In this issue:

College Focus:

California Institute of Technology, Home of the Rocket Scientists

Claremont McKenna Cheats

The Right Word: Comprise, Compose, and Constitute
Strunk & White Tip: Strunk and White’s Rule 9
Recommended.Reading: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein
Summer Classes:

Click below to see the class web site.
SAT English
SAT English Advanced


Claremont McKenna Cheats
Only the Latest to Cheat for Higher Rankings

The U.S. News and World Report college rankings are routinely wrong and often absurd. One university president called them “specious” and “spurious” and “utterly misleading.” Was he just bitter? No, that was former Stanford University president Gerhard Caspar.

U.S. News claims they’ve encountered only three or four cheating incidents in 25 years.

No. There were at least seven “regrettable” incidents in four years. George Washington University President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg said “extremely regrettable,” but added, “My mother would call it lying.”

In the last five years, not the last 25, Arizona, Claremont McKenna, Iona College, Baylor, Villanova University, and the University of Illinois have all been guilty of illegal or unethical behavior that, had it been carried out by a student, would surely have resulted in suspension.

Incredibly, even the U.S. Naval Academy pumped up its selectivity rating by claiming 19,145 applicants. The real number was 5,720. That famous “honor code” must apply only to students—not administrators. The headlines tell the story:

College Rankings – Be Suspicious, Very Suspicious
( blog, 2009)
More Rankings Rigging (Inside Higher Ed, 2009)
How Clemson Moved From ‘38’ to ‘22’ in the U.S. News Rankings
(New York Times, 2009)
USNA Inflated Application Numbers Finally Revealed via FOIA
(Service Academy Forums, 2011)
Iona College Admits to Inflating Rankings Data for 9 Years (U.S. News, 2011)
Colleges obsess over rankings; students shrug (USA Today, 2012)
Claremont McKenna Cheats (Technorati, 2012)
Gaming the College Rankings (New York Times, 2012)
The limits of college rankings ‘racket’ (CNN, 2012)

The kinds of cheating range from dirty tricks to out-and-out fraud. What was wrong with Arizona State using taxpayer money to pay a $50,000 bonus for higher rankings? Or Clemson telling its staff to rank every other college and university “below average.” Nothing, I guess.

USC lied to increase its Engineering ranking to #7. “An error,” they say, but how does an engineering school screw up numbers?

Claremont McKenna’s dean of admissions Richard Vos not only lied to the magazine but also to the U.S. Department of Education.

Claremont McKenna’s ranking is #9 among four-year colleges. Reed College is #57. But here’s what the New York Times Education Editor said about Reed:

“If you’re a genuine intellectual, live the life of the mind, and want to learn for the sake of learning, the place most likely to empower you is not Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Chicago, or Stanford. It is the most intellectual college in the country—Reed in Portland, Oregon.”

But U.S. News ranks Reed and its 31 Rhodes Scholars #57. Sarah Lawrence College, Time magazine’s College of the Year in 2000, isn’t ranked at all. Why? Because these two great colleges courageously refuse to play the rankings game, don’t submit information to U.S. News, and are therefore hidden from the view of students and parents who should consider them—if they can get in.


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California Institute of Technology
Home of the Rocket Scientists

You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to attend Caltech.

But it helps.

Caltech manages the nearby Jet Propulsion Laboratory for NASA, and all of its students have “rocket scientist” intellects, whether they major in math, science—or English.

Harrison Schmitt, the only geologist to walk on the moon, graduated in 1957. Ten other astronauts came from Caltech, including Robert Behnken, who walked in space during one of the Space Shuttle’s final missions in 2010.

Most successful applicants score above 2300 on the SAT; 99% come from the top 10% of their high school class. Caltech admits only about 13% of freshman applicants.

But Caltech is not only hard to get into, it’s hard to get out of with a degree. Only 80% of its students earn one of its cherished diplomas in four years, and 10% leave to graduate elsewhere.

There are no cream-puff classes at Caltech.

English skills are more important at Caltech than many future engineers expect. In order to graduate, students must take 12 terms of humanities courses. In addition, they have to research, write, and revise a 3,000-word paper, polished to publication-quality editorial standards.

The university leads the nation in the percentage of students who go on to earn PhDs.

Gordon Moore, the author of Moore’s Law and co-founder of Intel, was an alumnus; so was William Shockley, inventor of the semiconductor and the father of Silicon Valley. Of its 31 Nobel Prize winners, 17 were former students. The university, however, claims a total of 32 Nobel Prizes: Caltech alum Linus Pauling won two.

Charles Richter created the Richter scale for measuring earthquakes with Caltech colleague Beno Gutenberg. He taught at Caltech for 34 years.

Albert Einstein taught there. So did Richard Feynman.

Seven Nobel Prize winners are on campus today; 33% of the faculty are members of the National Academy of Science or Engineering, fellows of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. This is the highest percentage of undergraduate faculty in the United States.

As might be expected, Caltech grads are very loyal to members of the Caltech family, past and present. Gordon Moore and his wife, for example, gave Caltech $600 million—the largest donation in history to any college—to help Caltech keep up its extraordinary standards.

Despite an academic workload of 100 hours per week, students manage to perform elaborate pranks every year, such as the annual frozen pumpkin drop, which proves that gravity exists.

That’s when they’re not at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory working on the Curiosity rover, currently on its way to Mars.


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  Steve High,
Strunk and White’s Rule 9:
The number of the subject determines the number of the verb.

by Steve High

It’s usually easy to spot errors in short sentences.

Wrong Right

Your book are helpful.

Your book is helpful.

Rules and reminders is helpful.

Rules and reminders are helpful.

Short sentences are great. Writers should use more of them. But longer sentences are also necessary; don’t be afraid to attempt them even though sometimes they may “sound right” when they are not.

Wrong Right
Your book of grammatical rules and reminders are very helpful. Your book of grammatical rules and reminders is very helpful.

Reminders are sounds right, and reminders is sounds wrong, but your ear is not infallible, so use your brain as well. Correctly identifying prepositional phrases is a big help.

Wrong Right
Many (of the stories) (in this month’s online newsletter) (from the English Department) is hard to understand. Many (of the stories) (in this month’s online newsletter) (from the English Department) are hard to understand.

Use singular verbs with singular subjects.  Use plural verbs with plural subjects. Rule 9 is simple, but not easy. For example, one is surely the most singular word in English. And yet it’s sometimes easy to match one with a plural verb.

Wrong Right
One (of my kids) never return books (to the library). One (of my kids) never returns books (to the library).

When a sentence has two clauses, each pair of subjects and verbs must agree.

Wrong Right

I have a daughter
who never return books (to the library).

I have a daughter
who never returns books (to the library).

Who is singular because it stands for daughter. But who can also be plural; its number depends upon the number of the word it stands for.

Wrong Right
She is one (of those kids)
who never returns books (to the library).
She is one (of those kids)
who never return books (to the library).

In the second example, who is plural because it stands for kids.

E.B. White’s illustrative sentence for Rule 9 contains a prepositional phrase and a long appositive phrase full of plural nouns. And yet the subject and verb are singular.

Wrong Right
The bittersweet flavor (of youth)—its trials, its joys, its adventures, its challenges—are not soon forgotten. The bittersweet flavor (of youth)—its trials, its joys, its adventures, its challenges—is not soon forgotten.

As the sophistication of your writing increases, the opportunity for error may frighten you. But it’s better to be wrong than boring. Read The Elements of Style from cover to cover once a year. It will make you brave.

For answers to specific writing questions, email us here. Who knows? Your question may inspire our next article on Writing Tips.

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  Jen Jebens,

Comprise, Compose, and Constitute

In recent years, the words comprise and compose have often been used to mean the same thing. However, they have different meanings.

Comprise means “to contain.” You should use this word when you want to talk about the parts of a whole. In a sentence, the whole comes first, is followed by comprise, and ends with the parts. This may sound confusing, but it’s actually quite simple. For instance,

The United States of America comprises fifty states.

When you use comprise in a sentence, the parts should never precede the whole.

Wrong Right
Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso comprise Dante’s Divine Comedy. Dante’s Divine Comedy comprises Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso.
Nine innings comprise a baseball game. A baseball game comprises nine innings.
My personal library comprises over 300 books. Over 300 books comprise my personal library.

Compose, on the other hand, means “to make up.” For example,

Many counties compose our state.

When you use compose in the sentence, the parts go before the whole.

Wrong Right
The human body composes many elements. A number of elements compose the human body.
The band composes the singer, guitarist, bassist, and drummer. The singer, guitarist, bassist, and drummer compose the band.
The circuit composes a voltage source, transmission lines, and one resistor. A voltage source, transmission lines, and one resistor compose the circuit.

Just remember: the whole comprises the parts, the parts compose the whole!

Constitute means “to form or compose.” It is used in a sentence much like composed; the parts constitute the whole.

Wrong Right
This salad dressing constitutes oil and vinegar. Oil and vinegar constitute this salad dressing.
Water constitutes oxygen and hydrogen. Oxygen and hydrogen constitute water.

Comprised of, Composed of, and Constituted of

Comprise is never used with the passive voice. Thus, it is incorrect to write that one thing is comprised of something else.

Wrong Right
The U.S. is comprised of fifty states. The U.S. comprises fifty states.

However, compose can be used in both active and passive voice. You can write that one thing is composed of another thing.
Right Also Right!
Three books compose a trilogy. A trilogy is composed of three books.

Constitute, like compose, can also be used in active and passive voice. You can write that something is constituted of another thing.

Right Also Right!
Wood pulp and water constitute paper. Paper is constituted of wood pulp and water.

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Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

Nat Crawford,
director of tutoring



by Nat Crawford

While some students stay up late pondering how to get into one of the nation’s top science programs, others lie awake worrying about what the kids will invent. The discipline has brought us both penicillin and anthrax bombs, Dolly the sheep and—perhaps—Caesar the ape. In the past, people feared those who studied the mysterious forces of the unseen world, and their fear inspired legends of people like Dr. Faustus, who sold his soul to the devil in exchange for awe-inspiring yet temporary power. Now, of course, by harnessing those unseen forces, from electricity to genomes, we push our world into new innovations, new discoveries—or, as the poet Robinson Jeffers puts it, “mortal examinations of darkness, soundings of depth.”

In the 20th century, as science began to sound these deeps, people developed an appetite for the literary genre of science fiction. In its simplest form, science fiction simply transplants the ancient, medieval, or modern world into some interstellar location, substituting lasers for bullets and starships for boats. But the deeper works explore deeper questions: What would happen if human beings attempted to construct life rather than conceive it? What sort of person would aim to one-up nature with his own creation? Those are the questions that the English writer Mary Shelley posed and answered in her first novel, Frankenstein.

Shelley began writing Frankenstein at the age of 18, in the middle of a trip through Europe with her future husband, the poet Percy Shelley. She describes being inspired by a weird vision of an overzealous researcher, the sight of a “pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together.” It is the classic image of the mad scientist, of the renegade medical student, even, perhaps, of the overreaching engineer. She published the book three years later to popular, if not professional, acclaim. In this case, time has borne out the positive opinion of early readers, and we smile to see Sir Walter Scott call the book “horrible and disgusting.” Yes, this story describes graveyards, rotting flesh, and mutilated human beings; however, these gory bits are the mere backdrop to a powerful drama of ambition, passion, and revenge. 

(By the way, it’s only in the movies that the big shambling heap of flesh and stitches is called “Frankenstein”; in the original novel, the name “Frankenstein” refers to the scientist, his creation being called simply “the monster.” The story also starts with a character named Walton writing letters to his sister, but don’t mind them; the scientist shows up shortly to tell his tale.)

Shelley subtitled the book “The Modern Prometheus” to allude to the Greek mythological figure credited with teaching humanity the use of fire. According to the myth, humans lived in a cold, dark world until Prometheus stole fire from heaven and gave it to them. The angry gods, however, punished the thief by chaining him to a rock and sending an eagle each day to tear out and eat his liver, which itself regenerated each time. Prometheus—whose name means “foresight”—thus became a symbol for creativity, daring, and suffering.

Victor Frankenstein, Shelley’s “modern Prometheus,” is a sadly twisted version of the mythic hero. He dares to explore beyond the boundaries of human knowledge in the hopes of bringing people a great benefit. However, instead of generosity, he shows selfishness; instead of foresight, shortsightedness; instead of courage, cowardice. After dreaming grandiosely of creating a new race that will worship him as its creator, he seeks out the parts for his new creation in the decaying flesh of a graveyard. Once he brings the creature to life, he awakens from “the beauty of the dream” and experiences “breathless horror and disgust.” Racing away, the creator abandons his new creation, the first in a long sequence of tragic miscalculations and acts of self-deception.

In addition to a study of ambition, Frankenstein is also a critique of injustice. As the child of the radical writers Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin, Mary Shelley grew up hearing that oppressive environments corrupt human beings, preventing them from showing their natural goodness. In Frankenstein, these ideas appear in the monster’s vindictive response to his mistreatment. Early in his life, he feels compassion for people despite their fear of him. Shelley makes it clear that, given a kind reception, the monster might have been kind and gentle himself. Yet, as his ugly features turn more people against him, he becomes more violent, destroying homes and then people to satiate his anger at his “cursed creator.” He commits his final and most devastating act of revenge only after seeing his last hope of happiness destroyed by Victor’s own hands. Like a later writer, Shelley might be saying, “Crush humanity out of shape … and it will twist itself into … tortured forms.” 

How could this story of error and self-deception, revenge and retribution end? One of the clichés of modern science fiction is that the scientist is destroyed by his own creation. Frankenstein, though, is more creative than the genre that it spawned. Like all great novels, Shelley’s work is driven by character; it is the inner workings of Frankenstein and his passionate and sorrowful yet violent creation that drive the plot. Read the novel yourself to see how Shelley brings it to a conclusion.

In telling his story, Frankenstein suggests a moral for it:

Learn from me … how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge and how much happier that man is who believes his native town to be the world, than he who aspires to become greater than his nature will allow.

As scientists begin using gene-splicing and cloning to bring otherworldly benefits to the human race, they would do well, from time to time, to remind themselves of the fate of Shelley’s “modern Prometheus.”

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