Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Concordance assignment

The results are in on my concordance assignment, and I would like to share them. I started with 14 high-level graduate writers and I introduced the concordance (Brigham Young's Corpus) in the computer lab; as part of that introduction, we were frozen out of BYU's concordance because too many computers were pinging their search from a single room. In a bad mood about being essentially locked out of a useful service, I encouraged them to write whatever they wanted about whether the concordance could be useful to them as a writer. If you have three reasons why you hate it, I told them, fine, just be clear, and write an organized essay from your own point of view, from your heart.

Many of them, knowing that I liked the concordance and wanted it to be useful to them, dutifully wrote about ways it was useful, and even mirrored back to me the ways I'd said that it could be useful. They told me how they used it to distinguish insist/persist, in the contrary/on the contrary, etc. One maintained that it was good for discovering how idioms were used (i. e. raining cats and dogs). They said it was good for finding prepositions (interested in vs. interested by), finding synonyms, etc. By far the majority of points they made were positive; it was useful, it could be used for various problems that the writer had, etc. Whether they were saying this to please me or not, that's what they said.

However, some were more adventurous, and pointed out either other tools they used, or pointed out why they would prefer not to mess with BYU's corpus. One was a usability expert and pointed out that it wasn't very usable. Several admitted to being confused by its layout and admitted to being unable to figure out how to get what they wanted. Many were put off by the way it shut us down in class, or the way it kept hocking them for donations.

One interesting paragraph was written by a woman who had a simple job; she'd been told by a graduate assistant to look up "rose up" as in "I rose up my hand." Presumably she would find that rose was intransitive; thus you would raise your hand, whereas the sun rose, or other things rose, though perhaps they didn't rise up. In any case she claimed she got lots of sentences, but nothing helpful. It occurred to me that she wasn't really looking at it grammatically; in other words, she never really said, wait, it's never followed by a verb. She saw sentences, formless, meaningless, cut off from everything; it didn't speak to her.

She was one of the people who pointed out other tools that could be used. There were many - ranging from Google, to Grammarly, to a Chinese vocabulary site - and they talked freely about them.

The ironic thing is that the concordance was not developed as an ESL tool. It's simply a tool, used by lots of people for lots of things, and it delivers the facts, in other words, the occurrences of any given word or structure. That's what I like about it; it's distinctly non-commercial, not directed at ESL; it's just a machine that has the facts. I'm kind of new to the concordance-based learning game, but it's very interesting, and it seems to me that if you like the facts, and are used to the facts, and drive your life toward scientific accuracy, you'd want this with your words as well as, say, your health. You would find the facts useful, and you'd figure out how to use them to your advantage. I'll see how many of my students can actually do this.

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