Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Throughout history, mankind. . . (a sorta-thirsty*)

I've just finished holding draft conferences with my summer-school students. They're all juniors and seniors (some super-seniors, ready to graduate if not for this one pesky required class), and the genre in which they're writing is a fairly sophisticated one, addressed to a scholarly or professional audience, not a popular one.  Audience is, of course, specified in the assignment (good composition-pedagogy  practice and all that). 

Of the papers I read, almost 10% (i.e. 3 or 4) began with some variation of "Throughout history, mankind has. . ."  Not that exact syntax, but the three key words, or very near synonyms, all showed up in the first sentence.  I have three strategies for providing feedback to students when this happens, two fairly gentle, one a bit less so (but perhaps more effective? That's what I'm wondering, so this is sort of a thirsty):

  • "You know; that's kind of a cliche. You probably want to think of a more original opener that will draw the interest of your particular audience."  [Most of them know about cliches, and that cliches are bad.  Of course they can't spell, or at least conjugate the various forms of, "cliche," but they get the basic concept, and we're talking, so spelling/conjugation isn't a problem]
  • "The opening perspective of the paper is a bit too broad.  You want to start at the wide-angle level and zoom in, not start at the satellite level and try to work all the way down from there.  Remember you're writing for a specialist audience."  [camera metaphors seem to work pretty well -- in fact they have since well before everyone was carrying a camera all the time.  Hey, even I am part of the post-Sputnik generation, and my students grew up in a world where we've always had views of the earth from space]
  • "You know; that's really not a good way to begin a paper. In fact, when teachers joke about the prototypical bad paper opening, that's the one they use."  [I only say this occasionally, usually after saying one of the above.  Obviously, it's chancy -- saying it's a really bad opening; referring to the fact that teachers joke about bad student writing.  There are lots of pitfalls here. At the same time, I wonder whether I should say it more often.  After all, they're halfway through college, and don't I owe them the information that this is a really, really bad way to begin a paper, so bad that it makes readers laugh or groan?] 
So I'm wondering: if you're in a position to periodically receive papers that might use this infamous opening (and I suspect a lot of us are, whether we think we should be or not), do you say something?  If so, what do you say?  And, bonus question,

WHERE IN THE WORLD DO THEY GET THE IDEA THAT THIS IS A GOOD WAY TO BEGIN A PAPER?  I more or less understand why the dictionary-definition strategy is still taught (and have a set of responses to that, too, related to audience and level of writing), and I'm sure that they're taught that introductions should start broader and narrow in (which they should, to an extent), but is somebody actually teaching "throughout history, mankind" openings?

If so, can we please call Strelnikov out of retirement (or detention, or the locked ward, or wherever he's gotten to) to deal with them?

And if not, where do students get the idea to begin papers this way?  Do they hear the jokes and not realize they're jokes?  Is there some gene or synapse or whatever that spontaneously recreates this monstrosity in each generation? 

Why?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?


*Yes, I'm trying to annoy Cal, even though I suspect he's too mellow these days, with the golf and the music and all, to be bothered.  This is also, of course, sort of a rant.  It's a dog days of summer, CM-genre-bending, probably way too long, cry of despair which incorporates some not-only-rhetorical questions.  And now I'm going back to grading. 

--Cassandra

34 comments:

  1. Snarky answer: Their papers all begin the same way because they are copying the same papers over and over.

    Smart answer: Hmmm. It turns out that the snarky answer is correct.

    Colleagues teaching writing-intensive classes and I joke about what the worst student paper would look like. I'm sure somebody's written it as a joke and it's online.

    When I become successful enough that every publication is so damn important to me, I want to include all these cliches in a research paper. Scientists are generally less talented at writing than liberal arts professors so I suspect that it might get through peer review.

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    1. https://www.mcsweeneys.net/articles/a-generic-college-paper

      A GENERIC COLLEGE PAPER.


      BY JON WU

      - - - -
      [Originally published September 19, 2014.]

      - - -
      Since the beginning of time, bullshit, flowery overgeneralization with at least one thesaurus’d vocabulary word. In addition, irrelevant and misleading personal anecdote. However, oversimplification of first Googled author (citation: p. 37). Thesis statement which doesn’t follow whatsoever from the previous.

      Utterly contrived topic sentence revealing pretty much every flaw of structured essay writing. Therefore, supporting sentence invoking source that exists only in the bibliographies of other cited material (pp. arbitrary to arbitrary + 5). Contemplative question? Definitive refutation paraphrased from a blog found at 2AM:

      “Massive block text to lend legitimacy to this sorry endeavor.”
      — Legitimate-sounding Anglo Saxon name (year between 1859 and 1967)

      Obviously, non-sequitur segue. Utter misinterpretation of the only other author researched for this paper. Blind search for evidence reflecting increasing desperation (authors 4, 5, and 6). Moreover, loose observation to try to force coherence. Indeed, an attempt at humor!

      Hence, statement violating every principle of syllogism followed by unnecessary semi-colon; forgettable punch line. Open-ended question undoing what little intellectual progress has been made? Filler sentence, which breaks entire flow of argument, specifically designed with maximum complexity in mind so as to solve lingering word minimum concerns.

      Unconvincing conclusion statement. Empty belief that prompt has been answered sufficiently and requires no further investigation by anyone, ever. Last sentence, which consumed approximately 95% of the total mental effort dedicated—still reads clunky.

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    2. Sounds about right. And if the assignment is for 8-10 pages, it will still be 5 paragraphs long.

      While I'm all for grouping smaller points into manageable units, some student are shocked by the idea that you might have 2 or 4 major points.

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    3. Dr. Mindbender, this is perfect. I'm tempted to hand it out in class, but I fear that someone will use it as a model, and then complain about the bad grade they got for following my instructions.

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  2. I teach (or used to, until recently) a heavy load of freshman comp, and I run into similar travesties all too frequently...and yes, my soul dies a little bit every time. Even so, I've not actually run into the "Since the beginning of time" intro very often; around here, the preferred trite opening is "In this/today's/our modern world/society." I shudder to think that some idjit is actually telling students to use that phrase, or to start a paper with a dictionary definition.

    My strategy for combating these scourges is simple. I go for the bald-on-record command with a brief payoff statement (per Mackiewicz and Riley's "The Technical Editor as Diplomat") that tells students "DON'T DO THAT. Here's why."

    In fact, I've actually created an MS Word Building Blocks fill-in for this very issue: Avoid the phrase "In this/our/today’s modern society/world." It’s cliché.

    I see the offending intro, wince, and then highlight the offending sentence; hit (in sequence) Alt, R, C; type cliche; hit F3; and bada-bing, I'm on to the next sentence with a clear conscience.

    My in-class strategy is a bit more theatrical. I give an impassioned speech about the necessity of avoiding cliché intros, during which I might, maybe, possibly discuss the random chance that an irate composition prof could perhaps launch the user of overworn and unwelcome phrases from a catapult aimed in the general direction of the nearest fast food emporium with a "now hiring" sign in the window. It seems to get results.

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    1. Should we congratulate or commiserate with you on the fact that you're no longer teaching so much freshman comp? Even if you're now unemployed, there's no universally appropriate answer.

      I like the catapult threat. I think I need to engage in a bit more hyperbole in the classroom (except that I'm not all that good at delivering it. I can manage uncomfortable truth-telling now and then, but see concerns above).

      And you've inadvertently hit on the spelling/conjugation problem I mentioned above. I'm old enough (I think it's an age/generational thing) to be very uncomfortable with the use of "cliché" as an adjective (my ear thinks it should be "clichéd," though oddly "a cliché opening" bothers me less than "it's cliché"). There's certainly logic in cliché as an adjective (the word is French, after all), but it still bothers me. However, it looks like English usage of clichéd is pretty recent in any case, and like usage is rapidly changing. But all of the above may explain why I use explanation #2 more often than explanation #1. Conference time is limited, and I need to avoid diverting myself into yet another rabbit trail, all while we're discussing sentence #1 of a 10-page paper.

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    2. And I also get a fair amount of "in today's society," but this was apparently a "throughout history, mankind" term.

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    3. @ Cassandra -- Both congratulations and commiseration are welcome. I'll accept some commiseration for no longer teaching the English 102-equivalent--I'm pretty good at it and have an unofficial doctoral minor in Rhet/Comp--but as we know, grading all those papers is a real drag. I'll accept congratulations for still being employed (recently tenured, in fact) and for getting the opportunity to transfer to a new department. My university went through an exceedingly painful reorganization/merger, and it now has a full-on Rodent Studies Department, which means that my home department, El Departamento de Inglés y Otros Aleatorios Mierda, where I've been teaching the English 102-equivalent for what seems like all eternity, no longer can offer the Hamster Fur Weaving courses that I was hired to teach. Hence, I'm shifting allegiances. So yeah, mixed feelings all around.

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    4. Well, congratulations on surviving the reorganization *and* getting tenure (grounds for congratulations in any case, and definitely when tenure-threatening activity such as reorganization is in the wind), and commiserations for no longer being allowed to teach something you'd figured out how to teach well. Of course, you'll probably end up still teaching writing anyway, just to students who complain "this isn't supposed to be a writing course."

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    5. Forgive the pedantry and the lack of accent grave, but isn't "cliche" a noun in the sentence "It's cliche," and thus perfectly fine syntax?

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    6. Pedant in ArcadiaJuly 26, 2016 at 8:02 PM

      "It's *a* cliché" is perfectly fine syntax. ;-)

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    7. Yes. Clichés are countable (sometimes all too countable in some students' papers), so the noun is preceded by an article.

      And I don't know how to do the accent from scratch, either. I cut and pasted from Mindbender.

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    8. *Derp.* Gotta fix the comment, then.

      And the é character? Alt+0233 on the numberpad. Just for kicks, here's a link that I keep bookmarked:

      http://usefulshortcuts.com/alt-codes/accents-alt-codes.php

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  3. Children learn some things from their parents, who apparently still start many bedtime stories with, "Once upon a time. . . ."

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  4. So why not start with once upon a time? At least that doesn't involve the loathed 'mankind'...

    I try hard to resist the urge to write something like "I KNEW it was all the fault of the males, and the females sat around eating bon-bons" on papers which start like that, but sometimes I fail (when I am sure of my audience...). Or I add a completely useless note about the greek roots of anthropos and aner (sorry for failed transliteration for those who know what I am ranting about) and how one means human and one means male human and that although both can be translated as man one SHOULDN'T with the former unless one is sure of the gender of all the person so referenced. Which makes me feel scholarly but is no use at all to the student, so then I reluctantly delete it (or get out the white-out).

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    1. There is something to be said for a blatant and unabashed homage to the all time greats, isn't there.

      I picked up a science fiction anthology the other day built around the conceit of short-stories starting with famous opening sentences. One uses 'It was a dark and stormy night'; one is bold enough to being 'In the beginning the world [...]', and the one entitled "The Big Whale" begins 'Call me Ishmael'.

      Alas, with the end of the summer term looming I haven't gotten around to actually reading it yet.

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    2. I think one of the three used "humans" or some variation thereof. Progress, maybe?

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  5. More generally, I suspect that this fits into the whole problem of audience, which is a confused and confusing point for students, even good ones.

    After all, who are they writing the paper for? In reality, they're writing it for you, but you know more about nearly any subject than they do; it's highly unlikely they have any insight that you genuinely want to read (a few good papers aside). They know this.

    So, the reader of the paper is actually an imaginary audience. They're writing it to someone who knows about what they did at the beginning of the course, I suppose.. but also, they aren't attempting to justify that the paper is worth reading - they HAVE to write the paper and you HAVE to read it. It doesn't have a justification beyond that.

    Therefore, the paper is actually a Potemkin paper - it's just pretending to write. So, they put a facade on it that looks just like the facade on every paper next to it. The point isn't to engage you - that's not a practical goal for them - but rather to engage the hypothetical audience.

    Maybe not relevant. This is just an idea I've had bouncing around my head lately; there are all these unspoken levels of play-acting and ritual behind even the simplest academic tasts...

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    1. I think that's a real problem, especially when they're also writing in a genre that's never seen in the wild (the dread "research paper," in its many forms).

      The odd thing is that, #1, I'm having them write in an actual scholarly genre (one for which they can find models in scholarly journals, though admittedly we're doing a condensed version), and #2, because I'm teaching writing in the disciplines, and they're science students, I often actually *don't* know more about the topics on which they're writing than they do (sometimes I do, but it's a bit scary when that's the case, especially if they're health-sciences students, because I need health care periodically, and our graduates tend to stay in the area). In fact, I explicitly tell them that I'm not going to be able to fully judge the quality of their arguments; instead, I'm looking for things like internal logical consistency and a structure that matches the argument and vice versa (and citations, and sentence-level correctness or at least comprehensibility, and all that stuff). I sometimes tell them that they don't really need background information that I find interesting and helpful as a reader, but which would be really obvious -- and so would turn off -- a reader expert in their field. Of course, the students with whom I have that conversation don't tend to be the ones with the "throughout history, mankind"/"society today" openings. So maybe the ones with whom I do have the conversation about cliches and the broadness of openings are the ones who haven't quite grasped the real-genre/real-audience thing.

      And of course when you come right down to it, the papers they write for my class do only get read by me, and their classmates, in part because they're apprentice works, simplified to meet the demands of the class. And it's a required class, which most of them don't want to, and don't believe they should have to, take. And they're busy taking other "real" classes, and working, and having lives, many of them haven't taken an "English" class since high school, which probably explains why they fall back on high school tactics. So the whole imaginary audience/Potemkin paper thing probably applies.

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    2. Writing to an imaginary audience is a useful skill. For instance, I write research articles which I know nobody will read but I still pretend that they will rock the scientific, nay!, the literary world.

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    3. I'm a big fan of your novel The Bunsen Ultimatum.

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  6. Once upon a time, on a dark and stormy night, in today's society and yesterday's society and tomorrow's society, throughout history and prehistory and posthistory, mankind and womankind and otherkind were unkind. . . . which is why we have College Misery.

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  7. I get "In today's world", "In our modern society" and my favorite, "In our modern world today," I don't allow it (it's on my list of phrases under moratorium) because it is not supportably true. I call it an overgeneralization error, particularly when followed by "Everyone". It's not freshman comp, but I see it in my own merry band of freshpersons as well as in upper-level courses in my major until I beat it out of them.

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  8. I recently read an actual FBI report from the late 1910s that included the phrase "it was a dark and story night."

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  9. Show them the clip from "Blazing Saddles."

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VjGW2WwDQhM

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  10. Now imagine the banal horrors that ensue if said papers are being written for an actual history class... *eyetwitch*

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  11. "In today's society." All. The. Time. And yet somehow "based off of" bothers me more these days (or, as a student might write, now a days [sic]).

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    1. This really peaked my interest!

      Sic? I'm very sick of this one

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  12. Or my all-time favorite citation: "According to the Internet..."

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  13. They do it because it requires the least thought. Almost everyone has an innate sense of a more general opening. They're just using a template approach--and the greater the breadth, the more comprehensive, oceanic, totalizing, and effacing of actual history, gender, race, etc., the less thought required. Someone using this opening is not trying to *say* something. Actually, he or she is trying to survive the essay without saying anything. This species of paper can begin with any sort of truism, dictionary definition included. Often, it begins with a grindingly obvious generality, such as "Advertising is used to sell you something" (passive voice, weak second person, generic noun all in place, as well). Once we get to the kind of platitude that opens the course of human history, of course, we get unfounded, racist,sexist, fabricated nonsense--unwittingly since the writer, writing this no-thought filler, has never asked whether we do or can know if humans have always done this or that which only enshrines a (supposed) modern trait as both universal and timeless.

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    1. I think you're right. The interesting thing is that this approach to openings carries over even to an assignment that pretty much forces students to have reasonably-substantial bodies to their papers (lots of preparatory assignments, scaffolding, etc. that force them to think about each of their sources as a whole and how they relate to each other).

      Guess I need to create similar preparatory work/guidance on introductions.

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