Saturday, May 31, 2008

I Have a Headache, and Other Essay-Related Stories

Today is not this blog's first anniversary, but for some reason, I thought it was, and so I wrote this post as if it were. Now I am realising that there may be something wrong with my head, and I have changed this post. Somebody slap me.

At any rate, I have guilted myself into returning, over five months since my last post, to write something, at least, and avoid living with the shame of being the Negligent Blogger from Hell. I really do want to continue with the blog; I just keep on having to, well, teach stuff to real people in classrooms. It's the whole rent thing. Every thirty-odd days, my landlady starts getting this look in her eye...the sort of look that conveys the following idea: "If you don't write me a cheque for a ridiculous amount of money and shove it through the slot in my door right now, I shall threaten you with eviction, neglect to inform you the next time your rent increases, and behave like the injured party because you are not psychic."*

Therefore, I have been ignoring the blog. I am a terrible, terrible person. Bad Kem. Bad...Kem!

There we go. Let's talk about essays.

In celebration of my blog's anniversary, and in further celebration of the headache I have given myself by marking for six hours straight, I proudly present the following unreasonably vitriolic rant on:

Quoting Stuff in Essays

Hello, undergrad. I know you are a wonderful person. I know you have a beautiful, fresh, untutored mind that is begging and pleading for enlightenment. I know that every time you enter a classroom, you think, "I am an empty vessel, waiting to be filled to the brim with wonderful, terrible knowledge! Fill me, professor! Fill me!"**

I am going to fill you with knowledge.*** I am going to fill you with knowledge you should really already possess. I am, in fact, going to teach you how to quote sources without passing yourself off as an absolute freaking idiot.

I mark a lot of papers containing passages that look rather like this:

In "The Day John Ate Six Raspberries," Sarah is a very shy person. "She shrank behind the potted plant, knowing it didn't hide much of her, hoping she was not such a beacon as she felt, bulking in the corner in her bright red dress" (12). This quote shows Sarah's shyness.

As I have already screamed and ranted here, "quote" is not, in fact, a noun and would not be a good word to use in this context even if it were. However, even replacing the word "quote" with a less stupid word--"sentence" or "passage," say--would not help this "analysis" much. The only thing that would really help this "analysis" much would be a flamethrower, or possibly two. The writer has, in these three sentences, told me absolutely nothing and made me want to bounce my fist up and down on top of her head.

Let's start with the most egregious error here: the treatment of the quotation itself. The writer has decided to write a "floater"; in other words, she has simply stuck the quotation into her paragraph and left it to its own devices. In doing so, she has failed to contextualise it at all. The reader has no idea exactly where in the story the quotation is from or what the writer's purpose is in bringing it up. The quotation is just sitting there, grinning smugly at the reader. Moreover, the sentences that surround it are also doing quite a lot of smug grinning. Sarah is shy. Whoop-de-doo. Why do I care? Are you even going to let me know? So what? So what? So what?

Dear Writer:

Are you demonstrating Sarah's shyness? Are you demonstrating a particular aspect of Sarah's shyness? What portion of the quotation strikes you as evidence that Sarah is shy? Why is this shyness important? Why would you be making such a big bloody deal of this character's shyness unless you had an actual point? Do you have an actual point? What is your actual point?

"Love," Kem.

When you quote a text, do not plop the quotation down in the middle of things and run away, giggling. Make it feel wanted by incorporating it into a sentence of your own, and make sure that this sentence allows you to launch directly from the quotation into a meaningful discussion of it. Try:

In "The Day John Ate Six Raspberries," Miller uses Sarah's shyness as a symptom of her alienation from her family; her behaviour around her classmates is related, through repetitive imagery, to her inadvertent position as the family black sheep. At the school dance, she "shr[i]nk[s] behind the potted plant, . . . bulking in the corner in her bright red dress" (12); the image is a direct echo of her favourite hiding place in her own garden, "behind an apple tree too slender to hide her lumbering form" (10, cf. 13). Sarah is continually attempting to disappear behind plants too small to hide her. When she does so in the vicinity of her family members, who see her as a "withered branch . . . of a withered tree" (9), she does vanish, a vegetable among vegetables. At the school dance, however, the familiar method of hiding in plain sight only makes her more conspicuous, and the "latent animal behind her eyes" (12) begins to show beneath her shyness as her body becomes visible, and bright red, on the other side of the potted plant.

Yes, boys and girls: here we have analysis. Analysis is a very good thing, albeit not the easiest one to accomplish, and quoting effectively is an important part of it. Note that the quotations in the paragraph above are not simply shoved unceremoniously into the text. Each one is--grammatically, structurally, and thematically--part of the larger sentence that contains it. If the writer needs to change the tense of a word, she does so, using square brackets to denote the alterations. Most importantly, she follows each quotation with analysis. Each quotation--each piece of evidence--leads the writer deeper into her own argument. She does not shove evidence at the reader and then wander away, never to return...for she knows, as you will soon know too, that

an example is not a thesis point.

As per usual, let me just repeat this revolutionary idea:

An example is not a thesis point.

Quotations are examples. They are not thesis points. They are not stand-alone chunks of text that boost your word count. They will help you get your idea across, but they are not that idea itself. Treat them with respect, and stop making me want to box your ears.

There are many more things I could say about quotations, but my long and unexpected conversation with the friend who happened to be at a wedding held just upstairs from the library in which I am now seated has ensured that I have missed my own deadline and failed to complete this entry on the 31st, even though Blogger claims that I am lying at the moment. Besides, it's twenty after twelve. I need to go home and cry. I shall save other quotation-related comments for some other time I decide to get off my butt and write rude things about undergraduate essays.

Perhaps I shall even do so relatively soon. I'm hoping this next break won't be five months long, at any rate.

Farewell, my friends. Thanks for reading. Go write something intelligent. If it contains comma splices, I shall know.****

*All true. I should probably move.
**Okay, actually, I hope you're not thinking that. That's kind of gross.
***But not in that way.
****I have powers.