Learning the territory

By: Karen Blenker

Abstract: An English teacher tumbles down the rabbit hole. By Karen Blenkner.

Learning the territory

An English teacher tumbles down the rabbit hole.

At first I thought that coming to work at Developer News meant I had escaped from school. No more explaining essay grades to freshmen. Then I felt I'd been reborn as a freshman myself. Here, people have to explain everything to me: computer functions, technical terms, and most of all how to edit articles without understanding those technical terms.

The articles written by correspondents have been my primary responsibility since I started, and with all due respect (and apologies) to the authors, these articles have been my training ground. They are strange and fascinating territory, and I hear the language spoken here in my own way.

I cannot translate words like "tweak" and "grok" and "RAS-in" -- they belong in one category, for me, because they are all verbs -- but I can guess their meaning from context. Similarly, "grep" and "emoticon" and "variable length arrays" belong together because they are all nouns. I'm keeping a vocabulary list, like a student in a foreign university.

And then there are the many acronyms, like "CVS," which I know doesn't stand for Consumer Value Store (I'm not stupid). It's Concurrent Versioning System, which is how two partners in crime ensure that they are both telling the same lie. I've learned a lot of phrases, too, like "thin-client Java workstation," which I'm sure is a hyper-chic cafe near Smith College, where students go to "study," see and be seen, and not eat the pastry.  I know I'm learning because I can now ask intelligent questions. How, for instance, do "implementation-defined dependencies" differ from the usual, garden-variety addictions to caffeine, nicotine, and oxygenated water?

As often happens upon tumbling down some rabbit hole into a new phase of life, certain memories become insistent, refusing to be banished from conscious thought. Lately it's my past life as a volunteer English teacher with the Peace Corps (and "PC" will always mean "Peace Corps" to me) that recurs. That experience has something to teach me.

When I started teaching English as a Foreign Language to senior-level lycie students in Morocco, my best contribution (besides my sweet nature, of course) was a specific set of skills I'd been given in a summer of training. My Peace Corps instructors, my Moroccan colleagues, and my students all defined "English " as a series of drills, exercises, and exams which, if laid out properly, could help a little to increase their scores on the comprehensive baccalaureate exam.

This exam at year's end determined whether a senior would apply to college, return to the lycie, or go to work in the local phosphate mines. Understandably, it was more important to everyone than "English" in the sense I understood it: the language itself with its logic and its huge vocabulary; the literature of Shakespeare and Joyce and Faulkner and a hundred other favorites; the cultures this language and literature had grown out of.

We didn't have the time to explore all of this, which was probably a relief to me, or should have been. I carried on with the program, and it amounted to a program taught to me by the students. They taught me everything that everyone but me, the English teacher, knew about  the English section of the bac. I was the only native speaker of English in my school, but I learned "English." I hope I didn't disappoint those who had to teach me my profession.

And of course I tried to learn Arabic, though it was always easy to fall back on my college French. I shared the frustrations of all foreigners everywhere, knowing just enough of my new language to get into trouble. I could ask questions, but often I couldn't follow the answers I received. When I looked at my students' Arabic script, I was struck by its hieroglyphic complexity. The intricate calligraphy signaled depths of knowledge and subtlety that were closed to me.

Perhaps I haven't clarified the connections between teaching in Morocco and editing technical articles. I'll try harder. I bring to Developer News some editing skills, learned almost accidentally, in pursuit of very different projects from those I hope to attempt here. I 'm transferring these skills into the worlds of journalism and computer technology, gratefully working with people who know the territory and the languages spoken here. As I learn, the technical articles I edit are the common ground where my old world intersects with the new.

But I really am catching on. I've guessed that "real-time vehicle monitoring system" and "mainframe daily batch run" have got to refer to those interminable red traffic lights during morning and evening rush hour traffic. And I don't think every new associate editor would understand that "the year of the LAN" refers to Chinese astrology. And then, too, sometimes one does run into old friends in new places. It's only my first week here, and already I've recognized "the grep," from one of my favorite childhood books, Out the Window Went My Grep, by Dr. Seuss. Now that's commonality! I think I'm going to like it here.

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