Sunday, April 10, 2011

Special Metaphor Assignment (Blog Post #14)

Charcoal PencilsImage via WikipediaDue to the tricky nature of metaphors (sometimes), Dr. Strange has assigned this post as a response to his response to our responses to John Spencer's post that uses the metaphor of pencils in place of computers/technology to respond to the existence of resistance to said computers/technology by some education professionals. Wow, that was a mouthful. Glad I only had to type it, not say it. Otherwise, I'd be here all night. Here are the questions Dr. Strange asked us to answer:

Why did you miss the metaphor in Tom Johnson's post, or, if you "hit the nail on the head, " why do you think you understood the metaphor?
What metaphors have you encountered since I asked you to create a log of them? (Include in your list of metaphors all those that you encounter whether the source be oral, audio, video, print, or your own thoughts)
What other things can we do as educators to help our students to understand and to use metaphors?
Why do we use metaphors?

Of the questions, the last is the easiest for me to answer. Metaphors are used to put a concept into terms that someone can understand. Problems arise however, like they did with the pencil post, because the metaphor is not one that is commonly used. Often people used metaphors without even realizing they are in fact speaking metaphorically. Human communication is rife with metaphors. When someone says, "It's as cold as ice in here," they don't mean it is actually 32 degrees Fahrenheit or below. They are simply using the phrase "cold as ice" to add emphasis and explain how cold it is. We understand the metaphor because it makes sense, and we know ice is cold, and if someone says that, they must mean it's not a normal temperature.

But why do we use metaphors? I like to think that it's because people are natural story-tellers. Why say exactly what we mean, when it's so much more interesting to spice things up with a metaphor or ten? See what I just did? Yeah. I used a metaphor. We can't help it. Metaphors, as a writing device, are exceptionally useful to reach wider audiences. If you are writing a book about...screwdrivers--go with me here--you want people to read the book, but also understand what you mean while you're telling them all about the history of the screwdriver. If, for instance, the screwdriver was invented, not as a tool, but as a weapon, you might want to use the metaphor "it cut through the muscle like a hot knife through butter." We all know butter is easily melted, so it stands to reason that a hot knife would slice butter very well, and anything that was said to do that to muscle must be very good as a weapon. (I know that was a weird use of metaphors. Forgive me.)

Since I started at the bottom, I am going to continue going up the list of questions. SO, question three: how can we teach metaphors? What a question. I say use metaphors to teach metaphors. What better way to learn what a metaphor is than by example? As a future English teacher, I'm going to have to teach metaphors, or how to spot them, in my classes, so I like to think I have a pretty good handle on the topic. But then I thought about it some more, and I realized that teaching metaphors is like trying to teach a dog when to bark. They already know How, they just need to know the When and the Why. That all comes down to a person's mental capability. They have to have the ability to stop, look at something, and peel away the layers until the metaphor becomes clear. Dogs know how to bark. It's natural. Just like everyone knows how to use metaphors. Often, we take that knowledge for granted and miss the obvious clues in front of us. Maybe those people don't have a sense of humor like Dr. Strange proposed, or maybe they're thinking too hard, or not thinking enough. But the cues are there. We just have to learn when to bark so we don't annoy the neighbors or let a burglar steal all our stuff.

As to whether or not I understood the metaphor about pencils, I can't really remember. I think I got that it was a metaphor, but I might not have taken the step towards computers/technology like Dr. Strange wanted us to make. In fact, now that I think about it more, I know I didn't get the metaphor. I interpreted it a bit differently, and more along the lines of "teachers who are stuck on the grades and test scores" way of teaching students. To tell the truth, I'm not really surprised that's what I read and understood. It's a topic that isn't far from my mind at any given time. High stakes testing is a sore topic with me, and I can argue for days about the so-called benefits of standardized testing to students. (I don't believe there are any.) And if you head on over to my response to that post right here, you'll see my opinions in full.

Now to summarize. Metaphors are everywhere. They happen without us trying to use them, and sometimes when we do want to use them. Metaphors are useful for making a topic that is hard to understand, easier for someone to grasp in terms they can relate to. When a metaphor is used properly, it can enlighten readers. When it isn't, it can lead to further confusion. Often the misunderstanding of a metaphor is not due in any part to the misuse of the metaphor itself, but merely to the expectations of the audience. Prior knowledge and information about the subject being described metaphorically is needed in order to fully grasp the concept.

As to why I and a majority of the class misinterpreted the metaphor about pencils and computers, well...I don't know. It is a conundrum to be sure.
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