Thursday, September 19, 2013

The Papers . . .

Oh, black heart of chaos, the papers, the papers.  If I burn out from this job it won't be the stupid colleagues (well, maybe), the increasing erratic administration, my sluggish research, or any other minor annoyance of this job.  It'll be the papers.

I would love to reproduce some examples here, but I am paranoid.  I will try to fictionalize without exaggerating.  Let me try to reproduce what I have been reading for the last week, including all of Saturday:

"I beleive on the argument argued by the author of the article 'Hamster Fur: Application and Use' who is John Smith, and when John Smith wrote in his article 'Hamster Fur: Application and Use' that hamster fur had an application and it also had a use, I agreed."

"This is my thesis.  I agree."  (that one is nearly a direct quotation.  I'd fear the kid would identify me, but that requires literacy)

"By weaving the fur, it makes the fabric stronger."  (This construction shows up all over the place: the instrumental followed by the goddamned phantom pronoun.  Gah, I hate it.)

"In reading the story by Smith called 'Hamster Fur' I agreed but I disagreed on the fact that hamster fur is not made of alpaca hair."  (Smith, obviously, never even hints that it might be.  In fact, he says "Hamster fur is very distinct from alpaca fur, for the following reasons."  It's also not a story, goddamn it.)

"Can we ever really understand hamster fur?  it is a mystery, and like a mystery, we embrace it's mystery, and that is why.  I say the hamster isn't in the fact of hamster, but moreso.  Consequently, I agree with Smith."

Some of it is just not being familiar with the discourse of academia.  But a lot of it is the lazy refusal to think or be clear.  They won't -- maybe they can't? -- consider an audience outside of themselves.  And so they can never be clear.

And somehow, they expect a good grade.


  1. Cringing and weeping inside because this will be me next week. Gaaaaaaaaaaahhh. Sympathies!

  2. Now you know why I give a handout listing the following on the first day of my large, general-ed astronomy class for non-majors, and point it out specifically to their attention, while I still have it:

    Four skills to learn in college

    You’ve heard that old saying that college is just about getting a fancy piece of paper? This is no longer true. For an education to be worth anything for employment after graduation, students need to learn skills.

    No matter what your major, while you are in college, learn these four skills.

    (1) Think critically and carefully, which means question and reason.

    (2) Find things out by doing serious research. Google and Wikipedia do not count.

    (3) Write something that someone might actually want to read.

    (4) Speak effectively in front of a group of people.

    If you graduate without at least two of these skills, you have wasted your time.

    This class is too large to help you learn public speaking. It can help you learn the other three skills. You can learn all these skills in most majors.


    I hand out another copy of this later in the term, when I have them writing exercises such as "Why is the sky blue?" (answer in 1-3 sentences that a 9-year-old could understand, and don't just parrot "Rayleigh scattering"), and "How do we know that: Earth is round/Earth moves/Earth orbits the Sun/atoms exist/Earth has had life for over 3.5 billion years/Earth is 4.6 billion years old" (pick two)? It helps a lot, to warm them up for the end-of-term research paper.

    1. P.S. I terrify them so much, they're grateful not to get a bad grade. But of course, I have tenure.

  3. I feel your pain. This fall I'm using a popular textbook that offers handy templates students can use in their writing--just fill in the blanks! The problem is that students are trying to use templates without knowing what the words mean, which resulted last week in a mess of papers that said, "Joe Schmo says blah blah blah; on the contrary, I agree." Which makes NO SENSE AT ALL.

    1. I know this textbook of which you speak. I like it. I've had very few students actually use the templates, though, which is frustrating. They all say they'll use them, and then they don't.

    2. Ooo! Like Mad Libs! Wasn't there a RYS post in Mad Lib format?

    3. Sawyer, you beat me to it. I thought of Mad Libs also but I forgot about any RYS post. This sounds like a great new CM game...

    4. Oh, dear. I've got some other objections to that textbook (though I also think it does some useful things), but it sounds like there are particular dangers for the ever-increasing number of students who don't want to think while doing homework.

    5. Ha! I use that textbook as well (we're required). I like it. But we mostly ignore the templates (I tell them to use them if they're helpful) and do many of the exercises in class where we can discuss them.

  4. I give a couple of different writing assignments and I have found when they are writing about themselves, their writing is fine (decent sentence structure, flow, logical paragraph breaks, etc.) when you ask them to summarized other research or compare and contrast two theories they are utterly unable to do it (either they can't or they won't because they believe that their opinion is equal to peer reviewed research ("because it is all opinion anyway, so my opinion is just as valid as Dr. so and so with 30 years of experience." ha ha ha).

  5. "By weaving the fur, it makes the fabric stronger."

    And it puts the lotion in the basket or else it gets the hose again?

  6. How much teaching of writing do people try to do?

    I know teaching thesis construction, conciseness, integrating source material, etc. is often not part of one's job in many courses, but many students have likely had subpar instruction on these issues. Spending a class meeting on some basics may feel like a waste of time, but it paid off when I did it in a lit class even though I should have been able to expect greater proficiency than I was seeing. That class meeting can also be used to start the drafting process well in advance of the due date, which helps.

    1. I agree that some students come in having sub-par instruction and in the first couple of meetings we talk about expectations at the university level. I was trying to teach a couple of basic thesis constructions today, but ran into another problem. After looking for too long at blank faces, I asked, "What's subject and verb?"


      There's a limit to how much basic material I'm willing to show the class. My first lot of essays are due in a week. I've stocked up on a favorite beverage.

  7. It also sounds like a number of them have learned (or have evolved on their own) a standard opening/argumentative gambit which they use in all or most of their papers. One might blame, in part, that textbook Zora mentions, except it's usually used at the college level. One might also blame standardized testing with written portions graded by machines (or overworked/undertrained humans). I'm also inclined to blame the polarized arguments that dominate the airwaves (and the interwebs). Whatever the reason, they have no idea what an argument, in the scholarly sense, is, let alone how to make one (start with actual evidence, preferably derived from your own investigation. . . .).

    At least none of them started with a dictionary definition (or at least you didn't include that one. If so, it wasn't, presumably, because it would be overly identifying.)

  8. Literature makes its messages by using techniques. This story uses a lot of diction, imagery, and characters to get its point across. Some of these dictions are long words others are short. There are also alot of images like the moon. The characters I liked best were the girl and. She reminded me of my sister whose little.


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