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Jen on TV, the SAT, and politics

March 20, 2008

I’m back in New York. The pilot went smashingly, although if I told you any more, I’d still have to kill you. I’d never worn fake eyelashes for two days straight before, nor had I ever worn them as early in the day as 10am.

My SAT students got their scores back today, and two of them scored 2330s (out of 2400). Amazing.

I can’t stop giving money to Barack Obama. From today’s email about Obama’s having to fight McCain and Clinton at the same time:

Senator Clinton and Senator McCain are reading from the same political playbook as they attack Barack on foreign policy.

They have both criticized Barack’s commitment to act against top al Qaeda terrorists if others can’t or won’t act.

And they have both dismissed his call for renewed diplomacy as naïve while mistakenly standing behind George Bush’s policy of non-engagement that just isn’t working.

But most of all — after five years of overwhelming evidence that we are less safe, less able to shape events abroad, and more divided at home — Senator Clinton and Senator McCain are failing to address the consequences of a war they both supported that should have never been authorized and never been waged.

We need a leader who had the judgment to oppose this war before it began and who has a clear plan to end it.

Hillary, as Democrats go, you’re our Republican.

I’ve been blogging at Gen. McClellan’s pace

April 30, 2007

My blogging has been much impeded lately due to my busy schedule of tutoring (which is more lucrative than comedy, and not unrelated). Here are some fun U.S. and European facts I have recently encountered:

  • Lincoln once referred to Union Gen. George McClellan’s half-assed thrust into Confederate territory as “a case of the slows.”

  • Carrie A. Nation, the six-foot tall temperance reformer who smashed up saloons with a hatchet, was a total fame-whore. She paid the fines from her numerous arrests with lecture fees and the money she made selling souvenir hatchets. She even trademarked her name! (She was born “Carrie,” married a man named “Nation,” and added the “A.” for effect).
  • Henry VIII’s fourth wife, Anne of Cleves, was perhaps the most intelligent of them all (and of six wives, one of only two survivors). Henry had agreed to marry her upon seeing Holbein’s rather flattering portrait; when she arrived in England, Henry found her so unattractive (Holbein had neglected to paint her pockmarks) he called her a “Flanders Mare.” He married her regardless, but when she didn’t produce an heir, she was smart enough not to hinder his scheme for an annulment. She testified that her marriage had never been consummated, and that Henry had simply come into her room every night and kissed her on the forehead. Following the annulment, she received the title of “The King’s Sister” and was given a castle. (She also kept her head).

a day in the life of an SAT instructor

July 15, 2006

I recently explained the word “abstemious” to some SAT students, which required me to explain what sorts of things a person might abstain from.

But that wasn’t as uncomfortable as when I was teaching the Latin root “gen,” meaning “birth, creation; type, kind,” as in generation, gender, genesis, genocide, ingenuous, and ingenue. One student asked about “genital herpes.” I always try to be encouraging, so I went on to say that, why yes, the “genitals” are the parts one uses to make (“generate”) babies.

But that wasn’t as uncomfortable as the time I was teaching a vocabulary class to some thirteen year olds, with a manual that suggested that students could use common expressions and phrases to decipher the meaning of new words — for instance, “abominable” in “Abominable Snowman.” Or … “surrogate” in “surrogate mother.” Except that no one in the class knew what a surrogate mother was. The students were, in fact, quite baffled to learn from their English teacher that “doctors can take a man’s, er … genes … and a woman’s genes and put them together to make a baby and then put the baby in another lady if the first lady can’t do it herself.”

Forget “abstemious” — maybe I should just start teaching sex ed.

the SAT essay

January 28, 2006

The new SAT has an essay, and since the creators of the SAT have to grade so damn many essays and to do so consistently, they’ve had to create a somewhat simplistic scoring rubric. One of their more questionable rules is that the graders do not count off for factual errors.

In a way, this makes sense — if I quoted Keats but said the quote was from Rimbaud, it doesn’t seem fair or consistent that some graders would spot the error and count off, but some wouldn’t know any better; the graders must grade by standards accessible to all graders.

The upshot of this is that someone in my company wrote a quite articulate SAT essay about the time Lincoln freed the Jews — and she got a perfect score.

grammatical mnemonic devices I can’t actually share with my SAT class

January 27, 2006

“I’d really like to get between those twins!”


“I’d really like to get among those triplets!”

“Your bosoms are lovely.”


Each of your bosoms is lovely.”

Grammar is hot!

in the (subjunctive) mood

January 17, 2006

Thrillist today wrote about a new product for men — Balla Powder. Yes, those ballas.

I was amused at the subject heading “Thrillist: Wish You Were a Balla?” This, of course, is an allusion to Skee-Lo’s hit, “I Wish,” which goes, in part, as follows:

I wish I was little bit taller,
I wish I was a baller
I wish I had a girl who looked good
I would call her
I wish I had a rabbit in a hat with a bat
and a ‘64 Impala.

I often use this song in my SAT classes as an example of an incorrect use of the subjunctive mood. Skee-Lo should, of course, have said “I wish I WERE a little bit taller, I wish I WERE a baller.” The rest of the excerpt is a bit obscurist, but grammatically unproblematic.

Thrillist even taste-tested Balla Powder, just to make sure it won’t be off-putting to the ladies. Now that’s investigative journalism.

wet and loquacious

September 30, 2005

For your edification: Amazon sells a Top 100 SAT Words Shower Curtain.

The product description reads:

A simple, effective, and stress free learning tool for your children taking the SATs, allowing them to learn the top 100 most common SAT vocabulary words while taking a shower. Increase vocabulary and help them become a better reader, writer and speller.

Bonus points for anyone who can identify the two or more grammar errors that appear in this passage.

Update: Diopter said in the comments that “a better reader, writer and speller” should be “better readers, writers and spellers.” True, true. But there is another version of the same error also contained in the passage. To wit:

“…allowing them to learn … while taking a shower.”

Just as the first error implies that all the children will become a single reader, writer, and speller, this error implies that all of the children will be taking a single shower. And not just in the sense that the children must shower incestuously, but also in the sense that each child may use the shower curtain during only a single shower; no matter how much the siblings enjoy showering together, they may not repeat the experience, regardless of the merits of improving one’s SAT score.

I love my job.


those Japanese….

August 31, 2005

I used to joke to my SAT students that if they all studied enough and their scores went way up, I would win a free toaster from the company, and I really need one, because all my bread is cold and floppy.

Normally, the kids laugh, but in this case, at least one gullible student believed it, so I continued, explaining that the toaster actually branded the company logo into the bread, so the swoosh under the company name would hold lovely rivulets of butter.

Finally, less gullible students clued in the more gullible ones, and we all had a laugh. At the end of the class, one of the students drew me a picture (which all the other students signed) of such a toaster, with logo-branded toast popping out of it.

And now, months later, a student emailed me with this photo:


August 27, 2005

I feel I must address this men are cleverer than women business, as reported by the BBC:

A study to be published later this year in the British Journal of Psychology says that men are on average five points ahead on IQ tests.

…The study showed that, up to the age of 14, there was no difference between the IQs of boys and girls.

“But beyond that age and into adulthood there is a difference of five points, which is small but it can have important implications.”

When I first heard about this, I wrote the following reply (to my college alumni list):

The first IQ test, designed for French schoolchildren, was immediately redesigned when it gave erroneous results — the girls scored higher. After some adjustment, that was no longer the case, and the test was judged to be valid.

If you’ve seen an IQ test lately, you might have been expecting some magic diagnostic tool to actually tell you how smart people are — instead, it’s like an SAT with some spatial puzzles added. It is, quite frankly, pretty dumb looking.

It is not surprising to me that men perform better on a test designed by men, but that’s kind of a facile point. I think an even better one is that men’s and women’s brains are different, and — just taking into account the differences that are verifiable in neuroscience — I think it’s a quite reasonable hypothesis that some of the things men excel at are easier to test in standardized-test form.

For instance, I think one of the least controversial gender differences is that men have a better sense of direction (sure, some of that is from social conditioning and practice, but much of it is because men process directions in the hypothalamus, a “primitive” part of the brain that interprets directions literally — that is, electrical impulses within it actually work in a compass-like way, whereas women process directions in the cerebral cortex, along with everything else, which is why many women use landmarks and such to navigate).

Women, however, have a much better ability to read people’s body language. This is useful in “relationships,” yes, but also in diplomacy, corporate management, spying, etc.

Which is more valuable? Depends on what you’re doing. Which is easier to test? Probably spatial abilities. There do exist tests wherein the subject is asked to guess the moods of people pictured in photos, but that’s a poor substitute for real-life interaction (or at least video), and, more to the point, such a skill is not tested on an IQ test at all.

Originally, the IQ test was designed to test the potential of children, like a school-placement exam. It is unclear what value exists in giving the test to adults, whose “potential” is by and large already played out.

(Additionally, the test is enough like an SAT that I could teach nearly anyone to raise their ‘IQ’ by a substantial number of points. No magic there).

Amusingly, Feministing just made a quite similar point: “When I used to teach SAT classes for The Princeton Review, the biggest lesson was to make sure kids knew that the only thing the SAT measured was how well you took the SAT.” (I had no idea a popular feminist blogger was a former Princeton Review teacher).

However, Lakshmi Chaudhry of The L-Files has rather scooped the whole thing, pointing out that Richard Lynn, the “researcher” behind this whole “men are cleverer” thing, is a known eugenicist. You can follow the link if you want to read about “phasing out” cultures that are “incompetent.”

I’ll also add here: a male friend of mine suggested that men are “cleverer” for getting everyone to believe that men are cleverer for all these years. Cute.

A reader comment on the BBC site asked “Have these researchers looked at IQ levels below the average, at gender differentials among prison inmates?” The reader seems to be suggesting that, in contrast to the researchers’ claim that for every female genius, there are 5.5 male geniuses, that perhaps the dumbest men are dumber than the dumbest women — that is, that men are more widely spread out over the IQ spectrum, whereas women are clustered in a place of rarer brilliance but greater general competence. Interesting. (But again, I would apply all my previous arguments regarding the nature of the IQ test itself).

As a concluding thought, I’d like to note that when “The Bell Curve” came out, the book was roundly denounced as racist propaganda for suggesting that races differ in intelligence. However, when researchers report than men are smarter than women, the BBC reports it like it’s cute.

Aww, look at those little ladies trying to defend their intelligence — when all they have to do it with is … their intelligence! Whatsamatter, darlin’, can’t handle a little tautology?

Update: Apparently the BBC reported the exact opposite claim in December 2004.

I always wanted to operate a popular grammar blog

August 27, 2005

I explained the semicolon while teaching class today, and then, strangely, I came home to a missive from my mother, also inquiring about the semicolon. For the benefit of all, this is my quick and dirty explanation of the semicolon:

Use a semicolon when you are combining two complete clauses and you don’t want to have to say “and.” So basically, use a semicolon instead of a comma with an ‘and.’

Both of these sentences are correct:

I like Bill, and we are going to the prom.

I like Bill; we are going to the prom.

(See how “I like Bill” and “we are going to the prom” are complete clauses? Yay!)

But I CANNOT say:

If I like Bill; we will go to the prom.

(That one’s no good because “If I like Bill” isn’t a complete clause!)

I have now explained semicolons; you can use them whenever you like! In a paragraph, a semicolon can add variety to your writing; many writing experts consider this a plus. However, the overuse of semicolons can seem forced; this is bad.

It is even possible (although quite unusual) to use two semicolons in one sentence! For instance:

Some people learn how to use semicolons in high school; others learn from grammar books; a few learn from their adult daughters.

p.s. My mom is smart; she has been articulate for many years without the need of semicolons.

the official athletic shoes of Andover and Exeter

February 11, 2005

A friend of mine who is a GMAT instructor puzzled his class the other day with the following grammar question(pick one of each pair):

If I was/were he/him, I would not do it/so.

The (only) correct answer is “If I were he, I would not do so.”

There was some major confusion among the non-native speakers over that. This also means that the Nike slogan, “Just do it,” is incorrect, but can you imagine the pansy-ass shoes advertised by the phrase “Just do so”?