Category Archives: College

The Book Whisperer Discovers Miss Thistlebottom, a Grammarian



Theodore M. Bernstein wrote seven books on grammar and English usage including Miss Thistlebottom’s Hobgoblins: The Careful Writer’s Guide to the Taboos, Bugbears and Outmoded Rules of English Language. Bernstein created the fictional Miss Thistlebottom, an eighth grade English teacher at an all boys’ school and supposedly his teacher.

Bernstein begins with “A Word to the Whys” in which he explains the title of his book: Miss Thistlebottom’s Hobgoblins: The Careful Writer’s Guide to the Taboos, Bugbears and Outmoded Rules of English Language. He maintains “a belief that a title so hard to pronounce and so hard to remember will be difficult to forget.” He goes on to report that the title is designed to denote the contents of the book. He wishes to “lay rest to the superstitions that have been passed on from one generation to the next by teachers, by editors and by writers — prohibitions deriving from mere personal prejudice or from misguided pedantry or from a cold conservatism that would freeze the language if it could.”

“A Word to the Whys” concludes with a list of references Bernstein cites in Miss Thistlebottom’s Hobgoblins. A few of those include the following: The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, The Verbalist by Alfred Ayres, Write it Right by Ambrose Bierce, Syntax by George Curme, The Oxford English Dictionary, and A Grammar of Present-Day English by Eric Partridge. The last book was published in 1947.

In the prologue of Miss Thistlebottom’s Hobgoblins, we find a letter from Bertha Thistlebottom to Bernstein in which she says that “the disparaging remarks you make about me in several places hurt me.” At the end of the letter, however, she writes, “Despite all, however, I am of a forgiving nature and I am content with the thought that I must have taught you something right if you were able to turn out that book.”

In his reply to Miss Thistlebottom, Bernstein concludes that “as in so many endeavors in life, in the use of English an avoidance of extremes is the way to achievement and excellence.” Perhaps this bit of advice is the most important in the whole book.

The table of contents should pique any language lover’s interest. In addition to the ones already described, Bernstein includes “Witchcraft in Words,” “Syntax Scarecrows,” “Imps of Idioms,” and “Spooks of Style.”

In his letter to Miss Thistlebottom at the beginning of “Imps of Idioms,” Bernstein writes: “Idioms, it must be remembered, are sports in the linguistic garden.” Sentences such as that abound in Miss Thistlebottom’s Hobgoblins: The Careful Writer’s Guide to the Taboos, Bugbears and Outmoded Rules of English Language. Those who love language can enjoy Bernstein’s wit and his understanding of the English language. Following his introduction to idioms, Bernstein goes into an explanation of some commonly used idioms. He gives a bit of history to explain the idiom even if “the label for [so long] must be ‘origin obscure’.”

In “Spooks of Style,” Bernstein explains about puns. He says “puns are the easiest form of humor, but it does not follow that they are the lowest form.” Bernstein cites Charles Lamb in a letter Lamb wrote to Samuel Coleridge: “A pun is a noble thing per se. O never bring it in as an accessory! … it fills the mind; it is as perfect as a sonnet; better.” Bernstein ends “Spooks of Style” with this bit of advice about using you to refer to readers: “A few cautions are necessary. One is not to overdo the you device; that same caution applies to any writing advice. A second is to avoid shifting from one person to another. A third is to avoid seeming to talk down to the reader.”

At the end of the book, Bernstein includes “William Cullen Bryant’s Appendix Expurgatorius.” It contains a list of words that Bryant wanted writers to avoid. Bryant, though a poet, was also well-known as a journalist and was part owner and editor in chief of the New York Evening Post. The list is too long to repeat here, but it includes some interesting choices such as “over and above instead of more than, artiste instead of artist, casket for coffin, pants for pantaloons, en route, donate, rowdies, and the deceased.” Read Miss Thistlebottom’s Hobgoblins: The Careful Writer’s Guide to the Taboos, Bugbears and Outmoded Rules of English Language to find the entire list.

Theodore M. Bernstein earned a BA from Columbia University in 1924. He was editorial director of the New York Times Book Division, taught journalism at Columbia, and was a consultant on usage for Random House and American Heritage dictionaries. Miss Thistlebottom’s Hobgoblins: The Careful Writer’s Guide to the Taboos, Bugbears and Outmoded Rules of English Language is full of good advice and fun to read for those who love language.


Incorporating Technology


Incorporating technology into our teaching is not always easy or simple. Technology for its own sake does not enhance learning. We need to find the right technology to engage our students and enhance their learning. Another component has to be our own comfort with using the technology. For some of us, that may mean using the blogs and journals found in Blackboard. For others, branching out to incorporate some Web 2.0 tools into our current teaching style, subject matter, and assignments. The technology should not be an added burden, but should be a tool to augment learning and teaching. That it can add elements of engagement and even fun should be bonuses. Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education, reminds us that “digital learning starts with teachers, whose performance is enhanced by technology—not the other way around.”

I enjoy scouring the Web for innovative tools to share with students and colleagues. In searching, I keep in mind the goal of locating tools which will be easy to use, free, and, primarily, enable students to learn. In several recent workshops, I have shared some tools to aid in teaching and learning.

Last fall and this spring, I have facilitated workshops with new faculty and long-time faculty, both part-time and full-time. On all those occasions, my objective included demonstrating Web 2.0 tools that work well in the classroom and that lend themselves to meaningful assignments.  I choose tools that I have used successfully in the classroom and ones that students have shown they can use easily—and that they enjoy incorporating into their work.

In the recent workshops, I have shared JogtheWeb, InstaGrok, Themeefy, Linoit, Wordle, and Glogster*.  These Web 2.0 tools are free or have a free component, sufficient for our use.


On the home page of JogtheWeb, we learn Jog the Web “is a Web-based tool that allows anyone to create a synchronous guide to a series of Web sites.” What does that description mean in terms of our using it, however? By creating a free account at JogtheWeb, we can collect Web sites on specific topics, add pages with our own content, and share the link with others. I created a jog on Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried,” a short story about soldiers in the Vietnam War.  The sites collected include O’Brien’s home page, history of the Vietnam War, soldiers’ accounts of their experiences in the war, and a reading guide. I added questions for students. The questions and readings helped students understand the story fully. JogtheWeb also allows students to comment on the sites, another possible component of an assignment.  One of the most enjoyable jogs I have assembled has also offered an opportunity for students to learn firsthand how unreliable information on the Web can be. I chose sixteen bogus sites for that jog. Students in groups of three had to evaluate three of the sites. After we had discussed how to evaluate sites, students turned to the jog, not knowing all the sites were fraudulent. The students reported to the whole class on their sites, explaining why the sites were legitimate or bogus because some of the sites were persuasive enough to make students believe they were legitimate. That assessment provoked yet another discussion about determining legitimacy in sources.

InstaGrok, a search engine, allows users to create a free account and keep track of Web searches. It yields better results than Google, Bing, or Yahoo, but users still must evaluate the sources. The key features include an interactive “concept chart” of results on a topic, history of searches, and a journal. Clicking on a circle in the chart will produce additional results. The searches return Web sites, videos, and images. InstaGrok will also create a quiz on material from the sites. The journal permits users to click Web sites to “pin” Web sites, videos, and images for further study and reading. Perhaps as important, the journal also allows users to write their own notes. The journal gives us one more way to remind students that keeping notes as we read is a useful way to remember and incorporate ideas.

Using Themeefy, students and faculty can create online magazines consisting of Web sites, videos, images, and their own text. The magazine is attractive and interactive. I created a Themeefy magazine about Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The magazine included information on Shelley herself, the story, and other tidbits to enhance the reading for students. For a recent workshop, I created a magazine on hypertension. Themeefy offers another way to pull material together to engage students—and faculty. We can have students create their own magazines on specific topics.

A number of online bulletin boards are available for our use, but Linoit has become one of my favorites. It allows anonymous posts, but I prefer having students create an account so their names appear on their posts. On Linoit, we can put notes, questions, videos, images, and links. We can have boards on the open Web or keep them private. Recently, I created a board for a Comp II class and invited the students by email so only they and I could see and post on the board. I put questions relating to a story they had read and asked them to answer the questions, post a picture relevant to the story, and respond to a classmate’s post.

I am sure you have seen word clouds, groups of words that form an attractive picture. At, we can paste words to develop a picture. I use the snipping tool in Microsoft Office to turn the Wordle into a PNG which I can then insert into Word, PowerPoint or Blackboard. We can have students write their own text and put it into Wordle; then they can identify repeated words, or words that stand out over the others.  While you can think of ways to use word clouds on your own, at 21st Century Educational Technology and Learning by Michael Gorman, read “108 Ways to Use Word Clouds in the Classroom…Word Clouds in Education Series: Part 2.”


Are you tired of PowerPoint for presentations? Try Glogster! Glogster is an online poster site. Users can put videos, links, pictures, and text onto the posters. I created a Glogster assignment so online students could introduce themselves to the rest of the class; students had to incorporate specific items and they received a grade on the Glog.  In a Strategies class, students taught a simple component of the class using Glogster; the students had to consist of an appropriate video, pictures, and text to demonstrate their subject such as note taking, or test-taking skills.

JogtheWeb, InstaGrok, Themeefy, Linoit, Wordle, and Glogsterl allow us to engage students by using technology that lends itself to helping students learn. All of these tools are as useful as we make them. I challenge you to choose two of the tools and create an account so you can fully investigate the opportunities the site offers. We could begin an online repository of assignments we share across disciplines. Attend the next workshop to learn more about Web 2.0 tools; the list of tools available continues to grow, expanding our opportunities to engage our students and enhance learning for all of us. These tools are all part of the social networking that our students use and know, so these tools allow us to meet the students on their own turf. Perhaps you already have your own favorite tools to share.

*URLs for the tools listed:

JogtheWeb:, InstaGrok:, Themeefy:,

Linoit:, Wordle:, Glogster:

End of the Academic Year


Finals are over and graded; graduation has come and gone. Classes began last August with fresh, new faces and a sprinkling of familiar students back for the second year or completing requirements or starting over once again! January brought a new set of students and classes, again with the sprinkling of familiar students. Each beginning allows us an opportunity to work toward correcting the mistakes of the past just as it allows us to make fresh mistakes. We learn from all of those–past and current mistakes. Sandwiched in the middle, we do find successes too.

I start each semester with a plan for each class. Even when I am teaching the same class in different sections, the plans differ slightly while covering the same material. In August, I was teaching Honors Comp I with a focus on Japan. Before classes began, I had an email from a student enrolled in the class. He indicated he had bought The Japanese Mind, our text for the semester; he wanted to know if he should be reading an essay in the book before classes began. I felt then the class would be off to a rolling start. My assessment was correct.

The Honors Comp I was a small class, so we got acquainted quickly. Besides the focus on Japan, I knew I wanted to use Web 2.0 tools to engage the students and help them improve their writing skills. My composition classes also give presentations throughout the semester over their work, so I wanted to explore beyond PowerPoint for the presentations.

As we began exploring for Web 2.0 tools and effective ways of using them, the students and I found tools we found useful and others that did not live up to their promise. Over the course of that semester and with the students who returned for Honors Comp II, we continued our exploration until we had a full-blown research project outlined on use of and value in Web 2.0 tools. The students chose three or four Web 2.0 tools to explore in depth, wrote a research paper on those tools, and gave a presentation to the rest of the class on their findings.

The work from the Honors Comp I and II classes spilled over into my other classes, both on campus and online, sparking interest in other students to use the available technology to enhance their learning. I read blogs and did searches for new material, but the students did too. Together, we forged some new assignments and adapted others.

I look forward to this continued exploration and appreciate all the bloggers who post information about Web 2.0 tools they have found and used.