Use of mythological referents

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Heimhenge
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Use of mythological referents

Postby Heimhenge » Fri Aug 25, 2017 4:04 pm UTC

I write educational content in science for ages middle-school and up. I was about to use the word "Sisyphean" in one post but then balked, wondering if people even recognize words derived from classic mythology anymore? I mean, sure, the truly curious and motivated would look up the meaning online, but I fear more would just skip over it, or try to guess the meaning from context at best.

And linking the word to its definition would seem condescending to the reader.

I'm pretty sure I could get away with "Herculean" or "Pandora's box" and maybe a couple others, but suspect the lack of classic mythology in most schools' curricula these days is kinda removing some good words from the language.

Wondering if it's worth trying to keep that flame lit, or perhaps I should just start talking more like "Calvin's dad." Opinions solicited, thanks.

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Re: Use of mythological referents

Postby commodorejohn » Fri Aug 25, 2017 4:09 pm UTC

Keep it. If it teaches kids to use a dictionary, so much the better. No sense impoverishing the language for the sake of the lowest common denominator.
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Re: Use of mythological referents

Postby Deva » Fri Aug 25, 2017 4:36 pm UTC

Votes to drop it. Did not know of Sisyphus or Sisyphean tasks in middle school. Seeks accessible language. Shifts the focus towards new vocabulary, not scientific concepts.
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Re: Use of mythological referents

Postby commodorejohn » Fri Aug 25, 2017 4:45 pm UTC

Nonsense. "Accessible language" is a self-defeating goal (no words are inherently known, all language must be acquired, and the younger the better,) especially over such a trivial point as an unfamiliar metaphor.
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Re: Use of mythological referents

Postby gmalivuk » Fri Aug 25, 2017 4:53 pm UTC

If it's such a trivial point, then why do you think it's so important to keep the inaccessible reference?

Also, the only nonsense here is your claim that accessible language is a self-defeating goal. The whole point of education is to build up knowledge, and you can't do that effectively if you act like students should already know everything you want to teach them.
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Re: Use of mythological referents

Postby commodorejohn » Fri Aug 25, 2017 4:58 pm UTC

Contrariwise, you can't teach them if you're unwilling to introduce them to information they don't already know.
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Re: Use of mythological referents

Postby gmalivuk » Fri Aug 25, 2017 5:01 pm UTC

I must have missed the part where the OP said the educational content was also intended to teach Greek mythology.

In any case, you don't generally introduce information by assuming students already know it.
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Re: Use of mythological referents

Postby commodorejohn » Fri Aug 25, 2017 5:03 pm UTC

See, there's this thing where if students don't know something, they can ask or look it up? It's kind of an integral part of education?
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Re: Use of mythological referents

Postby gmalivuk » Fri Aug 25, 2017 5:08 pm UTC

So why not just teach them science with papers published in Nature?

There comes a point when adding more unfamiliar things they'll have to ask about becomes counterproductive, because the explanation is beyond the scope of the present endeavor and will amount to a waste of time that could be better spent teaching the science.
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Re: Use of mythological referents

Postby commodorejohn » Fri Aug 25, 2017 5:11 pm UTC

gmalivuk wrote:There comes a point when adding more unfamiliar things they'll have to ask about becomes counterproductive, because the explanation is beyond the scope of the present endeavor and will amount to a waste of time that could be better spent teaching the science.

This is very true! I just think that, wherever that point is, a metaphor that's not even super obscure and easy to explain is probably well on the safe side of the line.
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Re: Use of mythological referents

Postby gmalivuk » Fri Aug 25, 2017 5:19 pm UTC

Could be. What I called nonsense was your claim that accessible language is self-defeating. This particular bit of inaccessibility may be fine, depending on the context and how much other new material being presented at the same time.

But it's still potentially inaccessible, and that has to be something you consider when writing educational material.
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Re: Use of mythological referents

Postby commodorejohn » Fri Aug 25, 2017 5:23 pm UTC

It's a fair point as far as the practical reality of writing educational material goes, but I do stand by my assertion that striving to avoid ever exposing students to terms they're unfamiliar with is an excellent way of ensuring that they never become familiar with them in the first place.

(And I don't buy the "it has nothing to do with the science, so leave it for English class" line of thought, either. The entire point behind metaphors is that they help enrich the reader's understanding of something by means of a comparison with something else.)
Last edited by commodorejohn on Fri Aug 25, 2017 5:26 pm UTC, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Use of mythological referents

Postby Heimhenge » Fri Aug 25, 2017 5:24 pm UTC

gmalivuk wrote:So why not just teach them science with papers published in Nature?

There comes a point when adding more unfamiliar things they'll have to ask about becomes counterproductive, because the explanation is beyond the scope of the present endeavor and will amount to a waste of time that could be better spent teaching the science.


Yeah, that was kinda my main question though I may not have expressed it clearly. There's plenty of metaphors common enough to use w/o worry, and I'd love to motivate these kids enough to look something up and really learn a new concept, but there's that middle ground where you might just lose them by being obscure. And sure, I write about science with no hidden agenda to teach mythology, but "Sisyphean" is a great word with no synonym to my knowledge. I could rewrite the sentence replacing it with its effective definition but that comes out kinda "wordy".

Appreciate all the feedback so far ... just wanted to jump back in to clarify my question.

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Re: Use of mythological referents

Postby gmalivuk » Fri Aug 25, 2017 5:29 pm UTC

commodorejohn wrote:
striving to avoid ever exposing students to terms they're unfamiliar with is an excellent way of ensuring that they never become familiar with them in the first place.
True, but it's also not a thing anyone in this discussion has done or suggested.
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Re: Use of mythological referents

Postby pogrmman » Sun Aug 27, 2017 4:11 am UTC

Heimhenge wrote:I write educational content in science for ages middle-school and up. I was about to use the word "Sisyphean" in one post but then balked, wondering if people even recognize words derived from classic mythology anymore?


You should use it. "Sisyphean" isn't all that unusual. It's also a wonderful word that doesn't really have any perfect synonym.

Even if they don't know the myth, it's better to give them a chance to learn the word than to try and avoid using it. I'd guess that most middle schoolers could probably figure out at least a pretty close meaning from the context (depending on what, exactly, the text is).

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Re: Use of mythological referents

Postby Bloopy » Mon Aug 28, 2017 9:09 pm UTC

Some kids will be able to retain a larger vocabulary size, so it's good to throw a few challenging words in for them. I'd say keep it.

Heimhenge wrote:"Sisyphean" is a great word with no synonym to my knowledge.

If it's in the context of a Sisyphean task, you could say insurmountable task, but I don't think there's a good synonym for Sisyphean effort.

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Re: Use of mythological referents

Postby Heimhenge » Mon Aug 28, 2017 9:56 pm UTC

Bloopy wrote:Some kids will be able to retain a larger vocabulary size, so it's good to throw a few challenging words in for them. I'd say keep it.

Heimhenge wrote:"Sisyphean" is a great word with no synonym to my knowledge.

If it's in the context of a Sisyphean task, you could say insurmountable task, but I don't think there's a good synonym for Sisyphean effort.


Yeah, I thought about "insurmountable" and "arduous" and "hopeless" but it just ain't quite the same meaning. FYI, here's the sentence where I wanted to use it (discussing the practicality of a Maxwell's Demon for sorting particles):

The Demon would find that, after a point, given a finite time to react, for every fast particle allowed through the shutter there'd be previously-trapped fast particles escaping back into the lower temperature chamber. Achieving any further temperature difference would be a Sysyphean task."

If you understand the whole Maxwell's Demon concept, you'll see that "Sisyphean" is exactly the word to use. Based on the feedback here I've decided to go with my first inclination and will use that metaphor. Let the kids look it up, figure it out, and maybe learn something new. Thanks to all for the input.

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Re: Use of mythological referents

Postby Soupspoon » Mon Aug 28, 2017 10:22 pm UTC

(It's all too easy to get the "quote and reply" button instead of the "re-edit my post" one. You seem to have done it repeatedly. Hopefully you got it right, eventually, and that it's not a Sisyphean task for you… ;))

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Re: Use of mythological referents

Postby gmalivuk » Mon Aug 28, 2017 10:44 pm UTC

I assumed the final post was the desired version and just deleted the earlier copies. (But yeah, we've all done the same thing before.)
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Re: Use of mythological referents

Postby Heimhenge » Mon Aug 28, 2017 10:50 pm UTC

gmalivuk wrote:I assumed the final post was the desired version and just deleted the earlier copies. (But yeah, we've all done the same thing before.)


Thank you sir. Exactly right. Somehow in the edits my quote markup nesting got confused. Much appreciated.

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Re: Use of mythological referents

Postby Heimhenge » Mon Aug 28, 2017 10:52 pm UTC

Soupspoon wrote:(It's all too easy to get the "quote and reply" button instead of the "re-edit my post" one. You seem to have done it repeatedly. Hopefully you got it right, eventually, and that it's not a Sisyphean task for you… ;))


Point Soupspoon. :idea:

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Re: Use of mythological referents

Postby Bloopy » Tue Aug 29, 2017 4:25 am UTC

Heimhenge wrote:Yeah, I thought about "insurmountable" and "arduous" and "hopeless" but it just ain't quite the same meaning. FYI, here's the sentence where I wanted to use it (discussing the practicality of a Maxwell's Demon for sorting particles):

The Demon would find that, after a point, given a finite time to react, for every fast particle allowed through the shutter there'd be previously-trapped fast particles escaping back into the lower temperature chamber. Achieving any further temperature difference would be a Sysyphean task."


It's purely academic to contemplate it now, but in that sentence the next best alternative might be futile endeavour.

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Re: Use of mythological referents

Postby Quizatzhaderac » Tue Aug 29, 2017 4:50 pm UTC

Heimhenge wrote:And linking the word to its definition would seem condescending to the reader.
If they actually need the link I wouldn't say it's condescending.

If we're talking about middle-schoolers, I wouldn't think they'd be so proud of their knowledge of Greek mythology that they'd be insulted by a link or a footnote implying that they might not know it.
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