Friday, February 22, 2008

No, really. Shut up.

In light of yet another failed student attempt at racial 'satire' (this time out of the University of Colorado) I think it's time for all us current and former literature profs, English adjuncts, composition teachers, and English dept. graduate instructors to put our feet down.

So here's an open letter to all undergrads everywhere, particularly on campus newspapers:

Dear Undergrad Writer,

For the love of Polyhymnia, just stop.

We, your former and current college and university English instructors, have endured an endless supply of undergraduate compositions and we are happy to do so. This is, after all, our job. With varying degrees of success, we have introduced you to the best of Western literary tradition as well as the brightest new additions to the literary canon from women, people of color and across the globe. Though other disciplines certainly have the right to say the same, we English instructors think that ours is a calling that can best equip a young person to be culturally literate and we are grateful we have had a role in your intellectual maturation.

Like a Crusoe with his Friday, (you did read Dafoe, didn't you?) we encouraged you to fill pages with your inner thoughts, your ideas, your theories and we reluctantly approved them, as long as there was a shadow of an argument. The writing was the thing, not necessarily the matter of your writing. We overlooked your problematic arguments against reproductive choice, papers agreeing with the internment of the Japanese, and your wrong-headed ideas about Shakespeare's Viola being a victim of incest. Lest we be accused of liberal bias, as long as you wrote, and relatively well, we smiled. (It was a strained smile, but it was there.)

Well, now you can stop. Stop writing.

Your failure to understand the most basic literary devices is starting to make us and our profession look bad. Clearly, when we assigned you Swift's A Modest Proposal, you didn't read it closely enough. You didn't study, did you? When we assigned you Milton's Paradise Lost and reviewed his rhetorical devices you zoned out, didn't you? You didn't pay attention to Twain, you didn't 'get' Dickens, you forgot to read Heller and you just skimmed the Cliffs Notes for Vonnegut. In fact, if Twain took a page from your book, poor Jim would end lynched and Huck would have joined the White Knights.

We implore you - stop writing. In particular, stop calling your work product satire. It's not satire! It's not even a jeremiad or a good parody! It is unfocused, poorly conceived, shabby, mean and clumsy. Your writing has nothing to do with social commentary or criticism because you don't have the mental will to poke your finger in the eye of Power and you just don't have the intellectual heft to carry it off.

Moreover, before you can write well you must be able to read well and, apparently, you've burned all your books - with the possible exception of Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged.

Before your lack of education becomes too embarassing, just put down the pen. Close the laptop. Be silent.

Best Regards,
The Faculty

[h/t Alas, A Blog]


liza said...

Bahahahahaha. I wish. It's that time of the semester, and while I genuinely like and respect many (most) of my students, there are some to whom I would love to give this letter.

ding said...

they're grown ups. they can take it. you should do it!


Kelsy said...

I work as a writing tutor on my campus and some of the papers we get are frightening. The worst assignment ever has to be an opinion editorial. Getting first semester freshman to write an intelligent opinion about something is astonishingly hard--especially when someone is trying to add "voice." So yeah, I feel you.

ding said...

i was a tutor all through my undergrad and worked with some of the bitchiest PhD students ever. they were awesome. (weren't they, liza?)

when i became a grad instructor i decided one day to take a leaf from their books and just acknowledge that there was just some stuff i refused to read.

i wrote a list of the most hated topics on the board (abortion, First Amendment, religion, flag burning, gay rights, the Holocaust) and said, "You aren't going to write these papers because you are too young to avoid annoying the crap out of me."

things went swimmingly after that.

(well, there was that engineering student and his locker room musings on his confused sexuality but that just needed a massive rewrite.)