Friday, May 3, 2013

The Fun of Your Field

What do Will Shakespeare and Tom Swift have in common? Word play! And the last two weeks I have discovered that I can actually use all those puns and neologisms and such that I’ve accumulated on my Facebook page--to hook students, raise their language awareness, and draw them into Shakespeare, all in about two minutes a day. 

  • I know a guy who’s addicted to brake fluid. He says he can stop any time.
  • I stayed up all night to see where the sun went. Then it dawned on me.
  • Abdicate (v.): to give up any hope of ever having a flat stomach.
  • Balderdash (n.): a rapidly receding hairline.
  • “I need a pencil sharpener,” said Tom bluntly.
  • “This must be an aerobics class,” Tom worked out.
  • “He is the very pineapple of politeness!” (the original Mrs. Malaprop--she meant “pinnacle”)
  • “We cannot let terrorists and rogue nations hold this nation hostile or hold our allies hostile.” (President George W. Bush--he meant “hostage”)
  • “...say he comes to disfigure or to present the person of Moonshine.” (Quince’s mistake for “figure,” or represent, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream [3.1.59-60])

I made a slide show with 1-3 examples on each slide, and I started each class period with one slide. I said, “Shakespeare uses a lot of word play. Let’s work on getting it in regular English so we have a shot at it in 400-year-old poetic diction.”

My appreciation for the linguistic sophistication of word play skyrocketed. Do you know how much explaining you have to do to a class 3/4 full of second language speakers in order to communicate the humor? What brake fluid is: It helps cars stop. What addicts in denial say: I can stop any time. And how that sentence works for both cars and addicts in an equally natural way.

Students’ awareness of the ability of language to say two different things at the same time is also rising. I overheard a group discussing Lysander’s line “For lying so, Hermia, I do not lie” (2.1.68). One student asked, “Which kind of lie does he mean?” Another answered, “I think he means both.” I’ve heard students self-identify malapropisms both inside the text and out. And even the cartoon prepares us for the half-visual pun of Bottom, unaware that Robin has given him a donkey head, concluding that his friends have all run off screaming in order to scare him: “This is to make an ass of me” (3.1.122).

What do you do to enjoyably, over time, focus students on some element of learning in your discipline, inviting them into the fun of the field?  

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