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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
December 18, 2014

First appeared in print in The Rhino Times, Greensboro, NC.

Grades, Exams, Wild, Key-ring Tools

If you're reading this on the day this issue comes out, don't forget that the Oratorio Society's performance of Handel's Messiah is tonight at 7:00 p.m. at the Carolina Theater. Admission is free, but if you can afford to donate, bring some cash for the offertory that takes place during the Pastoral.


If you wanted me to sign one of my novels as a Christmas gift, this coming Monday is the last day for in-store pickup at the Barnes & Noble in Friendly Center (the deadline for mail-order has already passed). Stop in any time before Monday at noon and buy the book, then leave it with a store clerk along with information about whom it is to be signed for. I'll sign it Monday afternoon and you can pick it up Tuesday or Wednesday.


I just turned in the grades for my students at Southern Virginia University. I really hate grading.

For one thing, as a teacher I feel guilty if I give all my students A's and B's. Am I not thus contributing to grade inflation? But it's not as if I taught classes in engineering or math or botany, where there are firm answers and someone's life may depend on the accuracy of their knowledge.

Instead, I teach a course in the fiction of Tolkien and Lewis, and another course in fiction writing. In the writing class, the grades are based on my subjective judgment of their writing, and while I can impartially determine whether they're handling viewpoint correctly, almost everything else really depends on my judgment alone.

In the literature class, what I'm trying to help them learn is the power of analysis, and so the grade is based entirely on essays they write (including an all-essay final exam) and their comments and presentations in class. But much of my opinion of their work depends on whether their analysis seems to have struck to the core of the issues they address.

That means that if I happen to have thought of things they didn't, I'll feel disappointed; but if they think of things I hadn't thought of, I feel excited and enthusiastic.

If I let this affect the grades I give them, whom am I judging, myself or them? If they out-thought me, they get a bonus; if I out-thought them, do they get a demerit? What if it's just random chance whether they think of things I didn't think of?

My father was a professor of education, steeped in theory and practice, and he taught me as a teacher to be rigorous with myself, to doubt my own certainties. As he often said, if a teacher has done a good job, then almost all the students should get A's in the class. If they don't, then is it their fault or the teacher's?

He showed me, in my impressionable youth, many test questions that were ambiguous or so poorly worded that it would be a miracle if students realized what they were supposed to say to please the teacher. Public school teachers are given at least a little training in writing tests and assignments -- college teachers get none.

So when a college teacher in a non-rigorous course (i.e., not engineering, math, or science) finds himself giving a lot of C's and D's to students who came to class and did the assignments, then chances are something is seriously wrong with the teacher's skill in teaching and/or test-writing.

There are no exams in my writing class, of course -- it's all about the stories they write and the oral critiques they offer each other. But in the Tolkien/Lewis course, there are serious issues for them to analyze and write about.

I gave them the final exam questions two weeks before they had to take the test. There were nine questions, of which they would have to answer two. I would pick one, and they could pick the other. That gave them time to think through the issues involved, to find quotations they wanted to use and to remind themselves of events and character names in the books.

They were free to bring their books and notes, though I did ask them not to write the essays in advance. I wanted to read what they wrote during the three hours of the test, and I was absolutely right to do that.

I had one student in particular who could not stop himself from writing all his papers in a lofty style that required a level of diction he hadn't actually mastered. The result was usually convoluted prose that was almost impossible to parse. Yet I knew he was smart from his oral comments in class.

So, as I suspected would happen, his essays on the in-class final exam, written in a hurry, by hand, were much better written than the papers he had had more time to labor over.

It happens often in fiction writing classes that the more a student revises and second-guesses his writing, the less clear and coherent it becomes. This was a literature class, not art writing, yet the same principle held true. The more hurried and less labored his writing was, the better and clearer it became.

Too many students are trained in middle school and high school to write in a way that is radically different from human speech. But language is only alive in speech, and while written language needs to be a little more formal if only to be more intelligible, it should still reflect the writer's own manner of speaking.

So my insistence on having the essays written out by hand in class, as a first-time draft, gave this student a much better course grade than he would have gotten had his grade been based entirely on his carefully prepared and sadly over-written papers.

The students in my Tolkien-Lewis class were a sharp group -- not a surprise, really, given the subject matter. Tolkien and Lewis do not attract dumb readers. Instead, they draw out independent thinkers, people who are eager to rethink the very roots of literature in order to understand a kind of fiction that most literature professors are ill-prepared to teach.

Also, at Southern Virginia we get a high percentage of home-schooled students, who are almost invariably among the best writers, best thinkers, and best in-class commenters. In fact, one of the very best students this semester was a mother who is home-schooling her own children; judging from what she said and wrote for my class, they're getting a superb education at home.

It takes such patience and preparation to be a good home school teacher that few parents are really qualified, either emotionally or educationally, to take on that heavy responsibility.

But when home schooling is undertaken, not in order to shield children from learning certain things, but rather to broaden their education far beyond the boundaries of the public school curriculum, then it can yield astonishing results.

The home schooling parents I know are generally doing a great job, and here's what happens: Kids learn at their own pace. Kids with learning problems can be coaxed and tutored along so they don't fall behind. Kids can follow up their own heartfelt interests right along with the required curriculum.

And they can finish all their school work in half a day while remaining ever farther ahead of their public school compatriots. No homework beyond that schoolday morning -- leaving huge swathes of time for creativity and play.

Then those kids reach college and they have not had their initiative beaten down by social pressure in the public schools. They ask and answer serious questions in class. They think independently and challenge the dogmas of the teacher (which delights good teachers and terrifies bad ones).

That doesn't mean that public school students are permanently crippled -- there are many fine teachers in the public schools, and it only takes a couple of great teachers to kindle in their students the attitudes and skills that will enable them to excel in college classes like mine.

Of course, it only takes a couple of really horrible public school teachers to stifle a student's creativity and joy in learning. Students can recover, but it often takes years.

In my classes at SVU, though, I was lucky to have wonderful, open-minded students who spoke up, tried out new ideas, and wrote essays with lots of independent thinking and clear reasoning. My writing students had talent -- but, more importantly, they had the drive and ambition, the creativity and intelligence to do the work and do it well.

The only problem with teaching is that I got very little of my own writing done this semester. Yes, I wrote this column (haven't missed a week since January of 2002), but the novel I must finish by January 1st languished. I know what's going to happen in the story, but I haven't had the blocks of uninterrupted time that I need in order to get the work done.

When I finish a novel, there are thousands of readers who consume the result of my labor; when I teach for a semester, there are fewer than forty students who must put up with my pontificating. I can't help but wonder if it makes sense to teach for a semester instead of writing.

And then I think back on the in-class discussions, the after-class conversations, the eye-opening essays they wrote, the wonderful stories they told, and I have no doubt.

Besides, regardless of whether I gave them anything worthwhile, they shared with me experiences and insights I could not have received any other way. They made me better as a teacher, as a writer, as a speaker, and as a person. The novel I am now going to have to race to finish will be better because of my teaching this fall.

Meanwhile, in case my editor at TOR Books is reading this, I'm hard at work on the novel once again, and it's going to be one of the best things I've ever written! Really!


I talked to Susannah O'Brien of Oh Susannah's pillowcases-for-couples, and, to my sorrow, her printing process only has crisp, clear results on particular microfiber fabrics. For most people that's great -- the pillowcases look wonderful and they're comfortable. It's not Susannah's fault that microfiber gives me a rash. So I may order pillowcases for decorative purposes only!

Meanwhile, even though it's too late to order anything in time for Christmas, Valentine's Day is coming up in less than two months, making this a perfect time to order couples' pillowcases in time for that occasion. Her website can be reached by entering Osusannahs.etsy.com into the address field of your browser.


Collin Raye's new album, Everlasting, consists mostly of covers, but it's a wonderful selection of songs well-suited to Raye's lyric country voice. A few of the songs are overtly religious, like the first track, "Divine Everlasting Love," which is also a paean to married love, to loss, and to forgiveness. "Help me to forgive the man in that other car," he sings to the (fictional) wife who died in a traffic accident.

Most of the tracks, though, are vivid reinterpretations of songs that were popular in the '70s and '80s, like the disco hit "How Deep Is Your Love" and the David Gates hit "If," which he recorded with his group Bread in 1971.

Collin Raye's take on "Same Old Lang Syne" made me miss Dan Fogelberg -- a great singer-songwriter who died way too young. Yet the songs live on as long as singers wake them up and rekindle them in new recordings.

I highly recommend Collin Raye's Everlasting, but if you don't know the music of Dan Fogelberg, you really need to fill that gap in your musical life. The simplest place to start is with Portrait: The Music of Dan Fogelberg from 1972-1997.

I first came to know Fogelberg's work through my friend Jay Parry back in the late 1970s, and though Fogelberg is probably best known for songs like "Longer," "Run for the Roses," "Leader of the Band," and a few others that got lots of radio air play, my favorite is still the driving, hopeful "Part of the Plan."

But there are so many other gorgeous songs in his plaintive voice that the album is well worth owning. Or, if you want more of an all-hits album for half the price (or less), try The Very Best of Dan Fogelberg, with 17 wonderful tracks including many of my favorites.


Garrison Keillor famously banned two instruments from Prairie Home Companion -- the banjo and the accordion. I can understand both decisions, since both instruments can be annoying and are often used to perform shallow music. But, like the bagpipe, there's a time and a place where no other instruments will do.

Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn are both excellent banjoists. I haven't loved any of their albums up till now, but their collaboration on an album entitled, simply enough, Bela Fleck & Abigail Washburn is much better, in my opinion, than any of their work apart.

The album begins with a haunting modal version of "I've Been Working on the Railroad," including a brilliant rendition of "Someone's in the Kitchen with Dina" with its chorus of "Fee fie fiddle-di-i-o." I sang that as a nine-year-old in music class in fourth grade -- who knew I would ever hear a version that simply blew me away like this one.

The rest of the album is almost that good, though at times they strike deliberate discords; I promise that they always resolve into something fresh and pleasing. If "Railroad" were not on this album, I would have bought it for "What Are They Doing in Heaven Today?" or "Banjo Banjo" or "Ride to U."


I really enjoy virtuoso instruments played in a country tradition. That's why the Chris Thile & Edgar Meyer album Bass & Mandolin is such a delight. Both artists do wonderful work, and while a couple of cuts are annoyingly pointilistic, many are highly melodic and pleasing.

The album is exactly what the title says: A bass fiddle and a mandolin. That might sound like an awfully small combo -- but the way they play, the music is amazingly full and rich.

However, I recommend that before you download the album, you sample all the tracks. Like be-bop jazz, the virtuosity sometimes overwhelms the music, and not everybody will take pleasure in all the tracks.


The movie Wild is based on Cheryl Strayed's memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. Reese Witherspoon plays Cheryl Strayed as she walks many hundreds of miles through California wilderness -- in which she wrestles with solitude most of the time, and awkward crowdedness at other times.

Strayed was woefully inexperienced when she set out -- her pack was ridiculously heavy, and she hadn't checked some key things before she started. For instance, she had the wrong fuel for her mini-stove, so she had to eat cold food until she was finally able to set things to rights.

The people she meets along the way are sometimes frightening but usually helpful and, once, poignant, when she meets a young boy who has more serious troubles than her own.

And that's what the story is mainly about -- flashing back through her difficult life. She was glad to see her drunken abusive father leave home long before, and she lost her beloved mother to cancer after a shockingly short time. Her response to loss and grief was a dive into drug addiction and sexual promiscuity, though she also somehow acquired a husband and child along the way.

Most of her gravest problems, though, arose through her own choices, and though this does not mean we can't sympathize with her, it does mean that much of her anger seems misplaced. It's not her fault her mother died; it is a reflection on her own choices that she responded to grief as she did.

This hike through the wilderness is post-divorce -- though she still calls her ex-husband because she knows he's about the only person left in her life who still cares whether she lives or dies.

I'm betting the written memoir was a moving, effective tale, but even with Nick Hornby to write the screenplay, the movie really doesn't work. That's because the most powerful aspects of her experience -- the physical exertion, the solitude, being alone with nature -- simply cannot be communicated via film to an audience that is perforce sitting in soft chairs.

Besides, endless passages of putting one foot ahead of the other are boring to watch, and do not bring transcendent insights. So Hornby, naturally, devotes most of the film to flashbacks which, unfortunately, come across as almost pro forma invocations of cliches: You want us to see that she loved her mother? Show a few snippets of hilarity together, then an earnest conversation, then the deathbed scene.

All of it well done, no doubt realistic ... but not enough to bring us inside the relationship so that we feel the loss when the mother is gone. Rather we're given this storyline like a lottery ticket, and when I scratched it I got nothing, despite Laura Dern's excellent performance as the mother.

And while Reese Witherspoon does a good job of acting very tired, frustrated, and angry sometimes, it's hard to get over the fact that almost all of the character's problems on the trail arise from her own foolishness in not preparing properly for the trip.

You don't start a long hike with new boots. You have to break them in first. Hers were too small, and we have the privilege of watching her peel away destroyed toenails. This might have been more effective if we hadn't already seen the real thing over and over on internet clip shows like Tosh.O.

Yes, she learns things from fellow travelers (and even finds one worth using a condom with, or so she thinks), but when the screenwriter is forced to resort to a scene consisting of a salesgirl advising her at great length to pay more attention to her personal hygiene, you know that the screenwriter is pretty desperate to make the story entertaining.

It's not a bad movie. Think of it as award-bait that earns a B+.

And another thing it earns: My longtime aversion to long hikes and sleeping in tents is fully reaffirmed.


Last-minute Christmas gifts and/or stocking stuffers: Key-ring tools that can go through airport security.

A lot of us use housekeys to slice through the plastic tape on boxes. But that's not good for the keys -- they're made of a metal too pliable to hold up under that strain, and you can end up with a bent or broken key, or one that no longer fits your lock.

Much better is the brand-new QuicKey, marketed by Nite Ize DoohicKey, which has long offered small key-ring tools. QuicKey is heavy-duty metal which will not bend. Its tip is a small flat-blade screwdriver; you can pop the top off a soda bottle; but what really matters is that you can punch that screwdriver end through the tape on a box and then use a snaggletooth blade to slice right through the tape -- or the cardboard -- in moments.

And you don't have to take the QuicKey off the key-ring in order to do it.

I have no intention of ever leaving QuicKey off my own key-ring. There are simply too many times I've needed a box-cutter and haven't had one. Yet this one can't be weaponized, so it's airline safe.

There are alternatives, of course. The True Utility TU247 KeyTool Multitool Set is really a single piece of metal that fits over a regular key, but which can be removed easily to use as a nail file, bottle opener, screwdriver (small, medium, or large), a wire stripper or cord cutter, or tweezers.

The metal is much lighter than a housekey, let alone the QuicKey, but it serves a different purpose.

Another key-ring tool is the Gerber 22-01769 Shard Keychain Tool, which is billed as "lightweight and airline safe." It's much heavier than the True Utility key cap tool, and it actually includes a prybar that can pull out a nail or tack quite handily.

One tip of this black, forbidding-looking tool is a Philips head screwdriver; but, like the True Utility tool, it still isn't a good design for opening tape-sealed boxes.

Gerber also makes the 22-41770 Artifact Pocket Keychain Tool, which adds a knife to the Shard. This one is not airline appropriate, and it's hard to master the technique of folding the X-acto style blade back into a safe position without slicing your finger.

Besides the QuicKey, the best tiny box-ripper that isn't actually an open knife blade is the Gerber 30-000637 GDC Hook Knife. It looks like a one-inch ring, but when you pull on the ring the blade comes free from the small plastic sheath.

It doesn't look like a blade, and it certainly cannot be used as a weapon. You hook your finger through the ring and the hook blade will shear through the tape or the cardboard of the box you're trying to open. And it's much easier and safer to return it to its sheath.

Remember, though -- you can't make a weapon of it, but you can cut your own finger quite effectively.

These tools are all small, carefully designed, and effective at their tasks, when used properly. But you need to think how they'll be used as you decide which to buy as a gift. QuicKey, Shard, the True Utility Keytool, and the GDC Hook Knife can probably all stay attached to a keyring you carry onto an airplane, though the look of the Shard may attract attention.

But if they let the Gerber Artifact onto a plane, the security staff should be fired.

For heavy duty box opening, QuicKey is the sturdiest, safest, and most convenient, though the GDC Hook Knife is a close second -- the only drawback is the need to pull it from its holster.

These are all seriously manly tools -- meaning that if you're a woman, you can use them to do a "man's job" without the man.

And they can all be purchased at Amazon, which means you might still get them before Christmas. If you don't receive them as a gift, go online and buy them for yourself.

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