The lovely and talented Joanne
Jacobs has pointed me to a post
by "Alex", a professor of English
at an (as near as I can tell) nameless U, blogging
at After School Snack.
It's titled, simply, "Sigh." Indeed. Alex begins:
Today I had what is probably my most disheartening experience in the
nascent stages of my work as a college English professor.
Oh no! Alex dear, what happened?
One of the books we're reading for class is Howard Zinn's A People's
History of the United States. Yep, the whole thing.
Of course the whole thing. An entire
left-wing history text is just the thing you'd expect
to be assigned to read in an English class!
Anyway, I asked my students to write a formal paper relating an aspect of
this text to their personal life experiences or to something else
they've read or seen, etc. The basic premise of my instructions were to
"make it real" in some fashion.
A personal life experience. As opposed to an impersonal life
experience? Or a personal death experience? Or (if you haven't had
any personal life experiences) to something "read or seen", because,
God knows, that wouldn't be one of your "personal life experiences",
would it? Dude, just relate it to something, OK? That will "make
By and large, the first round of papers were rough but fairly impressive.
Revisions are a required aspect of the course (it's titled "critical
reading and writing"), and so I provide feedback and so forth, you know
Well, I don't know the "drill," sorry.
But that's OK, we're about to get an example.
One of my students wrote a very negative critique of Zinn's chapter
titled "The Coming Revolt of the Guards," wherein Zinn presents his
admittedly-utopian vision for the United States after a peaceful
revolution (he intentionally puts pure realism aside, prefacing his
vision with "let us be utopian for a moment so that when we get realistic
again it is not that 'realism' anchored to a certain kind of history
empty of surprise. Let us imagine what radical change would require of
us all."). If you haven't read A.P.H. you should; if nothing
else find a copy in a bookstore and spend 15 minutes reading chapter 23.
Because, you know, it's all so very true. A "history empty of
surprise" would be as dismal as a … I don't know …
a chemistry empty of nostalgia? … an economics empty of
What the hell were we talking about
again? Oh, yes, this very negative student:
Back to my student's critique. His efforts were focused heavily on
saying that Zinn is not only being unrealistic, but that he's flat-out
wrong. My student claimed that equality can never exist and that
American capitalism is as good as it gets, saying that we live in a
violent world and any claim that a people's movement will change that is
… and it was all so cruel and mean-spirited, you know, because
Zinn's vision is so lovely, and this … well, this snot-nose kid
is laughing at it!
After the first draft, I pressed him on his claim that "most people have
it pretty good," because it was clear to me that his definition of "most
people" did not correlate with Zinn's definition of "most people,"
I note that
"did not correlate with" is probably nascent-English-professorese for
… and that my student was ignoring the plight of the lower class
and underprivileged groups in his analysis. He turned in a revision that
continued to tiptoe around the real assumptions he was making.
Damn him. What were those "real assumptions"? Don't fret, we're about to
I wrote to him--and this is probably the result of poor teaching on my
part, I'm still learning how to do this effectively-- …
… that he wasn't
countering Zinn's logic directly because he was comparing
apples to oranges.
So, like, you can't compare apples to oranges? I'm pretty sure you
can. Don't English profs, even nascent ones,
think about clichés before spouting them?
The only way his argument "works," in my opinion, is if he has some
fundamental belief that economically underprivileged individuals are
Aha, there's the assumption the kid tried to "tiptoe" around.
(And notice Alex's jarring shift from past to
present tense in mid-paragraph.
You don't have to be an English prof to do that, but it
If that were the case, as he implies, then he'd be right--equality
couldn't exist, and even if economic equality were achieved, violence
would continue to plague our society.
Or: he could be right under any
number of other different assumptions. But, clearly, this is
the only assumption Alex could imagine the student making.
And, even though Alex calls this his "opinion" above, that was just
window dressing; he's about to treat it as Unshakable Fact, and
pin a grade to it:
So I decided to test him. I told him that if he typed out the following
paragraph with his signature and date at the bottom and turned it in, I
would award him a perfect score on this draft of his essay (he was in
the "C" range under my rubric):
Rubric, Schrubric. Amazingly, it turns out a signature
in blood was not required. And no souls were actually
sold, at least not literally:
"I, [name], believe Zinn is wrong because socially and/or economically
underprivileged individuals are inherently evil; that true freedom,
justice, and equality can never exist because the world is a dark and
violent place; and that those who bear the burden so that the upper
class can exist deserve their fate."
And I can imagine the hapless student's thought process at this
point: Oh, God, what is this idiotic hoop-jumping psychodrama supposed to prove? Best just to defuse the situation and get out.
I gave him this option knowing that his beliefs in Christianity play a
strong influence in his life (his other papers and comments in class
point to this fact) and I assumed that laying it out on the table like
this would spur him to see the significance of his implications.
So, like most Christians, he might just believe in Original Sin? As
in: everyone has the capacity for evil, not just "socially and/or
economically underprivileged individuals"? Ah, but Alex seems not
to have considered that:
Well, you can guess what happened: I now have a student who signed and
dated this declaration of his lack of faith in humanity in order to buy
a grade on an English paper.
And, thanks to the power of the World Wide Web, you now also have
thousands of readers variously amused, shocked,
and/or disgusted at what passes
for college English instruction in this country.
I don't know if I did the right thing; I don't think he really believes
this... you'd have to guess that he had some sort of internal debate
when typing it out on the computer and signing the sheet, right? Would
any of you sign such a declaration if it went against your beliefs to
boost your score on a paper?
Alex, baby, you'd better believe I'd do it in a heartbeat for you.
Because I'd know it didn't mean a thing.
It's fairly clear that he didn't have a problem signing the sheet. If he
doesn't believe what he signed, he doesn't view his education as more
than a means to an end (degree and job). If he does actually believe
those claims, I'm even more frightened.
Alex, I'm no English professor, but I'm pretty sure it's sloppy
construction to say you're "even more frightened" by the second
alternative without previously establishing that you were frightened by
the first alternative.
And, reading between the lines,
I'd wager that none of the students who turned in papers in meek
agreement with Zinnian ideology were subjected to this kind of nonsense.
as far as education goes, I'd also bet that your student learned an
excellent lesson, although not the one you intended him to have.
(For more of Alex's anguish, he has a followup post here. I don't have the heart to take that on, sorry.)