Wednesday, October 15, 2008

I Am a Bad, Bad Person

I am going to post again properly. I swear. Someday, somehow, I shall free myself from the Tyranny of the Paying Job that Requires Me to Give Myself a Headache Marking and post a real post on this blog. Lately, I've simply had too much to do. I'm currently in the middle of marking one hundred midterms. My brain is throbbing, and it is probably not really going to let me sleep much tonight. I'm not even sure this post is going to be coherent at all.

However, I did promise to post on Blog Action Day, which will be over in thirteen minutes (I finished tomorrow's lecture five minutes ago, by the way). The theme this year is "poverty." As we are allowed to approach the topic from any angle we like, I shall be all ornery and write on poverty of coherent thought.

Undergraduates don't mean to write essays that deserve to be fed immediately into the shredder, then cursed with eternal life and scattered to the four winds. For the most part, students remain unaware of the horror they are visiting upon their markers. They are well-meaning, chock full of good intentions, and tripping merrily down the road to Hell.* When they reach the gates, they are appalled. How did they get here? Why are their marks so terrible? They're doing everything right; what's going wrong?

Dear Undergraduate and/or High-School Student:

You have the ability to think and write coherently. You are intelligent, motivated, and possibly even moderately creative. Now you must learn to follow a few extremely simple rules. They will improve your life immeasurably. If you are really lucky, they will usher you off the road to Hell and onto the road to Good Analysis and Pretty Decent Grades.

Here they are:

1) Read the damn instructions. Seriously: read them all the way through. I know you're tired/stressed/busy/way too confident in your own psychic powers/etc., but if you don't read the instructions, you are probably not going to follow them. When I am setting a midterm...and I provide you beforehand with a rubric that emphasises in boldface the fact that I want you to do a close reading of the passage provided and not simply use it as an excuse to wander off on a vague and garbled repetition of those of your lecture notes that pertain to the text as a whole and not, in fact, this particular passage at all...and then I mention in class that you should pay particular attention to the bolded section...and I read it aloud very slowly and tell you exactly what it means...and we practise close reading for forty-five minutes...and I read out the bolded section again...and I provide it once more on your actual midterm...then if you completely ignore the bloody bolded section, you are not going to get a good mark. The instructions are right there in front of you. I fail to see how I could make them more apparent. I suppose I could scream them loudly in your face.

2) Buy a style guide. I've said it before, and I'll say it again. You are responsible for knowing the fiddly little rules of essay format. You are expected to understand when to underline a title and when to put it in quotation marks. I am trying to teach you about Geoffrey Chaucer. I shall sketch out the major rules if you are first- or second-year students, but I don't have time to go over them all. They are not difficult. Figure them out, then use them.

3) It isn't an argument if it is so obvious that if you said it to Homer Simpson, he would respond, "Well, duh." In other words, your huge essay on why The Castle of Otranto is a work of Gothic fiction leaves me cold. I know it is a work of Gothic fiction. It is the freaking definition of a work of Gothic fiction. It does not take a working human brain to formulate an "argument" on why it is a work of Gothic fiction. Deal with meaning, not observable fact. An essay is not a piece of busy-work; it is meant to make you think. So think.

4) I am not the devil because I insist that you back up your points with evidence.** You think you're being creative; I think you're making stuff up. You can be creative and still analyse the text via what is actually in it. You can be downright weird as long as you have evidence to support your weirdness.

5) If your handwriting is illegible even to you, I shall not be able to read it. My inability to decipher a sentence that seems to read, "In duck blorgia Hamilton, the pruit somed it crrgulatiory ciruins, ta," does not give you licence to hate me forever. My own handwriting can be...difficult. I print. Oh...and please stop complaining because I ask you to write double-spaced. You simply have to remember to skip every other line for the duration of the midterm. I'm the one who has to squint her way through reams of single-spaced, illegible, comma-splice-heavy plot summary written by someone who can apparently not follow instructions at all.

6) Ooh...look...look! You've had a good idea! It's simple...effective...relevant...and full of--no! No, don't leave it! Don't move on until you've--

Festering Hades.

If you come up with a good idea, deal with it. Dwell on it. Explore its implications. Follow up on it. Provide evidence to support it. Love and cherish it forever. Don't simply blob it briefly onto your paper, then wander away without comment. I would rather read an essay that dealt minutely with one solid idea than an essay containing six scattered gems of brilliance, none of which was explained or elaborated upon.

It's nearly 12:30 a.m., and I have to teach a lot of people a lot of things tomorrow. I'm sorry I've been absent, and I promise I'll be back. Write well, my children...write well.

*My personal Hell, generally.
**I am the devil for completely unrelated reasons.