Friday, May 8, 2009

Undergraduate pontifications

My brain is fried from the end-of-semester grading, and I don't know how long it will take to get it back. But in the mean time, for the benefit of those in blogger-land who are not my facebook friends and thereby did not have the chance to read my frequent venting during my recent 34-hour grading marathon, I thought I'd post some highlights. They even fit into the theme of my listening blog!

[Throughout history,] High school English teachers have instructed their students to begin papers with broad, sweeping statements about humanity. These unsupportable claims torture college professors and TAs who try to make the students realize that they have not done enough research on any topic "from the dawn of time" to begin a paper with those words (I have indeed begun many a paper that way in my foolish youth). Maybe we academics hate those statements so much because we know some of our own little pontifications (even mine!) are equally precocious, even if they are more subtle.

So, without further ado, here are my favorite undergraduate pontifications from this semester:
  • "Learning is what life is all about." Dear student, if you have indeed managed to learn what life is all about at such a young age, you should probably write about it. But not in your analysis of Sherman Alexie's novel.
  • "Vonnegut poses a quote, and it is taken from the bible. 'God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to always tell the difference.'" Oh dear. Well, it does have the word "God" in it, and I'm sure the word "God" is in the Bible...
  • "War will always exist on Earth because there will always be a struggle for power and for land, and because of that it will always be debated and scrutinized." At least Vonnegut and Alexie may both agree with the student's opening prophesies for the future potential for war on earth. But his analysis of their novels certainly cannot prove such a declaration.
And my favorite opening line:
  • "It is not often that human sexuality is a major theme in fiction writings." Hm.
God forgive all our little precocious pontifications. God forgive mine.


Kate said...

Fabulous. Just fabulous. I love when my academic friends share funny lines from the essays and exams they have to mark.

I don't suppose you have any more which might fit into your listening blog?

Em the luddite said...

Those were the only really quotable ones. The rest of my frustrations dealt with things like copying 150 words from the introduction and pasting it into the last body paragraph as if I don't read their papers at all (and still not managing to meet the minimum length requirement), and making the main "argument" of their paper something glaringly obvious like "Vonnegut demonstrates the damaging effects of war" and spending the entire paper summarizing the novel to prove the point. 30 times over, it's painful to read.

Gosh, am I really turning into a literary snob?

Em the luddite said...

Well, I thought of one more. I was in such a fog that I probably forgot many more gems from their sparkling prose.

Kate said...

No, no, you're definitely not being a literary snob. My father's an English prof at a liberal arts college in NE Tennessee, and I hear similar complaints from him all the time. It's definitely one of those laugh or cry situations. You do wonder what these kids are being taught in high school.

Sadly, according to my academic friends in the UK, bad writing is not limited to America.

Chestertonian Rambler said...

My favorite:

"J. Alfred Prufrock seems an interesting person. I wish I could have been friends with him."

Also: "People have different opinions on important subjects. Some people think George [W.] Bush is a good president, while others think George [W.] Bush is a good president."

Both would make brilliant openings of short stories, however. But I don't think they were meant in that way.

Em the luddite said...

Excellent! Indeed, I would read those short stories!

I once graded some high school freshmen's personal essays about an important event in their lives. One little munchkin wrote about the first time his mother took him to Wal-Mart. No joke. It was beautiful; all his descriptions of looking around in wide-eyed wonder at the separate worlds of consumer delights in the various sections of the store, complete with getting lost and hearing his name spoken in a booming voice from the sky which he assumed to be God was perfect. It would have been brilliant satire. If the kid had not meant it in all seriousness. Oh well.