Monday, October 18, 2010

Petty Little Stuff

Over years of grading, I've gradually come to understand some of the frustrations my mother had with me as a kid. For example, I would dither and dally about my household chore, which was emptying the dishwasher. Then I'd have to ask where something went just about every time. I knew where the regular stuff went, but things that weren't used much went in special places, and I couldn't bother to remember them. And so my Mom would get frustrated.

I graded my stack of papers over the weekend, and little things frustrated me. For example, why do students persist in italicizing essay titles, even though we've talked about the format, and they have the format for these specific essays on the assignment sheet, AND they have another checklist sheet to use before turning in papers? In the moment of coming to that italicized title, it's frustrating and seems like mere carelessness. In my calmer moments, I know it's just something they don't perceive as important, and haven't internalized.

In the moment, I want to just give the essay an F and be done, because it's just frustrating. But, of course, I don't.

But I sometimes wonder how much my reading of an essay is subconsciously (and negatively) affected by things such as italicizing essay titles, adding extra spaces between paragraphs, and other petty missteps.

I can be grading along, and then come across that one stupid italicized title, and I thnk "GAH!" and get distracted by my frustration, and want to stop. I think my over-reaction is one of the things that makes me slower at grading than I could be.

Have I mentioned using the term "novel" when what we've read is non-fiction or a play? That really tends to make me cranky in upper-level courses. But I think it's because my sense of what a novel is (prose fiction of a certain length) is uncertain. Is Beware the Cat a novel? Sidney's Arcadia? Why or why not? I've never quite gotten that far in my understanding of the term.

(Since I'm obsessive, of course, I decided to look at the earliest usages recorded in the OED, because, did I mention, a bit obsessive?

C. 1500, someone describes The Decameron a novel, in the sense that it's a collection of stories.

On the other hand, with the definition:
A long fictional prose narrative, usually filling one or more volumes and typically representing character and action with some degree of realism and complexity; a book containing such a narrative.

novel is first used in 1639.

Here's the problem with that definition, though: a lot of works now commonly called "novels" don't fit in terms of representing with some degree of realism and complexity, do they? There's stuff out there that misses totally on the "realism" front, and other stuff that misses on the "complexity" front.

Beware the Cat isn't particularly realistic, but then, neither is Frankenstein; should we go back and call it a novel, even though the term's an anachronism? (We call some of Shakespeare's plays "romances" though they weren't called that in the period.)

And how embarrassing is it that I had to roll back and find a novel on my bookshelf in order to name one that isn't an early modern text?


  1. My current petty little peeve, which I'm sure does affect the way I grade essays, is students who call short stories "poems" and vice versa. I mean, I'm pretty sure I knew the difference between a poem and a non-poem by the time I was six; this doesn't seem like it should be hard. (And yes, I realize there are works in which the distinction is blurry, but I don't teach any of these.)

  2. When I assign a secondary source in a history class, it's astonishing how many students think it's a novel. I think they mean that it's long.

  3. My experience is very much like Susan's. I just had to take a break from reading seemingly endless essays describing "Galateo" as a novel.

    I've also noted that somehow Renaissance lost its capital R in the views of my freshman class. This is the first year where the majority of students have rendered the word entirely in lowercase.

    *grumbles some more*

  4. Ye gads! I am right there with you. I don't know how many times I have said not to put extra space between paragraphs! Use MLA formatting! Shakespeare did not write novels! The word is "playwright" not "playwrite." Do they not use spell check? Are they ever going to understand commas? Will font size ever be standardized among these people? Do they think I'm stupid?

    I think that last question is the one that gets me over and over again. When students do petty things (all the way from changing margins to make their paper look longer to plagiarizing), I have to stop myself from scrawling across the top of the paper like a masthead: I AM NOT AN IDIOT.

    Yeah, that can slow down grading substantially. Sigh...

  5. @Fie: Back in the dark ages, when students first got computers, I was always stunned that a student would change to a 30 point font and say "it's a four page paper". I am not stupid, indeed!

  6. what, no complaints about citations? [ducking quickly...]

    no, they haven't internalized the style manual, or how to describe various written work. and a simple declarative comment (don't italicize the title; this is a secondary source, not a novel) can go a long way toward saving them future grief without sounding like an indictment.

    this may or may not be useful for professors to hear, but i spend a lot of my legal editing time on comments like that -- as well as more substantive ones, like "you need to include some law in this legal argument" and "need to explain the constitutional basis for this" and "need to lay out the facts so the justices can understand what went wrong." or, "i don't really understand what you are saying here."

    my people really, really should know better. but as they say, education is a life-long endeavor.