Wednesday, 03 February 2010

BREAKING NEWS: Two people who serve the same masters had a nice lunch. Glenn Reynolds tosses a 70 m.p.h. heater down the heart of the plate: EVERYONE COMES TO KNOXVILLE SOONER OR LATER: Had a nice lunch with Jonah Goldberg, who’s speaking here at the University tonight. If you’re in Knoxville, you should check him out. Interestingly, it was the first time we’ve actually met. What, exactly, is interesting about the fact that this lunch happened? Is it that it's the first time these two water-carriers for conservative excess ever carried water in the same room at the same time? What's interesting about two people who live thousands of miles apart never having dined together? As a rule, nothing that can be true of any one person and any of the millions of people who live nowhere near him or her qualifies as interesting. You want interesting? I once punched Spencer Ackerman in the gut as hard as I could. Such acts of gratuitous blogger-on-blogger violence are inherently interesting. But lunch? Does Reynolds assume that his readers think all like-minded internet ideologues regularly assemble around some second-rate Algonquin Round Table, so that each might praise the other for having reached the same tendentious conclusion? (The pair do possess two of Dorothy Parker's three requirements in a man: "He must be handsome, ruthless and stupid.") Don't let the uniformity of their independently conceived opinions fool you: they receive the same talking points and are intellectually lazy in the same way. They don't need to collaborate to draw identically idiotic conclusions. Perhaps the fact that they dined together is supposed to be interesting, what with the Singularity being so near and all that most people assume Reynolds no longer needs to feed his meat in order to "Huh," "Indeed" and "UPDATE." (If they had any sense, his readers would assume he's long since transferred responsibility for posting on Instapundit to a tourettic algorithm that trawls the internet for perfunctory contrarianism, second-rate science fiction novels and pictures of cars. Do you know how easy it is to post like Glenn Reynolds? I do. I made a whole day of it. It was not a good day.) Maybe the niceness of the lunch is what made it interesting? Lunch with Reynolds or Goldberg would not be "nice" if I had to attend it—my Southern sense of politeness would render me mute—but those two likely yukked it up about who'd be first against the wall when they're made king. I'm at a loss. I have no idea what could possibly have been interesting about the fact that these sad little men shared a table and a meal.
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...

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