Wednesday, May 4, 2011


Years ago, a colleague of mine that I refuse to name began a speech with "Mark Twain once said..." and continued with the most pithy, saccharine aphorism you can imagine. Obviously I knew Twain was incapable of such drivel, and I was quick to blame the internet. is replete with stories of quotes that get misattributed, and I've known students who were misinformed about even which bands recorded certain songs. Grumble grumble grumble. It bugs me because the internet is supposed to make us better informed, not worse. At least that's my hope.
By now I guess everyone knows about what happened with the not-MLK & not-Mark-Twain quotes that made the rounds after the death of Osama bin Laden. If not, there's a good synopsis of what happened here. I was skeptical of the MLK quote the first time I saw it, which was in Penn Jillette's tweet (in fact, the one thing that made me think it was legit was my trust in Penn Jillette's skepticism!). I followed the ensuing events with fascination, even using the hashtag #iwitnessedthebirthofameme.
I still have to work, though. My AP English Lit students had an essay exam on Monday, and the question I gave them was taken from the 2004 AP Lit exam. Here's the prompt they had to write on:
Critic Roland Barthes has said, "Literature is the question minus the answer." Choose a novel or play and, considering Barthes' observation, write an essay in which you analyze a central question the work raises and the extent to which it offers any answers. Explain how the author's treatment of this question affects your understanding of the work as a whole. Avoid mere plot summary.
Just out of curiosity, I did a Google search on the quotation, hoping to find out which Barthes essay contained the quote. Almost all of the returns fell into one of two categories: (a) AP English essays responding to the prompt, and (b) quotation sites. Then I found this, and it kind of blew my mind.
It doesn't take a Facebook or Twitter user to take a quote out of context & mangle its meaning, shoehorning your own meaning into it. THE FREAKIN' COLLEGE BOARD DOES IT ON THEIR TESTS (tests which cost our nation's high school students 86 bucks a pop, I might add).
Draw your own conclusions about all this. I'm just watching the show.