Archive for the teaching Category

Big Mike’s Top Ten Student Writing Pet Peeves – Part II

Posted in teaching with tags , , , on January 1, 2012 by Mike

I teach English, and therefore I am tasked with the responsibility of reading and grading  hundreds of student essays each year.  Along the way I’ve developed some pet peeves – a number of student peccadilloes that perhaps earlier in my career might have been just that – small and rather inconsequential – but now drive me absolutely nuts.

Here are my top 5:

5. “‘bias’ rather than ‘biased’; ‘prejudice’ rather than ‘prejudiced’; ‘use to’ rather than ‘used to'”

A couple errors from numbers 6 – 10 might occur more frequently, but this one irritates me more.  Too many students don’t seem to understand the idiomatic use of these words – they mistakenly use the noun rather than the adjective.  For example, “I might be prejudice against them” or “They are bias against the idea”.  Grates on you, doesn’t it?  Now imagine seeing it at least four times in every batch of papers you grade.

Some students say I am biased when I grade their papers, but it’s not so.  I show bias against those who don’t carefully edit their papers.

4. “Their vs. they’re vs. there”

Dammit, this is taught in the third grade, people! On occasion I’ve been tempted to bring my fourth grade daughter to class to demonstrate the proper use of the three homophones for my seniors.  That’d show ’em.

This error is high on my list because it’s not an error my students make out of ignorance – they KNOW the differences between the uses.  This error is reflective of their writing habits – waiting until the last minute to write their papers, and thus not having the time to proof-read for simple errors such as this one.  When I see this error repeated in a paper (anyone can have a typo) I know the paper was written in a half-assed manner (btw, it’s not manor) and the essay shouldn’t make any higher than a low C.  Unfair?  Petty? I’d argue that it’s a reflection of a student’s ethos, and if he or she is going to make this kind of mistake, why give him or her any benefit of the doubt on the rest of the paper?

3. “your vs. you’re”

This one ranks higher than “their/they’re/there” because there are only two of them this time – fewer to confuse, and therefore more irritating when someone interchanges them. Your is possessive: There are reasons your grades on your papers are so low.  You’re is a contraction for “you are”: You’re going to fail another paper if you don’t edit your papers more carefully.

Again, my students know this difference; the errors come from a lack of concern/lack of proof-reading.

2. “its vs. it’s”

It’s a hard and fast rule, people: its is possessive, meaning something belongs to the ‘it’ in question: “The cheetah cub cried for its mother but the momma-cheetah was hunting for dinner.” It’s is a contraction for “it is”: “It’s a certainty that this paper, with all of its careless errors, will receive a mid-D.”

I’m not so sure the students who make this error know the difference between the two.  And the hell with them if they’re still getting it wrong by the time they’re seniors, because if it didn’t take when they were elementary-level sponges, it’s not going to take now that they’re jaded, disillusioned teenagers.

And, for the love of God, there’s no such word as its’!

And, finally, my number one pet peeve.  I think English teachers all over the world will agree with me on this one:

1. “could/would/should/might of vs. have

I remember the first time I saw this error in a student paper.  It was my first semester as a English grad student and I was T.A.-ing for a senior level technical writing class, and grading their final papers. Some guy had written “should of” in this formal proposal and it floored me – I mean, it absolutely ASTOUNDED me that a senior in college could make such an egregious error.  I was naive –  I saw the error a half dozen more times that day, and on that day I wept for the English language and recognized how great a threat it faced in the form of student writing.

Let me illustrate this: this is a grammatical error that Mark Twain wouldn’t allow Huck Finn, an illiterate white trash southern boy, to make in a novel of over 300 pages.  Go ahead, check.

“Could/would/should/might of” makes no sense whatsoever as a grammatical construction.  It’s a transcription of our saying “might’ve” or “should’ve” which, of course, are contractions for might have and should have.

I suppose I could try to blame Cormac McCarthy and the legion of other authors who write in the vernacular, but my students don’t read McCarthy until I assign him (and, admittedly, they may not read him even then).  But I’ve seen their writing before then.

Now that my teeth are grinding nicely, I’m reminded that I’m currently on semester break and have no papers to grade, and it will be another month until I do.  Until then, perhaps you, my reader, can keep these common errors in mind when you write your emails and facebook posts, and together we can make the world a more pleasant place…at least for your former English teachers.

“Ignorant people think it’s the noise which fighting cats make that is so aggravating, but it ain’t so; it’s the sickening grammar they use.” – Mark Twain

Big Mike’s Top 10 Student Writing Pet Peeves – Part I

Posted in teaching with tags , , , on December 14, 2011 by Mike

[this one’s for my brother, Matt – sorry it took so long to get to it]

OK, first the nickname – I’m 6’4”-ish and I teach high school students.  “Big Mike” is their nickname for me, not one I gave myself.  To be honest, they probably have other nicknames for me that they don’t use in class.

I teach English, and therefore I am tasked with the responsibility of reading and grading  hundreds of student essays each year. In fact, counting in-class essays and formal, process-driven essays, I grade around 1500 essays each school year.  I’ve been doing this for what is now my fourteenth year, so, if my out-of-practice math serves me correctly, I’ve scored at least 20,000 essays  in my career so far (and this is not counting the summer school courses I’ve taught at the local college).

Along the way I’ve developed some pet peeves – a number of student peccadilloes that perhaps earlier in my career might have been just that – small and rather inconsequential – but now drive me absolutely nuts.  I feel pretty safe in saying that most of these errors  are a result of a lack of attention to detail (i.e., laziness), as there’s NO WAY educated people who actually edit their papers should be making these kinds of errors.

For the purposes of this blog, I’m not going to dwell on broader errors such as “lack of organization”, “not developing ideas” or “weak thesis statements”, though those kinds of problems certainly exist.  Instead, these are my top ten indicators of student laziness/ignorance, ordered by how much they annoy the shit out of me (pardon my french).

10. “Possess/Posses”

Admittedly, this first one doesn’t happen too often, but when it does the resulting sentence is always nonsensical. See, the problem with the word “possess” for many of my students is that damnable fourth “s” – there are obviously too many “esses” in the word (and therefore subversive), so it’s on occasion left out.  Of course, this results in an entirely different word that spell-check wouldn’t catch:

"posses"

The same problem can occur with the word “assess”, but to more hilarity for me/embarrassment for the student.

9. “‘Scientist’ is not plural”

Another careless error, but I see it too regularly to think it’s just that.  Too many students seem to believe that words that end in “ist” are treated as plural, therefore I see sentences like, “Muslim terrorist try to impose their religion on the world” or “Some scientist believe that global warming is a myth.”  Now, not to be an elitist, but as a realist I have to be a pessimist about such students’ attempts to be essayists.  I don’t know, maybe they’re attempting to be satirists or maybe just nonconformists, but I suspect they’re just sadists.

And I’m a masochist who’s gonna need a psychotherapist.  Get the gist?

OK, enough of that.

8. “nowadays”

In the past few years, it seems, someone has been teaching my students that ‘nowadays’ is an acceptable substitute for “currently” or “today” or “now” or any other of  a dozen synonyms that don’t make them sound as if they have just stepped off the front porch of an antebellum Mississippi plantation. Jesus, they might as well start their essays with “Well,” and end by singing “zip-a-dee doo-dah”.

Academic writing is formal, not conversational.

7. “Attack of the egregious homophones”

I’m not talking about “too” and “to” – I don’t see that error too often, or at least not often enough to list it here (see what I did there?).  I’m talking about words that have NO BUSINESS getting mixed up.  “We take our right to free speech for granite.”  Dead serious – I’ve seen it. More than once.  “Accept” and “except” are commonly interchanged – “We just need to except the fact that __________ is here to stay.”  “Homosexuals should not be aloud to marry because that’s what my mom and dad believe.” Another one that grinds at me is “lead” (read (‘reed’) it as ‘led’) and “led”, which leads to all kinds of leaden writing. “Lead” (pronounced, er, ‘led’) is a metal. “Led” is the past tense of “lead” (pronounced “leed”).  See also: mislead/misled.

6. “Indefinite pronouns”

This one rankles me if only for the fact that I specifically tell my students to be cautious about this error, and they ignore me (BECAUSE THEY DON’T CARE ABOUT MY FEELINGS). Quick English lesson: pronouns are words substituted for the nouns that they represent.  For instance, in the sentence, “Daphne jumped out of the Mystery Machine, taking the box of Scooby-Snacks with her.”, “her” is the pronoun substitute for “Daphne.”

OK, now that I’ve insulted your intelligence, here’s the real problem.  There are a number of pronouns out there that seem to be plural but are really treated as singular.  You use them all the time, and, unless you’re a 67-year old retired English teacher, you’re not speaking grammatically correct English.

Example:

“Everyone needs to bring their book tomorrow” – most of us won’t bat an eye at that sentence, either reading it or hearing it spoken, but the truth is that that seemingly innocuous sentence is grammatically incorrect. ‘Everyone’ is one of those indefinite pronouns, and is treated as singular when substituting pronouns.  It should actually be written/said, “Everyone needs to bring his or her book tomorrow.”  But nobody says/writes that because that would sound pretentious.  Other indefinite pronouns include anybody, anyone, each, everybody, everything, neither, and nothing – all of them treated as singular.

This is one of those errors that, given a few more decades, will become grammatically acceptable, I suspect.  Because we’re lazy and don’t like rules.  But until then, I’ll still count off for it when it occurs in my students’ essays.

My top 5 will be posted within the next few days.  For now, it’s back to grading/stamping out ignorance.

A former student’s email…

Posted in teaching with tags , , on August 5, 2011 by Mike

This is why I teach.

Hi Mr. Williams,
You might not remember me. I was in your English III AP class in the 20**-20** school year. I was also on the Roar Staff. Anyway, I’m writing to you because it took me five years to understand a comment you wrote on an essay of mine, and it feels important. I’ll explain. The first paper you assigned that year required us to define a term. I chose equality, and my conclusion was a metaphor about how equality wasn’t that everyone had equal water in their glasses but instead that everyone had a glass with equal potential to contain water. You gave me a C (my lowest paper grade ever, even to this day), and wrote at the end “not everyone has equal access to the water.”
I thought you didn’t understand my point. I railed against that comment. You misinterpreted my metaphor. You had some sort of bias. You were just plain wrong. I didn’t understand at all.
Well, now I live in Houston’s Third Ward and take the city bus twice a day every day. I think I get it. Folks can have all the glasses in the world, but it won’t stop them from dying of thirst. My point is that I think I was raised to think poor people were entirely to blame for being poor. I appreciate that you represented a different perspective to me, and I’m embarrassed that it took me this long to figure it out. Thanks for being such a fantastic teacher.

Thank you, S–.

Scoring the AP exam

Posted in teaching with tags , , on June 22, 2011 by Mike

1030 essays.

This is the number of essays I ended up scoring this past week (June 11 – 17) for the AP Language Exam in Louisville, KY. Not counting Saturday, when we ended up spending most of the day looking at sample papers and calibrating our scoring, that comes out to about 170 a day. At the end of the week, the essays started looking really similar to one another, and a heavy glaze seemed to cover my eyes each afternoon. But despite this, I would jump at the opportunity to do it again.

And, yes (hell, yes), the Collegeboard paid me to do this.

I had found out I had been selected as a scorer in early April, and knowing I wasn’t teaching summer school at either Consolidated or Blinn, this was going to be the only chance for me to make some money for the family during the summer, unless I took a part time job as a sandwich artist or something. My wife was a bit tentative about it – she wasn’t sure it would be worth the time and wondered about expenses, but airfare/food/hotel expenses are all paid for so my out of pocket expenses would be rather minimal. So she agreed to my going out there.

Airfare was taken care of through email – they sent me instructions and I had to select the airline/times myself. It was a little overwhelming – a lot of information was being thrown at me and I basically just took the first itinerary I saw with what I thought were convenient times (ha! more on that in another post). My good friend J-Roy drove me out to Houston Intercontinental Friday morning and I was off. The flight and the connecting flight went smoothly – in fact, I was only really stressed out about what I needed to do after picking up my bag. But they had a guy with a sign at baggage claim so getting to the hotel was hassle-free.

A little background – there were over 400,000 students who took the AP Language exam, making it (for the first time) the largest AP testing group this year – normally it’s AP History. This means, for those of you unfamiliar with the AP Language test, that there were over 1.2 million handwritten essays waiting to be scored on a 1-9 scale (3 essays written by each student). The Collegeboard hired around 1200 scorers for the AP Language test, and another 1200 or so for the Literature Exam (scored at the same time) – Louisville saw such an influx of high school and college English instructors – enough to make the average high school student’s hair turn white. Surprisingly, in my time there, I didn’t meet one jerk. I was among “my people”.

The organization that this type of event must have is extraordinary. I never had questions about what I needed to do or where I needed to be. Of course, the meals could have been better, but serving 2400 people over a week without some misses is probably expecting a bit too much (note to meal organizers: scratch the Turkey Pot Pie). And there was a lot to do in Louisville after 5:00, when scoring ended. I took in a AAA Louiville Bats game (vs. the Toledo Mudhens), visited the Louisville Slugger Museum, went to Churchill Downs and lost $4 on a horse that couldn’t even show (I HOPE YOU’RE GLUE, YOU NAG), and frequented a couple bars only three blocks from the hotel.

Me at Churchill Downs before I lost $4 on a slow-ass horse that couldn't even show.

For those interested, scoring the essays involves dividing the 1200 into three groups and assigning each group a particular question. I drew the rhetorical analysis (I got into Louisville dreading scoring the synthesis prompt) – this year it was a speech by suffragette and child labor activist Florence Kelley. The groups are then divided into tables of 8 or 9, with an experienced table leader leading the scoring efforts at each table. I was one of three first year scorers at my table, and I’ll admit I was slow the first couple days (or so I thought). We are given folders containing 25 tests, and read the essay once and score it according to the AP scale. During the first two/three days, after we got done with a folder, it was given to our table leader, Ann, for her to back-read the essays and make sure our scoring was accurate. After those 2-3 days it became more spot-checking. One guy at my table, Charles, seemed to lap me in scoring – he seemed to do 2 for every 1 folder I completed for those first 3 days. My speed got better over the course of the week, of course, and at the end of the week Ann told me that I had been very fast and accurate. I was just happy that I was accurate.

Reading the essays was an eye-opening experience. One, I’m spoiled – my students are, more often than not, very well taught/prepared prior to coming into my class and their in-class essays prove it. Two, the disparity between schools across the nation is vast and it is troubling. I scored essays where students had no idea what to do, and they admitted as much in their essays. I scored essays that could not string two grammatically correct sentences together. There were essays written that detailed what students had done the previous night (I never saw any of these), and there were essay packets that had dollar bills taped inside as bribes (sadly, I never saw any of these, either). I went through folders where the highest score of the 25 was a four (“inadequate”), and regularly saw folders where the highest score was a 6 (“adequate”). All of this led me to think about Texas’ top 10 percent legislation, and while well-intentioned, it completely disregards the fact that all high schools are not equal, and treating them as such is an injustice to students who excel at high-performing high schools but are just outside the top 10 percent. The top 10 percent legislation was/is a band-aid cure for a system that requires open-heart surgery.

The Bats would end up losing 3-1 to the Mudhens, giving up 15 hits.

I also read some pretty terrific essays (though very rare), and feel confident that our AP classes’ scores will be solid once again. The experience of scoring so many essays and talking with others about the essay will strengthen my own ability to prepare my students for the exam. I also met some pretty fantastic people while there, and hope to run into y’all again down the road (Rory, Jane, Sal, Bill, Brad).

Overall, the week was a damn good time, and the scoring not nearly as tedious as I thought it would be (though, I admit, Wednesday was a beat down). I’m looking forward to having the opportunity to doing it again next year.

Though Delta Airlines can kiss my ass (post on that debacle coming soon).

To the Senior Class of 2011…

Posted in Entertainment, teaching with tags , , , , on May 19, 2011 by Mike

This year I wasn’t a candidate for graduation speaker (thank God), but I still have some words of wisdom I’d like to impart to this year’s A&M Consolidated graduates, and in fact to all high school graduates this year.  So for right now  go ahead and imagine me in a mortarboard cap and a long black gown stepping up to the podium to deliver your commencement address…For those of you who aren’t graduating this year, you’re invited to pretend that you’re a friend or loved one of one of the graduates…keep the babies quiet, please.

***

Mark Twain once said, “With great power comes great responsibility.”  He also said a lot of other things, most of which he actually didn’t say, but which are now attributed to him because the internet has no editors.

But I digress.

Responsibility is the word tonight.  It’s a word that’s thrown around in the presence of 17 and 18 year olds quite a bit, mainly after you’ve disappointed your parents in some way.  And, really, up until this point, your responsibilities have been rather minimal, unless you’re raising a kid or helping your family pay the bills by working two part-time jobs.  But for you others – the slackers who didn’t have kids while in high school – responsibility is now creeping up behind you with a sock full of nickels about to brain you.  And he won’t be charged with assault, either.

See, now that you’re legal adults, the world expects you to be accountable for your actions and decisions – unless you’re entering politics, when responsibility is at first a nice surprise, and then grounds for suspicion.  In high school, turning work in late would only lead to a point-deduction on your final grade. In the real world, late work results in pink slips and unemployment lines – unless you’re in politics, when deadlines just get extended because everyone’s scared you’d actually do something, anyway. In high school, planting a dead skunk in the school’s ventilation system is a “prank” and results in admiration from underclassmen.  In the real world, you’ve just committed an act of domestic terrorism and go to jail for 30 years. In high school, sending risqué pics to someone else’s smart phone is seen as juvenile and disgusting. In the real world, it’s still considered juvenile and disgusting, but standard behavior for Hall-of-Fame-bound quarterbacks.

But I digress.

As high school graduates, you now enter a world which will place expectations upon you to perform and achieve – unless you enter politics.  In other words, you have responsibility.  A responsibility to yourself to meet your potential, a responsibility to the parents and teachers who brought you to where you are today (figuratively, not literally – I know y’all can drive), a responsibility to society.  It’s that last responsibility I want to discuss here tonight, and by “discuss” I mean lecture at you since you’re supposed to be quiet and listen right now.  Which would be a first, judging by your behavior in my classes, but try anyway.

Sitting before me I see a wide variety of people with a diverse array of talents and interests.  It is these interests and talents that your parents, your teachers and I hope and pray you take out to the world to make it a better place, to show ingenuity and originality and integrity in the realms you choose to take on.  God knows we older generations have run out of ideas. Look at the state the world’s in – you’re seeing the best we can do, and isn’t that frightening? So it’s you we’re shifting our attention to, knowing that at some point we’re going to have to blame someone for all of this, and it’s damn sure not going to be us.  You’re younger and have less money, so you’re an easy target.  That’s how the world works.

But we’re giving you a shot to fix things, because that’s what America is all about – reworking things when they don’t work out the first time.  Look at Thomas Edison – he created the light bulb only after a long series of failures, whereas any reasonable person would have given up after, say, three failed attempts.  Don’t be that reasonable person. Your responsibility, while you’re young and full of energy and optimism, is to keep failing until you succeed, or at least until you have a family to support.

Beyond this admittedly broad responsibility to not give up, you also have more individual responsibilities I’m going to set down, organized by the fields you may eventually enter. These responsibilities have been identified only after much consideration, and fulfilling them will lead to a prosperous, happy life (this is by no means a guarantee, however, as I cannot be held liable for the state of your life.  I’m part of the older generation – it’s not my fault).

We’ll start with those who want to go into the medical field.  You have a responsibility to not screw up.  Forget what I said about failing until you succeed – get it right the first time. No one wants a doctor for whom “Let’s see what happens when I do this…” is a mantra.

For those of you who want to be engineers, you have a responsibility to keep the trains from running into one another (I’m actually surprised at the number of student who tell me they want to be engineers – I would think that jobs would be scarce.  Maybe it’s those caps that are the draw.)

If you’re a writer, you have a responsibility never to use vampires in your fiction.  Also, forget about reworking a classic work from the point of view of a minor character in said work.  Find an original idea or go sell insurance.

Future psychology/art history/sociology majors, your responsibility is simple: keep working on that screenplay so you’ll be able to move out of your parents’ house before they die.

If you’re into computer animation, you have  a responsibility to get a job at Pixar and then, once there, crank out a turkey, b/c that damned company is making us all look bad with their success rate.

Keeping with the tech careers, if your plan is to go into IT, you have a responsibility to get Adobe to finally stop updating.

Future journalists: you’re responsible for the dissemination of information regarding the most important issues facing this country today, but Americans don’t want to read that crap. It’s probably the root cause of our political divisions – y’all keep dredging up political corruption and all that other “bad” stuff – no wonder our government can’t get anything done .  Instead, concentrate on celebrities and cute animal stories, throwing in the occasional cannibalism story to underscore just how horrible the world is.  The reunification of America is sure to follow.

If you’re a musician, you have a responsibility to stay the hell away from American Idol.  As AC/DC put it, “it’s a long way to the top if you wanna rock and roll”, and no one respects people who take short cuts, except damsels in distress who are tied to railroad tracks waiting for a hero to come rescue them (think about it, I swear it’s funny). Pay your dues in the clubs, get some groupies, get signed, and then write ironic songs about how the record company doesn’t care about your music while college students steal it from BitTorrent. Live the dream.

If business school is in your future…well, actually, responsibility (fiscal, societal) is something the attorneys can worry about.  Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!

Speaking of  those future lawyers, you have the responsibility to demonstrate integrity in selecting which cases you choose to take on, to consider the possible societal implications of the judgments you are arguing for, to view your clients as people and not as billable hours, to make arguments that are fair and rooted in objective truth, and, finally, to pursue truth zealously and honestly…in other words, you have a responsibility not to go into law.

If you plan on joining the noblest profession, my profession, teaching, you take on the vast responsibility of preparing our youth to become the leaders of tomorrow.  Molding young minds to think for themselves; putting in the extra time to provide genuine and helpful feedback on the assignments they turn in; counseling them in their times of need; preparing coherent and engaging lesson plans each day that reach a wide range of learning styles; modifying assignments and tests for students with various learning disabilities, leading them to be successful on state and national exams; being observant for any indications of alcohol or drug abuse; writing college recommendation letters for students whose names you’ve forgotten since the previous year; attending staff meetings; filling out discipline referrals as necessary to remind them there are consequences for setting fire to the sink in the bathroom down the hall; attending the extra-curricular activities your students participate in to show them that you care about them as people, not just as students…and if you’re still listening there’s still time to change your mind. Maybe business school has some openings.

And, finally, if your goal is to enter politics, to get elected to office and work for change that reflects the will of the people and betters society, you have a responsibility to do just that. We won’t hold our breath.

Congratulations to the class of 2011 – may we hear of your future accomplishments in all the proper publications.

/if you enjoyed this, I spent four or five days writing it when I could take breaks from my grading

//if you didn’t enjoy this, it was slapped together in 20 minutes by someone other than me and proofread by monkeys.

The reading habits of my students…

Posted in teaching on March 3, 2011 by Mike

I’m not sure how many of my students would be considered “readers”, but I’m fairly certain it’s not many. Less than half, certainly, probably not much more than a third (though maybe that’s just me being pessimistic).  I would define “reader” as someone who reads novels outside of assignments for class, and, more than that, does so consistently; i.e., always has a novel with a bookmark in it.

It probably shouldn’t be all that surprising, knowing the multitude of distractions we have available to us today: readily downloadable movies, smart phones, video games, instant messaging, etc.; the opportunities at which  a novel can be cast aside (figuratively or literally, you pick) for something more immediately stimulating, perhaps a bit less challenging, are legion.

And it saddens me, though I admit I’m often victim to the same distractions.

Prompting these thoughts are the reactions many of my seniors seem to be having toward Hamlet, one of Shakespeare’s most celebrated and acclaimed plays.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s not apathy to the play or to my class  that I’m seeing (at least I don’t think it is, though they are just 10 weeks away from graduation), but many are complaining that reading the play is too difficult.

It would be easy for me to write this off as laziness, and in a few cases I think that’s true. I have to squelch the urge to say “millions of people for centuries have enjoyed Shakespeare’s plays, so what does that say about you?” because that would be unfair. Blank verse can be challenging for anyone, and even moreso for students who don’t read often. Still, I do think it speaks to a limitation held by  many of my students, but not one of intellect.

Rather, their limitation is one of empathy, meaning it appears many of my students don’t attempt to connect emotionally with the characters.  Not that what Hamlet is experiencing is outside the realm of their own experience – I don’t believe one need lose a parent to understand what Hamlet is feeling – but because they don’t read (often) in the first place, they have not developed an ability to empathize with fictional characters. They can’t, or don’t, look at what they read as works that present “real life” because that’s not what they look for when they read.  Real life to them is separate from what they read – they’ve grown up on Harry Potter which has given way to Twilight.  Beyond that what do they read?.

To illustrate, we were looking at Act I, scene iii of Hamlet where Polonius gives some good advice to his son, Laertes, who’s leaving for France, and then turns his attention to Ophelia:

LORD POLONIUS

What is’t, Ophelia, he hath said to you?

OPHELIA

So please you, something touching the Lord Hamlet.

LORD POLONIUS

Marry, well bethought:
‘Tis told me, he hath very oft of late
Given private time to you; and you yourself
Have of your audience been most free and bounteous:
If it be so, as so ’tis put on me,
And that in way of caution, I must tell you,
You do not understand yourself so clearly
As it behoves my daughter and your honour.
What is between you? give me up the truth.

OPHELIA

He hath, my lord, of late made many tenders
Of his affection to me.

LORD POLONIUS

Affection! pooh! you speak like a green girl,
Unsifted in such perilous circumstance.
Do you believe his tenders, as you call them?

OPHELIA

I do not know, my lord, what I should think.

LORD POLONIUS

Marry, I’ll teach you: think yourself a baby;
That you have ta’en these tenders for true pay,
Which are not sterling. Tender yourself more dearly;
Or–not to crack the wind of the poor phrase,
Running it thus–you’ll tender me a fool.

We had already mentioned that Polonius appears to be a very loving father when looking at his relationship with his son, but here I asked them how they felt  about how he was treating Ophelia.

Silence.

After waiting a bit, I then posed a question to the females in the class: how would you feel if your dad asked you to explain your relationship with your boyfriend? The reaction was immediate and vocal: they’d feel it was awkward and embarrassing. Exactly!  That’s exactly what Ophelia is feeling! Then why didn’t they pick up on that while reading? They weren’t putting themselves in Ophelia’s situation because that’s not how they think about literature.

And I should note that what I see is not just reflected in their reactions to Shakespeare and his blank verse – I can’t write it off merely because the play might be difficult. The short fiction we read over the past four weeks also suggested this inability to connect with the characters: my students read John Updike’s “A&P” to begin the semester, a story about a nineteen year old cashier at a grocey store who ogles some girls in bathing suits and then quits his job in an act of chivalry when he feels they’re insulted (go ahead, read it). Many of my students came in saying they “didn’t get it” or thought that the narrator was a “creeper” (what, some of the girls in my class don’t have boyfriends already in college?). It’s as if they’ve never known a teenage boy before.

I suppose what I’m saying is that for far too many of my students, reading is viewed as an activity to be kept at arm’s length (heh). Emotional investment in the characters is rare, and this hurts their ability to truly understand what they’re reading.  As a reader, you have to be willing to get involved in the story and think about the characters as real people, attempting to understand their motivations, their desires, their strengths and weaknesses, all which lead to their actions. Reading’s a richer experience this way, and it ought to be a lesson that is learned early.

Naguib Mahfouz’s “The Lawsuit”

Posted in teaching on February 3, 2011 by Mike

When creating the syllabus for this spring’s Intro to Lit class, I, in my infinite wisdom, decided to change up the readings from what I had done the past two years and throw in some new selections. Apparently, at the time, I didn’t want to talk about Cather’s “Paul’s Case” again, nor did I want to return to Lahiri’s “Interpreter of Maladies”, both stories I enjoy and am comfortable discussing. No, I decided to go with a new story, one that was new to the 11th edition of our text (a decision more than likely prompted by the idea that my students would HAVE to get the new text that way). So I leafed through the anthology’s Table of Contents and came to Naguib Mahfouz’s “The Lawsuit”. The blurb hooked me…

He thought he’d seen the last of his late father’s second wife, but now she’s back to trouble his peaceful existence.

…and here’s where I should say I read the story, did some research on it, and made an informed decision as to whether to add it to the syllabus. But my intuition told me it would be a nice addition so I skipped a couple of those steps.

Here we are, three weeks later, and I’m recognizing that I have some ideas about the story, but that’s a bit distant from having some real thoughts about it. So I’m writing this trying to work some of those ideas out.

The story centers on the first-person narrator, a man whose 55 year-old father had married a younger woman (20). Complicating the situation is the fact that his family (his two sons, the narrator’s mother, and some sisters) worry that this will affect their “rights” to any inheritance, as he keeps his money locked in a cupboard in the house. The story, as you might guess based on the author’s name, is set in Egypt, so there are one or two cultural questions I have (namely since, as far as I can tell, the father has not yet divorced his first wife, does this mean he’s a polygamist?)

I should look this up (Egypt apparently frowns on the practice, but I can’t see that it’s illegal, so that answers that question…somewhat). The rest of the story relates how angry the son is at the young woman b/c of the trouble her relationship causes: the older brother dies in jail after a bloody fight with his father, and the woman ends up taking the money after the father dies due to a stroke. Years later, the woman re-enters the narrator’s life when she attempts to bring suit against him for “rights” – apparently an attempt to finagle money. Also another cultural difference – this claim would be laughed out of an American court.

Of course he’s furious, but here’s where Mahfouz starts making his point, through the son’s lawyer: the lawyer explains just how bad off the woman now is – she’s destitute after having been divorced several times, which is a mark of shame in the culture. The divorces resulted, more than likely, from her inability to have children, and she herself was scammed by a younger man. The lawyer also suggests sympathy would lie with the woman in any hearing b/c of the situation of her marriage to the much older man.

Anyway, the narrator is smug when he hears this – karma’s a bitch, it seems (note to self: don’t use that in class). He goes to court with the intention of seeing just how bad off she is, and more than likely rubbing her face in his success.

But then he sees her, and finds that she is truly a broken woman, who actually apologizes to him for causing him trouble, but tells him she has no other recourse.

His anger melts – he finds an “inner peace” – and it seems this change of heart might be key to finding a theme. The narrator wants vengeance so bad, yet when he has the chance to gain it, he seems to realize what an empty pursuit it really is. He tells the woman not to worry, that what the Lord wills will be done. He’s regained a level-headedness that had been lost to him for years.

I’ll work on that a bit. Interested to hear what my kids have to say about this.