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Archive for December, 2011


with 4 comments

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

Abusing the Privilege

with 3 comments

Good morning.  I’m running a little late, but that’s not a surprise.  It’s “reading week” and exam week at my place, and that means I’m inundated by e-mails and text messages from students desperate for me to assure them that they can, indeed, pass the course, even though they haven’t been in class since midterms and haven’t turned in any papers at all.

I’m also being inundated by papers, which come in huge, messy stacks that have never been revised by anybody and whose contents have little or no relation to the assignments as they were given.

This is true for papers handed in for courses for which I did not put up a Blackboard site, and for those which I did.  In the latter, details of every assignment are sitting right there for anybody to read. 

And this is the time of arguments, too–when I explain that you can’t pass the course without at least attempting to hand in the work, I get told, indignantly, that they had to be out of class for a week because they had “a family thing” back home, or–

Well, or anything.  The underlying assumption is that anything, anywhere, is of more importance than school, and therefore school must take a back seat to everything from picking your aunt up at the airport to having a hernia operation.

Putting that aside for the moment–

I’ve spent a fair amount of my time for the last few days reading reviews of the reissue of Dwight MacDonald’s book of essays Masscult and Midcult:  Essays Against The American Grain.

MacDonald is not a writer I know very well, or had even read anything of before this.  For what it’s worth, when somebody says MacDonald my head tends to go automatically to “Ross.”

I had, however, heard of Trotsky’s famous putdown of Dwight–“Every man has the right to be stupid, but Comrade MacDonald abuses the privilege.”–and I’d always thought it was one of those things that I’d like to have had said about me, by the right kind of person.

The reviews I’ve been reading, and what little I’d heard about MacDonald before this, made it seem as if McD was something like a not-so-well-known Edmund Wilson,  a professional snob with the mannerisms and attitudes of a Sheridan Whiteside.

I don’t have much interest in the Sheridan Whitesides of this world.   It was never a pose I found attractive or even interesting, and it was never one that much impressed anybody in the world in which I lived. 

Then one day I went to my porch and found a little package with a small book in it, and the book was Masscult and Midcult. 

And I got a surprise.

Let me give a warning here.  This is the only work of MacDonald’s I have ever seen.  For all I know, everything else he wrote was just as Sheridan-Whitesidish as the reviews I read.

But the simple fact is that this book is not, and the essay Masscult and Midcult especially is not.

I am not saying here that I read MacD’s title essay and found that he really loved detective stories and Edgar Rice Borroughs.

I didn’t, and he doesn’t.

MacD’s take on what he calls “pulp fiction” is fairly knee jerk–it’s all a corporate plot, manufactured by corporations in the same way they manufacture soap. 

He actually has an interesting couple of paragraphs comparing Erle Stanley Gardner with Edgar Allan Poe.  For what it’s worth, he thinks Poe is art.

But the more interesting thing is this–he spends very little time on “pulp fiction.”  His ire is directed not to formula murder mysteries of the Whose Body variety, or even at people like Burroughs.

His ire is directed at…what Robert would call “the Required Reading List.”

It was “Midcult,” not “Masscult,” that drove MacD practically insane–the faux-highbrow, faux-intellectual, faux-high culture of high school English classes and women’s society reading groups.

As far as I can tell, “Midcult” seems to encompass most of the books and stories people say they were required to read in high school and college and that I never was–Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea and “Hills Like White Elephants,” for instance.

The idea, according to MacD, was to make it possible for some people to imply that they were better, more intelligent, and more culturally educated than other people without having to do any of the actual work of understanding any great work of art, and especially any great work of art they might actually have to read.

The defining characteristics of Midcult are pseudo-profound language that is often simply incomprehensible, a mania for symbolism and Big Themes, and supposed novels in which…nothing actually happens.

He includes an essay on a publishing project of the 195os called The Great Books Series, in which the Encyclopedia Brittanica produced a more or less unified edition of what its advisory board (including a past President of the University of Chicago) considered to be the Greatest Books Ever Written and the ones everybody should read.

His problem wasn’t so much with the selections themselves–he liked some of them and disliked others, and was left dumbfounded in the face of the scientific ones–but with the idea that Culture with a capital C can be put on like a suit of clothes in order to indicate that you are So Much Superior to the Joneses.

It is, in other words, the use of Culture (capital C) as a class marker that makes MacD crazy, and I have to admit I’m crazy on that point with him.

I’m not trying to say that MacD was a friend to popular culture.  He wasn’t, but my guess is that he wasn’t because he knew little or nothing about it. 

On the actual object of his scorn, however–all those “I read Ann Beattie so I’m superior to you who read Janet Evanovich” people–I think he has a point.

The work used to signal Intelligence and Culture is almost always second rate, and is often downright embarrassing.  It isn’t Culture, and it isn’t Great Art.   It’s just attitude.

And its inclusion in courses anywhere is mostly an attempt to convey attitude. 

But then, with MacD, I’m not sure that courses are the best place to encounter really great novels, or any other kind of art.

I’d better go off and listen to wailing students.

Written by janeh

December 6th, 2011 at 11:19 am

Posted in Uncategorized

About The Story

with 3 comments

So, sometimes last week, operating on less than 4 hours of sleep, I posted a little snit that then got everybody to land on me, at which point I posted a longer thing that seems to have convinced some of you that I am denigrating what you like in reading material and declaring all science fiction and fantasy to be worthless.

But I did neither of those things.  I just explained what I liked, period, and what I preferred, period, and why I read. 

And, given the amount of text I got saying that what I’m looking for is “travelogues,” my guess is that most of you didn’t get it anyway.

But I do want to clarify something, and so I will.

And that is why I react so strongly when people go, “nothing matters as long as it’s got a good STORY.”

I don’t care that your eighth grade English teacher put you down for wanting plot instead of Seriousness, or whatever it was.

What I do care about is this:  that line–as long as it’s got a good STORY–is the bottom line excuse for every kind of sloppy, badly written, badly edited, inadequately researched piece of crap in existence.

Writer got all his historical dates wrong and had Napoleon fighting Alexander the Great–not on purpose, not as alternative history, but because he didn’t bother to look it up and his editor didn’t care?

Doesn’t matter.  It’s a good STORY.

Got every street in Paris mismarked (wrong one-ways, for instance) and placed in the wrong quatiers? 

Doesn’t matter.  It’s a good STORY.

Can’t recognize a gerund with a GPS and a native guide?  Think Helsinki is one of Dante’s levels of Hell?  Convinced Brussels is in Vietnam? 

What does it matter?  It’s a good STORY.

I am not talking here about a few mistakes.  We all make mistakes. I make a lot of them.

I’m talking about a wholesale, cavalier disregard for anything resembling factual accuracy, even when it really, really matters. 

And, for that matter, a wholesale, cavalier disregard for anything resembling decent writing, which always really, really matters. 

I do understand that some people not only don’t care, but sometimes prefer it, if a book is written in a string of cliches (as dirty as dishwater, fast as a speeding bullet, to the very fiber of her being), but I do. 

Let’s take, for instance, a movie a few years back, the name of which now escapes me.

In it, Denzel Washington plays a man whose child is being refused a transplant because the family does not have insurance.  Denzel righteously invades the hospital and holds everybody hostage until his son is given the care he needs to live.

Want to know what’s wrong with that?

I don’t know what the situation is like now, but back when that movie was made, you could not be refused a place on the transplant list, or a transplant, for inability to pay.

Want to know how I know that?  I was married to a man on the transplant list.  I got the complete rundown from the Harvard Medical School, which included the fact that “insured or not” was not one of the criteria for getting that operation.

In fact, it was illegal even to consider that as a criterion.

But, hey, what the heck?  Why let the facts get in the way of a good story?

And story is all that matters, right?

No.  Wrong.

For better or for worse, I never seem to hear that defense–it’s a good story!–except in cases where the writer has produced something truly embarrassing.  Decently written books (with good stories!) that have a few mistakes in them, or that are badly written in one way or another, are not defended this way. 

People seem perfectly capable of rolling their eyes about the racism in Gone With The Wind or the clunky language in Atlas Shrugged without jumping up defensively to declare that none of it matters since they’re good STORIES.

There are, of course, other people, who honestly don’t care if they read a book set in the reign of King John where the army is using howitzers–and for them, the declaration (I don’t care about any of that–it’s a good story!) is a defense against the assumption that they are, merely by the fact that they’re adult, actually supposed to know something.

These are the same people who are likely to declare that they read “for entertainment” and therefore just put down any book that expects them to learn something or that contains material they might actually have to think about.

And I dare any one of you to try to twist that last paragraph into an assertion of support for “modernism” or “literary novels.” 

That’s not what I’m talking about.  I’m talking about, say, third person multiple viewpoint–that’s too hard!  I’m not going to do all that work!

Or the idea that a character might have a point of view that isn’t that of the author.

Or the fact that the book might use a vocabulary larger than the approved list for Young Readers that got handed to Dr. Seuss.

I don’t like most fantasy and science fiction because I can’t get interested in the settings.  There are still lots of excellent fantasy and science fiction novels.

But they’re not great novels because they’ve got a good STORY.

They’ve got to have a whole lot else.

Going off to read silliness for the day.

Written by janeh

December 3rd, 2011 at 10:19 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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