education

Mum’s the word

It can be a torture living inside of myself, but no more so than when I’m monitoring every word that comes out of my mouth. And it’s not just the words themselves that get the once over. I can become easily annoyed with every um and uh that exits.

This all started decades ago, when Marvin Mudrick, an English professor with an asp for a tongue, told me mine was a nice speaking voice but for all the you knows that polluted it. After that, I became a peep-mouse of a thing in his creative writing class, as you can imagine. 

It’s like and it’s a sort of have become my bull’s eyes, too, but, actually, these equivocators are pretty interesting to ponder. The former has been lampooned by comedians far and wide, so I have nothing new to add to that conversation. I haven’t heard anyone talk about the latter, though, so I thought I’d give it a try.

I’ve noticed that it’s a sort of is to the intelligentsia what it’s like was, in its heyday, to the so-called Valley Girl. As in “it’s a sort of exquisite double helix of DNA in biology” or “Derrida was a sort of deconstructionist.” For all of the hot air circulating about the Academy, though, there seems, maybe, a sort of uneasiness with the efficacy of one’s ideas, like “I have this brilliant thought, but, if you don’t agree, perhaps I’m not as married to it as you might think.” Or “I have this brilliant thought, but I don’t want you to know that I think it’s brilliant because God won’t let a braggart inherit the earth.”

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Fool me twice

I went into teaching, a second career, in part because I wanted to give students the respect they deserve. Anyone who has felt invisible in the classroom or who has felt shamed by a teacher, as I have, knows this is a noble goal.

For a decade, I taught college writing on the east and west coasts. At times, I would teach at as many as three institutions in a single semester just to make ends meet. Adjunct instructors, or “freeway fliers,” as we were called, are at the bottom of the food chain and earn very little when compared with their full-time colleagues, who also earn very little. This is particularly true in the humanities.

Low pay (and no benefits) is just one of the ways adjunct professors are devalued, but, as some might say, it was my choice to go into education and to accept an inadequate salary; I really couldn’t let myself be too glum about it, and I didn’t. For some 15 years, I had been in the business world, where people of my temperament can easily die, and teaching was my lifeline.  I loved my students, and I tried to give them the very best of myself.

Nevertheless, I left teaching about six years ago because I was exhausted and because I just couldn’t live on the hem of poverty any longer. I hadn’t imagined myself returning to the classroom, but when I lost my job of five years and was not able to find full-time employment after many months, I accepted a part-time position at a nearby community college.

A lot has changed in the intervening years. Most notably, student honesty seems very much on the wane. Whereas before I might have had one clear-cut case of plagiarism in a given year, now it is surprising if a student does not try to make off with another’s words. 

The reasons for the rise of academic dishonesty are, no doubt, many, and I don’t pretend to understand the complex forces at play here. Who, for example, can begin to know what young people go on to think after they witness corrupt businessmen committing wholesale crimes against society with impunity.

One thing is certain, though. It is easier to cheat now than ever before. Just google “cause and effect essay,” and, in 0.18 seconds, you will receive about 2,960,000 results. Even the best teacher-sleuth, and I consider myself to be a pretty good one, doesn’t stand the proverbial snowball’s chance of bringing every cheater to justice.

Last semester, I had 23 students in my class. Of those, six, or about one-quarter of the class, plagiarised all or parts of an assigned essay. Confronting these students was, for me, a torture, and I spent a number of sleepless nights trying to figure out what I would say to them and what actions I would take. This was the hard part because there are degrees of plagiarism, and there are also degrees to which students know they are plagiarising. In the end, I thought I handled it well. Above all, I tried to be fair. Too fair, it seems.

I gave two students the chance to write another paper because they conned me into believing they didn’t know they had plagiarised. Damned if they didn’t turn around and do it all over again.

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“…signifying nothing.”

More than 30 years ago I wrote an article for the first issue of The Threepenny Review, a literary magazine launched by writer and critic Wendy Lesser, who, at the time, was a friend. In the article, I reviewed Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem and Joseph Heller’s Something Happened, and writing it, as I recall, was a torment. Although I didn’t save a copy of this article, I think now that it was probably longer than it had a right to be and likely more bombast than substance.

Wendy and I met when we were doctoral students at UC Berkeley. She liked me, she said, because I was easy to talk to and because I was diplomatic, and I admired her for what I considered then to be far more important qualities: her wide-ranging intellect, determination, and self-confidence. Although I was intelligent enough and could be determined in fits and starts, my lack of self-confidence made me a dupe for a student and a dangerous literary critic.

Like a child who mimics the language and posturings of the adults around her, I learned in graduate school how to behave in ways that were imitative, empty of conviction, and cruel.  The truth is that I cared very little, if at all,  about the ideas that seemed to preoccupy others, and, even if I did take a fancy to any of my own ideas, they changed faster than you could say ticker tape.

My academic career ended before it started, when I took a seminar on the Renaissance from Stephen Greenblatt, whose star was very much on the rise. For the final paper, I wrote a critique of a Shakespearean sonnet and agonized over it as I agonized over everything I wrote. In the end, I had so parsed myself into a corner that the only conclusion I felt I could reach was that it was impossible to ever know the meaning of a poem or the meaning of any piece of writing, for that matter. As you can imagine, this didn’t bode well for me—or for my star. So, I slunk  away from the Department without even signing out, and, since I was a rabble-rouser, albeit a preemptive one, I don’t think I was much missed; yet, I wanted very badly for someone to come after me—to miss the particular brand of me—and, from time to time, I wonder how my life would have turned out had I been coaxed back to Wheeler Hall.

I didn’t leave Berkeley just because I couldn’t find much meaning in what I was doing.  I simply didn’t have the temperament of a scholar, and this was nowhere more evident than in a course I took on eighteenth-century literature from Margaret Doody, a visiting professor who now teaches at the University of Notre Dame. She was a very sincere and passionate teacher with a good sense of humor and with what I seem to recall was a compelling take on first-person narratives written by women of the Enlightenment.

All of the students appeared to like her very much, and I liked her very much, but I couldn’t bring myself to do what was required. For one assignment, as an example, we were supposed to make a presentation on a topic of our choice, and, while others offered what I think I thought were well-mannered, if dreary, responses to the task at hand, I broke onto the stage with some wild thing written in the voice of a heroine from a novel we had been reading.  I’m pretty sure I was proud of what I had done, and I had no idea that I had made a fool of myself or that others were tittering behind my back until I met with Dr. Doody for an end-of-the-quarter conference, during which she squared my shoulders and got down to it: When was I going to get serious about my life, she wanted to know. I was so shocked by this that I laughed involuntarily, which no doubt affirmed for her the necessity of having asked such a question. I didn’t know then that meeting with her was the most important experience I was to have during my short-lived life as an academic. Since that day, I have not stopped asking myself the same question.

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