Saturday, 06 February 2010

How to bootstrap student diction. (Warning: this is a very long post about teaching non-humanities majors how to fake like they know what they're talking about. It is likely not of general interest.) When you teach composition, you quickly learn that although you only instruct students for 10 weeks, professors in other departments have the rest of those students' academic careers to complain to the academic senate about the terrible job you did. "How is it possible," these hypothetical professors sputter, "that three years ago these students passed your research and methodology course?* Because lower-division writing consists of equal parts remedial buck-passing-correction and advanced training in how establish and maintain an academic ethos, what triggered these professors' outrage can be almost anything: students whose grammar seems like evidence that they find pleasure in its repeated violation; students with fifth-grade vocabularies, for whom "nest" is a noun they recently left, not a verb to be performed on clauses; students who are actually able to weave money-words into complex sentences, but who still fail to meet an imagined or remembered standard of what constitutes college writing; etc. When I hear complaints like this, I say nothing. What can I say? "Three years ago, I spent two months doing my damnedest to teach students who don't read how to sound like an academics who do nothing but." That's an honest, but wholly inappropriate, response; after all, when complainants are attempting to pass the buck retroactively, the last thing they want to hear is that their reliance on the Great Scantron in large undergraduate lectures means they might have helped create the situation they declaim. Because no one who never practices the skills they barely acquired will be any good at them three years later, I spend a lot of time in the classroom teaching them to study the way their sources write. They may not remember every last thing I taught them, but if they remember how to model their prose, they can fake like they do. Quick background: the core text for this section of the research and methodology course is the terrible, terrible self-help book Happier. It has the imprimatur of academic writing—the cover proclaims it to be "the backbone of the most popular course at Harvard" and there's a conspicuous "Ph.D." after Tal Ben-Shahar's name—so on the first day of class, I analyze the rhetoric of the cover in order to disabuse the students of the notion that everything written by a person with a doctorate is authoritative. "We will be concentrating on the claims he makes and the evidence he cites to back them up," I tell them. "Not the little letters that follow his name."** Because he provides little in the way of evidence and cites what little evidence he provides with all the rigor and clarity of a seventh-grader, Ben-Shahar functions as a perfect foil.*** The students are annoyed by his sloppiness the way I am with theirs, and I cultivate their frustration every class, because they may not remember how to...
If you think this is awful, you should read the comments below the fold. A number of you have emailed me a link to the latest Jack Cashill article, and although I understand why, I'm not any better equipped to deal with his unsubtle descent into pure lunacy than you folks are. What can you do with an article that argues: No one would ever want to go to Kenya, so Obama's resemblance to his maternal grandfather, Stanley Dunham, is suspicious; therefore Stanley Dunham is his real father, but because Obama must have one black parent, That means his father must have been Stanley Dunham's friend, the black communist Frank Marshall Davis; Or, because these friends drank at a black bar near a red-light district, Obama must be the child of Dunham and a black prostitute, because White women with black children were socially acceptable, whereas white men with black children were not, and Barack Obama Sr. was enlisted because "African" is a more respected cultural identity than "Negro," and because, as everyone knows, No one named "Darnell Johnson" would ever be elected President; moreover, Stanley Dunham sung the Obama Sr.'s praises Obama, which would have been odd in "the racially charged 1960s," especially when you consider That a 69-year-old woman said a momentous something happened in 1961, when in fact it had to have been in 1962 that This 69-year-old woman saw Ann Dunham nursing baby Obama, which she could not have been, because Obama must have been born to Dunham in February or March of 1961, on account of the fact that pregnant women can't attend college, But if they could, they would have learned that scientists use the phrase "inference to the best explanation," which leads Cashill to infer that "Obama was likely born in Hawaii but that Ann Dunham did not give birth to Barack Obama Sr.'s child on August 4, 1961," and what proves the legitimacy of this inference is that A celebrity biographer got confused when 69-year-old women mistook something that happened 49 years ago for something that happened 50, meaning The mainstream media ought to be paying attention to this, but because it is not, Cashill has no choice but to label himself a "birther." Putting aside for a second that the majority of these alternative parentage theories would utterly invalidate the birther's central claim that Obama is ineligible to serve (white Washingtonians and black Hawaiian prostitutes being natural born citizens and all); and putting aside all the racist assumptions (white women love black men, but no white man would ever want to have sex with a black woman, the history of slavery in American notwithstanding); and putting aside the blatant contradictions (Dunham named his child "Barack Obama" so no one would think he's black); and putting aside all the other nonsense in this article, you are left with nothing. Because once you put aside everything that sensible, rational people rightly put aside, there's nothing there. Every time he posts something, I wonder what whether this new bit of lunacy will be what's required for those conservatives...

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