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 it real."
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 the drill.
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 ennui? … 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 laughable.
… 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 "differed from".
… 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 find out!
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 basically evil.
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 helps.)
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.
And, finally, 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.)