Friday, 10 June 2005

The Ballad of the Honest Plagiarist, or What the Devil Diddles With Your Idle Hands When You're Not Looking Most of the people who read this blog, as well as what I write over on the Valve, don't have the luxury of teaching literary journalism. To them I hurl hurtful words about how rewarding teaching literary journalism is and how refreshing reading drafts of student articles meant not to impress but entertain is. (The grading grammar hangover, as the syntax of that previous sentence makes abundantly clear, still bedevils literary journalism instructors.) After a quarter spent teaching the middle- to high-brow techniques commonly employed by literary journalists, I'm faced with a situation in which commenting on student papers involves little more than line-editing, pointing to the techniques the students should've already gleaned from articles already read and the occasional finger-wagging when a student's "research" underwhelms. (Before accusations of academic sinecure start flying around, carefully consider the phrase "little more than line-editing.") This quarter I pushed back the first draft of the required writing component of the course to Week 9, the quarter's penultimate week, with the thought that the more time the students concentrate on reading, the better the final articles will be. Boy. Howdy. These first drafts floored me. While still suffering from many of the problems that all young literary journalists must overcome, these first drafts are far suprior to any first drafts past students have produced. Not only that, some of these first drafts are better than many of the final drafts past students have produced. In the past, I've had first drafts due in Week 7, the thought being that the more revisions the better. But there's a trade-off: because the students already writing in Weeks 5, 6 and 7, they're not paying as much attention to the assigned reading as they otherwise might. (I suspect that, up-swept in the rush to produce their first drafts, they may do very little of the assigned reading.) This quarter, they focused on reading, analyzing and discussing articles until Week 8 and what I've discovered is this: those 4 or 5 extra weeks of dedicated reading make all the difference in the world. These students are impressively intuitive because, technically speaking, they fucking get it. Why then do you suppose that so many undergraduate papers for literature classes are so patently awful? The commonplace complaint of English professors--the students don't read criticism and therefore don't know how to produce it--always rings hollow. The Balkanization of the profession ensures that even a student well-versed in criticism is unlikely to produce what a particular professor considers a competent critical analysis. What these students need is some way to read hundreds of superior student essays, to mine them not for ideas--that's plagiarism, and plagiarism, as we all know, is the devil's third favorite past-time after putting idle hands to use and masturbation--but for proficiency. English undergraduates write terrible papers because they don't fucking get it. They can't because they're never exposed to what good undergraduate English essays look like; or they know what an abstract model of a good undergraduate English...

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