Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Winding up some writing smack based off of real student writing!

Okay, I am just starting another stack of research papers. My file of "things I hate in student writing" is already full from the last batch, so I present it to you for free. These are not the complete train wrecks we sometimes get under the auspices of a term paper or essay. These are the little things that annoy. I know they're learning to write and high school sucked and all of that. The poor bastards. I didn't know anything about passive voice in college myself. I do not mean this in a mean spirited way. Well, okay, it does piss me off a bit. All these examples are based off of real student writing.

- Let's start with that. Why is everything today "based off of" something? What ever happened to "based on"? What is so wrong with "founded on" or "supported by"? Many of the things students are referring to aren't really "based" at all, but simply "refer to," "are related to" or "were influenced by." But no, they have to write that Roman religion was "based off of" Greek religion or that "the voyages of discovery were based off of earlier advancements (another favorite word) in navigation."

- "The U.S. policy in Iraq is not empirical." Other students prefer "impirial." I have even seen "empiratic" (I shit you not). I am still waiting for "empyreal."

- The word "reference" is constantly used as a verb to establish some vague relationship: "The book references the ancient Egyptians several times" or "Both civilizations reference each other throughout history." I looked this up and found that it is not grammatically wrong. I don't like it, though.

- The word "state" is the verb of choice to sound authoritative without committing to any particular meaning other than the imparting of information. The author of some wise book doesn't just say things. He or she doesn't "claim," "argue," "assert" or even "reference" things. He or she "states" things, as in, "Fischer states that the Egyptian pyramids were built with slave labor." The verb "claim" hints that evidence might be lacking or holds the reader in suspense until the evidence follows later in the text. The verb "argue" implies that there is evidence and the text will provide it. The verb "assert" implies the lack of evidence. The verb "state" is just the statement – with no commitment made by the writer as to whether it is substantiated or not. This is particularly common when the students arrive in my class after having been taught English 101 by an attribution-obsessed colleague. There, the students have learned to constantly mention the authors of the secondary literature they are using, even when the issue at hand is simply some fact and not the role of the author in some controversy. Sometimes they run out of verbs and use "state" once. Sometimes, it's state, state, state. Thus, these once obscure colleagues of yesteryear come back to life as the "staters" of all kinds of wisdom. "In his 1975 article Trade and Communication in the Tokugawa Shogunate, Bryan H. Williams states that the merchant class was already growing at this time." Well Timmy, what else did he state? Did he state anything about seeing the forest through the trees?

- "In order to first do A, one must first show B…" This is a great way to fill up several pages of a vacuous research paper with irrelevant material. The paper can be inflated by pointing at that, "we can only properly understand Zwingli's role in the Reformation (what the paper is supposed to be about) by understanding where he came from as an individual. It was a dark and stormy night…" Then we get three pages ranging from his chronic butt rash as a toddler to his loss of virginity in an Alpine YMCA. This is usually inserted after the introduction, but before the real paper begins. It offers the added benefit of being chronologically-organized text that the students can lift whole from Wikipedia biographies of famous people.

- Using a question mark to express uncertainty about the content of the statement? This rarely appears in papers, but is common in e-mail and other online formats. "The Egyptian pyramids served a religious purpose?" Sometimes it is used, as in the first sentence above, without a complete sentence: "Egyptian influence on ancient Greece?" This probably comes from the e-mail and chat-room habit of assuming voice inflexion or compensating with "smilies."

- The use of "impact" as a verb is not incorrect, but I sense that it has become more common in recent years, both in the culture in general and in student papers. It is over-used. Together with the passive voice, it makes research paper time second only to beer on the list of life's true joys: "The Romans were impacted by Greek religion." When I read that, my head is impacted by my desk.

- The general culture can certainly explain the recent proliferation of "myself." A student writes: "I told one of my project partners to get back to you or myself before Monday." They would never say, "I'll get back to yourself before Monday," but the "myself" is somehow different. Just today, I got a non-academic e-mail telling me that, "You can contact myself at any time." Well thank you, I just might do that.

- I think the same thing is going on with the "John and I" thing. Several generations grew up getting slapped for writing, "John and me went to the store." So now the "me" has been banished to Hell, even when it is correct. "Dr. Slave gave Mary and I a C on our project." These people would never say, "Dr. Slave gave I a C", but the "Mary and…" clouds our vision. As for I, me never tires of pointing this out.

- "Alexander the Great has long been considered as one of the greatest generals in history." In what part of the country does "as" add any meaning to or play any role at all in this sentence?

- "His historical investigations is bias." "The source is clearly bias against…" The students are very attuned to issues of bias now that Faux Newz has exposed the terrible liberal conspiracy behind the media. But there are times when I wish cable TV were less adroit at injecting memes into the shit I have to read or would at least write the words on Beck's blackboard so that my students could tell an adjective from a noun.

- We've all seen the capitalization salad served up in so much student work. This is especially common in words that are somehow regal-sounding. It tastes best when seasoned with other crude errors: "The Oligarchy was rule by the Aristocracy in ancient Greece and rule by the Patricians in Ancient rome. Until the Monarch ascended the thrown and created kingshipness."