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Second sem blues

Danton Remoto
Remote Control | 11/04/2008 1:00 AM

The gloom of All Saints’ and All Souls’ Days were lifted when I read my e-mail. I receive lots of letters every week, but this one from a young reader made my day.

“I would just like to express how much I appreciate your columns. You write with such wit, frankness, and passion that I often find myself laughing silently or agreeing ardently with your thoughts and views. You talk just about anything in your columns and no matter how varied the topics are, each article proves to be very much worthwhile. I highly value your opinions and insights on the different aspects of life.

“What you say and do, I believe, have helped hone my own ideals and principles as a person. You have inspired me to be more proactive about issues regarding our country through your writing. I applaud you for being the brave person that you are, continuing to rally for a better Philippines. I pray for more Filipinos like you; you are what our country needs. I wish you more power and strength for whatever trials that may come your way. I shall support you, in what little ways I can, in your future plans.”

“By the way, I’m a senior from that school on Taft. You should come over and teach us, too!”

Thank you. I have many friends over there, in that school on Taft, especially in its Literature Department: Marj Evasco, Ronald Baytan, Jerry Torres, Shirley Lua, Vince Groyon. Professor Cirilo Bautista has retired from teaching at De La Salle, but there are many other young literary lions in your school.

I would like to teach there, and at the University of the Philippines, too, but there is simply no time. M-W-F I teach 12 units, or four classes, at the Ateneo. I am also writing my dissertation for the PhD in English, major in Creative Writing, at UP Diliman, which I should finish this second semester.

Advice to students

Which brings me to the topic of today’s column: second sem.

The second sem begins on Monday, if it has not already begun in some schools. The freshmen are still hilong-talilong (higgledy-piggledy?) over the results of their first-sem work. Many must have thought college was easy and cool because you have classes only three hours a week per subject, not the usual daily grind in high school.

But this makes college more difficult. Why? Because the so-called lots of free time on your hands should be spent reading your required texts and even the recommended ones, and reviewing the notes that you took in class. Yes, you must take copious notes in class, since the teacher’s lecture consists of summaries of the textbook and the examples from his or her own store of knowledge. You can then review your notes, or rewrite them afterward. Rewriting them is better, since you can review your notes while rewriting them in a more organized fashion.

The poet Li Po said that “the palest ink is better than the most retentive memory.” This is true not only for writing, but also for studying.

Tips on reading

Teachers give you required texts because you should read them. But I find today’s students crestfallen at the sight of book chapters to read. How to read these chapters?

Before reading, put your cell phone on silent mode, turn off that TV or Ipod, lock that door and put your landline phone on mute. Place a blank sheet of paper beside the book you are reading. If you are distracted by a thought, write a fragment on the piece of paper to remind you of that thought later. When reading, use your eye the way a bird skims the landscape.

To get the flavor of the chapter, read its title, its subtitle, the chapter headings, and the summary usually found at the end of every chapter. This will fix a tentative thread of thought in your mind.

Do not use a highlighter. Engage with the book by writing on it. I like a book when its margins are full of check marks, asterisks, stars, lines, parallel lines, exclamation points, question marks, or even f--- yous! That means that the reader has wrestled with the thoughts inscribed in the book.

Avoid being a passive reader by locking your mind with that of the author. You can do this better if you are sitting upright, have a good lamp with the light coming from your right side and for me, a hot cup of chocolate.


When a teacher assigns a group work, don’t use the occasion to be a slacker. Group mates hate nothing less than a sponger, somebody who does no work but claims the grade nevertheless as part of the group. That is why I ask the group members to report to me those who did not help in making the group presentation (oral) and the group paper (written).

Slacker receives a zero for the group work, and the teacher’s dagger looks for the whole week. Oral presentations should not be occasions for boredom. Do a PowerPoint presentation. Pepper your report with well-chosen visuals and keywords. Do not read from a prepared text. Learn the art of writing a gist, or a précis, of the work. A concise report can also be substantial. A long report is often just full of pads, and pads, if you ask your girl friends, don’t work all the time.

How about recommended texts? If you have taken good notes and read all the required texts at least twice, you need not read the recommended texts. But if the subject is your major and you want to learn more about it, then go! Reading recommended texts will give you a deeper background into the subject matter. These texts can also offer another angle of vision, a different framework or context, for the same subject matter.


And how to write that darned report?

The best thing is still to read The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B. White. It is the only book you need to read – and read three times – in order to write well. You must also remember the dictum: write in white heat, revise in cold blood. Write key words, fragments, images on a piece of paper. This is called free writing, tapping into your memory bank, brainstorming with yourself. Then later, organize these stray thoughts into a sentence, a paragraph, an essay.

My rule in my college classes is this: one sentence must have one thought. A group of related sentences constitute a paragraph. And a group of related paragraphs constitute an essay. When you can already string together a three-page-long introduction composed of one sentence, as Nick Joaquin did in “May Day Eve,” then you can junk my rule.

After writing the essay, take a break. Do something that does not involve the mind. I think that means watching MTV or MYX. Then return to the essay and begin the work of a butcher, chopping away the debris from your work. Then you can revise by pressing the computer’s automatic checker for spelling and grammar.

“You’re lucky you now have computers!” I told my class once. “You only have to press F4 and your essays are immediately corrected.”

My students laughed and, sufficiently provoked, I asked, “Why, do you think I am lying to you? It is so easy to press F4!”

Until this girl in front of me, who writes the best essays in class, said that F4 is the Taiwanese group of long-haired boys, and perhaps I meant pressing F7?


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