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Inevitable

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I am sitting at this computer much earlier in the day than I usually would be to write a blog post–fiction gets written this early in the morning, but rarely blog posts–and it is cold in this office.

This is partially my fault.  My office is a sun room, and when the temperatures dip below 35, I usually have to turn on an auxilliary heater to stay warm in here at all.  I haven’t done that, I’m not sure why.  I’m  having one of those floaty days that indicate we’re about to hit exam week with full force.

Over the last few years, I have come to think of exam week as the time when we all have to stop lying to ourselves. 

The beginnings of semesters are always slightly delusional.  I don’t care how long you’ve been doing this, you start every new term with

the buried but insistent belief that this time it will be different, this time you will find the magic formula that will allow you to turn almost illiterate writers who don’t read into competent producers of college work in fifteen weeks.

You believe that even after you ask for a writing sample and get this:

>>The best thing in the word is go hanging out and hang o ut with your guys.  Guys can be girls.  My guys were home today but I be at school.  Going over to a friends house watch a movie have a cold beer.  Her get what the hard ship of like work family.  Laws are wrong because they were hassling us.  Laws were all uptight.  Hanging out is not having hassles. >>>

I am not making that up.  That was the introductory paragraph of an assigned in-class essay called “The Best Thing in the World.” 

If anything, it’s one of the better ones I got in the class–from two years ago–that I assigned it in. 

And it’s better than it actually was written, because when I try to reproduce these things, I find myself fixing the spelling.  And sometimes other things. 

My head simply will not make words do what these kids make them do.

And in the end, I don’t get it.

One of the exercises I use for class is to type these things into a Word document and project the document–without the students’ names–onto a screen so that the class can correct them.

They almost always know that what they are reading is awful, beyond awful, unacceptable. 

And yet they write that way, and seem to be incapable of correcting what I’ve projected. 

They know–somehow–that what they are seeing is wrong.  They often refuse to believe me when I tell them that I’m using their own papers for illustrations. 

They write like this anyway, and they can’t seem to think of a thing to do about it when they do.

Or consider the following, handed in in an advanced class–advanced, as in not Freshman.  Which means this person has been writing like this and passing “college” classes with it for more than a year:

<<<Immanuel Kant was a great philosipher that came up with many philosophical thoughts. He represents philosophy at it’s best. One issue that went against his moral laws was that of people having a lack of honesty or lying. Kant was strongly in favor of the view that when the ethical and moral decision to lie is made by a person, they’re would always be negative consequences of they’re choice. Kant also held the firm belief that lying was wrong at all times. I disagree, my view is that sometimes all lying is not wrong.>>>

 Some of the above, by the way, was cribbed verbatim from the commentary in the book.   The rest of it is–well, what it is.

What it is not is what people mean when they say “college work,” and most of it isn’t what people mean when they say “high school work.” 

And yet I will guarantee you that this student will passed that class, and went on to pass the rest of his classes, and to emerge from the institution with a “bachelor’s degree.” 

Of course, most of my students won’t.  They’ll drop out by the end of freshman year, because even at the debased standards I’m allowed to hold them to–no more than 10 pages of reading a week (and they won’t do that), papers no longer than 2 1/2 pages long (and they’ll hand them in short) the load is so much greater than what they got used to in high school, they won’t be able to cope.

Recently I’ve been reading a little book called In The Basement of the Ivory Tower:  Confessions of an Accidental Academic by “Professor X.”

It’s a nice little book, a memoir written by an adjunct who has published articles on his experiences in various magazines.

And the book is largely familiar to me, for obvious reasons.

There’s only one thing.

As far as I can figure out, from the way this man describes his experiences, he’s nowhere near in the basement of academia.

There are more subbasement levels under his than there are underground floors of the Pentagon.

I’d better go do something. 

Written by janeh

December 9th, 2011 at 8:22 am

Posted in Uncategorized

4 Responses to 'Inevitable'

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  1. Judging by the syntax in the first example, what you have is not so much an example of bad English as of a speaker of a sub-dialect of American English. Standard American English is, to that student, literally a foreign language. Steven Pinker in “The Language Instinct” discusses Ebonics briefly, but the basic fact remains that that student first has to understand that s/he is literally learning a new language with different grammar rules than the one’s s/he learned growing up – and there is indeed a consistent grammar to Ebonics, it’s NOT just “bad English”.

    Of course, the school isn’t going to give you any support, so I don’t know how you solve that problem.

    michaelwfisher@cox.net

    9 Dec 11 at 1:11 pm

  2. My condolences, Jane. The next time we are sitting around at lunch bitching about our students, I will think of you and quell it. They do, in fact, all read and write Standard English, I can assign them to read a book in a week and they will read it, I can ask for a paper and they will write it and hand it in….

    And Mike, some aspects of what the student wrote appear to be Black English dialectical markers, but some do not….

    Cathy F

    CAFiorello

    9 Dec 11 at 1:16 pm

  3. But the fact that you speak a sub-dialect has nothing much to do with whether or not you can read and write standard English – and I speak as someone from an area with lots and lots of accents and dialects. Less now, perhaps, than when I was growing up. Back then, a few people despised their native accent so much they took lessons to remove it, but most people spoke and wrote one way in school or in very formal situations, another at home. Even in my grandparents’ generation, it wasn’t uncommon to find people who normally spoke dialect, but wrote and read standard English. And no one had to tell us or them that we were learning another language; we were simply taught to do things this way for school, just as we were taught to address people differently depending on their age and relationship to us and to sit quietly in some places and run and shout in others.

    My mother was deeply offended when someone from another country complimented her on the fact that her children didn’t speak ‘that awful local way’. Of course, we spoke politely and clearly to adult strangers, and strangers from ‘Away’ would get standard English. And what was wrong with the local accent anyway? (She being a proud local resident, born and raised.) Only family members by marriage could get away with making jokes, well, I think they were jokes, wondering what language people were using. Now, with all the TV and travelling, you don’t get such strong differences even locally.

    Anyway, I think it’s going to take a really exceptional person who hasn’t gotten basic numeracy and literacy skills by adolescence to pick them up then.

    Michael, I’m not directing this at you.

    Cheryl

    9 Dec 11 at 2:18 pm

  4. There are three underground floors to the Pentagon–at least on the north side, where the entrance is on Level Two, and Level One is already too deep for the rats. Then follows the Mezzanine, then the Basement proper. There it extends beyond the “E” Ring into the sort of room numbers which make it hard to cash a check at Pentagon Federal.

    And on every ring of every level, they’re reading reports written not much better than your examples, and sometimes writing them.

    I can remember when “The Marching Morons” was science fiction, but what the Kornbluth thought would take centuries of breeding we’ve managed to achieve in about two generations of telling children that any way they wrote was fine, and that there is no difference between fact and feeling.

    They’re giving you the kids ten years too late. Count every one you save as a brand snatched from the burning. There won’t be many.

    robert_piepenbrink

    9 Dec 11 at 4:36 pm

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