Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Lemonade, Anyone?

My shrink told a story today about how he lost his keys (it was as riveting as it sounds). He said he was so worried about finding them that he was joyful when he did, & embraced that joy. I said, if it were me, I would have preferred not to have lost my keys in the first place. But still, nerdy student that I am, I took in the lesson, and found the silver lining in my cloud of pissed-offedness today.

Our seniors have to write a research paper on Hamlet every year. Our means of preventing plagiarism is to do the research for the kids; we give them a choice of a few articles to use for the "research," & I have tried to take them through the process step-by-step. I naively booked computer room sessions during class time to help with this, but by the time the ancient machines in there booted up, I had to tell the kids to start shutting down.

Whenever I give an out-of-class writing assignment, I get plagiarists. It never fucking fails. Even though I catch a few every year, & you would think there would be ample word-of-mouth on this, some hotshot always thinks they can get away with it. And they're not even smart about it. Drives me crazy.

Mind you, this assignment was due over two weeks ago & I'm only just now getting around to marking them. I'm aware that this is a total rationalization, but the very real plagiarism fear is one of the causes of my procrastination. I just don't want to deal with it.

So I haven't even marked 10 papers when I come across this year's Darwin Award: a lovely girl who has been sucking up to me all term. She tends to be absent at least once or twice a week, and - shocker - missed all of those computer lab sessions. She also complained regularly that she didn't have a computer at home.

Well, apparently she got one, because she handed in a paper - late, mind you - entirely cobbled of cut-and-pasted student essays & book notes available online. She didn't even make it all one uniform font. She didn't even make any attempt to disguise her method by, say, using a thesaurus or something. I was so furious I went about highlighting each copied section in a different color, writing in the URLs of all the links I found to her sources, etc. Then I got angry at all the time I wasted doing that, feeling lousy about something that was bound to happen anyway, seething with righteous anger & making mental notes about all the things I wanted to say to this girl when I have to sit down with her & her guidance counselor & possibly parent(s).

So how did the key story help me deal with this? It helped me realize that before that irritating situation stopped me in my tracks, I had read at least half a dozen original student papers. Only one or two were actually good, but even the ones that weren't so well-written responded appropriately; I had asked the students to form their own ideas about what they'd read, and they came through. As much as I was glad for them that they rose to that occasion, I'll admit my pleasure was mostly derived from the gratification of feeling that I had actually taught them something: that they had a good journey through a book, with my help.

Before I ever saw the plagiarist's paper, I had written this to post:
One of my students wrote a not-very-good paper on Hamlet, but I found this last part adorable. Is that condescending of me? Here it is:
"Hamlet is an interesting character to me. He's quiet, just like me. He's mysterious, just like me. He's also smart. He's crazy, like literary [sic]. He pretended to be crazy in the book but I think he is crazy thru out. He killed people, always thinking to kill himself, and acting crazy around everyone. But throughout all that, I still admire him and his courage to avenge his father's death. He reminds me of Simba from the Lion King.
"I would recommend this to everyone who is interested in Shakespeare and his writing. It is a good book and it will keep you interested if you know what they are saying."

So... yeah. Silver lining and all that. Yin & yang. It is what it is. It helps to remind myself that the ones who make me feel like I'm wasting my time are not the only ones there.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

I gotta weigh in on this Huck Finn fiasco

Not that I have time to be doing this, but come on! I'm not even really weighing in; all I want to do is highlight some of the more insightful bits of the backlash. How anyone can think for a second this is a good idea is a profound mystery to me.
Let's start with this editorial from the Washington Post. I actually agree that she overdoes it with the analogies, but I do think it's clever as well as necessary. Somebody has to be pointing this stuff out. I also read through many of the comments, most of which are intelligent; only one is idiotic enough to say that this new version should exist. The best comment I saw was from someone called gilbertbp:

"Another point: Twain HATED slavery. A major point of the book (despite Twain's preface that anyone trying to find a moral in it would be shot) was that Jim, although an uneducated slave, is noble, even heroic. And Huck, even though he's been taught that blacks are inferior, that it is fitting and proper to hold them as slaves, recognizes Jim's nobility, his heroism, his essential humanity. He also recognizes that the proper white society that is trying to educate him at the beginning of the book, is dishonest and corrupt. And having learned those lessons, at the end of the book, he leaves civilization for "the Territory."

Expunging "the 'n' word" from "Huckleberry Finn" dilutes the power of the book. It's a pity Twain is not alive today (he died 100 years ago this year) to confront his critics, because he'd find just the right way to vivisect these idiots with his pen. They'd wish they'd never HEARD of "Huckleberry Finn," because the whole country would be convulsed with laughter as he subjected these stupendous asses to the ridicule they so richly deserve."

One commenter mentioned that she is a writer and English teacher who uses Huck Finn in class. She included a link to her blog post about it. In my opinion, her analogy is the best of all:

"And honestly, if they do this, where do the revisionists stop in their desire to Disney-fy history? Will The Diary of Anne Frank end with a passage saying that the Germans took all the Jews to a farm upstate somewhere so they could run around and have more space...?"

She ends up over-explaining that comparison (she is a teacher, duh), but it cracked me up anyway.

Neil Gaiman tweeted this today: "It's public domain, so you can make Huck a Klingon if you want, but it's not Mark Twain's book." I don't follow @neilhimself, but I found that tweet because I do follow @realjohngreen:
"Inspired by @, I turned a paragraph of Huckleberry Finn into a tale of Klingon oppression: "

FOLLOW THAT LINK, PEOPLE! It goes to John Green's Reddit post of said paragraph, in which the dreaded "N-word" is replaced with "Klingon." What makes it especially worthwhile is Green's own comments:

"The astonishing thing is that even when you turn it into a tale of Klingon oppression, it is IMMEDIATELY CLEAR to ANYONE who can read that Twain is ridiculing a deformed moral conscience that believes the government has the right to take away people's freedom, and further ridiculing the idea that a drunk belligerent white man is more qualified to vote than a black man.

I mean, my eleven-month-old son craps his pants at least twice a day, and even he has the critical reading capacity to understand what Huck Finn is about."

And on and on and on. Everything I want to say is being said, which I guess should make me hopeful. To those who apparently have said this new edition is good because it will allow teachers to expose students to a great novel, I say, "IT'S NOT THE NOVEL! THAT'S NOT HOW THE NOVEL IS WRITTEN!" (I should point out that words like "Injun" and "half-breed" have also been supposedly expunged from this edition). My hope is that the backlash will be so overwhelming that teachers will resurrect the original version and expose their students to THAT.

I hate to post a Mark Twain quote from the internet when I don't know the source offhand; I fear I may be spreading mis-information, since I know from direct experience that people have attributed quotations to Mark Twain that there's no way he ever said. But I believe he was capable of this one:

“Censorship is telling a man he can’t have a steak just because a baby can’t chew it.”

I'm out.