Thursday, July 02, 2009

Thoughts about the Student from Porlock

I've been reading through this student's paper. It's a paper from his undergrad days, and now he's a grad student and talking about working on romance stuff. The paper is an okay undergrad paper. It quote mines, and doesn't think very theoretically about its questions, assumptions, or arguments, nor does it think about cultural contexts except in fairly simplistic ways, but it's okay. I can imagine a lot of classes where I would have been pretty happy to see a student write this paper.

I'm trying to think about how to explain to the student how different a grad level or publishable paper would look.

I'm hoping the student hasn't looked at the paper for a couple years and has become more theoretically sophisticated in the meantime.


I find a certain style of writing irritating; it's the "character X has to do Y because [insert big theoretical or social idea]" style. For example, "Ophelia has to commit suicide because she hasn't successfully transition to adult heterosexuality." (And yes, I've been guilty in more than one piece of writing.)

Now, on one level, of course a character "has to" do whatever the author makes it do, but that's because it's a character and not a person, and there's no free will or whatever here, just what worked for the writer at a given moment.

But I get irritated at the sense of inevitability, especially with things I'm not sure of. Yes, Ophelia is thought to have committed suicide by other characters, but we don't see it happen, nor do we see her say anything particularly suicidal. So shouldn't we hold onto at least the possibility of doubt about the other characters' interpretations of her death? (I have no doubts about Lucrece's suicide, but I do about Ophelia's and Lady Macbeth's.)

And haven't lots of folks not killed themselves despite not "successfully transition[ing]" to adult heterosexuality, even in very heteronormative societies?

I get even more cranky about the "what if only" style, as in, "what if only Othello had just talked to Desdemona and believed her?" To which I can only respond, we'd have the most boring play of marital bliss ever. Marital bliss makes for boring plays, good lives, but boring plays; conflict, death and destruction make for interesting plays but unhappy lives.

And so, interrupted in my revery (but not a really good laudanum-induced revery, alas... more a clorox bathroom cleaner induced revery) to go talk to my student.


  1. Anonymous10:52 AM

    Haha, the "what if only" idea. Hilarious. I got a ton of papers from students claiming that if the characters in Jekyll and Hyde had only communicated better, and if Utterson could have solved the mystery faster, he could have prevented Jekyll's death. Um, hi, you're missing the entire point. :-)

    With the former student, maybe you could at least start by asking him to explain what he's working on now and how he thinks his work has changed since undergrad. Then at least you would know whether or not he is aware of how undergrad-ish the paper is. If he's not aware, then just start with some parts that are clearly undergrad-ish, so he can see, and then maybe talk about the big ideas. I think personally (having just finished grad school myself and wishing people had just explained certain things) that it's best to be completely honest. He might not be able to see for himself that the whole thing has to be re-written, but clearly he can't hang on to some undergrad version of his work.

  2. OMG, the "what if" paper Drives. Me. Nuts. I try very hard to "unteach" it (because they're often given such assignments in h.s. -- what is x character from y short story met B character from C play? what would they talk about?) and remind them over and over that their task to analyze texts, and words on a page, and representations of people, not actual people, but for some students it takes a long time to sink in what the difference is.

    Btw, on Bloglines, the suggested search terms for topics related to this post were: Ophelia, Lady Macbeth, Desdemona, Othello, marital bliss -- in that order. Hahahaha!!!!

  3. is it possible to start the discussion by asking the student how he/she might write the paper differently today? and that may not be something that can be answered off the top, but it sounds like you may be having continuing discussions as an advisor or mentor. was just thinking that a goal is probably for the grad student to be able to note at least some shortcomings by his/her self, and then begin the work of improving skills.

  4. While "What if" is fun to get the brain going, it's not a useful exercise when you're setting a formal academic analysis. (I sometimes will write in the margins "What if Spartacus had a Piper Cub?" though I doubt that many of them have seen the vintage episode of SNL.)

    Opening the discussion by asking them what they would do differently now that they have some years of perspective should help. If they're absolutely in love with their old work and can't bear the thought of changes, I'd be worried!