:

• knowledge about the subject at hand, like math, history, or programming

• knowledge about how learning actually works

The bad news: Our education system kinda skips one of them, which is terrifying, given that your ability to learn is such a huge predictor of success in life, from achieving in academics to getting ahead at work. It all requires mastering skill after skill.

“Parents and educators are pretty good at imparting the first kind of knowledge,” shares psych writer Annie Murphy Paul. “We’re comfortable talking about concrete information: names, dates, numbers, facts. But the guidance we offer on the act of learning itself — the ‘metacognitive’ aspects of learning — is more hit-or-miss, and it shows.”

To wit, new education research shows that low-achieving students have “substantial deficits” in their understanding of the cognitive strategies that allow people to learn well. This, Paul says, suggests that part of the reason students perform poorly is that they don’t know a lot about how learning actually works.

It’s a culture-wide issue.

Henry Roediger and Mark McDaniel, psychologists at Washington University in St. Louis  and coauthors of “Make It Stick: The Science Of Successful Learning,” say that “how we teach and study is largely a mix of theory, lore, and intuition.”

So let’s cut through that lore. Here are learning strategies that really work.

Force yourself to recall.

The least-fun part of effective learning is that it’s hard. In fact, the “Make It Stick” authors contend that when learning if difficult, you’re doing your best learning, in the same way that lifting a weight at the limit of your capacity makes you strongest. 

It’s simple, though not easy, to take advantage of this: force yourself to recall a fact. Flashcardsare a great ally in this, since they force you to supply answers.

Don’t fall for fluency.

When you’re reading something and it feels easy, what you’re experiencing is fluency.

It’ll only get you in trouble.

Example: Say, for instance, you’re at the airport and you’re trying to remember which gate your flight to Chicago is waiting for you at. You look at the terminal monitors — it’s B44. You think to yourself, oh, B44, that’s easy. Then you walk away, idly check your phone, and instantly forget where you’re going.

The alternative: You read the gate number. Then you turn away from the monitor and ask yourself, what’s the gate? If you can recall that it’s B44, you’re good to go.

Connect the new thing to the old things.

“The more you can explain about the way your new learning relates to prior knowledge,” the “Make It Stick” authors write, “the stronger your grasp of the new learning will be, and the more connections you create that will help you remember it later.”

When you’re weaving in new threads into your pre-existing web of knowledge, you’re elaborating. 

One killer technique is to come up with real-life examples of principles you’ve just uncovered. If you’ve just learned about slant rhyme, you could read poems that exhibit it. If you’ve just discovered heat transfer, you could think of the way a warm cup of cocoa disperses warmth into your hands on a cold winter’s day.

Reflect, reflect, reflect.

Looking back helps. In a Harvard Business School study, employees who were onboarded to a call center had 22.8% higher performance than the control group when they spent just 15 minutes reflecting on their work at the end of the day.

“When people have the opportunity to reflect, they experience a boost in self-efficacy,” HBS professor Francesca Gino tells us. “They feel more confident that they can achieve things. As a result, they put more effort into what they’re doing and what they learn.”

While reflecting may seem like it leads to working less, it leads to achieving more.

In A Digital Chapter, Paper Notebooks Are As Relevant As Ever

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Paper can make the abstract tangible in a way that digital devices don't.

Paper can make the abstract tangible in a way that digital devices don’t.

Alejandro Escamilla/Unsplash

I confess. I’m a notebook nut. I own dozens and dozens of them. Everything from cheap reporter’s notebooks to hand-crafted Italian leather beauties.

I wondered: Am I an analog dinosaur, or are there others out there like me?

The first stop in my investigation was, frankly, discouraging.

At first glance, a Starbucks on the campus of George Washington University points to the dinosaur conclusion. So plentiful are the laptops and tablets that they outnumber the double-mocha-half-caf-triple-shot-Frappuccinos.

But when I look more closely, I spot plenty of paper here as well.

Evan DeFransciso, a 20-year-old student, says he makes a clear demarcation: digital for schoolwork and paper for “my creative writing … short stories, poems, personal thoughts.”

“The stuff that really matters goes onto the paper,” he says.

Not just any paper. He uses a small black notebook with an elastic band and a storied past. Picasso and Hemingway used an early version of the Moleskine, and now you can too.

The Italian company that makes Moleskines — all 500 versions — is red hot, consistently recording double digit sales growth.

Moleskine notebooks have grown in popularity.

Moleskine notebooks have grown in popularity.

Ariel Zambelich/NPR

Oddly enough, the analog company’s success has grown in tandem with the digital revolution. In fact, when conducting market research, the company detected something even more perplexing: a direct correlation between sales of its little black notebooks and proximity to an Apple store.

That led Moleskine CEO Arrigo Berni to conclude that his customers are “not people who are clinging to paper with a nostalgic feeling, but rather people that have both digital and analog as part of their lives.”

Yes, he says, we live in an increasingly digital world, but we “still have a need for physical experience, for emotional experiences that digital devices and technology” don’t always provide.

Besides, he adds, for so-called digital natives, iPhones and other high-tech gadgets are commonplace. Paper is the curiosity.

Consider the case of Angelia Trinidad, recent college graduate and self-proclaimed gadget freak.

Not that long ago, she found herself adrift, professionally and emotionally, so she sought out a planner, a paper planner. None felt quite right so she designed her own.

Smelling a business opportunity, she launched a Kickstarter campaign. She was aiming for $10,000. She raised more than half a million.

“We went viral for a whole week, and it was insane,” she says.

Friends urged her to launch a digital version of her planner, but she resisted.

“I put my foot down,” Trinidad says. “I said ‘no apps.’ ”

She has nothing against apps — her smart phone is chockablock with them — but she finds paper more intimate.

“It’s this thing that is so intuitive. It’s between you and paper and a pen. It’s kind of meditative,” she says. “When I’m on the phone, it’s never meditative. It’s always task-y.”

Paper, Trinidad says, makes the abstract tangible, in a way that digital devices don’t.

“I feel there’s a huge need for paper in this increasingly digital world,” she adds. “I look at my planner and I think of it as my second brain. I look back at something on there and it’s like, ‘Oh, I wrote that.’ ”

I know what she means. As a writer, no work feels complete until I hit the print button and it’s on paper. Maybe, though, Angelia and I are both dinosaurs, albeit from different generations.

But some recent research suggests otherwise. Pam Mueller was a teaching assistant for an introductory psychology class at UCLA. One day, she forgot to bring her laptop to class.

“So I took notes, you know, the old-fashioned way, the way I did in college — pen and paper,” she explains. “I thought I got so much more out of the lecture that day.”

She mentioned this to her professor, Daniel Oppenheimer. It turns out that he had asimilar experience in a faculty meeting. He was dutifully taking notes on his laptop but realized he had no idea what people were saying.

Oppenheimer and Mueller wondered if there was something about paper and the act of writing that explained this phenomenon, so they conducted an experiment.

They asked about 50 students to attend a lecture. Half took notes on laptops and half with pen and paper. Both groups were then given a comprehension test.

It wasn’t even close. The students who used paperscored significantly higher than those who used laptops.

Mueller attributes this unexpected finding — published in the journal, Psychological Science — to the fact that the “analog” note takers were forced to synthesize rather than merely transcribe. It’s a phenomenon known as “desirable difficulty.”

“Desirable difficulty is some small roadblock that is in your path that actually improves your understanding of a topic,” she explains.

This is, admittedly, a hard sell on college campuses, she concedes.

“Students find it hard to believe that more content isn’t better,” she adds, “that they aren’t going to just get it all down now and study it later.”

Mueller, though, has taken her research findings to heart. Whenever she needs to truly grasp a subject, she ditches the laptop and takes notes with old-fashioned pen and paper.

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