by Chris Bodenner
Our inbox saw a deluge of long and passionate emails on this thread from last week. Some final thoughts from readers:
Thank you for posting responses from students. I cringed reading the original English 101 post even though I caught the writer's dry humor and end of semester exhaustion. I frankly think that being an exemplary professor is just about impossible, and I know that teaching is not the highest priority for many university faculty, myself included.
Like all professors, I was a student for many many years. It's been 17 years since I finished my PhD but I have not forgotten what it feels like to be a student, nor what it feels like to be completely mystified by the power relations in academic departments, especially between faculty and students. I can remember being asked to revise writing or to write differently. What I don't remember is having any kind of specific guidance about how to improve and how to adapt my writing to academic style. It's a rare faculty member who will do that for a student, mostly because most professors do not know anything about how writing develops, nor how to teach it if if they did.
I'm usually not one to defend English professors, but all three of these reader responses seemed unfair. I think the first reader is misguided. Professors aren't tired of the books students are writing about. Rather, they get frustrated at the visible lack of effort or creativity. The problem isn't reading about The Great Gatsby; it's getting a stack of 50 papers in which 45 make the same lazy point.
For example, I recently graded papers on Thomas More's Utopia (I'm a PhD student in history). Even though I've read Utopia several times, I still love this work, and think it is one of the most fascinating texts in the Western canon. It is also a work that has been interpreted in literally thousands of different and conflicting ways - the possibilities are endless. This is why it's so frustrating when all but a few papers have the same vapid argument- something close to "Thomas More wrote Utopia as a comment on society." All this shows is that the student read the dust jacket. For many of them it's not about "new intellectual discoveries," but rather just turning something in. While I'm not saying every student should deeply care about every assignment (because Lord knows I don't), you have to cut the professors some slack on this one.
It seems that English professors can't win. Either they care too much about today's society - indoctrinating their students with anti-Bush propaganda etc. - or they don't care enough. Given the highly politicized environment right after 9/11, I'm guessing most didn't want to say something that could potentially get them in trouble. If anything, it's decades of conservative complaints about academia and people like David Horowitz, who draws up yearly lists of the country's "most dangerous" professors, that deter literary scholars from commenting on something like 9/11. Those who didn't like what the professors had to say, would angrily cry out that he or she should stick to teaching literature.
Besides, those complaining about paper topics aren't complaining because those topics are boring, but because the papers on those topics tend to be a) intellectually lazy (if you're writing on Gatsby and the American Dream, you need to put down the Cliff's Notes, read the damn book and perhaps go to class once in a while) or b) an opportunity to grandstand about a pet issue like political correctness (Huck Finn) or abortion ("Hills Like White Elephants").
I think the largest problem, and what I see most from my students, is fear. Students are terrified to express their own thoughts and hide the fear in wordiness and bad grammar. Working with students one-on-one has allowed me to ask students what they mean in a particularly wordy sentence. I am never surprised at how simple and elegant their thoughts tend to be, if only they would not be scared to express those thoughts. I think it is the professors who must take responsibility for this fear.
As a graduate student who grades undergraduate writing in History every single quarter, I can confidently say that I've never met an academic, student or faculty, who expects undergraduates to write about a subject with a mastery of the field. In fact, we don't expect students to even like our subject (though you always have that fantasy that you could be the one who makes the student see why analyzing law codes from the Tang Dynasty is the coolest thing in the world).
What we lament about student writing is the lack of any ability to write a cohesive sentence, or paragraph, or paper. Many students, even at top-tier universities, simply cannot put together a thought on paper. They often do fine verbally, in a class setting. But they can't do it in a paper. We get papers every single quarter that read like monologues from some Theatre of the Absurd piece. There is no subject-verb agreement. They don't know how to use pronouns. They write in sentence fragments. The spelling is atrocious. Sometimes they write in text-speak ("U can c y Julius Cesar got kild. 4 real."). I would defy anyone to read not only one paper like that, but over 50, several times a year, and not have to occasionally have a laugh with a colleague. It's the only thing that keeps us sane.
Your reader has no clue what goes on at most universities in America. First, universities have already specialized the writing class far more than that. Students typically have their choice between "Business Writing", "Science Writing", "Social Science Writing", "Humanities Writing" and more.
Second, NOBODY gets FORCED into a "liberal arts" degree program. The single most popular major is business. Humanities programs are tiny. The core curriculum is about 20-30 percent of your degree program, with humanities being a tiny portion of that.
Look, profs get to read lots of student papers. A small portion of it is great. Some of it is meh. And some of it is godawful crap. And the way we maintain our sanity after 20 years of that is making fun of some of the crap we have to read in our jobs.